Daniel Larison is not nearly outraged enough by the Senate’s intrusion into the negotiations with Iran. What Senator Cotton and his colleagues are doing is deliberately trying to cripple America’s ability to conduct foreign policy. And, at least in terms of domestic politics, it may well work.
First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that there is any principled Constitutional question at issue whatsoever. Senator Tom Cotton does not believe for one instant that the President is incapable of entering into binding agreements with foreign governments, nor does he believe that Congress or subsequent administrations can dispense with such agreements without cost. We know this because he believes that the Budapest Memorandum – which was not a treaty and was not submitted to the Senate for ratification – constitutes a binding promise to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed separatists, and that he believes failing to live up to this promise poses grave danger to the credibility of U.S. foreign policy generally. Here is video of Senator Cotton saying as much.
So imagine, if you will, a Senate faction opposed to the Budapest Memorandum (perhaps out of fear that it signing it would oblige America to do precisely what Senator Cotton thinks it does oblige us to do) sending a letter to the Ukrainian president in 1994 alerting them that such an agreement would properly have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification, and might well fail, and that a subsequent president could revoke its guarantees at will. A hypothetical Senator Cotton-equivalent would readily understand that the purpose of such an effort was to obstruct the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and would be alarmed at the implications for the credibility of America’s commitments around the world.
Right? Of course right.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Senate’s responsibility with respect to “advice and consent,” and nothing to do with asserting the legislature’s proper role in foreign affairs – a role that the legislature continues conspicuously to abdicate. (The Obama administration has been in regular violation of the War Powers Resolution for years, but while individual senators and representatives have pointed this out from time to time, Congress has taken no action, and I don’t expect it ever will.) I don’t expect much from most of the crowd of signatories, but Senator Paul in particular should be excoriated for participating in this stunt. If he thinks this is a “constitutionally conservative” move, he needs to have his head handed to him by people who actually know what they are talking about.
Substantively, the view of the Republican leadership appears to be that any of America’s threats to use force, however ambiguous or slight, must be backed up vigorously for fear of a loss of “credibility.” Diplomatic agreements, however, are not to be taken seriously, because they may be discarded whenever a new leadership disagrees with what a previous administration agreed to. They affirmatively wish such agreements not to be credible, so that they are never entered into. And, funnily enough, if you cripple America’s diplomacy you’ll have lots of opportunities to demonstrate the “credibility” of America’s threats to use force. Which is exactly the goal – because such situations play to the GOP’s strengths as a brand.
And unfortunately, the Republican leadership may well be able to achieve their goals. Not internationally – I doubt the Iranians did more than roll their eyes at this stunt – but domestically. It turns out to be relatively easy to manipulate the public into supporting a more aggressive foreign policy. If talks with Iran fail (which they might have done regardless), it is vanishingly unlikely that the American people will blame the GOP leadership in any way that matters. On the contrary: if the talks fail, the country will be more supportive of a more aggressive stance toward Iran, which will redound to the benefit of the GOP generally and its more hawkish members in particular. So long as that’s the electoral dynamic, there are literally no disincentives for this kind of outrageous behavior.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Senator McConnell, the negotiations with Iran may prove to have been a hostage worth shooting.
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of [morally relativistic] thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.
It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.
Well, I suppose it is important – but are we entirely sure that second-graders are prepared to handle Gettier counterexamples?
More seriously, let’s look at a very real-world second grade type example, and see where facts and opinions enter into the discussion.
Eddie takes Billy’s cookie without permission. Billy protests to the teacher. What are the facts of the case?
- Eddie took the cookie.
- The cookie belonged to Billy.
- Billy did not give Eddie permission.
These are all facts of the case. If they can be established, then we know what happened.
To know what consequence follows, you need to know some other facts – facts of law. In this case, these are:
- Taking other people’s things without permission is not allowed.
- The teacher is the one who determines what happened, and what the consequence is if a student does something that is not allowed.
Those are the facts of the law: matters of the rules and who has jurisdiction over a given question. The teacher duly establishes the facts, and sends Eddie to the principal’s office.
What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.
It’s also moral reasoning, and it should properly be engaged, so as to develop Eddie’s moral reasoning further. The teacher should say that he understands it feels unfair that Billy didn’t reciprocate in cookie exchange, but that this still doesn’t justify taking Eddie’s cookie without permission because – and here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights. Or: how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him? Wouldn’t you feel that was wrong? Regardless of what he said, he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.
But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.
The point is: a debate about whether or not it’s wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie is different in kind from a debate about whether or not Eddie actually took Billy’s cookie, and we need some kind of nomenclature for distinguishing the two questions. “Fact” versus “opinion” will do fine.
If there’s a problem here at all, it’s not with what constitutes a fact but with what constitutes an opinion – that is to say, a failure to distinguish between an opinion and a preference. For example: the statement “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion. It’s also a stupid opinion because “best flavor of ice cream” is not really a thing. What the speaker really means is “I like vanilla ice cream best” or possibly “most people like vanilla ice cream best.” Either of those statements are statements of fact, not opinion – facts about individual preferences.
Now, what about “George Washington was the greatest American President?” That’s clearly a question of opinion, not fact, right? Ok – but is it a stupid opinion like “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream?” The answer depends on whether a word like “greatest” has any social meaning. If it doesn’t – if we can’t reason together about what makes for greatness – then it’s a stupid opinion, because the only statements we can actually make are factual statements about personal preferences, our own or others’. But if it does – if we can reason together about what greatness means, its relationship to goodness, or to sheer historical importance – then it’s not a stupid opinion, because we can share it, debate it, and have our minds changed about it.
Which brings me to a final test proposition.
“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Fact? Or opinion?
Obviously, it’s a problem if you teach the above proposition as an example of fact. And if it isn’t a fact, then it’s an opinion. But if you were a pious Muslim parent, and learned that your child was taught that a central tenet of your religion was “just a matter of opinion,” you’d be unhappy, right? That statement is certainly more than a statement of fact about personal preference (“I like Islam best!”) – but it’s also not really something subject to public dispute, by which I don’t mean that such dispute is blasphemous or forbidden but that it’s a category error, at least within modernity, to argue with a proposition like the above in the way that you might argue about whether it was right or wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie, or whether George Washington was the greatest President.
The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation. It’s something more forceful and substantial than a preference, not really subject to public reason like an opinion, and not subject to verification like a fact. It belongs in its own category of statements.
My question is whether McBrayer thinks moral truths belong in that same category. If so, then I would say that he is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands. That view has a venerable history in Western and non-Western philosophy, but I dissent from it.
If he doesn’t think moral truths belong in that category, then I think he is just objecting to the specific words chosen by the Common Core, and not to the distinction itself. Because the distinction hanging over the bulletin board is entirely valid and even essential to moral reasoning. If it’s not being used that way, to promote the development of moral reasoning, but instead to wall us all off from each other with our indisputable personal preferences, the problem isn’t with the distinction itself, but with the fact (if it is the case) that we’re taking our view of opinion from Jeffrey Lebowski.
Once upon a time, Berlin was where the world was most likely to end, the point where the armies of freedom and of tyranny — or, if you prefer, the armies of progress and of reaction — stood eyeball to eyeball, wondering who would blink first.
At the height of superpower tension, right as the Berlin Wall was being constructed, Billy Wilder directed the film One, Two, Three, about the divided city and continent — and one Coca Cola executive’s schemes to conquer both sides of the Iron Curtain. The film’s satire was wide-ranging, encompassing conniving American executives, spoiled Southern belles, inadequately de-Nazified German workers. And our great superpower rival — against which America stood ready to incinerate half the world, and against which we were enjoined by our new president to “bear any burden, pay any price” — was portrayed as poor and incompetent, its officials petty, lustful, backstabbing, and clownish. In other words: not much different from the folks at Coca Cola.
It is unfortunately difficult to imagine a similar film being made today. And that’s a shame. It would be helpful if we could remember that our rivals and enemies share with us a full respective measure of human stupidity and vice. It would be even more helpful if we could remember just how extraordinarily weak our current enemies are, relative to ourselves and relative to those we’ve faced in the past.
I say this not because I believe knowledge of our common humanity will enable us to see past our differences, nor because if we realized how weak our opponents are we would be bolder in confronting them. On the contrary: every single war fought by humanity was fought between groups of human beings, and most of the time both sides recognized that fact. And substantially weaker opponents are frequently able to deny their would-be conquerors victory — just ask George III. Or, for that matter, George W. Bush.
But if we had a more realistic view of our opponents, then we would realize that our conflicts with them are far less existential than we are often led to believe. Which would be comforting, because many of them are also far less likely to be resolvable than we would like to believe, either by diplomacy or by force.
Andrew Bacevich begins his book, Washington Rules with a meditation on Berlin similarly intended to call attention to how much we got wrong about the Cold War. Specifically, right after the wall came down, he crossed over into East Berlin – and he saw, suddenly, just how weak an opponent the Communist East was. That insight led him to question the verities of much of his prior Cold War thinking. In much of the rest of the American establishment, it led instead to triumphalism. And triumphalism has now turned to an existential crisis as we realize that we cannot actually dictate terms to the entire world.
My own view is that the situation with Russia is hopeless. We have very few levers to change Russian behavior in the short term. Risking war over Crimea or eastern Ukraine would be absurd, sanctions are unlikely to have any material effect, and arming the Ukrainian government will just escalate the scale and cost of civil war. Meanwhile, Russia under Putin or under a successor is unlikely to be ready to admit that it has come to a stable accommodation with the West even if one were offered. Neither carrots nor sticks are likely to be efficacious.
But the situation is also not very serious. Russian revanchism is bad news for Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc. Their independence just got much more expensive than they can afford. But the international system will not fall apart if we are unable to reverse Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, nor is Russia crazy enough to attack Germany, or even Finland. We should keep the situation in perspective and set policy accordingly.
The situation in Iran is not similarly hopeless, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much either. Iran is not going to be “turned” into a U.S. ally – because that wouldn’t actually serve either American or Iranian interests. But Iran does have a lot to gain from normal relations with the United States, and very little to gain from actually building a nuclear weapon. It’s possible that there is a window currently open to ending a period of fruitless hostility, and it behooves us to make every effort to go through it if it is.
But it’s also possible that there is no such window, that Iran’s regime depends too much for its legitimacy on active hostility to the West and to the United States specifically, and that therefore we really are in a zero-sum situation. That may be the most likely scenario, in fact. But even in that case, we can’t lose sight of the overwhelming disparity in power and resources between the United States and Iran, and the relative insignificance of the latter in the larger scheme of world affairs. A failure to improve relations with Iran would be a disappointment. It would not be a catastrophe.
There is really only one country on earth of whom one could say that whether we manage our relationship with them well or poorly has potentially existential implications, and that is China, whose importance to the world economy and to the future environmental health of the planet rivals ours, and whose potential military strength does as well. Fortunately, we don’t seem to be doing as catastrophic a job on that front as we sometimes seem to be elsewhere.
So on China, I’m nervously optimistic. On the rest of the world, a cheerful pessimism strikes me as a useful tonic.
Teachout is reviewing a new Hope biography, by Richard Zoglin that calls Hope the “entertainer of the century.” Why is it that Hope was phenomenally popular for much of the 20th century, but is now virtually unknown by people under the age of 60? Teachout says:
But Zoglin, for all his admirable thoroughness, inexplicably fails to emphasize the central fact about Hope and his career—one that not only goes a long way toward explaining why he was so successful, but also why we no longer find him funny.
Simply: He wasn’t Jewish.
What was missing from his style? Even though Hope was a first-generation European immigrant, there was nothing remotely ethnic about his stage manner. He was among the few successful WASP comics of his generation, and despite the fact that he hired such Jewish writers as Larry Gelbart and Mel Shavelson, the jokes they penned for him lacked the sharp ironic tang of Jewish humor that is to this day one of the essential ingredients in American comedy.
So, clearly we need a list of currently living non-Jewish comedians of note.
I’m tempted to start with Eddie Murphy and Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock and so forth, but I understand that this would be met with “That’s not what I meant.” Ditto if I decided to mention Tina Fey or Amy Pohler or heck, Carol Burnett, who is still out there doing great work and whose classic show has aged marvelously well. Anybody who’s plausibly an outsider is, by a kind of magic switcheroo, an insider. Which is completely unfair. You don’t get much more all-American than Bill Cosby (and the cloud he’s now under has no bearing on this particular question).
I guess I could mention Patton Oswalt or Louis CK or Zach Galifianakis or Stephen Colbert but I’m sure they’d all get axed for being too interesting. So what are we really saying here? That anything non-bland is implicitly Jewish, like the way anybody from New York is implicitly Jewish? That’s ridiculous, right? What – are we going to posthumously circumcise Charlie Chaplin because he’s aged better than Hope has?
Fine: are there any genuinely non-threatening but perfectly successful comics who are white, male, not Jewish, all-American, still living, and who, let’s put it this way, just don’t seem like Lenny’s children.
Here’s my very quickly assembled, too-short list of extremely well-known names:
- Johnny Carson. Check out his classic bits. Are they the funniest bits in history? No. Have they aged well? Surprisingly.
- Throw in Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien – heck, throw in David Letterman. Contrary to popular belief, Jews did not invent irony – just ask the British. We invented anger.
- Dana Carvey. You don’t make a career playing George H. W. Bush by seeming even vaguely Jewish.
- Will Ferrell. Leader of the Frat Pack. Not Jewish. Not even Italian.
- Steve Martin. An oddball? Sure. Threatening? Not really. Jewish? Not at all.
- Hey, what about Drew Carey? By any reasonable measure, Carey is extremely successful and well-known. If you don’t think he’s funny, you’re moving the goal posts.
Give me a bit of time with the Google and I’m sure I could put together a much longer list. American comedy, like America, is much more diverse now than it was in Hope’s day. That doesn’t mean there are no non-ethnic comedians, or that white bread comedians can only be funny by aping a “Jewish” style. It just means that there’s no one style, and no one comic, who can be as overwhelmingly dominant as Hope was in his day.
Bob Hope’s work may have aged poorly because that just sometimes happens. Somebody who is just made for a particular era doesn’t age well into another. Somebody else ages better. But that applies to Jewish comedians as well. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner will be funny forever. You know who also hasn’t aged so great? Lenny Bruce, the original Jewish rebel comedian.
You know who else feels more and more dated as time goes by?
(h/t Steve Sailer for that delightful bit of Canadian humor. Hey – do Canucks count?)
UPDATE: For those who are interested, Adam Gopnik’s take on Hope can be found here.
Damon Linker has a new column about Jeb Bush and the Iraq War that really should be several columns – it goes in so many fruitful directions, but isn’t able fully to explore any of them. But that’s the nice thing about having an old-school blog – I can spend as much space as I like exploring whatever I wish.
The first potential column is about how Jeb Bush will have a hard time addressing the Iraq War:
[The Iraq War] remains very unpopular outside the fever swamps of the far right, so defending the decision to launch it could be a kiss of death in the general election. Calling it a mistake, on the other hand, would be viewed as a swipe at his brother, which would risk looking peevish and threaten to ignite a GOP civil war.
I have no idea how Jeb will finagle the issue. (Judging by his statements so far, he’ll try to have it both ways by asserting he’s his “own man” while hiring a bunch of retreads from his brother’s old neocon-ish foreign policy team.)
I actually think this is going to be much easier than Linker thinks. Bush doesn’t need to come out full-throatedly in favor of or against the Iraq War to win the GOP primary. He can just say that his brother was somewhat naive about how tenacious our enemies would be, and hence the first couple of years after the invasion went really badly. But by the end of his term he had won the war that Obama then lost. This appears to be exactly what Republican primary voters want to hear: they don’t want to re-litigate that war, but rather to frame any discussion about that war in the context of where they want to go from here, which is toward crushing ISIS mercilessly.
In the general election, then, he will face a candidate – Clinton – who supported the Iraq War wholeheartedly, and the Libyan war, and pushed for direct intervention in Syria. So Bush will not have to do any “defending” of the decision to invade Iraq. On the contrary – he’ll be able to go on the offensive with respect to more recent foreign policy failures. Clinton, after all, has a track record. Jeb Bush does not. It’s just a depressing fact that so long as there are two solid hawks up there on stage, we will not get a meaningful foreign policy debate in the general election.
That’s why we badly need a peace candidate in the race. But I only grow firmer in my conviction that there isn’t really a constituency for one.
Linker’s second potential column is about how, to-date, we’ve re-litigated the Iraq War the wrong way:
Ever since it became clear in the first months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, the Iraq War debate has focused on intelligence failures and how the administration of George W. Bush (aided and abetted by mainstream media outlets) supposedly misled the public into supporting the war.
This has always been a distraction and a misconstrual of the state of the argument prior to the invasion.
The fact is that just about every intelligence agency in the world (and not just the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans) believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. The debate hinged on whether these weapons constituted a threat sufficiently large enough to justify toppling Hussein. I came down firmly on the side of No, along with Barack Obama, Pat Buchanan, Dominque de Villepin, and a few staffers at The Nation. (That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Or so it felt at the time.)
This is a hugely important point, but one that substantially undercuts his first potential column. We’ve re-litigated Iraq this way precisely because it is very comfortable ground for hawks. And that’s exactly why the question “well, if Iraq really did have WMD, would the invasion have been justified then?” will not be asked in 2016.
We know that because we’re actively debating the Iranian nuclear program, and how we should deal with it, right now. That program is a known fact. We don’t know whether the Iranians intend to build a bomb, but it is reasonable to assume that the goal of the program is to make the country nuclear-capable. From the perspective of the hawks, the goal of diplomacy is to prevent that outcome – and if we can’t prevent that outcome through some combination of diplomacy and sanctions, we have to be prepared to use force in the “last resort.” Of course, that threat itself shapes the contours of diplomacy in ways that may prevent diplomacy’s success.
To make the contrary case, the case for ruling out the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, you have to make the case that war would be worse than allowing Iran to succeed. That doesn’t mean giving up – there are other carrots and sticks that can be deployed to, hopefully, find a middle ground that allows Iran to say it is developing a nuclear capability while allowing the rest of the international community to say that it has proper safeguards in place to prevent Iran from easily “breaking out” and building nuclear weapons – and that provides proper incentives (positive as well as negative) for Iran to want to remain a non-nuclear state. But it means recognizing that the hawks might be right about Iran’s intentions with respect to its nuclear program – that it intends to get a bomb eventually one way or another – and concluding that preemptive war is still not worth it.
That’s not a case that anybody running in the general election in 2016 is likely to make – including Rand Paul in the unlikely event he gets the GOP nod.
Linker’s third potential column is about what really motivated going into Iraq:
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, there seemed to be a realization on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment both inside and outside the Bush administration that the events of that morning signaled something new: sub-state actors could declare war and inflict levels of harm we formerly assumed only a state could accomplish.
That’s what was going to make the War on Terror different. After Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be waged against states. It would target sub-state actors within states — usually states too weak to combat terrorists operating within their borders. This meant the war would be largely covert, with victories unheralded and defeats unannounced. Its signature would be special-ops raids, surgical missile strikes, and drone warfare.
But as we had already learned by the summer of 2002, when planning for the invasion of Iraq really got rolling, this new kind of war could be frustrating. It didn’t produce enormous casualties, like traditional land wars often do, but it also produced little glory. Victory was muddy, indeterminate. The war’s governing mood was ambivalence. The enemy could easily melt away into obscurity only to crop up in another country thousands of miles away. It could be maddening, like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.
And that, more than anything else, is why we found it so tempting to declare war on a country. Finally something familiar! Something satisfying!
Except that the Iraq War wasn’t just a distraction. It actively set back the War on Terror by creating a new failed state, right under our noses, where Islamist terrorism could breed. (As everyone now knows, the Islamic State was incubated in the chaos of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.)
There are several problems with this chronology – starting with the fact that the planning for the Iraq War began in the 1990s, with support from both parties, and that a big part of the motivation for the Iraq War was that the Persian Gulf War – a classic war between states – had such an “unsatisfying” outcome.
Linker suggests that we invaded Iraq because that fit our “Cold War” mindset, a mindset we were more comfortable with than we were with the ambiguous War on Terror. But this is highly problematic. The Soviet Union itself was only intermittently seen as simply a state in a world of states; at least as often – and almost exclusively if we’re talking about the American right – it was viewed as the head, or, better, the lead instrument, of a transnational, ideological force known as Communism. And many of the conflicts of the Cold War were fought not between but within states. The Soviet Union supported revolutionary movements around the world; the United States sponsored counter-revolutionary forces, including coups (Iran, Chile, Guatemala, etc.) and, by the 1980s, insurgencies (Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc.).
More importantly, of the three largest inter-state conflicts of the period – Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan – two resulted in total defeat for the more directly-engaged superpower, and one resulted in a bloody and painful stalemate. There’s a reason why many Americans, particularly but not exclusively on the right, were never comfortable with the Cold War – precisely because it was “unsatisfying” in all the ways that Linker describes the War on Terror as being.
These problems reading the past lead Linker to a questionable conclusion:
Barack Obama seemed to understand all of this. He strongly opposed the Iraq War and as president quickly returned the War on Terror to its original strategy of employing mainly covert ops and drone strikes.
And yet, as if to prove that he could be just as foolish as George W. Bush, Obama repeated his predecessor’s mistake when he approved air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. This time it wasn’t fear that tempted a president to act. Obama’s a Democrat, after all, so he was motivated by a bleeding heart — by the humanitarian imperative to protect the rebellious civilians of Benghazi against the Libyan air force.
And it worked. Until it didn’t.
Just like in Baghdad.
The problem here is not the analysis of Libya (I can quibble over how “humanitarian” the motives really were, but that would truly be a quibble), but the implicit argument that President Obama got the War on Terror “right” prior to or apart from Libya. The evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, west Africa and elsewhere is at best equivocal on that point. Covert ops and drone strikes have indeed killed lots of bad guys. It’s not obvious that we are making “progress” though.
This, of course, is Linker’s point about the War on Terror being ambiguous, without clear metrics for victory, etc. But, as with the Iranian nuclear program, if we really want to have a debate about this question, we have to ask not only what means are more successful and what are more counterproductive, but how we respond if all options present a real likelihood of further destabilization.
Linker’s ultimate conclusion – that someone needs to stand up for the devils we know (Assad, Qaddafi, Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) against the devils we don’t (al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) – sounds world-wearily serious, but it’s actually comforting, because it suggests that there is actually a clear choice to be made, just one that leaves us feeling morally ambiguous and unsatisfied. But I don’t think the choices are nearly that clear.
That doesn’t mean we should opt for insane-but-clear over less-insane-but-muddled.
It just means that we shouldn’t hold out much hope for a robust debate that includes the deeply pessimistic perspective on our current conflict that, I have come to suspect, Linker and I share.
My latest column for The Week is up. It’s about the Marquette brouhaha that Rod Dreher, among others, has been blogging about. In it, I bravely blame the mob of on-line harassers for everything that’s wrong in the world.
Absent the mob, the initial recording by the student would likely have been of interest only to the philosophy department’s faculty. “My teacher wouldn’t let me make a valid argument” is hardly a page-one news story. Absent the mob, the professor’s blog post would similarly have raised few hackles; it would have been no worse a breach of etiquette than saying the same things out loud in the faculty lounge.
That mob is what transformed this situation from a routine and largely uninteresting ivory tower spat into a dark precedent for academic freedom. Which is what this is. It has become all too difficult to draw clear contours around the new implicit restrictions on academic speech, which would appear to put professors in the distinctly odd position of being less free to criticize one another in print than civilians not crowned with the blessing of tenure.
And, ironically, the original complaint of the student — that he wasn’t allowed to discuss a particular topic because the teacher feared he would offend other students — is likely in part a consequence of the toxic debate environment the online mob has helped create. It is probably not an accident that demands for “safe spaces” and ever-expanding definitions of harassment are features of the same landscape as 4chan and Reddit.
Check it out there.
Assuming Prime Minister Netanyahu actually winds up speaking to Congress at all, he’s made it clear that he will be speaking “as a representative of the entire Jewish people.” This has already prompted a campaign by Jewish opponents (including liberal Zionists) to declare in response: no, Mr. Prime Minister, you don’t. But does Bibi have a point?
From my perspective, yes, and no.
Yes, in the sense that Israel, by its own lights and for its entire history, represents the satisfaction of the legitimate national aspirations of the Jewish people. Even if you, as a Jew, deny the existence of such national aspirations; even if you, as a person of Jewish descent, deny affiliation with anything called “the Jewish people,” inasmuch as such a people exists (whether or not you affiliate with it) and inasmuch as that people has any legitimate national aspirations (whether or not you ascribe to them), Israel has declared itself to be their satisfaction, and a wide array of national governments around the world have concurred.
So what Netanyahu is saying has some logic to it. He’s the head of the Israeli government. The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Hence, he is a representative of the entire Jewish people. Saying “you don’t represent me” sounds an awful lot like the “not in my name” crowd from the Bush years, but you don’t get to disown a government that you don’t like and take it back when you like it better. It’s either yours or it isn’t.
First, “representative” is a very specific word. Israel may undertake, on its own initiative and for its own reasons, the defense of the interests of Jews outside of Israel. Indeed, by its own ideological lights, it is obliged to do so. But that doesn’t mean Israel is in any meaningful sense representing those interests. Those interests are presumably already represented by the governments where those individuals reside – indeed, they must be, unless we are to understand Jews in the diaspora as merely temporarily resident aliens.
To make an analogy, Vladimir Putin may see himself as the secular champion of Orthodox Christians everywhere. The Russian electorate may decide to endorse this ambition, and endorse a foreign policy of intervening to defend Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks and so forth against their enemies. Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks might even be pleased to have Vladimir Putin in their corner. But Vladimir Putin would not, thereby, become the representative of Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks. And it would be very weird for, say, Angela Merkel to consult with Vladimir Putin as if he were – rather than talking to the leaders of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia directly.
Second, Benjamin Netanyahu is not the head of the Israeli state. He’s the head of the Israeli government. If someone from Israel were to posture as the “representative” of the Jewish people around the world, logically that would be the head of state, which in Israel is the President.
Israel’s Presidency is a fairly weak office, but that’s not actually the problem with this formulation. The problem is that the Presidency, elected by the Knesset and generally parceled out to a well-regarded over-the-hill politician, is not an office with a lot of symbolic heft. If you really want someone to be a the living symbol of an organic nation, someone members of that nation can look to and love even if they are not citizens, then what you are looking for is a monarch.
Third, Bibi is not coming to Congress to say: I, as the representative and defender of Jews worldwide say: you must protect your Jewish citizens better, or you’ll have to deal with me. That’s an argument that, perhaps, he could make in France. On the contrary: he is coming to Congress to say: I, Prime Minister of Israel, say that the negotiations with Iran must be scuttled, lest their nuclear program develop into an existential threat to Israel. And because I am the representative of Jews worldwide, you can be assured that America’s Jewish citizens back me up.
That’s not “representation.” That’s a demand for fealty. To which the response, “no, Mr. Prime Minster, you don’t represent me” is singularly appropriate in a way that it would absolutely not be coming from Bibi’s fellow citizens.
I understand where Damon Linker is coming from in his latest column on President Obama’s predilection for playing professor-in-chief, but I think it behooves him to consider the possibility that the President is not confused about his role, but is consciously trying to do something different with it – possibly something foolish, but possibly not. It’s hard to know without examining what that “something” is.
But let me start with a cranky quibble. Linker says:
What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.
Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how thisgroup of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.
That’s certainly one way of understanding morality – but far from the only one. Etymologically, “morality” comes from a Latin root that relates to manners – and manners are indisputably a historically- and culturally-rooted matter, and not at all universalistic. Aristotle, and modern-day Aristoteleans, would surely agree that it’s specious to talk about ethics and morality as something independent of a community’s self-understanding. Historically, in the United States, “morals” legislation has been overwhelmingly particularistic in orientation, either referring explicitly to (Protestant) Christian conceptions of morality or more generally to “community standards” that turn out to be rooted in same.
What Linker appears to have in mind is Kantian conceptions of morality. I know he’s read his Hegel, so I know he knows how this conception can be attacked – but more to the point, he knows that even within the liberal tradition there are other ways of coming at the problem.
The same criticism can be leveled at Linker’s account of politics: this is one way of understanding the realm of politics, but hardly the only one. For Aristotle, politics was distinguished from ethics inasmuch as the former treated questions of collective organization, the latter questions of individual good (said good being only truly discoverable within the context of a collective). The two realms, though, were inextricably related; politics wasn’t just a matter of tribalism, but of discovering truths about the best way to organize groups of human beings in harmony with their natures. And the Greeks eagerly exported this conception across the empire Alexander conquered. In modern terms, virtually all politics have appealed to and advanced some conception of the good. The American Revolution was a political movement, but it was dedicated to a bunch of propositions that went beyond “we don’t like paying taxes so we’re going to stop now.”
I’m aware that Linker is, himself, dedicated to certain propositions about the distinction between these spheres. I merely ask that he recognize that his is a distinctive program with both political and moral implications, as opposed to something everyone agrees on and for which the President of the United States merely “lacks appreciation.”
So: Linker thinks politics should be tribal, while morality should be Kantian. And he’s upset that the President, in his remarks . . . did what exactly?
If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.
Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?
I’ll say it again: as an intellectual exercise, Obama’s remarks weren’t wrong. Christianity has been invoked to justify a wide range of moral atrocities down through the millennia, and the Crusades, Inquisition, and Jim Crow are all excellent examples. I would welcome and praise an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates making that exact point.
But Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t the president of the United States, and Barack Obama isn’t a writer for The Atlantic.
A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact.
As I say, I get completely where Linker is coming from. He wants the President to make a practical, not a moral, case for engagement in a war against ISIS, and to leave it at that. Here’s a threat, here’s how we’re going to address the threat, and our boys have the threat well in hand. All in a day’s work.
But let’s consider a variety of possible reasons why the President might have taken the rhetorical tack he took beyond what I acknowledge is a personal preference for the lectern.
First of all, he may genuinely be concerned not only about ISIS but about the possibility of inflaming American moralistic nationalism by engaging with ISIS. The President may feel that, properly aroused, our country might very quickly get behind a far more robust effort to “kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths” and might not, in fact, be so particular about who else gets killed in the process. The reaction to his prayer breakfast speech, and the disposition of the opposition party on these matters, suggest that such fears are not entirely specious. And so, he wants to let us know, this is not a great crusade against evil. It’s more like a police action against a particularly monstrous group of criminals. He may want us to understand ISIS as more the heirs to the Manson family than to Saladin.
Second, he may be concerned about diplomacy. The best – likely the only – effective response to ISIS must be one rooted in the Sunni world. Perhaps America can help, but we can’t lead except from behind. And so, he repeatedly returns to formulations of the conflict calculated not to offend the sensibilities of allies in the region who we need to occupy the front lines. Part of that ritual formulation is to say: this is not a conflict between tribes; it’s a conflict between good and evil within another tribe; and we’re taking the side of good not because we are the good tribe but because taking the side of good is good.
Third, he may be thinking not as President of the United States but as Leader of the Free World. Linker may decry the fact – plenty of writers here at TAC decry it daily – but the United States occupies a quasi-imperial position in the world system. We’re the global hegemon, the hyper power, the indispensable nation. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, a crown we should covet to keep or a poisoned chalice we should try to put down, it’s still a fact. And it’s obvious that the President views his role as managing that position as effectively as possible. From the perspective of that position, the Muslim world is not a foreign tribe but a difficult and restive province far from the imperial center.
Or, you know, maybe he was thinking that this was a prayer breakfast, a singularly appropriate place, one would think, to speak from a position “beyond” tribal politics. Of course, if politics and morality are to be treated as strictly separate realms, then a prayer breakfast is a singularly inappropriate place for a President to speak at all. Maybe Linker’s problem isn’t the President’s failure to conform to the “bully pulpit” expectations Americans have, but to those expectations in the first place. But those expectations have a long lineage.
President Obama’s warnings about the danger of self-righteousness owe an obvious debt to Niebuhr, but they also trace back to President Lincoln’s warnings about Northern self-righteousness in the cause of anti-slavery. Lincoln was acutely aware that the South’s cause was self-interested, but that awareness led him not to condemnation but to compassion, because he understood that it implied that the anti-slavery North, if it had the climate and history of the South, would likely have adopted the same stance. Right was still right, and wrong was still wrong, but judgment belonged to someone more exalted than the President. Nobody should pat themselves on the back for choosing right; very likely, the choice was less-costly for them than for somebody who chose wrong. Our proper stance is charity for all, malice toward none.
Perhaps that puts a finger on the real problem. Lincoln used complex moral language to address a nation wracked by civil war, but ISIS is not us, and perhaps wars are fought more effectively when the people are encouraged to see the enemy as uniquely evil, ourselves as uniquely good. But if so, that’s an argument against American hegemonism, against limited war – and against engaging with ISIS. It’s an argument that a properly “tribal” politics is inconsistent with our quasi-imperial position, and that if we want to avoid carrying the flag of the crusades we had better carry no flag at all so far from our territorial waters. It strikes me as strange to choose to marry a policy argument of that sort to a critique of the President for being insufficiently solicitous of the sentiments of Johnny Jingo.
Or maybe Lincoln was just confused about the distinction between morality and politics.
Readers of this space are familiar with my attachment to The Book of Job. My personal favorite “double feature feature” film pairing was anchored by a discussion of how each film – “The Tree of Life” and “A Serious Man” – related to that masterwork of religious philosophy.
Well, if I wanted to, I could now revise that piece to a triple feature feature – because one of the more powerful films of the past year is the Oscar-nominated Russian film, “Leviathan,” from director Andrey Zvyagintsev - and guess what? At its heart, this movie is also a meditation on Jobian themes.
The story of the film is simple. A fairly ordinary Russian man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), denizen of a town on the Barents Sea coast, is facing the loss of his property. Using whatever the Russian equivalent of eminent domain, the corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) plans to summarily kick Kolya off the land he and his family have lived on for decades. Kolya is convinced that the mayor plans to build himself a palace on the land, and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep what is his. More specifically, he invites his old army buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow lawyer, to come up and not-so-subtly threaten the mayor with exposure of his many misdeeds if he doesn’t back off – or at least offer a fair market rate of compensation to Kolya for the loss of his valuable beachfront property.
At first, it looks like the plan is going relatively well. The mayor is intimidated by the august names Dmitriy casually drops, and even more intimidated by the dossier he has compiled. Though he rages at his flunkies, his rage feels impotent – he’s clearly seriously considering caving, at least on the point of compensation.
But the local bishop (sounding very like a proponent of the “Orthodox Jihad” that Rod Dreher talked about on his blog) tells him, in so many words, to gird up his loins like a man. God gave you any power or authority you may have. If you are using it for God’s ends, you should not flinch, doubt or hesitate – because it was for these ends that you were entrusted power in the first place. At the same time, Kolya’s camp unravels with startling rapidity. His young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), sleeps with Dmitriy, and is caught in the act by Kolya’s son, her stepson. Kolya beats him up, and before Dmitriy has recovered from these injuries he finds himself threatened by the mayor’s goons. Dmitriy flees back to Moscow, leaving Lilya to her guilt and Kolya to face the mayor’s wrathful vengeance alone. And, if you can believe it, this is only the beginning of Kolya’s troubles.
Why does Lilya cheat on her husband? Her actions are never really explained, but my sense is that we are supposed to see Dmitriy through her eyes as Kolya’s natural superior. He’s younger, better-looking, smarter. He’s also the true savior of the family if the family is to find one – Kolya cannot save them himself. He is a man who, he says, believes in facts, in objective reality – he is not deluded that God is going to engineer an outcome that sentiment might favor. If we are to see the world in that way – which is how Kolya, defying the “righteous” authority of the mayor, implicitly does – is Dmitriy not a more appropriate man to cleave to than Kolya? That’s my sense of what her actions signify. And in the end they leave her utterly lost.
In the depths, facing the loss of everything he ever cared about, and facing yet further loss to come, Kolya turns to a priest, who tells him the story of Job as a parable of obvious relevance to Kolya’s life. “To whom do you pray?” he asks him – this, to the priest is the decisive question. He offers Kolya no answers, but only a choice: whose authority do you accept, as total and absolute? Kolya doesn’t see the point of praying at all if there is no promise of reward – the reward that Job received, at the end of the biblical book. And so he goes to meet his end with no consolation.
The foregoing may make the film sound a bit pat. It isn’t. This is a film rich in life, from the stunning cinematography (by Mikhail Krichman), to the powerful ensemble acting, to the painful cross-currents of these characters lives (particularly the fault line that divides stepmother from stepson), to the humor provided by the ensemble of peripheral characters, particularly a corrupt police officer who leans on Kolya for free repairs of his truck, and Lilya’s mouthy best friend from the local fish packing plant. One can appreciate the film fully without paying any attention to the way in which it uses the philosophical and theological themes that I’m focusing on.
But I’m going to focus on them anyway, because they interest and move me – and because I love the Book of Job too much from them not to.
“Leviathan” presents a fairly bleak reading of the Book of Job, one that emphasizes the absolute and unfathomable scope of God’s power and authority. Faced with such awesome majesty, the only proper attitude is utter submission, with which the reservation of any personal pride or status is incompatible. It is, frankly, a reading that doesn’t sit well with me. But then, I am disinclined to identify divine authority with any temporal, human authority, whether the state, religious authorities, or my own conscience (and I, like any good scholar but also like the devil, can cite scripture to my purpose if I’m so inclined). That, indeed, is precisely part of the point I take from God’s voice from the whirlwind: God’s authority is different from, incommensurate with temporal, human authority. Human authorities you may critique for being unjust, and demand satisfaction of them. Human authority proceeds from and may be bound by and shaped by positive law, because it aims at the satisfaction of human ends, like fairness and justice. But to demand these things of God is to making a category error. You cannot critique a whirlwind.
I don’t see the whirlwind demanding submission – I see it urging Job to raise his eyes, not lower them. When the Book of Job talks of Behemoth and Leviathan, I imagine quasars and black holes, the monsters of physics; I imagine a universe of laws, but laws the depths of which will never be sounded to the bottom. I am, I suppose, more like Dmitriy than not.
But in the context of autocracy, which has deep roots in Russian soil, the priest’s interpretation has perhaps more resonance. What does the voice from the whirlwind sound like to a mind conditioned to understand law as proceeding from authority rather than the other way around? From such a mind’s perspective, the only way to know the law is to know whether authority is righteous, meaning whether it aims at ends that God approves. Which is precisely how the bishop tutors the mayor. And from such a mind’s perspective, the thuggish, abusive, cruel mayor is in fact more humble than poor, suffering, Job-like Kolya.
That, to my mind, is the point of the ending, which reveals that the mayor was indeed, from a certain perspective, aiming to serve God’s ends. Many Western viewers are reading the film as a satiric story of corruption in modern Russia. But perhaps this is not the only way to read it. Indeed, perhaps it is not the way that Russia’s Ministry of Culture originally read it – which would explain why they initially supported the film, facilitated its financing and production, and promoted it internationally, only to turn on it when they saw it described in the Western press as a critique of Putinism. Because, with just a little turn of the head, the film can be read not as an indictment, but instead as a tragedy, the very tragedy that Hobbes identified when he first contemplated the problem of authority: that, once you establish the necessity of authority as your bedrock political principle, you immediately establish the necessity of absolutism, and the impossibility of any formal reservation for the individual against that authority.
And as long as we’re talking about 2016, I’ve got a peeve to air. It’s become a commonplace that the GOP has huge “bench strength” coming into the 2016 presidential contest, while the Democrats have a much thinner bench. But I wonder how we’re measuring this.
Presidential candidates tend to emerge from other high political office – the Vice Presidency, governors’ mansions, the Senate – or, much more occasionally, from other exalted perches of our national life. The GOP currently controls significantly more governorships than the Democrats do, so that immediately gives them a larger bench. But apart from that, I’m hard-pressed to identify what makes the GOP bench stronger.
Here’s a list – not exhaustive, but extensive – of names frequently bandied about for the GOP line in 2016:
- Jeb Bush – former Governor of Florida, brother and son of 43rd and 41st Presidents, respectively.
- Ben Carson – retired neurosurgeon and media personality.
- Chris Christie – Governor of New Jersey.
- Ted Cruz – Senator from Texas.
- Carly Fiorina – former CEO.
- Mike Huckabee – former Governor of Arkansas and media personality.
- Bobby Jindal – Governor of Louisiana.
- John Kasich – Governor of Ohio.
- Sarah Palin – former Governor of Alaska, former Vice Presidential nominee.
- Rand Paul – Senator from Kentucky.
- Mitt Romney – former Governor of Massachusetts, former Presidential nominee.
- Rick Santorum – former Senator from Pennsylvania.
- Donald Trump – businessman and media personality.
- Mike Pence – Governor of Indiana.
- Rick Perry – former Governor of Texas.
- Marco Rubio – Senator from Florida.
- Scott Walker – Governor of Wisconsin.
It’s a broad field – even George Pataki – former Governor of New York - and Lindsey Graham – Senator from South Carolina – are making noises about running. Clearly, there are a lot of Republicans who see themselves as potential Presidents, and who think this is a year to at least consider going for it.
Now, here’s list of Democrats, with comparable credentials to the GOP list above:
- Joe Biden – Vice President.
- Cory Booker – Senator from New Jersey.
- Jerry Brown – Governor of California.
- Sherrod Brown – Senator from Ohio.
- Andrew Cuomo – Governor of New York.
- Russ Feingold – former Senator from Wisconsin.
- John Hickenlooper – Governor of Colorado.
- Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota.
- Gary Locke – former Governor of Washington, former ambassador to China.
- Martin O’Malley – former Governor of Maryland.
- Deval Patrick – former Governor of Massachusetts.
- Ed Rendell – former Governor of Pennsylvania.
- Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont.
- Brian Schweitzer – former Governor of Montana.
- Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachusetts.
- James Webb – former Senator from Virginia.
This list has some names that look tired to me and some who have a record of accomplishment – but so does the GOP list. It has some currently serving Governors and Senators, and some who served in years past – but so does the GOP list. It has some who won reelection by large margins and some who lost their last bids for office – but so does the GOP list. Like the GOP list, it has current or former Governors and Senators from some of the largest states – New York, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania – as well as from smaller states.
Jim Webb scrambles categories in as fascinating ways as Rand Paul. Russ Feingold, on the merits, seems to me as plausible and interesting a candidate as Mike Huckabee – both are very unlikely to win the nomination, after all, but I can more easily see Russ Feingold making interesting waves on his way to losing than I could Mike Huckabee (at least this time around). I don’t know why current Governor Andrew Cuomo (leaving aside the shadow cast by Sheldon Silver’s recent arrest) is any less plausible or formidable a candidate than former Governor Jeb Bush. And is Jerry Brown really more extreme or absurd a candidate than Rick Perry? Why, exactly?
Of course, the Democratic list is essentially irrelevant, because Hillary Clinton is the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the Democratic field. Anybody who chooses to challenge her is trying to slay a giant – or simply to make a point. That either rules out or diminishes a lot of candidates who might otherwise seem like plausible contenders, from Joe Biden to Brian Schweitzer. There’s nobody on the Democratic side who has remotely the kind of institutional and popular support that Hillary Clinton does. But if she had been felled by a piece of falling masonry in 2013, it’s not clear to me that the Democratic bench would look so terribly weak.
What looks relatively weak is the Democratic agenda – which is pretty normal after going on eight years with its usual mix of accomplishment, compromise and failure.
But it’s not like the GOP is distinguishing itself on that score.