Meta-Commentary

Syria (I)

Posted in media, politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on August 31, 2013

Jonathan Chait on Syria:

Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing behind that statement to suggest why his conclusion is justified. If an intervention–which necessarily carries a cost–is preferable to doing nothing at all, there must be some metric beyond a sense of moral righteousness that we can use to measure the benefit that accrues.

And this is where Chait’s argument begins to grate. In scolding his fellow travelers for insufficiently weighing the pros and cons of intervention by bringing up the irrelevant issue of malaria nets, he fails to offer any compelling case for it beyond the idea of imposing a cost on chemical weapons use, relatively “low stakes,” and the chance that killing the killers could reduce the overall level of violence. So we’re left with a case for intervention that could be summed up as, “eh, it might work–but it probably won’t–and it doesn’t cost much.” You don’t have to be a peacenik to want a little bit more rigor in an analysis.

The argument isn’t helped any by Chait’s inclusion of this gem:

The arguments Yglesias poses today against a military strike against Syria eerily echo the arguments conservatives and libertarians make against any kind of domestic government intervention.

The two lines of argument have nothing in common. If I were to take a guess at what irritates Chait about conservative arguments in the domestic sphere it would be that they’re used to cut off a debate about means, ends and costs, not to discipline it. However, underlying that tactic is the reality that the government has the power and legitimacy to enact progressive change at home, and the conservative position is that this power should not be used under any circumstances.

In Syria, that underlying reality doesn’t hold. It’s not clear that the United States has the power–much less the legitimacy–to bring change to Syria. More to the point, Chait has already admitted as much earlier in his column. So if Chait has conceded that his favored policy is unlikely to work, it’s possible–even likely!–that the other side is arguing in good faith rather than aping the domestic tactics of the right.

The decision to intervene in Syria–much like the decision to invade Iraq–is worthy of a sustained and reasoned debate, and the attempt to engage in one is, contra Chait’s thesis, an example of a different approach to the conflicts rather than a false equivalence between them.

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Hangover: Bodies

Posted in culture, media by Adrian Arroyo on February 19, 2013

Hilary Mantel on Royal Bodies

Max Boot on the Evolution of Irregular Warfare

Isaiah Berlin on Machiavelli

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Hangover: Shots

Posted in culture, media by Adrian Arroyo on July 30, 2012

To Keep and Bear Arms–Garry Willis on the 2nd Amendment (NYRB, 1995)

Mayberry RIP–Frank Rich on Declinist Panics

The Dream of Maximum Guns–Ta-Nehisi Coates

When Beauty Fades–NYT on Supermodels

Checking Out–Paris Review on Librarian Smut

Op-Ed Militarism–CFR

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Hangover: Entrenchment

Posted in culture, media by Adrian Arroyo on July 23, 2012
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Narcissism

Posted in culture, media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on July 21, 2012

Steve Almond, on why “Liberals Are Ruining America,

Imagine, if you will, the domino effect that would ensue if liberals and moderates simply tuned out the demagogues. Yes, they would still be able to manipulate their legions into endorsing cruel and self-defeating policies. But their voices would be sealed within the echo chamber of extremism and sealed off from the majority of Americans who honestly just want our common problems solved. They would be marginalized in the same way as activists who rant about racial purity or anarchy.

I can imagine that, but that’s all I can do; it’s a fable, and a dangerous one at that.

Political entertainment and political engagement aren’t opposite ends of the see-saw. Consuming more of the former doesn’t crowd out the latter. Contrary to his entire thesis, the kind of low-level engagement Almond laments tends to result in “real” action later on. People don’t engage in a thoughtful survey of current political trends and then decide to go volunteer for a campaign. They feel passionately about something, then take a small action, then a larger one. That’s why campaigns solicit $5 donations as well as $5,000 ones. It’s why Rush Limbaugh is an influential member of the Republican Party.

There’s a vein of narcissism underlying that argument, and it allows Almond to conclude that real problem with “liberalism” is its relationship to right wing chatter. The cycle of outrage and obsession that afflicts Almond during drivetime becomes “the tragic flaw of the modern liberal,” endowing his entertainment choices with a bizarre world-historical importance that’s both undeserved and unproven. Even if you buy what Almond’s selling, it’s still a suffocating definition of liberalism, one that scants both politics and policy by turning the frivolous choices of one man into a disease that plagues an entire ideology.

The same sort of self-regard animates “the Newsroom,” and it’s just as worthless in the NYT as it is on TV. Boiled down, it’s the blithe assumption that everyone is like you, except that they’ve made different (read: terrible) choices and that if they’d just do what you tell them to do the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down. Apparently, this rather anti-democratic sentiment is the key to saving Democrats, liberalism, and democracy itself.

It’s not Rush, baby, it’s you.

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Intangibles

Posted in culture, media, politics, sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 26, 2012

Sally Quinn wrote a much-panned essay about the “End of Power” in Washington D.C., which John Chait summed up as follows:

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

Granted, Sally Quinn is to politics as Murray Chass is to sportswriting, but she’s not alone. When Elliott Suthers says geeks are ruining politics, he’s just recycling Jason Whitlock’s argument about sports from 2011; there’s no shortage of articulate professionals mourning the decline of the intangible in their profession. Quinn’s requiem for the D.C. dinner party is different only in that American politics depends on norms and traditions in a way that the Great American Pastime does not.

The metaphor is seductive. In baseball as in politics, our affiliations are deeply felt though largely the product of location and upbringing. Common to both are the endless public pieties and back room deals, the demand for prediction over analysis, speculation about the farm team, and the retroactive imposition of grand narratives on unrelated events. To many folks, both of them seem rather boring.

But in baseball the lines of accountability are easier to draw and the border between rule and tradition better defined. Players don’t get tossed for talking to the pitcher about his no-hitter while it’s in progress. Tongues will wag, but the game will go on. When Chuck Knoblauch hits Keith Olbermann’s mom with an errant throw, nobody blames Tino Martinez. Not so for the United States Senate, which relies on shared norms in order to function. By embracing the filibuster as a one-size-fits-all tool of obstruction, the Republican Senate Caucus not only wounded those norms, they damaged the institution’s ability to carry out even the most routine functions. And with the same ineffable logic that’s often used to defend Pitcher Wins, these failures were laid on the White House lawn.

The fracturing of these Senatorial understandings isn’t due to a lack of well-attended parties at the Bradlee residence, but in recounting the long twilight of her own importance Quinn manages to brush up against something serious: nobody has any real idea what to replace them with. The result isn’t the end of power, but it may well be the end of governance.

Westen

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 8, 2011

Drew Westen’s article, “What Happened to Obama” is roiling the commentariat today:

But on most domestic policy matters, it’s important to understand that the president can only be as progressive or conservative as Congress. That’s the story liberals need to keep telling themselves, because until they really have it memorized, every liberal president who gets elected is going to turn out to be a profound disappointment. They should worry less about telling stories and more about winning elections. —Adam Serwer

The issue with Serwer’s account is that “telling stories” and “winning elections” are not unrelated, at least over the long term. Congress is not immune either. Republican intransigence on revenues is itself the product of a story about taxes and growth, a story that’s debatable in the best of times and irrelevant if not dangerous in the current moment. And yet that narrative has captured enough of the Republican Party that the Speaker of the House can make a credible threat to allow the United States to default unless their demands are met.

Serwer is correct to point out that there’s little reason to believe that eloquence would’ve moved Republican legislators, whose electoral foundation is laid among those who prefer resolve to compromise. But that preference is itself a frame, the product of a story about the role of resolve in politics and the returns that accrue as a result. And it’s a story that looks increasingly true each time Republicans are able to pry concessions from Democrats through legislative hostage taking.

As a critique of Obama, Westen’s editorial is a little incoherent. As I’ve said before, narratives are an essential part of politics in a democracy, and while they may not swing a given election or congressman they are part of an ongoing process that defines the boundaries of American politics. Westen’s powerful cri de coeur–with a tinge of “If I Ran The Zoo”-ishness–makes the fundamental error of ascribing this messaging failure to President Obama. Whether he realizes it or not, Westen’s piece is about the weakness of progressive and liberal institutions, which have become arbiters rather than advocates. It’s the bodies that aren’t tied to the election cycle that have the greatest responsibility for the sort of full-throated advocacy that Westen craves, not President Obama.

Arguments

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on February 3, 2011

By way of expanding on the point I made in my last post, I want to revisit the classic quote from Ron Suskind’s 2004 NYT Magazine piece:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Over the last two years, that quote has become mental shorthand for a real divide between Democrats and Republicans: Democrats argue from reality, while Republicans argue with reality. Consider “Fox Geezer Syndrome” and Conor Friedersdorf writing on Keith Olbermann: the crucial difference is that while both Beck and Olbermann are working to stir the same passions, they’re proceeding from fundamentally different starting points. Olbermann, for all his faults, started in reality and used that as a launching point for liberal invective. Beck often finds reality insufficiently conspiratorial, and thus must invent his own.

That same tendency applies, in a weaker form, to legislative processes and outcomes. Joshua Green highlighted Mitch McConnell’s success in redefining acceptable use of the filibuster; Democratic attempts to respond to that shift recently fell flat. Granted, organizing around a pre-existing mechanism is easier than modifying it, but McConnell really did have some insight about the electorate and their methods of assessing legislative success that wasn’t shared by his Senate colleagues. His hunch, now vindicated by election returns, has fundamentally altered the way Senate business is done. Democrats, still in the majority and with a viable route to doing the same, couldn’t get enough of their caucus on board to make filibuster reform happen.

Another admittedly imperfect example is the brouhaha surrounding the public option and the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In both cases, elected officials confronted unrealistic demands from activists. The White House felt–correctly–that the stakes were too high to prioritize those concerns over Senate arithmetic (though, it should be noted, that math wouldn’t matter if not for McConnell). Confronted with similarly unrealistic demands for repeal, however, the GOP gamely held votes, and eminence grises like Orrin Hatch continue insisting that the public wants repeal, when the polling doesn’t support that conclusion.

Again, these are all flawed examples. Orrin Hatch is almost certainly more willing to hew to the party line in light of Sen. Bennett’s fate, and the failure of the ACA would’ve harmed the Democratic Party far more than the failure of repeal will harm Republicans, so long as they all vote for it. For all that, I think there’s something to the distinction. In speculating about the “how” of this , smarter people than I have used the term “epistemic closure.” In addition to being truly awful jargon, I don’t think the term gets you anywhere.

Far more interesting than how the cocoon was built is why it was built, and why it is maintained. The answer is simple: in prioritizing narrative over knowledge, the GOP is elevating politics above punditry (and enraging pundits who aren’t on board with the project). Narratives are how great swaths of humanity are organized; the pull quote from Exodus is not “in light of brutal working conditions and insufficient compensation, I enjoin you to address the situation, or, failing that, to let my people go.” Republicans are betting on a story that, in its simplicity and clarity, is far more accessible and persuasive than the facts arrayed against it. They won the first tilt, and it remains to be seen if reality-as-perceived-by-the-electorate will diverge sharply enough from reality-as-promulgated-by-Republicans for them to lose the next.

Drum

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on January 27, 2011

Kevin Drum spills some ink about the differences between lefty anti-Bush rhetoric and wingnut anti-Obama rhetoric:

What I mean by this is that, generally speaking, lefties weren’t afraid that they personally were going to be rounded up in terror sweeps or sent off to war … Conservatives, by contrast, take this stuff very personally indeed. The government is coming for their guns, the government wants to kill their grandmother, the government wants to confiscate their money.

I’m not sure that’s a useful distinction. In both cases, the claim is that [X] is bad for America/democracy and the personalization or lack thereof is largely a consequence of the way that claim is made. The lefty argument was that Bush was perverting democracy at the level of institutions/norms, and that the effects of that would trickle down to Johnny Citizen. On the right, the claim is that Obama is subverting our freedoms and rights on an individual level and, in so doing, paving the road to [national] serfdom.

I think the core logic of the claims is all you need to focus on:

On the right, “radical socialism,” Kenyan anti-colonialism, anti-American-exceptionalism, secret-Muslimism and most other claims about Barack Obama are claims about his interiority. They’re fundamentally untestable and thus not subject to any sort of evidence-based debunking. To the extent that anyone can know what’s in Barack Obama’s heart, it’s the people who are closest to him. And those people are, of course, the people with the greatest interest in concealing his anti-colonialist secret-Muslim socialist core. The internal logic of these arguments revolves around the idea that, obeying the dictates of his true, inner self, Obama will do bad things (future tense).

Birtherism strikes me as the only rhetorical ploy where evidence might matter, and even then the goal is to cast doubt on both his legitimacy as President and his interior self–absence of exterior evidence construed as evidence of interior absence–as if there were no Americans dissatisfied with America (the irony here is rich) and no immigrants who deeply and truly love their adopted country.

Contrast that with the wild fringe of lefty thought, where the tropes are that 9/11 was an inside job, that Bush’s actions were taking us down the path to fascism, and so on and so forth. Note that, in theory, these are testable claims. In contrast to what someone feels in the core of their being, what someone has done is knowable/provable, and I as I recall most of the lefty crazy was rooted in the idea that Bush had done bad things (past tense).

As a closing note, both strains are, at bottom, ways to signal that the speaker doesn’t like [X]. They are to political speech what wearing a “DIE HIPSTER SCUM” shirt is to 20-somethings in New York. The people who wear it are communicating distaste for something nebulous–in that case, a subculture–not an actual desire to murder everyone wearing skinny jeans.

Serwer

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 16, 2010

Serwer responds to Chait’s agent-free argument that Obama’s intervention in the Park51 controversy will pay dividends for the Democratic Party, if not for Obama.

Not to pick on Chait in particular, but there’s a liberal complacency when it comes to conservative intolerance that I find maddening.

However, guest-blogging at TNC’s Atlantic digs some months earlier, Serwer offers a similarly structural account of American history:

The American conscience, when it decides to act, is mighty–but it is also sluggish and vain. Americans are crushed by the weight of not fulfilling their own high expectations–so the shameful acts of one generation are often rectified by a subsequent generation unencumbered by their own complicity in such acts.

Serwer’s positions are not contradictory, but they certainly exist in tension with one another. To the extent that the Park51 issue and the fecklessness of the right generally produce any results for the Democratic Party among American Muslims, the proximate cause won’t be either natural affection (per Chait) or the American conscience (per Serwer). In asserting such, they both stumble upon the error at the heart of Democratic politics. To paraphrase Parker/MLK:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it can be bent toward justice.

Political relationships are personal, iterative and transactional, not simply a matter of acquiescence to vast, world-historical forces. Leaders have agency. Additionally, there’s no reason to believe that one group will produce significant political outcomes for another simply because the latter doesn’t denigrate the former in public fora; “nowhere else to go” is a reason not to leave a coalition, not a reason a to enter one. Recent statements from Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama suggest that there’s not a whole lot of interest in building that kind of relationship. There may be an argument that this primal scream by the GOP will help foster an environment where American Muslim leaders can have the sorts of conversations with Democratic leaders that lead to electoral alignments, that’s a predictive argument, and one that’s currently a bit short on support.

Parenthetically, we should also ask what use or value our national conscience holds if we must be absolved of all wrongdoing before it has any discernable impact on our actions. Today, the sort of national conscience that begets real political courage remains firmly in the realm of blue fairies and gold badges–assuming it ever existed.