Fire away

>> Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Barack Obama should have fired James Comey, but it's pretty obvious why he didn't.  Whatever anyone wants to say about President Obama, he is not stupid, and he understands American politics; firing Comey would have looked like an act of political retribution and would have given the Republicans one more thing to beat him over the head with in a final two months better spent doing what he could to tie down his legacy against the barbarians soon to be coming through the gates.  Better to let it ride.

Donald Trump isn't not stupid and he doesn't understand American politics (regardless of his surprising success in getting to the top of the system; he obviously understands how to rouse a mob, but now that he's in office, he's proven himself the very Platonic ideal of the proverbial post turtle).  Trump decided yesterday evening to stick his arm into the wood chipper, and (being not smart and not understanding how things work) is apparently surprised that things look a lot like the ending of Fargo this morning.

There's plenty of good and not-good commentary out there today.  The thing I wanted to shine a light on as briefly as I can is simply that this isn't the end of the world; indeed, Trump, being the least capable man to ever clumsily stumble into the nation's highest office, has done pretty much the worst thing he could possibly do to kill the ongoing investigation into his administration's Russia connections.  It creates the obvious impression of a cover-up, but even if it's not a cover-up, the best take you could get out of it is that the Administration is completely incapable of minimally functioning, much less keeping a clean shop, and that the need for a special prosecutor has only increased.

We might remind ourselves that there are a number of theories for what's going on with Trump, his Administration, and the Russians; recently the Lawfare blog set out a continuum of seven not-necessarily-exclusive theories ranging from "it's all a lot of embarrassing coincidences" to "the President's a mole" (the quotes are my paraphrases, not necessarily the authors' exact wording).  Almost all of these involve some question of what the President knew and when he knew it--the old Watergate question that bedevils historians to this day.  (It might be worth noting, since we mention it, that there are plausible-if-unlikely theories to the effect that Nixon may have been brought down by rogues within his White House who were acting outside his awareness and without his authority--an irony, if true, since Nixon was up to his ears in impeachable offenses that didn't bring down his Administration.)  All Trump has done in firing Comey is to draw attention to that question.

It's also worth pointing out that while Comey received the Steele Dossier directly from John McCain (Vox has a pretty good timeline, here) Comey's "leading" of the Russia investigation almost certainly didn't involve the Director of the FBI hunting down leads and devoting a wall of his office to mugshots and surveillance photos connected by color-coded pieces of string.  (Do real law enforcement officers even do that, or is this just something they do in movies and television?)  I'm sure the agents Comey assigned to the investigation--apparently including a special Washington unit created to focus on the investigation--reported directly to Comey; but it seems unlikely he played that much of a direct role in the direction of their investigation, and their work is presumably going to continue.

And say it doesn't: after all, Trump could appoint a Director to kill the investigation, right?  Except this, again, is where we have to remind ourselves of the copious evidence that's already been amassed that Trump has no idea how Washington works.  Among other things, Washington D.C. leaks like a sieve and has for more than two hundred years now.  Do you know what happens if the Administration tries to lock down the FBI?  Let's ask Mark Felt.  At this point, if Trump tries to shut the investigation down, D.C. garages are going to be so full of journalists and disgruntled agents, commuters will be looking for parking in Baltimore.  (There's a better joke somewhere in there.  But it eluded me.)

This is already longer than I intended.  I think I have two main ideas here that I'll try to sum up.  First, that James Comey was a shit FBI director and the only things saving his job were the horrible political repercussions firing him would bring.  And, second, that Donald Trump just fired him.  I think that actually sums it up so well, I wish I'd started with that.  I may be a poor prophet here, we'll see, but I think there's a very good chance that Trump didn't kill the FBI investigation into his Administration's Russia connections; I think he just gave it a shot of adrenaline and a big old jolt from the paddles.  I think the dumb bastard just gave it new life.


Right to say

>> Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
1906 (or maybe circa 1758) (but probably not).

This is a line I've been thinking about a good bit lately, because I am a liberal and I was raised on that quote, but now we live in an era when people find themselves having serious discussions about the ethics of Nazi-punching.  On the one hand, there's this primal notion in the Enlightenment-touched consciousness that free speech is the greatest thing; on the other hand, there's a primal notion in the gut that punching a Nazi is simply following time-honored tradition going at least as far back as March, 1941 in the United States.

Nazi-punching, and also a recent spate of protests against conservatives scheduled to give speeches or performances on college campuses, which have brought forth a more recent tradition of liberals and conservatives wringing their hands over the deplorable state of academia, and/or of free speech on campuses, and/or liberal intolerance, and/or the kids these days who demand protection from "disagreeable ideas," and/or all of the above.

I find myself surprised, thinking about the line from Hall or Voltaire (but probably not Voltaire), because I find myself thinking that I may not agree with it as much as I did when I was younger, or maybe I don't agree with it in the same way.  That is, I find it a sound, even a righteous, principle in a certain context, but I find myself thinking it's maybe become a bit obsolete and maybe even irrelevant.  Which shocks me--I'm really keen on freedom of speech.

But here's the thing: at the time Voltaire would have said that (although he probably didn't), the barriers to publication--by which I mean we're talking about spreading one's ideas to an audience in whatever medium or format--were enormous.  And the state's capacity to crush not just an idea, but the person expressing it, were fairly extreme.  (Though it might be noted that the state's ability to crush a thought has always been less effective than the state's power to crush individuals holding or expressing that thought.)

In Voltaire's day, if you wanted to get an idea across to a large audience, your options were essentially confined to giving a public speech or printing it and disseminating the idea that way.

The first option, obviously, is limited to your ability to draw crowds, the capacity of your venues, and how long you might be allowed to go around running your mouth before someone arrests you for heresy or sedition and you find yourself in jail (possibly awaiting execution).  The only benefits of this format would be its economy: you don't have to be literate, you don't need a specialized machine, you don't need a specialized skill set.

As contrasted with the other option.  In 18th Century France, the literacy rates have been estimated at being around 48% for men and 27% for women.  Your first barrier for publishing an idea, then, is whether you're even capable of writing them down, and then your second barrier is that maybe three-eighths of the adult population can even read what you've written.  Assuming, however, that you're even capable of writing something down, you then have to find a publisher; printing presses of the 18th Century are these fairly large and heavy machines (though by no means as large as the gargantuan newspaper presses of our era), and typesetting is something of a skilled trade--not everyone can do it quickly and well.  So there's that.

But those are merely the technical restrictions.  There were also legal issues.  Operating a press wasn't just a skilled trade, it was a regulated trade.  In England, the press was regulated by the Licensing of the Press Act 1662; in Voltaire's France, by the Ordonnance of Moulins and an assortment of royal edicts.  To publish something meant paying licensing fees, being subject to inspection and seizure of "offensive" works, submitting works to bureaucrats for approval.

Of course, you didn't need to do any of that, provided you didn't mind being arrested.  Or sent to prison.  Or, if your publication fell into the often arbitrary categories of "seditious libel" or "treason," being executed.

Also, one more thing on top of all of that: depending on where you were in those days, religious authorities might well have a concurrent jurisdiction over your spiritual welfare.  Meaning that if your work was deemed heretical, you might be looking at excommunication, denial of sacraments, or other religious sanctions; which might be a big deal to you if you believed in such things (as many did).

You could, if you diligently and effectively worked to piss off the right people, hit a perfect trifecta of self-immolation in a perfectly offensive pamphlet.  That is, you could find your manuscript, plates, and printed materials seized and burned, killing your thoughts; your person imprisoned and waiting execution for seditious libel, killing your body; and excommunicated for heresy, effectively killing your soul (or at least barring it entry to God's Kingdom and consigning it to Perdition).  All of which, you know, might be a little bit of a big deal.

In such a context, Voltaire's (probably not Voltaire's) aphorism is more than just a nice bit of rhetoric, an impassioned defense of freedom of speech, enthusiastic hyperbole.  In such a context, that line is actually a moral commitment: you could, indeed, be literally, actually, no metaphor involved, find yourself defending someone's words (your own, the words of another) to the death (intellectual, physical, spiritual).  The government could kill you.  Legally.  Sometimes they did.

There are places that are still like that.  But not so much in the modern West, where the barriers to speech have reached a point that they are actually negative; meaning, thanks to social media, it is sometimes takes more effort not to publish something than it does to put it out there for an audience of your mom, of dozens, of hundreds, of thousands, of millions.  Just ask the people who try to take Donald Trump's phone away from him during the Fox & Friends end credits.

Literacy is nigh-universal.  It's hard to enumerate the media options for someone who has something to say.  This blog costs me nothing except my lunch hour.  (Okay, maybe a little more than my lunch hour.)  There are podcasts and tumblrs, reddit and Amazon Kindle Direct, Twitter and YouTube.  These are the free and automatic options; some people can still go on television, radio, and get pieces published in newspapers and magazines.  Mandatory public education is so widespread that literacy rates are staggering (in France--just to keep a consistent comparison--the 2015 literacy rate was 99% for both genders).  Governments tend to take a hands-off approach in the West, though there's not nearly as much they can do if they wanted to (even modern totalitarian states have struggled to keep out "dangerous" ideas).

I don't mean to say freedom of speech has become unimportant, or that we ought to fall asleep on the collective job of protecting freedom of expression.  But it does seem to me that we've gone from ages when speaking your mind could be physically dangerous to an era when anyone can do it and is surprised if there are social or professional repercussions from it.  Which makes me wonder if the whole thing is on a slider, and if the question before us now isn't about reflexively leaping to the defense of anyone with an opinion, but one of how we deal with the fact that any asshole with a cell phone can publish anything anywhere to anyone, even if what he's saying is wrong, stupid, and causes far more harm than whatever good there is in treating the mere fact he can publish as inherently virtuous.

Maybe there is merit in social policing of speech.  Maybe Voltaire's (not Voltaire's) famous line is dated and obsolete; a manifesto that shouldn't be forgotten because it's relevant in some times and places, but one that should be asterisked and filed away by our time and place.

I think this brings us back around to those college students and their censorious ways.

There may well be philosophical or moral arguments about the role of college campuses or academia as bastions of discourse and debate, or about exposure to uncomfortable ideas being an important part of the expansion of students' minds, or about college students cheating themselves out of a proper education by turning away from intellectual confrontation, and so on.  But the assertion that denying a college venue to someone with a book deal, invitations to appear on television and radio programs, and Internet access is a violation of that person's right to freedom of speech is fatuous.

It's possible that college students attending a Charles Murray lecture, for example, would learn something (even if all they learned from it is that Charles Murray is wrong about a great many things), but denying Murray an audience at Middlebury College (or anywhere else, for that matter) hasn't stripped Murray of his book deal, invitations to appear on television, invitations to lecture elsewhere, his position with the American Enterprise Institute, or his Twitter account.

Milo Yiannopoulos managed to get banned from Twitter, lost a book deal, lost a gig writing for Breitbart, and was uninvited from CPAC.  And yet continues to have Facebook and YouTube accounts, and presumably would have no problem self-publishing through Amazon or (if he has an obsession with Dead Tree Media) a print-on-demand service if he can't secure another publication deal.  His podcast hasn't updated since February, presumably because it was hosted or sponsored by Breitbart, but one imagines he can wind that back up and recoup his subscription numbers.  It's not irrelevant that a part of his downfall arrived with public reaction to a cable television program seen by more than two million viewers.  No one, to this date, has kicked in his door and sent him to prison to await trial for saying shitty things.

None of the people who are being protested or uninvited from college campuses are in serious danger of losing their freedom of speech.  Strike and amend that: none of the people who are being protested or uninvited are in laughably vague danger of losing their freedom of speech.  They are being denied specific venues by people who are exercising their freedom of speech to say that they don't particularly want their student fees and/or the facilities those fees pay for to be utilized by men and women who are or may be or are suspected of being assholes.  Those protests, again, might be unwise (or might not be), or may have some kind of philosophical implication regarding the purposes and functions of the university (or, again, maybe not); but that's an argument about the roles and obligations of students and campuses, not an argument about purported censorship or alleged deprivations of rights.

You do not, I think, have an unfettered right to any venue you want.  I'm not speaking legally, as it's been so damn long since I remember any of the case law surrounding limitations on time and place restrictions in public spaces (which might not apply to a private university anyway, though state schools would clearly be something else).  I mean as a general philosophical point.  The fact that I occasionally (okay, rarely) post to a blog doesn't give me any particular "right" to invite myself to Charles Murray's next conveniently-located lecture, where he can explain why he excludes environmental and historical factors from arguments about the test scores of "blacks" and I can explain why Meddle is a much better Pink Floyd album than The Wall, and we can close with a song-and-dance rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz" complete with canes and tuxedos.  I am not entitled.  Nor is he.

Of course, it's easy to understand why people would want to be.  They do get paid for these appearances, of course.  Besides that, there is prestige to appearing at a place like Wellesley over appearing on The O'Reilly Factor (quick, while he's still employed!).  There's status, and for some folks there's the appeal in thinking one might be molding future leaders and thinkers, while for others there's the appeal in thinking one might be rubbing it in the faces of future leaders and thinkers (and why not both?).  There's respectability in it for someone like Murray, and there's the sense of bearding the beast in his den for someone like Yiannopoulos.  But they're not entitled to any of that.

All of this might be different if we lived in an era in which the university was the last great bastion against government censorship.  (We might note, in passing, the authentic irony that in France, up until a few decades before Voltaire was born, universities were the institution assigned by the state with the responsibility and authority to censor.  How things change.)  If the academy's institutional status, power, and financial endowments provided a kind of sanctuary to politically vulnerable dissidents.  But that absolutely isn't the case; if anything, the academy is itself a vulnerable entity, a target for abuse and derision, their funding challenged, their purpose questioned.

At Popehat, Ken White (who I have a great deal of respect for, often agree with, and who has forgotten more First Amendment law than I've ever managed to be confounded by) recently framed this as a socially dangerous "Nazi exception" to the freedom of speech, making the usual Enlightenment argument that there should be no exceptions to the freedom of speech.  The problem with this completely cromulent argument being that college students saying they don't want particular kinds of speech on the campuses they attend is hardly a great threat to anyone's speech in our era.  Maybe it's ill-advised of students to say they don't want to hear certain arguments or claims at a time in their lives when they should be engaging in dialogues and debates, challenging their preconceptions and practicing their critical thinking skills; but even if that point is conceded (and I'm presently on a fence whether it should be), we're talking about what makes a good college student, not censorship.  The argument being made by those who say this is a form of oppression is that speakers are entitled to a particular audience and venue; that the effect of protests is actually similar to "What if Heather Mac Donald gave a lecture and no one came?" with the main distinction being that students exercised their own rights to speak out about it seems to have slipped past unnoticed somehow.

In the past, an argument over venue and rights was much the same argument, because there were so few venues to choose from.  An argument about someone's right to say something was effectively the same as the argument that they had the right to say it in a pamphlet or on the village green.  This hasn't been true for some time now, and I think we have completely separate arguments as to express something and the right to express something in a particular place or format.  Your right to say that Nazism is awesome and all the right-thinking people should be Nazis is severable from any right you might have to make this claim in your first choice of venue; to some particular audience; and/or to be subsidized, sponsored, or endorsed in any way by a particular group of people or institution.  The bars to publication are so low now, so astonishingly low, that to be turned away from one venue is merely to have a few hundred more to choose from.  In that environment, I find myself thinking that forcing a speaker upon people is the form of abuse that has replaced denying the speaker his voice, the new form of bullying and, yes, oppression.


Selfies with hideous men

>> Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wallace is the lingua franca of a certain subset of overeducated, usually wealthy, extremely self-serious (mostly) men. Wallace’s bandana and occasional playfulness disguised this, but history has slowly revealed what has always been true, which is that David Foster Wallace was exactly the kind of person who would be into David Foster Wallace, just smarter. 
- Alex Shephard, "Minutes," The New Republic

It feels bad to read a book by a straight cis man about misogyny. It feels bad when this book contains some relatively graphic depictions of sexual assault. This is par for the course, when the course is reading books and the par is the Western canon. What feels worse is having this man’s work recommended to you, over and over, by men who have talked over you, talked down to you, coerced you into certain things, physically forced you into others, and devalued your opinion in ways too subtle to be worth explaining in an essay (as in the interviews, where the hideous men are the only characters we hear from). Either these Wallace-recommending men don’t realize that they’re the hideous men in question, or they think self-awareness is the best anyone could expect from them. 
Electric Lit, April 17th, 2017.

We love the things we love.  Sometimes wisely and sometimes not.  Sometimes with such a passion that we feel awkward when someone doesn't love a thing as much as we do and with such a passion we feel awkward when we discover someone does.

It is embarrassing to learn, for example, that a favorite author or work is a fetish for people we would never knowingly associate with.  You wonder if it reflects poorly on you.  You wonder if you should feel guilt.  You don't think of yourself as a "dudebro" or a "lit bro" (presumably a dudebro who reads), but are you poisoned by your association.

And then, over there, you see someone who seems like the sort of person you would agree with on all sorts of subjects, who is probably a fellow traveler in much of your politics, ideology, and ethics--and this person appears to have a special loathing for something you have cherished, and you wonder where you are and whether you should be there.

I have recommended David Foster Wallace to many people.  Both in person and to any random person reading this blog.  DFW has his own tag on this blog, for goodness' sake.  Then, this year, I discover this strange phenomenon that Wallace is popular with assholes and the target of a backlash among cool people who apparently have never liked him, and I can't help feeling insecure (I am an insecure person, honestly).  I knew Jonathan Franzen was a frenemy of Wallace's, but Jonathan Franzen's never really been that cool, or at least I never thought so (and this is where I guess I'm doing it, too, knocking someone who is much loved by some people).

It makes me anxious and sad.

Anxious, because I want to be a cool kid, too.  That isn't why I read DFW; I read DFW because my sister gave me Girl With Curious Hair one Christmas and I was smitten.  But you want to think the things you like are cool, don't you?  And that they're a shared taste among cool people, and a scab like Neil Gorsuch isn't cool.  (A cool guy would have told the President to nominate him after Merrick Garland had a hearing.  Maybe the next time a seat opened.)

Sad... I suppose for almost the same reason.  Because you want other cool people to validate your coolness by liking the same things you do.

There's a specific sadness reading Ms. Coyle's piece that I feel should be mentioned.  And that is that it seems like she's had so many awful experiences, it doesn't occur to her that maybe some of the men who recommended Wallace to her did so because they hoped she might validate them by liking what they liked.  Or not even just that, but that Wallace brought them pleasure and they wanted to share that pleasure.  I hope this doesn't sound terrible, because I don't mean to justify anything else they did, from talking down to her to abusing her.  And I sincerely hope I'm not doing that, either.  I'm certainly not attempting to invalidate or question her feelings.  I'm simply expressing a crestfallen "Oh" in response to her response to shitty people.  I'm simply trying to say I wish her experiences had been different.  Both with the men and with the words.

David Foster Wallace has meant a lot to me because I perceived in him someone who was thoughtful and sensitive, someone who was analytical and wounded.  He could be funny and mean, but some of his best prose came out of such a deep empathy, he could feel a profound sense of dread and guilt about the animal he was eating for dinner.  Truthfully, when I think of Wallace, my first thought isn't of Infinite Jest, as amazing and discursive as it is (a postmodern throwback to the 19th Century novel in all the glory and messiness of that format); my first thoughts go to "Consider the Lobster" and "Incarnations of Burned Children."  The former I've recommended time and time again as a brilliant piece of thought; the latter I've never recommended and never will because, while it is an amazing story, it is one of the saddest and most terrifying things I've ever read or am likely to.  (My eyes get heavy and my throat constricts just thinking about the damn thing; and checking that link I just re-read it and I'm having a little trouble breathing.)

So that I can't even begin to comprehend what a man who would give a truck driver a choice between freezing to death now or losing his livelihood later might see in a writer.  It's actually quite a lot like wondering how Chris Christie can be a Bruce Springsteen fan when nearly everything he professes to believe is at odds with nearly everything Springsteen sings about.  I can only speculate, but I can't help believing that Wallace would have seen the story underneath TransAm Trucking v. Dept. of Labor as being an example of the terrible, absurd grief at the heart of the universe.  And if I'm right that one of Wallace's great themes and obsessions was that there is a vast well of sorrow and regret that runs through everything, it seems to me that the main reason for writing about that is to curse it and mourn it, not to relish it sadistically.

To be clear, Wallace could be angry and mean.  And, if we're being honest, he could be cruel in clever and funny ways.  But I think sadness redeemed him.  I don't mean his depression, which is something different.  I mean that I think David Foster Wallace felt what I can only call a cosmic grief, which he sometimes painted over with colors like cruelty, anger, intellectualism, snobbery, self-effacement, and snark, but if you were looking you could always see what color the wall used to be: mourning.

I don't know if that's what "lit bros" see in him.  It's hard to think how they could and could still be such a creature.  Maybe I only see my own reflection in Wallace, just as any great book is really a mirror; if so, maybe what Gorsuch sees in Wallace is someone clever who passes off a mean streak as erudition.

Selfishly and selflessly, I wish everybody liked what I like in the way I like it; I wish the things that are meaningful to me were meaningful to others in nearly exactly the same way.  I wish the men who recommended Wallace to Ms. Coyle were better people, and I wish Neil Gorsuch was better people, and I wish we all were (myself oh so included), and I wish Ms. Coyle saw what I saw in the mirror, and I wish Wallace was still around.


On not heeding the advice and words of Abraham Lincoln

>> Wednesday, March 01, 2017

I believe strongly in free trade, but it also has to be fair trade. It has been a long time since we had fair trade. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the "abandonment of the protective policy by the American government will produce want and ruin among our people." Lincoln was right, and it is time we heeded his advice and his words.
- Donald J. Trump, Address before Congress,
February 28th, 2017.

This was one of the things that stuck out at me when I was listening to Trump's thing in front of Congress the other night, and I was trying to figure it out so I looked it up this morning when I had a chance.

The quote that Trump's speechwriters located is from a speech Abraham Lincoln gave when he was entering Congress in 1847, in which Lincoln made an argument against the free trade theories Trump professes to believe strongly in, in favor of protective tariffs, which were an important part of the American economy and a standard plank of Whig/Republican political platforms from around the end of the War of 1812 until the post-World War II era.  Lincoln's full line, coming as the summation of an economic argument he just made using a number of illustrative hypothetical scenarios, goes:

Believing that these propositions, and the [conclusions] I draw from them can not be successfully controverted, I, for the present, assume their correctness, and proceed to try to show, that the abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government, must result in the increase of both useless labour, and idleness; and so, in pro[por]tion, must produce want and ruin among our people.

If you're not sure what Lincoln meant by "useless labor" and you're not ready to go read his entire 1847 speech, here's his explanation from earlier in the same address:

Before proceeding however, it may be as well to give a specimen of what I conceive to be useless labour. I say, then, that all carrying, & incidents of carrying, of articles from the place of their production, to a distant place for consumption, which articles could be produced of as good quality, in sufficient quantity, and with as little labour, at the place of consumption, as at the place carried from, is useless labour. 

I.e., shipping and freight are useless labor unless absolutely inescapably necessary, so take that, trucking industry!

Much of 19th Century American politics is made up of tensions between competing interests that don't exactly exist in the same way anymore, so that the politicians and parties of those interests don't map especially well onto modern politics.  We insist on trying, however, because American political culture is based very much on maintaining a mythology of continuity and union; because we haven't updated or revised our Constitution beyond doubling its length with "Amendments" (which, in turn, we never get around to updating or revising or amending unless you count the experiment with Prohibition), we oblige ourselves to pretending that James Madison or even Thaddeus Stevens would have understood and thought about issues in much the same way we do, and used the words and terms of art of their respective eras to mean the same things we mean in ours.

Teachers introducing students to 19th Century history may try to simplify debates and factions by saying that 19th Century Democrats were basically Republicans and 19th Century Republicans were basically Democrats, but this is basically wrong.  Nineteenth Century Republicans were anti-Free Trade, pro-free white labor, all over the place on the problem of race relations, favored government spending for infrastructure projects--a platform that has pieces in modern Democratic politics, modern Republican politics, and planks that have rotted away into irrelevancy and dumped in a forgotten pile out in the woods somewhere.

In particular, the Whigish protectionism that the Republicans adopted and promoted for almost a century is a platform that was once integral to Republicanism but faded into obscurity for almost half a century until Trump revived it.

This is where I confess my own lack of comfort and familiarity with economic theories.  I have some lay knowledge--I'm not wholly ignorant--but I also feel awkward trying to explain why Mercantilism doesn't work much beyond a kind of "just-so" explanation ("Obviously it doesn't work because practically every country has abandoned it as an economic model and the only people still harping about it appear to be on-the-fringe goldbug cranks, right?").

But it does seem to me fairly self-evident that Lincoln's hand-waving about the effects of tariffs in his 1847 speech is just that, handwaving: I can't see why the producer and merchant will take one cent losses on a three cent tariff instead of passing the whole three lost cents on to the purchaser, perhaps even adding an extra two cents to the price to make it a nice round nickel they can figure out how to split between them, telling the customer that the price hike is, "Oh, you know, there's a tariff now."  Just because Lincoln was a smart man doesn't mean he was right about everything.

Whig economic theory, as best I can make out, is a mix of strong federalism and strong regionalism, which seems a bit strange and contrary until you go back and properly imagine the United States as it was a hundred-fifty years ago, as a lot of mostly self-sufficient villages, towns, and occasional cities, nothing much bigger population-wise than on the county level, occasionally having to engage in interstate commerce to get access to some crop or mineral resource that was desirable but couldn't be locally acquired.  In short, a society that can only be annoyingly described as pre-postmodern... or, well, modern, except that "modern" implies "current contemporary" when we're talking about a particular kind of post-Revolution, pre-World War II largely rural, largely light-industrial/heavy agrarian society.

Words are challenging.  Sorry.  (Maybe the Wikipedia links I went back and added to the previous paragraph help?  Or don't?  Again, sorry.)

The point being that even if you're charitable towards Whig economic theory (and this is what we're talking about, Lincoln in this context being a self-described "Henry Clay Whig"), it's a system that assumes, is intended for, and applies to a kind of culture that hasn't really existed in the United States for... well, approximately a century, actually, which is one reason we see the last vestiges of this kind of economic thinking exacerbate the Great Depression when implemented by Herbert Hoover (e.g. the passing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, speaking of tariffs being hurtful, not helpful, to economies).  Even if you can show that Lincoln's economic theories were the right ideas for the America of 1847, I think it's practically impossible to make the case they were the right ideas for the America of 1930, a markedly different country.

What's interesting and disheartening, to come back to Trump's Congressional address, is that Trump's speechwriters offer Lincoln's line as a bit of historical support, but deprive it of the context necessary to understand what he was really talking about and actually meant.  Although Lincoln didn't refer to what we now call "free trade" in those terms, he was (in the parlance of our era) opposed to it; and one might think from Trump's phrasing that when Lincoln said "protective policy," he was referring in a very general way to policies that protect (workers, farmers, Americans, whomever), instead of using a contemporary and specific synonym for protective tariffs.

My assumption is that the context was removed deliberately, given that the Trump Administration has expressed support for tariffs (an enthusiasm apparently not shared by Congressional Republicans), though it's also very possible that the context was removed simply because context is complicated and the point of quoting Lincoln was to make a kind of appeal to authority in the American tradition I mentioned previously, where we cite our historic founders to promote a sense of linear continuity in our political traditions; besides, quoting Abraham Lincoln always sounds great because most Americans tend to agree that he was one of our bestest Presidents (and he was) if not the best (and he was probably that, too).  And with that point, it seems worth mentioning that maybe the context was stripped accidentally or wasn't understood by the speechwriter, who maybe was just looking for a good line from a beloved Republican about the government looking out for the little guy.  (In that regard, too, it seems likely to me that Trump had no idea what Lincoln was saying whether or not his speechwriter understood it, Trump's support for tariffs notwithstanding.)

Lincoln was explicitly promoting tariffs.  Tariffs are explicitly an obstacle to free trade.  This isn't an argument for the one against the other, though tariffs have a history of working out badly (the history of free trade, perhaps, is still being written and one concedes that there may well be a split verdict on the matter).  The point is perhaps less an argument than it is an observation that Trump's sentence is cognitively dissonant, that regardless of your feelings about what constitutes "fair trade," you can't really "believe strongly in free trade" while saying Lincoln was right about the "protective policy" of the 19th Century.  It's explicitly an incoherent thought.

One which doesn't seem likely to be called out by the national press and punditry, who mostly seem enthused that Trump made a public appearance in which he didn't grouse about media conspiracies, complain about fraudulent votes, say anything that was too obviously bigoted (though he did make a point of checking off Black History Month and recent acts of violent antisemitism at the beginning of his address so he wouldn't have to come back and say anything substantial about racial and religious prejudice), or refer to any fictional terrorist attacks.  Some have been pointing out that some of his comments about jobs and crime statistics are misleading-at-best-lies-at-worst, but the common reaction has been that he appeared to be "presidential," which apparently no longer means having the rhetorical skills of a Roosevelt (either one) or an Obama, or the earnestness of a Washington or an Eisenhower, but now is simply the quality of being able to read a teleprompter with ninety percent accuracy.

And so my two cents' contribution, such as it is.


They think they are respected and in the majority, so the majority should just shut up and respect them already

>> Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Many of President Trump’s most dedicated supporters — the sort who waited for hours in the Florida sun this weekend for his first post-inauguration campaign rally — say their lives changed on election night. Suddenly they felt like their views were actually respected and in the majority. 
Washington Post, February 19th, 2017

And here is where we wonder about Trump supporters yet again.  I mean, the guy lost the popular vote by three million votes.  He scraped through the GOP primaries with less than half of the primary voters' support.  Their views have never been actually respected and in the majority.

But there's no self-awareness here.  I mean, there are evangelical religious conservatives, f'r'instance, who understand they're a minority and milk that for all it's worth.  They take it as their mission to take up spiritual arms against an evil, secular majority that has strayed from God's path.  But Trump supporters?  They don't get it.  Hell, even if you accept their ludicrous premise that Trump would have won the popular vote but for the millions of chimerical fraudulent voters they've been told are out there somewhere, they're discounting the patently obvious fact that a lot of Republican voters in 2016 weren't Trump supporters, but decided to aid-and-abet or collaborate because they hated Hillary Clinton so damn much.

It is so hard to be nice about this.  And one feels like one should at least be civil, but this is ridiculous.  This is stupid.  The views of Trump's most dedicated supporters aren't even respected and in the majority of Trump voters.

"They’re stonewalling everything that he's doing because they’re just being babies about it," said Patricia Melani, 56, a Jersey native who now lives here and attended her third Trump rally Saturday. "All the loudmouths? They need to let it go. Let it go. Shut their mouths and let the man do what he’s got to do. We all shut our mouths when Obama got in the second time around, okay? So that’s what really needs to be done."

And then you get down the page, and there's this.  And the thing I'd draw your attention to is not how we're being insulted again (get used to that), but the sheer cluelessness of the last sentence.  Read that again: "We all shut our mouths when Obama got in the second time around, okay?"

I mean... really?  Seriously?  I would like to be civil and nice and not bluntly insulting about this, but even if I follow what logic there is in Ms. Melani's complaints, clearly I shouldn't be shutting my mouth until President Impeachment-Waiting-To-Happen gets re-elected.  If that happens.  And let's be honest, a lot of us won't be talking at that point because we'll be stricken by apoplexy or unable to talk around the gun barrels we've put in our mouths.  I sort of kid?  I'm not saying I'll kill myself if Donald Trump is re-elected, but I may not have to because, again, apoplexy.  Or heart failure.  Or stroke, if that's not the same thing as apoplexy.  Or possibly just fatally hitting my head on the corner of some piece of furniture when I get the vapors.

Whatever.  The point, naturally, is that these people can't even get through a single thought without pretzeling it.

Several people said they would have liked to see more coverage of a measure that Trump signed Thursday that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation that would have restricted coal mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. At the signing, Trump was joined by coal miners in hard hats.

"If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work," Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. "I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were." 

Oh, thank goodness, yes, isn't that great and fabulous?  Some workers in a dying, dangerous industry have been given a few more years of dying, dangerous jobs.  And the best part is that maybe the Republicans will repeal the Affordable Care Act and possibly (maybe, maybe not?) replace it with the Unaffordable Voucher System, hooray!  So that when their drinking water is turned into heavy metal sludge, they can have fun with bankruptcy.  Or see what Trump's Department of Labor has for them behind door number 2.  (Kidding.  There's only one door.  Hey, look, somebody put a cemetery behind it!  Hooray!)


She and her husband were well-versed on hold-ups with the president’s Cabinet nominees and legal arguments for the now-frozen travel ban. But they didn’t know much about the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn on Monday amid accusations that he improperly discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador — and then withheld that information from Vice President Pence and other top officials.

"See, don’t question me on that because I haven’t really been watching and listening too much on it," Melani said. "I think he kind of did it just to step away, a trust kind of a thing. And now, of course, they want to pull a big investigation and all of this stuff. And to be honest with you, I really think it’s only because of the way the haters are out there. That’s what I really think it is."

You gotta love it.  Arrested Development had a great phrase that came up periodically, "light treason" (as in, "I may have committed some light treason"), which is a pretty great way to describe misbehavior that maybe isn't technically giving aid and comfort to an enemy but seems spiritually akin to it.  And this seems like a fun and legit way to describe the contacts Trump personnel appear to have had with the Russians during the campaign and in the weeks before the inauguration.  But never mind that, because isn't the real sin that the media keeps reporting on this and people--including some Republicans--are kinda sorta just a tiny little bit upset about it?

It is so hard, it really is.  You want to be civil and kind, but how are you civil and kind towards adults whose reaction to something is to childishly stick their fingers in their ears and scream, hoping reality will abscond itself and leave them alone.  How do you treat that with any respect?  Honestly, what you want to do is you want to revoke their voting rights, since they clearly can't possibly be old enough to vote, and send them to their rooms without supper to think about what they've done until they're ready to apologize for being such fucking infants


In a crowd looking at four lights

>> Tuesday, February 14, 2017

With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.
- Andrew Sullivan, "The Madness of King Donald"
New York Magazine, February 10th, 2017.

Except this isn't the real source of trepidation.  At some point, the shock and wonder that Big Brother is constantly dominating the news with lie after lie after lie wears off; you no longer are provoked and surprised, you roll your eyes and you laugh and shoot knowing looks at your neighbors--

And that is when the trepidation sets in.  Because some of your neighbors shoot knowing looks back, are rolling their eyes and laughing right along with you... but not all of them.  And you look around and realize that a number of people--a surprising number of people, aren't rolling their eyes and laughing and shooting knowing looks: a surprising number of people are nodding in agreement, are looking grim and serious.

None of that is necessarily literal, of course: it's reading the comment threads on articles about the latest round of lies, it's reading Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, it's stumbling into a conversation with a friend or relative who shocks you by repeating some new lie or old bit of gaslighting.  It seems self-evident, doesn't it, that there aren't five lights and the proper response to anyone saying that there are five lights is to shout back that there are only four--or maybe even to giggle, because even a small child can count to four and stop.  But there are people all around who are saying "Five," yes of course, there were always five.

And they don't even appear to be under duress, is the thing, you know.

You think to yourself, "Anyone who believes this has got to be stupid," and you look around again... and, again, no.  No, not really.  You see people nodding and affirming--there are five lights and three million illegal voters and seventy-eight unreported terrorist attacks on U.S. soil--and among them are people who have educations and careers and whose opinions you might have valued yesterday if you'd asked them for advice about buying a car or who to call about a leaking water heater or to suggest a good restaurant to take out-of-towners to.  People you'd listen to, or would have thought you'd have listened to, and now look at them.

You wonder, have you stumbled into an Asch conformity experiment?  Or did you lose your mind?  Or did they?  Who are these people?  Where did they come from?  And how did you get in here with them?

And this is when the existential horror sets in, because, really, there are only two possibilities, and they're both just awful.  The first is that you're right, but the world is crazier and far less stable and safe than you believed.  You are surrounded by people who are untrustworthy on a very fundamental level, the level of agreeing to a consensual reality.  Or, the second possibility, they're right and you've lost your mind if you ever had it, you're delusional, and you're crazier and far less stable and safe than you believed, and you are untrustworthy on a very fundamental level of being a part of a consensual reality.

An Asch conformity experiment?  Nevermind: you've wandered into a Philip K. Dick novel.

It's easy to forget that this is one of the real horrors of Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (since Sullivan alluded to Orwell).  The superficial horror is the one everyone remembers, Big Brother looking down from everywhere, but this isn't unlike thinking the monster is named Frankenstein.  Big Brother's surveillance state doesn't extend to the proles, it only covers those who are in the party, and not all the time, and a party rank-and-filer like Winston is frequently able to find a nook here or there to maintain a diary or conduct an illicit affair (even if, spoiler, those things might ultimately turn out to have been dangled in front of him to provoke him into thoughtcrime for the party's unfathomable purposes).  No, the real horror is the Memory Hole, the real horror is that Winston is facing a world that changes day by day and his own recollection of the pre-war, pre-Oceania world is constantly being eroded by the party's daily rewrites of what he knows to be true; and rather than being able to depend on other human beings to support his recall, he is surrounded by Two-Minute Haters who go along with the erosion of objectivity, sadistic cynics who don't care whether there's a reality or not so long as they get theirs, and a few like-minded people who will inevitably let him down and betray him.

I think we forget sometimes, that the point behind Orwellian ideas like Newspeak isn't that people say one thing meaning the opposite just for its own purpose, or even for the purpose of merely obscuring truths; Orwell was positing a much nastier, much more insidious idea: that language could be infantilized to a point that reality became impossible to talk about in the first place.  That you could turn language into gibberish not to hide what a state actor was doing (though that might be a definite plus), but rather to keep people from establishing a consensual reality where, say for instance, "freedom" or "justice" are meaningful things, things that have a common reality, however abstract, so that we can have a conversation about freedom or justice where we have a mutual understanding in which the conversation takes root and from which it blossoms.

Winston is alone in his ideas and memories, even though there are surely other people equally alone with shared ones.  All these islands of thought, in an ocean of consensual delusion.

That is at least as frightening as a ratcage hat.


Nearer the end

>> Friday, February 10, 2017

I have my better days and my worse days.  I feel a great deal of pride in the way my fellow Americans have responded to the Trump presidency*, from friends who have until now otherwise been apolitical for much of their lives to what appears to be a renewed vigor in the American press.  I haven't really lost confidence that Trump is likely to go down one way or another; in the three weeks he's been President, he's demonstrated levels of incompetence, venality, and instability that are surprising even to people like me who thought he was a greedy, nutty hack ten or fifteen years ago when he was mostly famous for going bankrupt in the casino industry.

But my worse days, I remind myself of how we got here, and I find myself wondering what happens when we beat him.  Because I have gone from thinking the Constitution is broken--something I've been saying for quite a while--to thinking that the Constitution is broken and we are in the midst of a Constitutional crisis of which Trump is paradoxically both a mere symptom and a catalyst; a crisis that has possibly been proceeding in slow motion since the end of World War II; a crisis that was in motion but masked for its first two or three decades by the willingness of national leaders to hew to republican traditions for the sake of form or honor, a willingness that seems to have gone by the wayside since the Obama administration, or maybe since the G.W. Bush administration.

Ezra Klein recently wrote an excellent piece for Vox observing that Donald Trump is, ironically, exactly the kind of disaster the Constitution is designed to mitigate and purge.  Whatever the Founders' many, many faults, they at least could imagine an autocratic Executive--a tyrant, in the classical sense of the word--attempting to use the enforcement and military authority of his office for personal gain and aggrandizement.  Hence the separation of powers.  As Klein writes:

But the danger of a demagogic, aspirational autocrat winning the White House is one problem the Madisonian constitutional order is exquisitely designed to handle. The founders feared charismatic populists, they worried over would-be monarchs, and so they designed a system of government meant to frustrate them.


The president can do little without Congress’s express permission. He cannot raise money. He cannot declare war. He cannot even staff his government. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to compel Trump to release his tax returns, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to impeach Trump unless he agreed to turn his assets over to a blind trust, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to take Trump’s power to choose who can and cannot enter the country, they could....

Klein goes on to point out a fatal vulnerability in this system: the Constitution is implicitly built around the premise that politicians won't be immune from acting towards regional interests (the interests of New Yorkers versus Virginians, say) or personal interests, and pits those interests against one another; but it completely overlooks the prospect that ideological and national interests--party interests--will override regional and personal interests.  That is, the Constitution is full of mechanisms to pit the representatives of Georgia against those of Delaware, or to pit the interests of Senators against those of Representatives, but it has nothing to deal with the ugly possibility--now the ugly reality--of two national parties each treating governance as a zero-sum game wherein the most important thing is scoring points for the national team and the needs of constituents or the Republic be damned.

Not only that, but the Constitution doesn't deal with the prospect of the parties themselves; that is, there's nothing setting forth whether there should be one party or a hundred, whether those parties are private or public entities, whether there should be some kind of balance between them, who they represent, etc..  Which has left it to the parties themselves to enforce democratic traditions (or not) and turned an electoral system premised on the states sorting out who should be President and Vice-President into an awkward hybrid of political parties choosing who should be President using the forms and structures of the state-centric system; i.e. the whole business of electors being beholden to which party won the election in a particular state instead of showing up to vote the interests of the states themselves.

And since the parties are left to their own devices to select their nominees, the parties themselves are subject to subversion that they may or may not have the wherewithal to fight.

I think this is where we remind ourselves how Trump got here: between February and April, 2016, the only time he cracked 50% of the votes in the Republican primaries was in the Northern Mariana Islands (where he was unaccountably popular); he continued  to have trouble getting 2/3 of the GOP primary vote until it became a three-man race and didn't consistently break 75% until his nomination was all but secure (and even then, there was an active, if ineffectual, "Never Trump" movement at the convention).  Overall, he won by a healthy plurality but merely a plurality, securing just under 45% of the GOP popular vote through the primary season; enough to secure the nomination, obviously, but it would be fair to say that 55% of Republican primary voters would have preferred somebody--anybody--else as a candidate.

It's probably also fair to say that many of those "Not Trump" Republican voters who went on to vote for Trump in the general election only did so out of their dislike for Hillary Clinton.

There's a good bit of circumstantial evidence (and even a few insider claims) that Trump never meant to win the nomination at all--or at least didn't mean to when he entered the race; that he entered the campaign as a publicity stunt and egoboo, and just happened to have the (mis)fortune to run in a year when the Republican field included a dozen people, the most qualified of whom ran as if he'd lost a bet with his family and dropped out in February 2016 after somehow barely scoring single-digit results in every state except New Hampshire (where he managed to crack double-digits with 11% of the vote).  In short, he stumbled into an exploit in a vulnerable system at a moment in time when it just happened to be exceptionally vulnerable.

Lest this be seen as a uniquely Republican problem, we might remind ourselves that Bernie Sanders was the "good" version of Donald Trump in the Democratic primaries.  While I voted for him in the NC Democratic primary, threw a little bit of money his way, and strongly supported his candidacy, it didn't escape my notice (and shouldn't have escaped yours) that Sanders was doing the exact same thing Trump was doing for completely different reasons: whereas Trump is a preening narcissist, Sanders has a career of public service and an obvious and consistent belief system regarding the purposes and uses of government for the public weal; nevertheless, he was also an outsider stepping into someone else's internal contest and benefiting from dissatisfaction with the "establishment" party candidates.

There were two crucial differences in the situations, of course.  First, that Sanders was a "good guy" interloper, representing actual values expressed by the Democratic party and representing the interests of at least a portion of the Democratic coalition.  The second--and this was frustrating for Sanders supporters despite the fact it was really a good thing--was that the Democrats had more robust internal mechanisms for fighting off an invader (even a heroic one) than the Republicans had.  And we have to call this a good thing even if some of us aren't wholly pleased with the results: consider an alternative in which Sanders isn't an interloper for the left, but someone wholly equivalent to Trump, simply playing a demagogic charade to steal the nomination from a real Democrat; you'd thank your stars for superdelegates.

Much as so many of us can wish there'd been something to stop Donald Trump at the Republican convention.

I realize that this seems like a long digression: from the vulnerability of our system when a partisan Congress lacks the will to stand in the way of an Executive from the same party, to the vulnerability of the parties to invaders who may not have the interests of the party at heart.  I sort of hope that last sentence shows where I'm going with that and where these two concerns join, however; the parties are susceptible to takeover from outsiders because they lack the means to stop an interloper, and then that takeover is inflicted upon the country if the interloper ends up in a position of power and the mechanism for reeling him in breaks down because the party is now in the position of having to accept him because they're more interested in their team "winning" than they are in whether the now-embraced interloper is fit to hold office.

Did that make sense?  I hope that made sense.

This leaves us in a terrible place.  I still have some hope that President* Trump will make himself such a nuisance that the House has no choice to impeach, fellow Republican or not.  And I think it's still possible he might be in a position where he's forced to resign, though the size of his ego leaves me a little skeptical about the size of that possibility.  There's also his age, his obvious misery, suggestions his health (mental and physical) may not be as best as he maintains, raising the possibility he could die in office or be subject to the "Twenty-Fifth Amendment solution" that's been murmured about here and there.

But whether Trump makes it through four years or doesn't, we will always be in danger of the situation we are in now.  And this is the long-brewing Constitutional crisis I fear has come to a boil.  Trump stumbled through vulnerabilities in the nominating process that any other politician--in either party--might exploit in some form or another; even if the parties fix their nominating mechanisms to make it harder for outsiders to secure the nomination, 2016 surely isn't the last time a party will enter the primary season with a veritable clown-car full of laughable aspirants bumbling out of the doors and trunk (not to mention that closing the party nominating process to outsiders has its own anti-democratic problems and in some ways doubles down on the problem of having a party-centered system of government under a non-party Constitution instead of mitigating the issue).  And there will still be the same problem--which we've already had under the Bush and Obama administrations, frankly--of the checks and balances in the system completely malfunctioning (effectively absent when the same party controls the Executive and Legislature, and completely obstructionist to the point of non-governance when the branches are controlled by opposing parties).

This problem has been brewing at least since the end of World War II (I have an argument for that marker, but this piece is already too long; suffice it to say, if you wanted to trace this problem all the way back to the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, or to any of the party-system-transition points in between, those are all fair and sound arguments that don't change the main point).  It's been mitigated by convention and tradition: until recently, the parties balanced their desire to win alongside some consensus that traditions dating back to George Washington and the First Congress be honored (or at least paid lip-service to).  It's been increasingly clear for a while that the Republicans can no longer be expected to honor those political mores and the Democrats can no longer afford to.  But the most depressing thing about the Trump presidency* is that he has precipitated this unstable situation into a contemporary crisis while accidentally creating a roadmap for any other demagogue who wants to take advantage of the system's infirmities on purpose.

And because this is a systematic, institutional problem, it isn't something we can fix by doing the things we can and will and need to do.  This is the part that's ruining me this week.  By all means, we have to do what we can within this terrible system to try to make it work, because it's the system we have; but it will still be broken even when we do, and I don't know what we do with the prospect of a complete system failure floating around in the air.  Liberals need to run for local races, call their representatives, get the vote out, support progressive institutions like the free press and organizations like the ACLU--but all of this is a lot like making short-term repairs to an automobile one can't afford to replace, knowing that one is sinking money into a vehicle that will eventually crap out and total itself with a blown engine or similar disaster.

I will say that we have had Constitutional crises before, and we have come out of them with new spins on the old order.  The American Civil War, for example, resulted in three amendments redefining citizenship and an implicit reordering of the country as a Federal entity (with the central government having supremacy over the individual states).  Maybe something like that happens at the end of the path we're on.  But what we need, really, is a new Constitution altogether, one that dispenses with the delusions of the old one, reinstates the ideals of liberty and justice, and acknowledges the reality of the United States as a vast and diverse global power in an age of rocketry and telecommunications.

I don't know how we get there.  I don't think we can.  And it agonizes me.


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