Noah Millman

Murder of Journalist Reflects Global Assault on Free Speech

A vigil for murdered Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was found dead outside her home Sept. 6. Credit:/CreativeCommons/Pushkar v

The cold-blooded murder of crusading Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh has got me brooding about history, and modern philosophy’s greatest analyst of history, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Lankesh’s murder was horrifying, but not very surprising. She was an outspoken critic of the right-wing populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently dominates Indian politics, and defended the insurgent left-wing Naxalite movement. She was also a fierce advocate for Dalit rights, and for other disadvantaged groups in Indian society. She had plenty of enemies, particularly among supporters of the ruling regime.

Moreover, India has a history of political violence, with some of its most famous and influential leaders dying at the hands of assassins. And Lankesh’s killing echoes recent murders of prominent Indian rationalists Malleshappa Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar, who offended traditional sensibilities. In a country so large, and with so many axes of conflict, it is hardly surprising that a prominent and controversial journalist like Lankesh fell into the crosshairs.

Finally, the murder occurs at a time when liberalism—which makes freedom of speech and press a paramount value—is in retreat globally. Right-wing populists from Vladimir Putin to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vigorously suppress or control the media, and see their popularity grow rather than shrink, while the American President’s attacks on our own country’s press draw alarmed condemnation internationally, but only feed his partisans’ growing conviction that the national press is a threat to American greatness rather than a central pillar thereof.


But in another sense, that international context is precisely the puzzle that requires explanation. Why should right-wing populism and hostility to a free press be burgeoning, and liberalism be in retreat, all across the globe? What could account for that synchronization?

Ask why India should be ruled by a right-wing populist party in the first place, and you will get a variety of answers. The Congress Party ruled for so many years after independence that it became corrupt, and overly identified with a single ruling family, and an Anglophone elite, leaving an opening for another party to take its place. Hindu nationalism provided a basis for unity across class lines, while also mobilizing the dominant religious group against a poorer minority tainted by association with a hostile foreign power. And a pro-business orientation enabled the party to deliver relatively rapid economic growth facilitated by globalization and a decline in energy prices. A variety of contingent factors worked together to make the BJP India’s dominant party.

How similar are those factors to the drivers of right-wing populism elsewhere, however? In Europe and America, the rise of right-wing populism has been fueled not by a rising traditional middle class, but by economic stagnation in the heartland, and a squeezing of the middle class generally as well as by rapid demographic change wrought by mass immigration combined with low birthrates among the native born, neither of which are predominant factors in India. Russia’s right-wing populism was a response to abrupt and precipitous decline in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to a certain extent has involved the rehabilitation of the former Communist elite. And in China, which has cracked down harder on free speech than at any time since the 1970s, the turn toward nationalism was engineered by the regime as a way to shore up support for a party that has ruled uninterrupted since 1949, accompanied by a campaign against corruption facilitated by that party’s own elites.

Restrictive attitudes toward speech, meanwhile, are increasingly popular not only among rural traditionalists, but also in precisely the precincts where one would otherwise expect liberalism to be predominant. It’s not just “coddled” American college students who seemingly can’t abide hearing anything critical. Neither can the driven Chinese college students supposedly eating those American students’ lunches. The more one looks at how global politics is evolving, the more it seems like illiberalism and populist nationalism are the hammer being applied to a diverse array of nails. It’s almost like there’s something in the air.

Which is why I’m brooding on Hegel.

To vastly oversimplify one of the titans of modern philosophy, Hegel saw history as the unfolding of an idea through the process of dialectic. In effect, history can be read like an argument. At a particular point in time, a society’s ethos expresses its idea of the good through the structure of social relations in that society, but this idea in effect calls forth its own antithesis, a contrary idea. It is the conflict between that produces a synthesis that moves society forward to the next stage of political development.

For Hegel, “forward” meant towards a more mature conception of freedom. So while his understanding of history’s structure was far more nuanced than the “Whiggish” tales of ever-increasing enlightenment, it remained fundamentally progressive. And operating within that framework, an idea antithetical to the fundamental conception of a civilization that gains traction because of the inevitably flawed and incomplete nature of that own society’s ethos cannot simply be rejected, but must ultimately be transcended through synthesis, and the working out of a new idea through a new social structure.

Illiberalism and right-wing populism feel an awful lot like such an antithesis today, conjured up in response to the liberal triumph of 1989-1991 and the era of globalization that followed. As that idea was a global one, so its anthesis has emerged globally, in societies with wildly differing cultures, social structures, and levels of economic and political development. Liberals from Tempe to Tamil Nadu are rightly frightened of the possibility that the forces of darkness have gained the upper hand in much of the world, and that precisely their illiberalism, and the popularization of hostility to the press, makes it that much easier for them to keep power however poorly they exercise it.

If history is an argument as Hegel saw it, though, then that antithesis cannot simply be defeated. It must be transcended by a new ethos and a new social structure expressing that ethos that obviates the previous conflict, and births a new era with a more mature conception of freedom.

It sometimes feels like the liberal spirit is fighting for its very life, and that more and more liberal heroes like Lankesh are losing their lives in that very fight. Can anyone in that position dream of transcendence? The good news, if Hegel’s understanding of history is right, is that she can; the bad news is that she must.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

Seeing Lee Through the Eyes of Slaves and Planters

As partisans on the “antifa” left and the “alt” right eagerly array themselves to re-fight the Civil War, I find myself casting my mind back to the final weeks of that conflict, and turning to the words of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address for guidance in how to think about the questions of memory and national reconciliation. 

Though the war was not yet over, and Lincoln disclaimed even at that late date any power to foresee its end, reconciliation was the theme. But the address did not begin with the call to bind up the nation’s wounds. Rather, it began by reminding his audience of how those wounds came to be inflicted in the first place, and how to understand the justice of the conflict in which the Union was still engaged.

The cause of the war was sometimes obscured by disputes about the nature of federalism, but was ultimately simple: slavery. Lincoln referred to slavery as a “peculiar and powerful interest,” and the words were well-chosen to underline his understanding of why war was so hard to avoid. It was not simply that the slave states wished to make their own decisions about their future without interference. The enormous population of slaves represented a massive investment in capital. The South had made this investment because the climate and economic structure of their region made it viable for them to do so. But once made, the South was resolutely opposed to anything that would limit, reduce and ultimately obliterate the value of this investment—for the same reason that anyone would resolutely oppose the expropriation of their own livelihood and patrimony.

Moreover, there was nothing unjust about God punishing North and South together by means of the war:


The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

North and South were compacted together within the Union, and both prospered by that union. So both North and South bore the moral stain of slavery, notwithstanding that the slaves themselves were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Southern states, and the social and economic structure of the South changed most by emancipation.

This perspective was what made it possible for Lincoln, in the midst of war, to speak of achieving a just and lasting peace “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” It is easy to argue that such a lasting peace would require honoring the honest—if, in Lincoln’s view, badly mistaken—conviction of men like Robert E. Lee that their actions were not rebellion but a defense of their country. Indeed, it is hard to see what “charity for all” could mean if it did not extend to a man of Lee’s widely-touted honor and integrity, or those who cherish his memory. Reconciliation could be achieved between North and South on the basis that while the political matter of secession was settled on the battlefield, there was honor on all sides. Those were precisely the terms that prevailed from the end of Reconstruction through the era of the Civil Rights movement.

But this, of course, was the period in which freed slaves and their descendants saw their rights and freedoms severely curtailed, and made subject to an oppressive regime sustained by lynch law. The largely successful terms of reconciliation between North and South were in direct conflict with the terms of reconciliation between slave and free, black and white, that were first attempted during Reconstruction, and revived in the Civil Rights era. If charity indeed extends to “all,” it must surely extend to the people who had been reduced by slavery to the status of other men’s economic interest, and nothing more, and to their descendants and all who would honor their memory. How can any honor to those who fought for the Confederacy, a country founded on race slavery as a fundamental principle, be anything but gross dishonor to those descended from those slaves?

This is a fundamental problem for American national memory. Reconciliation in the present means reconciliation of conflicting narratives of the past, finding a place for all of our varied common ancestors. But the axes of conflict between those ancestors may, themselves, be irreconcilable.

We may fool ourselves to think that matters are simpler elsewhere. Attila may be honored in Hungary without upsetting the descendants of the cities he sacked; Bohdan Khmelnytsky may be honored as the father of the Ukrainian nation notwithstanding that his men perpetrated the most horrific massacres of Jews between the Crusades and the Holocaust. But the illusion of integral simplicity is as deliberate as it is false, as the currently bloodletting in Ukraine and the escalating authoritarianism in Hungary should demonstrate.

Regardless, no such illusion is possible in America, which is torn not on one seam but on many. Wounds still bleeding must be triaged for present succor, but our national memory must be capacious enough to acknowledge the whole truth, and not only the truth of victory, for there to be any lasting reconciliation. Lincoln’s insight is still relevant. We should properly judge slavery to be an unequivocal evil, and the Confederate cause to have been unsalvageable because it was fundamentally and overwhelmingly that evil cause—not only of defending but of extending slavery. But we should not delude ourselves that, had we sat in our ancestors seats, we would have judged our own cause any more rightly than they did.

And we must resist the temptation to decide the terms of reconciliation for others, because only parties to a conflict can be reconciled, and only leaders of exceptionally capacious spirit can foster it. Today, we are led by a President as far from Lincoln’s spirit of charity as it is possible to imagine. And so it rests on the shoulders of ordinary Americans to eschew malice. It falls to the descendants of slaves to see men like Lee through the eyes of the descendants of planters, as the exemplar of their country’s virtues, and dispute their place in national memory in a spirit that appreciates that fact. And it falls to the descendants of planters to see him through the eyes of the descendants of slaves, as the American version of Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s favorite general, and let that understanding give them pause when they consider rising to defend his honor.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewThe WeekPoliticoFirst ThingsCommentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

“Dunkirk” Is a Film about Survival

Mark Rylance, playing the captain of a rescue boat in ‘Dunkirk’. Fokke Baarsen/Shutterstock

“Dunkirk” is an interesting film for our cultural moment.

The evacuation of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force, along with French troops, was a modern brand pulled from the fire, a miracle fully meriting biblical comparisons. But despite our manifest cultural anxieties, no Western country is in a remotely comparable position to the British in 1940, outmaneuvered by an audacious, confident and possibly superior enemy from which they need rescue. One can imagine why audiences weary of imperial America’s seemingly endless slow bleed might thrill to the prospect of a bit of Churchillian nostalgia. That’s an argument for re-watching “Saving Private Ryan,” though, or “Patton,” or, heck, “The Dirty Dozen”—not for revisiting the one bright note in an otherwise total military debacle.

But Christopher Nolan’s very peculiar epic feels like it was constructed in part to build a bridge between our time and the very different era of 1940. It’s not exactly a war film, as Nolan himself has acknowledged, calling it a film about survival. The progress of the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, however, is precisely from thinking in terms of individual survival to survival on a collective, national scale. As such, the film’s project may be to bring home to a civilian audience what exactly this thing called war most fundamentally is.

In the film’s very first sequence, Nolan sets out to isolate a single soldier, played by Fionne Whitehead, whom the camera will follow more than anyone else in the movie. Given the conspicuously generic name of “Tommy,” a name I don’t recall ever being actually mentioned, he is clearly intended to be the stand-in with whom the audience can best identify.


Moreover, he’s an observer character from the start, when he catches a falling leaflet warning that he and his fellows are surrounded. It’s a habit he maintains throughout the film, spotting details, whether it’s a fellow soldier burying a comrade on the beach or, once back in England, that the fellow who congratulates the soldiers on their return is blind (so it is not because of embarrassment at their defeat that he doesn’t meet their eyes). He is, therefore, also a surrogate for the director, his entry point into the film as well as ours.

Within the first few minutes, Nolan separates this every-soldier from any attachment. The rest of his unit is slaughtered by German fire, and only he manages to scramble to safety behind the perimeter. He makes his way to the beach, where he finds line upon line of soldiers waiting nervously but patiently for British destroyers to come and take them home. He tries to find a line, but there is none for him. And when the first German dive-bombers arrive, he experiences just what sitting ducks the British troops are.

And so he plans a personal escape. He and another man silently agree to grab a stretcher with a wounded soldier and make their way on to the next ship. It’s a tense race against time, with repeated reverses—but an ultimately a futile one: though they make it to the ship, their charge is taken but they themselves are turned away.

This becomes the template for effort after effort to get off the beach. If he gets on a ship, the ship will be sunk. If he swims to another ship, it will refuse him for lack of room. If he finds an abandoned ship beached by the receding tide, it will come under fire by Germans taking target practice before the tide comes all the way back in.

In another sort of film, one directed by Stanley Kubrick or Jean Renoir, this sequence of events might be the basis for bitter comedy, a sign that the universe is comprehensively determined to screw this particular soldier by never letting him get off that beach. But Nolan’s film may have less humor in it than any war film in history. (I recall precisely one wry joke, uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander, who seems to have wandered in from a more traditional film.) Instead of a comment on the absurd black comedy of war, Nolan’s purpose appears to be didactic. He wants to give his audience stand-in—and the watching audience—multiple opportunities to watch how the military force arrayed around him responds to repeated failure. The answer is not, “with heroism.” The answer is “with discipline.”

So, when the soldiers on the beach come under attack, they all duck together, still in line, and when the bombers have passed they all stand up. When ships go down, the soldiers and sailors clamber as best they can out of their bottom-bound vessels and jump in the water in an orderly fashion. There’s abundant death and destruction, but there’s no panic, except among those who have broken discipline, like the band who make for the beached vessel sitting just beyond the perimeter. We see this, and we see our soldier stand-in seeing the same things.

Nolan does give us two stories of outright heroism to intercut across this central spine. One is the story of one of the little ships pressed into service to rescue soldiers directly from the beach, captained by its civilian owner, Mr. Dawson, played by Mark Rylance, and crewed by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend, George (Barry Keoghan). Dawson is both a perfect exemplar of British stoicism and a deeply warm and empathetic figure, so much so that he seems almost inapproachable in his quiet heroism.

The other is of a fighter pilot, Farrier (Tom Hardy), the last of a squadron of three tasked with ridding the skies above Dunkirk of German planes, who decides to pursue an enemy bomber well beyond the point where he won’t have enough fuel to return. His last feats of aerial combat are literally beyond belief, after which he glides his plane to safety on the beach and emerges to destroy his aircraft before the enemy can get to it. As he stands before his burning plane and surrenders to German troops, his figure is so dominant and powerful that he recalls a comic book superhero more than a real person.

The contrast with the “ordinary” soldier felt to me deliberate, and part of Nolan’s educational mission. We live in an era in which the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will have no experience of military life whatsoever, either as veterans or relatives thereof. “Dunkirk,” a visually stunning film—overwhelming in IMAX— will not give those audience members the illusion that by having watched the film they understand what war is. They will be moved, I’m sure; this particular story cannot be anything but. But its very distance from the communal character of military experience marks it as a film of our time trying to reach back to another era, when military culture was more generally understood, and show us: see, this is what you no longer understand.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker. Prior to joining The American Conservative, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

‘Only I Can Fix It’

Meanwhile, my own column at The Week offers the President a bit of empathy:

It’s so hard to get good help these days.

All the president wants in the people he hires is someone who he can trust, who understands him and what he wants to do, and who will be loyal. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently it is. And I feel your pain, Mr. President.

Read the whole thing there.

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Trumpism and the Politics of Distrust

Damon Linker’s latest column for The Week is a lament for Trump’s absurdly high approval rating:

President Trump’s approval rating has sunk to historic lows. No president has hit an average of 38 percent this early in his first term. Those of us who are prone to despair at the disaster of the Trump administration are told to take solace in this fact.

This is dead wrong — a product of analysts insisting on judging the 45th president by the same standards that applied to previous occupants of the White House when no such comparison is warranted.

The politically relevant, and profoundly disturbing, fact is precisely the opposite of the conventional wisdom: After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

That is simply stunning — and reveals just how precarious American democracy has become.

Linker goes on to ruminate on whether Americans have lost their “democratic habits” and become more authoritarian in orientation, and thereby become receptive to someone like Trump, or whether it’s the other way around. Either way, our republic is under serious threat.

I don’t minimize the threat myself, because I share much of Linker’s concern. We have lost some of our democratic habits — indeed, in many ways we are losing our very cohesion as a society. But I frame the question very differently.

I know a bunch of Trump supporters. Some of them are intellectuals who write for places like TAC. But most are not. Neither are any of them raving bigots or knuckle-dragging neanderthals, and all of them read the news, though with vastly less obsessiveness than people who work in the business.

None of them “like” things like “unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure” or collusion with foreign governments. Some of them minimize some of these things at least some of the time — and I myself have been known to derive a kind of pleasure from the absurdity of a figure like Mooch. But this isn’t what the people who I know who voted Trump voted for, nor is it why they continue to be happy with their vote  — which, however unhappy they are with how the administration is conducting itself, most of them still are.

Rather, the commonality among those who voted for Trump is their conviction that the Democratic party’s leadership is utterly bankrupt, and, to one degree or another, so is the Republican leadership. And that assessment hasn’t changed one iota since the election.

I have a friend who was a big Ron Paul supporter who voted Trump with firm conviction that he was the only alternative to the final destruction of what was left of the republic. Is he happy with Trump? No — he’s especially unhappy with the number of Goldman bankers Trump appointed to senior economic posts, but more generally he acknowledges that the government is in chaos and that Trump is not bringing the change he hoped for. But he doesn’t regret his vote, and he prefers the chaos of Trump to business-as-usual under either the Democrats or the Republicans. And if Trump winds up discrediting the Federal government generally, that’s fine with him.

I have another friend who is a successful former Wall Street trader who always votes Republican, was a fan of Romney and looks back fondly on George H. W. Bush. He surprised himself by voting for Trump in the primaries because it was “time for a change.” He had no doubts about voting for Trump in the general election, and while he thinks the reality show shenanigans are ridiculous, he thinks government in general is pretty ridiculous. From his perspective, the administration hasn’t done much yet, but it also hasn’t done anything really crazy — and he retains his conviction that Hillary Clinton would have been a truly terribly president, much worse than Trump is.

I have yet another friend who is a strong immigration opponent and opponent of America’s interventions in the Middle East who, for obvious reasons, voted for Trump with enthusiasm, and who is very happy at the way Trump has changed the terms of the debate and punctured the pieties of political correctness. He agrees that Trump is a sloppy manager and that there’s way too much drama, but he also thinks much of the drama is because of the press rather than uniquely due to Trump. He thinks everybody should calm down.

I don’t agree with these friends of mine. I think things are much more serious than that, and that Trump is already proving to be a pretty catastrophic president. But my point is that these people aren’t frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics. Nor are they incipient authoritarians convinced that we need a strong man to wipe out the enemies of the state. They are, however, people who have lost trust in the individuals and institutions who are most alarmed about Trump: the political establishment, the press, etc. And so, on a relative basis, they’d rather continue to put their trust in Trump.

The challenge for those who oppose Trump isn’t to convince the American people that Trump presents a threat to democracy, or to wean them off the thrill of a reality show roller coaster in Washington. The challenge is to win back the trust of people who have tuned them out entirely.

The fact is that liberalism has always been an elite rather than a popular ideology, and we shouldn’t panic that our democracy will collapse if large numbers of Americans want to restrict speech they don’t approve of. What we should worry about is the mutual alienation between ordinary Americans and the elites that inevitably man the institutions of the state and civil society. That’s what fuels populism, whether of the left or the right. And populism by its very nature cannot build institutions, cannot govern, even if the populist leader is more competent than Trump is.

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This Shakespeare Fits Our Era of Puritanical Licentiousness

Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” Credit: Theater for a New Audience/ Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, not readily classified as comedies or tragedies (or histories, or romances), with resolutions that leave the audience with a “that’s not right, is it?” feeling that provides neither catharsis nor satisfaction. But I am beginning to worry that we’re losing track of what the “problem” is.  

One of Shakespeare’s slipperier texts, Measure for Measure appears on the surface to be almost Shavian in its use of characters to explore ideas, in this case ideas about desire and repression, justice and mercy. But it is actually a subtle undermining avant-la-lettre of precisely Shaw’s brand of amoral moralizing, and that should leave the audience more unsettled than comfortable with its resolution, while still unsure how anything could be more satisfactory.

These reflections are prompted by the production currently running at New York’s Theater for a New Audience, for while it benefits from a generally strong cast (and is particularly lucky in its Isabella, the fierce Canadian actress, Cara Ricketts), and stumbles in certain ways all its own (most notably staging the action atop a giant table, which makes entrances and exits persistently awkward), I left the theater dissatisfied in a familiar way from many prior encounters with the play — but not with the generative dissatisfaction that I believe the play should deliver.

The play’s action unfolds like a tale out of the Arabian Nights. The Duke of Vienna abandons his office, leaving his severe and ascetic deputy, Angelo, in charge. He repairs to a monastery, where we learn why he took this course. Licentiousness was out of control in his country, but because it was his lax authority over fourteen years that let things get so bad, he would have seemed tyrannous if he brought the hammer down himself. Therefore, he appointed a deputy to do so in his stead. As well, he wanted to test Angelo, to see whether he would remain upright once in possession of absolute power. So the Duke returns to Vienna disguised as a friar to observe how justice proceeds in his absence.


He learns quickly that it is not proceeding well. Angelo has decided to make an example of Claudio, who is guilty of fornication. Rather than allow the young man to make amends by marrying the girl (which he would be happy to do), Angelo plans to have him executed. A friend of Claudio’s, a local brothel-hound named Lucio, convinces the condemned man’s sister, Isabella, who is about to enter a convent, to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life, which she does, at first with great reluctance. But she takes to her work with increasing confidence and spirit in the first brilliant scene of the play.

Angelo and Isabella are, as described, a kind of perfect pair. Her first lines in the play profess her desire for a more stringent rule, and her first words to Angelo protest how thoroughly she hates her brother’s crime, and her distaste for her own errand of mercy. She begins to warm to it when she realizes that Angelo is arguing as though he were the law, whereas in fact he could be merciful:


O, it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.

Thus begins a peroration on “man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence” which climaxes thus:


Go to your bosom;

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know

That’s like my brother’s fault: if it confess

A natural guiltiness such as is his,

Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue

Against my brother’s life.


[Aside] She speaks, and ’tis

Such sense, that my sense breeds with it. Fare you well.

What is happening here? We are moving from principles to persons. Angelo’s sense (a sensual, and sexual, response to Isabella) breeds because she is speaking to his bosom, to his tongue, to an embodied self who felt the need to seek restriction and severity and to court self-punishment. Which is what she sought as well, which is why her sense needs to come to life in this very same scene, though she may not understand as well as Angelo that this is what is happening. They both come into the scene armed against sensuality with the conviction that such feelings are fundamentally base, and it is not an accident that finding fault in virtue’s heart is precisely what softens each to the other.

And right there is the problem, for a contemporary audience. Too many of us come into the play thinking: we already know this lesson. Of course Angelo, instead of opening his heart to Claudio, is going to pursue his sense and try to seduce Isabella, offering her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity. And of course he will prove murderously hypocritical, reneging on his promises when he thinks his demands have been met. We’ve seen this story over and over again, prominently among politicians who proclaim the importance of family values; it isn’t interesting to us anymore. We think we know the remedy: to get over our hang-ups and repressions and accept our natures as natural.

The play does not support that view, and directors generally know this, and try to present the other face of the puritan/libertine coin as equally problematic, but rarely with true conviction. In this production, the entering audience passes through “Mistress Overdone’s Brothel,” a Disneyland-style diorama of sex toys and perfunctory sadomasochism that provoked primarily titters and eye-rolls. More promisingly, the first time we see the Duke, he’s shooting up — a clear indication that we are to see the sexual license of his Vienna as a species of addiction.

But the play does not then take us on an addict’s journey to recovery—or, more darkly, insinuate that all the Duke’s fantastical stratagems (which take up much of the rest of the play from this point on as, in disguise, he labors to engineer every other character’s comeuppance, vindication and moral progress) are just a veteran addict’s manic manipulations of reality. Such a dark view would be fully justified by the text, which, while extremely funny, is also dark in the extreme. This, after all, is a play where the bawd, Pompey Bum, makes a facile transition to being the agent of the hangman, and where the Duke, when restored to power, pardons the murderer Barnardine not because he has repented, but because he is too drunk to apprehend his own impending execution—and he doesn’t know what else to do with him. But if so, how much has he learned of himself?

Instead, the production condescends to Angelo, portrayed as a thoroughly unappealing prig overcome with a schoolgirl’s excitement at her first crush. It is difficult to imagine Marianna, Angelo’s jilted former fiancée, pining for this man—indeed, it is hard to imagine this Angelo having ever acquired a fiancée to jilt in the first place. And is gentle to the Duke, who, in this production, not only we but several other character know actually merits all of Lucio’s defamation, but for whom we are clearly intended to feel an indulgent affection. No criticism is intended of Thomas Jay Ryan or Jonathan Cake for their respective performances, but the overall interpretation rewards our smug prejudgments more than provoke the expansive sympathy that is Isabella’s great achievement.

But we do still have that achievement to hang on. Ricketts delivers her plea for mercy for Angelo with painful conviction, and when she learns her brother is still living, her tearful embrace leaves no room for any other awareness, most definitely including any reproach of the Duke for his deceptions (or an untimely proposal of marriage); she’s too focused on Claudio to even know the Duke is there. And then, when the Duke repeats his marriage proposal when she can hear it, we see Ricketts make a decision in real time — the decision to follow her sense, and take love full on the lips.

It’s a rare decision these days, and a heartily welcome one. Isabella’s journey takes her from being someone who is reluctant to plead for her own brother because he succumbed to a natural urge, to being someone willing to plead for the man who killed her brother, construing his most repellent actions in the most sympathetic possible manner. If I am going to draw a moral out of this slippery play, it is from that journey. In which case, the conclusion I draw from that kiss is that what makes it possible to trust one’s sense — in both Shakespearean senses, of one’s reason and of one’s desire — is the expansiveness of one’s imaginative sympathy. And that, in the end, is probably as satisfactory as anything I can imagine.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

Ross Douthat Throws In the Towel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His rousing conclusion:

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

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

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

No wonder he longs for a king.

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A Euro-African West?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reagan’s Aliens and Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

So why can’t we unite against this threat?

Read the whole thing there for my answer.

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Burn After Reading

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






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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing.

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Does the West Have a Civilization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What If the Chinese Are Just Biding Their Time?

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

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

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

Related: Who did Thucydides Trap? 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


God and Man in the Times

Oh, boy. This is really, really good.

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

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

I’m going to react to one bit here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Independence Day Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chesterton’s Defense of Patriotism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Independence Day.

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Play It Again, Sam


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

So: what are the most re-watchable movies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Oh, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing there.

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The Senate Health Care Bill In Two Tweets

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bad Apps and Liability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Officer Yanez’s Panic, And Ours

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

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

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

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

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

But what if officer Yanez were a robot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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