Noah Millman

Infinite Space, Bounded in a Nutshell

Jacob Tremblay in "Room"
Jacob Tremblay in "Room"

When I was younger, I experienced a pair of recurring dreams. I began having the dreams when I was around seven years old, and continued to have them, on and off, for years after.

In the first of these, I was lying in bed in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister (she was in her bed in the dream), and someone on the other side of the bedroom door was nailing the door shut – more precisely, nailing boards across the door to prevent it being opened. I knew this was happening – I could hear it – and I knew that my mother was on the other side, also aware that I was being nailed in. The dream recurred for years, but stopped recurring when I was still a child.

The other dream was both similar and thematically opposite, but it requires a bit of background to explain. So, in actual reality, when I was about six years old I and my three-year-old sister went exploring down a small hill behind our apartment building. A short distance down, we came to a path that went through a wooded area. We walked along the path for a bit, until we encountered a barking dog. The dog scared my sister, who began to cry, and I threw a stick in the dog’s direction, trying to distract it. That didn’t work, so we turned around and walked back along the path – but we couldn’t find our apartment building. We walked back and forth along the path, failing to find our way home, getting more and more anxious, until finally, in desperation, I led us off the path and straight up the hill. At the top of which we found our building, and my father, waiting on a park bench. I had forgotten that we had walked down the little hill to get to the path in the first place.

So: the dream. In the dream, I would wake up – and I would still be down on that path in the woods. I was still with my sister, still lost – but if I was sixteen when I had the dream, then I was also sixteen in the dream; time had passed just as it had in reality. And, in the dream, I would realize that it was my waking life – school, home, the works – that had been  a dream, while in reality for however many years had passed since that adventure when I was six, my sister and I had lived as feral children in the lonely dog-ridden woods. I had this second dream for far longer than the dream of being nailed in, recurring well into my teenage years and possibly into my twenties – I don’t recall precisely when it stopped. And it was so vivid that frequently I would wake from it to a deep disorientation about which was reality and which the dream.

All of which is preface to saying: the new movie, “Room,” knocked the frigging stuffing out of me.

“Room” – directed by Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous film, “Frank,” I also really liked; I’m clearly a fan) and based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, (who also wrote the script) – tells the story of the survival, escape and post-escape adjustment to mundane reality of a pair of captives. “Ma” (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, “Jack,” (an astonishing Jacob Tremblay) live in a 100-square foot garden shed they both call Room. This is their entire world – and the only world Jack has known. You see, Ma was kidnapped by a stranger (Sean Bridgers) seven years ago, and has been held captive by him in this room ever since. He keeps her alive, bringing her food and providing heat and electricity and other necessities, so that he can continue to rape her on a regular basis. Jack, her son by her rapist and captor, was born in Room. He has never been outside.

For the first half of the film, our world is Jack’s world, and while we are aware of the horror that his mother experiences, the camera doesn’t make much more sense of it than Jack does. As well, by the time we meet this little family, the horror of their situation has settled into routine. Jack’s childhood, though strange, is also strangely idyllic, because he has the rapt attention of his mother. She feeds him and exercises him, reads to him and teaches him to read; she makes snakes out of egg shells to be his companions; and she hides him in the bureau when her captor pays his nighttime calls. Her entire existence is oriented around protecting and nurturing him. He is her only joy, her only care, her only interest in the universe.

Or so Jack thinks. Not long after his fifth birthday, his mother tells him the truth. (And we begin to see, really for the first time, what it has cost Ma to be what she has been for Jack for the past five years.) He learns that his mother has a history; that there is an outside world; and that he has a crucial role to play in the escape that will take them out of Room, and into that world outside. In a sequence that is simultaneously harrowing and exhilarating, Jack – who, remember, is only five years old and not only has never been outside but does not really have a concept of “outside” – carries out his mother’s plan for their escape.

And that’s when the trouble starts. Ma is reunited with her own mother (Joan Allen), father (William H. Macy) and new stepfather (Tom McCamus) – her parents’ marriage did not survive the trauma of their daughter’s kidnapping. But, bereft of the purpose provided by her terrible predicament, she comes face to face with how much she suffered, and lost, and begins to break down, falling into a suicidal depression. Jack has to reckon not only with a confusing and unfamiliar world, the need to read new people and situations, experience vantages and enter spaces whose contours he knows not at all, but with the loss of his anchor of stability, his mother.

The escape forms a structural hinge in the middle of the film, similar to the hinge in the middle of “Captain Phillips” that I described in my review of that film, in that there are effectively two films here. But in this case, the second film is not a reversal of the first (the pursuer now pursued, the aggressor now the apparent victim), but rather a commentary on the first. The first movie is primarily about Jack’s experience of life in Room, though through him we can experience something of what his mother is going through. The second movie is still secondarily about the mother’s experience, which we still get primarily through Jack’s understanding of it – but it’s primarily about Jack’s adjustment as he begins to make sense of the idea of Room as just one place among a world of places, a world in which he is quite suddenly not the center. It’s a testament to Jack’s emotional resourcefulness, and to the calm strength of his grandmother and her husband, that he is able to make the adjustment as well as he does, and say goodbye to Room.

That goodbye is a perfect capsule of the movie, and hence a perfect (perhaps too perfect) ending. Jack asks to be allowed to visit Room one last time, and so they are escorted by the police back to the scene of the crime. The shed, which once encompassed an entire world, now appears almost unfathomably shrunken, to us as well as to Jack. Jack says goodbye, and Ma echoes him. In her voice, it’s a plea – that she, and Jack, will actually be able to say goodbye to this horrible place. But in Jack’s voice, it’s the same goodbye any child gives to his or her first home, to a beloved transitional object, or to the first dear friend or relative who dies.

“Room” doesn’t lean too hard on the obvious exile-from-Eden trope, which is why that trope works so powerfully. What Jack is going through – expulsion from an exclusive zone of maternal concern into a world of complexity and independence – is what every child goes through eventually, though not usually in such a sudden and violent way.

Or maybe that expulsion is getting more violent as it is more delayed. Perhaps there’s something especially resonant about this story in our age of helicopter parenting, when too many kids are so thoroughly supervised that “outside” is unfathomable, and when too many mothers feel trapped by a crushing obligation that is also their entire purpose for being.

In any event, it would make an excellent double feature with “The Babadook.”

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Has Religious Polarization in America Maxed Out?

Political protest sign from the inauguration of George W Bush. (L. Kragt Bakker /
Political protest sign from the inauguration of George W Bush. (L. Kragt Bakker /

At the end of this FiveThirtyEight post about the big issues in the election, Leah Libresco has a bit about religion and social issues and how they may play out that references the big Pew Religious Landscape study with respect to party affiliation by religion. And, this being a FiveThirtyEight post, she has a chart. See?

Screenshot 2015-11-19 15.55.03

As the chart shows, certain religious groups skew more substantially to one party or the other. In particular, black Protestants, non-Christians and the unaffiliated skew strongly Democratic, while white Evangelicals and Mormons skew strongly Republican. Catholics and mainline Protestants are pretty evenly split.

This, of course, is not news. We’re a religiously polarized country; we know this. But, I wondered, has this polarization strategy reached a point of diminishing returns? Have we reached the point where either or both parties need to start reaching across the divide to prevail in close contests? Or do we potentially have even further to go down this polarized road?

To answer that question, I took a look at the Pew data and sliced it a bit differently. Rather than take a look at each religious group and how they skew by party, I decided to look at each party and see how they skew by religious group. Assuming that the Pew data is of registered voters (which I couldn’t determine readily if it was or was not), multiplying that data by Libresco’s numbers for percentages of the U.S. population and percentages of each group that is registered should give demographic weights for each group within each party.

And, I should stress, I didn’t look only at the breakdown of the politically affiliated. I also looked at the religious breakdown of that group which leans toward neither party. This group, after all, is the low-hanging fruit for any electoral strategy aimed at mobilizing voters by religious-based identity politics.

Here’s what I got:

Religious breakdown by party

As expected, the religious composition of the party coalitions differs starkly each from the another. Approximately 40% of the GOP electorate is white Evangelical, while only about 12.7% is religiously unaffiliated and a negligible percentage is black Protestant. By contrast, among the Democrats 26% is unaffiliated and 13% is black Protestant, while white Evangelicals make up 17.5%. Catholics and mainline Protestants make up similar percentages of each coalition, and other groups – “other” Christians (mostly Mormons but also Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox) and non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists) – make up relatively small proportions of either party coalition.

But what’s most interesting to me is the breakdown among those who lean to neither party. And what’s interesting is that among the politically unattached, the two largest groups are the religiously unaffiliated and white Evangelicals. Indeed, the religiously unaffiliated are a larger percentage of the politically unattached than they are of the Democratic coalition – and the relatively weight of white Evangelicals among the politically unattached is larger than the relative weight of any other group, including Catholics and mainline Protestants, within the GOP coalition. Together, the two groups represent more than 50% of the politically unaffiliated – several percentage points higher than their representation among the politically affiliated (Democrats plus Republicans).

What that suggests to me is that there are still gains to be made for both parties by pursuing a strategy of religious polarization. Rather than moderate its image on social issues, the GOP could further cement its image as the party of white Evangelical Protestants, and try to win converts from the substantial number of politically unattached Evangelical voters. Similarly, rather than make overtures to religious voters, the Democrats could double down on their identification with the irreligious, and try to win votes from the religiously unaffiliated voters who do not currently lean toward either party.

Needless to say, these identity-politics-based strategies would be mutually reinforcing. The more the GOP pursues the path of polarization, the easier it is for the Democrats to make gains by doing the same, and vice versa.

And since Catholics and mainline Protestants are the fastest-shrinking groups, that calculus is unfortunately unlikely to change any time soon.

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Why Defeating Daesh Is So Difficult

Ok, I know I said I had nothing useful to say about Daesh. And I really don’t. But Olivier Roy does, and this article is one of the best I’ve read since the attacks on Friday.

Roy has basically two points to make. First, France has no real regional allies in their fight against Daesh – and neither would the US if we joined them.

You would think Bashar Assad would be an obvious ally in this particular fight. TAC‘s founding editor even thinks we should explicitly align ourselves with Assad, Russia and Iran in order to crush Daesh. But is that what Assad even wants?

Bashar al-Assad’s main adversary is the Syrian opposition — now also the main target of Russia, which supports him. Mr. Assad would indeed benefit from there being nothing between him and ISIS: That would allow him to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people.

And we’ve already seen that Russia’s efforts to shore up Assad have been aimed primarily at the Syrian opposition groups that are not affiliated with Daesh.

Iraq’s Shiites face a similar calculus, as does Iran:

The Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Falluja. They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it. . . .

The Iranians, for their part, want to contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it: Its very existence prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

I would add, in addition, that if an explicit Shiite offensive would be a great recruitment tool for Daesh in the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa and in South Asia. Trying to win a sectarian civil war without picking sides has proved impossible – but what makes us think that by picking sides we’ll suddenly be able to win? The last time we tried a gambit like that was in our support for Croatia’s Operation Storm which – not coincidentally – led to the ethnic cleansing of basically the entire Serb population (as many as 200,000 people) from the reconquered region.

What about the Turks? They are Sunnis, and they surely don’t want the chaos in Syria to spread further into Anatolia?

The Turkish government is very clear: Its main enemy is Kurdish separatism. And a victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey.

Well, then – surely our Kurdish allies will be of assistance?

The Kurds, be they Syrian or Iraqi, seek not to crush ISIS so much as to defend their newfound borders. They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands.

For the Kurds of Iraq, the main danger is seeing a strong central government emerge in Baghdad, for it could challenge the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan today. ISIS stands in the way of the creation of any such power.

I’m noticing a pattern. Should I even bother to ask about the Saudis? Or the Israelis?

For the Saudis, the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran. . . .

Then there is Israel, which can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause.

The conclusion sounds ominous.

In short, no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS. Then again, unlike after 9/11, neither are the Americans. The United States’ strategy today relies on waging a war from afar, based on aerial strikes; Washington does not have the political will to send ground troops. Containment will have to do, and so, too, will killing terrorists by way of bombs and drones.

But war is not won without infantry.

Indeed, America has been conducting a pretty vigorous air war against Daesh for a year with at best equivocal results. Nobody is gung-ho for an American invasion, and our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq should not fill anyone with confidence in the likelihood of such an endeavor’s success.

But Roy goes on to argue, in so many words, that the spectacular attacks by on France, Russia and Lebanon conducted by Daesh are a sign of weakness rather than strength:

Much as with Al Qaeda earlier, the successes of ISIS increasingly amount to its grabbing headlines and the attention of social media. The ISIS system has already hit its limits.

It had two prongs: lightning-quick territorial expansion, and shock and awe. ISIS is hardly an Islamic “state,” if only because, unlike the Taliban, it claims no specific territory or boundaries. It is more like a caliphate, forever in conquest mode — occupying new lands, rallying Muslims from around the world — like the Muslim expansionist movement during Islam’s first century. This feature has attracted thousands of volunteers, drawn by the idea of fighting for global Islam rather than for a piece of the Middle East.

But ISIS’ reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS. Stalled in the Middle East, ISIS is rushing headlong into globalized terrorism.

The attack against Hezbollah in Beirut, the attack against the Russians in Sharm el Sheikh and the attacks in Paris had the same goal: terror. But just as the execution of the Jordanian pilot sparked patriotism among even the heterogeneous population of Jordan, the attacks in Paris will turn the battle against ISIS into a national cause. ISIS will hit the same wall as Al Qaeda: Globalized terrorism is no more effective, strategically, than conducting aerial bombings without forces on the ground. Much like Al Qaeda, ISIS has no support among the Muslim people living in Europe. It recruits only at the margins.

That would seem to suggest that TAC‘s Philip Giraldi has a point in calling for a law-enforcement approach and basically waiting Daesh out. The trouble is, terrorists can escalate their attacks faster than they burn themselves out. We saw that with al Qaeda, which conducted an escalating sequence of attacks through 9-11. With infinite time, patience and resilience, a law-enforcement approach could well work even if there is no progress on solving the “root causes” of a phenomenon like Daesh. But neither France nor the United States has that luxury. We also under the constraint of political reality, and that reality demands translating outrage into action. If that action is not a massive effort to defeat Daesh militarily in Syria and Iraq, then what?

The other direction, recommended by Andrew Bacevich, is to play defense, and insulate America (and Europe) from the consequences of Middle East chaos. The trouble is that what this means in practice is rarely well thought out. Clearly, a more security-conscious approach to the refugee situation is in the offing. And I’m on record as saying that we should approach the refugee crisis with a view to facilitating repatriation after the current multi-sided civil war is done, rather than permanently resettling millions in Europe or further afield. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that letting huge refugee populations build up on the borders of Europe will somehow lead to greater stability and an end to migration flows.

Similar complications bedevil efforts to combat radicalization. Roy pooh-poohs the success of Daesh on social media, but social media have, in fact, dramatically changed the contours of any ideological fight. It is more possible than ever before to find a like-minded community of extremists and more possible than ever to insulate oneself from countervailing influences. We’re seeing this dynamic play out domestically with home-grown massacres on our campuses; Daesh and other terrorist groups take the same phenomenon to the next level. Besides which, Western governments and America in particular have exceptionally poor credibility in conducting this kind of ideological campaign. It’s ultimately one that needs to be led and organized by Muslims, and that will only be undermined by American involvement. But the Muslim states in the best position to provide financial support to such an endeavor are on the other side.

Which raises the problem of patronage for radical groups, coming overwhelmingly from the Gulf states that America is charged with defending. It is very easy to be sympathetic to calls from the likes of Charles Pierce to recognize that these states are functionally our enemies, and treat them accordingly. I would love to see America extricate ourselves from our involvement in the abominable war on Yemen, and to take a firmer line with the Saudis generally. But I’m also aware that people who know the Arabian Peninsula far better than I believe the better part of valor lies in not exacerbating the vulnerability of the House of Saud and risking chaos in the heartland of Islam. Our allies have gotten all too good at wielding the weapon of vulnerability against us – but that doesn’t mean the weapon isn’t real.

Roy concludes:

The question now is how to translate into action the outrage sparked by Friday’s attacks in Paris. A massive ground operation by Western forces, like the one conducted in Afghanistan in 2001, seems out of the question, if only because an international intervention would get mired in endless local conflicts. A coordinated offensive by local powers seems unlikely, given the differences among their goals and ulterior motives: It would require striking a political agreement among regional actors, starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So the road ahead is long, unless ISIS suddenly collapses under the vanity of its own expansionist aspirations or tensions between its foreign recruits and local Arab populations. In any event, ISIS is its own worst enemy.

I agree that coordination among local powers seems unlikely, but it would be nice if we occasionally tried diplomacy. It’s hard to believe that regional coordination between the likes of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia is more likely to take place if we simply walked away. But perhaps it would: we are rather out of practice at facilitating the finding of common ground and common interests.

At all events, while the Administration’s approach may not be literally the least-bad of bad options, I take comfort in the fact that we’re led by someone who seems cognizant of the exceptionally thorny nature of the problem we’re dealing with.

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We’ll Always Have Paris


Moi qui tremblais, sentant geindre à cinquante lieues
Le rut des Béhémots et les Maelstroms épais,
Fileur éternel des immobilités bleues,
Je regrette l’Europe aux anciens parapets!

Me, trembling, feeling the howling rut
Of beasts and whirlpools fifty leagues off,
Eternal weaver of blue standstills,
Longing for Europe, its ancient parapets!

From “Le bateau ivre” by Arthur Rimbaud, translation by John Hartley Williams


My wife and I spent a week this past summer in Paris. Weirdly, I’d managed never to have really explored the city before, which was unfortunate, because it meant that this visit had to cover so much tourist ground. I mean, were we really going to go to Paris without visiting Notre Dame, or Saint Chapelle? Without spending a full day at the Louvre and another at the Musée d’Orsay? Without paying our respects to Rodin and Picasso and Monet – you get the idea. The consequence was that we took in an awful lot of art, and never got the “feel” of a city that is kind of all about the rhythms of a deeply civilized life. Or so I am given to understand.

Thankfully, we will always have Paris. It feels funny to say that with confidence, but I feel it. Cities of Paris’s stature are hard to kill. My home city of New York descended into chaos and near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. It’s not only still here; it’s stronger and more prosperous than it ever has been. Tokyo and Berlin were obliterated at the end of World War II. They have never in their history been more important capitals than they are today. In the century between the July Monarchy and World War II, metropolitan France’s population grew negligibly, and would have shrunk were it not for immigration, while the populations of its British and German rivals exploded. But France is still here, and still French. I am hard-pressed to name any outpost of Western civilization that does a consistently better job of passing its heritage down to future generations.

I wish I had something useful and new to say about the enemy of that civilization – of civilization itself – that we’re now enjoined no longer to call “ISIS,” or “ISIL” or “The Islamic State” because those names grant them the prestige they seek, but rather “Daesh” – or “radical Islam” because, apparently, the one thing on which Republican candidates for President and protestors on American campuses agree is that policing language is more important than dealing with reality.

But I don’t. When they first appeared on the scene, I compared this latest band of murderous fanatics to the Khmer Rouge and I stand by that comparison. Of course they have to be destroyed. The question is whether we have any idea how to destroy them, and I don’t see any evidence that we do.

Nonetheless, it’s also worth remembering that those ancient parapets are still standing, show every sign of continuing to stand, and will continue to stand if the spiritual descendants of those who built them don’t conspire in their toppling. Asabiyyah is ultimately an expression of love, and if the people of France still remember what they love, I have every faith that they will not let it be lost.


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Let’s Talk About Korea

In the last Republican debate, Donald Trump said the following in response to a question about how to handle Russia:

Well, first of all, it’s not only Russia. We have problems with North Korea where they actually have nuclear weapons. You know, nobody talks about it, we talk about Iran, and that’s one of the worst deals ever made. One of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything, and it’s a disgrace. But, we have somebody over there, a madman, who already has nuclear weapons we don’t talk about that. That’s a problem.

China is a problem, both economically in what they’re doing in the South China Sea, I mean, they are becoming a very, very major force. So, we have more than just Russia. But, as far as the Ukraine is concerned, and you could Syria — as far as Syria, I like — if Putin wants to go in, and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates, and we did very well that night. But, you know that.

But, if Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it….They blew up a Russian airplane. He cannot be in love with these people. He’s going in, and we can go in, and everybody should go in. As far as the Ukraine is concerned, we have a group of people, and a group of countries, including Germany — tremendous economic behemoth — why are we always doing the work?

Hidden in that word salad is a real idea—or, rather, two ideas, that don’t live happily in harmony.

The first idea is “why are we always doing the work?” If we have interests and goals that align with other powers, we should be able to work together to advance them and share the burden of doing so in an equitable fashion. Likewise if we face a common adversary. Our need to always be the leader, always be the decider, always be involved—that gets in the way of seeing opportunities to get a decent percentage, though not all, of what we want for a hugely reduced price by letting other powers set the agenda sometimes.

The other, conflicting idea is “they are becoming a very, very major force.” If any other state—Russia, China, Iran, whoever—pursues an agenda of increasing their own power and position, that’s something we need to worry about and counter. On Iran, we decided that getting a deal was better than not getting a deal, particularly since Russia and China (and likely Germany) were not going to support continued hostility with no end-game. Iran, of course, was looking out for its own interests. So the deal is a “disgrace” where we gave away the store. China is asserting claims in the South China Sea, expanding its military capabilities—all rational actions for a power of its size and stature. This, by definition—whether or not they aim to challenge America directly, or whether our interests actually align—is viewed as a problem, because it’s a threat to the security of our supremacy.

If you want an illustration of the Thucydides Trap playing out in real time in the mind of a single person, it would be hard to do better.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the problems we have with North Korea myself. It’s just that, as I see it, the situation on Korea is not just a problem, but an opportunity. Specifically, an opportunity to lay the foundation of a more constructive relationship with a rising China. That’s what my latest column in The Week is about:

It’s not inconceivable that one day North Korean brinksmanship could spark a war. It’s also possible that the North Korean regime could collapse catastrophically, leading to a necessary intervention both for humanitarian reasons and to protect South Korea. Nor can it be ruled out that a future American President would take preemptive military action against North Korea as we did in Iraq and as we have contemplated doing against North Korea in the past.

In current U.S. war planning, the assumption is that China would remain neutral in the event of war, both because of the potential cost to China and because it lacks the capability to prevail against the United States. But any such conflict would unquestionably be perceived as enormously threatening in Beijing, and would likely set China on a more determined course of confrontation in the future, with an aim to removing America from the Western Pacific. The time to defuse potential consequences for the U.S.-China relationship is now, before a crisis erupts.

Now consider what the effect might be of conducting frank, bilateral discussions with China about the future of the peninsula. These need not be, indeed likely should not be, public discussions, if for no other reason than both sides of the DMZ would receive it poorly for being left out. But the goal would be to make it clear that, in the context of a peaceful reunification of North and South, America would be comfortable with a Korea that was free of both nuclear weapons and American bases. A freely reunified and denuclearized Korea would not be a base for future American encirclement of China.

China would have little reason to trust American intentions after having observed the post-Cold War expansion of NATO into states that were once part of the Soviet Union. But the advantage of undertaking such conversations now, when the situation on the peninsula is relatively stable, is precisely that there is little risk for either party in coming to an understanding in principle. In the event of a crisis, each side would have the basis from prior conversations to know our stated aims, and to measure our actions against them. In that way, our behavior in a future crisis could lead to mutual confidence rather than escalation.

Read the whole thing there.

Xi Jinping, as I understand it, is actually quite aware of just how useless the North Korean regime is to advancing Chinese interests, and how risky that relationship ultimately could be for China. Moreover, while a military base in Korea is valuable to the United States, it’s nowhere near vital. Reversing North Korean proliferation is a far more important goal.

In other words, American and Chinese interests on the peninsula, properly understood, dovetail far more than they diverge. Which means that even if we’re unable to solve the North Korean problem together (China may actually have very little leverage), open discussions could improve relations between America and China by making it clear to our respective leaderships both that we have strong common interests there, and that we are ready to work together to advance them.

But those kind of discussions can only happen if America recognizes that Chinese interests are legitimate, that Chinese distrust of our intentions is rational, and that the point is not to convince them that really we have their interests at heart – they’ll never believe that – but that we are capable of recognizing when our interests align, and in working together as partners when that is the case.

And, unfortunately, I’ve yet to hear a Presidential candidate in this cycle speak that kind of language.

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Happy Armistice Day


On November 11th, 1918, the war to end all wars came to an end.

Of course, it wasn’t the end of war. It isn’t even true that World War I ended on that date; there was an armistice on the Western Front, but fighting continued across the collapsing Ottoman and Russian empires for some time. But it remains true that the reason we are celebrating anything today is that a great and terrible war finally came to an end, and not because the enemy surrendered unconditionally, but simply because they came to the conclusion that fighting on was no longer a viable option, and sued for peace.

It’s is completely impossible to imagine such a celebration today. In our wars today, we cannot even describe what victory looks like; I couldn’t even tell you who might have the stature to sue for peace.

My son is growing up in a world where “armistice” is not a word in common use, but “veteran” always will be – we’re making new ones every day.

Are we sure this is the only possible world for him to grow up in?

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Speaking Truth To Pain

Northfoto /

There’s been a lot of commentary on the protests at my alma mater, which I guess shows that Yalies are right to assume the world revolves around them. Highlights, for me, include this piece by Alan Jacobs, this one by Conor Friedersdorf, and particularly this one by Kate Maltby, first, because she explains one distinctive driver of alienation for black students at Yale:

New Haven, one of the north’s poorest, densely African-American cities, spreads around a single island of privilege, Yale University. Last December, while I was back on campus to research my PhD, America learned that no officer would face charges in the death of Eric Garner, the black man killed in New York during an arrest for selling tax-free cigarettes (a libertarian cause if ever there was one). So each night I listened to angry protests spill out onto the streets – angry, but essentially peaceful. During trips to nearby New York, I hovered with the other awkward white liberals on the fringes of the perma-protest encamped at Grand Central Station, unwilling to walk past without a thumbs up or a few limp handclaps of support, but not sure if we were wanted in an African-American space and really quite keen to get on with our shopping.

This matters at Yale, perhaps more than any other Ivy League college. Europeans have always visited America and come back in shock at the implicit racial segregation visible on every street. (Americans, on the other hand, can never quite believe that Britain’s problems look different). But I’d never felt it in my marrow until I lived in New Haven. For the first time, I lived in a city where every single person on the margins was black, each one so much easier for the average white student to dismiss due to the darkness of their skin.

And then because of her distinctive take on Halloween:

I never thought I’d be defending American Halloween traditions at all. When I was young, my mother banned us from celebrating a ghost-day on Protestant grounds – and what’s fun about a feast that seems based on extortion? (‘Trick or treat? Kinder Egg in our basket or broken egg on your door?’) So when I arrived at Yale, a lost, cold foreigner recovering from a nervous breakdown at Oxford, I found the entire concept of a university-sponsored Halloween culturally alien – some might say, offensive.

But in a new community, you muck in, and pretty soon I discovered a carnival so far divorced from ghoulish paganism as to have abandoned it entirely. Instead, emerging from the Mexican Día de Muertos, and the 1970s drag fests of San Fransisco, adult Halloween became a Latin-style Mardi Gras, a day when any thing goes. It seemed the only day in the year when the pains and pressures of late adolescence were abandoned in favour of something like community: in my second year, deep in nasty student politics, a bunch of us at each other’s throats suddenly dropped the malice and banded together as a beaming Henry VIII and his six wives. (Five years after graduation, Henry and Kathryn Howard are happily expecting their second child). Who ever heard of a carnivale with rules?

It’s this spirit of Halloween – and with it, the balance between adulthood and childhood – that Christakis defends in her email, as she has consistently done in her previous writing. She’s doing exactly what an academic is supposed to do – drawing from her immediate research to inform university debate. ‘Pretend-play is the foundation of most imaginative tasks,’ she writes – in other words, our culture may be obsessed with authentic identity, but dressing-up still requires us to try out false identities instead.

That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype.  Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?

There’s a deep irony in any student asking a university to censor them more, not less. These are students who crib Foucalt between classes, when they actually go to them (one student wrote that in response to Christakis’ email, ‘friends are not going to class, are not doing their homework, are losing sleep, are skipping meals, and are having breakdowns.’) But have they never discussed the institutionalisation of power?

The truth is that Yale has always encouraged students to talk back. In Britain, the student who screeched ‘F-you’ to a professor would be suspended: here, she’ll probably end up on a senior committee. It was this licensed rebelliousness that I loved when I first arrived, a refugee from stuffy, hierarchical Oxford. They really didn’t know how good they had it. At Oxford, it was hard to find a tutor who gave a toss for guidelines on sexual harassment – but at Yale, members of the Women’s Centre, with its safe rooms and empowerment seminars all funded by the university, felt strong enough to sue… the university, alleging that Yale failed to deal adequately with sexual harassment complaints. It is a liberalism to be celebrated, but a liberalism dependent on a lot of money. And a liberalism that reaches stalemate when students ask, according to their rights as adults, to be infantilised, again, like the masochist who demands to be beaten. I used to think Yale was the great example to which all British universities should look. Now, I’m not so sure.

I appreciate her piece because instead of talking in the abstract about racism or kids these days, she talks about her own experience in a particular place. In the face of someone she calls “screaming girl,” she doesn’t scream back. But neither does she respond analytically. She puts herself in the narrative.

I’m a fellow alumnus, and, personally, I think the email from Erika Christakis was a model for how civil discourse should be conducted, and the behavior of the protestors strikes me as ridiculous. But notwithstanding the tiny amount of skin I’ve got in this particular game, my personal opinions are pretty darned irrelevant. Indeed, the mere fact that I have personal opinions about this situation – and that so many of us internet voyeurs do – is a huge part of the problem. (And I’m an alumnus; imagine how irrelevant the opinions of most of the rest of you are.)

Which is why, for my money, the most important response was from Dan Drezner:

As Friedrich von Hayek observed 70 years ago, there is an awful lot of knowledge that is local in character, that cannot be culled from abstract principles or detached observers. What looks like free speech infringement at first glance can turn out to be something different the more one drills down. For one thing, the events of late last week were part of a larger chain of events at Yale beyond the e-mails that suggest a few obvious sources of frustration for minority students there in particular.

For another thing, part of the dispute is over the unique role that house masters play at Yale. . . .

An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.

In writing her email to students, Erika Christakis was doing her job, and doing it well. In standing in the yard and listening to students scream at him, her husband was doing his job – and, from what I could see, doing it reasonably well: not being dismissive, not losing his cool, not backing down. I hope that, in person and outside of the bounds of the video we’ve all seen, that he did what Maltby did, and put himself into the narrative.

But what job did the person taking the video think he or she was doing?

Most likely: protecting Master Christakis from being slandered in social media as a raging bigot. And, given the way the story has played out, it strikes me as relatively less-likely that the Christakises will lose their positions as a result of these protests. (I certainly hope they won’t.)

But what about “screaming girl?” The same piece of video that “defended” the college master is the one that could be used to “indict” her. Is she going to become an internet meme? Are there going to be hate websites set up specifically to mock her? To ask those questions is to answer them, isn’t it? This woman says she felt unsafe before. She has no idea how unsafe she could feel if the digital mob found out her name and address. All because someone took a video of her losing her cool.

And, of course, the dynamic could still play out differently. Take a look at what happened to the president of the University of Missouri, who did a notably lousy job (according to reports) of responding to student concerns about the racial climate on campus. If Christakis had lost his cool or been dismissive, I would bet he and his wife would have been canned by now, as Tim Wolfe has been.

(Not that I mean to pre-judge Wolfe’s sacking either. For all I know, he richly deserved his fate for mishandling race relations and campus justice over a long period. And for all I know, his resignation is a tragedy. If I had to put money on it, I’d bet that there were knives out for him already, perhaps for unrelated reasons, as often turns out to be the case when an institutional leader is abandoned by his board in the face of protests. But I’m not putting money on it, because I lack the local knowledge to have a meaningful opinion.)

All of which is to say: if you really think Erika Christakis had it right in her email, then the last thing you should be doing right now is wringing your hands about how “screaming girl” is a sign of the apocalypse. Instead, you should be engaging with her, directly, or ignoring her.

After all, that’s what she recommended that Yale students do when confronted with speech that they find offensive.

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To Vote Or Not To Vote

DonkeyHotey/Flickr (Clinton, Rubio)
DonkeyHotey/Flickr (Clinton, Rubio)

Damon Linker expresses thoughts very similar to my own:

[I]n all likelihood, Hillary Clinton will face off against a Republican nominee I could never support. (Sorry, Bernie Sanders Dreamers — it’s not happening.) My choice will be pulling the lever for Clinton, or sitting out the election. (And before you suggest it: I won’t be wasting my vote on a third-party candidate, which would probably just help the GOP anyway.)

So why am I tempted to withhold my vote from Clinton?

It’s certainly not because, like some Holier Than Thou leftists, I think she’s an “enemy of the poor” and a “garbage rich person.” (But then, I favored welfare reform, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, so I obviously hate poor people, too.) It isn’t that, like Pig-Pen trailed by a cloud of filth, Hillary Clinton and her husband go through life enveloped by a rank-smelling fog of scandal, though that is and will remain a concern. And it certainly isn’t that she’s a woman: My daughter and I are eager for a female president. All things being equal, Clinton’s gender would strongly incline me to cast a ballot in her favor.

But all things aren’t equal. (Are they ever?)

What just might keep me from voting for Clinton is this: Her most recent and most prominent public position was secretary of state. And her biggest accomplishment in that office was helping to persuade President Obama to intervene militarily in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

It was easily the dumbest foreign policy decision of Obama’s presidency, plunging yet another Middle Eastern nation into anarchy, with the country eventually divided among an array of armed groups, including militias loyal to al Qaeda and bands of ISIS fighters. As one would expect, life in Libya today is markedly worse than it was under Gadhafi’s tyranny: Food and electricity are scarce, the economy is at a standstill, crime and violence are rampant, and the nation has become a major migration route for refugees from North Africa to Europe.

It would be one thing if Clinton acknowledged her error in encouraging the president to intervene militarily in Libya and pledged that she’d learned valuable lessons from the mistake. That would be more than a little galling, since those lessons — like that if you topple a dictatorship without making provisions for securing order, chaos is likely to arise in the resulting power vacuum — could easily have been learned from the precisely parallel failure of the Iraq invasion, which she also supported. But at least it would be a sign that the foreign policy of a new Clinton administration just might be made with slightly greater wisdom.

But Clinton has done no such thing. On the contrary, in the first Democratic debate, she stood by the decision to intervene and pronounced it a splendid use of American military force that amounted to “smart power at its best.” . . .

Over the past seven years, the Obama administration has made very tentative and halting steps in the direction of reconciling the United States to the recalcitrance of reality — to the limits of American power to shape the course of events in war-torn regions of the world and to produce outcomes that further our interests and the well-being of those swept up in convulsions of violence.

The Libyan fiasco was the administration’s single greatest step backwards in this regard — the moment at which the president allowed European allies and his secretary of state to convince him that the U.S. just had to do something about Libyan unrest between anti-government protesters and forces loyal to Gadhafi.

Everything we know about Hillary Clinton up to, including, and beyond Libya indicates that she would abandon Barack Obama’s partial and selective embrace of military restraint in favor of a more consistently hawkish foreign policy.

As Linker goes on to point out, the GOP can’t actually criticize the disaster of Libya because it is, as a party, if anything more reflexively belligerent. Which is why he’s thinking of sitting out the election entirely – unless the GOP nominates someone truly insane or wildly extreme on domestic issues.

My feelings about Clinton apart from foreign policy are a bit different. I’ve moved significantly to the left on a number of economic issues since the 1990s, and as a consequence am somewhat more receptive to a pitch from that quarter to expand the Overton window. And I’d love to see a truce in the culture war, instead of seeing the left press their advantage – but the left is pressing their advantage because it’s working for them; given that fact, it’s the right that needs to figure out how to gain electoral advantage by being more reasonable and less dogmatic, and they show no sign of wanting to do that.

But unlike the Republicans, the Democrats are exceptionally cohesive on both economic and social issues at this point, and I believe Clinton will move as her party moves on these questions. So, really, most of what matters is that she’s a Democrat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to her personal qualities, Clinton strikes me as a strong student of policy, a weak manager, and a mediocre politician. That’s probably not a combination that makes for a great President, but it certainly doesn’t mean she’ll be terrible. And I really can’t get exercised by the kinds of scandals the Clintons typically trail in their wake. The most scandalous thing about the Clintons is the very existence of their foundation, and so far as I can tell that’s completely legal.

There is one area, though, where Clinton is a true believer, and where she aims to lead, and that’s in foreign policy. She has favored every intervention of the past 20 years. She was instrumental in pushing for the Libyan intervention. But she is also on record as arguing for a tougher approach to Russia, and for the continuous expansion of NATO to additional countries. And she holds these views while also calling for a more robust intervention in Syria, including a no-fly zone that even she admits would require Russian cooperation to be at all effective. The difference between Clinton and Marco Rubio is that Clinton has actually been in the arena, and so has some idea of the challenges attendant on implementing a neoconservative foreign policy. But their goals, and their understanding of the world, are very similar.

So it’s fitting, I suppose, that Rubio is the only candidate of the four GOP leaders that Linker doesn’t say he’d oppose so strongly that it would compel him to vote for Hillary.


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Douthat on Houellebecq

Ross Douthat generously links and responds to my review of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission, so it behooves me to return the favor. Douthat’s one bone to pick with my own read is as follows:

Millman loses me when he suggests that this satire on Houellebecq’s own desires is somehow incompatible with the novel also being a satire of the Western elite writ large:

… even if we attribute to [the West’s consciously multiculturally-minded liberal elite] a kind of unacknowledged subconscious yearning for an old-time patriarchal masculinity, this novel does not particularly indulge that yearning—because the men we meet are as far as possible from those types. François does not learn how to be a “real man” from Islam, the Islamic regime simply bestows upon him a new social position, as it has done for an even less likely candidate for transformation whom François meets at a party, an elderly and socially awkward professor who would never have been able to marry under the old sexual dispensation. Even the social-climbing head of François’s department, a character named Rediger who is clearly intended to be a kind of Mephistophelean figure, is more of a dandy than a man’s man and he has done nothing to seduce his teenage bride. She’s simply trained gigglingly to obey.

But why can’t Houellebecq’s point be precisely that the actualsubconscious desire of Western man, liberal man, late-modern man is not really to somehow return to a true patriarchy, where you have to shoulder real burdens as the price of your authority, but rather to just play-act patriarchy with a giggling child bride or three while still drawing a government salary and living in a rent-stabilized apartment in a safe modern city? What can’t be he just be saying that many liberal men are themselves pathetically Houellebecqian, except without his self-awareness about their actual desires?

His suggestion, I think, isn’t that the modern enlightened adult male secretly “liking” teenage bikini pics on Instagram somehow contains, buried deep within himself, the soul of Saladin the Great. It’s that this pathetic excuse for a man could be effectively bought off, in the event of an actual cultural upheaval, by a regime that bestowed the illusion of real manhood (along with a comfortable sinecure) in a way that the present mix of official gender egalitarianism and internet fantasias do not.

That actually sounds pretty right to me – and inasmuch as I felt it didn’t really work as satire of the French or, more generally, Western elite, it’s because the whole book is such a smooth, glib glide. If he’s suggesting that the rest of elite France is Houellebecquian, only unconscious of it, he’d be more convincing if there were any actual characters to perform the function of being Houellebecquian while being unconscious of it. But there aren’t really any actual characters in the book other than François, the author-surrogate – and the various pseudo-characters endorse his neoreactionary read of events rather than disputing it. That’s why I said it felt like a pundit’s idea of a novel.

But I certainly agree with this:

“Submission” is as interesting for what isn’t recognizable about its vision as for what is. You don’t have to share the author’s dark view of late modernity to at least recognize the European society that he’s mocking, the types he’s ridiculing (himself included), the kind of decadence that he portrays as the West’s essential lot. But it’s noteworthy that while he only needs to exaggerate reality to make our own society seem ripe for some sort of submission, he needs to turn to a pure fantasy — one that’s not even detailed enough to be described as Orientalist — in order to envision how that submission might actually be imposed or brought about.

Which is, to harp again on an old theme of mine, the striking thing about our era in human history: There’s enough decadence in the West to make a fall or change imaginable, but it’s very hard, even for a novelist, to breath real life and plausibility into the alternative idea or way of life that might (in the near term) conquer or supplant our own.

It’s almost enough to make one wonder whether fretting about decadence isn’t part of the essential condition of modernity, unrelated to actual material conditions. Which does appear to be the case: after all, western intellectuals have been fretting about this at least since the Edwardian Age.

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Religion and American Foreign Policy

Earlier this week, I appeared on a panel at a TAC-sponsored conference on the theme of “Realism and Restraint.” I am honored to have been asked to speak, and had a wonderful time. So will you if you come next time we do one of these things!

I appeared on the third panel, which covered the subject of Religion and American foreign policy. My co-panelists were:

  • Damon Linker, who spoke critically about the “just war” tradition (if you want to get a good idea of what he said, check out his columns on the subject here and here);
  • Sam Goldman, who spoke about the Christian Zionist tradition in its liberal variant (epitomized by Reinhold Niebuhr), and how that variant came to be eclipsed by a right-wing apocalyptic alternative (epitomized by the likes of John Hagee but with roots that go back to the Puritans); and
  • Father Thomas Zain, who spoke about the plight of Christians in the war-torn lands of Syria and Iraq, how American foreign policy is exacerbating their travail, and how, in his words, what is needed is “not protection but peace.”

Myself, I spoke about the ways in which the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is increasingly of a religious dimension, and hence less-amenable to resolution.

Once upon a time, Zionism and Palestinian or pan-Arab nationalism faced off against each other, and in that contest over land and independence it was easy to understand how the baby might be split, even if it proved extremely hard to get both sides to agree on what kind of split might be fair. But the settlement movement in Israel and the rise of Hamas and even more extreme organizations among the Palestinians have made that less and less conceivable. It’s hard to compromise on commandments.

And this poses a challenge for an American foreign policy that has historically been anchored by the assumption that it is our job to facilitate such a compromise, whether by standing solidly with Israel (so that the other side understands it cannot win by force and must negotiate to get half a loaf), or by pressuring both sides (so that each side can point to the practical necessity of confronting their own rejectionists). We don’t have the standing to opine on religious matters, and hence are generally resented when we do. So it’s worth looking for an American policy that better insulates us from the consequences of a failure to achieve the necessary compromise.

I think I did ok, not great. Leon Hadar, another frequent TAC contributor who has written eloquently on the same subject, but he appeared on a different panel, so while the conference attendees did have the opportunity to partake of his wisdom, they had to settle for his thoughts on public opinion and the making of foreign policy. If you’re interested in his thoughts on religion and the Arab-Israeli conflict, they can be found here.

And you can watch the entirety of the conference here.

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