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.
This past weekend marked the beginning of the Passover holiday, and it was only when I was deep into my annual preparations that I was alerted to the fact that Saturday April 23rd would be William Shakespeare’s 400th yahrzeit. Which occasion surely deserves to be marked, even if belatedly. I’ll take the occasion of this anniversary of his death to speculate just why it is that Shakespeare didn’t die – why he lives on, seemingly going from strength to strength even as his chosen medium (the theater) has receded from its central place in the culture, as the culture has swung wildly in its own artistic and political enthusiasms, and as the English language itself has evolved far enough from Shakespeare’s own usage that a major North American festival thought it appropriate to translate his plays into contemporary idiom. What accounts for this extraordinary life after Shakespeare’s own death?
As has been noted elsewhere, Shakespeare did little if anything to prepare an afterlife for his works. Partly, this is because at the time plays were not considered serious literature on the level of poetry. But Ben Jonson – Shakespeare’s rough contemporary and sometime rival – famously challenged that view by publishing a folio edition of his work including his plays. We don’t know whether Shakespeare was mulling the same idea before his sudden death, but if he was he showed no signs of it. Does that mean Shakespeare agreed with the contemporary prejudice that plays were not “serious” art?
I suppose that’s possible. One can imagine the author of Titus Andronicus or A Comedy of Errors saying to himself: I’m really quite good at this, but this isn’t meant to last. But it doesn’t take long before you come to works that simply cannot be explained as the product of a hack working for money, not even a naively brilliant hack. Even a relatively weaker early work like the Henry VI trilogy demonstrates a level of ambition impossible to square with being a purely popular entertainer. Henry VI is a sprawling, multi-part saga about a deeply traumatic period in his country’s recent history. Its ambition is to be War and Peace, or at least “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t personally think it reaches that level – but the scale of the ambition is wildly at variance with what you’d expect of someone who saw himself as merely a popular entertainer.
And if Shakespeare’s ambition was obvious at that early point, it only gets more obvious as his career goes on. Shakespeare’s Richard II and Henry V weren’t just far more complex and sophisticated than the three parts of Henry VI – they were far more dangerous, asking quite probing questions about the foundations of political order. Coriolanus contains speeches so dense scholars are still debating what they actually mean, while plays like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are so fundamentally unsatisfying they get classified as “problem plays” – “problem” not usually being a descriptive that producers want to read in a review.
And then there’s Hamlet, a downright bizarre idea for a drama, when you think about it. In the original story, Amleth pretends to be mad in order to fool his usurping uncle into thinking he’s no threat, all the while plotting revenge for his father’s murder. That’s a straightforward story that would be easy to tell – and easy to sell. Instead, Shakespeare makes a quite deliberate hash of it, removing his hero’s obvious motivation for acting mad (because Claudius, at the start, is trying to win Hamlet over, not get rid of him), and then on top of that having his hero mysteriously unwilling or unable to take revenge when the opportunity is handed to him on a platter. In other words, Shakespeare took a story with clear character motivation, strong dramatic tension and robust forward momentum, and turned it into a story about puzzled wills losing the name of action. And, yes, thereby created one of the greatest works of art in the history of Western civilization – but there’s no way he could have known that he’d achieve that, and he would have been mad to want to. What we can surmise, though, is that Shakespeare was motivated by some other ambition than merely to entertain, or why make so many choices contrary to the demands of the genre, or even of good story-telling?
Shakespeare was, indeed, a preternaturally brilliant wordsmith, and if that were all he was then yes, one might imagine that he was a kind of savant, someone who just didn’t know that what he was doing was art. But his thematic, characterological and structural innovations were far too profound to be chalked up to naive genius.
The puzzle, then, is how to square Shakespeare’s obvious artistic ambition with the plain fact that he didn’t do much of anything to ensure that his ambition would outlive him. It’s my belief that part of the answer is simply that Shakespeare didn’t think that plays were things that sat on shelves, nor that he was an “author” as a playwright in the way that he, himself, was when he wrote the Sonnets or The Rape of Lucrece. Every blues tune, every German fairy tale, had an author of some sort at some point, because only people compose tunes or stories. But we don’t think it’s weird that those authors may be lost, or a sign that those authors didn’t care about their work.
If that supposition is correct, then perhaps Shakespeare thought his art was deeply serious – but also essentially ephemeral, like a sand mandala. That may or may not account for certain qualities of his language – but, unintentionally, that attitude may have had another effect. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think that the peculiar authorlessness of Shakespeare is part of the reason why his art has proved capable of conquering the world the way it has.
In the Western canon, there are really only two other works that rival Shakespeare’s for influence: Homer and the Bible. Both are works of towering genius, of course, and both were backed by large projects of cultural expansion, just as Shakespeare was. As well, though, I don’t think it’s an accident that they are the two other works around which there is a real mystery regarding authorship. In Homer’s case, the text as we have it was written down centuries after its legendary author had died. Before then, it was passed down orally – and we cannot possibly know, therefore, to what degree it was altered and augmented in transmission (not to mention that the Iliad and Odyssey appear to have been part of a larger poetic cycle). As a consequence not only of our ignorance of the author, but also of the mode of transmission itself, Homer’s work has a mystical quality to it, simultaneously seeming to have been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all, a beauty like Aphrodite born of the sea itself. Read Homer and Virgil side by side, and it is immediately apparent that the Aeneid has an obvious and self-aware author in a way that The Iliad does not.
The Bible, of course, comes packaged with a proclamation of its divine authorship, notwithstanding that it is manifestly a collection of books compiled over time, that many of those books themselves refer to having specific authors, and that even the core text of the Pentateuch, which tradition ascribes to divine authorship, reads much more like a novel about God than anything plausibly written by God. But that core text, again, contains stories that simultaneously manifest the quality of having been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all. Read the saga of Jacob and his sons, and you know you are in the hands of a great writer – but that writer gives none of the signs that he (or she!) is conscious of telling us a story, and wants us to be conscious of it, the way that, say, Ovid is. Again, I suspect this is an artifact in part of the mode of transmission of the text.
The limb I’m going out on is to suggest that something of the same effect is at work with Shakespeare. The very fact that he did not curate his own work – that, instead, it had to be cobbled together from actors’ rolls and the like, and that we have to reckon with Good Quarto and Bad Quarto versions of many of the plays, along with the Folio version – has allowed a multitude of individuals to become co-authors with Shakespeare of his seminal works. And this multitude is layered on top of the fact that many if not most of Shakespeare’s works were adaptations of previous work (only two of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – have original plots, and in both cases “plot” is a generous description of the action), that he more than occasionally collaborated with other writers, and that theater is inherently a collaborative and evolving art form, such that we cannot know whether individual actors made contributions to their roles, or whether Shakespeare – or anyone else – ever altered plays in response to their reception by the public. The result is a body of work that is at once highly individual, with a distinct verse style, distinct thematic preoccupations, etc. – but also strangely authorless, uncreated, eternal.
None of this would have availed were it not for Shakespeare’s genius. But Dante was also a genius; Chaucer was also a genius; Goethe was also a genius; Tolstoy was also a genius; Joyce was also a genius. And while their influences are titanic, Shakespeare’s influence really is different in kind. I cannot think of any other work that so belongs to us, the reader, the audience; of which we feel so free to talk about our versions of the work, as opposed to his, the author’s – to the point where this supreme genius of the English language has seen his work become foundational in entirely foreign tongues. The exception, again, being the Bible (and, in the ancient world, I suspect Homer would have been another exception).
For another point of comparison, take another genius, who died the same day as Shakespeare did – Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes’ influence was, in some ways, as large as Shakespeare’s. He not only arguably invented the novel (though there are clear precursors in the picaresque), he went right on to invent the metafictional novel immediately after, thereby permanently marking the form with a self-consciousness and reflexivity it has never managed to shake. But that very invention of metafiction was prompted by an identity crisis of copyright infringement. Don Quixote and Sancho were so popular that numerous knock-offs were being written about them by all sorts of people – and their creations were plainly inferior to Cervantes’s original. Given the state of the law at the time, there was nothing to do about this but to respond artistically, and so Cervantes did: Book 2 of his master work is an explicit reaction to those knock-offs, and takes place in a world where Quixote and his squire are well-known, and can no longer have naive adventures because they are everywhere recognized.
The result is an absolutely brilliant and supremely fecund piece of invention, but one which makes it all but impossible to avoid Cervantes’s authorship as a fact to be reckoned with. Resisted, perhaps, and there have been numerous attempts at such resistance, most prominently Kafka’s parable and Borges’s story, but these can be understood as somewhat desperate efforts to liberate Cervantes’s much-beloved characters from his authorial grasp, so that they might more directly and completely belong to us, an accomplishment which Shakespeare’s Hamlet achieves without even a hint of a struggle, because it is not the ever-elusive Shakespeare who labors to confine him, but Denmark, that prison, that nutshell whose bounds cannot confine the horror of his dreams. And we are penned in there right along with him.
Woody Allen famously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which – good luck to him with that. Meanwhile, we don’t know why Shakespeare, who was tenacious in other ways to carve out a name that would last beyond his life – carefully and expensively securing a place among the gentry, for example – was so cavalier about the ultimate disposition of his plays. But, in the end, that’s a question primarily of interest to his biographers. From my perspective, we should be thankful rather than frustrated that he was, for perhaps it was this blithe disregard that has made it possible for his work to assume the form, and therefore the status of a kind of secular scripture, and for us to treat it as such, living our lives through his words, his characters, his stories, and so to keep someone we really don’t know at all, alive, four hundred years after his death.
When I was in school, I remember having an argument with a friend whose family lived pretty close to the edge, financially. The argument occurred during a particularly rough patch when my friend explained to me that she was hungry because didn’t always have enough money for proper meals.
Now, another person would have been sympathetic, maybe even bought her a danish or something. But no! I was going to teach a man (well, girl) to fish, so she would not only eat today, but never hunger more. So I asked her: what about rice? Rice is really cheap. Anybody can afford rice. Figure out what the most expensive food is that she bought last month, and next month buy rice instead. Presto! Problem of hunger solved.
I came by this attitude fairly honestly, my family – my mother’s side, anyway – having gone through the privations of the war. And while I like to think I’ve gotten more compassionate with time, I know that, deep down, I haven’t really. I still basically think that most people could perfectly well live within their means if only they exercised some simple discipline. (I do hope – and believe – that I behave more compassionately now than I did then, precisely because I am aware that this ingrained attitude of mine is sub-rational.)
All of this comes to mind apropos of Rod Dreher’s post linking to this article about the democratization of financial insecurity. The author, Neal Gabler, laments the precariousness of his finances, notwithstanding the fact that he’s a successful writer earning a decent middle-class income. The author is aware of the various questionable choices he’s made that put him in this precarious position, but says this:
[W]ithout getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.
That’s very true – but it’s worth recognizing that it’s nothing new. Read Trollope, or Balzac, or, Tolstoy, or, well, any novelist of the 19th century, and you’ll find the books peopled with members of the gentry struggling with debt problems. Sometimes they go into debt because of bad habits – gambling, frequently – but plenty of times it’s about keeping up position. You only have so much income from your lands, but you need to keep up a place in society so that your children will marry well, and, well, soon the cost of keeping up that position has bankrupted you.
This position has indeed been democratized, thanks to credit cards, and it’s possible that Gabler and people like him just don’t recognize that they are the functional equivalent of impoverished gentry in the 19th century. But credit cards themselves are merely the latest manifestation of a long history of financial innovation to extend credit – innovation that tends to get more innovative in response to opportunity. Because those with credit to extend will always find ways to extend it as far as is profitable – and then use force, if necessary, to make sure they are repaid. Read Livy. His description of the Roman republic is an instructively repetitive tale of plebeians going deeper and deeper into debt, rioting against their patrician creditors, getting some relief, and then starting the cycle over again – a cycle that only “ended” by turning to plunder and conquest, first of Italy, then of the rest of the Mediterranean world.
On an individual level, the thing to remember is, indeed, not to let yourself get into extremity. For anybody in the middle class, this doesn’t require financial genius – just some serious discipline. Either make a budget, and live by it, or, if that feels like too much work, sock money away up front and wing it to live on what’s left while scrupulously avoiding touching that savings. And – this is the hardest part – take perverse pride in living more poorly than your neighbors with similar incomes. It’s not rocket science. The truly poor are another story, but for anyone with a solid middle-class income, these are real choices you can make.
But on a societal level, this is pretty much meaningless advice, because, in aggregate, financial resources cannot be saved for a rainy day – only real resources can. You can burn all your firewood now, or you can save some to make sure you don’t run out before the end of winter. But every single dollar that somebody saves has to be borrowed by somebody else – it’s a basic accounting identity. If you put that dollar in a box, you’re just taking it out of circulation – doing your small part to contribute to deflation. And so, in a very real sense, if everybody behaved like I was raised, and ate rice while stuffing currency in a box for later, we’d all be much poorer, and not a bit more financially secure.
Which is why, on a social level, questions of distribution can’t be reduced to questions of giving people what they deserve. There will always be some people who spend more than they earn, and some who earn more than they spend – that’s just human variation. Some of the people who spent more will turn out to have spent it wisely – the kid who goes to the expensive school winds up rooming with the founder of Facebook, and poof: you’re set. Most won’t. And those with a financial and information advantage will always find ways to press that advantage to the detriment of those with less money and poorer information. If you simply let that process ride, without regard to the consequences, you’ll learn pretty soon what the consequences are – and they are, on a societal level, pretty horrible.
Rising levels of indebtedness across the population aren’t a sign of moral decay; they are exactly what you’d expect in a society that has democratized affluence (so that virtually the whole population is living well above subsistence levels, and expects to do so) but has a low rate of productivity growth (so that expectations of future prosperity for most people run ahead of reality). That leads to a politics of scarcity – the kind of politics Livy and Balzac understood just fine. But the good news is that we actually do have tools for tackling those problems – not in a permanent way (these kinds of problems never get solved permanently), but well enough to kick the can of social unrest well down the road, and to make sure that in aggregate we’re not driving the middle class into poverty and saying “well, they lived beyond their means; they must deserve it.”
You want to get worried? Don’t focus on how quickly we are burning through our financial savings. Focus on how quickly we’re burning through the earth’s real resources.
That’s the title they gave my latest column at The Week – but it’s not really a defense of the Broadway show as history so much as a defense of “the way in which Hamilton makes a ‘great men’ story more accessible and less objectionable than it otherwise would be.”
Teaching the American founding as the story of great statesmen gathering to create the first large-scale republic in human history out of sheer genius and public-spiritedness is not merely false, it’s obviously false, and hence unlikely to inspire anyone of independent mind and spirit. But the Howard Zinn approach to American history, while emphatically worth engaging with, can’t ever rise above being a critique of traditional history. It can’t displace it. Nor can it ever really tell you what it must have been like to be in the room where the founding happened.
Hamilton does that: It makes the founding present, so we can understand it in our own terms. It doesn’t so much bring the founders down to our level as bring us up to theirs. Instead of having us believe they were born great, the show submits that they were present at an extraordinary time and rose to the occasion that their moment in history offered them. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” is the lyric — not, “gosh, you guys in the audience are so lucky it was us who were alive back then instead of you.”
Some people in the audience will be blessed — and cursed — with considerable ambition. Some could imagine themselves as Alexander Hamilton, as Lin Manuel Miranda did — or as his dark doppelganger, Aaron Burr, who I suspect Miranda understands pretty well, too. Most of those people will be Americans, and speaking to them matters, because how they direct their ambitions will do much to shape the country’s future.
Because the show’s story is the story of our nation’s founding, you might think it would speak to them automatically. But most of them will not be lineal descendants of the founders, or of anyone alive at the time of the founding. Even the tiny minority who are will have grown up in a very different America, culturally-speaking — or so they think. The audience might well start from a position of either inferiority, or opposition, or feigned indifference — on the grounds that these people are not their people. If they are to have any relationship with the American past, then, it will be akin to that of Major General Stanley — from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance — to his “ancestors”:
General Stanley: I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.
Frederic: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.
General Stanley: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.
That’s why Hamilton matters, and matters for being exactly what it is: yet another telling of the story of the American founding that focuses on those same old Founding Fathers. It’s not about how we feel about them — it’s about how they make us feel about ourselves. They are our ancestors, unavoidably, and as long as we are Americans we will necessarily have a relationship with them and their work. The question is whether that relationship is more intimate or more alienated. Hamilton — because of its non-traditional casting, because of the writing and musical style, because of the way the story is told, and just because it’s so good — does an exceptional job of building that relationship anew, and letting all Americans imagine themselves in the founders’ lives. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
I think it’s kind of funny that I wrote this piece, given that I also wrote an extended series of blog posts extolling the Tolstoyan view of history that would seem to contradict it. But, you know: I am large; I contain multitudes.
Anyway, read the whole thing there.
- “Republican pundits and activists keep lowering the standards for acceptable presidential candidates, and . . . the same people consistently exaggerate and oversell the abilities and qualifications of the party’s latest group of new political leaders.”
- “[W]e shouldn’t forget the candidates’ own significant weaknesses when accounting for their failure . . . Did Jindal do so poorly because the field was too large or because he had presided over a fiscal disaster in his home state? Rubio wasn’t ready to be president, and it showed during a campaign he should never have run.”
- “Another factor that often gets overlooked in all this is the influence of the conservative media in creating an imaginary political landscape in which Obama is perceived as a deeply unpopular failure.”
The problem with these explanations for why so many candidates failed is that they don’t account for why the three candidates who remain are still in the race. Trump and Cruz, after all, are significantly less qualified and have significantly poorer abilities by most traditional metrics than the vast majority of the candidates they defeated, and are also the most over-the-top in their opposition to everything President Obama has done. Dougherty complains that for candidates like Huntsman and Perry “[o]ne branding problem or a bad debate becomes unfixable.” But Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have vastly worse branding problems. And let’s not even talk about the debates.
Instead, let’s talk about John Kasich. He’s a (relatively) moderate, non-insane candidate. He’s got perfectly respectable traditional qualifications for high office. And he hasn’t won much of anything, nor does he have much of a prospect of winning. Why is he still around, while Scott Walker and Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, all had to quit?
The main thing that distinguishes Kasich from all the people who have been driven from the field is that his candidacy has almost no support from the institutional Republican party, and never had it.
In 2012, the institutional Republican Party united behind Mitt Romney really early, and still struggled to push him over the finish line against largely ridiculous opposition. In 2016, the institutional Republican Party failed to unite behind anyone – and basically everyone to whom the party showed the slightest sign of favor went up in flames. The two remaining viable candidates are the two individuals who ran explicitly against the institutional party, and the also-ran candidate is someone the institutional party would find acceptable, but for one reason or another either ignored or treated as a joke.
The GOP’s problem is not fundamentally that too many more-or-less qualified candidates wanted to be President. That was not a problem for the Democrats in 1988 or 1992, after all. It’s that most of them thought the way to become President was to run for the Republican nomination. They didn’t understand that to have a chance with the Republican electorate, they first had to create their own, independent brand, and then run against the Republican Party.
Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests an “instant runoff” system as a solution to the GOP’s problems. But such a system, implemented in Iowa, would have left the top 3 finishers as Trump, Cruz and Rubio – exactly the three who actually finished on top there. Implemented in New Hampshire, it would have padded Trump’s plurality (I expect at least some Carson and Christie voters would have chosen Trump second). Beyond that, who knows? Would Fiorina voters in New Hampshire have picked Bush second? Or Rubio? Or Cruz? Does it matter? She dropped out anyway.
Since last September, well before voting began, a majority of GOP voters preferred the most-unacceptable candidates: Trump, Cruz and Carson. Since the voting began, that trio has earned a majority of the votes in essentially every contest. Not a plurality – a majority. No change in the voting system can make that majority preference go away.
As for simply banning unacceptable candidates from running – how exactly would that work?
[UPDATE: I may have gotten a bit jumbled in my own head as to which arguments were Larison’s and which were Dougherty’s. Larison argues that the conservative echo chamber hatred of Obama may be responsible for Trump and Cruz’s success, for example, as well as for the overpopulation of the primary. My apologies for getting that mixed up.]
Meanwhile, it has been brought to my attention that the best way to build an audience isn’t to write detailed ruminations on issues of the day, but to re-post stuff that other people report that you think your readers will want to read about.
A Borough Park businessman at the heart of a police bribery probe leaned on his police buddies to squash two assault raps involving his nephew, according to the victims of a pair of attacks.
Borough Park business honcho Jeremy Reichberg is being investigated by the feds for allegedly plying NYPD brass and at least one officer in the 66th Precinct with gifts in return for favors, according to multiple sources.
His nephew, Shlomo Reichberg, was part of a gang of disassociated Hasidic teens called Grouplech, which means forks in Yiddish, community sources said. The Hasidic hooligans were involved in two reported violent attacks in 2012, according to the victims.
In one scary encounter, Micha Kaplan, 45, says a group of Hasidic teens put him in the hospital for several days after a severe beating. The alleged beatdown started after the teens cut him off as he was driving in Borough Park.
At a red light, Kaplan rolled down his window and complained to the driver of the Chevy Impala.
That didn’t go over well.
Kaplan says the teens tailgated him for 20 blocks. The confrontation came to a head when one of the teens got out the car and tried to open Kaplan’s passenger side door. When Kaplan got out to close the door two of the teens started to punch and kick him, police records show.
During the attack they allegedly yelled “Litvak!” the Yiddish term for Lithuanian Jews, who are not Hasidic.
Kaplan, who works in real estate, went to Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. He spent four days there with internal bleeding.
After his release, he did some research in the community, and identified several of the teens he believes attacked him. They included Reichberg’s nephew, who was with the group at the time, but did not hit Kaplan.
But police from the 66th Precinct didn’t care, Kaplan says.
“They were squashing it 100%,” Kaplan said. “They told me I was unable to identify the guy and that my witnesses were no good. They never tried to make an arrest.”
Kaplan filed a complaint with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.
Afterwards, the officers issued a wanted poster for one of the alleged attackers, Yossi Follman. But cops made no effort to find him and warned Kaplan to stay away, the victim contends.
“They told me not to hang out in front of (Follman’s) house and suggested I call 911 when I see him on the street so they could send a patrol car to arrest him,” Kaplan said. “It was a joke.”
No arrest has ever been made. . . .
On Wednesday, Follman’s mother downplayed the incident.
“How is this something new?” she asked a reporter outside her Borough Park home.
“Are you sure Mr. Kaplan isn’t exaggerating things,” she asked.
Asked about the gang, she said, “They are just a group of friends. Never into anything violent.”
That’s not how Benjamin Blau (no relation to this reporter) sees it.
Blau says he was attacked by members of the gang as he was delivering religious court notifications in Borough Park in October 2012.
According to Blau, several of the teens inside four cars jumped out and yelled in Yiddish “Kill him!”
“Between eight to 10 guys approached our car,” Blau recalled several weeks after the assault. One kicked the driver’s side door and flashed a knife.
In a panic, Blau accidentally unlocked the door. The gang members then yanked him from the car and one began hitting him in the head with a metal bar, Blau says.
“At this point I started losing consciousness,” he recalled.
Police arrested three of the assailants but the case was later dropped, records show. It is unclear why the charges were never pursued.
Consider this a dispatch from the world of the Kiryas Joel Option. And no, I’m not suggesting that Hasidic communities have a bigger problem with street gangs than non-Hasidic communities – that would be ridiculous. I’m saying: insular communities that stand by their own against secular authorities on matters where they are resisting the larger culture may well also stand by their own against secular authorities on matters of clear-cut criminality, and it’s worth being cognizant of that likelihood.
Meanwhile: anyone know why a gang of Hasidic street thugs might call themselves “forks?”
I’m even less of a Catholic than Alan Jacobs is – I’m not even a Christian, and I’m a pretty poor excuse for a Jew these days. Nonetheless, I want to say something about the debate about Amoris Laetitia apropos of Jacobs’s piece in these pages and Ross Douthat’s response.
I understand Pope Francis’s argument in pretty much the way Jacobs does: that nothing has changed about doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage, but that individual priests can exercise prudential judgment about how and when best to apply discipline (such as withholding communion) as a means of teaching that doctrine.
The heart of Douthat’s response as to why this is a problem is basically this:
[O]n an ecclesiastical level, here’s where I’d like to place my trust: Not in any individual priest or pastor or bishop, but in a process, however flawed and fallible, that treats a broken marriage as something that might still be real, whose vows might deserve to be respected even in permanent separation, and whose participants and offspring therefore have rights and claims that deserve a hearing from someone other than the inevitably-partial, pressured and overburdened pastor of a typical Catholic congregation in the year of our Lord 2016.
And what conservatives fear, what has us grim-faced even in our relief that the pope did not do something that explicitly contradicts the church’s doctrine on marriage, is Francis’s implicit dismissal of the need for such a process in cases where the divorcee seems sufficiently “responsible and tactful,” where the second marriage seems sufficiently stable and happy and permanent and, well, bourgeois.
Because a church that tells people that no protections for their possibly-sacramental first marriage are necessary so long as they are tactful in their request, real in their regrets, and respectable in their new life, a church that does not provide any real safeguard for what it claims is an absolute and cosmic reality, an icon of Christ and his bride … can such a church be said to really believe any longer in the indissolubility of marriage, no matter what kind of flowery language its high officials use?
Another way to put this would be: why should bourgeois respectability be grounds for special mercy? Why is their cross especially hard to bear? I have some sympathy for this critique – but I wonder whether Douthat will follow it all to way to what I think is its logical conclusion.
I like my Christianity pretty Tolstoyan, which is to say, I have little or no use for the supernaturalism, but I recognize the power of a highly original ethical critique. As I understand that critique, Christians are called to a much higher standard of morality than was articulated by the rabbinic tradition, one that, pretty much explicitly, is unachievable by anyone but the saints. And then, Christians are exhorted to be vastly more merciful towards those who fail to achieve that saintly standard – more merciful than, frankly, anyone but saints can be with any kind of consistency. Jesus of Nazareth says that anybody who experiences lust has committed adultery “in his heart,” and he also says, defending the woman about to be stoned for adultery, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
What does this mean for the indissolubility of marriage? Earlier in his response to Jacobs, Douthat says:
A Christian marriage is not a high moral goal, in other words, like charity or chastity or piety, which human beings chase after and to which they imperfectly aspire; it is an ontological and sacramental reality, created by the spouses’ vows and by God himself. In which case no power on earth can dissolve it, no feeling of repentance or regret or five-step Walter Kasper-approved “penitential path” can make it disappear, and no pastoral accommodation can transform the departure from those vows into something other than adultery, or the taking of new vows into something other than a promise to live in public defiance of the Decalogue.
Fair enough: I see the difference between a norm of moral behavior, where Christianity arguably demands the impossible, and a sacramental institution that has its own reality, within which people live as best they can. If you bear or sire a daughter, that daughter exists even if your feelings about her, or your own ability to be a parent, change. But what of . . . fidelity? What side of that dichotomy does it fall on?
It seems to me that, plainly, it must fall on the side of the other virtues – as an ideal, an aspiration to which, in its perfect form, only saints can achieve, and that most of us fall very far short of. It’s hard enough to live up to in the form presented to Moses on Sinai, and Jesus of Nazareth raises the bar all the way to heaven. And the prohibition on divorce comes pretty quickly after the unachievable standard for adultery; Matthew 5:27-28 is just as clear and uncompromising as Matthew 5:31-32. So if Christian marriage is an “ontological and sacramental reality” while fidelity is an aspirational ideal, then it is an ontological and sacramental reality that must be expected to endure despite regular and repeated infidelities. Indeed, based on the standard for fidelity that Jesus of Nazareth articulates, I would venture that most nearly every marriage that does endure does so under precisely those conditions.
What are the implications of this understanding? Well, as I understand it, the problem with simply welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics back into communion is that they are not merely sinning (according to the Catholic church’s lights), but living in a state of avowed sin; the act of remarrying is a public expression of the intention to continue in a state that doctrine says is adulterous. (Since a marriage can’t be ended, you need to establish, through the process of annulment, that it never really existed in the first place.) But what about a man who lives adulterously according to our common understanding, and not merely the uncompromising standards of the church? A man who takes up with another woman, has children with her, without ever divorcing his wife or marrying the new woman? How does his spiritual state differ, fundamentally, from that of the divorced and remarried man?
It seems to me that, on one level, it doesn’t differ much at all. In both cases, you’ve got a marriage that failed, and a new family. Good respectable bourgeois Pharisees, of course, would say that there are a host of important differences – that going through the process of divorce and remarriage makes the new life more stable, lets everyone properly understand their social and financial place, and provides generally for a better social order. These are some of the reasons why, in fact, we have the divorce laws we do.
But, if I understand correctly, Douthat’s position ought to be that the second fellow is more accessible to mercy than the former, because he is not living in an avowed state of sin. He hasn’t divorced; he hasn’t remarried; he hasn’t pretended that what he is doing has anyone’s blessing. He has committed adultery, yes – repeatedly. But he hasn’t vowed to keep committing it. If I’m wrong about this, I’m open to correction, but I think I’ve got that right. And if I do have that right, then isn’t that, from a Catholic perspective, a better way for marriage to fail than the more respectably bourgeois route, precisely because it is more honest about what that failure actually signifies?
I’m not bringing up this alternative as a straw-man, suggesting that of course nobody could defend the idea that the latter situation is preferable to the former and therefore Pope Francis is right and his conservative critics are wrong. On the contrary – one could readily use that understanding as the basis of an alternative social order. You don’t even have to imagine a world in which “first wives” retain certain rights and privileges unto death even as concubinage is widespread. After all, that’s pretty much how polygamy works in the parts of Africa where it is common.
My question for Douthat is simply this: assume that nobody knows the practical consequences in terms of the prevalence of divorce or of adultery or of church attendance or of any other social consequence that might result either from greater leniency or greater stringency on the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics. Assume, further, that the goal on all sides in this debate is to strive to prevent marriages from failing – that nobody is actually being cavalier about that question. Granting these premises for the sake of argument, what is the best way for a marriage to fail, where two people conclude: we cannot live together and we cannot live chastely apart? What should be tolerated – by the couple and by the community – as a way of enabling a troubled marriage to survive as an “ontological and sacramental reality” if not as an idealized form of communion? And if Amoris Laetitia extends special mercy in the wrong direction, is there a better direction in which to extend it?
Or do we just need tougher love all around?
I should really stop writing horse race posts. Norm Ornstein’s got this.
Here are his five possibilities:
- Trump gets 1,237 delegates by June 8.
- Trump falls short of 1,237 in June, but gets to the majority before the convention in July.
- Trump falls short and Cruz trails—but Cruz wins on the second ballot.
- Trump and Cruz form an alliance against the chicanery and evil of an establishment bent on choosing someone else.
- The establishment has enough muscle and support to choose an outsider who does not have the negatives that are evident for Trump and Cruz.
Looking down the barrel of the remaining calendar, and at how Cruz continues to strengthen in California, I think scenario #1 is now relatively unlikely. If Trump gets a big boost after wins in New York and elsewhere in the northeast, that could change – but if nothing changes, Trump is going to fall short.
Scenario #3 is still quite plausible – Nate Silver and Ross Douthat do a good job of explaining why and how Cruz could well prevail on the second ballot. The thing is, the more people understand that to be the case, the more incentive any unbound delegates who loathe Cruz but could tolerate Trump have to prefer scenario #2, and vote for Trump on the first ballot. We just don’t know how many delegates there are who feel that way, or who could be persuaded to feel that way.
I have been arguing for weeks, if not months, that scenario #4 is the reason why scenario #5 simply will not happen.
So I believe the most-likely scenarios are #2, #3 and #4. And which one transpires depends on how well Cruz does versus Trump in the remaining primaries – particularly in Pennsylvania, Indiana and California.
That’s about it. I’ll try to write about something else for the next while.
After Super Tuesday, I pointed out that by remaining in the race after his dismal showing, Marco Rubio was making it materially more-likely that Donald Trump got the nomination. I think the results from Wisconsin yesterday substantially bear that out. Ted Cruz’s share of the state vote looks an awful lot like what the Cruz and Rubio combined votes would have looked like had Wisconsin voted on, say, March 5th. Had Rubio dropped out after Super Tuesday and endorsed Cruz, Cruz would likely have won Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina in addition to the states he actually won. That wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the delegate race, but it would have made a bigger difference in the popular vote totals, which could have relevance for arguments at the convention in the event that nobody gets a decisive plurality of delegates, much less a majority.
With that in mind, the state Cruz needs to focus on most aggressively now is Pennsylvania. There are very few delegates actually in play in Pennsylvania, because the overwhelming majority elected out of the state will be unbound. But it’s a very populous state, so a strong win there could run up Cruz’s popular vote total, and it’s a Northeastern state, a region where Cruz has so far done poorly. For both reasons, it’s a very valuable prize for the Cruz campaign. And, unlike New York, where Trump has polled above 50% in every poll since the beginning of March, Pennsylvania has never been a particularly strong state for Trump, nor is it necessarily a terrible state for the very conservative Cruz – this is the state that elected Rick Santorum and Pat Toomey to the Senate, after all. Maryland is another state that may not be so terrible for Cruz if he can truly consolidate the Rubio vote with his own slice of the anti-establishment majority. And it’s winner-take-all. If Cruz wins both Maryland and Pennsylvania, then there is still a chance for him to prevail in Cleveland.
The interesting question is how Kasich plays into this. Kasich did very poorly in Wisconsin – poorly enough that one really must question what his objective in running is. Unlike Rubio, whose continued presence in the race after Super Tuesday clearly benefitted Trump, Kasich might well be hurting Trump by staying in; Trump won moderates in Wisconsin, and that’s Kasich’s brand. But that will likely cease to be true after April. Winner-take-all Indiana is a must-win state for Ted Cruz, and it’s a conservative state. But it’s also a state that borders Ohio, as well as an open primary. If Kasich is still in, he could well throw the state to Trump. If he dropped out after losing all the Northeast contests on April 26th, and endorsed Cruz, he could put Cruz over the top. (That is, assuming all the Kasich supporters haven’t already voted early by that time.)
And as we look further down the calendar, Cruz is going to need decisive, lopsided wins in proportional Oregon and Washington, as well as in huge California, where most delegates are selected at the district level, to snatch the nomination from Trump, both because he’ll need every delegate he can get and because he’ll need to get outright popular vote majorities to make the claim that he’s the rightful nominee. Kasich’s moderate voters are a poor fit for the Cruz campaign. I’m pretty sure Cruz needs to be one-on-one with Trump well before Cleveland to achieve victory there.
It is vanishingly unlikely that the convention in Cleveland will nominate John Kasich no matter what happens from here on out. It’s very hard for me to believe that Kasich doesn’t actually know that. Maybe he’s running for Vice President, in which case the rational thing for him to do is run up his delegate count as high as he can and sell it to the highest bidder – whether Trump, Cruz or the party leaders looking for a white knight to save the party from both. In any event, we’ll know whether Kasich really is a party man, being strategic in the effort to stop Trump, or whether he’s just being stubborn, by what he does at the end of the month. I’m betting he’s just being stubborn.
I am pretty sure that Donald Trump does not actually take anything he’s saying especially seriously – most definitely including the stuff he says about trade and immigration. Trump is running on attitude, and he figured out that “we win – they lose” was a pretty good attitude to run on right now in a GOP primary.
The risk for those – like some at this magazine – who are trying to hitch their particular policy wagons to Trump’s star is not merely that that star may be falling (we’ll see soon enough whether it is, and if it is, it’s surely still significant that it made it this far), but that it isn’t really flying the direction they want to go. If it’s ever to be taken seriously, economic nationalism deserves a far more cogent argument than Donald Trump or his campaign are likely to give it.
I’m going to try to lay out two pieces of such an argument here.
First, I want to start with this piece by Andy Grove from several years ago about how Silicon Valley ceased to be a major job creator in American manufacturing. His diagnosis:
The underlying problem isn’t simply lower Asian costs. It’s our own misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs. Americans love the idea of the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently encapsulated this view in a piece called “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts.” His argument: Let tired old companies that do commodity manufacturing die if they have to. If Washington really wants to create jobs, he wrote, it should back startups.
Friedman is wrong. Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.
The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms of American jobs.
The current economic consensus basically argues that markets are the best allocators of capital and that consumers are the best arbiters of their own interests. Therefore, a regime of relatively free trade and relatively free movement of labor, because it maximizes total output and allows both distinct geographies and distinct individuals to pursue their comparative advantage, is best for everybody. If there are negative distribution effects of this regime, they can be compensated for via transfer payments. If this system produces harmful dislocations, that’s the price of creative destruction, though that price can be mitigated through a variety of social welfare policies.
Many adherents of this viewpoint look at economic nationalists and see a kind of special-pleading on the part of those who benefitted from previous economic arrangements, and see the goal of economic nationalists to be insulating American workers from competition. That sounds like a risky strategy for the long term, because it’s not like competition is going to go away just because we hide from it behind a tariff wall. Economic nationalists sometimes respond by pointing to America’s 19th century experience, and the way in which we built a huge manufacturing base behind just such a tariff wall.
But for much of the 19th century America was actually playing catch-up to the previous economic leader – the British – who operated under more of a free trade regime. We (and Germany) were able to pursue our development strategy in part because Britain let us do so, just as Japan and China have been able to pursue theirs because we permitted it. It’s just not obvious that that strategy is applicable to a power like ours that sits at the developmental frontier. And thinking in these terms locks us into a zero-sum mentality about trade that it’s easy to imagine leading to unproductive trade wars – which is where these arguments typically end.
But Grove articulates a crucial piece of the answer to the question of how that strategy might be applicable to a frontier economy like America’s, as well as how we might think about trade in national-interest terms that nonetheless aren’t so zero-sum:
A new industry needs an effective ecosystem in which technology knowhow accumulates, experience builds on experience, and close relationships develop between supplier and customer. The U.S. lost its lead in batteries 30 years ago when it stopped making consumer electronics devices. Whoever made batteries then gained the exposure and relationships needed to learn to supply batteries for the more demanding laptop PC market, and after that, for the even more demanding automobile market. U.S. companies did not participate in the first phase and consequently were not in the running for all that followed. I doubt they will ever catch up. . . .
How could the U.S. have forgotten [that scaling was crucial to its economic future]? I believe the answer has to do with a general undervaluing of manufacturing—the idea that as long as “knowledge work” stays in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what happens to factory jobs. It’s not just newspaper commentators who spread this idea. Consider this passage by Princeton University economist Alan S. Blinder: “The TV manufacturing industry really started here, and at one point employed many workers. But as TV sets became ‘just a commodity,’ their production moved offshore to locations with much lower wages. And nowadays the number of television sets manufactured in the U.S. is zero. A failure? No, a success.”
I disagree. Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution. As happened with batteries, abandoning today’s “commodity” manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.
I think that’s an argument that even the Tom Friedmans of the world could understand and respect. Total global manufacturing employment is falling, and is going to continue to fall, as more and more of the process becomes automated. But we still need to have an adequate manufacturing base in key industries precisely to support the higher value-added activity that sits above it. The goal isn’t to protect American workers or products from competition, but to make it possible to continue to compete in future cycles of innovation. A Ricardian integration across the Pacific sounds all well and good, but if the core knowledge base about the underlying engineering is largely on the other side of the Pacific, then that’s where the future of innovation is going to come from. So we have to pursue policies that ensure that an adequate manufacturing base is maintained – and, in the context of that assurance, trade freely with everyone.
That means having some kind of industrial policy, whatever you choose to call it. As it happens, America is already pursuing an industrial policy through trade – just not one oriented around preserving a manufacturing base. America’s trade policy – very much exemplified by the TPP – is organized around promoting the products of knowledge industries, industries that depend on intellectual property. Pharmaceuticals, software, entertainment, genetically-modified crops – these are products where “manufacturing” doesn’t have quite the same meaning as it does for batteries or semiconductors. Precisely because scaling up production of these products is relatively trivial, their value is overwhelmingly dependent on an intellectual property regime that grants rents to the initial creators. They “just happen” to be industries where America remains a market leader. And American trade policy is substantially organized around making sure “our” companies get paid those rents.
It seems to me, then, that another piece of the economic nationalist argument needs to be not so much about how our negotiators are being taken to the cleaners by our rivals, but about who they are working for, how they are defining the American interest. I’m not persuaded when Trump says that we’re being “killed” in our trade negotiations – I suspect our negotiators are very tough indeed, and if you ask our counterparts in other countries they’ll agree with that assessment. But they are working primarily for the Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber of Commerce cares primarily about American corporations’ profitability. Which is not the same thing as the long-term health of the American economy, or the productivity (and wage rates) of the American workforce.
Given that we already have an industrial policy organized around that IP regime, it’s hardly a killer argument to say that any such change in policy would be a violation of the sanctity of free trade. And it would seem to me that we could change the orientation of that policy without risking an unproductive trade war because we have, as it were, stuff to trade. We could, for example, direct our negotiators to offer a little relief on the pharmaceutical front, in exchange for getting more battery factories built in America.
In other words, we don’t need a trade war, we don’t need to demonize other countries for sensibly looking out for the interests of their citizens – and we don’t need to look at that pursuit as a zero-sum game where for us to win, they need to lose. Rather, we need to make sure that our negotiators are thinking about the national interest rather than the corporate sector’s interest. And then, by all means, we should pursue negotiations with a view to finding a way for all sides to claim a win. Because that’s the best way to get a deal.
Although I’ve developed something of a reputation as a Trump booster (I can’t imagine why), I’ve always been aware of the potential difficulties actually winning the nomination that Ross Douthat identifies. Because of his extraordinarily low level of support from party regulars, if Trump doesn’t actually get an outright majority of the delegates, enabling him to win on the first ballot, it’s difficult to see him winning additional support on a second, third or later ballot.
But just as Douthat would like to see regular observers grapple more seriously with that difficulty when they assess Trump’s chances, I’d like to see Douthat and the rest of the brokered convention crowd grapple with the difficulties attendant on the effort to deny Trump the nomination if he wins a substantial plurality of delegates.
The issue isn’t that winning a plurality means you “deserve” the nomination in some abstract sense. Legitimacy is always and everywhere a matter of perception. If those subject to an authority perceive it as illegitimate, then that authority’s ability to function suffers, and it really doesn’t matter whether that authority is duly constituted according to one or another theory. Standing on the ground of principle in such circumstances will be more likely to discredit the authority’s theory than to bolster the legitimacy of the authority.
Trump is running explicitly against the Republican party as it has historically understood itself. It’s a rebellion. If 40+% of the Republican party primary electorate supports Trump’s rebellion, and nobody else comes close to that level of support, and the delegates at the convention simply ignore that expressed preference, and pick somebody more to their liking – the sort of person Trump is running explicitly against – their actions will not be perceived as legitimate. Nor should they be, though that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if, after all that has transpired, the party leadership blithely stands on the ground that they have the right to choose the nominee, and so nobody can legitimately complain, they will face the same rude awakening as Richard II – if not Louis XVI.
Were Trump a normal factional candidate who had plurality support but majority opposition, what you’d expect the party to do at the convention is make a deal with his faction in exchange for unity behind a compromise candidate. The problem for the party is that it’s not clear what kind of deal there is to make with Trump, not because he’s too extreme or too out of sync with the party’s historic positions, but because he’s Trump. Advocates of a brokered convention should acknowledge the problem this poses, and suggest possible deals and/or explain how the party should navigate in the rough seas that their advice would sail them into. Because as Douthat notes, the party leadership is ultimately going to act in their self-interest, and they are going to be really reluctant to see splitting the party as in their interest. Which is a major reason they’ve been as passive in the face of Trump’s revolt as Douthat laments they have been.
Then there’s the problem that Ted Cruz, the only candidate who might come close to Trump in the delegate count, isn’t a good party man either. Indeed, Cruz’s interests are distinctly at variance with those of party regulars, and this needs to be factored into any analysis of how a convention might be brokered. Cruz and Trump are allied in opposing the established party leadership, allied in trying to keep any other candidate from consideration on either the first or subsequent ballots, and allied in having little future if they don’t get nominated this time. Trump won’t have the kind of loyalty from his delegates that a typical nominee has – but Cruz very well may. If party leaders don’t agree to make Cruz the nominee, he might well throw his support to Trump in exchange for the Vice Presidency.
Of course, the uncommitted delegates at Cleveland will know about that before the first ballot. How might they react to the prospect of blackmail? Is it not possible that Trump might use that possibility to win over some among these delegates who have a deep antipathy to Cruz? And what about Kasich himself? Bear in mind that while Trump is still only winning pluralities in a three-person race, it’s entirely possible that, if Kasich dropped out, Trump would be winning majorities.
In other words, if the convention tries to give the nomination to someone other than Cruz or Trump, they may discover that Cruz would prefer to ally with Trump against the party regulars, and Trump wins the nomination. And if the convention tries to give the nomination to Cruz, they may discover that enough party regulars prefer to appease Trump than to lose with Cruz to put Trump over the top – provided Trump comes close enough to a majority that he doesn’t need to convince that many of them.
All of which means: the primaries really do matter.
Let’s say Cruz wins an overwhelming victory in the Wisconsin primary today, and this propels him to unexpected victories in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and a better-than-expected second-place finish in New York. Then he racks up lopsided wins in Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and – crucially – California. Even in this scenario, Trump ends up ahead, limping into the convention with a plurality of around 1,050 delegates, with Cruz nipping at his heels at around 900. This would basically make Cruz the equivalent of Reagan in 1976 – but Trump lacks the regular party support that Ford had. So Rubio and Bush instruct their delegates to vote for Cruz on the first ballot, and the lion’s share of uncommitted delegates follow suit. Kasich, who wins only his home state, comes under ferocious party pressure to do likewise, and he does so, giving Cruz a solid first-ballot majority.
Could that scenario transpire? Yes. Could the party avoid open civil war in that scenario? Probably – particularly if Cruz did well enough in Pennsylvania and California that his popular vote totals began to rival or even surpass Trump’s.
But let’s say Cruz’s victory in Wisconsin has no material impact on voting in the Mid-Atlantic later in the month – that, once again, it’s just demographics, not momentum. Trump wins an outright popular majority in New York, and either strong pluralities or outright majorities in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. John Kasich finally drops out, which enables Trump to win Indiana in a head-to-head contest with Cruz. Trump loses Nebraska, Oregon and Washington, as well as Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota, but wins a clear majority in California, and 2/3 of the state’s delegates, as well as New Jersey, which is winner-take-all. He comes into Cleveland just 50 pledged delegates shy of a majority, with Cruz far behind, below 800. In that scenario, I think it’s fanciful to imagine that the party could unite behind anybody but Trump. In which case, the question facing the convention would be: should we try to unite behind Trump, or accept that the party is going to split for 2016, and start planning for how to heal before 2020.
If that’s the question, is Douthat sure the party will choose schism over apostasy?