Noah Millman

The Sanguinary Legacy Of Partitionism

Between Damon Linker’s and Peter Weber’s columns, it appears to be partition week over at The Week (where I have also been known to hang my hat). Linker’s pro-Biden column leans heavily on then-Senator Biden’s having mused about partitioning Iraq to make the case for the Vice President’s foreign policy acumen, while Weber suggests one-upping Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war by supporting an independent Kurdistan.

Daniel Larison lays into both proposals in his usual fashion. But my question is: where’s the historical evidence advocates might bring forward to make their case for partition as a solution to inter-communal conflict?

The partition of India that created Pakistan is among the most famously sanguinary examples, but it’s not like history is full of successfully-imposed divisions of states. Northern Ireland’s status remains contested long after the Republic has moved on to more important questions. The Korean War never ended. The Vietnam War didn’t end until the partition of that country was undone on the battlefield. The crackup of Yugoslavia has finally achieved a kind of stasis after multiple foreign interventions. The breakup of the former Soviet Union left irredentist groups in Trans-Dniestria, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has famously destabilized Ukraine (which may yet itself be partitioned if things really go badly) and may yet tear apart NATO member state Estonia. And, of course, much of the Middle East is the fruit of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.

If I were looking for examples of successful partitions, I’d start with the “velvet divorce” between Bohemia and Moravia on the one side and Slovakia on the other. But of course, that’s an extreme outlier case in which both sides agreed from the outset on the desirability of separation. Other states have achieved independence on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, and have gone on to have cordial relations with their former metropole, but again, the precondition for success was agreement, won through some combination of superior force or persuasion. The track record of partitions imposed as a solution to irreconcilable ethnic or ideological difference is abysmal.

And when have we been in a position to impose such solutions anyhow? If we had said, some time in 2006, say, that we support the partition of Iraq, where would we have gotten the authority to implement it? Who within Iraq, apart from the Kurds, would have signed on to such a plan? If the government didn’t support our plans, we’d be in the awkward position of fighting against the government we had installed and were obliged to defend. Or, alternatively, we might have been in the position of implicitly endorsing ethnic cleansing intended to change the facts on the ground in advance of implementation of such a plan.

When someone talks about America “backing” an independent Kurdistan, what is generally meant isn’t securing an agreement by the Syrian or Iraqi government to recognize that new state’s independence, so that inter-communal relations could resume on a normal and equal inter-state basis. What’s meant is the assertion of a right to independence, and providing the material support to back up that assertion with force. It means, by definition, escalating the inter-communal conflict, in the hopes that victory for the side we are backing can be achieved expeditiously enough that the other side sees no alternative but to surrender.

And Syria and Iraq are not the only players in the mix, just the weakest. If Kurdistan is ever going to be a secure state, it will only be with the acquiescence of powerful states like Turkey and Iran that rule most of the territory where the Kurds live. The price it would take to win that acquiescence at the negotiating table is hard to fathom. Logically, one should assume that the price it would take to win it on the battlefield would be all the higher.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Kurdish ambitions. Kurdistan is kind of like 19th-century Poland, a country that ought to exist, and only doesn’t because of a historic injustice. But it’s worth recalling that what it took to restore Poland to the family of nations was the carnage of World War I; that World War II began with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin to reverse Polish independence; that the worst of the Nazi crimes were committed on Polish territory; and that after the war Polish national territory was forcibly relocated westward (Poland was the only victim of Nazi aggression to be treated in this fashion), after which Poland finally found the blessings of peace under Soviet domination.

This is not, I think, a model we should encourage the Kurds to emulate.

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Challenge the Washington Consensus with TAC

tac antiwar realism restraint covers

It’s that time of year again.

Last year, around this time, I wrote a post asking you to support The American Conservative, saying:

TAC is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, the catch phrase for which is “realism and reform.” And, as catch phrases goes, it’s not bad. Who, after all, is going to come out in favor of “delusion and sclerosis”?

Who, indeed? Little did I anticipate the 2016 Presidential contest.

Today’s Republican party may aptly be described as the party of delusion, living in a world where omni-directional belligerence is global leadership, where massive unfunded tax cuts are the height of fiscal responsibility, and where ignorance of basic facts is not merely tolerated but applauded as evidence of authenticity.

And today’s Democrats, running on the status quo at a time when more than two-thirds of those polled say the country is on the wrong track, and set to be led by the wife of the previous Democratic President, whose primary challenger is a 73-year-old self-proclaimed Socialist—how better to describe them than as the party of sclerosis?

It’s a depressing spectacle.

And more depressing than the spectacle itself is the fact that the bulk of the press treats it as precisely that: a spectacle. As if the country can be counted on to take care of itself, and we can content ourselves during elections with rooting for our preferred team and enjoying the show.

But not all of the press takes that attitude.

Last year, I made a point of saying that TAC didn’t have a party line, and wasn’t interested in promoting a particular ideological agenda. And that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we believe, and it doesn’t mean we take a purely spectator’s interest in public affairs.

If there is one thing that unites the diverse factions and unclassifiable individuals around here, it’s the conviction that the Washington consensus in foreign policy needs to be questioned. That America needs to rediscover the virtues of restraint, to set priorities among our interests and desires, and to learn to work with other powers on common interests rather than attempting to dictate terms to ally and adversary alike. We’re holding a conference on the subject in November, and, as with our last such foray, we’re eager to use such discussions to build bridges between conservatives and liberals who, differing on other matters, see how vital it is that on matters of war and peace, a different voice is heard.

Because it is a different voice, one that gets heard relatively infrequently in the councils of either party, and is heeded even less. It’s striking, and depressing, to observe how, after the disastrous war in Iraq, and the substantial failure of our nation-building effort in Afghanistan, the current administration still found itself intervening in Libya, half-heartedly engaging in the Syrian civil war, and cheering on a Saudi war in Yemen—and did so even though people at the highest levels of the administration, including the President himself, expressed skepticism about the efficacy of such interventions. The pressures, internal and external, in favor of action are so predominant that it nearly always seems prudent, in a political sense, to give in to them.

So we have to change those pressures. And that change has to start with a persistent, ongoing effort to open up the national conversation to voices that advocate restraint, without equivocation or embarrassment.

And that’s our job.

I can’t say, as Churchill did, that if you give us the tools we’ll finish it, because that job truly is never-ending. But I can say that if you don’t give us the tools—the support we need to keep writing and publishing and arguing—then we’ll be finished.

And if you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want that to happen.

So please, in this one area, don’t err on the side of restraint. And, to the degree that you are able, show your support for The American Conservative.

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Who’s Next?

republicans 2016 - christie fiorina walker paul bush walker

With Walker out, I assume Chris Christie is ordering his staffers not to answer the phones.

But seriously: the debates appear to be doing their job in winnowing the field down from a huge number to a more reasonable-sized field. Kasich impressed in the first debate – and he’s still standing. Rubio impressed in the second debate – and he’s still standing. Perry couldn’t move the needle, and Walker moved it the wrong way – and they are out. Jeb . . . well, he’s a Bush, so he’s got more rope. But not an infinite amount thereof: at some point, if he can’t consistently outpoll his fellow Floridian, he’ll come under pressure to drop out and consolidate the establishment-acceptable vote.

The only problem is, that vote looks to be no more than a quarter to a third of the total, at least at this point.

Take the three non-politician candidates: Trump, Carson and Fiorina. Carson and Fiorina do not ring quite the alarm bells that Trump does among the establishment, but I am assuming that nobody among the party’s leadership or major donors is anything less than appalled at the prospect of being stuck with a complete political novice like Carson, or a disastrous failure of a CEO (and failed Senate candidate to boot) like Fiorina at the top of the ticket. But collectively, they pull in more than 50% – not only nationally (54% average across the most recent 3 polls), but in each of Iowa (56%), New Hampshire (54%), South Carolina (58%) and even Florida (58%) where Bush and Rubio are native sons.

Then, add to that total the vote for those candidates with actual experience whom the establishment still likely finds unacceptable: bomb-thrower Ted Cruz, one-time libertarian gadfly Rand Paul, and Duggar family publicist Mike Huckabee. That group collectively polls 15% nationally, 15% in Iowa, 12% in New Hampshire, 11% in South Carolina, and 8% in Florida.

I’ll call the rest of the field establishment-friendly: Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie – that crowd. I’ll include in that group hopeless-cause candidates – Graham and Pataki and Jindal and so forth – because if they weren’t hopeless they’d be acceptable, and therefore I assume their votes could readily be won by another “normal” candidate more readily than, say, Cruz’s or Trump’s.

That group – all together – polls at less than 25% nationally, as well as in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, rising to 32% only in the Bush-Rubio state.

And those numbers haven’t moved all that much – particularly not the national ones. There’s been a lot of volatility in just the last couple of weeks. But the numbers for the “outsiders” versus “insiders” have been pretty stable.

Does that mean that consolidation won’t be enough to put one establishment-acceptable candidate over the top? Not necessarily – but it does mean that that candidate, whoever he is, will need to be able to do more than consolidate those voters already showing a willingness to vote for an “insider.”

Who would you bet is best-placed to do that?

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Pay Iran To Take Syria’s Refugees?

Procyk Radek /

Though I’ve long been skeptical that Iran is actually open to an across-the-board rapprochement, I heartily agree with Daniel Larison and Stephen Walt that we should not actually seek to minimize the chances of such a thaw in relations, but should do everything we can to maximize the diplomatic value of the opening created by the nuclear deal. In that spirit, I’ve got a modest proposal:

Pay Iran to take in Syria’s refugees.

The moral logic of such a proposal is not hard to articulate. Iran, as the main supporter of the Syrian regime, bears a heavy responsibility for the refugee situation in the first place. So it makes sense to demand that it take a primary responsibility for caring for the refugees, along with the Gulf states and Turkey, the main supporters of the rebels. The main moral claim on Europe with respect to the refugee crisis is that it has greater financial wherewithal to shoulder the burden than countries in the region. Shouldering a large share of the financial cost would show that Europe’s states recognize the justice of that claim.

The practical logic is also clear. In general, it makes sense to settle refugees near their homes, because the goal should be for them to return home after the conflict that displaced them is settled. And, indeed, the bulk of the refugees have settled in countries neighboring Syria: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — but not in Iran. Moving displaced populations on to Europe relieves pressure on those neighbors to resolve the conflict, and in fact abets Syria’s government (and some rebel groups) in their efforts to “cleanse” the areas under their control of populations deemed insufficiently loyal.

Finally, economic migrants might be far less interested in making a home in Iran than in Germany — so such an arrangement would deter them from trying to blend in with the refugee population to take advantage of Germany’s generous one-time offer of asylum.

Politically, meanwhile, this would be a substantial coup for the Iranian regime. It would highlight the country’s return to good standing in the international community, and show that it is capable of playing a constructive role regionally. It would enable Iran to brag of its tolerance in accepting non-Shiite, non-Muslim, and non-Persian refugees. It would embarrass the Gulf states, which have also taken in no refugees in spite of their wealth and direct responsibility for the conflict. And it would earn Iran some much-needed hard cash.

Jeremy Beer has been making an argument in these pages and others for a more charitable and less philanthropic approach to helping those in need – one focused on the human being before us and our relationship to them rather than on abstract efficiency in delivering services. You tell me whether my modest proposal is in harmony with the spirit of his argument, or thoroughly out of it.

But first read the whole thing over at The Week.

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Time To Dissolve The GOP Electorate and Elect a New One?

Steve Rhodes / cc

Reihan Salam, appalled by the state of the GOP nominating process, wants to create a Council of Guardians to vet candidates before putting them before the voters:

Anderson and Cost envision a Republican Nominating Convention, in which roughly 3,300 delegates, 3,000 of whom would be elected by rank-and-file Republicans in their local communities and the remainder of whom would be Republican officeholders, would select five official candidates. . . . I won’t bore you with the mechanics, but the basic idea is that you’d eventually be left with a manageable number of candidates who’d then be asked if they actually wanted the nomination, and those who said they were up for it would then be whittled down to five officially-sanctioned candidates.

The best part of this kooky scheme? This convention would take place in February of the year of the election. These candidates would then take part in a series of debates, moderated by Republicans for Republicans, interspersed with a series of three regional primaries, in which party members would vote for their favorite candidates. . . . [I]n this system, the GOP nominee would be chosen by the end of April at the latest. Such a short, focused campaign would give less-moneyed candidates a better shot at securing the nomination, and it would free up candidates with real jobs to focus on them rather than on begging Sheldon Adelson for his sweet casino money.

Well, yes, it would – and if the GOP electorate had a great deal of trust in their party leadership, such a reform would probably go over reasonably well with GOP voters. But if they had that trust then it would also be unnecessary (though possibly still worth considering as a way of saving time, money and energy).

And of course, the fact is that not only is there no such high level of trust, the overwhelming evidence is that the voters positively loathe the leadership of the party. That’s why not only Trump (who started out rich and famous) but Carson and now Fiorina are doing so well, and why Cruz is trying to position himself as an insurgent like them rather than as a sitting Senator: because the GOP leadership is wildly unpopular with its own party’s voters.

Why it is so unpopular is a good question. The Trump phenomenon suggests the possibility that ignoring the base on touchy issues like immigration has alienated them – but it also suggests the possibility that there’s a much broader distaste for the economic priorities of the leadership and the donor class, and a far greater willingness to entertain heresies like higher taxes on some forms of wealth and income and greater government involvement in healthcare – provided that they are enacted by people they trust (i.e., not Democrats, but also not the current Republican leadership). But even if that’s not true, and the GOP electorate is as down-the-line movement conservative as the leadership would like it to be, and is just angry because that leadership compromises too darned much with a Democratic President, how exactly is an effort to restrict popular involvement in the selection process going to win those angry voters over?

I’m all in favor of reducing the influence of large donors over the nominating process of both parties. But I’m at a loss to see how precisely Salam’s proposal would do that. Wouldn’t those donors make abundantly clear to the Nominating Convention who they would be willing to support, and what they have to say to earn that support? Who would be financing the local parties in this scenario – and thereby underwriting the careers of the people vetting the candidates? And, really, how different is his Republican Nominating Convention from, say the Iowa caucuses, which are dominated by local GOP machers, and which Salam laments for having undue influence over the selection process?

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Democratic Party has a pretty similar nominating process to that of the GOP. Anybody can run, and it takes some combination of raw talent, money, fame, organization and media savvy to get in the game. And yet their process has not descended into an appalling circus – and no, even in the unlikely event that they nominate Bernie Sanders, that wouldn’t be evidence that it has done so. So why blame the nomination process itself for the circus in the GOP?

The evidence of the last few cycles is that the GOP’s voters deeply distrust the leadership. The evidence of the response of many insiders to this most recent cycle is that the distrust is mutual. If you want to solve that problem, you probably shouldn’t start by institutionalizing it.

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Where Is the Liberty University of the Left?

Rod Dreher was impressed by Bernie Sanders’s outreach to Liberty University (as was I), and asks:

Where is the conservative Christian Bernie Sanders? A guy who stands up for the poor and the working class, but also for the unborn? I’d vote for that man — or woman — in a heartbeat.

I’m sure he would. The real question, though, is whether you’d respond to Sanders’ call to work together on issues of poverty and inequality across a difference on something as important (to Dreher) as abortion.

It seems to me that, in this context, a conservative Christian Sanders would be somebody who was down-the-line conservative on social issues, but who went to, I dunno, Yale to say: don’t make a shibboleth of your views on these social issues when you look for ways to help the poor. Be willing to put those disagreements aside to work with Catholic or Evangelical Christian – or, for that matter, Muslim – or other conservative religious groups, to serve those in need.

Except – Yale isn’t Liberty University. It is not, in the same way, an organization embodying and promoting a distinct ethos. It’s just a pillar of the establishment, dedicated to selecting the future leadership of America and training it to be the kind of leadership that it already, largely, wants to be (or that its parents want it to be).

So my question would be: is there a Liberty University of the left?

If there is, maybe someone can tell Fredrik deBoer so he can pay a visit.

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Five More Foreign Policy Questions For the Candidates

Daniel Larison has his questions, all, as he admits, vanishingly unlikely to be asked. And, if they were asked, I think he knows what answers he would get: Venezuela is a rogue state and an enemy of America; you can never trust the Iranians; Iran is to blame for the war in Yemen; war crimes are extremely serious but the worst crimes are committed by the Iranians; and Britain is too loyal a friend to America to elect an America-hater like Corbyn.

Here’s my pointless foreign-policy five:

1. There have been reports of late that intelligence analysts believe their pessimistic assessments of the fight against the Islamic State are being distorted before being presented to the President and cabinet officials so as to make it look like the President’s policies are working better than they actually are. Similar allegations were made during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the Vietnam War before that. How will you, as President, assure yourself that you are getting accurate and not rosy-scenario assessments from those responsible for executing your policies? And how will the uncertainty that you are, in fact, getting good information affect your decision making process when it comes to war and peace?

2. You have said that, when America fights, we should fight to win, and not engage in open-ended nation-building exercises. [I’m sure they’ve all said something like this.] You’ve also criticized this administration for squandering hard-won victories (in Iraq, in Libya) by leaving rather than remaining engaged on the ground to secure the peace. [Most of them have said something of that sort as well.] How do you reconcile that apparent contradiction? If you were President, and faced with a war that was not going well, are there any circumstances where you would say that it was worth redefining our objectives so as to be able to end the conflict? If not, what would you do?

3. Is it possible for other countries to have legitimate interests that do not align with America’s own interests? If so, can you give some examples, involving both of allied and adversarial countries, that have such divergent interests, and discuss how you would manage those divergences as President? If not, could you elaborate on why such divergence is impossible, and whether you think other countries have a similar view of the question?

4. In meetings with your national security team, what percentage of time on average do you anticipate spending on security issues and other foreign policy questions involving each of the following regions: the Middle East and North Africa, South and Central Asia, East Asia, Russia and the former Soviet bloc, Western Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America? Be mindful that your numbers must total no more than 100% (and may total less than 100% if you anticipate ever talking about Australia or Canada).

5. The United States has long refused to adopt a no-first use policy towards nuclear weapons. This policy originated in a period when America faced an opponent in Europe (the Soviet Union) with substantial conventional superiority. Today, the United States enjoys overwhelming conventional superiority against any plausible opponent that might attack us, but has not changed this policy. Under what circumstances, if any, would you, as President, use nuclear weapons first in a conventional conflict?

I threw in that last one because it’s a personal bugaboo. But I do think it’s one of those policies that most Americans are unaware of.

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Pharisees, Christians, and Hypocrites

What do we mean when we denounce someone as a hypocrite? That is to say – when and how does such a denunciation properly have force?

Damon Linker implicitly answers “not often” in his most recent column, arguing that the charge of hypocrisy is itself morally corrosive:

When we denounce someone for hypocrisy, we judge him harshly, but without having to express a substantive commitment of our own with regard to ends. The hypocrite is judged entirely on his own terms, accused of violating the ideal of human flourishing that he himself professes to uphold, revere, and use as a standard for judging others. The hypocrite is guilty, as we say, of having “double standards” — expecting exacting behavior from others while letting himself off the hook more easily. Simply pointing that out seems to allow us to be judgmental while remaining agnostic about whether we actually affirm any vision of human flourishing ourselves.

But that isn’t quite true. When we call someone a hypocrite, we often do so on the basis of two implicit moral assumptions: first, that a person who expresses a moral standard should be expected to live up to it with complete consistency; and second, that if a person fails to live up to it with complete consistency, the moral standard should be abandoned and replaced with one that can be consistently followed.

Those assumptions may not seem like much, but in fact they’re far more stringent — and morally corrosive — than the very different assumptions at work behind the scenes of the most widely affirmed moralities of ends.

Whether in religious or philosophical form, moralities of ends tend to presume that we will frequently fall short of the standards they hold out before us. The whole point of the end is to serve as an ideal — a vision of what a human being should do but often won’t.

He concludes:

To insist that we only affirm standards that we can achieve with perfect consistency is, in effect, to drastically lower those standards from something that we strive for (while often failing) to something within much easier reach — which probably won’t be much different from what we would do in the absence of any standard at all. It’s a license for us to go easy on ourselves: to aim low and succeed.

A moral world in which no one was guilty of hypocrisy would be one divested of the entire vertical dimension of morality. In such a world, we might all respect each other’s rights, but no one would strive to accomplish great, rare, exacting moral deeds.

I’d much rather live in a world filled with hypocrites.

I understand his point – and I think that, in general, our culture could benefit from vastly less denunciation, shaming and witch-hunting on the part of would-be puritans of all political stripes. But I think his conclusion is considerably over-broad – and mis-states the rationale behind many denunciations of hypocrisy.

Many charges of hypocrisy are attacks not on the message but on the messenger. For example: if a candidate uses dodgy loopholes to avoid paying taxes while promising to get tough on tax cheats, someone who agrees with the candidate’s position might attack the candidate as a hypocrite because she wants a better tribune – someone who will be more convincing to voters inclined to be cynical about politicians and their promises. Or, the candidate might be attacked as a hypocrite because her behavior suggests she considers herself to be above the kinds of moral rules that bind us lesser mortals – and that kind of double-standard really is corrosive to democracy whether you agree with the moral rule in question or not.

Other times, the charge of hypocrisy is pretty clearly tied to a real disagreement about what the morality of ends should be, as opposed to an objection to ends as such. Let’s say you have a married, male, Christian minister, a firm opponent of gay marriage, who is revealed to be having an affair with another man. Clearly, this fellow is going to be zinged for hypocrisy. But those doing the zinging are not neutral on the matter of “ends” – far from it. It’s likely that, in their view, it is a positive good to be honest, privately and publicly, about one’s sexuality, and that repressing it does actual harm, both to oneself and to others. The minister is denounced not so much for failing to live up to his own morality of ends, but because he is a walking proof-text for an alternative morality of ends.

Now let’s change the example – say that the minister is revealed to be having an affair not with a man, but with a woman. He’ll still be zinged for hypocrisy, but the charge would read somewhat differently – because it is unlikely (though not impossible) that those doing the denouncing believe in an alternative morality of ends in which cheating as such is fine. And yet, the force still comes from a real disagreement within a morality of ends, and not a dispute about the legitimacy of a morality of ends. The force comes from an implicit argument that public profession of Christianity is a lousy means to the end of sexual fidelity – and that attacking gay marriage for being a threat to faithful heterosexual marriages is particularly obnoxious because it burdens an uninvolved minority with the sins of the majority.

The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?

After all, without the charge of hypocrisy, how would you make some of the arguments above? If I believe that repressing one’s sexuality is harmful, and I can’t point to the hypocritical minister as a piece of evidence, then my argument is badly weakened – and for no obvious reason. Why am I obliged to say, in effect, that his actions have no bearing on the validity of the principle he stands for, when his actions are, to my mind, evidence that his principle has pernicious consequences? Isn’t the question of how principles play out in practice an extremely important question in debating said principles?

Finally: it’s worth pointing out that Christians have a particular problem with charges of hypocrisy, for two reasons.

Here’s the first one:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Jesus’s denunciation of hypocrisy is hard to square with the wisdom of “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Close to the core of Jesus’s ethical message is the claim that the Pharisaical approach – articulating laws for every aspect of life such that, if you stay within their bounds, you are righteous – far from being the path to righteousness is a path to sin. The law is still the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, to the best of our ability. But we should not follow people who declare themselves masters of the law, and we should not be impressed by people who make a show of their righteousness – we should not be hypocrites ourselves and we should not follow hypocrites.

So, when Christians act like Jesus’s Pharisees, they have a harder time relying on defenses that are explicitly rejected by Jesus.

But the deeper reason for the difficulty is that Christianity’s alternative answer to the problem of sin is, well, hard to swallow. Grace, justification – these are very weird, mysterious ideas that I suspect most Christians don’t really understand. They can sound, to someone who hasn’t swallowed them, an awful lot like a get-out-of-jail-free card, like a claim that once you say you’ve been saved, then you have no further obligation related to your past sins, and even future sins will be readily forgiven. It can sound an awful lot like, well, hypocrisy.

It isn’t – or needn’t be. Whether it’s true or not, and whether it “works” or not (which – for a pragmatist like me – amount to the same thing), Christianity is a powerful and sophisticated system. But as I understand it, the way you’re supposed to comport yourself within a Christian framework is rather like the way a member of AA is supposed to comport herself: as someone permanently addicted to sin, powerless to fight that addiction, seeking always to confess and make amends for past sins, and aware that only by the grace of a higher power has she made it through this day, and that tomorrow is yet another day in need of that same grace.

The standard of sinlessness cannot be met – that’s part of the Christian system’s point. And the standard of saintly humility can’t be met either. But there’s limited evidence that the kinds of people who are typically charged with hypocrisy were even trying to live up to it.

That may be the biggest reason why the charges so often stick.

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TANSTAAFL: Trump vs. Index Fund Edition

Would Donald Trump be just as wealthy – or even wealthier – if he had simply put his money in an index fund?

“It takes brains to make millions,” according to the slogan of Donald Trump’s board game. “It takes Trump to make billions.” It appears that’s truer than Trump himself might like to admit. A new analysis suggests that Trump would’ve been a billionaire even if he’d never had a career in real estate, and had instead thrown his father’s inheritance into a index fund that tracked the market. His wealth, in other words, isn’t because of his brains. It’s because he’s a Trump.

In an outstanding piece for National Journal, reporter S.V. Dáte notes that in 1974, the real estate empire of Trump’s father, Fred, was worth about $200 million. Trump is one of five siblings, making his stake at that time worth about $40 million. If someone were to invest $40 million in a S&P 500 index in August 1974, reinvest all dividends, not cash out and have to pay capital gains, and pay nothing in investment fees, he’d wind up with about $3.4 billion come August 2015, according to Don’t Quit Your Day Job’s handy S&P calculator. If one factors in dividend taxes and a fee of 0.15 percent — which is triple Vanguard’s actual fee for an exchange-traded S&P 500 fund — the total only falls to $2.3 billion.

It’s hard to nail down Trump’s precise net worth, but Bloomberg currently puts it at $2.9 billion, while Forbes puts it at $4 billion. So he’s worth about as much as he would’ve been if he had taken $40 million from his dad and thrown it into an index fund.

Not quite. First of all, with multiple children, multiple wives, multiple homes, etc., Trump has got some pretty hefty expenses, which have to be paid for somehow. This is one of the many ways in which Trump is different from, say, Warren Buffet.

But there are more important reasons why the comparison is problematic, which I thank Matt Levine for delineating so I don’t have to.

First of all: the value of the S&P includes intangibles, but most assessments of Trump’s worth do not credit much if any value to his much-ballyhooed brand:

Bloomberg’s computation of Trump’s net worth basically takes the value of his buildings and golf courses; it “doesn’t value Trump’s brand beyond accounting for cash held in accounts for his licensing deals and business partnerships.” But of course the value of the S&P 500 doesn’t come from the value of its cash and buildings. It comes from expectations of future earnings. Trump claims that he’s worth more than $10 billion because of the value of his brand, which “goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.” That sounds silly when Trump says it about himself, but it is dead right about the S&P, which has had a whole lot of feelings recently. But ultimately its value comes from its claim on earnings, and the S&P price/earnings ratio is about 19.6. Just for laughs, put that multiple on Trump’s $300-million-ish of income and you get an organization worth about $6 billion.

Second, most of these comparisons assume that the alternative to being Donald Trump is investing 100% of your assets in a stock market index on a single date. But market timing is a thing – a really hard thing, harder (in fact) than making money in real estate.

[S]aying that you should buy and hold index funds is very different from saying that you should build your wealth via private real estate entrepreneurship and then, at the start of a bull market, cash out and put all of your money in an index fund. Market timing is a skill. Comparing actual Donald Trump versus perfect-market-timer Donald Trump sets him up to lose, but it sets everyone up to lose. Trump’s 1999 net worth was $1.6 billion. If he had cashed out in December and put that money in the S&P, he’d be worth about $2.7 billion now, again without eating. He’s worth more. So you can roughly say that Trump outperformed the S&P from 1974 through 1987, underperformed from 1988 through 1999, and slightly outperformed since.

Not to mention that any sensible portfolio allocation would include bonds and real assets along with stocks. But the most significant problem with the comparison is philosophical:

Not literally everyone can index! . . . [T]hose funds necessarily free-ride off of the capital allocation decisions made by investors, and ultimately off of the business decisions made by entrepreneurs. Dopes like me can grow our wealth by investing indiscriminately in all the companies in the index, but we can only do that because other people — many of them with Wharton degrees and inherited wealth — made the positive, risky decisions to build those companies.

I carry no water for Trump in any capacity, not as a businessperson and certainly not as a political candidate. But I’m as baffled by the conviction of political journalists that they could do investing better than the professionals as I am by the conviction of so many businesspeople and Wall Street types – Trump, for example – that compared to what they do, politics must be beanbag.

Meanwhile, if you want to annoy Trump, ask him why he’s underperformed Richard Branson – or Richard Lefrak – over the course of his career.

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Fighting Outrage Porn Addiction

Before writing this post, I took a scroll down my Facebook feed, to see what news stories my friends are linking to. Here are the first four stories I spotted:

The essence of each story is the same: someone said/depicted something that you should be outraged by. Some are first-order outrage stories: we are supposed to be outraged by Taylor Swift’s clueless racism, and Norway’s clueless or malicious anti-Semitism. Others are second-order outrage: the Kentucky clerk is outraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and Dan Savage is outraged by her outrage. Yet others are third-order outrage: Black Lives Matter activists are outraged by police brutality, Ted Cruz is outraged by their outrage, and we are supposed to be outraged by Ted Cruz. Alan Jacobs has a brief piece up today about the Kentucky clerk in which he expresses his outrage at the outrage of those who have savaged said clerk.

Not all of these kinds of pieces are genuinely furious; some are more ironic or humorous. And these aren’t the only kinds of news stories out there. My feed has plenty of substantive stories about the Iran deal, or the Canadian elections, or off-Broadway theater openings (well, it is my feed, so, you know). But however inflected, outrage porn clearly a very popular genre – and that popularity ensures that it will continue to proliferate.

All of which just makes me . . . tired.

Does the stuff work on me? Sure it does, sometimes. Was I outraged by this Jezebel piece about college move-in day? Yes! Am I outraged by this piece from Time about the sisters in Uttar Pradesh sentenced to be gang-raped for their brother’s transgression against caste lines? Yes! But my outrage is entirely impotent. I don’t, after reading such stories, find my consciousness raised. I just find myself exhausted.

If I step back, I can formulate non-exhausting questions. I wondered how prevalent those college banners actually are – if highly prevalent, they would seem to me to be a prima facie decent case for a hostile environment harassment suit, against either the fraternities or the universities in question. I’m curious whether such a suit has ever been contemplated, and if not why not. The story out of India made me think about the limited reach of the modern state, and the ructions associated with modernity rubbing up against traditional society (and about how neo-traditionalists forget the extent to which traditionalism is upheld by violence, particularly sexual violence, just as modernists forget the extent to which modernity has proved no antidote to violence, particularly sexual violence). But those aren’t the kinds of thoughts that get into my Facebook feed. (And heaven knows what I’d be inundated with if I were on Twitter.)

I can remember when outrage fueled me, rather than leaving me enervated. In the wake of the attacks of 9-11, every terrifying piece of news felt like it was essential. When I was a more conventional right-winger, every outrage by the “other side” confirmed me in my convictions, and every time the “other side” got outraged it confirmed to me that their perceptions were deeply biased, their priorities deeply confused. But it’s not like that outrage fueled any, you know, action, much less any understanding. All it fueled was – a feeling.

Outrage is a kind of drug, one that gives the illusion of involvement, of caring, when really derives its power from an emotional and informational distance that the stories themselves then strive to deepen, laying the groundwork for the next piece of outrage porn to do its work. And thus proceeds an addictive cycle.

Alan Jacobs says of the Kentucky clerk story that there are “two significant stories here,” one about the clerk’s legal claims and one about the way she’s being treated in the press. But really, there are zero significant stories here. The legal questions she raises are not profound and will be handled by the duly-constituted authorities; there’s no crisis of any kind, genuinely nothing to see. And the press has been awful because unless they are awful, there’s no story. Because outrage, like sex, sells – and that is not news at all, nor likely to change.

And I don’t know what to do about that. In my own life, and my own writing, I strive to follow the line from “Wargames” – “the only way to win is not to play.” As a consequence, outrage, like cheap vodka, which once seemed to reduce my inhibitions and make me feel strong and confident, now makes me feel a bit ill, and puts me to sleep.

But without it, the job of blogging is a whole lot harder.

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Can the Party Still Decide?

I had to read Daniel McCarthy’s article on why the right loses GOP presidential contests a couple of times before I got it. He begins:

Republican from the party establishment enters the presidential race and immediately tops the polls. A few months later, he trails a politically inexperienced but media-mesmerizing businessman. The story of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump? Yes—but also the story of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in late 2011. And a glimpse back at the early months of GOP contests in 2008 and 2012 suggests what’s to come in 2016: a Christian conservative leaps to first or second place, surprising the pundits, only to lose at last to the inevitable establishment nominee.

This is already starting to happen – Ben Carson, far from fading after a poor performance in the first GOP debate, has continued to rise, even catching Trump in the latest Iowa poll.

McCarthy continues:

The truth is that leaders like McCain, Romney, and the Bushes represent the GOP as a whole better than right-wing candidates do. Contrary to caricature, the GOP is not just the party of the South and relatively underpopulated states in the Midwest. Cohn’s headline calls the power of blue-state Republicans surprising, but it shouldn’t be: the majority of Americans live in blue states—that’s why Obama won the last two elections—and one would expect a national political party to draw a great proportion of its presidential delegates from the states where more Americans actually live.

In other words, when the establishment has a candidate, blue-state Republicans fall into line to support that candidate. Which is a big blue wall to climb for any would-be insurgent, however apparently popular.

But the failure of the right is also the result of factionalism – specifically, factionalism by religious conservatives:

Before 1988, religious conservatives voted with other conservatives. The religious right wasn’t yet organized in 1964, but “moral” voters were a significant component of Goldwater’s base, sometimes to the candidate’s own embarrassment. (He vetoed the distribution a short film, “Choice,” intended by his supporters to rally voters with alarming images of race, sex, and crime.) Reagan in 1980 was the first Republican hopeful, and then nominee, to benefit from effectively organized social-conservative groups like the Moral Majority.

The development of the religious right or social conservatives as a bloc discrete from conservatives generally proved to be the undoing of the right in Republican presidential primaries. But this differentiation into two distinct strands of conservatism, represented most of the time by competing avatars in GOP primaries, was not the result of hubris or short-sightedness on the part of religious conservatives. On the contrary, it represents a real philosophical divide that can be seen in the different emphases, attitudes, and even positions taken by social-conservative champions vis-à-vis other conservatives.

Establishment Republicans want to paper over those disagreements in the interest of winning. Which only makes the religious right more restive, and to express their dissatisfaction in increasingly disruptive ways. McCarthy’s completely disinterested conclusion is that the American right needs more publications like TAC that aren’t wedded to any particular political faction, program or party:

The proper way to address principled differences is not by disguising them. Once, before an entrenched conservative movement existed to assure the right that every GOP nominee was the gold standard in conservatism, the right had a few institutions that put a bit of daylight between themselves and the Republican Party, and these institutions—notably periodicals such as the ’50s and ’60s National Review and Modern Age—devoted themselves to working out a coherent yet capacious worldview, not by insisting on a politically convenient orthodoxy but by honestly confronting the differences between various schools of thought. Ironically, as intense as the intellectual battles were, and as inconclusive as the quest for an agreeable-to-all “fusionist” formulation proved to be, in practice traditionalists and libertarians voted together for Goldwater and Reagan. They did so for their own reasons, and that was quite enough.

The situation has been reversed ever since Reagan: every movement magazine, TV pundit, radio host, and think-tanker has come to insist upon a single, bland, homogenized ideology devised for maximum political convenience. The lively fights on the right used to be in the pages of its books and magazines; now they are at the ballot box, where the only winners turn out to be establishment Republicans—and ultimately liberal Democrats. 

The right, not just the Republican Party, is deeply culturally and geographically divided—much as the country is. That can be a source of strength, if it leads to rigorous testing of premises and policies, to re-learning the arts of persuasion and principled coalition-building: that is, building coalitions not on the basis of fabricated principles but on honest differences openly engaged. But all this is more than a political task, and alas, the real dirty secret of the Republican establishment’s success has been getting the right to bet everything on partisanship.

Like I said, it’s worth reading. But I do have a few questions:

First off, what does the establishment do when it doesn’t have a candidate? I was among those convinced that Bush would mostly clear the field of serious opponents merely by entering. That certainly hasn’t happened. Not only is Bush not dominating the race as a whole, he’s not even dominating the race to be the establishment’s nominee. He’s been behind Walker for a while in Iowa. He’s now behind Kasich in New Hampshire. And nationally he’s doing no better than fellow-Floridian Rubio. So who’s the establishment candidate?

If Bush wins the nomination in 2016, it’ll look something like McCain’s victory in 2008 – an unlikely turnaround dependent on all his various opponents failing to break through. But if there’s really no clear establishment favorite after South Carolina, what will happen? What will those blue state Republicans do without a line to fall into?

And then, take a look at the calendar. In February, we’ve got Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Then, on March 1, only a month after Iowa, we’ve got Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Oh, yeah, and Massachusetts and Vermont – but seriously, where’s the big blue wall?

And in what sense is Trump really a factional right-wing candidate trading on business experience, like Cain, or Forbes – or Carly Fiorina? Trump appears to be drawing support from across the GOP spectrum, at least in ideological terms. His positions, such as they are, don’t track well at all with what movement purists supposedly want. He’s not much of a Christian. He’s not really a conservative. He’s not even clearly a Republican.

Carson, Fiorina, Cruz – all of these candidates look like plausible “anti-establishment” flavors of the month comparable to those we saw in 2012. Trump is something else. He’s clearly tapping into the anger and dissatisfaction that fueled Newt Gingrich’s brief Napoleonic delusions, but it looks possible that he could channel those dissatisfactions in far less-predictable directions.

More specifically, if McCarthy’s thesis is partly that Christian conservative factionalism has weakened the right as a bloc, isn’t it notable that such a significant faction of conservative evangelicals have voiced support for a candidate – Trump – who barely pays lip service to their purported issues, and who, on a personal level, manifests basically none of the virtues that they supposedly deem crucial in a leader? Doesn’t that suggest that “principled differences” may not be the heart of the estrangement?

And doesn’t it feel notable just how much bigger the anti-establishment wave gets with each election? In 2008, McCain had to dodge challenges for the establishment nod from Giuliani and Thompson, plus Romney, a thoroughly establishment type masquerading as a right-winger. The factionalist Huckabee is McCarthy’s focus, but the main fight in 2008 was between far more mainstream figures. In 2012, we had a parade of implausible contenders – Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum – but they came in waves, and Romney remained the man to beat throughout (except for a brief moment when it looked like Rick Perry might be a thing).

But this year, Trump is way in the lead in the polls – but Carson and Fiorina are rising at the same time. And so is Ted Cruz. No, polls don’t mean much at this point. But does it really mean nothing that every plausible establishment candidate is polling in the single digits – in many cases the low single-digits? Has anything like that ever happened before in recent memory?

I’m not so much saying “this time is different” so much as “each time it gets worse.” So if this time isn’t different, what on earth are we going to be in for in 2020?

Finally, I think McCarthy gives insufficient attention to the colossal failure of the Bush administration in his explanation of how the GOP got here. In 2000, as McCarthy admits, George W. Bush won the nomination in part by winning over precisely the religious-right faction that he otherwise identifies as gravitating toward hopeless factional choices. The thing is that the Bush Presidency, which promised to be the apotheosis of a certain, more Christian version of fusion conservatism, turned out to be a disaster on virtually every dimension.

In the wake of that disaster, self-identified conservatives of nearly all stripes have pronounced themselves “disappointed” with what was wrought, but not only cannot agree on what, precisely, they should be disappointed by – they can’t even figure out how to disagree effectively. And that’s not a recipe for avoiding future disappointments – or defeating the establishment.

Now, I’m friends with a lot of self-identified conservatives who have been willing to make the case for what has to change. (Not all the same case, mind you – dozens of flowers are blooming, if not quite a thousand.) Many of them write for TAC. My anecdotal sense is that, out there in the world of people who read, there’s a palpable hunger for those kinds of voices. But does anybody actually read?

And at least a couple of candidates this time around – Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee – at one point or another looked like individuals who might have advanced arguments for a change of direction for the self-proclaimed conservative party. But these one-time dissenters have only grown more movement-friendly in their views. And still are pigeonholed as hopeless libertarian and religious-right factional candidates respectively. And now they are polling even worse than the establishment favorites.

It all begins to feel, after a while, like arguments aren’t really the point.

I suspect Donald Trump would agree.

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Who Is the Left-Wing Equivalent of Donald Trump?

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)
66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)

Kevin Drum asks:

Is there anyone out there who could be the Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump? There was some inane blather earlier this month comparing him to Bernie Sanders, but that was always pretty preposterous. Sanders is a serious, longtime politician. He may be too extreme for you, but he’s not a buffoon.

More specifically: Is it even possible that someone like Trump—no political experience, buffoonish, populist, boorish—could ever make a big impact in a Democratic primary? It’s never happened before, but then, it’s never happened quite this way in the Republican primary either. It makes me wonder. What if Trump had held on to his lifelong liberal beliefs instead of “evolving” so he could compete as a Republican? What would be the fate of a liberal Donald Trump? Would a big chunk of the liberal base embrace him?

I don’t know how he’d poll, but I know who my nominee would be for the post. With Hillary Clinton looking shaky, and the GOP in chaos, this may his best chance for him to give the idea a whirl. Anybody want to see what his publicist thinks of the idea?

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War, Religious Liberty, and Priorities

Alan Jacobs is worried whether voting on a single-issue basis to protect religious liberty is overly selfish for a serious Christian politics:

While I am, as I have often demonstrated right here on this site, a vocal supporter of religious freedom, I’m also rather uncertain about how my religious convictions should affect my political decisions. The problem arises if we distinguish between individual and collective Christian action.

On the individual level, I know what I am supposed to do: if someone slaps me on one cheek, I should offer them the other; if someone takes my shirt, I should offer him my coat; if someone curses me, I should bless him; I should always seek the well-being of others in preference to my own. (Of course, this is not to say that I actually do what I know I should do.)

If that logic holds in the collective sphere as well, then perhaps Christian churches should not focus too much attention on what is best for them, but on what is best for their neighbors. They might have good reason, in that case, to accept constraints on religious freedom if that meant preventing unnecessary violence, death, and destruction from being unleashed on others.

Now, some Christians might also argue that the Church exists for others, so that promoting religious freedom, even at the cost of lives lost overseas, is still the selfless thing to do. And that could be right, but I think we all ought to be very wary of arguments that provide such a neat dovetailing of our moral obligations and our self-interest.

I honestly don’t know what I think about this, and still less do I know how to apply the proper principles to our own more complex political scene. But I do think it’s right to conclude that there are at least some potential circumstances in which religious believers, in order to be faithful to their religious traditions, would need to refrain from direct political advocacy for those traditions.

I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with the underlying premise that voters should aspire to cast their ballots in a selfless manner. Indeed, I think “selfless” is a red-herring. The objective oughtn’t be to deny the needs or wants of the self, but to see beyond them, to feel other selves as equally worthy of care (and yourself as equally unworthy of supremacy), and thereby to achieve a feeling of solidarity with those other selves. (Then again, I’m not a Christian, so your mileage may vary.)

I also think that, from a purely selfish or an enlightenedly-selfish perspective, there are arguments on both sides of this one. (I will take as a given Jacobs’s premises that there are real threats to religious liberty, and that there are real threats of unnecessary and destructive war, and that there’s a real difference between the two parties on both points – all debatable premises, just not ones I’m going to debate here.) Christians – men and women from communities like his – will be the ones unleashing that unnecessary death and destruction Jacobs fears. They will suffer – possibly from injury or death, but also from being required to become killers. Which is worse: to tell 100 people they will lose their jobs if they do not conform to new social norms to which they have religious objections – or to tell 10 people they will be sent to prison if they do not kill a host of strangers when ordered to do so?

Thinking less-selfishly, there are also points on both sides. Jacobs presumably believes that these unnecessary wars are deeply harmful to the collective economic, political and spiritual well-being of the country. He also presumably believes that efforts to exclude traditional Christian believers from full-participation in the civic life of the country is harmful to the country’s well-being. And unnecessary wars and religious persecution alike tear at the fabric of the civil compact that holds the country together.

I think it’s a mistake to try to find a trump card in these kinds of situations. Or, rather, the trump card may not be the issue that is objectively most important either to your own self-interest or some more enlightened conception. It’s going to be the thing that you simply can’t swallow, no matter how hard you try. In that regard, and to tip my hand about how I’d decide the question, let me make two analogies.

First, I get a decent amount of flack for writing for this website from friends who can’t understand how I could affiliate with a publication founded by Pat Buchanan. And I can explain myself in part by talking about all the ways that the magazine has changed since those days, and also by saying that, when I signed on, I warned the editor that I was “off-side” on a huge number of issues versus where the readership was, and was reassured that the magazine had no “line” and that I’d be free to write what I wished. I signed on because, even though I no longer particularly considered myself to be “on the right” or “conservative” in any meaningful political sense, I thought it was exceedingly important that there be a voice from that quarter standing against the militarism that was overwhelmingly dominant in the American right. And I made that decision in spite of the fact that the faction of the right that is most-friendly to anti-war arguments has, historically, also been least-friendly to the interests of my own people. With, in the 1940s, genocidal consequences. I just decided that this isn’t the 1940s.

And a second analogy. Before 1948, the United States army was segregated. Thousands upon thousands of African-American citizens served with distinction in an army that explicitly regarded their citizenship as second-class. How would you rank their dilemma against the dilemma Jacobs describes? And how would you explain to a veteran of that period, who swallowed that humiliation to serve his country, that you could not vote for the peace candidate because of his party’s treatment of your people, but would rather see his grandson fight for an unjust cause?

I can’t think of a good answer.

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Why Not Trump?


I must have been in a strange mood yesterday.

I never seriously considered the Donald in, well, any capacity. (As in: I literally have barely ever thought about him over the past 30 years, and never seriously.) And for months I was convinced, along with most informed observers, that Trump was a vanity candidate who would go nowhere — or, at best, would make a Herman Cain-style lunge for the brass ring then crash to Earth well before any voting takes place.

But the scales have fallen from my eyes. And in the interests of spreading the blessings of enlightenment, I ask the question again:

Why not Trump?

And, in what follows, I take apart one by one the various answers I came up with to the question.

To be clear, I’m not going to vote for Trump, ever.

But why not?

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Mobs Have No Principles, Hacker Edition

Fredrik deBoer thinks the Ashley Madison hack is the latest proof that the left hasn’t really won the culture war:

Since at least the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, it’s been trendy to say that the culture war is over. With acceptance of gay love now ubiquitous, with trans rights taking center stage, with even traditionally conservative culture like sports increasingly accepting of gender and sexual differences, many now presume that social conservatism, as a mass political phenomenon, is in permanent retreat. Indeed, some prominent social conservatives have been debating the “Benedict option,” which entails a retreat from public life by social traditionalists. Left and right both seem to agree that the battle is over.

With the recent leak of massive amounts of data from infidelity-enabling, though, and Gawker’s notorious naming and shaming of an obscure, married publishing executive who attempted to hire the services of an escort, we might well ask: if the culture war is over, who really won?

That social conservatism lost seems inarguable. Gay marriage was the hill that the forces of social conservatism were willing to die on, and die they did. . . . And yet I can’t help but feel that social liberalism hasn’t exactly won, either. Once, a central pillar of progressive attitudes towards love and sex was the right to be left alone, the right to have privacy, the right to undertake adult behaviors that others might not agree with but which nevertheless must remain permissible. That version of social liberalism—the one associated with tolerance and personal freedom—seems almost as dead as the religious traditionalism that we’re so eager to discard.

To which I can only ask: what makes you think the hackers are indicative of any political tendency at all?

There is a liberalism of principle and a liberalism of temperament, and I think deBoer is confusing the two here. A liberal temperament is pretty much diametrically opposed to the kind of outing and shaming involved with these kinds of hacks, regardless of the underlying politics. Whether we’re talking about outing closeted gay people or anonymous racists – or, for that matter, making public the names and physical addresses of the kinds of people who execute these kinds of hacks – there’s nothing liberal, from a temperamental perspective, about the activity.

But a liberalism of principle is as subject to perfectionism as any other politics is. And it’s easy to see how perfectionism can lead to justifications for all kinds of invasions of traditional zones of privacy and immunity. Slum-clearing was a project with considerable liberal backing; so was forced school busing; so is yes-means-yes. All of these are noble-intentioned projects that substantially invaded such zones.

Moreover, it would not be hard to construct a left-wing attack on Ashley Madison. What kind of men have the resources to avail themselves of the opportunities provided by such a site? Who benefits and who suffers most from the aggregation of this kind of data on “availability”? What does the existence of a site like that do to the power dynamic within most marriages? I’m not endorsing that kind of critique (nor am I getting into the thicket of ranking adultery itself in the table of sins – though I may do that at another time). I’m just pointing out that such a critique can certainly be constructed, and shouldn’t be dismissed with mere hand-waving.

And that is precisely why it’s important to keep the two questions separate. You can embrace a left-wing critique of an entity like Ashley Madison without being a neo-Victorian moralist. But you can also be a neo-Victorian moralist without embracing mob “justice.” And that is what is being enacted with the Ashley Madison hack – something essentially illiberal in temperament (as mobs always are), but also something completely lacking in principle of any kind, and motivated instead by base emotions like envy and schadenfreude (as, again, mobs always are).

The mob may well be winning the culture war. But that is not merely a different front from the one deBoer (and the rest of us) are talking about when we discuss gay marriage, or abortion. It’s a different war altogether. Because no principled politics of any kind, whether moralistic or libertarian, can safely or in good conscience rely on the mob.

UPDATE: oh – and this news story is of obvious relevance to “The Runner” – yet another reason to go see it!

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Home News: The Runner

Nicolas Cage plays a self-deluded idealist in "The Runner," directed by Austin Stark
Nicolas Cage plays a self-deluded idealist in "The Runner," directed by Austin Stark

Time for unabashed self-promotion again. The second feature film I was involved in producing – “The Runner” – has been taking up a bunch of my time and emotional energy lately. And it’s now available to view at home via all the usual outlets – cable and satellite video on demand, Amazon, iTunes, etc. So y’all have no excuse for not seeing it.

The film tells the story of Colin Pryce, a progressive rising star from a famous New Orleans political family, who gets kneecapped by a sex scandal just as his political career is about to take off. And the story is told against the backdrop of the 2010 oil spill that devastated a region that had just begun to recover from the economic fallout of hurricane Katrina.

The experience of making the film was very important to me – I was much more intensely involved in this one than in “Infinitely Polar Bear” (which, by the way, is still in theaters – go see it while you still can!), so on a purely educational level it looms large. But it also tackles a number of serious themes that I fear get short shrift in most entertainment about politics.

To start, it’s a portrait of a politician that tries to be realistic rather than lurid. Shows like “Scandal” and “House of Cards” are successful for good reason – they are enormously entertaining. But the caricature they paint of American politics may have a pernicious political impact: it encourages the electorate (and particularly better-educated electorate that tends to watch these shows) to indulge in a shallow cynicism that perfectly suits the existing power structure. (I fear that casting Nicolas Cage in the lead may have led some critics to assume that we were aiming to do the same.)

But political entertainment that wears its (generally left-liberal) idealism on its sleeve -from “The American President” to “The West Wing” – even when they succeed as entertainment (as the foregoing certainly do, and as many humorlessly-hectoring films do not) may not be great for the electorate either. Because that idealism is also a great enabler of politicians who know how to channel it for their own ends.

The ambition of “The Runner” is to show us a portrait of the political animal as he really is – someone who believes he believes things, but who is ultimately driven by baser needs. And whose self-image depends on not figuring that out about himself. He’s an addictive personality, in other words, and whether he expresses that through drink or women or not, he most-fundamentally expresses it in the need to run.

And the film then aims to connect this kind of personality to the society that chooses him for a leader, and its own self-destructive economic addictions. And so its cynicism is more comprehensive, in the manner of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, in that it’s ultimately cynical about us as well as the people we elect. Indeed, you could read the film is a kind of Enemy of the People in which Thomas Stockmann has different self-delusions, and actually cares most about being loved – or as a film about Peter Russo from “House of Cards” in a world manipulated not by brilliant machiavels like Frank Underwood, but by interests who don’t need to be brilliant, because they have actual power.

Perhaps the season of Donald Trump’s rise is the wrong time to bring out a film that takes politics – and politicians – seriously. But hey: when the studios do stuff like that, they just call it counter-programming.

Anyway: check it out. And then you can tell me whether it succeeds in its ambitions.


For the Iran Deal, Against the Conservation of Enemies

State Department photo
State Department photo

Reading Peter Beinart, David Frum and Jeffrey Goldberg’s debate on the merits of the Iran deal, I was struck by something. Take a look at Frum’s list of gives and gets in the deal:

What did the Western world get from the nuclear deal just concluded with Iran?

According to deal proponents—and assuming Iran does not cheat—a delay of about eight months in Iran’s nuclear-breakout time, for a period of 10 years.

What did the Western world give?

1) It has rescued Iran from the extreme economic crisis into which it was pushed by the sanctions imposed in January 2012—sanctions opposed at the time by the Obama administration, lest anyone has forgotten.

2) It has relaxed the arms embargo on Iran. Iran will be able to buy conventional arms soon, ballistic-missile components later.

3) It has exempted Iranian groups and individuals from terrorist designations, freeing them to travel and do business around the world.

4) It has promised to protect the Iranian nuclear program from sabotage by outside parties—meaning, pretty obviously, Israel.

5) It has ended the regime’s isolation, conceding to the Iranian theocracy the legitimacy that the Iranian revolution has forfeited since 1979 by its consistent and repeated violations of the most elementary international norms—including, by the way, its current detention of four America hostages.

That seems one-sided.

Frum’s point is that items 1-5 provide substantial benefits to the Iranian regime, and that therefore, in his opinion, we should have been able to get more for them. That may or may not be true, and my bet is on “not.” It’s worth recalling that none of the other parties to the negotiation favored a more-aggressive approach to Iran. It’s also worth noting that the overwhelming response from people who actually do arms control for a living has been positive – meaning that what we got, assuming what we wanted was arms control, wasn’t nearly as meager as Frum asserts.

But I notice something different. Frum is valuing what our side got based on what it’s worth to us (and undervaluing it). But he’s valuing what our side gave based on what it’s worth to the Iranian regime. And that’s the wrong way to tally a ledger.

The right way is to look at each side independently. What did we gain versus what did we lose. What did they gain versus what did they lose. If you want your deal to hold, you hope that each side decides that their side of the ledger nets out positive. That’s what we call a win-win. And that’s what this deal looks like to me.

It is clear that the United States didn’t get everything we wanted – or everything we initially sought – out of the Iranians. It’s also clear that the Iranians allowed their own red lines to be crossed – they didn’t get everything they wanted either. There was, in other words, a negotiation. But the big picture – an arms control agreement and an end to sanctions and diplomatic isolation – remains what it always was and always was going to be, because that’s what would allow both sides to see a positive sum at the bottom of the ledger.

From my perspective, everything we “gave” to the Iranians was something that benefitted us not at all to retain, because the purpose of the sanctions and the isolation was to get a nuclear deal. Normal relations with Iran should be a positive goal as opposed to something we “gave” in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

(I would argue, by the way, that the same is true on the other side of the ledger: a nuclear program, rationally, benefits the Iranian regime very little. But I also recognize that there’s no reason to assume that Iranian ideologues are any more rational than American ideologues, and that Iran has sought to become a nuclear power for reasons of national prestige since the Shah’s time.)

And holding out for more should be tied to a real prospect of achieving more – in other words, real prospect that continued isolation would deliver an Iran that recognized Israel, cut its ties with Hezbollah, etc.

But not everybody does the math that way. A significant number of foreign policy opinionators ascribe real value to making the right enemies. Iran is a self-declared adversary of America’s founded on a revolutionary ideology of political Islam. It engages in international terrorism and hostage-taking. It refuses to recognize Israel. For a significant faction of the commentariat, the United States should stand opposed to a regime like that for deontological reasons. Even if it’s imprudent to go to war with them, we should maintain our posture of enmity. And this deal seriously compromises that posture.

I’m not a pollyanna about the deal. Much analogizing has been made between the deal with Iran and Nixon’s opening to China, but I think the analogy has serious limitations – because who is the Soviet Union? ISIS? I do consider ISIS a serious threat, as well as a nightmarishly horrible regime, because, should it succeed in becoming a functional state, it will exert a radicalizing and destabilizing influence throughout the Sunni world. But that means that it poses the biggest threat not to Iran, but to states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia – which are tacitly or even actively supporting it. And greater involvement by Shia Iran in the war against ISIS is hardly going to motivate those powers to shift to opposition.

Moreover, I am highly skeptical that Iran’s regime would desire, or benefit from, an explicit realignment towards the U.S. And I am equally skeptical that Iranian dissidents will see the domestic opening they hope for as a result of the deal. I believe the Iranian regime is rational and will focus on regime survival first and foremost, and I don’t see why they will feel greater need to placate the opposition after delivering improved economic conditions for the Iranian people. Certainly, China hasn’t felt that need.

So why do I support the Iran deal, strongly? Because, from my perspective, there is a negative value to enmity with Iran and a positive value to an improved working relationship – independent of whether the deal is the best deal possible. Because I ascribe a very positive value to a deal that the arms control community in general considers quite strong, and exceedingly skeptical of criticism from quarters opposed to arms control in general. Because I’m aware that the track record of opponents to major diplomatic agreements is relatively poor in general. And because I think a war with Iran would be a catastrophic folly.

That’s reason enough, no?

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The Necessity of Greece’s Separation

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The causes, in this case, are fairly clear. The metropole (Brussels/Berlin) demands terms for renegotiation of Greece’s debt that leave Greece politically and economically utterly subservient to said metropole. The Greeks demand more favorable terms that allow their economy to grow again and have some measure of independence.

The Greeks have suffered far more from austerity than the American colonists did under British taxation. And the British metropole had at least as much reason to accuse us of ingratitude: its taxes were imposed to pay for a war waged on the colonists’ behalf, and the British were rather as disinclined as the German bankers are to have the relationship with the crown treated by the colonists as a blank check.

And, as with the American colonies, the remedy is either independence or genuine representation at the metropole. Either the EU needs to remedy its democratic deficit, creating political organs as powerful and responsive to the people as the ECB is to the imperatives of finance, or it needs to shrink from an empire to a club of like-minded states with already synchronized economies.

The difference is that Germany does not want to be an empire. It is more than happy to see Greece go if it will mean the end of their formal obligations and the ability to return to the normal arms-length relations of business (which include dealing with defaults, bankruptcies, etc.—creditors don’t make all the rules in international finance either, just most of them).

The necessity of separation, therefore, should be all the clearer.

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Obergefell and the Pursuit of Happiness

So I’ve finally gotten around to reading the gay marriage decision, and, as (to my reading) it depends more on the Declaration than on the Constitution, July 4th weekend feels like an appropriate time to air my thoughts thereon.

I will admit, when I first heard about the decision I was torn between being very happy about the outcome and not being thrilled about what I understood to be the reasoning. I am not a big fan of natural rights reasoning, not a big fan of substantive due process, not a big fan of sweeping principle-declaring decisions, and not a big fan of Justice Kennedy. I had figured the Court would come to a narrower conclusion that effectively nationalized same-sex marriage based on the Full Faith and Credit clause while still allowing states formally to define marriage as they individually chose. And, I admit, I hoped such a conclusion could garner a six-Justice majority rather than a majority of five, and thus produce something like a social consensus.

But after reading the decision, and re-reading Loving v. Virginia, the key precedent case, I have come to a more meditative conclusion. I understand the logic of Kennedy’s opinion, and see how it flows from the body of precedent – and how, while other decisions would surely have been more conservative, they would still have been innovative. But mostly I’ve tried to be a realist about what those other, alternative decisions would actually mean in practice, and how they would differ from what is likely to flow from Obergefell.

My (partial) defense of Kennedy’s opinion begins with the following thought experiment. Imagine that Loving had been decided the opposite way, upholding miscegenation statutes, and that, in response, an amendment to the Constitution had been passed with the following wording:

The family being the fundamental basis of society, the right to matrimony shall not be infringed.

The passage of this amendment would surely have overturned miscegenation statutes nationally – as it would have been intended to do. It would also have made it clear that prisoners, the mentally handicapped, the carriers of genetic diseases – that none of these can be denied access to matrimony. How, though, would it be applied today in the context of same-sex marriage? How should it be applied?

The answer hinges on the question of what marriage is. At the time of the passage of the amendment, it’s true, only a few would have argued that it encompassed same-sex unions. But in 2015 a great many people thought it did, and many states had come to express that view in their laws (whether prompted by the state-level judiciary or not). Once such a view is current, it becomes necessary for the Court to decide whether or not it is correct – because it is necessary to determine whether the definition of marriage restricting it to unions between men and women is, in fact, an infringement on a fundamental right. This is particularly the case when states have undertaken explicitly to define marriage as exclusively a male-female bond, and not merely done so implicitly.

That’s basically the situation the Court found itself in if it took the Loving precedent seriously. Loving clearly established the right to marry as fundamental, pre-political, and central to the Declaration of Independence’s concept of the “pursuit of happiness.” Note that there is nothing traditional about this idea. Traditionally, marriage was a matter better arranged by your parents than by you, and love was something you hoped would grow within and sustain happiness in marriage as opposed to marriage’s origin. Traditionally and cross-culturally, regulation or prohibition of exogamy has been more the rule than the exceptionLoving certainly didn’t invent the idea of the love match, but it did raise it to the level of Constitutional principle.

Assuming the Court did not want retrospectively to limit the scope of that earlier decision, Loving provides quite firm ground to stand on for rejecting most of the arguments against same-sex marriage, as well as the argument that marriage is traditionally a state-level matter raising no Federal issues. The Court did not have the luxury of dealing with abstractions. It had to deal with individual gay families demanding recognition, and individual states denying them that recognition, and claiming that denial is not an infringement on their rights because the people seeking to marry are themselves confused about what marriage essentially is.

My point, basically, is that the Court, assuming it did not want to limit Loving, was faced with a new question in 2015 presented by new facts. In 1967, nobody disputed that a marriage between a black man and a white woman was a marriage; the dispute was over whether such a marriage could be prohibited for reasons of the purported social good. The Court determined it could not, both because marriage was a fundamental right and because that purported social good (preserving the white race) was not a legitimate state end. In 2015, the Court had to opine on what marriage is in order to resolve whether two men or two women being denied a license to marry were being denied something they were due. It would certainly have been more conservative of the Court to say: we don’t profess to know what marriage is; the states seem to disagree about what marriage is; the debate about the meaning of marriage is relatively novel; therefore we decline to register an opinion other than to demand that various states respect each other’s decisions on the matter (the Full Faith and Credit approach). But that’s not the same as saying it is illegitimate for the Court to decide that it needs to have an answer to the question of what marriage is because there is a fundamental right at issue. Which, per Loving, there is.

And, stripping away the high-flown rhetoric, both about freedom and about the glories of marriage, that’s what Kennedy’s opinion for the Court holds.

What would have been different had the Court held differently? In practice, I suspect not much. Consider first three other possible routes to a similar substantive result. As noted above, the Court could have declined to say anything about marriage, but to require the states to respect each other’s decisions, as they do with differing laws on age of consent, degrees of consanguinity, and divorce. The result would be effective nationalization of same-sex marriage, the only difference being the requirement for some Americans to travel. Undoubtedly at some point in the future this would be deemed an unfair burden on those without the means to travel, and same-sex marriage would be formally nationalized.

Another alternative would have been to declare that sexual orientation is a “suspect classification” requiring more heightened scrutiny for exclusion. This would have been a somewhat awkward way into opening up marriage specifically, since nothing in earlier marriage law actually refers to sexual orientation, but it is at least plain that the intent of the various laws and state constitutional amendments defining marriage as a male-female bond that the intent is to exclude same-sex couples from marriage. The Court has, in the past, declined to define a sexual orientation as analogous to race in this way, and doing so could have far-reaching implications – but many of those implications are being reached anyway by a jurisprudence that declares discrimination against gay people to be “irrational” on its face.

Yet another alternative would have been to strike down traditional-marriage-preservation statutes on the basis of gender discrimination – which was the oldest argument in favor of same-sex marriage, and, not incidentally, the most telling, since the teleological arguments for the necessity of complementarity in marriage all derive from a conception of gender that values essential differences between male and female. Such a finding might also have far-reaching implications, but again, probably not very different from those we face now.

And what about an alternative world in which a five-Justice majority ruled that marriage was the province of the several states, and that radical innovations (like same-sex marriage), did not require recognition under the Full Faith and Credit clause? How long would such a decision last in the face of changing views across the nation? Not long at all, I should think.

Of course, it might be all to the good for the Court to have said: the law doesn’t say this – and to watch the people change it so that it does. I remain very proud of the New York legislature for doing its proper job and changing the law to say what they thought it ought to say.

But to say that the Court stole the people’s limelight is not the same as to say it became a tyrant. We have, for better or worse, gotten accustomed since Carolene Products to a Court that sees itself as the ultimate vindicator of individual rights, and we differ with each other mainly in terms of which rights we want to see vindicated. We the people could change that any time if we wanted to. We just don’t really want to.

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A Busy SCOTUS Week

Anybody even remember King v Burwell? Probably not. But if you are one of the few who still care, my thoughts on the decision – which I very much agreed with – can be found over at The Week.

Most of the piece talks about how King v. Burwell was properly deferential, and why that matters. A couple of paragraphs stand out, though, for having broader applicability.

The difficulty with having the Supreme Court strike down legislation produced by a democratically elected majority cannot be answered by reference to the sanctity of the Constitution. (After all, all branches of government are guided by this document, which, by the way, does not enumerate among the court’s powers the right to strike down legislation.) Nor can it be answered by reference to some hermeneutical rule (originalism, or strict construction, or anything else) that places the court above suspicion — because suspicion is, itself, a social and political matter, not a matter of objective fact.

Rather, the counter-majoritarian difficulty can only be answered pragmatically, by reference to the proper functioning of the government. There are a variety of possible such defenses, some more conservative (e.g., Madison’s defense of the separation of powers) and some more liberal (such as John Hart Ely’s hermeneutic of democratic inclusion). But they all boil down to this: We want the government to work this way and that requires that we have a court that plays this role.

So what about today’s decision declaring that the Constitution requires all 50 states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Is there any answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty here?

I’m going to read the decision before opining.

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