Defending the indefensible: Althouse on Trump’s blood libel

There’s always something to be learned from watching seemingly intelligent people defending the indefensible.

Ann Althouse teaches law at the University of Wisconsin, which implies that her IQ must be above room temperature. (Her moral standing, given her at-best-ambivalence about torture (oh, I’m sorry, that’s merely “harsh interrogation techniques”)  is another matter.)  But her hatred of liberals and liberalism is so vehement that she supports Gov. Scott Walker, despite (because of?) his attacks on the University where she teaches. Still, you’d think that Donald Trump would be a bridge too far for anyone not actually a mouth-breather.

But pundits gotta pund, and apparently Althouse regards the common-sense approach adopted by many others on the Right - denouncing Trump as No True Conservative - too obvious, or insufficiently likely to raise the blood pressure of the people she despises.  Continue reading “Defending the indefensible: Althouse on Trump’s blood libel”

A recess appointment to the Court?

Update Several sources report that the Senate is in full recess until February 22, and the analysis below relies on that idea. But the Senate Democrats’ website says otherwise, reporting that the body is reconvening for pro forma sessions at three-day intervals.  If so - and that’s what I would have expected - the strategy outlined below does not work.

That raises a different question: if the Senate Democrats are willing to play hardball, can they force a full recess, for example by making quorum calls at the pro forma sessions and - as provided in the Constitution - voting to compel the attendance of absent members? Since the Republicans have more seats to defend, at some point the cost of staying in Washington just to keep the President from doing his Constitutional duty might become intolerably high, not to mention making the Republicans look pretty damned silly.

But in the meantime, treat this as a “never mind.” Sorry!

Continue reading “A recess appointment to the Court?”

Obama, America, Christianity, and Islam

When Barack Obama says “ISIS is a perversion of Islam” he’s practicing rhetoric, not comparative religion.

Does Obama love America?“ and “Is Obama a Christian?“ are both reflections of the same analytically absurd but politically potent winger theme song: “Obama doesn’t hate Muslims enough; he won’t say ‘Islamic terrorism.’ ”

Really, this gets much easier to understand if you recall that a President’s words are strategic choices rather than contributions to a seminar series. Strategically, it’s obvious that if you want some Muslims to help you fight other Muslims, then of course the last thing you want to do is define the common enemy as “Islamic.”

Even as a matter of pure analysis, there’s simply no true or false answer to the question: “Is ISIS an Islamic movement?” That question could mean either “Is ISIS an aspect of Islam?” - to which the answer is obviously “Yes” - or “Is the version of Islam adopted by ISIS the best or authentic version?” in which case the answer is equally obviously a matter of opinion or controversy rather than of ascertainable fact.

Consider the same analysis as applied to Christianity. Was burning heretics at the stake “Christian”? Well, of course it was, if by “Christian” you mean “Done by many Christians out of what they thought was loyalty to Christianity, and approved by many other Christians.” And of course it wasn’t, if you mean “Consistent with the views attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.” (See the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov.)

So the answer I ought to give to that question would depend on the context, the audience, and my purpose.

If I wanted to convince a Christian audience that persecution was wrong, then of course I would try to argue that burning at the stake was “un-Christian.” Since it’s certainly un-Christlike, I’d have a very solid basis for that argument. On the other hand, if I wanted to convince an audience of Buddhists or atheists that Christianity was evil, I’d want to argue that burning heretics at the stake, having been an uncontroversial part of actual Christian practice for more than 500 years, was mainstream Christianity, and that therefore the whole religion was manifestly the work of the Devil. Again, I’d have lots of evidence on my side.

The point is that “Christianity” names both an ideal of conduct (whose content is controversial) and an historical phenomenon with many strands, some of them mutually contradictory, and of course something that was an important part of the history could nonetheless violate some versions of the ideal.

Or take slavery or McCarthyism or the internment of the Japanese-American population during WWII. Were those phenomena “un-American”? Lincoln certainly thought so about slavery, which clearly contradicted the founding notion that “all men are created equal.”  And almost no one now defends the politics of McCarthy or the policy of internment, which were far more reminiscent of Nazi or Communist purges and deportations than of law-guided republican politics.

But of course slavery was deeply entwined with our national history – being almost as old as English settlement in the New World and being protected, directly if euphemistically, by the Constitution itself – and McCarthyism and internment weren’t the only moments at which the paranoid strand in American politics got loose: Know-Nothingism and the Palmer Raids reflected the same craziness.

So, again, if I wanted to persuade Americans to live up to the best this country has to offer the world, I’d want to claim that slavery, internment, and McCarthyism were deeply un-American, and that getting rid of them helped move us toward “a more perfect Union.” If, on the other hand, I were an America-hater, or alternatively if I wanted to defend the use of torture, I’d want to insist that all those phenomena, like violence, were “as American as apple pie.”

There is no “truth of the matter” to be found in any of these cases, because neither “Christianity” nor “Americanism” has an empirically ascertainable “essence,” and because in each case the practice might differ substantially with from the ideal, and the ideal itself will certainly be a matter of controversy within the tradition. I can prove from the Gospels that pious cruelty is evil, and from the Declaration of Independence that slavery is evil; but I can’t deny that St. Dominic and John Calvin loved pious cruelty, or that the God of the Hebrew Bible explicitly commands it [Deut. 13:6-18], nor can I deny that the Constitution protected slavery.

As an interpretive historian or cultural critic, I might try to say something serious about the central tendencies of Christianity or of  the American tradition, but those arguments aren’t likely to be conclusive; if someone makes them as part of a political debate, he is practicing rhetoric rather than dialectic: trying to persuade, not merely to elucidate.

What’s absolutely certain is that if I want Christians or Americans to behave well, I shouldn’t criticize the bad behavior of some Christians or some Americans as typically - or even “extremely” - Christian or American; instead I should point out how inconsistent that behavior is with the best parts of those traditions.

This seems obvious. So why should “Islam” be different?

ISIS is recognizably “Islamic” in the sense that its leaders claim the mantle of Islam and its followers think they are good Muslims. Moreover, there is support in some Islamic texts – including the Koran – and traditions for some of ISIS’s bad actions. If I were an ISIS recruiter, of course I’d want to stress those links. And of course I’d do the same if I wanted to incite hatred against Islam or stir up a “holy war” between Christians and Muslims, or merely incite hatred against an American President with a Muslim name.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to convince an Islamic audience to join with me in fighting against ISIS, the last thing I’d do is describe that group as “Islamic extremists.”

Last time I checked, Barack Obama wasn’t elected to a chair of  cultural criticism or comparative religion; his profession is statesmanship, of which rhetoric is a fundamental tool. When he denounces ISIS as “a perversion of Islam,” he’s not making a claim for scholars to debate; he’s making a rhetorical move and offering a call to arms. Denunciations of his remarks from intellectuals as too one-sided and insufficiently nuanced, and by wingnuts and anti-Islamic bigots as insufficiently anti-ISIS, are equally beside the point.

Does Scott Walker love America?

Rudy Giuliani, speaking at a Scott Walker fundraiser, with Walker present:

I do not believe - and I know this is a horrible thing to say - but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Now we get to see whether Scott Walker is a man or not.

The smart money is on “Not.”

Footnote This came the same day as the Tweeted comment of another right-wing heart-throb, Dinesh D’Souza, saying of the President “You can take the boy out of the ghetto … ”

No, it’s not reasonable to hold everyone in a political movement liable for the comments of everyone else in that movement. But there’s a pattern here. At some point, Republican office-holders and office-seekers have to either disown the racism that plays so well to the party base, or own it. 

My interview with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt on the progress of health reform

If you want to catch up on health reform-how it’s going, how the 2014 election might affect things, what Republicans might try to change in ACA, and how the Supreme Court might cause further problems-this three-part interview with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt has you covered. Larry is one of the most widely-respected experts on ACA. I really enjoyed our conversation. And I really enjoyed the illustrations produced by the team. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. I hope you enjoy it.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 11.57.07 AM

Decisions, decisions

Obama: Let folks deep in student debt refi.
Republicans: No.
Natalie Kitroeff (@Nataliekitro): It matters.

Barack Obama and the Senate Democrats want to help college graduates drowning in student debt refinance. Republicans, naturally, are against it. Natalie Kitroeff, who has reported on the ruthlessness of the agency that enforces such debt, explores the long-term damage: apparently student debt is one reason the housing market isn’t recovering.

Really and truly: if you’re not a fanatical partisan Democrat by now, you’re simply not paying attention.

Megan McArdle points out that there are other people than indebted college graduates who are worth helping, and also that there’s an alternative to the Warren/Obama proposal for debt relief: changing the rule that makes student debt undischargeable in bankruptcy. I agree on both points. We could also cut back radically on incarceration and use the savings to restore the savage cuts to public higher-education budgets. (Fifteen years ago, California spent 9% of its budget on higher education and 3% on prisons. Those numbers have now been reversed.)

I’d merely point out that Megan can’t find any actual elected Republicans willing to vote for any of those programs, any more than they’ll vote for the Warren/Obama plan. In the real world, we don’t have a choice between Democrats and an alternative party that cares about the needs of people under financial pressure but prefers a different set of programs to help them; we have a choice between Democrats and plutocrats. That - and not the details of debt-relief policy - is what I claim Megan and her fellow libertarian-leaning but socially concerned pundits aren’t paying attention to.





Jobs Numbers and the Election

Political prognosticators and pundits (including Nate Silver at 538) have long suggested that President Obama will be in more trouble the more the economy seems to be faltering.  This makes obvious sense.   But there is a way in which both a rational voter model and an attentional shift model could militate in the other direction.   Voters might reasonably be concerned both about the immediate jobs outlook and the long term health of the economy as they perceive it to be affected by the debt and deficit.  If people became complacent about the job situation, they might  vote more on the deficit, assuming (albeit contrary to experience) that the Republicans would be more likely to reduce the deficit.

Thus Obama could suffer in the event of a recovery both from voters making rational tradeoffs and voters shifting emphasis between two values they care about.   Here’s an extreme analogy — in 1945 immediately after World War II Winston Churchill and his Conservative party were turned out of power despite having just led the country to victory, because voters thought the Labor party better equipped to deal with post-war reconstruction.  It would be interesting to look at how Obama is doing in State polls compared to 2008 depending on how the state unemployment rate or change in the state unemployment rate over the last six months.

I’ve long believed that Democrats would do better to emphasize the historical regularity that economic and job growth has been higher in Democratic than Republican administrations.    Bill Clinton’s comparison of job growth under Democratic  and Republican presidents led many commentators to express surprise, but this relationship should come as no surprise to RBC readers going back to 2008.  (See Mark’s RBC post from 2008, or the current Oppenheimer Funds blog addressing the relation between control of the White House and Congress and the stock market). *

Romney’s push to use lackluster economic performance against Obama is handicapped by the fact that voters do not believe Romney has a superior understanding of the needs of the middle class or a better recipe for economic growth than Obama.  Even in the ABC News / Washington Post poll released today, whose topline showed Romney closer to Obama than other recent polls, shows Obama favored (in a half-sample result) by 53-38 as better to advance the interests of the middle class, and in the full sample Obama leads by 47-45 on managing the economy.  The CNN/ORC poll released Monday has Obama ahead 51-47 on dealing with unemployment, with Romney favored 50-47 in dealing with the deficit.  While these numbers are not conclusive-one would rather focus on potential swing voters rather than the whole electorate, what they show after the Democratic convention is an electorate that doubts Romney’s competence on and concern for the issues they care about.  At this point for Romney to push on Obama’s economic record seems unlikely to pay much in the way of electoral dividends, even if the economic news does not improve.

According to Crane Brinton’s  classic historical analysis of revolutions,  regimes fall from within more than from direct attack from outside.  The same may be true of Presidencies.  Administrations that lose confidence in their ability to deal with the economic challenge are going to lose coherence and appear rudderless and without forward momentum (viz. Jimmy Carter after his cabinet shakeup following the “malaise” speech).  This is the picture of Obama that the Republicans tried to paint at their convention, but which seems unlikely to stick, especially after the successful Democratic Convention.   Combining a projection of confidence with a clear argument that Democratic Presidents  are better for job growth than Republicans (and that all the Republicans have in their tool kit is a return to the failed policies of George W. Bush) seems likely to be a key element of a winning message going forward.

* For those who missed it, what Bill Clinton said was

“Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24.  … In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private-sector jobs. So what’s the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 (million).”

This statement was widely fact-checked and is true, as are similar claims about superior economic growth under Democratic presidents.  See for example the Miami Herald story.

Politics and physics

When I was in the eighth grade I had Mr. Nadrowski for science, and one day he called Stephen Chilcote up to the front of the class and told him to push against the cinder-block wall until it fell over.  As Chiclet obediently pushed and the rest of us watched, Mr. Nadrowski kept up a descriptive patter: “So there he is, beads of sweat are popping out on his forehead, his muscles all straining; but you know what?  He’s not doing any work!”  His point was that from a physics standpoint no work occurs unless the object responds to the force; if the wall didn’t move, Stephen’s efforts didn’t count.

This seems to be the definition of “work” Republicans are using to complain that President Obama isn’t doing enough to fix the economy.  They build a cinder-block wall of legislative refusal and then criticize him for failing to push it over.

And when he does manage to move objects despite the cinder-block—by the Executive Order modifying immigration or the administrative maneuvers necessary to maintain contraception as a component of basic health-care—his opponents hyperventilate about Obama’s terrifying expansion of Presidential power.  From the people who created the Constitutionally bogus “signing statement,” that’s chutzpah enough to topple the canonical instance: the boy who, having murdered his parents, asks for leniency because he’s an orphan.

So let’s do some real work of our own.  If you’re interested in actually moving objects—Obama canvassers from Illinois to Iowa, and Iowa Democratic voters from their homes to the polls—please join my Wednesday evening phone bank, beginning this week (July 11) and continuing through the election.  Contact me off-line for details, but bear in mind that Iowa votes early, beginning on September 27: if we’re going to knock over the wall, we’ve got to do it over the summer.

Wealth, virtue, and political status

Hedge fund managers vs. Obama: the clash isn’t about interests or even about status. It’s about values. The wealth fund managers think that capitalism is worthwhile because it allows the rise of people like them. Obama reminds them that they’re the only ones who think that.

Alec MacGillis’s article on why hedge fund managers have turned fiercely against President Obama has deservedly gotten a lot of attention (especially this thoughtful commentary from Rich Yeselson, to whom the hat tip). I take MacGillis’ main point to be that hedge fund managers’ fury is based more on self-image than on self-interest. It’s not just that the hedge fundis resent being asked to pay more taxes, though they do. It’s that they think that they themselves are grand and wise people by virtue of having created vast fortunes from modest beginnings, and the President has made clear that he doesn’t.

The vanity of the super-wealthy is not a new point. But the nature of that vanity deserves more attention. I think most of us fail to realize the extent to which hedge fund managers reverse the causal reasoning that most of us use to justify capitalism. For most people, the vast wealth of entrepreneurs is justified (if at all, or conditionally, or partially, or whatever) because their wealth drives a productive economy: it creates jobs, lifts people out of poverty, erodes distasteful ascriptive hierarchies. The few billionaires at the top, however, see it to a great extent the other way around: the capitalist system is to be praised because it makes possible fortunes like theirs.

Continue reading “Wealth, virtue, and political status”

Romney grows a pair

… the world’s smallest pair. If the man can’t stand up to Limbaugh, how’s he going to do face-to-face with Putin?

the world’s smallest pair.

His comment on Rush Limbaugh’s calling a law student a prostitute for supporting contraceptive coverage under health insurance?

I’ll just say this which is it’s not the language I would have used. I’m focusing on the issues I think are significant in the country today and that’s why I’m here talking about jobs and Ohio.

“Not the language I would have used.” Now that’s tough. And that’s what he came up with after ducking the question all day.

How can you expect Romney to stand up to Putin or Ahmadi-Nejad if he can’t even stand up to an obese bully with a microphone?

Update Rick Santorum, on the other hand, has millimeter-sized stones rather than micron-sized stones:

He’s being absurd, but that’s you know, an entertainer can be absurd. He’s in a very different business than I am.

Try calling one of Rick Santorum’s daughters a slut and a prostitute, and I bet you’d discover he knows stronger language than “absurd.”

Barack Obama, on the other hand, knows how to behave. And he also knows how to seize a political opportunity when his opponents hand him one. But that’s the point, isn’t it? This year, we will have an election between a party whose members and leaders think that contraception is evil and a party whose members and leaders think it’s an essential part of health care. “No difference?” Now that’s absurd.