The Great Bob Mueller Seduction

Blood is in the water: the president of the United States appears to have committed ‘obstruction of justice.’ We know this because a ‘legal dream team’ headed by a special prosecutor, a former head of the FBI, is conducting a long, expensive, and detailed investigation of all the president’s men. The nefarious activities suspected to have been undertaken are varied and detailed; like most Americans, I’m entirely unsure of the precise particulars of the tangled web that is being unwoven for us. But those details seem unimportant; for at the end of it all lies deliverance, the impeachment of Donald Trump, the eviction of the carpetbaggers currently occupying the White House.

For some time now, via television and talk show and social media, we have been treated to the spectacle of–I do not think I exaggerate–millions of Americans salivating over the legal particulars of Bob Mueller’s investigation: how detailed and thorough its collection of evidence and marshaling of witnesses is; its skillful deployment of carrot and–a very big and threatening–stick in making legal plea deals; and so on. An entire cottage industry of tweeting experts has sprung up to inform us, in hushed and breathless tones, of how legally significant the latest development is and just how much shit is currently splattering various fans; these tweets go viral, urged hither and thither, as if merely by talking about how bad things are going to get for Trump and his men, their end can be hastened. There is much gleeful talk of how those  working in the Trump administration will be bankrupted by their legal fees as they are subpoenaed till the cows come home; you cannot escape the clutches of the ‘ace prosecutors’ that this paragon of virtue–a former FBI head–has lined up.

The worst features of our  legal system are on display: the staggering legal fees; the unfettered power of prosecutors. Give ’em hell, we say, because we know the legal system can destroy your life in all these ways; we’re just happy these big guns are turned against our political enemies. (Even if they have never been turned against the corporations that rule the republic’s roost.) It is a strange business for a nation which plays host to the moral and legal atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’ to be so cheering on a bunch of prosecutors–a demographic unfettered in its legal power, and persistently accused of misconduct. It is a peculiar business too that the FBI–whose investigations into political activists have, historically and currently, marked it out as anything but apolitical–is being hailed as the savior of the American Republic and our political knight in armor.

What Mueller’s investigation has done, of course, is turn political resistance to Trump into a spectator sport: we sit back–indeed, many have said just that–grab the popcorn and watch the shit show go down, and the superheroes, er, special prosecutors, will come to our rescue, ridding us of this blight. The legal system and its investigations appear to be working as a sponge, soaking up the political will and energy of Americans who otherwise might have been engaged in serious thinking about their political options. Instead, they have handed over their political agency to a bunch of lawyers appointed guardians of the state and our polity.

But it isn’t the lack of law that got us here; it is that plenty of institutional deformations are written into our laws and therefore respected; they demand for themselves a prima facie legal obligation, because they are burnished by the aura of the law, which is being enhanced by the ‘legal investigation’ under way. But the undemocratic Senate is legal; gerrymandering is legal; Supreme Court rulings that lock particular interpretations of the US Constitution into place are legal; the Electoral College is legal. Governments can be shut down legally; the US Senate can legally–under one interpretation–refuse to even consider a President’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The blocking of Obama’s nominations to the Federal Courts by the Republican Party and the corresponding stuffing of the Federal Courts by Federalist Society nominees was all legal. No dictator need abuse any legal American institutions in order to become a totalitarian despot. (This point has been made, quite eloquently, several times over, by Corey Robin; here is one variant of that claim.) That despotic power is built, legally, into American political institutions, all ready and ripe for hijacking by bad actors. Those bad actors are here, and they’ve hijacked the polity.

We are witnessing an old maneuver, one oft-repeated: take an existing political or social problem, subject it to the law, and pretend it has been solved. The authority of the law, its ideological entrenchment is reinforced, but the social or political problem remains unsolved. What will Bob Mueller’s team rid this republic of? A president, and very optimistically, his vice president too. Mueller cannot impeach the Republican Party (which will, in any case, not impeach Trump.) How then, will this nation’s political crisis be resolved? Mueller’s actions will not bring the Republican Party’s nihilism to heel. Indeed, an even worse hangover awaits us, if as is likely, this entire expensive legal investigation will end only with Trump riding out his term unscathed and going on to greater riches ‘outside.’ When the smoke clears and this prosecution is over, we will be left with the same severely compromised republic we had before. No team of special prosecutors can bring that to heel. We have outsourced the hard work to someone else, expecting to be rescued from a mess we made ourselves. This is ours; we have to clean this up.

Hypocrisy And The Unequal Weighing Of Political Preferences

‘We’ are shocked time and again by the hypocrisy and political incoherence on display: Trump voters help elect a man who seems to act against their economic interests; they prop up a serial sexual harasser and abuser even as they claim to be fine, upstanding, family types dedicated to stamping out immoral behavior of all stripes; Republicans speak up for Roy Moore, a man accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, even as they claim to be the defender of religious family values; every new evidence of political scandal and misbehavior on the part of this administration is met with a shrug of the shoulders from the Republican faithful; and so on. (I have listed merely a selection of those examples that occur to me as an occupant of ‘this’ side of the political spectrum; the ‘other side’ will be able to supply some of its own.)

Such seeming incoherence is anything but; accusations that those who hold such views are hypocrites or inconsistent rest on a widely mistaken view about how political subjects rank their political preferences and value their political goods: it is assumed that citizens assign a ‘flat’ ranking to their political preferences, that they assign the same value to all perceived political goods, so that  a failure to provide one political good is as damaging as a failure to deliver another political good. A moment’s reflection will show that this is not the case. None of us rank our desired political goods as equally valuable–this is precisely why our political parties of choice send us survey questionnaires in election season, asking  us to rank our political priorities so that they may better focus their limited resources on pursuing those agendas of most interest to their constituents.

Viewed in this light, the seeming ‘incoherence’ or ‘hypocrisy’ of our political opponents becomes more understandable; they are not any more unprincipled or inconsistent than we are; failure to sever a political alliance is not evidence of political dishonesty; rather, the seeming offender has not committed any truly ‘deadly sin’ just yet by failing to deliver a truly valuable political good, one ranked much higher than the less-worthy ones that have not been delivered. If Donald Trump ‘grabs pussies’ and stuffs his family’s coffers while ensconced in the White House, this is of little import to a constituency that simply does not rank respect for women or financial propriety as important as the rhetorical or material protection of an established social order of say, ‘whiteness’ or ‘Judeo-Christian nationalism’ or anything else. If Donald Trump and the Republican Party can be perceived as continuing to supply those political goods, ones granted a weight orders of magnitude greater than that granted to say, the protection of women’s rights to live their lives free of harassment, then all is good. Politicians are not perfect; they cannot ‘do it all’; but if they do what we most want, we are willing to overlook their ‘minor’ failings. Especially if paying attention to those ‘minor’ failings will compromise the delivery of the truly important political goods.

There is a method to the madness.

Drexel University Bans Professor From Campus, Gives Alt-Right An Early Christmas Gift

I’ve signed and shared a statement of solidarity supporting George Cicciariello-Maher of Drexel University who has been placed on administrative leave by his employer, Drexel University. That statement begins as follows:

On October 9, 2017, Drexel University administrators sent a letter to Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher informing him that he was being placed on paid administrative leave, effective immediately. The reason, they stated, was based on considering professor Ciccariello-Maher’s presence on campus a significant public safety risk to the Drexel University community and to himself, after he received a number of death threats against him and his family. The threats followed Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s postings on Twitter about the shooting in Las Vegas. Prof. Ciccariello-Maher sought to answer the question: Why are these crimes almost always carried out by white men? by tweeting “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid.” The tweets unleashed the series of threats against him and his family, to which Drexel University answered by placing Professor Ciccariello-Maher on leave.

Drexel University has, by this spineless display of capitulation, sent an early Christmas gift to white supremacists and others of their ilk by providing them a blueprint for how they can silence those who might speak up against them: all you need to do is make a few death threats and the university will obligingly prevent the professor from teaching or even being present on campus. Ciccariello-Maher’s students have been denied their time in their classroom with their professor; and the alt-right can now turn its eyes elsewhere, looking for the next ‘loudmouth’ to silence. The tactical and strategic stupidity of their actions does not seem to bear too heavily on Drexel University; for now, they can hide behind the screen of ‘public safety.’ But such excuses will not wash, of course; Drexel has sought to silence Ciccariello-Maher previously as well.

A couple of weeks ago, I made notice here of a libelous postering campaign directed at Brooklyn College’s student and faculty, which accused me of being a ‘terrorist supporter.’ The college and university administration’s response has been tepid at best. (Our chancellor’s response descended into utter banality as he merely took note of some ‘troubling posters.’) These responses seem to be driven by the worry that responding in stronger terms will stir up a hornet’s nest, provoking more unwelcome attention. What they fail to realize is that the hornets are astir already, and will not be deterred by such pablum. They will especially not be deterred if universities cower and do their dirty work for them by banning and silencing those who have provoked this attention from the right.

It should be noted that Ciccariello-Maher does not have a First Amendment defense against his private employer; he is more vulnerable than those employed by public institutions (like me.) No matter how much you might disagree with his chosen rhetorical style or content, the fact remains that a dangerous precedent has been set, thanks to an astonishing capitulation in a political atmosphere that demands the very opposite of the actions chosen by Drexel University. Drexel should immediately reconsider and reinstate Ciccariello-Maher. (If you are an academic, please sign and share the statement of solidarity linked to above.)

The Boycotter’s Guide To The NFL

Should you or should you not boycott the NFL? Let’s review the cases for and against.

For: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting the civil rights protest conducted by Colin Kaepernick–one underway since last year when he began taking a knee during the playing of the American national anthem before NFL games; this protest has resulted in him not finding a single NFL team willing to hire him this season–while simultaneously hiring players with inferior records. (None of those players, obviously, were as ‘uppity’ as Kaepernick was.) You will thus be condemning an organization that has systematically covered up the dangerous work environment that it provides to its employees–google ‘concussion NFL cover up’; which has refused to treat the domestic violence perpetrated by its players as a problem worthy of a serious response–google ‘NFL domestic violence’; and several of whose owners donated a million dollars each to help elect an incompetent white supremacist President of the United States.

Against: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting a boycott call sent out by the aforementioned ‘incompetent white supremacist President of the United States’–who would like NFL teams to fire any players who dare to speak up in any shape or form against the systemic racism that so often afflicts their fellow Americans,failing which fans should stay away from the league.

The case for boycotting the NFL is strong regardless of the Trump Intervention. Trump’s boycott call is not directed at those who would find themselves in agreement with the actions of Colin Kaepernick–and all those who have joined him in protesting at NFL games. It is directed, instead, at those who call the players who protest thus ‘spoiled rich ungrateful millionaires.’ (Apparently, earning the wages that are due to you in the particular political economy that regulates your profession means you lose your right to protest; moreover, if rich folks don’t have a right to protest, then how come they have the right to be elected President?) That is, if you are boycotting the NFL, continue to do so. You aren’t the one Trump was talking to in the first place.

The effect of Trump’s decidedly amateurish intervention in this ‘debate’ has been singular: today’s games have been marked by widespread protests, ranging from multiple players taking the knee during the national anthem to entire teams refusing to take the field for the playing of the national anthem to singers of the anthem themselves taking a knee. It has also forced NFL owners to to cease and desist from puckering up and kissing the ample Trump backside to actually speaking up against him. (The odious owner of the much maligned New England Patriots has led the way.) There is much to enjoy in this squabbling spectacle: the protest Trump sought to condemn has only grown as a result, and the NFL’s owners have found themselves backed into a corner where precisely no friends can be found.

Meanwhile, keep your hands off the remote on Sundays, and skip the football pages in the sports section.

Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)

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Punching Nazis In The Face And Anti-Antifa Critiques

A week or so ago, shortly after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, I asked on my Facebook page: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Asking for a Virginian friend.” As might have been expected this semi-serious query sparked an interesting discussion in the course of which one of my friends asked me to clarify on when I thought the use of violence was justified–against the kinds of folks who marched in Charlottesville or against folks like Richard Spencer, who did indeed, get punched in the face. My reply went as follows:

I do think that Nazis create a greater threat than other instance of ideology on two legs, and will amplify and make that threat more manifest in a manner that will prompt violence directed at them – I’m OK with that violence. If I see a Nazi rally in my street, and a couple of goons screaming in my daughter’s face, I will fucking punch them. It it possible then that I will suffer Clanton’s fate, but I will plead in my defense, that I was protecting my daughter from ‘assault.’ And I will have a good legal case for doing so – Nazis, too often, behave in ways that constitute ‘assault’ – technically. They’re asking for punches.

My reply clarifies something about the nature of the so-called ‘violence’ directed at Nazis by Antifa, and responds to the various critiques directed at those who have ‘clashed’ with the various brands of white supremacists who have started to emerge, in increasing numbers, from the woodwork. The following points, I think, are salient, and build on it:

  1. Violence takes many forms; current critiques of Antifa fetishize physical violence, the actual meeting of flesh vs. flesh; they fail to address the violence present in a relentless pattern of intimidation and abuse and overt exertions of power. These critiques are blind in a crucial dimension; they take their eyes off the content and the history of Nazi/white supremacist speech and action; they do not examine their impact of those that bear the brunt of these. The legal definition of ‘assault’ is more catholic: it admits of more forms of violence, and allows for a greater range of actions in response.
  2. For many folks, the sight of Nazis marching in the streets, calling them sub-human, demanding they leave their homes and ‘go back’ to where ‘they came from,’ is already assault. Nazis don’t offer political critique: they reduce my humanity. (Read the Daily Stormer if you doubt this.) If they attempt to do that to my daughter, I will not wait for them to start swinging. I’ll start swinging first; there is, no, I repeat, no, talking with Nazis. I will not allow my daughter to be ‘assaulted’ by Nazis; more to the point, I will not rely on the goodwill of the police or the state to protect me. They have already made clear they will not defend my family or me. The daily news assures me of their non-cooperation in this matter. Indeed, I expect that they will stand by and let violence be done to me.
  3. Unsurprisingly most objections to the Antifa originate in ‘moderate whites’–the same folks that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as being the greatest barrier to the civil rights  movement–these folks do not feel physically threatened in the same way that people of color are when Nazis and white supremacists march through their neighborhoods; they have not been subjected to the daily rituals of aggression that people of color are. They do not have their accent remarked on, they are not asked to repeat themselves, they are not subjected to relentless, ignorant queries that betray a lack of cultural sensitivity and an overwhelming ignorance that is anything but benign. Sexism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia; these all exert a daily toll that most ‘moderate whites’ do not experience or understand. As James Baldwin pointed out a long time ago, thanks to segregation, which continues today, most whites know nothing about their fellow black citizens; they do not know what they feel, how they feel, what they think or how they think. Offering political advice on  how to conduct protests to this community is an act of political hubris. So is offering political advice to those who, by their actions, act to reduce the daily intimidation experienced by people of color.
  4. Every single call to denounce the Antifa and their tactics abdicates political agency: if the Antifa do X, then our political opponents will do Y, and we can do nothing about it. There the discussion stops; there is no talk of whether there are any substantive countermoves to Y. The propaganda countermeasures that say that violence on ‘both sides’ will be condemned cannot be combated; the state’s crackdown–now justified because of Antifa’s violence–cannot be resisted. Our only option is acquiescence in the face of precisely those some propaganda countermeasures and the same state crackdown that are already visible today. Here, the moderate white’s imagination breaks down. He cannot imagine a political move in response; all is lost. The ‘other’ will act, and ‘we’ will simply be subject to their actions. We, through our actions and speech, can do nothing in response. This is not political critique; this is surrender.
  5. This is a country in the grip of an ongoing large-scale human rights violation and moral atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’; in this country, police can arrest, assault, harass, imprison, and kill people of color at whim with no accountability; this is the world in which ‘moderate whites’ want the antifa to be treated as morally equivalent to the marching Nazis and for those who seek to combat their violence. In this country, white supremacists control the government and its other branches; here, the moderate white would like the Antifa to keep on marching, keep on checking to see if the ‘moderate white’ approves of their tactics–the moderate white will continue to wait for the non-existent perfect protest, made at the right time, in the right place, in the right way.
  6. Here is a thought experiment concerning 1930s Germany: What would have happened if German Antifa had indeed come out swinging against the Nazis? What if every time the Nazis had held a rally, they had been greeted, not just with overwhelming numbers, but with a swift punch to the face every time one of them opened their mouths to pronounce their murderous ideology? What if that ‘violence’ had indeed overwhelmed the Nazis in Germany? Perhaps the problem with the violence directed against the Nazis in 1930s Germany was that there simply was not enough of it. Twelve years later, German cities had to be reduced to ashes.

The Trump-Republican Legacy: Institutional Capture And Degradation

There might be some disputation over whether the Donald Trump-Republican Party unholy alliance is politically effective in terms of the consolidation of executive power or actual legislative activity–seasoned political observers consider the Trump administration to have been an utter failure on both fronts–but there can be little doubt about the extent of the damage the combination of the Trump administration and the Republican Party have done to American political institutions. They have done so in two ways: first, they have systematically captured components of the electoral and  legislative process, exploiting their structural weaknesses and their dependence on good-willed political actors (which the Republicans most certainly aren’t); second, they have engaged in a wholesale rhetorical condemnation and ridicule of central and peripheral political institutions like the judiciary and the press.

In the former domain, we find a bag of dirty tricks that includes gerrymandering of state electoral districts, wholly fraudulent investigations into voter fraud, repression of voter registration, filibusters, supermajority requirements to call bills to vote on the floor, the stunning refusal to vote on a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia, and so on. In the latter domain, we find the ceaseless vilification of judges who do not align their votes in the ideological dimensions preferred by Trump, an utter disregard for all manner of ethical proprieties (c.f. the absence of any sensitivity to the non-stop conflicts of interest that are this administration’s trademark political maneuver), and a wholesale rejection of any standards of truth or evidence in the making of substantive factual political claims.

The American polity will be rid of the Trump administration via resignation or electoral rejection soon enough; perhaps it will even remove the Republican Party from power  from all three branches of government. It will not, however, be rid of the damage caused to its political institutions any time soon; it will take a long time to for this damnable stain to be removed, if at all. Cynicism about political institutions and practices is as American as various species of fruit pies; it is the natural result of a systematic effort by the political class to bring about widespread disengagement with national and state-level political processes, thus clearing the field for those seeking greater control over them. That effort has been spectacularly successful over the years; low voter turnout is its most visible indicator. The efforts of this administration and the Republican Party, aided and abetted, it must be said, by the Democratic Party, have pushed that cynicism still further, into realms where the abdication of political responsibility and the loud proclamation of moral bankruptcy has come to seem a political and intellectual virtue.  So overt has the abuse of the political system been that a collective weariness with politics has prompted an ongoing and continuing abandonment of the field; better to walk away from this cesspool than to risk further contamination. That abandonment clears the way for further capture and degradation, of course; precisely the effect intended (see above.)