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Friday, October 19, 2018

Political Murders in Changing Times

Last week, it seems, Saudi officials murdered the exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  Press reports have now identified one of the killers as a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of the Kingdom.  The world community in general and the government of the United States in particular are deciding what to do.  Kashoggi's death is more than a single international crime or an episode in the relations between the US and an important ally; it is another big step towards a world of authoritarian dictators who show no respect for established norms.  As such, it recalls another big step towards such a world in the early stages of the last great world crisis in the first half of the twentieth century: the murder of the Italian deputy Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist terrorists in June 1924.

European democracy began to die in the 1920s in Italy.  United by a series of small wars from 1859 through 1871, Italy had been a functioning constitutional monarchy from 1871 until 1922.  Its government and traditional elites had lost the confidence of the people, however, after a costly, disastrous decision to enter the First World War in 1915.  Although Italy was among the victors, the war brought less than no benefit to its people, and both left- and right-wing revolutionary movements arose in its wake.  Benito Mussolini, a former socialist, emerged in the early 1920s as the leader of the new Fascist Party.  Terrorism helped bring that party to power.  Fascist militias called Squadristi, for which there is at present no parallel in any western nation, terrorized large parts of Italy, driving socialists and liberals into exile in major cities.  In 1922 they escalated their revolution, marching into major cities, and later in that year Mussolini led them in a March on Rome. Mussolini was however in many ways a traditional politician, and he did not attempt to overthrow the established order. Instead he became head of the government within its own framework, appointed Prime Minister by the King—rather like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or, in his own way, Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.  Mussolini initially formed a coalition government with other right wing elements, and during the first two years of his rule, political violence ebbed within Italy and the country seemed to have stabilized.  Parliament, complete with opposition deputies, continued to function.  Similar situations prevail in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where the new leaders have carried out extensive purges but the framework they have inherited remains, today.

The turning point in the history of Mussolini’s regime came in July 1924, when Squadristi kidnapped and murdered the socialist deputy and opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti,  To many Italians Matteotti symbolized honesty and rectitude in politics, and although Mussolini muzzled the Italian press, he suddenly became massively unpopular.  In January 1925, in an extraordinary parallel with current events, an Italian journalist named Camille Cianfarra obtained a confession from one of Matteotti’s murderers, the head of the press bureau of the foreign office.  Cianfarra was now the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and after the Tribune published the confession, the Italian government arrested him and tortured him. The American Embassy did secure his release, but he died shortly thereafter.  Meanwhile, Mussolini in January 1925 had proclaimed a totalitarian regime, the beginnings of the establishment of dictatorship.  Nonetheless, the British, French and German governments treated him as a fully equal power in the critical Locarno negotiations later that summer, which reached new agreements on the Franco-German frontiers.  The Matteotti murder started a long term trend.  In 1932, Japanese naval officers assassinated several leading politicians, including Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, and effectively brought civilian politicians under control for the next 13 years.  Then on June 30, 1934, a year and a half after taking power, Adolf Hitler sent SS men to murder a number of key dissident Nazis and other political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives.  The era of Fascist dictatorship was in full swing.  Three years later, in 1937, Stalin began large-scale executions of leading generals and Communists.

Both President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un of North Korea have apparently ordered assassinations of political opponents in foreign countries over the last few years.  President Trump has continued to heap praise upon them both, and he has not yet criticized Mohammed Bin Salman for Kashoggi’s death.  While there are no totalitarian movements comparable to Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism in power anywhere today, authoritarian rule has become a normal feature of our landscape.  While the western nations still must maintain some kind of relations with authoritarian states, they must also find ways to hold them accountable for acts on foreign soil, if not at home, and to make it clear that advanced democratic nations stand for something very different.  That is what Franklin Roosevelt managed to do in the 1930s.  As yet we have no FDR on the horizon this time around.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Feminism, postmodernism, and politics

Because this post may easily make some people angry, I shall begin with a statement of what I am, and am not, trying to do with it.  I have no illusions that I can affect the ideological and emotional movement known as #MeToo, which burst upon the national scene once again last month in connection with Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation.  It is well established and its impact is going to continue.  It has helped to bring one prominent criminal to justice and may do the same again.  It has created a new orthodoxy within the Democratic Party.  My goal is simply to identify some of its intellectual origins, to explore some of the implications of its ideology that have emerged quite clearly in several contexts, and to assess its contemporary political impact.  I plan to stay away from any explicit value judgments about it and I hope that people of all political stripes might be able to get something out of this post.

The movement, of course, grows out very real problems, sexual violence against women and the exploitation of power by men for sexual purposes.  The intellectual fashions of the last few decades, however, have moved those problems in to a particular context and addressed them with particular language.  We must begin with those fashions.

To those who want to understand those fashions and what has happened in academia since the 1980s I comment an essay by a young British intellectual, Helen Pluckrose, entitled, "No, Postmodernism is Not Dead (and Other Misconceptions)."  Ms. Pluckrose's name is in the news because she, along with two authors, wrote a series of hoax articles based on grievance politics, some of which were accepted and published by academic journals.  She appears to have the makings of a Millennial Camille Paglia, not only because of her clarity of thought, but because she lacks the histrionics and extreme edginess of her Boomer counterpart.  Her essay, a serious piece of intellectual history, begins at the beginning and tries to distill the essence of Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida, with particular attention to their view of the relationship between language and reality. Language, they argued, did not and could not objectively reflect reality, but served as a tool to situate people of different kinds within a hierarchy of power.  I would add, although she does not say this, that many postmodernists, consciously or unconsciously, have come to regard language as the only meaningful form of power, and indeed, to reduce real political events--up to and including the Second World War--to symbolic statements about power that resonate in people's memories (another favorite term.)  This has always looked to me like an easy trap for a professional academic in the relatively stable late twentieth century to fall into, since in academia knowledge, or holding the right views, is power, and often prevails without anything resembling a real-world test.  I don't disagree that ideas can and do acquire a power of their own, but that often has to do with the degree of their correspondence with reality.

The original postmodernists, Pluckrose argues, weren't very political at all. They only wanted to undermine the idea of objectivity and replace it, really, with chaos.  "Deconstruction" wasn't followed by "reconstruction," it was an end in itself.  New generations, Pluckrose argues, went in an entirely different direction. "The next wave of critical theorists," she writes, "developed postcolonial theory, queer theory, intersectionality, and critical race theory."  I don't know why she left out "gender theory,"  since she proceed to discuss various types of feminism.  To explain the shift these strains represented, she quotes KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, who defined the term“intersectionality.”

“While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance… But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people – and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful in thinking about – is the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.”

"Intersectionality" refers to multiple categories of oppression.  Dominant ideologies might subordinate an individual because she was female on the one hand and nonwhite on the other (as Crenshaw is), or as LGBT.  More importantly, however, Pluckrose says that "intersectional feminists. .  .developed a strong focus on identity politics which the earlier postmodernists had not, following Crenshaw and those who expanded upon her work. This form of feminism dominates the academy and activism now."  And she might have added, I think, that elite institutions have mainstreamed these ideas about liberals, as contemporary commentary and reporting on issues like Kavanaugh's confirmation shows.

To be specific I shall now focus on two specific controversies that have upended our political and intellectual worlds over the last month or so.  One, of course, is Kavanaugh's confirmation.  The second was the publication in The New York Review of Books--for half a century our outstanding intellectual journal--of a lamentation, "Reflections from a Hashtag," by Jian Ghomeshi, who was for some years a radio star on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, hosting a popular program on culture.  In 2014 the CBC fired him after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and in 2016 he was tried for three charges of sexual assault brought by three different women.  The judge acquitted him for reasons which any readers can look into on a very detailed wikipedia page about  his trial. The Crown dismissed a fourth charge after Ghomeshi posted a peace bond and apologized for his behavior.  Notwithstanding his acquittal, he became a pariah in intellectual circles and the target of a widespread campaign on social media.

Just last month, the New York Review of Books published a long article by Ghomeshi detailing, not his version of the events which had led to his termination and trial but his experiences as a target of that campaign.  A firestorm of criticism immediately engulfed the New York Review and its editor, the very respected Ian Buruma, who had replaced the late Robert Silvers less than one  year ago.  Confronted by threats from university presses to pull the ads on which the publication depends, Buruma resigned as editor.  The current issue concludes with 36 different letters about Ghomeshi's piece, 31 one complaining about it (and a few canceling their subscriptions) and 5 approving of it.  It also includes a letter from more than 100 contributors to the magazine--really a kind of Who's Who of the intellectual elite of the Silent and Boom generations--praising Buruma's editorship and finding it "very troubling" that he could have been forced to resign because of one article, "repellent though some of us may have found this article." 

Both the feminist reaction to Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, in my opinion, and the negative letters about Ghomeshi's article, illustrate some essential principles of feminist activism today which, as Plumrose points out, reflect basic tenets of postmodernism in its two phases which no longer need to be spelled out, and which some protesters may not even explicitly understand themselves.  I would state these as follows.  Modern western society is characterized by the domination of men, especially straight white men, over women.  That domination is expressed both through language and through acts, which are themselves a form of language.  Any form of sexual assault is such an act.  (For decades feminists have argued, without systematic evidence of any kind, that rape is about power, not sex, and that its very purpose is to subjugate women.)  Straight white men also exercise domination by inflicting trauma--and any act that reflects their dominance can inflict such trauma.  This is the theory behind the idea of "microaggressions" which is a feature of campus ideology today.  And critically, every form of trauma experienced by any member of an oppressed group--that is, any nonstraightwhitemale--is simply one tiny part of a much larger trauma that straight white males have been inflicting for millennia.  That is why even hearing Christine Blasey Ford's story of 35 years ago, many women said, triggered their own traumas.  It's also why feminists claim that reporting an assault, much less bringing the accused to trial and testifying publicly against him and undergoing cross-examination, is a further trauma that victims should not have to undergo.  Let me say again that I am not taking any position on these tenets of the new ideology, I am merely trying to report them.  Everyone can decide for him or herself whether to accept them.  There is some reason to think that Blasey Ford accepted them herself.  That may be why she actually believed that by giving her story to her Congresswoman she might stop Kavanaugh from being nominated or confirmed.  Here Senator Feinstein, in my view, did her a grave disservice.  When the accusation reached her she should have told Blasey Ford that she had only two choices. She could come forward publicly, at great personal cost--a cost reflecting the political stakes involved in the appointment--or she could decide to remain silent.  There was no third way--and in a free political system, there should not be.

It is because every violation of boundaries, from actual rape to an unwanted hand on the posterior, supposedly symbolizes a much bigger system of oppression, I believe, that feminists have thrown out any concept of degrees of severity where these issues are concerned.   No less a figure than the junior Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, stated this very clearly in a famous facebook post in which she explained why her colleague Al Franken had to resign from the Senate because a news reporter said that he had given her more of a kiss than she had bargained for, and a few women said he had patted their rear at campaign stops. I quote:

The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the experience women face every day across America within the existing power structure of society has finally come out of the shadows. It is a moment that we as a country cannot afford to ignore. . . . To achieve lasting change, we will need to fight this everywhere on behalf of everyone by insisting on accountability and working to bring more women into leadership in each industry to fundamentally shift the culture. .  . .
"We have to rise to the occasion, and not shrink away from it, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. That is what this larger moment is about. So, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on Senator Franken’s behavior. Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.
"As the mother of two young boys, we [sic] owe it to our sons and daughters to not equivocate, but to offer clarity. We should not have to be explaining the gradations between sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping. And what message do we send to our sons and daughters when we accept gradations of crossing the line? None of it is ok and none of it should be tolerated. [emphasis added.]
"We should demand the highest standards, not the lowest, from our leaders, and we should fundamentally value and respect women. Every workplace in America, including Congress, needs to have a strong process and accountability for sexual harassment claims, and I am working with others to address the broken and opaque system in Congress.
"While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve."

Any transgression, in short, by any man against any woman, should evidently result in the termination of whatever his career happens to be, followed by an indefinite sentence as a social leper.  Neither exoneration in court, nor offenses that (as in Franken's case) could never be subject to prosecution, makes any difference--because every offense is part of something much bigger, a generalized series of offenses by men against women in which each must be punished for all.  And for the same reason, any man who defends an accused man, or even gives a public forum--as Buruma did for Ghomeshi--must be severely punished as well.  

To this must be added another tenet: that women's accusations against men should, by their very nature, be believed.  The general model of oppression helps get around some of the problems inherent in this tenet.  Ghomeshi was acquitted partly because he was able to produce a morning-after message from one of his accusers in which she spoke very warmly about the encounter that she later claimed to be abusive.  Many feminists would argue that this message merely proved the depths of her oppression.   

And behind this controversy lies the biggest question of all.  Has western civilization been mainly a system that allows straight white men to oppress anyone else? Or is western civilization characterized, especially in comparison to othercivilizations, by certain ideas of equality that initially applied only to white men but which inevitably have spread to include everyone else?  Forty years of academic postmodernism, I think, have brought the first view into the mainstream and into our politics.  I do not share it.

And thus, from the moment Christine Blasey Ford came forward, millions of women and many men immediately trusted her story and assumed that Kavanaugh, based on what she said he did 36 years ago at age 17, must be denied his seat on the Supreme Court.  Here, however, ideology met reality.

Numerous commentators and op-ed writers have suggested, in effect, that President Trump and Republican Senators stood up for Kavanaugh not in spite of the accusations against him, but because of them.  In this view they were defending their "white male privilege" and reasserting their contempt for women.  Only in the postmodern vision, however, does this  hold water.  I did not, as I explained here earlier, want Kavanaugh confirmed, either before or after the allegations.  The Republicans wanted him confirmed for one reason: that he would hand down the kinds of opinions that they wanted handed down.  (These do, to be sure, include overturning Roe v. Wade, but they include a lot more besides.)  They think his legal opinions are more important than what he may have done when he was 17 or 18.  The Republicans, unlike the Democrats (see Franken, Al), believe in strong party loyalty, which is one reason that they have achieved such dominance in our government at this time.  Now it turns out that the whole controversy has energized Republican voters and, crucially, made it easier for Republicans to turn red state races into referendums on national issues instead of local ones.  If they retain control of the Senate, which seems likely, Donald Trump may choose yet another Supreme Court justice.
To repeat: I have tried to describe the ideology of feminist activism accurately and to assess its effects.  In our hyperpartisan climate, many people, I think, are lining up behind certain ideas without really understanding where they came from or what their implications are.  I am asking readers to think about certain hard questions.  In another, quieter time, I think that other answers will emerge.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Generations of Trumps--and Americans

Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, in July 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, we learn in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, brought the President and his senior advisers into a meeting at the Tank in the Pentagon to discuss post-1945 American foreign policy.  “The great gift of the greatest generation to us,” Mattis said, “is the rules-based, international democratic order,” which brought security, stability, and prosperity. “This is what has kept the peace for 70 years,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added.  Unimpressed, Donald Trump—who was himself 70 at that very moment—shook his head. Later in the meeting he railed against ungrateful NATO allies, threatened to pull US troops out of South Korea, and argued that international trade merely took advantage of the United States.  He left the meeting defiant.

This week, the New York Times published one of the longest news-feature stories in history about the financial relationship between Donald Trump and his father Fred, who was born in 1905 and therefore qualifies as a member of the greatest generation himself.  It turns out that Donald Trump has treated his father’s financial and corporate legacy in the same way that he wants to treat the diplomatic and economic legacy of his parents’ generation.  Having taken advantage of it to become rich himself, he repudiated its basic principles and created an organization based on completely different values.  In so doing he has evidently destroyed the foundations of an extraordinarily successful business, while insisting, all along, that he is one of the great businessmen of all time.  That, essentially, is what he is now doing on the world stage: ripping up the foundations of a stable order, risking disaster not simply for himself but for the nation and the world, and claiming, all along, the status of a political genius.

Whatever his own politics, Fred Trump was a self-made man.  He apparently never attended college and started his construction business in New York in the midst of the Depression at the age of 15.  When he was in his twenties he built houses and a supermarket.  Then his career as a builder became intertwined with major developments in American life. He built barracks and apartments near shipyards on the East Coast during the Second World War, and after it was over, he built more middle-class houses and apartments with government help.   Fred Trump—like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—was providing homes for his contemporaries and their growing families, and he was well-rewarded for it.   And like so many fathers of his generation, he spoiled his own five children materially.  Thanks to him, the Times tells us, his second son Donald—evidently his favorite—was a millionaire by the age of 8.  Two decades later, it turns out, Fred’s wealth allowed Donald to launch his career, and for the rest of Fred’s life, it allowed him to continue it, providing a safety net to bail the younger Trump out when, as so often happened, one of his more speculative moves went awry.

Comparing Donald’s real estate empire to his father’s can easily make one think of the contrast between two very popular television shows:  All in the Family, which like so many programs from the 1950s through the 1970s, focused on a lower middle-class family, and Dallas, which titillated the audience with a portrayal of profligate, super-rich Boomers in the 1980s.  Donald Trump wasted no time on housing for ordinary people.  He took advantage of the Reagan-era wealth explosion and a freer business environment to build luxury apartments and hotels.  Later, instead of providing for the most fundamental needs of working Americans like his father—the need for a house or an apartment—he tried to get richer by taking advantage of their addiction to gambling—an addiction which he, in his own way, seems to share.   He eventually turned himself, not his buildings, into the product that he was selling, enabling him to move into television and then into politics.  And he managed to move his role within his family onto the national stage.  He appears to have been the son who could get away with anything, confident that his father would bail him out when necessary.  In the same way he survived repeated bankruptcies in the 1990s by convincing banks that they needed his name to recoup more of their disastrous loans, and he now occupies the White House thanks to a political following that will forgive him for anything.

Sadly, the story of Fred Trump, his son Donald, and the two very different Americas they represent reflects a much broader contrast between the GI or Greatest generation on the one hand and the Boom on the other.  Boomers grew up in an era of large families and expanding infrastructure, including schools and universities, roads and bridges, and hospitals.  Their parents paid for all this with the help of high income tax rates (and high estate taxes, which Fred Trump, the Times shows, managed to avoid paying for the benefit of his children.)  The stable economy of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected tough regulation of Wall Street as well.  Today, after 25 years of Boomer rule, many public school teachers do not make enough money to live on. University education costs at least three times as much as it did in the 1960s, even allowing for inflation, students have to mortgage their futures to pay for it, which Boomers did not. Infrastructure is falling apart. Right wing Boomers unreservedly praise free markets and the benefits they have reaped with them.  Left wing Boomers seem to think that all is well as long as women and minorities claim their fair share of elite positions within our society.  Neither are meeting the needs of the mass of the American people.  In foreign policy, the last GI President, George H. W. Bush, left the nation with unprecedented power and prestige, only to see his own son squander it in an endless, useless crusade for democracy in the Middle East.  Now President Trump is turning the US into a rogue state whose closest allies are Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Rather than extend their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, the Boom generation has largely squandered it to enrich themselves.  Eventually we may find out that Donald Trump’s share of his father’s fortune is now gone.  Meanwhile, Trump’s extraordinary presidency reminds us, every day, of the collapse of our political life in the era of the Boom generation.