The Republican Base’s Malevolent Algorithm

An entirely unsurprising poll shows that sixty-seven percent of the registered Republicans in the US support the current administration’s policy of separating children from their undocumented immigrant (or asylum seeking) parents at the border. (Those children are then imprisoned in cages in concentration camps with no plans for their release or reunification with their parents.) This poll supplements an essay on Stephen Miller whose headline reads ‘The Outrage Over Family Separation Is Exactly What Stephen Miller Wants.”

It will ‘fire up the base,’ you see, and bring them out in numbers for 2018.

The ‘base’ is, of course, why Trump will never be impeached by the Republican Party; it brought Trump to power; it will keep him in it. This is democracy in action; at its ‘best.’ The ‘people’ have spoken–through an electoral system of sorts–and we know what they want. The ‘base’–the ‘fuck your feelings’ crowd–reliably dislikes its Other: the libtards, the bleeding hearts, the snowflakes, the gays, the blacks, the Spanish-speaking, the feminists, the social justice warriors, the Marxists, the postmodernists, the coastal elites, the teachers, the unions, the gun control freaks, the atheists, the campus radicals, the brown, the immigrants (undocumented or otherwise.) The list goes on.

The reason for cashing out the content of the vox populi as a long list of dislikes and resentments is quite simple: this animosity toward its Other animates the ‘base’; apparently, it is the only policy justification it requires. A simple mechanical test for policy evaluation emerges: Does policy X cause fear, anger, dismay among members of the list above? Does it cause them to issue denunciations and condemnations of the Great Leader? Then it must be Good; if not, it must be Bad. Legal academics and concerned philosophers of technology spend a great deal of time pondering the problem of how to regulate automated decision-making; this is one algorithm for political decision-making that seems to have slipped under their radar. The perversity of this politics might make some parents recall the days of using the infamous ‘reverse psychology’ on a recalcitrant toddler; if you want them to do X, you must suggest that they do Y; the immature toddler, unable to realize he or she is being played, does instead. But comparisons and analogies with toddlers are ultimately unsatisfying; toddlers are also quite cute and entertaining and cuddly at times, and the Republican ‘base’ is anything but. Toddlers grow and mature; the ‘base’ appears to prefer curdling.

The presence of the ‘base’ and its frightening acquiescence to any moral atrocity as long as it meets the requirements noted above render wholly ineffective any political strategy that aims to change the Republican Party’s course by shaming it or pointing out its hypocrisies or inconsistencies. (On Twitter, a whole phalanx of tweeters is dedicated to racking up high RT counts by indulging in precisely such activity.)

Fortunately for the US, not all of its citizens are members of the base. Unfortunately for the US, all too many are. Trump will serve at most till 2024; the ‘base’ will be around much longer.

The Republicans Will Ride Out This Latest ‘He Can’t Survive This’ Moment

As usual, anxious liberals and American citizens all over the nation are waiting, with bated breath and a dollop of some old-fashioned American optimism, for the Great Abandonment: that crystalline moment when the Republican Party will decide that enough is enough, issue a condemnation–with teeth–of Donald Trump, begin scurrying away from his sinking ship, and for good measure, initiate impeachment proceedings. There’s been many moments like this: grab-their-pussy and the various bits of La Affaire Russia have served to provide the best examples of these in the recent past. Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and their usual brand of toxic racism and violence have now provided the latest instance of a possible ‘he can’t survive this’ moment–‘this is when the Republicans grow a vertebra, denounce Nazism–oh, how difficult!–and its sympathizers and enablers, and bring this particular Trump Tower crashing down.

Unfortunately this Godot-ish vigil will have to persist a little longer. Perhaps till the end of the Trump presidency. Condemnation of the President has been issued by some: Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio for instance. But there is no party-level move to censure; there is no sign that there is widespread movement among the Republicans to either distance themselves from Trump or do anything more than issue the easiest political statement of all regarding disapproval for Nazis.

The electoral calculus, the bottom-line politically, is that Republican voters care little about Trump’s being in bed with white supremacists, the KKK, and sundry other deplorables; they elected him to assuage their racial anxieties, and he continues to do that by standing up even for cross-burning, swastika tattooed, hooded folk. A Republican Congressman or Senator who denounces Trump risks electoral suicide; the Trump ‘base’ will turn on him or her with indecent haste. Under the circumstances, far better to issue generic denouncements and move on, hoping and knowing this storm will blow over. When private business corporations dump offensive employees–perhaps for racist, abusive speech or other kinds of socially offensive behavior–they do so on the basis of a calculus that determines the nature and extent of the economic loss they will have to bear if they persist in supporting their offending employee; when it is apparent that customers will not tolerate that behavior, the decision is made for the employer. That same calculus in the case of Republican voters suggests there is no loss forthcoming–the strategy suggested is precisely the one on display: a little bluster, a little obfuscation, some hemming and hawing, a few offensive suggestions that the offensive behavior was in response to other behavior ‘asking for it’ and so on. Still riding on S. S. Donald Trump, sailing right on over the edge to the depths below–even as the merry band of carpetbaggers on board keep their hands in the national till.

I’ve made this point before on this blog (here; here; here; here); I repeat myself. Repetition is neurotic; I should cease and desist. But it is not easy when neurotic repetition is visible elsewhere–in this case, in the American polity.

Toppling Confederate Statues Does Not ‘Erase’ The Confederacy From ‘History’

News from Baltimore and Durham suggests a long-overdue of cleaning American towns and cities of various pieces of masonry known as ‘Confederate statues’; young folks have apparently taken it upon themselves to go ahead and tear down these statues which pay homage to those who were handed a rather spectacular defeat in the American Civil War. News of these evictions has been greeted with a familiar chorus of pearl-clutching, teeth-gnashing, and chest-beating: that such acts ‘erase history’ and contribute to an unwillingness to ‘move on,’ ‘let go,’ or otherwise ‘move on,’ all the while keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror, bowing and scraping our heads to those who laid their arms on the ground and accepted unconditional terms of surrender. This offence against memory and history should not be allowed to stand; but those statues sure should be. It’s the way we get to be are truly grown up, mature, adult Americans.

This is an idiotic argument from start to finish; no amendment will redeem it.

Toppling the statues of Confederate leaders–the ones who prosecuted and fought the Civil War on the wrong side, who stood up for a racist regime that enslaved, tortured, and killed African-Americans–does not erase those leaders from American history; it merely grants them their rightful place in it. The stories of John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee–to name just two worthies whose names have been in name-changing and statue-toppling news recently–will continue to live on in history books, television documentaries, biographies, movies, Civil War reenactments, autobiographies, and battlefield monuments. Generations of American schoolchildren will continue to learn that the former was a segregationist, a racist, an ideologue; they will learn that the latter, a ‘noble Virginian,’ was a traitor who fought, not for the national army that granted him his station and rank, but for his own ‘home state,’ a slave-owning one. The toppling of their statues will not prevent their stories being told, their faults and strengths being documented.

What the toppling of their statues will achieve is bring closer the day when these men will no longer be treated as heroes of any kind, tragic or otherwise. The toppling of statues will make it harder for young schoolchildren in the South and elsewhere to think that those memorials in their town serve to recognize courage or praiseworthy moral principles; it will prevent racists in the US from using them as rallying points, as faux mementos of a faux glorious past.

History is far more capacious than the defenders of the Confederacy might imagine; it holds many stories all at once, and it lets us sort them a;; out. The defenders of the Confederacy are not afraid that their heroes will be erased from history; they are afraid that a history which has no room for their statues will have considerably increased room for alternative historical accounts of the men who were once so commemorated.

Let’s take out the trash and replace the statues of racists with statues, instead, of those who fought to emancipate the slaves–in any way–and to erase the terrible blot of slavery from America.

 

San Bernardino, Selective Surveillance, And The Paralyzed Gun ‘Debate’

Here are two related thoughts running around in my head since the San Bernardino massacre.

On past occasions, whenever one of these quintessentially American mass shootings would be carried out, I would wonder about what could happen to jolt the gun-control ‘debate’ in this country out of its well-worn grooves. (The scare quotes are necessary because there really isn’t a debate: some anguished wails and a stony silence don’t amount to one.) After some casting about, I thought perhaps a mass shooting carried out by ‘Islamic terrorists’ would do so. Surely, even the NRA and its Republican minions would agree then that guns had gotten into the wrong hands, and agree for stronger forms of gun control and regulation. After all, guns for Americans is all very fine, but surely not guns for Muslims?

But even as I thought this, it would seem to me that there was no way that a Muslim (or ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’) person would be able to buy the kinds of weapons and munitions needed to carry out such a deadly assault. Given the heightened surveillance of Muslims in America by its law enforcement agencies, and the paranoid response to even innocent activities like schoolboys building electronic devices, it seemed inconceivable a ‘brown Middle-Eastern looking foreigner’ would be able to walk into a store and buy armaments like the ones described below:

two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, two 9mm semi-automatic handguns, and an explosive device…The rifles used were variants of the AR-15: one was a DPMS Panther Arms A15, the other was a Smith & Wesson M&P15. One of the handguns was manufactured by Llama and the other is a Springfield HS2000. All four of the guns were purchased legally in California four years before the attack….the DPMS weapon used a high-capacity magazine, which is not legal in California. The couple had 1,400 rounds for the rifles and 200 for the handguns with them at the time of the shootout. 2,000 9-millimeter handgun rounds, 2,500 .223 caliber rounds, and twelve pipe bombs, along with a cache of tools that could be used to make improvised explosive devices. [From Wikipedia entry on the shootings]

Surely, even if such a sale was made, a phone call to the FBI or local law-enforcement agencies would follow? “Hello, FBI? I just want to let you know that an Ay-rab just boughta whole lotta guns and ammo. Something’s fishy, know what I mean?” I considered the possibility of electronic, online purchases and ruled those out as well. That would be even easier to track and investigate with the fancy profiling algorithms used to slot Americans into No-Fly lists. “Our program indicates a non-trivial probability that this purchase warrants investigation by G-men“. Right?

I was wrong on all counts. ‘Suspicious’ people can buy guns and ammo and materials for making explosives easily. It’s only when they try to live their lives as normal people that they are flagged as such. Moreover, when an ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadist’ mass shooting will take place in America, it will provide the perfect cover for gun fans: guns don’t kill people, Muslims do. Even worse, it would spark the kinds of fascist fantasies passing for normal thought these days.

This American nightmare isn’t going away anytime soon.

Samuel Bagenstos On The Mistaken Decision To Jail Kim Davis

Over at The New Republic Samuel Bagenstos offers some spot-on analysis of the decision to jail Kim Davis, ” the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who defied a U.S. Federal Court order requiring that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples” and concludes:

To many observers…the drama is the point. By making a prominent example of those who obstinately refuse to comply with federal-court orders, they believe, we send a strong message that no individual is above the law. But what is the lesson courts are teaching in these cases: that the constitutional principle of equal citizenship is a basic commitment, or simply that judges are powerful people who, like parents, are not to be messed with? Sometimes, basic constitutional principles cannot be enforced without drama; without the 101st Airborne, the Little Rock schools would not have been desegregated. But federal judges should always be focused on vindicating the rights of those who invoke their jurisdiction. If the judges can vindicate those rights without demanding an ostentatious show of submission to their authority, they should do so.

I agree with Bagenstos: the real issue here is not Davis’ stance, it is the denial of legal rights to same-sex couples. Theirs is the story worth covering; Davis is merely fodder for mockery. (And sadly, too much of it is about her looks, her multiple marriages, and her adulterous life. The hypocrisy of the publicly religious is an old and well-worn joke; the marriage of that brand of humor with sexism and misogyny ensures a deeply unedifying discourse around this issue that only serves to obscure its relevant details.)

Judges cannot be expected to think too deeply about their participation in political theater and how their rulings and orders can be made to perform on its stage. Some, of course, are more self-aware about this possibility for co-optation than others. The judge who jailed Kim Davis was, presumably, not a member of the Left or the Right in his capacity as a judge, and thus cannot be castigated for having handed the Religious Right its latest hobby horse, ridden by its latest hero. But there is a great deal of wisdom in Bagenstos’ claim that from a jurisprudential perspective, one committed to revealing in each ruling the sinews of the legal, political, and pragmatic principles at play, the right thing to do in this case was to affirm constitutional principles of equal citizenship and not the power of the courts to compel obedience.

The former kind of ruling immediately forces a conversation about the rights and claims of citizenship, about the basic promise of a republic–remember, ‘res publica’, a nation of laws, equality before the law, the greatest political and moral deliverance of the modern, post-empire era; the latter merely brings us to face with the oldest, crudest forms of legal positivism, that the law serves as a cloak for the supreme power of a sovereign entity, which can enforce its decrees by crude force, handcuffs, and detainment. A conversation about the former would have shone the spotlight of bigotry and hypocrisy on Davis; the latter let her claim it as her due for heroism.  A tour of the talk-show circuit, and perhaps even a book contract await her.

Thank God, Caitlyn Jenner ‘Looks Great’

The first transgender public figure whom I ‘encountered’ was Renée Richards–thanks to her landmark legal victory in the New York Supreme Court over the United States Tennis Association, which had denied her entry into the 1976 US Open, on the grounds of  their supposed ‘women-born-women’ policy. (Richards–formerly Richard Raskind–had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1975.) Shortly after I read about her in a sports magazine, I heard what would become a seemingly constant refrain in most of the superficial responses to transgender persons: “I feel sorry for him. He was a sissy man, now he’s an ugly woman.” Later, in conversations about transgender men, it would be slightly modified to, “I feel sorry for her. She was an ugly, manly woman, and now she’s a sissy man.”

Part of the problem, it seemed, with transgender persons was that they were ‘just plain ugly.’ They weren’t ‘attractive men’; they weren’t ‘attractive women.’ That was the biggest sin of all. If only they could be more ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome,’ then all would be good. If only they could somehow be made to cleave to conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, if only they could so dramatically transform themselves that no traces of their older self would survive, into thin, sexy women or perhaps brawny, hunky men, the stuff of pin-ups, then perhaps the rest of the world would be able to bring themselves to pardon their otherwise unpardonable attempt to determine their chosen identity for themselves.

Caitlyn Jenner has–thanks to her  elevated public profile–struck an important blow for transgender rights; she has sparked a broad, diverse, conversation about transgender persons and their place in our society. She seems to have been ‘accepted’ by many, though, of course, there were those too, who wrote refrains that were almost exact reprises of the reactions I had heard directed at Richards all those years ago.

But Caitlyn Jenner ‘entered’ our lives on a Vanity Fair cover. Shot by Anne Leibovitz. She looks glamorous and sexy; she has benefited from the attentions of an expert photographer, backed up by a small army of make-up persons, lighting assistants, and perhaps even personal trainers. We might imagine that someone, on not knowing anything at all about Bruce Jenner, might say, “Hey, that’s a mighty attractive sixty-six year old woman.” And a common reaction, indeed, to Caitlyn was that “she looks great!”

Phew. What a relief. Imagine if she didn’t ‘look great.’ Would the ‘freakshow’ conversation start all over again? Of course, it would. We are obsessed with appearances.

There are many, many transgender people who will not be able to ‘transform’ themselves in the way Caitlyn has. (I have no idea what Caitlyn looks like away from the camera lens.) They will not be offered good lighting, touch-ups, a glamorous outfit, and the attentions of those who know how to make us look good. They’ll just look like any ordinary person might. They won’t have public relations help; they won’t have access to sympathetic writers who can help them bring their stories to life. Hopefully, some of the kindness and tolerance on display in the reactions to Caitlyn’s ‘debut’ will be sent their way too.

Marriage: It Ain’t a Religious Thing

Last year, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage, or rather, on Barack Obama’s evolving views on it. In that post, I handed out some unsolicited advice to the President, suggesting he view marriage in its social and economic context, and noting that there were too many similarities between the explicitly institutionalized racism of the past and the current strains of homophobic opposition to same-sex marriage to permit any vacillation on his part when it came to affirming support for it.

This week, as the Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of same-sex marriage I won’t repeat that same argument. (Besides, it seems to me, from my biased perspective, that the cases at hand are easy ones; the rulings are only a matter of suspense because the present Supreme Court contains ideologues like Scalia.)  Rather, I want to briefly note that marriage as a social institution opened itself up to the kind of abuse we see perpetrated by opponents to same-sex marriage the moment it sought divine sanction. Or rather, once a pair of human beings decided that the best way to signal to society that they were in a committed, enduring, sexual relationship, entailing extensive companionship, home-building and the rearing of children was to seek permission from a religious body, book, and ritual, the game was up. The path had been cleared for abuse of that social institution, and the means prepared for its ideological distortion.

Once marriage became a religious ritual, once marriages were made in heaven, much of the nonsense that has underwritten opposition to same-sex marriage became possible. But not just that; it also allowed the abuse perpetrated on women in ‘traditional marriage’–much of which was the target of feminists’ ire in days gone by (and today). Once marriage ceased to be a human, social institution, it ceased to find its grounding in particular social, economic and romantic contexts and became associated with things not of this earth, with transcendent realities. Those unsurprisingly, provided ample, powerful, cover for marriage’s utilization in a host of repressive political strategies: that the divinely ordained roles for women were procreation, child-bearing and housekeeping or that only certain kinds of people could marry.

The proper place for marriage is the secular; the religious sanctification so beloved of many should have been a supererogatory choice; those that were religious and were not reassured by the promises of the here and now, who didn’t feel their own emotional, financial and temporal commitment was enough, who doubted the resilience of human pacts which depend only on the profane, could have sought a religious ritual if they wanted one. The separation we have now, so that those who want to marry have the choice between a religious ceremony and one that is exclusively secular should always have been possible, should always have been built into the notion of a marriage. The move to make marriage into an institution requiring sanction by the state was a partially correct, albeit problematic move; it injects the state into the personal and institutionalizes marriage as the only kind of social signal for the commitments mentioned above. But it did move marriage out of an exclusively religious sphere.

The legal recognition of same-sex marriage is correct for moral reasons; it also moves marriage closer to its true secular place.