Noah Millman

Ross Douthat Throws In the Towel

Is there any other way to read this column than as a complete abandonment of the Reformicon fight?

In some alternate America, some Earth-2 (or Earth-27), there is a Republican Party capable of putting together a health care bill that isn’t incoherent and unpopular. In some distant, misty Neverland, there is a G.O.P. capable of balancing fiscal responsibility and limited-government principle with the creativity required to address working-class America’s social crisis.

But the world is what it is, and a party that offers nothing, whose ideological sclerosis and internal contradictions allow it to offer nothing, might as well just go pass a tax cut and call it a day.

Not tax reform, which would improve the efficiency of the code. Just a plain old tax cut. That’s all he believes this GOP is capable of:

I’m not saying that Republicans couldn’t still do a comprehensive and permanent tax reform in theory. Set health care aside entirely and there are still lots of clever and plausible ways to overhaul and improve the tax code without sacrificing revenue.

You could cap various perverse deductions that mostly benefit wealthy blue-state taxpayers, like the home-mortgage and state and local tax deductions, and use the savings to lower rates across the board. You could cut the corporate tax rate and raise the capital-gains tax rate to compensate, as Senator Mike Lee has proposed. You could even (gasp, heresy, gasp) raise the top income tax rate, as Steve Bannon reportedly wants to do, and use the savings to cut payroll taxes or fund a new child tax credit.

But Republicans don’t seem equipped to pull off anything complicated, they don’t look united enough to take political risks, and they aren’t ideologically ready to pass anything heretical. So barring a sudden transformation in the party and its leadership, a temporary, deficit-financed tax cut is the only thing that has a decent chance of happening.

Douthat goes on to say that while a tax cut wouldn’t be “not the greatest idea, neither is it a terrible one” — provided that Republicans “focus on corporate and payroll taxes, on business and workers, instead of just aiming for the lowest possible top income tax rate.” But what are the odds of that?

His rousing conclusion:

Personally I can live with a Trump administration that appoints conservative judges and fails at everything else, since judicial appointments are about the only thing I trust this G.O.P. to do.

But if Congress insists on continuing to try legislating, I will give a 10-year tax cut my official Trump-era seal of approval: They could certainly do worse.

And it’s true! A party that borrows from the Chinese to give tax breaks to Wall Street financiers and billionaire heiresses would be an improvement on a party that does those things and starts catastrophic wars in the Middle East. But what are the odds we won’t get more of those, too?

No wonder he longs for a king.

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A Euro-African West?

It’s no secret how much I admire the work that Ross Douthat is doing at The New York Times, and one reason is that, more than most columnists, he’s willing and able to write things that you have to chew on for a bit before you quite get them. His recent column about Africa and the West is one of those. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the setup:

[T]he years of decolonization that followed World War II, are the subject of a book by the anthropologist and historian Gary Wilder, “Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World.” Wilder follows two black intellectuals and politicians, Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, who shared a striking combination of anti-imperialist zeal and desire for continued political union with the French Republic.

Césaire’s tiny Martinique did indeed become a French département. But in Senegal and Africa and the once-colonized world writ large, their project never had a chance. Once the age of empire ended, political separation became inevitable.

Yet against critics who deemed both men sellouts and self-haters for desiring to remain in some sense French, Wilder argues that their vision was complex and potentially prophetic.

They were Western-educated Francophones who read deeply in the European canon, who believed in the “miracle of Greek civilization,” who drew on Plato and Virgil and Pascal and Goethe. At the same time, they argued for their own race’s civilizational genius, for a negritude that turned a derogatory label into a celebration of African cultural distinctiveness.

And finally they believed that part of the West’s tradition, the universalist ideals they associated with French republicanism and Marxism, could be used to create a political canopy — a transnational union — beneath which humanity could be (to quote Césaire) “more than ever united and diverse, multiple and harmonious.”

This vision was rejected by both the colonized and the colonizers. But in certain ways it was revived by global elites after the Cold War’s end, with neoliberalism substituted for Marxism, and a different set of transnational projects — the European Union, the Pax Americana — taking the place of the pan-ethnic, multicultural French Union envisioned by Césaire and Senghor.

Of late, though, this project has run into some of the same difficulties that made theirs an impossibility. The cultural reality that Césaire and Senghor grasped — that civilizational difference is real and powerful and lasting — has a way of undoing the political unity for which they fondly hoped.

But, after a detour into descriptions of our burgeoning populist-nationalist moment, Douthat winds up in an interesting place:

[The] nationalist argument comes in racist forms, but it need not be the white nationalism that Trump’s liberal critics read into his speech. It can just be a species of conservatism, which prefers to conduct cultural exchange carefully and forge new societies slowly, lest stability suffer, memory fail and important things be lost.

As such, it’s a view I endorse. But in the European case I don’t necessarily believe that it will prevail. I certainly don’t believe in Trump as its paladin — not when his entire career makes a mockery of faith, family, tradition, virtue. Nor do I have much confidence that the present burst of European nationalism is more than a spasm, a reflex — not when religious practice is so weak, patriotism so attenuated, the continent’s birthrate so staggeringly low.

What’s more, I can read the population projections for Europe versus the Middle East and Africa, which make ideas like “managed migration” and “careful cultural exchange” seem like pretty conceits that 21st-century realities will eventually explode.

Which brings me back to Césaire and Senghor, men who loved their African heritage and yet also knew European civilization better than most educated Europeans do today. Their fantasy of a post-imperial union between north and south, white and black, was in their times just that.

But as a striking sort of African-European hybrid, as prophets of a world where the colonized and the colonizers had no choice but to find a way to live together, the West’s future may belong to them in some altogether unexpected way.

That feels not so much like an ending as a beginning, and I hope Douthat returns to it. Because ultimately, what he’s talking about isn’t a question of political structures but of cultural self-conceptions. The thing about the West is that it’s an exceptionally malleable concept. But it’s not infinitely malleable. A civilization — like China’s, say — with a long history of its own, an acute consciousness of its own distinctiveness, and the power to maintain that distinctiveness is not ever going to think of itself as Western. So the effort to recast Western civilization as simply “civilization” or “liberalism” or even “modernity” undermines our relationship with our own heritage without truly embracing a universal humanity.

But it’s not obvious to me that all of that applies equally well to Africa and its relationship with the West, for a host of historical and cultural reasons. Which is the subject of my latest column at The Week:

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron could have talked about any number of topics over dinner last night. In many ways, they are perfect complements to one another, each grasping opposite ends of the same stick. Both leaders took unlikely and previously-untrodden paths to their respective countries’ highest office, and they have a shared Napoleonic appreciation for the role of spectacle and performance in the establishment of authority.

They’ve both also recently made provocative comments about “civilization.” I doubt they talked about it over dinner last night, but I hope they did. Because this is another area where the two leaders have grasped the same stick from opposite ends.

Trump’s Warsaw speech proclaimed the urgent need to defend Western civilization from threats from the “south” and “east” — but most especially from within, from a lack of will to defend it and pass it on. Critics from the left expressed alarm, as if any defense of specifically Western civilization was necessarily a variety of white supremacy; critics from the right objected that the problem was not so much the message as the messenger. But regardless, the question was put on the table: Is there such a thing as Western civilization. If so, does it need defending? And of what would that defense consist?

Macron, meanwhile, got into trouble talking not about the West but about another civilization. Asked by a reporter from Côte d’Ivoire about the prospect of a Marshall Plan for Africa, Macron said that the Marshall Plan was a bad model because Europe already had stable structures and just needed to be rebuilt, while Africa?

The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, demographic transition, which is one of the main challenges facing Africa, it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination, trafficking drugs, arms trafficking, human trafficking, trafficking in cultural property and violent fundamentalism, Islamist terrorism, all this today mixed up, creates difficulties in Africa. At the same time, we have countries that are tremendously successful, with an extraordinary growth rate that makes people say that Africa is a land of opportunity. [Macron]

Macron went on to talk about high birth rates as another source of instability, all leading to a conclusion that a simple cash transfer would be ineffective without first tackling these pervasive social, political, and governance problems.

Of course, the Marshall Plan itself did much more than transfer cash; it tackled important social, political, and governance problems too. But leave that aside, and the question remained: Could Africa’s problems be plausibly described as “civilizational?” Or is it problematic to even talk of “African civilization” as opposed to distinguishing between the many, highly distinct countries and cultures on the continent of Africa?

One might say that both men spoke out of a history of Western fear and disdain for non-Western peoples. But I see something different, much more interesting and, in a way, more hopeful.

The rest of the column goes rather far out on a limb. I wonder on some level whether it isn’t informed by a kind of nostalgia for the time when the most important country in the West was led by an African. But: read the whole thing there and let me know if you think I went too far, and came crashing to the ground.

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Reagan’s Aliens and Climate Change

My latest column at The Week is the only column published anywhere today that is not about Donald Trump Jr.:

President Ronald Reagan famously used to discomfit his advisors by bringing up a favorite thought experiment. What, he wondered, would the nations of the world do if extra-terrestrial aliens invaded our planet? Wouldn’t we put aside our differences and unite against the common threat? And if that is true, then shouldn’t we put aside our differences now, to unite against that which threatens all of life on earth, the scourge of nuclear weapons? . . .

Of course, Reagan’s vision never came to pass. The Cold War ended, not because America and the Soviet Union put aside our differences but because the Soviet side collapsed. Far from abandoning nuclear weapons that they could ill afford, the Russian Federation has clung to them as a vital signifier of superpower status, while the United States has, under Bush and Obama and now Trump, explored ever more-seriously using them on the battlefield. Worst of all, nuclear technology is now in the hands of a regime as terrifying as North Korea. If the fear of a general nuclear exchange has receded considerably, the prospects of international cooperation to actually end the threat feel further away than they were at the height of the Cold War.

I was thinking about this history in light of the much-discussed recent doom-crying article on climate change by David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine.

Wallace-Wells’ premise in writing the article is similar in its way to Reagan’s: that if people understood the nature and scope of the common threat, they would unite against it. Most people probably don’t realize just how catastrophic the consequences of climate change could be, just as most people probably didn’t realize that mutually-assured destruction really did mean that the human race itself was at risk if deterrence ever broke down. While much of the press since Wallace-Wells’ article came out has cautioned that the worst-case scenarios are unlikely and that real progress is actually being made, it’s also true that the composition of the atmosphere has already changed enough that some serious consequences are already baked in, and that predictions get harder the further out into the tail of the probability distribution we get. Even under more hopeful scenarios, the potential consequences of climate change are severe enough to outweigh virtually any of the petty concerns that dominate our politics.

So why can’t we unite against this threat?

Read the whole thing there for my answer.

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Burn After Reading

I have nothing to say about the latest revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, because Ross Douthat has said it all in pictures. Or, rather, the Coen Brothers did:

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This Kevin Drum post is also worth reading, if you are still capable of caring about anything in this regard, and haven’t adopted eastern fatalism in defense of the West.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat’s perfectly-titled post on the subject is an excellent rejoinder to the various and in-isolation-convincing arguments that the smoking gun wasn’t really loaded:

[W]hile this is not direct evidence that the president of the United States was complicit in a virtual burglary perpetrated against the other party during an election season, it’s strong evidence that we should drop the presumption that such collusion is an extreme or implausible scenario.

Instead, the mix of inexperience, incaution and conspiratorial glee on display in the emails suggests that people in Trump’s immediate family — not just satellites like Roger Stone — would have been delighted to collude if the opportunity presented itself. Indeed, if the Russians didn’t approach the Trump circle about how to handle the D.N.C. email trove, it was probably because they recognized that anyone this naïve, giddy and “Burn After Reading”-level stupid would make a rather poor espionage partner.

Read the whole thing.

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Does the West Have a Civilization?

I’m frankly flabbergasted by this Peter Beinart article about Trump’s speech in Warsaw. Specifically, I am flabbergasted that he wants to let the alt-right define Western Civilization:

The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.

The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.

The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.

Ok, then! So, India has a civilization. Japan has a civilization. China has a civilization. And inasmuch as the West has a civilization, it can only be defined in racial and religious terms.

There are really only three ways to take this that I can think of:

  • Either the folks on the alt-right are correct, and our civilization can only be preserved if we preserve white Christian dominance. I am pretty sure that Beinart doesn’t mean this, but if I agreed with them myself it would be pretty easy to point to Beinart’s piece and say: see? Even Peter Beinart thinks we are right.
  • Or having a distinct “civilization” is something that the West has transcended, unlike the lesser breeds in China and Egypt who still cling to their particularism, though hopefully one day they will join us in the sunny progressive uplands in their own good time. I rather suspect Beinart does believe something like this, though I am using deliberately inflammatory language to characterize what those beliefs imply.
  • Or the West has a uniquely odious civilization that must be repudiated to avoid the taint of racism. I don’t actually think Beinart thinks this at all, but I understand why someone like Rod Dreher might take his language to mean he does.

You don’t have to believe that Western Civilization is under any kind of serious threat to believe that it exists. Nor do you have to believe that Western Civilization is readily defined  and delimited within borders to believe that it exists. I mean, ask someone from China or Japan or India or Egypt if they believe Western Civilization exists. I’m confident they will say yes.

But they won’t define that civilization in exclusively or even primarily racial or religious terms. Indeed, a major point of debate for much of the 19th and 20th centuries in the non-western world was whether modernization required westernization — that is to say, did you have to adopt the institutions, cultural habits and lifestyle of Europe to become modern, industrialized countries able to compete with the countries of Europe in economic and military terms? The modern history of countries like Japan and Turkey is dominated by this debate, a debate that is still not over. And that debate was never about whether they needed to convert to Christianity, much less alter their genes.

Western Civilization aspires to universality precisely because it is not limited to a particular race or religion — and it was that way from the beginning, as Alexander and his successors  sought to forge a new Hellenistic civilization out of the combination of Greek, Persian and Egyptian civilizations. But this universality is aspirational, not actual. “The West” is not coterminous with “the developed world” or “the global community” — and we’d get along better with countries like China if we didn’t behave as if it were.

Will Europe still be “Western” if it becomes a quarter African, or a quarter Muslim? I don’t know — and neither does Beinart. I imagine the answer is path-dependent, that is to say: how that demographic transformation takes place will have a great deal to do with what the continent looks like on the other side of it. There is a great deal of difference between replacing the boards of a ship one by one until none of the original boards remains, and simply building another ship from scratch and asserting it’s the same as the original — much less deciding that “ship” is an oppressive term! That’s one of the reasons we are having a debate about immigration, globally: because the sheer scale of migration is appropriately causing people to ask these kinds of questions. But why on earth should anyone with Beinart’s political commitments concede that the alt-right is correct, and that the answer is unquestionably “no”?

I thought Trump’s speech was awful, because it is based, like his politics generally, entirely on fear. But so is Beinart’s article, only with the values reversed. And nothing — not Western Civilization nor liberalism — will be saved by stoking fear and calling for the will to resist. The only call with any power to save is the call to love.

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What If the Chinese Are Just Biding Their Time?

When I was a child, and we went out for Chinese food, I always did my best to use my chopsticks correctly. My father would nod approvingly, and intone: “Comes the revolution, you will be spared.” China no longer conjures up images of that kind of revolution, the kind that forced sons to denounce their fathers and shipped its most accomplished citizens off to the countryside to be reeducated by digging ditches. Instead, China increasingly is seen as the latest and most daunting challenge to American primacy, certainly in the economic and ideological spheres but also potentially in the military sphere. Two questions present themselves: Is China’s rise a threat to American interests? If so, how can America counter it?

These questions form the background of Graham Allison’s essential book, Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? The phrase “The Thucydides Trap” is of Allison’s invention, coined to hammer home that the dilemmas America faces with China are not at all novel but actually formed the subject of the very first history ever written. That history was Thucydides’s effort to understand the causes of the disastrous Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta that ruined the fortunes of both states. In Allison’s hands, it becomes a paradigm case for understanding the dynamics of power transitions and how those transitions can lead to wars that leave both parties worse off than if they had come to terms.

A rising power inevitably will seek to revise the terms of international order to better reflect its new potency. An established power will seek to minimize the erosion of its own position, whether by taking steps to counter the rising power or to co-opt it into existing arrangements. These are rational goals, and in theory both parties should be able to reach an optimal compromise. In the competitive environment that exists between states, however, each party’s actions may prompt the other party to take further action that intensifies the rivalry, until it seems like an existential question for both the rising power and the incumbent, and a once unthinkable war becomes thinkable. This dynamic is the Thucydides Trap.

Related: Who did Thucydides Trap? 

If the Peloponnesian War is the paradigm case from the ancient world that gives the concept its name, the modern paradigm is World War I. The major European powers are often described as having sleepwalked their way into a cataclysm that very nearly ended European civilization, but Allison’s account of the years leading to war makes clear this is inadequate. The key to understanding how Britain got drawn into war with Germany, a country for whom it had substantial affinity as well as royal blood ties, is the reality that “Germany’s intentions were irrelevant; its capabilities were what mattered.”

When British diplomat Eyre Crowe wrote his famous 1907 memorandum warning of Germany’s expansionist intentions, the Kaiser may not have intended to threaten the British Empire at all. But once it had the naval power to do so, it could hardly fail to demand an alteration in global arrangements to better reflect its power to threaten the British Empire. Therefore, Britain had no choice but to engage in a naval arms race with Germany. And that arms race in turn convinced Germany’s leadership that Britain was determined to prevent it from achieving a status commensurate with its potential based on its economic and military prowess. And thus the way was paved to a war that neither party could rationally have wanted.

The analogies with the contemporary Sino-American rivalry are ominous in many ways and have been oft remarked upon. But there are also very substantial differences between the cases, and one of the great virtues of Allison’s book is that it forces a reckoning with those differences as well as the similarities. The most important difference: the scale of China’s economic achievement dwarfs that of Germany’s rise relative to Britain. On the eve of World War I, German GDP had just recently surpassed that of Britain’s. China’s GDP has just passed America’s in terms of purchasing power parity. But, with four times America’s population and three times its GDP growth rate, China is projected to grow much larger than America in just a few years. Another crucial difference: China is half a world away from the United States, while Germany was just across the channel from Britain. Britain’s leaders had far more reason to consider Germany an existential threat than America does a rising China.

Those key facts suggest another potent analogy. Britain faced more than one serious rival in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It played a “Great Game” in Central Asia to prevent a rising Russia from threatening its interests in India. But it was also cognizant of a new power rising across the Atlantic. After the American Civil War, the United States exploded economically, surpassing Britain in 1870 and growing to twice Britain’s size by the eve of World War I. However much Britain might have wished to contain America’s rise, it was apparent that this would be a practical impossibility. Since America was half a world away from Britain—and even farther from the key territories of the Empire—Britain could concede American primacy in its own hemisphere far more readily than it could accept Russian or German expansion. In the end, the power transition from Britain to America was accomplished not only without war but with America becoming Britain’s closest ally and coming to the Empire’s aid in its two catastrophic wars with Germany.

The Anglo-American transition is one of Allison’s key examples of successfully avoiding the Thucydides Trap (the other crucial example being the successful prosecution and conclusion of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union). Could it serve as a model for the Sino-U.S. transition? There are problematic differences here as well, including most particularly the vast cultural gap that separates China and the United States. Britain could perhaps delude itself into believing that the United States, an English-speaking nation with a cultural affinity toward the United Kingdom, would naturally protect the interests of the mother country. Thus British leaders soft-pedaled the deep-seated ideological gulf between the two cousin countries until it was too late. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower acted to thwart Britain’s efforts to maintain its imperial pretensions, but by then Britain was in no position to argue.

Allison also does an excellent job elucidating how Chinese and American self-conceptions may incline us toward conflict. While Britain long understood itself to be exceptional, it also generally understood itself to be particular—a distinct nation with distinct traditions—rather than universal. America, by contrast, has always conceived of itself in grandly universal and missionary terms, providing little scope for any other power to have an independent sphere. From ancient times, meanwhile, China conceived itself as being the center of civilization itself, even the center of the universe. These are not self-conceptions that can easily accommodate peer-to-peer relationships with other powers. China’s memory of more than a century of foreign domination, moreover, is if anything a deeper well of grievance than Germany’s anxiety of belatedness for having failed to achieve a unified identity comparable to Britain’s or France’s in time to establish its own global empire.

The grandness of China’s self-conception and the depth of its grievances should not, however, lead Americans to make the mistake of interpreting China’s self-assertion as a sign of any aggressively expansionist intent. In one of the most crucial chapters of the book, Allison asks the reader to imagine if China behaved more like America did at a similar stage of development. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America asserted itself on the world stage in a spectacularly aggressive fashion, turning the Caribbean into what was essentially an American lake, launching itself across the Pacific with the annexation of Hawaii and the seizure of the Philippines, and carving a new country out of the Isthmus of Panama through which to build a canal. China’s unilateral claims to atolls in the South and East China Seas pale by comparison.

China’s aims, as Allison outlines them, are indeed grand, but it is unlikely to pursue them in the audacious fashion of, say, Imperial Japan, another of Allison’s Thucydides Trap examples. While Japan’s goals in 1941 were similar to China’s today—to drive America out of the western Pacific and establish a predominant and independent position in Asia—China seems more inclined to pursue them by patiently accumulating power, exerting a steady centripetal force on the countries on its periphery, and raising the cost incrementally higher and higher for neighboring countries to maintain alliances with the United States rather than operating within a Chinese-led regional structure.

Whether such an effort will succeed is difficult to predict. It’s worth noting, though, that in crucial ways China’s rise resembles that of the Soviet Union more than those of Germany or America. While Britain, Germany, and the United States had roughly comparable political and economic systems and were of the same civilization, China is pursuing a very different path reflecting a different civilization. It remains a one-party dictatorship and its leader, Xi Jinping, has emphasized repeatedly the centrality of the party and his own supremacy as its head. It is possible that this political structure suits Chinese culture; Allison quotes Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s observation that if China became a democracy the country would collapse. But even if it does suit Chinese culture (which is debatable, considering that the Chinese on Taiwan have built a highly successful democracy), it may be ill-suited for  the challenges of the next phase of economic development. Allison reminds his readers that in the mid-20th century, many observers expected the Soviet Union to outstrip America in economic prowess within a decade or two. After all, under Stalin the country had not only rapidly industrialized and defeated the greatest military power in the world but also put a man into orbit before America did. And yet that turned out to be the high point of Soviet power, as a command economy was better able to play catch-up than to innovate.

China might be a similar case. Sheer demographic weight will surely bring China to far surpass the United States in aggregate purchasing power. But that does not mean that China will be able to sustain a position at the forefront of innovation. Nor does it mean it will not. China’s choices, along with America’s own decisions related to how it invests its own physical and human capital, will determine the answer. Moreover, China already has built up excess productive capacity in a variety of areas where it needs foreign markets in order to forestall a difficult economic adjustment. It is doing so, in part, by financing infrastructural development across Africa and Asia on an extraordinary scale. Those investments might pay enormous economic and diplomatic dividends down the road and cement China’s place at the center of a new world order. But they could fail spectacularly, as both American and Soviet investments in some of the same regions did during the Cold War. Again, only time will tell.

Allison’s message to American policymakers grappling with the Chinese challenge is easy to understand, but difficult to implement. Catastrophic war is not the inevitable consequence of a power transition. We do not have to fall into the Thucydides Trap. But avoiding it requires understanding the rising power’s genuine interests in the context of its newfound power, and how, based on its political culture, it is likely to pursue those interests. It requires a similarly unsentimental assessment of the incumbent power’s own true interests, and what it will cost to preserve them. And it requires robust communication between the two powers, a mutual commitment to the notion that avoiding war—particularly in the age of nuclear weapons—is vastly more important than dominating any given confrontation.

Britain, faced with a rising America in the late 19th century, concluded that preserving global naval supremacy was not achievable at any rational cost. It would have to accept that it could not dictate the rules of the global game to America, but enlist America as a partner even at the risk of ultimately becoming the junior partner. America, faced with a rising Soviet Union after World War II, concluded that engaging in direct conflict was far too risky, but so was accommodation. Instead, the United States pursued a strategy of deterrence and a kind of managed global competition, in which both sides forcefully articulated their aims of total ideological victory while simultaneously communicating a clear understanding of their respective spheres of influence and a determination to avoid accidental catastrophe.

The United States does not have a similarly articulate strategy for dealing with a rising China, and this, Allison believes, is what poses the greatest risk of a Thucydides Trap outcome. A strategy of everything and nothing, veering between engagement and confrontation, and all under the umbrella of an overweening American presumption of global hegemony, risks signaling to China that we are both hostile to its emergence and too feckless to prevent it. Allison’s advice is to consider all the strategic options, even the ugly ones.

Could we accommodate China’s core aims and withdraw from the western Pacific? Would that truly threaten any core American interests? Could we forge a partnership with China, given our mutual interest in so many areas, even at the risk of becoming a junior partner? Could we undermine China from within, heightening the contradictions of a Communist system, forcing the Chinese regime to focus on internal concerns rather than external confrontation? Or could we sustain a long but cold peace, working with a variety of Asian allies over decades to contain Chinese ambitions without war—and without bankrupting ourselves in the process? The choices are stark—and, without an adequate ability to foresee the likely success of China’s own initiatives, all the more difficult to evaluate. That is probably one reason why we have so far chosen not to choose.

Or perhaps we have chosen by default. Allison’s book was clearly written mostly before the 2016 election, and while a number of references to Donald Trump’s campaign to “make America great again” have been sprinkled throughout, there is no attempt to grapple with what Trump means for the future of the Sino-American relationship—or for prospects of avoiding the Thucydides Trap. But four months in, some assessments are possible. Trump came into office promising a radical revision of that relationship, getting tough on the Chinese on trade while making greater demands on our Asian allies to provide for their own defense.

This might have been an interesting strategy: let the Chinese worry more about the risk of Japanese rearmament and less about American troops in Korea, while we focus on questions that affect America’s long-term economic security. But Trump has already proven a feckless negotiator, while his own national security team has consistently undermined any attempt to rethink the terms of our Asian alliances. Combined with a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the overall message to Asia would seem to be that America is no longer either a reliable partner or a strategically formidable adversary. If Xi Jinping, whose character was forged in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution, has the cunning and the patience Allison ascribes to him, he will do precisely what he did to win his current exalted position: avoid confrontation, build strength, bide his time, and watch much of what he wants fall into his lap.

That might be a way to avoid the Thucydides Trap but not one, I suspect, that Allison would recommend.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs.   

 

God and Man in the Times

Oh, boy. This is really, really good.

A little while ago the prolific and intellectually-promiscuous Tyler Cowen solicited the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and then with some prodding followed up with a post outlining some of his reasons for not being a believer. I can’t match Cowen’s distinctive mix of depth and pith, but I thought I’d take the liberty of responding to some of his reasons in a dialogic style, with my responses edited in between some of his thoughts. Nothing in here should be construed as an attempt to make the Best Argument for God, and the results are rather long and probably extremely self-indulgent, so consider yourself forewarned. But here goes.

I am going to write about this again at greater length when I have more time. For now, I first want to applaud Douthat for opening the kimono as wide as he does in this artificially-constructed dialogue. I feel I know him better, and appreciate him better, and I am genuinely humbled by the combination of seriousness and humility with which he has approached his subject, and his sort-of interlocutor.

I’m going to react to one bit here:

What I’m looking for when I gamble on a world-picture is something that makes sense of the four major features of existence that give rise to religious questions – the striking fact of cosmic order, our distinctive consciousness, our strong moral sense and thirst for justice and the persistent varieties of supernatural experience. The various forms of materialism strike me as very weak on all four counts, and the odds that what Thomas Nagel called “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature” is true therefore seem quite low. All these numbers will be a little arbitrary, but for the sake of the game I’ll set the probability that a hard materialism accurately describes reality at 2 percent (and I think I’m being generous there).

So what does? Well, if you decide treat every religious revelation as essentially equally plausible or implausible and decline to choose between them, the best world-picture candidates are either a form of classical theism as it would have been understood by most pre-modern thinkers and continues to be understood by many theologians today (again, read David Bentley Hart for a recent and compelling case), or else a form of pantheism or panentheism or panpsychism in which God/consciousness/the universe are in some sense overlapping categories, and all spiritual/supernatural experiences are partial and personal and culturally mediated glimpses of a unity.

Both of these possibilities seem to have more explanatory power across my four categories than does, say, a hard deism (which makes the varieties of religious experience a lot harder to explain) or a dualism or a gnosticism (both of which seem a little unparsimonious, and also somewhat poor fits for the “data” of religious experience) or a literalist polytheism (which begs too many questions about cosmic order, which is why philosophically-serious polytheists often tend to be pantheists or classical theists at bottom). And the latter possibility, some sort of pantheism, seems to be where a lot of post-Christians who are too sensible or too experienced to accept a stringent atheism are drifting – it shows up in different forms in writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel, Anthony Kronman, even Philip Pullman, and it pervades a great deal of pop spirituality these days. Indeed it might be where I would end up if I radically changed my mind about the credibility of the Christian story; I’m not entirely sure. (It would probably come down to questions of theodicy; I’ll spare you the provisional thought process.)

For now, I’ll give odds as follows (again, treating all revelations equally): Classical theism 45 percent, the pantheistic big tent 40 percent, gnosticism 6 percent, hard “no supernatural” deism 4 percent, dualism 3 percent. Which still leaves that 2 percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.

I’m genuinely touched that Douthat has let panpsychism into the tent of religion, as I have pronounced inclinations in that direction myself. But I’m not totally sure it’s earned. At a minimum, to my mind, religion is the conviction that whatever we term the entity responsible for the fact of existence has a mind, and that is mindful of us. For a panpsychist, that entity is the universe itself, and it has the property of mind inasmuch as consciousness is understand as a universal property of being. But can one truly have a relationship with that universal consciousness? Maybe Bill Murray can, but for the rest of us I’m not sure.

More, as I say, when I have time for more.

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Independence Day Movies

Damon Linker has a list of five movies to watch this Independence Day:

I love my country. But I want to love it truthfully, thoughtfully — for what it is, in all of its moral and historical complexity, not as a purified object of imagined perfection.

The best way to seek out this understanding is through reading history. But other forms of creative expression can be helpful, too. Fiction, poetry, theater, song — and of course the modern age’s most viscerally powerful and technologically advanced form of creative expression: film.

Picking just a handful movies that shine a revealing light on the meaning and struggles of American life can be a challenge. But here are five that fit the bill. All are enduring works of art, and all would make excellent selections for inclusion at a Fourth of July film festival for thoughtful patriots.

His five films include two released in 1989, two starring Robert De Niro, two that are about Vietnam, and three that are about people from New York. If I made a list, it would probably look similar, which just proves we’re both northeastern white guys born around 1970. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Myself, I’m in a more dyspeptic mood, so this Independence Day I’d choose to re-watch “Foxcatcher,” a film I wrote about back when it came out, but which I suspect will cut a bit more to the quick in the current political context.

(Meanwhile, if I don’t make progress on this essay, I’m going to have to do what I usually do when blocked, and re-watch the great writer’s block triptych: “Barton Fink,” “Adaptation” and “The Shining.” Wish me luck; I’m already part-way down that rabbit hole, and I really don’t want to go all the way.)

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Chesterton’s Defense of Patriotism

On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word ‘love’ means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam. To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference to the ethics of a national war is mere mysterious gibberism. It is like telling a man that a boy has committed murder, but that he need not mind because it is only his son. Here clearly the word ‘love’ is used unmeaningly. It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.

What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. For the first of all the marks of love is seriousness: love will not accept sham bulletins or the empty victory of words. It will always esteem the most candid counsellor the best.

–G. K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism”

I got into a discussion on Facebook with a friend yesterday about how to teach patriotism to your children, if you want them to understand their country’s crimes and failures as well as its achievements. Here’s what I said:

There’s a question behind the question, and that is what the basis of patriotism should be at all? And it feels to me like that’s only a question because of the size of our political communities.

People feel an attachment, and a willingness to fight to protect, their homes, and their communities. That can take noble and ignoble forms — sometimes fighting to defend your community means committing injustice (as, for example, if you band together with your neighbors to prevent someone from a disfavored ethnic group from moving to the neighborhood). But the feeling is rooted in a direct experience, not an abstract attachment.

For any political community larger than a city, though, that attachment necessarily becomes abstract. So you need to teach your children why they should care about that larger community, be proud of it, and treat it as constituent of their identity.

Chesterton famously quipped that the sentiment, “my country, right or wrong” is like the sentiment, “my mother, drunk or sober.” But the thing about the latter is that she is your mother whether she’s drunk or sober — it’s just that your obligations change based on her condition. If she’s drunk, you won’t let her drive — instead, you’ll make sure she gets home safely.

The question, then, is how you teach your children to see their country as, in some sense, like a mother when their relationship is necessarily abstract rather than directly felt. A love of country based on the lie that your mother is never drunk will be too brittle to survive any kind of honest encounter with reality. But it seems to me equally problematic to say that you should love your country because it is on-balance a good one. Does anyone say about their mother that they love them because on-balance they are sober?

Filial love is first and foremost rooted in gratitude for existence itself. That applies to adopted children as well; we are not born able to fend for ourselves, but radically dependent on others’ love and care, and however imperfectly it was provided if we survived at all then it was provided in some measure. And that gratitude extends to the larger society. None of us were raised in the wilderness; whoever we are, we are because of the world that shaped us, and we are grateful to be ourselves even if we are not always happy being ourselves.

So the central question of how to teach patriotism is not “how do I teach my child that my country is deserving of love when it has done terrible things” but “how do I teach my child that they owe a debt to an entity as abstract as their country, and that in the fullness of time they will discharge that debt by taking responsibility for its well-being.”

Anyway, that’s what prompted me to look up the larger context of the Chesterton quote. Appropriate for every season, sadly only more appropriate as time goes on.

Happy Independence Day.

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Play It Again, Sam

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I have no idea what prompted Ross Douthat to tweet about a two-year-old piece on fivethirtyeight.com, but I’m glad he did, because it lets me pontificate on two of my favorite subjects: movies, and my superior taste. And it gives me an opportunity to avoid the work I really should be doing.

So: what are the most re-watchable movies?

Well, if I look at what movies I have watched most often, there’s a pronounced skew in the direction of films that my son, when he was younger, wanted to watch over and over again. So: a lot of Pixar films, a lot of Studio Ghibli films. But there are also the classics we introduced him to that he couldn’t get enough of. “The Court Jester.” “Duck Soup.” “Singin’ In the Rain.” “Return of the Jedi” was the Star Wars flick he returned to most-often. “The Return of the King” was his favorite from the LOTR cycle. He’s a teenager now, but there are still movies that he is happy to return to over and over again. Movies like “Caddyshack.” Or “Avatar.”

What are films that I myself return to? They aren’t necessarily the best movies of all time,  but they are all very good ones, and the ones that deliver a particular experience: one in which familiarity is an enhancement to the experience. “Casablanca” has that quality for me. Also “The Philadelphia Story.” “The Princess Bride.” “Tampopo.” “The Big Lebowski.” “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Some Like It Hot.” “Flirting With Disaster.” “Taxi Driver” is on my list. So is “Network.” “Barton Fink.” “Withnail and I.”

What do these movies have in common? Well, in part there’s a question of period. There are more movies from the 1980s than a proper cross-section of film history — much less great film history — would deliver. That’s because I’m a child of the 1980s, which means not only that some of these movies I saw at an impressionable age, but also that the sensibility of the period speaks to me even when I encountered the film for the first time later (as is the case with, for example, “After Hours,” another one for my list).

Then there’s the question of genre. The bulk of the films above are properly classified as comedies of one sort or another, and the ones that can’t be are frequently comedies reflected in a broken mirror. There’s a reason why the recut trailer of “Taxi Driver” as a romantic comedy works: because Paul Schrader’s cracked hero thinks in his twisted way that he’s in a rom-com. I don’t know if that’s a personal thing, or if it says something more universal, but I’m inclined to a position somewhere in between those two poles.

It seems to me that the experience of rewatching is first and foremost the experience of returning to the familiar, and that, if this isn’t a neurotically addictive behavior, that should be in some way connected to an experience of comfort from the familiar, both in terms of companions — these are people I know — and in terms of a journey you want to go on over and over even though — in fact, in part because — you know where it ends. Comedy and epic seem particularly suited to deliver this experience — epic because of its origins in pre-literate cultures of storytelling, the sense that you belong to the story as much as the story belongs to you, and comedy because the comic is all about the shock of recognition, the estrangement and reencounter with the familiar. Sitcoms are all about the comfort of the familiar — the place where everybody knows your name — and our favorite jokes are the ones that only get funnier the more times you tell them. And if I incline more to comedy, including dark and cracked comedy, than to epic in my own personal rewatching, well, that probably says more about me than about any universal.

Regardless, if any of the above is true, then Groundhog Day has got to be the paradigmatic rewatchable movie, given that the movie is both a comedy and an epic quest, and the movie itself is about learning to experience eternal recurrence as a source of comedy rather than of horror.

But if the movie you keep watching over and over is “Last Year At Marienbad,” well . . .

 

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Oh, Canada

There’s an old joke that when Moses was on Mt. Sinai, God asked him where he wanted to take the Israelites, what would be their home. So Moses, glancing at the world, picked what he thought was the best spot imaginable — abundant natural resources, plenty of room, no enemies. “Canada,” he tried to say. But Moses, of course, had a stutter, so what came out was “Ca-ca-ca-” — and God interrupted him to say, “oh, Canaan? Well, I dunno, that wouldn’t be my first choice — but if that’s what you want.” And that’s how a narrow arid strip sandwiched between mighty Egypt and Babylon became the promised land.

Well, I go to Canada pretty regularly with my family, and have to say, from where I sit, the country’s promise only looks brighter. They’ve got their problems, of course. But it really is hard to beat abundant natural resources, plenty of room and no enemies to speak of. Not to mention a really impressive theater festival.

Anyway, my latest column at The Week is about my promised land, the gentle giant to the north, which celebrates its 150th birthday tomorrow:

Canada may deserve to be examined as more than just a liberal fantasy object. Canada, after all, is a real place, with its own history and culture and way of doing things, and a strong if peculiar nationalism of its own. And yet it is also one of the most diverse countries in the world, with nearly twice the percentage of foreign-born residents that America has. If Canada has figured out how to construct a workable liberal nationalism in the age of mass-migration and populist backlash, maybe America has something to learn from it?

Celebrating its 150th birthday this weekend, the gentle giant to the north may finally be ready for its close up. But a close look reveals that it might be harder for Americans to copy it than our own liberals might wish.

Read the whole thing there.

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The Senate Health Care Bill In Two Tweets

Ross Douthat on Yuval Levin’s semi-defense of the BRCA:

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That’s really by far the most important thing you need to know. The ACA imposed a new regulatory framework on the individual insurance market, raised taxes and provided more funds to subsidize low-income individuals’ access to health insurance via both the insurance exchanges and Medicaid. The Senate bill makes a variety of changes to the regulatory scheme of the ACA that can be debated on the merits. But it also cuts taxes and cuts spending while claiming — in the face of a brutal CBO score and criticism from a variety of independent parties like the AMA — that it will improve rather than worsening access to care. Why should any observer not fully committed to conservative dogma choose to believe them?

If the GOP wanted people to take their reforms seriously as a matter health care policy, they would have focused on those reforms rather than on cutting taxes and cutting spending to keep the budgetary result neutral. They didn’t, so I don’t. This bill is first and foremost about reversing the redistributive effects of the ACA, and only secondarily about a conservative vision for providing health insurance.

Of course, you can argue that this was true of the ACA as well: that the main objective of the Democrats was to provide health insurance to those who previously couldn’t afford it, and only secondarily to reform how that insurance was provided. The thing is, there are far more Democrats who are willing to cop to that charge than there are Republicans willing to admit the primary purpose of their own bill is the opposite.

Meanwhile, probably the most important paragraph in Levin’s article is the following:

[A]nother thing Republicans have learned in these six months is that Donald Trump is an exceptionally weak president, probably the weakest of their lifetimes, and he is likely to accept whatever they do. He’ll celebrate it, sitting himself front and center while they stand around him awkwardly. He’ll praise it wildly and inaccurately. And he’ll sign it—even if pretty soon thereafter, in the wake of bad press, he tries to distance himself from it on Twitter and calls them names.

The GOP saw its entirely leadership overthrown by a novice interloper running explicitly against the traditional movement conservative agenda. Now they are exploiting the personal and political weakness of their novice president to pass as much of that traditional movement conservative agenda as possible, counting on precisely the division between his brand and theirs to obscure any proper accountability.

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Bad Apps and Liability

A commenter on my last post points me to this article, from July, 2016, about Jeronimo Yanez’s training:

The seminar was called “The Bulletproof Warrior,” and the instructors urged the law enforcement officers in the hotel conference room to make the decision to shoot if they ever feel their lives are threatened.

Videos of bloody shootouts between police and civilians emphasized a key point: Hesitation can kill you.

In the audience at the May 2014 seminar was a young St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, city records show. He’s now known around the world as the officer who killed Philando Castile minutes after making a traffic stop in Falcon Heights last week.

Amid intensifying demands for changes in police training in the wake of the shooting deaths of Castile and others, such “survival” courses for officers are flourishing nationally. But some in law enforcement are distancing themselves from the approach.

The Houston Police Department, for example, won’t pay for its officers to attend the Bulletproof Warrior seminar, which is put on by an Illinois for-profit company called Calibre Press.

And the leader of an international police training association said he thinks some seminars like those offered by Calibre and other firms foster a sense of paranoia among officers.

“Police training became very militaristic and it caused a lot of the problems that are going on in the nation,” said Michael Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, with offices in Idaho and Washington, D.C.

Calibre recently changed the name of its Bulletproof Warrior course after complaints from police departments about the implication of the word “warrior.”

But owners of the company accuse the media of routinely distorting its message, twisting it to say the company’s programs train officers to kill.

“Our mission is to save everyone’s lives,” said Calibre CEO Lisa Gitchell. “We go to bed every night knowing that we did the right thing. We train officers to treat people with dignity and respect.”

Jim Glennon, a co-owner of Calibre who co-taught the seminar Yanez attended, said it’s wrong to link the course to the officer’s actions last week. “Everybody’s going after this kid,” Glennon said Wednesday. “Nobody should be judging what he did yet without the evidence.”

The Bulletproof Warrior is one of 15 sessions offered by Calibre and its parent company, LifeLine Training. The courses are well-known and popular in law enforcement circles. Facebook photos show conference rooms and auditoriums filled with officers to hear the Bulletproof Warrior message.

Fans say it provides a valuable “wake-up call” in police safety tactics for the street: how to read the body language of someone preparing to attack, for instance. Training professionals note that Calibre was a pioneer decades ago in teaching basic police safety.

Yanez took the 20-hour seminar on May 21-22, 2014, according to a summary of Yanez’s training that the city of St. Anthony provided after a public records request. A year earlier he attended “Street Survival,” another of the company’s seminars, records show.

Yanez also took 20 hours of training in 2012 in “Officer Survival” from a different organization. In May of this year, he took two hours of training titled “de-escalation,” the only instruction in his four years with the department that appears to focus on that approach, the records show.

So it’s not just a matter of what’s in the cultural air. The specific training Yanez received might have contributed to his panicky response, rather than helping him keep his cool.

That’s a huge problem, and I doubt it will be solved merely by bad press and handwringing. I’m thinking about the incentives here. Police departments have an incentive to contract training out to private entities, if only because plug-and-play is undoubtedly a whole lot more feasible — particularly for small departments — than building a program in-house, and I would guess there are state-imposed bureaucratic requirements for such training for officers to advance in the ranks. But private entities have every incentive to design such programs to appeal to their customers — that is to say: to the officers themselves. And those individuals are not necessarily the best judges of either the quality or the orientation of the programs in question. If you’re a bit green and nervous, “bulletproof warrior” training might sound like exactly what you feel you need, even if what you actually need is precisely the opposite.

You might say the solution is for the departments themselves to police the program selection — but this, again, depends on those departments’ ability to make an adequate assessment, something which is surely more difficult for smaller departments, even assuming a good faith interest in doing so.

My instinctive response is to say that there ought to be a tort liability applicable to the private entities providing training in instances where a clear link can be drawn between that training and fatal errors in policing. It’s well and good to say the municipality is liable — as they should be — because someone they hired caused a wrongful death. But it’s not clear to me that a small municipality is going to be in a position to do very much in response, if only because of limited resources. If you want private entities to follow a best-practices approach, you need to make it expensive for them to follow a crappy-practices approach.

I don’t know enough about tort law to know if there are precedents that make my suggestion plausible. But I return to my robot analogy: if robo-Yanez’s programming were at fault for a malfunction, the manufacturer would clearly be liable.

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Officer Yanez’s Panic, And Ours

Around the time of the Philando Castile shooting, I wrote the following:

The deep roots of the problem of police brutality and unjustified killings are complex. But some of the shallow reasons are relatively simple. Police are, increasingly, trained to treat suspects as a threat first, and as members of the citizenry they are bound to serve and protect second.

This week, in the wake of Jeronimo Yanez’s incredible but frankly unsurprising acquittal, I wrote a follow-up:

St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez is clearly responsible for his actions on July 6, 2016, in both a moral and a legal sense. But from watching the footage of the shooting, it’s plain that his actions sprang not from malice or cruelty but from pure, blind panic — a panic that his partner did not participate in, and for which no adequate justification has been provided.

As David French has argued in a pointed criticism of the verdict in the case, irrational panic is not supposed to be a legal defense against culpability. But by the same token, it’s not hard to understand why it’s hard to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer’s fear was unreasonable, which is the standard for criminal conviction. In a strict sense, juries are reluctant to acknowledge themselves the peers of an accused officer in such a circumstance, and so to pass judgment on that officer’s judgment, however fatally poor.

But what if officer Yanez were a robot?

In that case, there would be no question of morally identifying with the officer, or a juror questioning whether he or she could really know what it’s like to be in that situation. The case would likely be open and shut. It just wouldn’t be a case against the robot, but against the manufacturer, who put an incredibly dangerous machine on the street without properly testing whether it functioned properly.

Bluntly, if officer Yanez were a robot, the corporation responsible for building him would be staring at a massive lawsuit, and a very expensive product recall. Why isn’t the same thing true of the St. Anthony Police Department?

Just as my pieces on the shooting advocate deescalation, I tend to practice deescalation in my writing, which is to say, I try to get outside of my own feelings to understand them, and the feelings of those on the other “side” (presuming I have a “side”), and to think about practical solutions not only in technical terms but in terms of navigating that minefield of emotion. But I have to admit, sometimes that feels inadequate.

My colleague Rod Dreher asks whether there’s a relationship between our state of permanent war and our apparent acceptance of the use of extreme force by the police, even in cases where it was clearly inappropriate. Another colleague, Pratik Chougule, asks whether America’s childrearing practices are raising up a generation of instinctive authoritarians, both deferential to those with power and demanding that that power be used regularly to demonstrate that authority’s care and concern.

I think they are both on to something. We live in an age, and a society, where individuals increasingly feel powerless, and are turning to authority to salve that feeling, vesting it with ever greater scope and power, but receiving no salve, both because external authority can never substitute for self-assurance, and because the same forces that leave individuals feeling powerless — from social media to mass migration to the proliferation of powerful weapons to finance capitalism — also hamstring authority.

So a productive politics for our time has got to fight a two-front war: against the causes of our pervasive social anxiety, and against the false salves for that anxiety that have already proved far too appealing.

And it still has to advocate for productive reforms — like better deescalation training for police — that presume a politics that cares more about results, and an authority that is more confident in its position, than is generally the case.

 

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Scalise, Sanders, Caesar and Me

In light of yesterday’s act of political terrorism, the attempted massacre of a chunk of the Republican congressional leadership, it behooves me to say something about my last post.

I hope I don’t have to join the chorus expressing unequivocal horror at Hodgkinson’s actions, but of course I freely do so. His actions were monstrous, and anyone who sympathizes with them or thinks they were a good way to achieve political goals is embracing monstrosity. I hope and pray that Representative Steve Scalise and everyone else who was injured in the attack makes a full recovery and is able to return to their positions and pursue their political objectives with as much fervor as they had before they were shot.

As for the implications of the attack, I associate myself unequivocally with this piece by David French lauding Representative Mo Brooks’s intellectual courage while literally under fire, standing his ground in defense of both the First and Second Amendments. And I associate myself with equal lack of equivocation with this tweet from Ross Douthat analogizing yesterday’s attacks to the attack on Representative Giffords several years ago:

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Our society is a violent one. And sometimes, as in this case, that violence takes a clear political form. But that does not imply that our political disagreements are the cause of the violence. There is no evidence that Bernie Sanders (whom Hodgkinson supported) or any other mainstream Democratic leader has condoned, supported or incited violence or insurrection, and plenty of evidence that they do not. That’s all that should need to be said to exonerate them. For that matter, it is all that should need to be said to exonerate one of the men who could have been killed yesterday, Senator Rand Paul, who has argued that the Second Amendment’s primary purpose is to allow the citizens to take up arms against their government, because saying that in no way implies that now, today, at this baseball field, is the time and place to shoot.

But there is more to say. Our acute politico-tribal polarization does bear some blame, if not for the crime itself then for our inability to heed Anthony L. Fisher’s pleas not to politicize it, whether by calling for gun control or by blaming the other side (always the other side, never one’s own) for excessively violent political rhetoric. I don’t know if political violence is actually growing, but it certainly feels like empathy for it is growing. That empathy is the product of a bi-partisan despair at the possibility of politics. And despair is turn is horribly destructive of our politics, feeding an increasingly vicious cycle.

Violence is the opposite of communication; it is, in fact, an expression of the belief that communication is impossible. So responding to violence by calling for self-censorship has it precisely backwards. We cannot speak as if we are always worried that a madman will misconstrue what we say. What we can do is speak as if we know those who disagree with us, even fervently, are also listening, and as if we want them, and not only those who already agree with us, to hear. And we can reasonably demand in return that if they hear, they will listen to what we actually say.

The Public Theater in New York has come under a lot of criticism for depicting the murder of a Julius Caesar clearly intended to be read as Donald Trump. I defended the production unequivocally before I attended, but now that I’ve seen the show I can defend it on the merits and not just on principle. In particular, I can say that the show is explicitly about that despairing empathy for violence, leading an audience that might well share that empathy to see that it is a manifestation of despair rather than a cure for it. If you want to know more detail of what I thought of it, you can read my write-up at The Week. And if you want to form your own opinion, you can go see the show.

But you can’t know anything about what the show is saying without seeing it, or at least interacting with those who saw it.

Which brings me to my last post.

Anyone who actually read the post knows that it is was not a post advocating shooting anybody. Anyone who actually read the post also knows that the title is a reference to the quote from the movie, “Unforgiven,” which I thought was singularly apropos to the post’s topic.

Most people won’t bother to read it, which is entirely their prerogative. Many people will react to it notwithstanding not having read it, or having engaged with it, which, while equally their prerogative, is also their responsibility, and not mine. So to say that someone who chooses words with care should take ever greater care because a mob of others will fail to do similarly is cracked logic that I will not support. Let those who make it their practice to throw stones take up residence in glass houses first.

The title of the post was pretty spectacularly ill-timed, and if it caused any anguish to the victims of the shooting or their loved ones, I am deeply sorry for my part in causing that anguish. But the post itself was, in my view, timed about as well as it could possibly be.

I will close my quoting myself, from my review of the Public Theater production of Julius Caesar:

As for those who cry that it is irresponsible to depict the assassination of President Trump, I could reiterate, as my betters have already done, the manifold instances of such depictions in the past, and the litany of far more noble leaders who shrugged at the offense in much more dire circumstances. Instead, I will merely note that if there is one thing we should have learned from the rise of Donald Trump, it is that telling people there is something they cannot say, or think, or feel, is the surest way to give those feelings, thoughts, and words greater power, and those who voice them greater chance of achieving power, than they had had before.

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The English Bob Question: “Why Not Shoot a President?”

There’s a dignity in royalty, a majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. Now, if you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen, your hand would shake as though palsied . . . the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed, and you would stand — how should I put it? — in awe.

Now: a president? Well, I mean: why not shoot a president?

                                                                           Unforgiven (1992)

In 1595 or thereabouts, Shakespeare wrote a play, Richard II, that depicted a rightful monarch being deposed. It was an extremely dangerous thing to do in Elizabethan England — indeed, Elizabeth I is supposed to have responded to a production by saying, “I am Richard II, know you not that?” — and wondering what could have compelled Shakespeare to take such a risk was part of what impelled me to about the question of legitimacy in the Henriad cycle of plays, and their relationship to the ideology of divinely-sanctioned kingship as articulated in the Hebrew bible, which was a TAC cover story a few months ago.

If (in my view) Shakespeare’s later plays depicting English kings complicate and ultimately undermine a theory in which politics derives from a transcendent source, his Roman plays take place in a world where no such derivation is even posited — that is to say: a small-r republican world. For better or worse, this is our world, where our leaders are just the people who are granted power for a time, and serve at our sufferance.

Opening tonight, in Central Park, is a production of Julius Caesar that depicts the Roman dictator as a transparently Trump-like figure. This has, unsurprisingly, caused a bit of a stir, including the abandonment of the production by two major corporate sponsors.

I have no opinion about the production, as I have not yet had the chance to see it. I hope to  do so this week, and will write about it after. But I do have opinions about depicting assassination of presidents on stage: I am absolutely fine with it. Indeed, I saw a production of Julius Caesar five years ago that depicted the assassination of a pretty transparent Obama stand-in by figures who clearly recalled Republican congressional leaders, and I mostly thought the play did an excellent job of revealing the intellectual roots of some of the more over-the-top Tea Party fury, which most assuredly included depictions of the murder of President Obama.

The last place one should expect courage is in America’s corporate boardrooms, so I can’t honestly say I’m either surprised or alarmed at Delta Airlines and Bank of America for turning tail. No one should assume that their cowardice proves the folks at the Public Theater were courageous for putting on their play; it might be genuinely in bad taste and little more, shallow and self-indulgent and not worth the price of admission (free). But I’ve seen plenty of plays that were all that, and corporations don’t pull their sponsorship because art is bad. They pull their sponsorship because of controversy, and this controversy as such tells us nothing about either the quality or importance of the work in question, but everything about the parlous state of our republic, and its desperate desire to be rid of the burden of self-government.

The president is not a king, and he does not deserve the dignities of royalty, most especially the fatuous fantasy of invulnerability that, because it is so fragile, must be preserved by treating the depiction of its violation a blasphemy. Caesar was killed by men who feared he would arrogate those dignities to himself, and feared a populace that they believed were all too ready to give him the crown. Those calling for Oskar Eustis’s head are providing excellent evidence that at a portion of our populace sufficient to make the hands of the CEOs of Delta Airlines and Bank of America shake as though palsied is all too ready to do the same.

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No Mandate For Britain

I have to get on the road this morning, so this will be briefer than I would like. But my initial take on the British elections is that it is further proof that nobody knows what to do about the forces that are motivating the political ructions of the contemporary West.

Commentators have pointed to any number of precipitate factors for the Tories’ monumental failure, including public anger at Theresa May’s call for an early election in the first place, her poor skills on the stump and avoidance of debates, the fiasco of the “dementia tax,” Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong campaign skills, and so forth. But I am always inclined to look deeper.

It strikes me as wildly implausible that the British people were, as of a few weeks ago, solidly behind Red Toryism, and are now suddenly enamored of 1980s-vintage Socialism. These wild swings are evidence, rather, of how shallowly held any such beliefs are, and how restless the public is for someone who can speak to their anxieties in a language of confidence. In that sense, I suspect May’s original theme was pretty correct as an expression of what the British people want, and the problem is that confidence collapsed that she could deliver it. But a few slips and mistakes would not cause a collapse of confidence of this magnitude and rapidity if that confidence were not itself shallow in the first place.

That lack of confidence is pervasive, and it’s due to the fact that nobody, left, right or center, really has an answer for the deep forces ripping apart the fabric of Western societies. The rise of hundreds of millions of Asians into the middle class, the huge increase in migration from South to North, the severing of cultural and economic ties between city and countryside — these trends are stronger than individual states, and simply declaring yourself against them or their effects is not the same as having a response.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t useful meliorist responses on offer — and perhaps the left, or the right, or the center is right about what those responses ought to be in this or that case. Nor are the deeper philosophical differences between left and right irrelevant. But debates take place on the grounds of meliorism when confidence is generally high, and debates take place on the grounds of deep philosophical differences when society is divided on what direction to go, and neither case, it seems to me, describes our moment particularly well, when we are not so much divided in opinion as in allegiance, and when we have very little confidence that anybody really knows what course to set.

And so: a million mutinies now — and likely another election far too soon.

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Those Amazing Saudis

Meanwhile, in the department of background, I’ve got a column at The Week about the incredible ability of the U.S.-Saudi alliance to get ever-stronger even as our interests and values diverge further and further:

How do the Saudis do it?

The “it” is managing to get successive American administrations to offer ever-greater support even as the political context that once justified that support changes beyond recognition. . . .

The robust endurance of the Saudi-American relationship is the perfect case for illustrating the perversities of geopolitics, but it is far from the only case. Why does the United States continue to maintain close ties with Pakistan, which has been more overtly hostile to American interests than Saudi Arabia has, and who has a regional rival in India of far more potential value to America than Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran, could ever plausibly be? In part, because imposing sanctions on Pakistan failed to prevent it from going nuclear, but damaged America’s influence within the country, while we were willing to pay for even fitful cooperation against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

So, too, with Saudi Arabia. We no longer need their oil; we are no longer trying to keep their oil out of Soviet hands; our cultures and values have almost nothing in common. But inasmuch as we have interests in their region — and we do — we have a profound interest in them being less-hostile, less-threatening, than we imagine they might be if given their full druthers.

Read the whole thing there.

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The First Troll War

If you want a good backgrounder on the current crisis in the Gulf, this piece by Simon Henderson in Foreign Policy will do nicely. But I want to highlight the precipitate causes instead:

  • The inciting incident was a news story transmitted by the Qatar News Agency quoting the Emir saying that “There is no reason behind Arabs’ hostility to Iran” and touting Qatar’s good relations with both the Muslim Brotherhood and with Israel.
  • Qatar claimed this was “fake news” placed on its station by hackers (possibly Iranian hackers looking to make trouble in the Gulf).
  • The Saudis and Emiratis drummed up popular outrage, blocked access to Qatari disavowals to prevent that outrage from dissipating, and then used the story as an excuse for actions — like a blockade — that can only be described as acts of war.

In other words: the Middle East is on the brink of war over a possibly fake news item that sparked outrage by being too supportive of peaceful relations with entities on the official hate list.

Trump’s twitter account didn’t come out of nowhere. This insanity is a global phenomenon. And we are on the brink of the first troll war.

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American Leadership is an Expensive Asset

I’ve really appreciated that Daniel Larison — who was a consistent scourge of the Bush and Obama administrations — has been at least as scathing about the conduct of foreign policy under President Trump. And so I also appreciate his recent meditation on whether Trump has abandoned leadership of the free world:

I would say that U.S. “leadership” as conventionally understood is still intact and will be for the foreseeable future, but that Trump’s conduct of foreign policy–if it continues this way–will leave us with a worst-of-both-worlds situation in which the U.S. is still obliged to do all the same things it has been expected to do while having even less influence with other governments than it does now. Trump isn’t ceding America’s “leadership” role. He’s just doing a terrible job when he tries to exercise that leadership.

Trump is managing to find a way to antagonize allies without reducing our liabilities, and at the same time he is stoking tensions with adversaries while increasing support for and entanglement with irresponsible clients. This is not really a foreign policy of “retreat” or “withdrawal” any more than Obama’s was. It appears to be a foreign policy of fruitless confrontation for its own sake. This not a case of putting American interests first. It is picking fights with lots of other countries regardless of the benefits and costs of doing so and declaring victory without having any success.

I agree with all of that. Trump’s foreign policy consists of a peculiar combination of blustery displays of dominance with treaty allies combined with obsequious fawning over unsavory clients, and it’s very hard to see how that adds up to anything that particularly benefits America.

But I think more needs to be said about this:

When a foreign policy pundit declares that U.S. “leadership” has been brought to an end by this or that action, he is often just saying that he thinks the current president is conducting foreign policy the wrong way, and “leadership” talk usually frees the pundit from having to explain anything else. The problem the critic has is not that the U.S. has ceased to “lead,” but that the president is leading the U.S. in the wrong direction. It would be more useful and it would save us all a lot of time if critics of this or any other president’s actions would skip laments for lost “leadership.”

I think Larison is absolutely correct in general that the cult of American leadership has made it harder and harder to talk intelligently about our choices in foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean the concept of leadership is actually meaningless and should just be ditched. I’ll take two of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration as illustrative cases: the Libyan war and the Iran deal.

The Libyan war was the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy above all (you can read the cynical thoughts I wrote about it at the time), and the Obama administration joined the fray substantially because we felt entangled by our web of alliances. The French, the British and the Arab League all felt that we had allowed “friendly” dictators in Egypt and Tunisia to fall to popular unrest; we could not follow that up by allowing an “unfriendly” dictator like Gaddafi to hold on to power by force. The “world community” had to show that such behavior was unacceptable — and had to act preemptively where there was reason to believe atrocities were being planned. Obama may have thought that America was “leading from behind” but it was our leadership that brought the Chinese and the Russians to accept a U.N. mandate for action.

In other words: the motivation for the disastrous war (far more disastrous than I had anticipated, though I thought the war was a foolish gamble from the start) was to demonstrate leadership. That demonstration itself was the only real interest that we had at stake; had the worst fears of what Gaddafi planned to do come to pass, and he had perpetrated a huge massacre in Benghazi, there would have been no direct harm done to American interests. Instead, our action itself badly harmed American interests in two major ways: the war itself destabilized much of the Sahel region and has exacerbated the ongoing refugee crisis, and the fact that the coalition rapidly and blatantly exceeded its mandate poisoned any trust that had developed with Russia and (to a lesser extent) China. But the action was undertaken overwhelmingly for the purpose of maintaining that posture of leadership.

Now consider the Iran deal. The Obama administration clearly sought an opening to Iran from its early years, but initially it used sanctions and covert action to harass the Iranian regime with the aim of bringing them to a more compliant position once negotiations began in earnest. And in those negotiations, the Obama administration had to juggle a fractious group including the Russians and Europeans (who were eager for a deal on just about any terms) while trying to keep allies who were not part of the negotiations (like the Saudis and Israelis) from undermining their progress. The Obama administration’s acquiescence in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and relative lack of commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reflected in part a reluctance to create additional issues with these allies at a time when the overwhelming focus was on cementing a successful deal with Iran.

Once again, America was clearly and unequivocally the leader. But in this case, the motivation for the deal was an American interest (rightly or wrongly understood) of limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy, with a likely background interest in reducing America’s exposure to the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East. America’s leadership position both enhanced our ability to pursue that interest (because without European and Russian cooperation American pressure would have been far less effective) and constrained how we could pursue it and what ancillary actions we needed to take to maintain our fractious web of relationships through the process.

Leadership, then, is an asset. It’s an expensive asset to maintain, and an enormous — and enormously common — mistake to act as if these expenditures somehow magically pay for themselves, particularly when at least some of the time the kinds of actions undertaken for the sake of maintaining “leadership” backfire horribly and do grave damage to the very position that we’re trying to maintain. But that doesn’t mean the asset is worthless, or that there would be no costs to simply abandoning it or failing to maintain it at all.

Critics of Trump’s foreign policy who decry that he is “throwing away” American leadership may indeed in part be complaining that he is “leading in the wrong direction” — some are definitely complaining about that — and they may be complaining that he is leading in no purposeful direction at all (a criticism that I think Larison would concur in). But they may also be complaining that this complicated and frustrating asset — this position of leadership — is being tossed aside because Trump simply doesn’t appreciate its value or what it would take to minimize the costs of reducing our exposure to it.

And I think that’s a valid criticism even while agreeing that this position of leadership is exceedingly expensive, and worth a thorough reevaluation.

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