Friday, July 9, 2021


Speaking of Which

No need for an introduction this week. The point here is not to try to cover anything. Just to note a few things, often as springboards for pet peeve rants (err, insightful comments).


David Atkins: Conservatives Have No Plan to Win the Culture War. They Intend to Rule Anyway. This spins off Tanner Greer's "excellent essay" ( Culture Wars Are Long Wars), admitting that serious writings from the right are few and far between, then punching enough holes in the thesis to make you wonder why he's worth the bother. The key line in Greer's essay is in bold: "Culture wars are fought for the hearts of the unborn." This reminds me of Paul Feyerabend's Against Method: scientific revolutions occur not when older scientists realize that there are better answers than the ones they had learned, but when they retire and die and younger scientists come along. Greer's complaint is that conservatives today have given up on forging ideas to appeal to future generations, and as such their current culture war salvos, leaning so heavily on authoritarian force, have lost appeal to younger generations. He contrasts this to Hayek, whose ideas written up in the 1940s finally became influential in the 1980s. It's not a very good example: Hayek (and his apostle Milton Friedman) never had any broad-based following beyond the ultra-rich libertarian right, which became politically powerful in the 1980s by camouflaging their agenda to exploit the backlash against the egalitarian and anti-war political movement of the 1960s (which really did pervade the culture of the period -- which is part of the reason those ideas persist despite the right's political efforts; the other part is that the right's agenda has repeatedly failed). Greer advises: "Values must be forged. Utopias must be imagined. Ideas must be tailored for mass intellectual appeal." But the right has given up appealing to the intellect. Their appeal is strictly emotional, requiring believers to ignore reality as well as reason. But if it weren't, it would be even less effective: the central idea of conservatism is that hierarchies are natural, normal, and necessary, which has always been a tough sell, especially as the people at the bottom feel the dead weight and desperation of those on top. Americans got rid of one oppressive hierarchy in 1776, another in 1865. The political movements of the 1930s and 1960s took aim at various hierarchies, which is why conservatives hate them so much. But they have nothing else to offer, so of course they've reduced themselves to pure hate.

By the way, Atkins has been writing a number of political essays that aren't exactly deep but try to look beyond the immediate fracas. See:

  • The Senate and Supreme Court Are Broken. Stop Trying to Save Them and Fix Them Instead. But can you fix them? Democrats need to win election by such large landslides the intrinsic anti-democratic inequities are overwhelmed.
  • If GOP Leaders Are Innocent, Why Sabotage the Insurrection Commission? Reasonable rhetorical question, but I suspect the answer is more prosaic: (a) the whole thing was embarrassing, but (b) the essence of Trumpism is to never apologize for anything you fucked up (which in Trump's case is just about everything).
  • Bipartisan Gestures on Infrastructure Won't Save Us from a Climate Apocalypse: Not least, because we're already there. Sure, there are still things that one can do to prevent even greater disasters, but disaster management is the more pressing need, and one that is proving inadequate pretty much everywhere. Bipartisan bills are supposed to be superior because everyone has a stake in making them work, but politicians like them because they spread the blame around. But since Gingrich took over in 1994, Republicans have only consented to bipartisan bills when (a) it would split the Democratic lawmakers from the party base (e.g., NAFTA), or (b) Republicans needed a bailout but couldn't pass one due to their own right-wing opposition (e.g., the bank bailout of 2008, and the first pandemic bailout of 2020). Bipartisanship is big right now because the balance of power margins are so narrow, but politically Democrats should pass what they can with whatever margins they can muster, or make Republican obstruction the campaign issue of 2022/2024. To make the latter point, it helps to give Republicans a chance to do the right thing, even if you expect them to fail. On climate, see: Chris Saltmarsh: Climate Change Disaster Isn't a Future Threat -- It's Already Here.

Will Bunch: Live free and die: Inside the bizarre political philosophy of America's unvaccinated. Last fall, when my doctor asked me whether I was going to get vaccinated when it became possible, I remembered an old quip: "always take drugs when they are new, while they still work." Implicit here is the fact that many drugs, even after they've been approved by the FDA, turned out to not work so well and/or have side-effects that ultimately caused them to be withdrawn (e.g., Vioxx). Some degree of wariness is reasonable, especially given that the pharmaceutical biz is one of the most rapaciously profit-driven in a nation full of greed and plunder. On the other hand, such stories about vaccines are far and few between. When I was growing up, the great fear was polio, and I remember getting both Sabine and Salk vaccines, as well as vaccine for the ancient (and now eradicated) scourge of smallpox. In recent years, I've gotten flu shots every years, and since they've become available, I've never had an adverse reaction, nor have I gotten flu. I didn't bother looking at technical details at the time, but it looks like the mRNA technology is intrinsically safer than many methods of vaccine design. And while the FDA didn't spend as much time as usual testing the vaccines, the real world application of them has been massive, and closely monitored, bearing out their advertisements for safety and efficacy. If the decision on whether to get vaccinated or now was strictly personal, I don't see any reasonable grounds for avoiding the shot. On the other hand, given the transmissibility and severity of the virus, the fact that most people around the world haven't had access to the vaccines, and the permeability of the world's borders, the decision really goes beyond deciding personal risks: your failure to get vaccinated increases the risks of other people becoming ill, of possibly dying, and of further spreading the virus, allowing it to further mutate. I'd argue that all this adds up to not just a personal but a social, indeed a national responsibility to get vaccinated. So it's fair to say that those who do refuse to do so are: (a) cowards, (b) hate Americans (if not necessarily such totems of Americanism as flags and guns), and (c) do not care whether the economy chokes on their toxic fear and ignorance. Of course, the article also suggests that they are (d) stupid and (e) have vile politics.

By the way, the odious Marc Thiessen has another op-ed arguing Give Trump credit for the vaccines, based on the dubious proposition that Trump's followers would rush to get vaccinated if it was seen as affirming rather than rejecting their hero. It's true that Trump was president while the vaccines were being developed, and that the federal government put a lot of money into vaccine development and committed a lot of money to buying those vaccines. There is no chance that any other president would have done less, but that wouldn't have stopped Trump from claiming credit -- if only he wanted it, something he has wavered on, especially after he recovered from his own bout with Covid-19, and significantly increased his denials of the danger of the illness (despite growing numbers, which peaked while he was preoccupied with plotting his insurrection). Even now, if Trump wants credit for the vaccines, he doesn't need Democrats (or Thiessen) to give it to him. He can claim it on his own. The simplest way would be to demand proof of vaccination to attend his rallies, with those lacking it being offered vaccination on the spot. He won't do that, because he's a coward, and they won't agree to it, because he's not their real leader: he's just a blowhard fool who makes them feel better about themselves, and superior to all the other Americans they so hate.

Jelani Cobb: Derek Chauvin's Trial and George Floyd's City. I don't have much to say about this, but this is a valuable piece of coverage. I'm not someone who thinks justice should be measured by the prison terms given to offenders. Indeed, I'd say that it's impossible to say now whether the 25 year sentence given to Chauvin is too much or too little, but that has more to do with our inability to foresee the future than any intrinsic notion of justice. What we can say is that Chauvin was convicted on overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence, and that his sentence isn't out of line with common practice. I'll also note that the article isn't just about Chauvin and Floyd, as they cannot be isolated from the larger political context. There is, for instance, a story about "a trumpeter named Keyon Harrold" -- not the way I would have phrased it, as he's well known to me as a brilliant musician -- which is both trivial and profound. I recall that after Obama was elected president, a lot of liberals thought the occasion was self-congratulatory proof that the American people had finally overcome their racist past. What happened next was that the racists doubled down, and Republican political opportunists took advantage of their energy. It may not be the case that more Americans are racist now than in 2008, but the political discourse is much more racially charged. Convicting Chauvin puts a little bit of a damper on that, but is also an outlier event that doesn't go far toward settling the much deeper problem of excessive police violence.

Jen Kirby: Can Biden do anything to stop ransomware attacks? With the Internet offering instant global communication, he'll need a lot of international cooperation, which means dialing back the tensions and animosities that undergird America's imperial belligerence. But we need a deeper moral shift: we need to make crime less attractive and less appealing, which will only happen if the "rules-based order" is viewed as fundamentally just and secure. It's easy to see why Russia is at the center of the ransomware crisis: when Communists converted to Capitalism, they kept their view of the latter as a criminal racket where greed trumps all other concerns. Russia today is often viewed as a mafia state, with Putin as a mob boss. On the other hand, it was not Putin but Yelstin (America's favorite) who turned Russia's resources over to crime bosses, and set up the environment Putin has struggled to manage, to sanitize, to legitimize. But America is also a criminal-minded oligarchy -- most blatantly under Trump, but his removal from the presidency has yet to change fundamental power relationships, especially in business and in the "security services." The US is at least as committed to cyberwarfare as Russia, China, or any other state you could mention (even Israel), and as such is a fertile source of cybercriminals. Americans culture has long embraced the pursuit of wealth and power, while blurring the lines between criminality and "legitimate" means, and that has only increased as the US right, with its faith in unregulated capitalism and its penchant to use force, both at home and abroad, to protect the privileges of the rich. I date the cultural shift to two Vietnam War artifacts: the TV series It Takes a Thief (1968-70), and more dramatically to the 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen. Both argued that criminals were better suited to government missions, most likely an admission that the government had itself crossed the line. By the time of The Sopranos (1999-2007), the mobsters justified their criminal acts as soldiers and/or businessmen. The show may have been meant to expose such conceits, but it perpetrated them nonetheless. Nowadays it's hard to find a police procedural that doesn't turn on quasi-legal hacking. Culture reflects and confirms broader, possibly less coherent social views. I don't blame these works for the sea change in public morality. I see deeper sources, especially in war -- which inevitably becomes more desperate and brutal the longer it lasts and the more fruitless it has obviously become -- and in the post-WWII embrace of capitalism as a crusade to be imposed on the post-colonial world. Also in the inequality and injustice that political support for oligarchy has fostered.

I recognize that changes in public morality occur slowly and fitfully, but the problem of ransomware illustrates the need, and possibly points the way. We live in an increasingly complex world, which more than ever depends on conscientious engineering and management of technology. It's hard to get that is a system that depends on profit-seeking businesses and self-serving bureaucracies hiding behind "national security" codes. We need to reduce the profit incentives behind crime, and we need to open up technology and insist on its public utility. There are ways to do this, but I can't go into all of that here. But I do want to mention the absurdity of America's conventional "anti-terrorism" mentality. For example, Tyler Cowen wrote:

What about military drone attacks on ransomware terrorists? It might be an option if they are in a relatively weak country, but that hardly is likely with Russia. . . Putin seems happy to see the U.S. squirm, and the government has not been able to rein in many of his other misdeeds. . . . Ultimately, the primary long-run solution is for businesses to pay for more secure systems. . . . Health care providers and insurers might have to become a bit more like the CIA. None of this will stop ransomware attacks. But it likely will cause them to decline.

Cowen's world-view is a dead end. Do we really want hospitals to be run as covertly and unaccountably as the CIA? Do we want hospitals to be as expensive to run as the CIA is? It's hard to tell what value (if any) the CIA produces, but the most likely net answer is: not much. (Tim Weiner's big history of the CIA is called Legacy of Ashes.) The essential key to a functioning economy is trust, an insight as old as the Golden Rule. Without it, we reasonably become paranoid, and the quest for security overwhelms every other aspect of our lives. Cowen's argument is that as individuals we have to protect ourselves against attacks on trust, because he cannot conceive of doing so as a society. Isn't that carrying individualism a bit too far? Won't doing so end with Hobbes' "war of all against all"?

Paul Krugman: What Underlies the G.O.P. Commitment to Ignorance?, and Only the Incompetent Need Apply: The former was occasioned by Tucker Carson's attack on Gen. Mark Milley ("He's not just a pig, he's stupid") for saying that it's important "for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and widely read." As Krugman points out, "Closed-mindedness and ignorance have become core conservative values." He could have added that's because it's the only way to protect the rotten heart of conservatism. The latter piece came from reading Nightmare Scenario, by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, on Trump's mishandling of the pandemic, but he couldn't help working Stephen Moore into the narrative. Krugman has long recognized that Moore is among the stupidest people to ever claim to be an economist, but he claims to have been unaware of "the special destructive role played by Moore."

By the way, Krugman also wrote an interesting piece on Trump's tariffs and their lingering effects on supply chains: The Trumpian Roots of the Chip Crisis. Back when this was happening, I tried to argue that tariffs only make sense when combined with some kind of central planning -- you protect the industries you want to develop -- but America is allergic to state direction, and open to all sorts of corrupt lobbying, so all Trump wound up doing was shoring up failing industries that were no longer competitive. Krugman's take is the mirror image: that tariffs introduced uncertainty that made the private sector less likely to invest in new capacity, leading to our current "booming with bottlenecks" economy.

German Lopez: How political polarization broke America's vaccine campaign: This is something that's going to have to be researched much more systematically, but my impression is that Republican denialism has gone through several stages. The first was built around the belief that nothing (certainly not a microscopic virus) should get in the way of businesses making money. But that's not how the pro-business faction lines up popular support in the GOP. They line it up by scaring and taunting the base, by denying the existence of real threats and by playing up the spectre of phony ones. Denialism at that point took the form of denying that young, healthy people would get seriously ill, so why force them to take precautions. By any objective measure, that's turned out to be bullshit, which would have been easy enough to admit once vaccines became available. From that point, the pro-business crowd should have lined up behind everybody getting vaccinated so business could return to normal. But by then, they had already ceded so much ground to the crazies that they had lost control. And, of course, it didn't help that the Democrats all lined up dutifully behind the vaccination regime, because that just confirms their paranoia to the right-wing base. And at this point it's hopeless to think that Republican "leaders" could turn their "followers" around. Republican politicians have learned to fear their base, so they can't be seen as attacking them. Same for Trump. He can't stand up because he's never led anything. He's never been anything but a reflection of the Fox-deranged base, which makes him their stooge, nothing more.

It's probably true that there will always be stupid people, but the genius of the Republican Party is that they've convinced so many stupid people that they deserve to rule the world. Trump's uniqueness is that he actually got the audition. Needless to say, it didn't go well.

Gary Peller: I've Been a Critical Race Theorist for 30 Years.Our Opponents Are Just Proving Our Point for Us. "It makes sense that the depictions of CRT by its opponents bear so little resemblance to our actual work and ideas. Like the invocation of Willie Horton in the 1980s and affirmative action after that, the point of those who seek to ban what they call 'CRT' is not to contest our vision of racial justice, or to debate our social critique. It is instead to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites." Many more issues appeared on the efforts of the right to ban CRT (e.g., Kimberlé Crenshaw: The panic over critical race theory is an attempt to whitewash U.S. history), but it's refreshing to read one that actually explains the theory itself.

Mandy Smithberger/William Hartung: What Price "Defense"? There's another exception to what I said above about bipartisanship: defense spending, currently approaching $1.3 trillion per year, even with operations in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down. Also at TomDispatch: Andrew Bacevich: So It Goes, from his book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed. Daniel Larison summed up the book: Bacevich: Get out of NATO, shut down combatant commands. (While looking for this, I also saw this 2013 op-ed by Bacevich: Time for the United States to Leave NATO.)

Jennifer Taub: How to Understand the Trump Tax Indictment. This is a pretty good explanation of what's happened so far, with a side glance to the broader world of tax evasion. Conclusion: "For Trump, the worst is yet to come." Gossip for junkies: Alex Henderson: A former federal prosecutor thinks Ivanka may be the next person who gets indicted in Trump Org case.

Rebecca Traister: Biden's Big Left Gamble: They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Biden certainly qualifies as old, and his 50+ year career in politics offers nothing to suggest that he's likely to break with the dominant neoliberal model that made Obama and the Clintons so much a part of the Reagan-Trump era yet, well, times have changed, illusions that Democrats have doggedly held have disappeared, and people have started to realize that time is running out. I've argued that anyone who takes current problems seriously must look to the left for answers, and we're seeing some of that. But it also seems to be true that he's looking back to the New Deal. He's not that old, but the America he grew up in was radically transformed by Franklin Roosevelt, and much was lost (for all but the rich) as parts of the New Deal were ripped apart (sometimes with Biden's help). "Biden's team insists that he alone is the engine behind his administration's progressivism, that he has not changed, that he has always been this person." That will eventually prove to be a limit, but to start out it's his strength. Latest update: Joan McCarter: Biden signs sweeping anti-trust executive order to make life fairer for American workers, consumers.

John Washington: The Human Cost of 10 Years of Conflict in Syria: When the "Arab Spring" swept into Syria the government of Bashar Al-Assad was broadly unpopular, but each faction had their own mutually exclusive reasons, and many had more to fear from the others than from Assad. A sensible solution would have been to hold elections and let parliamentary factions trade off with one another. But Syria had been subject to a series of coups and dictatorships, which finally stablilized under the Assad family, and they built a political and military machine that didn't trust their people -- in part because the leadership drew heavily from the minority Alawite population, and in part due to hostile neighbors (especially Israel, but also Turkey and Iraq, plus complications from their long-standing intervention in Lebanon). So Assad did what Syrian governments had done in the past: attacked dissenters militarily. And adjacent nations did what they had often wanted to do: pick factions and subsidize war. The conflict has long reminded me of the Spanish Civil War, where a local struggle was exacerbated by some foreign interests and hampered by others (often through indifference). The last decade hasn't made Assad seem any more legitimate, but it's hard to see any scenario that could dislodge him, so the quickest path to peace would be to accept his continued rule, and try to negotiate non-vindictive and non-discriminatory terms in exchange for aid in rebuilding. But we should be clear that as bad as Assad has behaved during the war, the far greater offense was the (sometimes clandestine) intervention of other countries in the war. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (in Lebanon) supported Assad, so presumably continue to have some influence. (Russia, in particular, was able to get Syria to decommission its chemical weapons, not that the US gave them much credit.) Iraq had split interests, with Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis (primarily through ISIS, which straddled the border) had their own interventions. The Saudis, UAE, and possibly other Persian Gulf states backed Islamist factions separate from ISIS. Israel and Turkey used the war as cover for their own perverse interventions (Israel against Iran/Hezbollah, Turkey against the Kurds). And the US, well, mostly fought against everyone, including itself, marking itself as schizophrenic and nihilist, even while spouting the usual liberal democracy propaganda.