Politics

#Reason Over #Resist, Charles CW Cooke and David Frum

Around this time last year, I began a self-imposed experiment. I wanted to see if a diet of center-right conservative thinking could rattle my default center-left leaning.

Perhaps it was the hyper-politicized environment of 2016, perhaps it was reading Daniel Oppenheimer’s wonderful Exit Right, but I realized that I had never given conservatism serious thought, or, for that matter, thought very deeply about my own or any political ideology. Instead, I had engaged in the common and intellectually lazy shortcut of relying on cultural cues—Fox News is silly, ergo conservatism is silly; conservatives are religious fanatics, ergo conservative ideas are baseless; Jon Stewart makes fun of Republicans, ergo … you get the idea.

So, ashamed at myself for this lack of rigor, I decided to binge for a year on the National Review. And while I won’t be naming my cat “Buckley,” I did learn an awful lot and can positively recommend the experience. In part thanks to this experience, I’m ending 2017 feeling more ideologically objective and independent than I’ve ever felt.

I’m also, I’ve noticed, much more dismissive of the #resist movement than my leftist friends and colleagues. This is not to say I support Trump—I adamantly do not. But it is to say that I’ve felt witness to a kind of hysteria infecting both right and left #resistors, in that they seem all-to-ready to immediately believe specious claims (see the recent CDC “banned words” story) and cannot under any circumstance allow themselves to agree with or praise anything that comes out of the Trump administration.

Charles CW Cooke, editor of National Review Online and something of a new hero for me, exhibits this in his recent piece on fellow conservative Jennifer Rubin. Cooke’s humble argument, abstracted from the focus on Rubin for a moment, is simply that if Trump does something in line with your previous policy preferences, it’s suspect if not absurd for you to then take the opposite position simply because you abhor Trump’s character.

This seems entirely reasonable to me, but not to David Frum, who is so convinced of Trump’s collusion-guilt and threat to Democracy that he enters the debate to imply that Cooke is taking his position (again…that position is described above) not out of prudence and a general regard for skepticism, but out of cowardice and economic self-interest. You see, Frum is already sure that Trump is guilty of collusion, so the only possible explanation for Cooke not joining the chorus of #resist hysterics is that it might alienate the Trump loyalists and, I suppose, reduce subscriptions to the National Review Online.

Let’s lay aside the ridiculous accusation of economic self-interest from someone promoting an all-cap-titled book called TRUMPOCRACY for a moment, and look at just what Frum is criticizing: prudence, skepticism, and the withholding of judgement without evidence.

Read this, from Cooke:

I had an interesting conversation last night with a fellow critic of President Trump’s. He was irritated that I had insisted that those watching the Comey situation remain “skeptical but not hysterical.” Now, he said, is “the time to be hysterical.”

I’ve been trying to understand why he was so vexed, and I think I’ve worked it out: He has assumed — and built into his thinking — that there is a huge Russia scandal in the background of all this. And I haven’t. I certainly think it’s possible that this goes deeper, and I remain as mistrustful toward this administration as I ever was. But I’m not going to credit theories about Watergate-level conspiracies without evidence, and my friend is. That’s the line that divides us.

That being so, his approach makes sense. If, like my friend, you are convinced that Trump is guilty and that we are just waiting for the smoking gun, you will work backwards from that point and conclude that Trump is obviously getting in the way of the investigation, and that this is obviously Watergate. If you aren’t sure that there is a big scandal looming, you’re likely to be circumspect and happy to watch it play out as a process.”

Now imagine the filter through which one must be viewing the world to interpret the position Cooke is taking as unreasonable. Frum literally excerpts phrases like “skeptical but not hysterical” and “if you aren’t sure that there is a big scandal looming, you’re likely to be circumspect and happy to watch it play out as a process,” as indications of Cooke’s naiveté at best or craven posturing at worst. (Cooke responds here).

What Cooke is doing is simply saying one should be consistent on considered ideological positions and that we do not yet know the extent to which, if at all, Trump’s campaign acted improperly during the election. Thus, why scream about it as if it were already shown to be true? Why abandon principles? What other situation would that be advised in? Who is the threat to due process and the rule of law here, Cooke, or #resistors who have already made up their minds (for almost epileptic shock-inducing example, see Laurence Tribe)?

I’ll be as happy as a clam if Trump loses the 2020 election—or if true crimes are uncovered that lead to impeachment—but I’m not willing to throw away #reason for the sake of #resist.

 

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Canaries in the Coal Mine: Murray, Peterson, Singer, and Free Speech

"Free Speech" spraypainted on a brick wall.

First Milo. Then Murray. Then…Singer and Peterson? Has the free speech canary died in the coal mine?

It’s 2017 and humanity faces a multitude of challenges. The usual specters of poverty, violence, inequality, and tribalism rear their heads (though at largely lower levels relative to the past). And added to our plate we find the uncertainties of global environmental change, surges in population, looming automation, increased political polarization, religious fundamentalism, and resurgent nationalism to name a few (you’ll forgive me if I’ve left out your favorite worry).

But the challenge I find myself most agitated over lately is the diminished respect for free speech on college campuses.

By now of course you have seen or heard about the incident at Middlebury College involving Professor Charles Murray and Allison Stranger. The former was shouted down and unable to deliver his (invited) talk without moving to a separate room, and the latter was physically assaulted by a member of the un-satiated student mob. Murray can legitimately be considered a “controversial” speaker, having co-authored The Bell Curve, which includes a chapter related to possible average-IQ differences attributable to race. However he is not a “white nationalist” as he was incorrectly described by the increasingly unreliable Southern Poverty Law Center, and was not even at Middlebury to talk about The Bell Curve, but instead his 2012 and pertinent-to-the-times book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Disturbing as it was (particularly the cult-like chanting which you can see here), I did not despair, considering this an isolated incident of naïve activism on the part of mostly well-intentioned students.

But perhaps it was I who was being naïve.

This afternoon I was shown a video of University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson similarly confronted by a group of students at McMaster University. As I read their “NO HATE SPEECH” poster boards and heard their shouts of “SHUT HIM DOWN”, I had the sinking feeling that the canary in the coal mine of free speech had just slumped over.

Peterson, insofar as I can ascertain, is not a controversial speaker of the Murray sort (unless you are one of those sexpots energized by questioning the validity and value of archetypical forms in mythology and religion). And Peterson is certainly no Milo. Thus, I realized that the no-speech movement on college campuses is in fact closer to the Salem-analogies than I was originally ready to admit. Labeling speakers as unworthy of a platform, or as “offensive” has become a weapon, and no one is safe. Are you a college student feeling inadequate, bored, or self-righteous? Wait for someone to be invited to speak on your campus—truly anyone, as the Peterson example shows, will do—and feign to take offense at something this individual has said or written, no matter how far in the past, the context, or the person’s overall body of work and character. Presto! You have yourself a protest, a taste of the 60’s that you hold so dear, and complete assurance that you’re a good person.

And in case you’re tempted to call me melodramatic, consider another report in which a Q&A by the moral philosopher and inspiration for the Effective Altruism movement, Peter Singer, was similarly disrupted. If you know Singer’s work, you’re likely asking yourself something along the lines of: Am I in a Joseph Heller novel or How on earth can students be protesting, much less attempting to shut down, a talk by such an objectively thoughtful, rational, and ethical person?

Jonathan Haidt provides some help in understanding this phenomenon by explaining that we may be looking at a paradigm shift in higher education discourse and morality, isolated mostly to social science departments at elite private universities. He discusses this shifting moral order on campus in this interview with Frank Bruni and elsewhere, explaining that in contrast to the traditional university ethos based on teaching multiple perspectives and encouraging debate among them, the new moral order assumes certain perspectives as correct, then filters all other discourse through that lens. The result is that many of today’s students seem consider their points of view beyond reasonable objection, and thus feel justified shouting down speech because they know it’s wrong.  The problem, of course, is that they don’t know it’s wrong. And they don’t know it’s wrong because they have rejected the surest defense to delusion: frequent exposure to new or different ideas. Most disturbingly, it seems that in some cases students are so intellectually lazy that they don’t even take the time to confirm whether the person they’ve decided to disagree with in advance actually holds the views they disagree with. If someone’s accused of being a witch, they must be a witch; no need to investigate.

So this stark reality (noticed perhaps late on my part) has convinced me forevermore that even very good ideas are fragile and not to be taken for granted.  And free speech is a very good idea. It is in fact one of the few ideas I have trouble seeing another side to. So much so that I had to overcome embarrassment at writing this post in the first place, feeling it akin condemning an obvious platitude like, say, stealing is wrong and acting otherwise leads to a society most would not be happy in. The best defense of free speech can be found by Mill (On Liberty)—which I encourage you to read at this instant—but then you also have Hitchens, Van Jones, and many others today and through the ages. Digest the argument of the marketplace of ideas, and then tell me: what harm can come from hearing speech that you disagree with, so long as you are armed with the very same freedom to argue against it?

All of this is not to suggest, in some demented way, that I consider free speech comparable as a life or death matter to those considerable challenges facing humanity listed above. And it is not to suggest that I disagree in principle with the intentions of many of the aforementioned activists (or, “delayed adolescents” if I’m being harsh), insofar as they dislike racism, sexism, and the like. But it is to suggest that free speech is worth defending loudly and with conviction. And it is to suggest that free discourse is the best way to solve those considerable challenges.

Incidents like Middlebury, McMaster, and surely more soon, are worth sounding the alarm over—and I hope you’ll help sound it.

No, Obama, ISIL Does Not Have a “Nihilistic” Ideology

I think the entire world is shocked and appalled by ISIL’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. This afternoon, President Barack Obama spoke about the killing, and did a good job of expressing our collective anger and sadness. So all in all I was pleased with the statement, but one thing has been bugging me all afternoon…

Why wasn’t there any criticism of religious fundamentalism? Obama completely whitewashed the role religion is playing in ISIL’s actions. Instead of acknowledging that these are religious extremists killing in the name of Islam, Obama obscured the issue, saying that “ISIL speaks for no religion” and blaming their “nihilistic ideologies”. The first quote is understandable – he was simply trying to say that ISIL does not represent the majority of practicing Muslims around the world (and that is certainly true). However, in other ways it isn’t an accurate statement. ISIL is clearly speaking for Islam, at least in their own way. And the second statement, that ISIL is fueled by a “nihilistic ideology”, is simply wrong. ISIL is not a group of nihilists. They are group of extremists guided by an explicitly religious ideology. 

To ignore the role religions is playing – in fact, to tacitly deny religion is playing a role – does humanity no favors. We have to examine problems objectively, and if religion is at the bottom of a group of people’s justification for committing horrendous acts, we have to acknowledge that and respond accordingly. 

Go home, Dick Cheney, you’re drunk.

This won’t be a full post, I just very briefly need to vent my frustration with Dick and Liz Cheney’s new Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine“.

Anyway, here’s what I put on Facebook a minute ago, and it very nicely summarizes my thoughts:

Things that will make me dislike you: First, you help orchestrate a poorly planned, almost unwinnable war in Iraq under mostly false pretenses that turns into an utter disaster. Second, after a few years of leisure, accident free quail hunts, and mild heart attacks, you have the gall to shout at the next guy for running said war incorrectly.

If you leave a baby on someone’s doorstep, Dick, don’t expect any credibility when you return six years later to criticize their parenting.

I do think Cheney makes some correct points, but just can’t get over the nerve of him having anything but humility over his administration’s decision to go to Iraq in the first place. And then to criticize Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq? When it was Cheney’s administration that oversaw the bilateral agreement mandating that all troops would be out in 2011? Unbelievable.

I’ve been the following ISIS/Iraq conflict pretty closely over the last few days, as all indicators point to this being a game-changing situation for the Middle East (as in redrawing of the map, game-changing). Charlie Rose has had excellent coverage here, here, and herethis NPR article from 2009 summarizes the origins of the Sunni-Shia conflict quite clearly; and my new favorite website, Vox.com, has these helpful notes if you are interested in catching up. I plan to stay tuned, with the civilians of the region in my thoughts.

(If time permits, I will try to write a post exploring the greater influences of religious belief on this conflict. And if I don’t have time, I’ll at least be looking forward to the inevitable such commentaries by people like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris.)

The Greater of Two Evils: Lt. Gov Elect, Dan Patrick (TX-R)

I live in Texas. That’s a fact. But thankfully, with a little discipline, I manage to forget that fact most of the time (it certainly helps that I live in a major city in Texas, and that major cities in Texas are not really in Texas). Yet every once in a while, I am jolted back to reality by a piece of news I can’t ignore.

The most recent jolt of this kind came on Tuesday, when Texas state senator Dan Patrick defeated long-time incumbent David Dewhurst in the race for Lieutenant Governor. Now, I’m not a Republican. There’s probably not a single social policy issue on which I agree with Lt. David Dewhurst. He’s very conservative, and I mean very – not even close to being considered a “moderate”. Against a competent democrat, I wouldn’t vote for Dewhurst in a million million years.  But in this race, he was unquestionably the lesser of two evils, and I found myself, strangely, rooting for him.  And the reason, my friends, is that the stakes were so high.

Alas, we have now elected this loon into office:

“We as Christians have yielded to the secular left and let them rule the day in this country. When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed. It should be heralded.”

– Texas State Senator Dan Patrick

Yes, Patrick said that at a recent debate in Dallas. He was one-upping Dewhurst on his conservative bona fides – the latter had just uttered an atrocious but otherwise expected advocacy for equal time in the public classroom for intelligent design, creationism, and evolution. The fact that Dewhurst even separated creationism and intelligent design into two categories is proof he’s missing something, but maybe naively I wasn’t expecting an even stupider comment to follow from his opponent. Then again…Texas.

It’s pretty easy to bemoan this type of claptrap – no thoughtful person can actually believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that creationism is tenable enough to come anywhere near a science classroom, much less “triumphed” – the hard part is to figure out whether politicians at this level are thoughtful people. Does Dan Patrick really believe what comes out of his mouth, or is he doing what all politicians do, and saying what must be said to pander to an influential base and get elected? I honestly don’t know. Dewhurst, I’m reasonably sure, is not as backwards as he came across in this debate, but nowadays all big races in Texas devolve into sprints to the right, with each candidate trying to out-conserve their conservative opponent through sound bytes about guns or religion or immigration or Obama.

But does Patrick, who will now wield considerable influence across the state, actually believe creationism should be taught in public schools? My good friend, who follows politics pretty closely and actually interned for a while as a staffer in the House (I think it was the House), says no way. Her opinion, and she seemed sincere on this, was that politicians, particularly those at the state Senate level or above, know they have to say certain things to get elected, regardless of their actual views. She admitted some state House members might actually be that dense, but was pretty sure those at the Senate level didn’t mean most of what they said on social policy issues. I was skeptical, but she also tried to assure me that even if Patrick does believe those things, there are enough checks and balances to prevent any kind of ludicrous position to actually get passed.

I hope so. Otherwise I’m going to have much more trouble forgetting that I’m in Texas.

Some articles for further reading (also linked above):