Monday, June 19, 2017

Mourning Conservatism: The Loss of the "Coarsening of Culture" Argument

Conservatism - at least, as it was understood during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s - is dead. This is not a new observation, but its passing has been largely ignored such that I think it worth at least a brief obituary.

Not all parts of conservatism, of course, have died. Ideologies don't die so much as evolve and change over time. But at some point that evolution proceeds so far from its ancestry that one could usefully talk of a "new species". In that regard, what passes for "conservative" today is fundamentally different from the conservatism of a few decades ago. The old species of conservative I used to know have mostly died out, at least on the public stage.

In particular there's one aspect of that older conservatism that I always found had some appeal. Conservatives used to be concerned about a problem they sometimes called the "coarsening of culture" - that is, the flouting of social norms and common values that, in their view, led us towards a less-civilized society.

Sometimes this argument took on somewhat shrill overtimes, like Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. (One can only imagine what Bork would make of Donald Trump.) But at its heart lies a fundamentally conservative, and sympathetic, idea: that the norms and cultural practices that bind us together in community should not be taken lightly. Sometimes these norms and practices are bad and need to be changed - much of the classic argument between liberals and conservatives (think Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke) was about how such change should be effected, and how quickly.

But many of the norms we take for granted are in fact good ones, and necessary to the functioning of a civil society. Among these are respect for the rule of law and respect for other individuals, including some level of tolerance of differences that inherently occur in all societies. At the root of all of this is the need to prevent diverse societies from devolving into anarchy, chaos, and violence - Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.

This is the sort of thing that conservatives used to worry about, comparatively more than liberals. Yet, except for a few pious words in the wake of last week's shooting of a Republican congressman on a baseball field, today's "conservatives" are by their actions apparently no longer interested in conserving the core civility that was once the hallmark of their brand.

A minor but telling case in point can be found in this story:
Threats For What She Didn't Say
Here is a classicist - a field once staunchly defended by conservatives as necessary for the promotion of "Western Civilization" - being attacked by avowed conservatives, in most un-civil ways. What concerns me about the story is not so much the reactions by white supremacist internet trolls, who are by and large keyboard cowards wrapped in their own dark fantasy worlds. We have come to understand that these are a byproduct of the information age, the empowerment of hate in the midst of change.

More troubling, from the standpoint of modern conservatism, is the eagerness with which seemingly respectable conservative publications like the National Review engage in bomb-throwing behavior that is decidedly un-conservative (at least, by previous standards). The National Review has ceased to be conservative in its behavior or its outlook, adopting instead a sort of hyperventilating tribalism in which anything that plays to a particular set of prejudices, or against another, should be framed so as to maximize its controversy. It's all about creating heat, not light.

I understand why this is: because heat sells, and light does not. A once-conservative publication is now perfectly happy to engage in reckless playing with fire, and will undoubtedly denounce anybody who tries to draw a connection between them and the internet trolls they are stoking. But in doing so they - like many others, on all sides of our ideological divides - have traded their soul for money.

Heat - that is, emotionally charged controversy - used to be seen as the byproduct of the process of producing light - that is, truth. Conservatives spent decades, even centuries, pointing out to liberal revolutionaries that the heat produced by attempts to produce light could often burn down the building we're all standing in. It was one of the best arguments conservatives ever had to hold the moral high ground.

Now, it appears that the modern conservative movement has become corrupted by the same thing they always accused liberals of: moral relativism. There is no point in trying to hold the moral high ground if there is, in fact, no more moral high ground. Everything is simply a power struggle, a clash between sides to produce winners and losers. Donald Trump is a product and symptom of this shift, which existed long before he came along.

Conservatives used to argue that there were fundamental moral principles of right and wrong on which we could all agree. Among these were the rule of law and the maintenance of social order against the forces of chaotic violence that hover just outside our gates, never very far away.

I miss those conservatives. I wonder what happened to them. Now that they're gone, I think they deserve at least a decent burial.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Pathology of "Terrorism"

In the last three days we have seen headlines for two horrific incidents of violence:
7 killed in London Bridge attack
Disgruntled ex-employee kills 5 in Orlando
Both are appalling reminders of the violence which individuals are capable of. Both have made national and/or international news. Both involved the deaths of innocent citizens going about their daily lives.

One attack was a "terrrorist" attack. The other was not. And our differential responses say a great deal about us and our tolerance for violence.

The London attack immediately became part of a larger narrative when the self-styled Islamic State claimed responsibility. In the minds of many, particularly politicians with self-serving agendas, this immediately made it part of a larger global "war on terrorism". Tweets were sent, heated words flew almost immediately as we rehashed yet again the now-tired argument (at least in the US) between tribal Republicans who decry "political correctness" and tribal Democrats who defend the value (or the reality) of a multicultural society.

The Orlando case, on the other hand, falls into a much more isolated narrative, the "disgruntled ex-employee". President Trump has not tweeted about the attack in Orlando, preferring apparently to argue with the Mayor of London. There will be no calls from national politicians to do anything in particular. The headline quote from the local sheriff after the incident was this:
“We have no indication that this subject is a participant in any type of terror organization,” Demings said during the news conference.
That's our main response: well, at least it wasn't terrorism.

If it were my spouse, my child, my parent killed in that business in Florida, I doubt that would come as any comfort at all. The very idea seems absurd. And yet, our public conversation treats the deaths of innocents completely differently based solely on who killed them. We can live with the deaths of innocents, so long as they're shot by disgruntled ex-employees rather than stabbed or run over by terrorists.

We have become pathologically obsessed with terrorism. In any given year, far more innocent Americans are killed by disgruntled ex-employees than by terrorists. That's not just statistics - it's lives ruined, communities wounded, productivity lost. Every one of those lost lives leaves an impact, a hole where a person used to be. They all hurt. They are all children of God.

And yet, we act as if only those lucky enough to have been killed by terrorists matter. Those deaths get the attention, the large public ceremonies with politicians and media attention and stern promises of "This bloodshed will end"!

No one will go to Orlando and console the survivors of that attack with promises of action and praise for how strong they are to go on living in the wake of tragedy. There will be no mass gatherings of funds for those families. I imagine the local community will gather around the wounded and the fallen, and that's as it should be. But for the rest of the nation - and in particular, for our public "leaders" - the lives of seven people in London are far more important than the lives of five people in Florida.

There was an attack in Orlando that garnered a great deal of attention - because the attacker could be described as a "terrorist". We all came together united in the wake of the nightclub shooting. Yet just a few years before, we tore each other apart over an incident in which 20 six and seven year olds were gunned down in their school. No unity there, just spite and hate (even people who want to deny that it ever happened.) Our own children don't even matter unless they're killed by terrorists.

I understand why all of this is. I get the politics, the use of narrative, the incentives that drive politicians to use events for their own ends, the tribalism that divides us from our common humanity, even our common national identity. I understand all of that far too well, having studied it for too many years.

What I can't shake is a fundamental conviction: that this is Wrong.

Many American politicians piously call themselves Christians (Vice President Pence has famously said that he is a "Christian first"). Under what reading of the Bible does one set of innocent deaths matter more than another? If you think your job as a public servant is to protect innocent lives, why do you lavish hundreds of billions of dollars to protect some and nothing to protect others?

In the years immediately following 9/11/2001, we had a national conversation - not a great one, but the best we could do - about what constitutes "winning" for terrorists. We told ourselves that if we allowed the terrorists to drive us into fear, to change us, to make us something we're not, then they would in fact have won. We argued about where exactly those boundaries were, but for a while we shared a general sense: as long as we go on being Americans, they have not prevailed.

We are now so enthralled, so bewitched, so addicted to the idea of "terrorism" that I begin to think that perhaps they have won. Not too many years back, it seemed that tragedy brought out the best in us. We came together after 9/11, but also when the Mississippi flooded its banks and inundated the midwest; when New Orleans disappeared under water; when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. In between disasters we argued and bickered, but when the chips were really down we seemed to have each other's backs. That's probably a simplified version of the past - but if so, it's an aspirational one.

Now, each new tragedy divides. Terrorist attacks are simply grist for more division and arguing and spite, while other incidents - like this morning's attack in Orlando - are ignored.

As usual, I don't have any solutions - only a conviction that we have all of this badly wrong. And I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's famous saying:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why I'm Still Not Afraid of President Trump

As we lurch from one bizarre episode in the Trump Administration to another (Russia! Twitter! Covfefe! Special Counsel! Ethics rules! Fire the FBI Director! Paris Climate Accord!), I am repeatedly brought back to something I wrote just a little over a year ago:
Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump
This was written well before the election, and before Trump had technically sowed up the nomination (though by May it was pretty clear he would likely have it). One can quibble on a few details, but on the whole I think it's held up pretty well.

A significant part of my argument a year ago rested on this earlier piece, in which I pointed out that the US Presidency is in many ways a profoundly limited position. I think that the Trump Administration is actually providing a series of excellent illustrations of this point:

• Trump came out firing early with Executive Orders (long derided as "Presidential overreach" by suddenly-silent GOP Congressmen, but that's a topic for another day). But most of his Executive Orders have been words only. The one on "freedom of religion"? Actually changed almost nothing in practical terms. He's made two runs so far at trying to take unilateral action on immigration, only to have both of them blocked by the courts. Most of the stuff he's signed so far has been effective at generating a lot of press and buzz, but almost completely ineffective in actually changing anything (which isn't a bad description of Trump's career in show business).

• At the end of April, Congress faced a significant deadline to put together a budget for the remainder of FY17 for the Federal Government. The Trump Administration released a blueprint of what it thought Congress should do, including recommendations for massive cuts in a wide range of domestic programs and massive increases in defense spending. Though there was again a lot of press and public attention, in the end Congress pretty much ignored everything that Trump said and hammered out their own plan, which the President quietly signed. His impact on that process - perhaps the most important thing the US government does - was near zero. Early indications are that his FY18 budget proposal is going to get roughly the same treatment.

• His most recent action, on the Paris Climate Accord, is far less consequential than it appears for at least two reasons. First, "withdrawal" is not an instantaneous thing. By the terms of the Agreement, the US can't actually leave for three or four years - long enough to make this an issue in the next Presidential election cycle, and subject to being reversed by the next President. Second, the response from states, cities, and the corporate sector has been massively in the other direction. A great many entities that were going to have to take action under the Paris Accords are going to take those same actions anyway - up to and including giant oil companies, which are already coming under fire from their investors for not getting ready for a low-carbon future.

This is not to say that Trump's attempted actions don't matter. The most significant impact, as my colleague Dan Drezner has pointed out, may be that the US is largely abandoning leadership on the international stage to Europe and China. That's not the outcome that Trump or his supporters wanted, but it's the one we're getting. So I am not arguing that Trump's actions have no consequences.

I am, however, sticking to my pre-election conclusion: one man, no matter how ill-informed, arrogant, or unqualified, cannot destroy the United States or the world. The United States Presidency is far more limited in its scope and influence than we tend to give it credit for in our public discussions. Moreover, everything that Trump has done so far has had the effect of weakening the office still further, whether by appointing ill-prepared department heads who will spend their time fighting their own bureaucracies, taking extreme positions that mobilize resistance, or making policy proposals so absurd that he gets excluded from the important conversations. That's not the world I would like to see, but it's one I can live with.

I am often reminded of one of Fred Rogers' most famous quotes, worth repeating in this context:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
Things look scary now. But there are many people out there who are helping. Look for them. If you can, be one of them.