The not ready for prime-time players

>> Wednesday, July 12, 2017

I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign. I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance. We had a meeting in June 2016. After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information. She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act. It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting. I interrupted and advised her that my father was not an elected official, but rather a private citizen, and that her comments and concerns were better addressed if and when he held public office. The meeting lasted approximately 20 to 30 minutes. As it ended, my acquaintance apologized for taking up our time. That was the end of it and there was no further contact or follow-up of any kind. My father knew nothing of the meeting or these events.
- Donald J. Trump, Jr., July 9th, 2017.

Of course, it seems a bit obvious that this statement is nearly certainly a through-and-through lie considering it's (a) at least the third version of Trump, Jr.'s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya (the first being that there was no meeting at all, and the second being that there was maybe a meeting but no campaign issues were discussed at all), and (b) this version is contradicted by Trump, Jr.'s e-mails, released by the man himself in an apparent attempt to achieve transparency by shooting himself and thereby making himself a window.

But never mind that for a moment.  Consider this: one of Trump, Jr.'s petulant responses to the blow-back from his self-administered fatal wounds was to tweet, "Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent... went nowhere but had to listen," as if this resolved anything, as if he was obligated to take the meeting and to do nothing but lie about it afterwards.

If only, oh if only, we had any kind of example to look to for an instance of a political campaign being offered potentially damaging material under the table and what they ought to do about it.  Say, oh, just for an entirely hypothetical example, suppose that a campaign was offered a video and strategy book from their opponent's debate prep prior to a televised debate, just to cite a what if something that really happened happened?

Here's what Gore's campaign did: they contacted the FBI, and the Bush campaign, and there was an investigation and an indictment and a mail fraud conviction that came out of the whole affair.

All of which, of course, were options for Mr. Trump, Jr., before, after, or during his meeting that he denied for months and months and then apparently mischaracterized.  Had he reported Veselnitskaya's contacts with the campaign to the FBI and or FEC and wanted to not-comment on them, he certainly could have so; "I cannot comment on Russian attempts to contact my father's campaign because of certain ongoing investigations I'm not at liberty to discuss," is only 137 characters in length and fits easily into a tweet (substituted the comma inside the quotes with a period and see for yourself, ye doubters and cynics).  And if the New York Times dug deeply and discovered Trump, Jr., was an honest broker and law-abiding citizen, who would be the hero of that tale, hm?

We're talking about this at all, in short, because whatever the President's eponymous son did re: the didn't-have-it-no-wait-you-meant-that-meeting-I-guess-we-did-but-it-isn't-what-you-think-okay-maybe-it-totally-is magical meeting was not ethical, nor prudent, nor legal.

And there's one more point about all of this that is the real reason I decided to write this ("Finally, VanNewkirk, and about goddamn time!"), if you're still with me and haven't nodded off.  It's very much worth mentioning that the Gore campaign, back in 2000, wasn't only motivated by Boy Scoutism, Fair Playness, and Legal Asscoverism:

[Texas Democratic Party chair Molly Beth] Malcolm and other Democrats suggest the materials were leaked as part of a political sting operation aimed at trapping Gore in possession of confidential information. The two presidential candidates will meet in the first of three high-stakes debates on Tuesday.

Gore's team, in short, considered the possibility they were being played.

Which, if the Trumps were as smart as they keep telling us they are, surely might be something that would have occurred to them if an angel--or a "government attorney" coming directly from Moscow--was due to arrive "with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."  A reasonable person might wonder, "Are we being compromised by the Russians?  Or by the Clintons?  Or by Sacha Baron Cohen?!"  In the era of bumbling provocateurs like James O'Keefe, gotcha filmmakers like Michael Moore, and "We'll just keep the cameras running until you look stupid" late night television like The Daily Show, might you respond to an e-mail offering a meeting with a mysterious Russian lawyer by ringing up the local FBI field office and asking if you should take this meeting, or if you should take it in a room packed with more bugs than a Fourth of July cookout in Southern swamp country?

You might, you know.  You just might.

This is the thing, and the point of this whole bit: there's no reason to take Donald J. Trump, Jr., at his word when his word has been changing for months and months now.  But if you do, if for some reason (no good reason at all) you decide to, the man is an idiot and a fool by his own admission.  The man lacks the minimal common sense and sense of self-preservation and sense of caution we expect of those in public service and that is the natural habit, for better and worse, of the political class in any democracy... well, in any government, ever, actually.  The natural state of the politician is to reasonably expect to be stabbed in the back by the people standing to his front and back, which can be irritating to the general public when it leads the politician to be mealy-mouthed and eight-faced and noncommittal about what he had for breakfast much less where he stands on an issue, but has the virtue of allowing the public to generally feel safe that its secrets and trust can be kept by one who assumes every motive is ulterior.

The Trumps, perversely, lack this basic quality.  And rather than this lack making them more honest, or more transparent, it merely makes them more stupid, and more dangerous.  As when the President blabbed--again to the damned Russians--about secret intelligence in a way that was, while not particularly specific (apparently), nevertheless specific enough for the Russians to be able to deduce where we got it from and how and from whom in a way that most likely burned sources, jeopardized lives, and made our allies less wont to share future secrets with an unreliable and loose-lipped partner.  

Junior's admission, should you take it at face value (and, really, honestly, even if you don't, even if you correctly assume he's a lying liar who lies), is only proof that he (and his family, and their advisors, and circle) are in far over their heads, kiddies who have strayed from the relative safety of the shallow end into deep waters that, admittedly unusual in a neighborhood pool, are notoriously shark-infested and poisoned.  (Shark-infested?  Try Xothian-infested, the secret squamous spawn of Cthulhu itsself reaching up from the depths with their unholy tentacles to grab the legs of incautious swimmers and drowning babes like Jared Kushner and Donald J. Trump, Jr..)

What kind of idiot takes a meeting with someone he doesn't know, represented as a foreign government's lawyer who is eager to discuss information stolen from an American citizen on behalf of nefarious hinted-at interests, but who could be anyone at all from said skullduggering foreign agent to an actress hired by a struggling YouTuber to show up in a Natasha Fatale getup with an accent stolen from Walter Koenig and a lipstick camera tucked in her cleavage?  Well, it turns out that Donald J. Trump, Jr., wants you to think he's just that kind of idiot.

Probably because he doesn't want you to think he's a felon.


Idle Friday speculations

>> Friday, June 16, 2017

It depends on what you mean by "collusion," doesn't it?  No, I don't think there were secretive meetings where Trump and/or his surrogates sat down in shadowy rooms and discussed swinging the 2016 Presidential election to the Republicans, mostly because I don't believe for a second that very many people (if any) in the Trump campaign or in Moscow seriously thought for a minute, or even a second, that Trump had any chance whatsoever of winning.

On the other hand, I think there's an extraordinarily good chance that the bottom feeders Trump associates with--and perhaps even the Bottom-Feeder-in-Chief himself, personally or through mouthpieces--and some folks in Russia talked about the opportunities inherent in the whole situation.  Financial, obviously, with all the opportunities for money laundering inherent to the messy books of even a not-corrupt political campaign, and all the opportunities for graft and kickbacks and future transactions and personal favors owed.  Political, to the extent that Vladimir Putin allegedly has a special loathing for Hillary Clinton and that it would be in Russia's national interest more broadly for the next American President-Elect to arrive in Washington D.C. bleeding, compromised, and in a buzzing cloud of questions of electoral legitimacy.  Personal, to the extent that the Russians likely have leverage over Trump and maybe some of his associates and family members in terms of blackmail or extortion options; and I don't necessarily mean the more salacious details of the Steele Dossier--it's not at all unlikely that the Russians are in a position to start calling in debts Trump owes him and/or could cancel building negotiations and/or contracts with Trump, and (in short) could ruin and humiliate the man.

So no, I don't expect any investigations of Trump, Kushner, and the whole lousy lot will expose a grand scheme to throw the Electoral College to Donald Trump.  Does anyone seriously think this?  I feel like I'm laying out some obvious points here.  The idea that the Russians really planned to install Trump in office seems like the kind of plan that only works in movies, the kind of plan where an hour after walking out of the theatre, it's really, really bugging you that the entire third act of the film depended on the hero or villain knowing that someone would perform (or not perform) some very specific act in some very specific manner; the kind of plots the old Batman TV show regularly lampooned with Batman and Robin just happening to have predicted they'd need to implement some arcane countermeasure before the final face-off.  But you hear this word, "collusion," and it depends on what you mean by "collusion," right?

Things that are just running through the head, probably obvious to you, Dear Reader, and telling you nothing at all you weren't already thinking.  But sometimes one feels compelled to lay it bare, you know.

And so I do think Trump is in a bit of trouble.  And this is why he certainly needs to be feeling something ominous creeping around the corners of the eye and up over his shoulder.  In a sense, the "Russia Investigation" is likely to come up empty in certain respects; I don't think we're talking about treason in any kind of formal sense.  But I think we're talking about corruption, which may be a better word than "collusion," which is why I sort of wish some folks would stop using the one c-word and swap it out for the other.  What I think people were most likely meeting about wasn't what Trump could do for if he became President; I think they were meeting about how everybody could get ahead exploiting the circumstances.

Y'know, there's a kicker to this, obviously (obviously?) in that Trump getting elected President may actually be the whole thing failing catastrophically.  Irony, yeah?  In that if Trump had done as well in the election as everybody was expecting he would back in October of last year, people might be getting comfortably rich without a whole lot of scrutiny, or very much consequence.  It's a political norm in this country for Presidents-Elect to be magnanimous in victory: there's nearly no chance President Clinton would have sicced DOJ on the Trump campaign, it just isn't done.  Besides which, President Clinton doubtlessly would have been too busy with Congressional hearings over e-mail servers and Benghazi and whatever else Congress could come up with besides to pay much notice to Trump coincidentally signing a bunch of Russian contracts or Manafort suddenly getting a good lobbying deal or whatever.  And, hell, if anybody did notice or care, probably it could all be handwaved away as the Russians opportunistically bestowing favors and sowing chaos.  Losers, anyway, rarely (if ever) are subject to the same scrutiny that you're suddenly under when you become head of state to a great world power, and in a democracy with a free press, to boot.

Well, we'll see where the investigations go.  I think we all know there's something to be found.  I'm pretty certain the President knows it, too.


Hollow man

>> Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar

But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care. 
- Matthew Yglesias, "The Bullshitter-in-Chief,"
Vox, May 30th, 2017.

It is hard to tell what is going on in Trumpland.  Who knows?  I don't think there's a lot of evidence to support the theory that even those in his innermost circle know what's going on in there.

But I think there's some evidence that Trump isn't a bullshitter, though he may be full of shit.  My suspicion at this point is that grand unifying theories of Trump's behavior, motivations, and strategies overlook the unpleasant and distressing possibility that what we are seeing in the man is exactly what's there: a profoundly stupid, ignorant, amoral, and delusional creature who believes everything (or nearly everything) he says even when it's obviously wrong and contradicts something else he says and believes just as much.  That isn't to say that Trump isn't a confidence man or huckster; only that he has been so long surrounded by sycophants and hustlers that the grifting has bled indistinguishably into Trump's perceptual reality and created a mud-colored mess, like an untreated oil painting left out in the rain.

Rebecca Solnit wrote what I find to be a far more persuasive Theory of Trump for Lithub, "The Loneliness of Donald Trump," arguing that Trump is a crude creature of appetites who has lived for so long without any kind of honesty from himself or others, utterly weightless and free of consequence, that he has wished himself into the peculiar position of winning everything and thereby gaining nothing.  She writes:

The child who became the most powerful man in the world, or at least occupied the real estate occupied by a series of those men, had run a family business and then starred in an unreality show based on the fiction that he was a stately emperor of enterprise, rather than a buffoon barging along anyhow, and each was a hall of mirrors made to flatter his sense of self, the self that was his one edifice he kept raising higher and higher and never abandoned.


Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.

These are truths.  And every new story out of the White House (or Mar-a-Lago), every leak seems to suggest that Trump's world is really a vast, empty, mirror-filled palace much like Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, through which Trump, like Kane late in the film, wanders dazed and angry at being unloved, incapable of getting his head around how all his worldly success has nevertheless left him brutally alone and unable to receive what he is incapable of giving or returning.  Solnit observes that Trump has, by being elected President of the United States, managed to become "the most mocked man in the world."  Indeed.  It seems apropos to observe that Charles Foster Kane's model, William Randolph Hearst, was allegedly, per some sources, infuriated by more than anything else in Citizen Kane by the movie's use of "Rosebud" as a McGuffin: these sources say that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, once a frequent houseguest of Hearst and the love of his life, Marion Davies, chose the word because it was Hearst's pet name for Davies' genitals, targeted mockery that went like a bullet right into Hearst's heart (whatever was left of it) (not to mention the added insult to poor Davies).

I also can't help suspecting that Solnit is onto something when she writes, "He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book."  My mind was already going there before Solnit's piece came out.  I cannot help thinking that Trump got as far as he did to some great degree because what he did didn't actually matter very much or to very many people; if he lied about writing a book, or about what graduating from "Trump University" could get you, or about the height of one of his buildings, or about how much money he had, or about how successful he was--well... I don't want to say these lies didn't matter.  He shafted employees and ripped off investors and cheated the public, but it's not like he was cheating the nation.  Did it matter all that much if the southern view from a Trump Parc apartment was of an ugly wall?  A few people might sue him for this or that, regulators might write a nasty letter, he might even end up settling a discrimination suit with the Justice Department or a fraud suit with a state attorney general.  There might be awkward conversations with financial backers... here or, shall we vaguely say, abroad.  Maybe "conversations" should be in scare quotes.  "Conversations."

There's a point to bringing this up in the context of what may or may not be Trump bullshitting.  How far can a human being go in becoming a completely hollowed out shell standing for nothing, being nothing, representing nothing, before the mind rebels and tries to reconcile a gnawing, raging, instinctual sense of failure with the desire to be real?  If you were such a person, wouldn't it be reassuring, then, to surround yourself with people who would tell you that the lies your mind told you were true--yes, you are successful, yes you are respected, yes you are feared, yes you are attractive, yes you are brilliant, yes, you are the titan standing over all you surveyed, the ground does tremble beneath your feet and all look up in awe at your might and works?

And then what would you do if, suddenly, everyone actually started caring about and scrutinizing what you did?  What if the people who told you such reassuring lies about yourself, who allowed you to reconcile your self with your perception of self, were now surrounded by people loyal to other things--to ideology, institutions, country, faith, honor, virtue, principles, philosophy?  Would you face yourself in the infinite mirrors and take a good long look at yourself, or would you scream at the television that CNN was getting it wrong, that people were lying behind your back, would you tweet the same damned things into the internet aether night after night as if truth came out of repetition, as if you could browbeat everyone else in the universe into agreeing with you the same way you used to be able to when all the people you browbeat needed to say "yes" to you to get something from you?

Why doesn't everyone love you?

There was a peculiar bit of news this morning.  Nearly half of Donald Trump's followers are bots--fake, nonexistent "people"--and the number of bots following Trump spiked this weekend after the news came back from abroad that the leaders of free Europe didn't love him nearly as much as oil  despots of the Middle East.  I doubt, though it's not impossible, that Trump himself paid the few hundred dollars that is all it takes to buy a horde of fantasy Twitter followers; no, more likely, seems to me, that some sycophantic staffer did this, perhaps even a family member, and didn't tell Trump what he was getting for early Christmas: no, the news isn't true, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.  Here it is in hard numbers: you are loved.

None of this is terribly reassuring.  This isn't--probably--the collapse into a propaganda-driven Orwellian soft fascism that Matt Yglesias seems to fear.  But it's hardly better that what is probably the most powerful office in the world is held by a sad, delusional, empty sack, sorry excuse for a man.  That Donald Trump may well be insane; Philip K. Dick liked to say that reality was that which didn't go away when you denied its existence, well, what does it say about Donald Trump, then, that he goes along with the denial?  It might well be worse that Trump isn't bullshitting, that he's insistent that reality will be whatever he's holding in his head and not whatever is for the rest of the species.  Mercy upon us if he takes to stronger measures than 3 a.m. tweets to reconcile reality and his fantasies.


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.


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