Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Literary Corner: I Got Rhythm

Donald Trump's latest performance piece, Commuting Roger, a multimedia blizzard of tweets, video clips, official statements, and court papers, came out to rave reviews, as the president himself said ("I'm getting rave reviews"). Critics adored the extraordinarily swift pacing of the dénouement, in which the attorney general said Stone's prosecution was justified, Stone confessed that he'd committed his crimes (lying and intimidating witnesses) to cover up the president's high crimes, and Trump announced he'd paid the price of keeping Stone silent on the details in a Friday night news dump, all in an Aristotelian span of less than 24 hours:

July 9, 2020: Attorney General William Barr declares that Roger Stone’s prosecution was “righteous.”

July 10, 2020: After learning that his appeals to remain out of prison have been denied and that he must surrender to the Bureau of Prisons on July 14, Roger Stone tells reporter Howard Fineman, “I had 29 or 30 conversations with Trump during the campaign period. He knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t. They wanted me to play Judas. I refused.”

Also on July 10, 2020: Shortly after Fineman’s interview with Stone becomes public, Trump commutes Stone’s sentence and he becomes a free man. (Steven Harper/BillMoyers.com)

But there were many remarkable effects along the way, not least the moment in the next day's epilogue, "Remarks to Stakeholders Positively Impacted by Law Enforcement" when he slipped, unexpectedly, out of his usual choppy free verse into 15 lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, the line of Shakespeare and Milton:

Monday, July 13, 2020

Douthat and the only-two-countries-in-the-world model of Grand Strategy

Mahjong tiles revealing that China has words for "north", "east", "south", and "west".

Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, takes his Grand Strategy chops out for a spin ("The Chinese Decade"):

richer-but-not-freer China proved that it was possible for an authoritarian power to tame the internet, to make its citizens hardworking capitalists without granting them substantial political freedoms, to buy allies across the developing world, and to establish beachheads of influence — in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, American academia, the NBA, Washington, D.C. — in the power centers of its superpower rival....

So China has won twice over: First rising with the active collaboration of naïve American centrists, and then consolidating its gains with the de facto collaboration of a feckless American populist. Four months into the coronavirus era, Xi Jinping’s government is throttling Hong Kong, taking tiny bites out of India, saber-rattling with its other neighbors, and perpetrating a near-genocide in its Muslim West. Meanwhile America is rudderless and leaderless, consumed by protests and elite psychodrama and a moral crusade whose zeal seems turned entirely inward, with no time to spare for a rival power’s crimes.

Furthermore, Trump’s likely successor is a figure whose record and instincts and family connections all belong to the recent period of American illusions about China. 

One of those naïve American centrists, he means, Joe Biden, and of course sneaking in the reference to the familiar smear for the cognoscenti, because that's how Ross rolls—Biden's "family connections" meaning the bogus story from Peter Schweitzer's fabrication factory according to which Hunter Biden took some kind of illicit profit from associations with the Chinese government (I dealt with it briefly here in the form of a Radio Yerevan joke).

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Ismus of Enema

Via the Brooklyn Meetup Philosophy Book Club.

Hi, welcome to the Philosophy Diner, I'm David Brooks ("Two Cheers For Liberalism! (Or Maybe One and a Half)"), and I'll be your server. Today's special is Liberalism, which is my favorite, but I have to warn you, this is not the spicy kind of Liberalism you get from Eleanor Roosevelt and Saul Alinsky, but a more traditional or even antique kind of Liberalism, which is based on the idea that reason is separate from emotion, so it tends to devolve into a detached, passionless Rationalism. Or it's based on the idea that the choosing individual is the basic unit of society, so it devolves into Atomism, in an alienated society of lonely buffered selves. Or if it's based on the idea that people are primarily motivated by self-interest, it could devolve into disenchanted Materialism. To say nothing of Racism, which reduces a human being to a skin color, and people nowadays who dehumanize themselves by reducing themselves to a single label and making politics their one identity, as when they say, "speaking as a Liberal...," leaving no room for the individual conscience. 
I guess basically the Liberalism just devolves no matter what you do, and to be honest I can't recommend it, though, speaking as a Liberal, I've been there all my life myself, in this peculiar Rationalist, Atomistic, and Materialist sense. I only give two cheers, like E.M. Forster on Democracy, or am I thinking of Kristol on Capitalism, or Jonathan Chait on Socialism, or something else? Or even less than two cheers, maybe one and a half, because you probably won't like it at all, if only because of the Individualism, which leaves an unpleasant roughness at the back of the palate. I'd advise you to order a small plate of Liberalism with a small plate of Personalism, which is not based on the idea that the choosing individual is the basic unit of society, but the idea that the individual with individual conscience is the basic unit of society. And a basket of freshly buffered selves on the side.
See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Personalism, which is what Brooks's column is apparently really cheering, as opposed to any of these kinds of Liberalism, for further information. It seems to be a very specifically Christian and theologized kind of 19th-century philosophy working its way down to John Paul II, and a way of having your individualism and eating it too, if you know what I mean, often involving the recognition that God is a person too. That's undoubtedly a very crude oversimplification or schematic distortion but I'm not inclined to take it too seriously and just hope nobody cares a lot more than I do.

Friday, July 10, 2020

For the Record: Stupid or Wicked?

Kin Ming Estates, Tseung Kwon O, Hong Kong, housing 22,000 people. Image by Baycrest via Wikipedia.

Roy (subscription) asks, on the subject of the contrast between helpless Jonah Goldberg and Rod Dreher and malevolent Tucker Carlson, where we draw the line for conservatives between stupid and evil. It generated a huge amount of very interesting commentary, from which my main contribution:

I'm enough of an old-school love-me-I'm-a-liberal, by upbringing and temperament, that the question makes me kind of uncomfortable. Am I implicitly wondering whether we in the progressive community are really, really smart, or just really, really good?

There's a classic liberal answer according to which stupid and evil are two sides of one coin. People are evil because they don't know any better, and they're stupid because they're too selfish to bother learning. Chicken and egg. Conservatives are evil because they're so unconscious of the exigencies of life outside their own tiny and comfy community that they can't conceive how anybody could get into trouble unless they were bad people, and therefore feel no pity. There's a parallel failure of perspective among liberals like Dickens's Mrs. Jellyby, whose emotions were wholly devoted to starting a mission in Africa while she lost track of her neglected children and suicidal husband, but at least Mrs. Jellyby has some moral imagination.

If conservatives are forced to find out, they might learn. I think David French truly learned something about what it's like to be a black kid when he adopted one and his ugly-white community turned on them. Everybody knows about Mrs. Reagan realizing that stem-cell research isn't immoral when she was caring 24/7 for an Alzheimer's patient and heard that the research could help. That's why we love stories like The Prince and the Pauper or Trading Places.

The thing that distinguishes Tucker from Jonah is the energy he's willing to put into staying ignorant or, if necessary, turning to ignorance on a 1984 dime, as he did with the subject of mask-wearing the other day, adopting the Trump view after weeks of telling his audience the (scientifically correct) opposite. Jonah doesn't have any energy and trusts his friends to make the decisions (David Brooks has a wider circle of friends and adopts three or four contradictory viewpoints without noticing the contradictions). Tucker actively looks for the view that will advance his power goals whether it's true or not, and I agree that's evil. But he doesn't think it's important because he's too stupid to imagine the real-world consequences; he's just a high school kid taking the side the debate coach assigned him, doing his best to win it for the team.

The conversation quickly fell into worrying about "DLC Democrats" or "establishment Democrats", and I had something to say about that as well:


Via cheezburger.com.

One thing clear about the Supreme Court rulings today on the emperor's financial records is that no decision was going to give us, or the journalists, a chance to look at his financial records any time soon. In the case of Trump v. Vance, his attempt to prevent the Manhattan district attorney from obtaining his tax records by subpoena, which Trump clearly lost, we were never going to see the records; when Vance gets them, which may not be very soon, they'll be in materials submitted to a grand jury in the investigation of Trump's campaign violations when he was suppressing the stories of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal (in the case for which Michael Cohen has been jailed and Trump is an official unidicted conspirator), and whatever the grand jury gets will be subject to grand jury secrecy. On Trump v. Mazars (where the Court's ruling also applied to Trump v. Deutsche Bank), the deal Ian Milhiser hypothesizes was probably inevitable (more inevitable than Milhiser thinks it was):

that the Court’s liberals simply lacked the votes to order the House subpoenas enforced, so they decided that it was better to cast their lot with Roberts than to risk having their conservative colleagues unite behind a rule that was even more favorable to Trump.

Roberts bothsided his arguments for all they were worth, like a kind of judicial David Brooks, fiercely denouncing the theory that the president is completely immune from investigation but insisting that the House of Representatives overstated its own case:

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

For the Record: With Cheap Shots

Not to mention the administration's ongoing effort (not likely to succeed, because he doesn't have the power under our "federal" system which seems like a good thing for a change) to force public schools to open ahead of time, which just seems ridiculously dangerous, for teachers and other staff, for kids (and the horrible danger of the Kawasaki-like syndrome that has afflicted some when "normal" Covid-19 left them apparently unscathed) and the parents and grandparents to whom they could bring the disease home. I have my own theory of what his "plan" is—

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Hopeful Family

Californian community activist Allen Hernandez, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus on his left arm and the Mayan god Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl in Aztec) on the right, via Religion News.

Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic envoy to 42nd Street, has an interesting thought about the relation between religion and the current condition of the progressive movement in the US ("The Religious Roots of a New Progressive Era"), with a big hole in it just the right shape for me to crawl through, starting with a famous evasive remark from the 1952 presidential campaign:
“Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith,” Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, “and I don’t care what it is.”
Which is really nothing more than a hilariously Ikish way of recapitulating John Adams's wonderful explanation, in a letter to Jefferson of June 1813, of what he had meant in 1798 by telling the Massachusetts Militia that "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people"—

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Counterintelligence News

Zandar flagged some important and at first sight kind of depressing reporting from Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker, showing how the fix was in on the Mueller investigation from the start, with some new details on two meetings from the beginning, one in which Andrew McCabe (in his brief time as acting director of the FBI) briefs Mueller on what the FBI knows about the stuff Mueller will be investigating, and one in which Mueller gets initial instructions from acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein. It's in the latter that the fix comes:

Rosenstein wasn’t as familiar with the evidence as McCabe and his team were, but he had a broader piece of advice for Mueller. Now that he was Mueller’s boss, it could be interpreted as a command. “I love Ken Starr,” Rosenstein said, according to people present. (Starr was the independent counsel who oversaw the Clinton Whitewater investigation; Rosenstein had been a prosecutor on the Arkansas portion of that inquiry.) “But his investigation was a fishing expedition. Don’t do that. This is a criminal investigation. Do your job, and then shut it down.”

In other words, far from authorizing a wide-ranging investigation of the President and his allies, the Justice Department directed Mueller to limit his probe to individuals who were reasonably suspected of committing crimes.

I always forget how good Toobin is (as a TV pundit I find him annoying, but on the page he's still a real New Yorker writer), but in this case I think he's mistaken; Rosenstein was right about the danger of emulating Starr, and Mueller was right to take heed. But I also think Toobin is missing something important that we here in Left Blogistan just happen to know about, and it's causing him to misread his evidence.

Literary Corner: Swiftian

One of Trump's reading glitches, when he couldn't lift the word "sweeping" off its spot on the teleprompter, landed him into spectacular territory in his Fourth of July speech:

These Planes
by Stephen Miller and Donald J. Trump

These planes once launched 
off of massive aircraft carriers 
in the fiercest battles 
of World War II 

They raced through the 
skies of Korea's MiG Alley 

They carried American 
warriors into the 
dense fields and jungles 
of Vietnam

they delivered a swift 
and Swiftian—
you know that—
it was swift and 
it was sweeping like nobody's
ever seen anything happen

it was a victory in 
Operation Desert Storm
a lot of you were involved in that
a lot of you were involved
that was the quick one

Somebody's deceptive edit of the video (above) made it sound as if Trump thought Operation Desert Storm was in Vietnam instead of Iraq, but of course there is no evidence of that (his interpolation "that was the quick one" suggests he remembers pretty well, in its contrast to the slow Iraq war, which the speech naturally wouldn't mention at all because it wasn't a victory).

It's Stephen Miller's knowledge that is represented here, not Trump's, and Miller wasn't making anything up, either; he was clearly working from the list of historical planes doing the flyovers that were the evening's main entertainment, allowing Trump to cast himself as a kind of MC for the occasion (last year was a similarly structured guided tour, but the flyovers were ordered by service branch instead of time period). The interpolation "a lot of you were involved" does suggest to me that Trump doesn't remember Desert Storm was 30 years ago, and few of the active military among the "front-line workers and their families" who made up the guest list could have participated in it. 

It's clear, on the other hand, that at the Swiftian moment, Trump isn't himself aware that his text has left Vietnam and moved on to Iraq; the huge font on his teleprompter screen doesn't allow enough words to get him there. And as usual he hasn't read the speech in advance.

I'm the only one who thinks Trump said "Swiftian", by the way. Partly because I long for it to be true, but it still sounds plausible, not that Trump knows the word. I thought it would apply very well all the same to the Vietnam War—savage, sarcastic, scatological, and conducted by higher-ups who wouldn't have refused to consider the costs and benefits of eating babies, if it had been suggested to them.