Hitler and the Nazi’s have long held a quasi-mythological status in the American psyche. I do not know when this began, but it has simply been a fact for my entire conscious life. I can only imagine that, in centuries gone by, Satan and his devils filled the niche in the collective social consciousness that Hitler and his Nazis serve today.
Deep down, the people of all Western democracies wonder if their nation could–given the right historical circumstances–follow in the path of Nazi Germany. And all the citizens of these nations have wondered–at least at some point in their lives–if they would have had the courage and the foresight to have opposed Hitler’s rise. Because everyone wants to believe in their own heroism, and because the only evidence that they would have opposed the last Hitler is to oppose the next Hitler, there’s latent desire for someone to fill that role, just so that they could prove to themselves that they would pass the test.
But lately I get the feeling that Trump’s critics have evolved from expecting Trump to be Hitler to preferring it. Obviously they don’t prefer it in a conscious way. But the alternative to Trump becoming Hitler is that they have to live out the rest of their lives as confirmed morons. No one wants to be a confirmed moron. And certainly not after announcing their Trump opinions in public and demonstrating in the streets. It would be a total embarrassment for the anti-Trumpers to learn that Trump is just trying to do a good job for America. It’s a threat to their egos. A big one.
And this gets me to my point. When millions of Americans want the same thing, and they want it badly, the odds of it happening go way up. [emphasis original]
Adams hastened to clarify that he wasn’t “talking about any new-age magic.” Instead:
I’m talking about ordinary people doing ordinary things to turn Trump into an actual Hitler. For example, if protesters start getting violent, you could expect forceful reactions eventually. And that makes Trump look more like Hitler. I can think of dozens of ways the protesters could cause the thing they are trying to prevent. In other words, they can wish it into reality even though it is the very thing they are protesting.
I don’t agree with Adams on a lot of thing, even here. I don’t, for example, find the idea that “Trump is just trying to do a good job for America” to be credible. It seems clear to me that Trump is just trying to do a good job for Trump. However, I do think he’s right that the anti-Trump movement has become so invested in their own narrative of manning the barricades in a last-ditch defense against tyranny that they kind of need Trump to come through for them. Everybody wants to be a hero and so, deep down, everybody wants their enemies to be villains.
This is all a little bit abstract, however. Adams tries to make things concrete with his example of protesters going overboard, but there’s a much better example of how this can play out. It comes from Damon Linker’s piece: America’s spies anonymously took down Michael Flynn. That is deeply worrying. Linker makes a couple of vitally, vitally important philosophical points, like this one: “In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter.” Along those lines, he points out that–even though the resignation of Michael Flynn is a good thing–the fact that he was essentially removed by intelligence professionals as part of a “soft coup (or political assassination)” is a serious concern. In particular:
The chaotic, dysfunctional Trump White House is placing the entire system under enormous strain. That’s bad. But the answer isn’t to counter it with equally irregular acts of sabotage — or with a disinformation campaign waged by nameless civil servants toiling away in the surveillance state.
As Eli Lake of Bloomberg News put it in an important article following Flynn’s resignation,
Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do. [Bloomberg]
Those cheering the deep state torpedoing of Flynn are saying, in effect, that a police state is perfectly fine so long as it helps to bring down Trump.
I haven’t had an awful lot to say–on my blog or even to friends and family in person–about Trump since the election. This is why. I haven’t figured out a good method of opposing Trump that doesn’t feed into the larger pendulum-swinging crisis in American politics. A lot of the opposition to Trump–both before and especially since the election–has been not only hysterical and unprincipled, but deeply, seriously dangerous. The reality is that at this point opposing Trump–in most places and for most people–is not an act of courage or bravery because it doesn’t carry any substantial risk. Take Attorney General Sally Yates. She was lauded as a hero because she ordered the Department of Justice attorneys not to defend Trump’s immigration executive order and was subsequently fired. Her opposition to the executive order is laudable, but there’s not even a glimmer of heroism in how she went about it. She was a political appointee on her way out anyway. Her grandstanding cost her literally nothing and earned her endless applause and praise. Heroism has certainly never come cheaper than that.Whether it’s violent protests at Berkeley, punching Richard Spencer, or applauding the growth of an unaccountable police state (see above), the anti-Trump movement is increasingly dominated by a radical fringe hellbent on racing Trump down the downward spiral of dishonesty, hysteria, and extremism.
I believe in defending our nation from Trump’s cavalier disregard for law and principle. But I also believe in defending our nation from the escalating cycle of co-dependent extremism. Journalists, who fall over themselves to run 16 fake anti-Trump news stories in the first month of his presidency, are making King Pyrrhus proud; even if they win they will find they have shredded the last vestiges of their credibility in the process. It’s time to reiterate that one Nietzsche quote everyone knows:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Maybe Trump is the next Hitler, but I doubt it. He’s probably not the next Stalin or Mao or Mussolini either. He doesn’t have the commitment, the talent, the opportunity, or the ideology to pull it off. But if we keep pushing the pendulum further on every swing with escalating hyper-partisanship and if we sabotage our own institutions–from the civil services to the mainstream media to expectations of basic decency–we will find that on the day when an American Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini steps up onto the stage, we will have ripped all of our institutional safeguards to shreds already.
Trump got elected because the American right keeps crying wolf when it comes to illegal immigrants and terrorists and because the American left keeps crying wolf when it comes to fascism and bigotry. Neither side has learned their lesson. And so the crying wolf continues. The reality is, we haven’t seen the wolf.
There’s a new Internet/Facebook list going around: “10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a teenager.” I thought it’d be fun to give you a glimpse into the musical tastes of my teenage self, which largely continue today. Attempting to think of whole albums was a little difficult because this was the age of mix CDs. I had a ton of mix CDs with various artists. I also had a lot of “Greatest Hits” and “The Best of…” albums (I wore out The Cream of Clapton as well as The Best of Bond…James Bond), which I’ve decided not to count. I’ve also limited the list to one album per artist. Otherwise, my list would likely be made up of two bands. It should also be noted that my musical tastes were largely seen through the eyes of a budding guitar player. Virtually everything was interpreted through the filter of, “How can this affect my guitar playing?” So, without further ado, here are my top ten teen albums (in no particular order):
Blink 182 – Enema of the State: I went through a huge Blink 182 phase through middle school and into my freshman year of high school. Aside from some radio play (“Dammit” was actually the first song I ever heard by them), my first proper introduction to them was at scout camp one summer. One of my best friends at the time had Enema of the State with him (I want to say on cassette) and he let me listen to some of the songs as we made our way to different merit badge sessions. This led to mixtapes featuring songs from Enema, Dude Ranch, and even Buddha. My parents weren’t particularly thrilled when they finally heard some of the crude themes and coarse language on these tapes, but that didn’t stop me from getting my secret stash of Blink CDs. It was this album that made me want to play an instrument. I decided I wanted to play bass because (1) everyone and their mother plays guitar and (2) Mark–the Blink bassist–was in my eyes the coolest member of the band (though now I know it’s definitely the drummer Travis Barker). My parents opted for a guitar instead and I’ve never once regretted it. Even though I prefer their 2001 album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (see what they did there?), Enema is the one that started my musical journey. Below is the highly immature video for the single “What’s My Age Again?”
Incubus – Make Yourself: During one of our family vacations, my older sister Tori let me listen to her copy of Make Yourself by Incubus. I’d heard some of their hits on the radio, but this was the first time going through the entire album. I fell in love with it to the point that my sister just gave it to me. Brandon Boyd’s vocals and the somewhat unique twist on 90s alternative rock stood out to me as did its ability to capture my various teenage emotions, from angst to puppy love to a desire for self-direction. Their follow-up albums during my high school years–Morning View and A Crow Left of the Murder–received even more constant rotation than Make Yourself, but it was this album that began my still ongoing love affair with Incubus and their talent for both capturing my emotional states and transporting me to new ones. Below is the video for their song “Stellar.”
Metallica – Ride the Lightning: I had heard Metallica growing up. Who hasn’t heard “Enter Sandman” or “Nothing Else Matters“? But I only started paying attention to them after hearing their live album S&M in the weight room at my high school freshman year. It was my first year of guitar playing and my initial thought was, “If they are this good live, what are they like on their records?” As I started downloading Metallica songs, I saw them perform one I hadn’t heard before on VH1 (trivia: it was bassist Jason Newsted’s last performance before he left the band). The song was “Fade to Black” and it was found on Ride the Lightning. I bought that album soon after and brought it with me on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. I listened to it non-stop and decided that I wanted to be able to play like guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett. This was my pathway to metal. I ended up with all of the Metallica albums, as well as a large chunk of Megadeth, Pantera, Ozzy Osbourne, and Dream Theater albums. I probably spent far more time listening to these metal bands than anything else, but it was Ride the Lightning that started it all. My guitar chops improved as did my musical taste because of it. You can see the VH1 performance of “Fade to Black” that ignited the flame below.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon: My brother-in-law JC has been a guitar player since he was a teenager (at least). Whenever we would visit my sister, he would always go through his ginormous digital collection of music in hopes of educating me out of my Blink 182 phase and moving me beyond Metallica. He first used David Gilmour’s ending solo in “Comfortably Numb” to peak my interest in Pink Floyd. I ended up getting Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd (on my own or as a gift, I can’t remember), but Dark Side of the Moon was the first actual album that listened to heavily (followed by The Wall). The musical style was so different from what I was used to; a kind of progressive, psychedelic rock. Gilmour’s less-is-more melodic playing was such a contrast to the shredding I was accustomed to from metal bands. Plus, the idea of a concept album was pretty new to me. Composing songs that bled into each other as they told a coherent story or relayed similar themes was a new level of creativity for me. Dark Side taught me to slow my playing down and told me that emotion and melody were key to a good lead. You can see what in my estimate is the best version of “Money” from the concert Delicate Sound of Thunder below, which I watched over and over again as a teenager.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II: I originally bought Led Zeppelin II for my dad for his birthday(?) one year at the suggestion of my mom. I wasn’t very familiar with Led Zeppelin at the time and even though I thought “Whole Lotta Love” was pretty cool, it didn’t peak my interest all that much. However, after picking up the guitar and shifting away from pop punk bands, I started “borrowing” (i.e., making a permanent part of my personal collection) Led Zeppelin II from my dad. While I acquired The Best of Led Zeppelin: Early & Latter Days, Vol. 1 & 2, it was this album that made me really appreciate the bluesy elements of rock. It felt like a bridge between the old and the new, between traditional blues and modern rock. And everyone was amazing: Plant’s vocals, Page’s guitar, Jones’ bass, and Bonham’s drums. Hard to find a band in which every member is of the highest caliber. And yes: I still prefer it to Led Zeppelin IV. You can see them performing “Whole Lotta Love” live from the Led Zeppelin DVD I watched consistently in my later years of high school.
Pearl Jam – Ten: I used to hate Pearl Jam. I remember revealing my dislike of them to a bass player friend my freshman/sophomore year and he was flabbergasted that a guitar player would not like them. “But they’re such good musicians!” he protested. I don’t know what it was about them. Maybe it was Eddie Vedder’s voice (a co-worker of mine once described him as sounding like a man singing in a freezer). Maybe it was the flannel. My suspicion is that I just had not been properly exposed to them beyond “Jeremy” (which is an awesome song, mind you). I started downloading a number of Pearl Jam songs in my later years of high school and found myself appreciating them more and more. I finally caved and bought Ten. The album was (and is) phenomenal. There isn’t a song on it that isn’t top-notch. You can see them on full display with “Alive” below.
Rush – Moving Pictures: My first introduction to Rush was their video for “Time Stand Still” early one weekday morning on VH1. The video was ridiculous, but there was something about the band that I really liked. I stumbled on them again when “Test For Echo” came on one of those satellite music channels that I had playing in the background one day. I recognized the vocals and the band name and once again found myself being drawn to their style. On another fateful weekday morning, I saw their video for “Limelight” on VH1. The video was incredibly dated, but the song blew me away. Their mastery of the instruments was incredible and I was sold on Alex Lifeson’s wammy-heavy solo. I had to have that song. I ended up buying Moving Pictures soon after. I couldn’t believe that a trio could create that kind of sound. Typically, I focused solely on the guitar playing, but Rush made it impossible to ignore Lee’s bass playing or Peart’s drumming. This opened the flood gates: virtually every album and a couple concerts (one of which was as recent as 2015) later, I still consider them one of my favorites. You can see the video for “Limelight” below.
Alice in Chains – Dirt: Lucky for me, my YM/Scout leader for the longest time was also one of my best friend’s dad. While I was listening to Blink 182, my friend (due to his dad’s influence) was listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and even the chainsaw-wielding Jackal. One Wednesday night, as I caught a ride with my friend, his dad popped in one of his many CDs. Suddenly, a chugging, metal chord progression filled the car, along a with a jolting scream and eerie harmonies. I was caught off guard, but thoroughly entranced. About halfway through, the guitarist ripped into a headbanging solo. My ears perked up. The song, unfortunately, came to an end after only a couple minutes. When I asked what this was, my friend’s dad answered (with a smile), “Alice in Chains.” The album was Dirt and the song was “Them Bones.” I borrowed the album, ripped it, and became an AIC fan from then on. Jerry Cantrell, the guitarist and co-vocalist, provided a blues-based, melodic metal I could rock out to. More importantly, he provided a type of playing that seemed achievable: not because his playing was sub-par, but because it evidenced a moderate partaking of the best rock music had to offer. Cantrell was not a shredder, a blues master, or a progressive rock composer (he still isn’t). But he was and is a fine guitar player, lyricist, and all-around musician. He instilled me with confidence and inspiration in my first few years of playing and remains influential even today. You can see the video for “Them Bones” below.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours: For Christmas one year I received a year-long subscription to Guitar World magazine. In one of the issues, it featured a kind of boxing bracket for guitarists, rating them on a 0-5 scale on things like chops, influence, creativity, etc. Unfortunately, my mother trashed all of my Guitar World issues while I was on my mission (I’m still not sure why), so I’m unable to reference it properly. But at the time, I used the bracket to learn about guitarists I had never heard of before. At one point, I came across the name Lindsey Buckingham with something like a 3.7 in chops. When I discovered that he was the guitarist/co-vocalist of Fleetwood Mac, I remembered that my mom had Rumours in her van. I promptly borrowed the album and began soaking in Buckingham’s fingerpicked style. The album remained in constant rotation along with their (then) new album Say You Will. The mix of male and female vocals gave it a more diverse sound than I was used to and my enjoyment of Rumour‘s more pop-oriented style helped expand my musical palate. You can see their performance of “The Chain” from their live album The Dance (which I also spent of fair amount of time listening to) below.
Steve Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Texas Flood: In my first year of guitar playing (and therefore still in my pop punk phase), I had a Sunday School teacher who recognized that my fellow Blinkophile friend and I were “big into music.” One day, she held us after class and gave each of us a copy of SRV’s Texas Flood. Because we were guitar players, she knew we would appreciate SRV’s skills. In actuality, we both had a bit of an aversion to the album: it was straight blues and that just wasn’t us. We were “punk rockers” and SRV was definitely not that. Fast-forward a year or so. I was going through my CD collection and pulled our Texas Flood to give it another listen. I was floored: the tone, the bends, the precision. It was beautiful. While other artists (see Zeppelin and Floyd above) opened the door to a bluesier style, it was this album that solidified the blues in my book. It paved the way for my embrace of other blues guitarists like B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, and others. Texas Flood is the reason that I earned the name “Blues Man” from a co-worker due to my Pandora picks. You can see SRV & Double Trouble performing my favorite track off the album–“Lenny”–below.
Here are a few honorable mentions with a brief explanation:
Megadeth – Rust in Peace: After Metallica, Megadeth was the next biggest metal band I listened to (Dave Mustaine was a former member of Metallica before they kicked him out). Rust in Peace was the first album of theirs I bought and it is still my favorite.
Tool – Lateralus: A friend of mine had a select few bands that he insisted were required listening. One of them was Tool and he made me promise to listen Lateralus all the way through without stopping. If I loved it, he would burn me the rest of their albums. I did and he did.
Prince – Purple Rain: I probably listened to “The Very Best of…” more, but Purple Rain put Prince’s skills on full display. The talent of the man was almost sickening.
Les Miserables: Original Broadway Cast: My older sister Nicole was a big theatre geek, so Les Miserables became a staple of my growing up. I still listen to it fairly often and I wept like a baby at the end of the 2012 film.
Phantom of the Opera: Original London Cast: Ditto. I dragged my high school girlfriend to the 2004 film. She kept trying to get friendly in the theater and I kept telling her to leave me alone so I could watch the movie. Priorities.
The first indication that things were going awry was author Jacob Levy’s dismissal of the Trump win as not even really needing an explanation:
Donald Trump received a smaller share of the popular vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012, but his Electoral College victory was so unexpected that it seems to call forth explanation after explanation.
The idea is that Trump’s apparently overwhelming victory is basically a figment of the peculiar nature of our voting system. In reality, it was about 80,000 votes in three states that proved decisive, and such a small number of votes “is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations.”
All of which is true. And all of which misses the point entirely. When someone as objectionable as Donald Trump performs about as well as your typical Republican candidate, that is not a reason to wave your hands dismissively. That is a matter for serious reflection, because Trump was far, far from a typical Republican politician. Levy seems to be saying that Trump did more or less as well–plus or minus an insignificant fraction of total voters–as anybody else would have: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, whatever. But that’s not an explanation of anything. It actually happens to be the very fact which demands an explanation!
The second misstep is fundamentally misconstruing the nature of political correctness. To hear Levy tell it, identity politics is basically indistinguishable from civility and common moral rectitude. Thus, Levy insists that Trump’s low points such as the attack on Judge Curiel or the Khan family or the Bobby Bush video, were all instances of Trump violating political correctness. Ergo, Trump did not rise when he contravened identity culture, but rather fell, and so you can’t credit any kind of anti-PC sentiment for his victory.
But to categorize these mistakes as exclusively or even primarily about political correctness makes little sense. The Khan family is a gold star family, and when has concern for the military ever been associated with political correctness or identity politics? Yes, the Khan family is also Muslim, but there’s no way to describe this as only or even mainly about political correctness. The same goes for the Bobby Bush tapes where–once again–Trump’s foul language and outright criminal behavior violated not only the norms of political correctness (for being misogynistic) but also of–as I said earlier–basic decency. The attack on Curiel was the only one that could fairly be categorized as substantially about political correctness and little else, and so it’s a fundamental mistake to draw the conclusion that whenever Trump violated PC norms his poll numbers fell. On the contrary, his penchant for trampling on political correctness were the defining attributes of his campaign.
Speaking more broadly, however, Levy’s dismissive attitude towards the excesses of political correctness and identity politics fundamentally misapprehends what that movement is already about. On the issue of college campuses, he writes:
It turns out that 18-year-olds seized of the conviction of their own righteousness are prone to immoderation and simplistic views. (Who knew?)
But–as amusing as those stories are–he neglects the part where people lose their jobs as a result of these temper tantrums and how this very real threat has led to a climate of fear and paranoia. Nor is that just a matter of anecdotes. In “Political diversity will improve social psychological science” a team of researchers substantiate the following claims:
Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years.
This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike.
Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking.
The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination
So much for the kids will be kids approach Levy favors. Undermining free speech and open inquiry on collage campuses and beyond strikes me as a legitimately concerning trend, not just a kind of cute overzealousness..
Levy also characterizes identity politics as starting and ending with any particular concern for a particular group of individuals. Anti-sodomy laws used to discriminate gays can be written in apparently neutral terms (with regard to sexuality) and America’s racist criminal justice system is ostensibly colorblind. In order to reform these discriminatory systems, Levy insists, we have to have identity-conscious politics that refuse to give up at the most superficial veneer of impartiality.
I agree with Levy on this point, but what we agree on and what identity politics constitute are two different things. Take the criminal justice system, for example. The inequality is evident in statistics that indicate blacks and whites use drugs at roughly equivalent levels, but that blacks are more likely to be arrested, charged, charged with more serious offenses, and convicted. It is entirely possible to oppose this because you want blacks and whites to be treated identically. This is nothing new. It’s the same spirit–broadened and expanded–as “all men are created equal.”
But what does this have to do with the doctrine of intersectionality, a political idea rooted in the fundamental alienation of people based on categories of race, gender, and sexuality? How can a universal view of humanity where we’re all fundamentally alike–and should be treated that way–possibly coexist with a doctrine that takes as axiomatic the mutual incomprehensibility of our lives based on identity categories?
What does this have to do with the stubborn insistence of contemporary social justice warriors–many of whom come from extremely privileged backgrounds (as their prevalence on elite college campuses renders obvious)–to insist we check our racial privilege while ignoring other forms of privelege that are at least as relevant but would indict them as well? (I’m looking at you, socio-economic class.)
Or, to expand things a bit more, let’s consider critical race theory which–according to its own proponents–“rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy.” Levy argues that “the defense of liberty can’t do without identity politics,” but it turns out that the actual practitioners of identity politics think they can get along without liberty (at least: classical liberalism) just fine, thanks very much. Levy might think he’s on the side of the politically correct and the social justice advocates of identity politics, but I’m pretty sure the feeling’s not mutual.
Aside from these particular ideological incompatibilities between classical liberalism and identity politics, we also have research from Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning delving into the rise of “victimhood culture” as something genuinely new and unique, using the same kinds of instances Levy dismisses as insignificant to illustrate “large-scale moral change” and the rise of a distinct victimhood culture. The only other two moral cultures they identify are honor culture and dignity culture, so it’s not like we get a new one of these every decade or so. This shift is seismic.
In the end, Levy believes that identity culture and classical liberalism can be allies. And, insofar as what he means is that “the progress of freedom depends on those who know where the shoe chafes,” then I agree. The trouble is that the identity politics of today–however they started–are effectively a method of entrenching socio-economic inequality by diverting attention away from the privileges of wealth and elite education with a myopic emphasis on race, gender and sexuality that–while sometimes vital in specific cases–becomes in its myopic form a tool of oppression rather than of freedom. Fundamentally, the project of contemporary identity politics both historically unique and essentially anti-liberal.
The coalition we need to build is not one between libertarianism and identity politics. On the contrary, the coalition we need today is between those who reject identity politics (whether they lean to the left or to the right) and those who embrace it (whether they lean to the left or to the right.) This coalition will not bring about a happy utopia because vital partisan differences will remain, but it will forestall the widening division and social dissolution that have wrought so much dysfunction and destruction on our political and social institutions in recent years.
I guess it’s a work of political theory, but for the most part it reads as history with a dash of evolutionary psychology. In exploring the origins of political order, Fukuyama starts by going way, way back before pre-history to make his first essential point: biology matters. In this regard, he’s echoing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, but the relationship here is fairly specific. According to Fukuyama, the primary problem with thinkers like Rousseau or Hobbes isn’t that they got the particulars of pre-social humanity right, it’s that the concept of “pre-social humanity” is an oxymoron. Humans, as the expression goes, are social animals. And that means we’re political animals. Politics didn’t come later–after the invention of writing or agriculture –but have been there from the beginning, inextricably intertwined with our development of speech. So, from this “biological foundation of politics”, Fukuuama draws the following propositions:
human beings never existed in a presocial state
natural human sociability is built around two principles, kin selection and reciprocal altruism
human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms or rules
human beings have a natural propensity for violence
human beings by nature desire not just material resources but also recognition
After laying this groundwork, Fukuyama than goes on to describe in broad strokes the evolution of human societies from bands to tribes to states. He invokes principles from biological evolution explicitly here, arguing that societies compete against each other in ways that are sometimes (but not always) analogous to competition between animals. This analogy shouldn’t be taken too far: there are treacherous debates about whether organisms or genes compete, for example, and about the viability of group selection, but Fukuyama’s primary concern is actually with the differences between biological and political evolution, and so those nuances are forgiveably overlooked.
As for the bands -> tribes -> states progression, the basic notion is that bands (groups of no more than 100 or so at the most) are held together by actual blood relation. Tribalism is a social innovation that allows bands to come together by claiming (real or fictitious) common descent. Two bands might have the same patriarch or matriarch, and so in the face of a common enemy they can rapidly coalesce into a single unit. This capacity means that it’s fairly easy for tribal societies to defeat band societies, because every time a solitary band and a band that’s part of a tribal society come into conflict, the latter can call upon as many tribal allies as needed to win the fight. As a result almost no band societies are left in existence.
But tribal segments are intrinsically unstable. Fukuyama cites an Arab expression: “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger.” When there is no stranger to confront, the cousins go to war. When there is no cousin on the horizon, the siblings feud. And so states are yet another progression–as superior to tribes as tribes are to bands–because of their ability to support not only temporary, contingent cooperation but permanent, universal cooperation.
Another argument he makes–and this one seemed just a little tangential but it’s interesting enough to go into–can be summarized as: ideas matter. Fukuyama says, for example, that “It is impossible to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths” and that ideas are “independent variables.” He’s reacting to the idea–exemplified in Marx–that to understand history in general and political development in particular, all you need are the physical factors: how much stuff do people have and what do they need to do to get more of it? He’s right to reject this idea. It’s wrong. But I think that–along with lot of other folks these days–he drastically overstates the extent to which anybody actually believes this.
It’s true that Economists talk about Homo economicus (the model of human beings as perfectly rational, self-interested agents), but never without an ironic edge. They know that this model is broken and doesn’t explain everything. That’s why the leading edge of critiquing human rationality intersects with economics: behavioral economics. Give economists some credit, they’ve already come up with bounded rationality as a fall-back, and you don’t do that unless you know that (unbounded) rationality is broken. Not that they’re satisfied with bounded rationality either, but economists are in the business of making models of human behavior and “all models are wrong.” Most of the folks who seem confused about this fact aren’t the economists, but the folks outside the discipline who don’t seem to be aware of the fact that economists are aware that their models are flawed.
Now, to Fukuyama’s main point: are ideas “independent variables”? I don’t think so. If Newton hadn’t figured out gravity, would some other clever chap have come along and figured it out by now? Probably so. I think that in most cases if you take out one particular genius, some other genius sooner or later comes to the same–or a very similar–realization. There’s no way to test it, but that’s my hunch. In fact, the whole business of a singular genius inventing this or that is often a delusion to begin with. Most of the really big breakthroughs–evolution and calculus come to mind first, but there plenty of others–were invented more or less simultaneously by different people at similar times. This is strong evidence to me that something about the historical context of (for example) Darwin and Wallace or Newton and Leibniz strongly directed people towards those discoveries. Which, if true, means that scientific discoveries are emphatically not independent. I have a hunch that’s what’s true of science is probably true to some degree of non-scientific ideas as well. If Marx had never been born, would we have Marxism? Probably not, but we’d probably have something pretty darn similar. (After all, we’d still have Engels, wouldn’t we?) It’s not like collective ownership is a new idea, after all. We’ve had the Peasant’s Revolt and the Red Turban Rebellion and many, many more. Take that basic idea, throw in a little Hegel (Marx just retrofitted Hegelianism) and presto: Marxism. If Marx hadn’t done it, and Engels hadn’t either, someone else would probably have done something similar. Maybe even using Hegel.
I don’t want to overstate my rebuttal to Fukuyama’s overstatement, so let’s pull back just a bit. I’m saying it’s probable that–in a world without Marx–someone else invents an ideology pretty close to Marxism. But does it take off? Does it inspire Lenin and Stalin? Does it lead to Mao and Castro? Do we still have the Cold War? I have no idea. And, while we’re at it, I’m not saying that if you didn’t have Shakespeare, someone else would have written Romeo and Juliet. I think that’s pretty absurd. My argument has two points: first, there’s interaction between ideas and physical contexts. Neither one is independent of the other. Second, human society is a complex system and that means it’s going to have some characteristics that are robust and hard to change (stable equilibria) and others where the tiniest variation could give rise to a totally different course of events (unstable equilibria). Maybe there was something inevitable about the general contours of socialism such that if you subtract Marx, and then subract Engels too, you still end up with a Cold War around a basically capitalist / socialist axis. Or maybe if even a fairly trivial detail in Marx’s life had changed, then Stalin would have been a die-hard free market capitalist and the whole trajectory of the post World War II 20th century would have been unrecognizable. I don’t know. I just do know that–just as ideas aren’t merely the consequences of physical circumstances–they also aren’t uncaused lightning bolts from the void, either. Ideas and the physical world exist in a state of mutual feedback.
But the primary concern of the book is this question: how do political order arise? For Fukuyama, political order has three components:
Rule of law
His account is contrarian basically from start to finish, but never (to my mind) gratuitously so. He argues, for example, that instead of starting with the rise of liberal democracy in the West, the key starting position is ancient China, the first society to develop a state in the modern sense. On the other hand, China never developed a robust rule of law. It was rather rule by law, a situation in which the emperor was not constrained by the idea of transcendent laws (either religious or, later, constitutional) and therefore China’s precocious, early state became as much a curse as a blessing:
[P]recocious state building in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes.
Fukuyama’s historical analysis is far-reaching. He spends quite a lot of time on India and the Middle East as well. At last he turns his analysis on Europe where–quite apart from the conventional East / West dichotomy–he goes country-by-country to show how the basic problems confronted by states in China, India, and the Middle East also sabotaged the development of most European states. France and Spain became weak absolutist governments with state building and rule of law, but no accountability. Russia became a strongly absolutist government. The difference? The central rules of Spain and France managed to subvert their political rivals (the aristocracy), but only just barely. In Russia, the czars completely dominated their political rivals, ruling with more or less unchecked power.
Fukuyama spends a lot of this time on England, specifically, which he holds up as a kind of lottery winner where all sorts of factors that went awry everywhere else managed to line up correctly. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, because he inverts basically everything you’ve been taught in school. Here’s a characteristic passage where he summarizes a few arguments that he makes at length in the book:
[T]he exit out of kinship-based social organization had started already during the Dark Ages with the conversion of Germanic barbarians to Christianity. The right of individuals including women to freely buy and sell property was already well established in England in the 13th century. The modern legal order had its roots in the fight waged by the Catholic church against the emperor in the late 11th century, and the first European bureaucratic organizations were created by the church to manage its own internal affairs. The Catholic church, long vilified as an obstacle to modernization, was in this longer-term perspective at least as important as the Reformation as the driving force behind key aspects of modernity. Thus the European path to modernization was not a spasmodic burst of change across all dimensions of development, but rather a series of piecemeal shifts over a period of nearly 1,500 years. In this peculiar sequence, individualism on the social level could precede capitalism. Rule of law could precede the formation of a modern state. And feudalism, in the form of strong pockets of local resistance to central authority, could be the foundation of modern democracy.
It’s a fascinating argument–just because it’s original and well-argued–but I also found it convincing. I think Fukuyama is basically correct.
So a couple more notes. First, there are basically two problems that Fukuyama sees consistently eroding political order, and both of them go back to the biological foundations of politics. The first is what he calls repatrimonialization. To keep things simple, let’s just say “nepotism” instead. The idea is that the band-level origins of human nature never go away, and the temptation to use the state’s authority to enrich one’s own kin is omnipresent. His discussion of the Catholic church’s invention of the doctrine of celibacy to successfully stave off this threat (bishops kept trying to pass on their callings to their children before that doctrine was created) and the unsuccessful attempts of the Mamluk Sultanate to use slave soldiers to stave off this threat (eventually the slave soldiers grew so politically powerful that they “reformed” the prohibitions against passing on property) are some of the most historically illuminating in the book.
The second problem is human conservatism. Fukuyama doesn’t mean in the partisan sense. He’s referring to our tendency–a universal aspect of human nature–to invent and then follow norms and laws. The problem here is that once we invent our laws, we stick to them. And when circumstances change, the norms/laws (and institutions) should change too, but humans don’t like to do that. So one of the #1 causes of the downfall of political order is a historically successful state proving incapable of reforming institutions to meet a changing environment due to sheer inertia. The classic example is pre-revolution France, and here Fukuyama finds a convention with which he has no quarrel:
We have seen numerous examples of rent-seeking coalitions that have prevented necessary institutional change and therefore provoked political decay. The classic one from which the very term rent derives was ancient regime France, where the monarchy had grown strong over two centuries by co-opting much of the French elite. This co-option took the form of the actual pruchase of small pieces of the state, which could then be handed down to descendants. When reformist ministers like Maupeou and Turgot sought to change the system by abolishing venal office altogether, the existing stakeholders were strong enough to block any action. The problem of venal officeholding was solved only through violence in the course of the revolution.
The second note I wanted to make was about partisanship. First, it’s important to note that although Fukuyama celebrates the rise of modern liberalism in England, he’s not promoting English exceptionalism. He spends a lot of time talking about what he calls “getting to Denmark.” His point there is that Denmark is also a widely-respected stable, modern, prosperous democracy and it didn’t follow the trajectory of England. The point is that he’s not saying: everyone, copy the English. Although he traces the origins of liberalism the farthest back in time in England, he specifically notes that if Denmark could find its own way into liberalism without retracing that path: so can other nations.
This is an important point, because Fukuyama is dealing in comparative politics, and he has no problem drawing rather sweeping (albeit justified, in my mind) generalizations when contrasting, for example, India and China. This is the kind of thing that anyone in my generation or younger (young Gen-X / Millennials) has been trained to reflexively reject. If you compare societies, it’s because you’re a racist. Given that Fukuyama is comparing societies–and that he arguably has the most praise for the English in terms of the philosophical origins of modern liberalism–there is no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be (has been) attacked as a kind of apologist for white supremacy, etc.
And that’s not true. First, because as I said he’s adamant about the fact that other nations can (and have) found their way to liberalism without imitating all aspects of English (let alone European) culture, society, or politics. Second, because he has plenty of non-European success stories. (Unfortunately, those are mostly from his second volume, since this one only goes up to the French Revolution and so doesn’t cover the explosion of democracy world-wide since that time.) Third, and finally, because he’s more than willing to look at pros and cons of differing systems. For example, going back to China and their problem with despotism, here’s a comment he makes towards the end of the book:
An authoritarian system can periodically run rings around a liberal democratic one under good leadership, since it is able to make quick decisions unencumbered by legal challenges or legislative secondguessing. On the other hand, such a system depends on a constant supply of good leaders. Under a bad emperor, the unchecked powers vested in the government can lead to disaster. This problem remains key in contemporary China, where accountability flows only upward and not downward.
This is the kind of clear-eyed, open-minded analysis that I think we need more of, not less of. It’s hard to argue, for example, with the success of S. Korea in leap-frogging from despotism to liberal democracy. There’s no reason–in principle–that China could not do something similar. (Other than problems of scale, that is.)
So here are my final thoughts. First: this is a fascinating book and it’s a lot of fun to read. It’s full of interesting history along with interesting theorizing. Second: I am convinced by Fukuyama’s arguments. And lastly, I have a lot of respect for his approach. He’s a centrist, and so he’s going to tick some people off for praising the kinds of things that radicals like to attack. If you think liberal democracy is the devil, Fukuyama is an apologist for Satan. On the other hand, it would be entirely wrong to dismiss him as a partisan hack. He interacts with Hayek a lot, for example, but this includes a mixture of praise on some points and also staunch criticism on others. He’s willing to laud capitalism (as the evidence warrants, I might add) but also to tip some of the rights sacred cows. “Free markets are necessary to promote long-term growth,” he says, but finishes the sentence with, “but they are not self-regulating.” He also savages the small-government obsession of the right, arguing that if you like small government, maybe you should move to Somalia. He’s not just ridiculing the right in that case, however, but pointing out that:
Political institutions are necessary and cannot be taken for granted. A market economy and high levels of wealth don’t magically appear when you “get government out of the way”; they rest on a hidden institutional foundation of property rights, rule of law, and basic political order. A free market, a vigorous civil society, the spontaneous “wisdom of crowds” are all important components of a working democracy, but none can ultimately replace the functions of a strong, hierarchical government. There has been a broad recognition among economist in recent years that “institutions matter”: poor countries are poor not because they lack resources but because they lack effective political institutions. We need therefore to better understand where those institutions come from.
In other words–and he returns to this point in the second volume–Fukuyama is dismissive of arguments about the quantity of government in favor of arguments about the quality of government.
His ideas are interesting, they are relevant, and they are compelling. I highly, highly recommend this book.
In the circles I run in, there was tons of coverage and discussion about the myriad comments Trump has made over the years that many of us consider blatantly sexist. When the Hollywood Access tape came out, I took (and still take) his comments as an admission of sexual predation, a topic that means a great deal to me. I was already a #NeverTrump conservative, but the Hollywood Access tapes made it much more difficult for me to understand how people of good conscience, especially women, could vote for this man.
My feed started to include articles such as The Atlantic’s “The Revolt of the Conservative Woman” and viral tweets from conservative women feeling betrayed by their party’s defense of Trump. Between his apparent gross disrespect of women and the opportunity to elect the first female president, I thought women would vote in droves for Clinton and against Trump. Article’s like FiveThirtyEight’s “Women are Defeating Donald Trump” seemed to think so too.
But clearly I was missing some major parts of the puzzle. (Apparently a lot of us were, including the pollsters.) As Walker pointed out recently, Trump’s support among (all, not just white) women was only slightly lower than the average for Republican presidential candidates since 2000 (42% compared to an average of 44.2%). Clinton’s support among women was exactly average for the Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 (54%). Women weren’t driven to the polls to vote against Trump or for Clinton—overall turnout among women was only 1% higher than in 2012.
So what happened? What pieces of the puzzle was I missing, that women were neither particularly repelled by Trump nor particularly inspired by Clinton?
What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman? Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.
Sarah Ruiz-Grossman at Huffington Post authored a letter to white women that started with “Fellow white women, I’m done with you.” In sync with a lot of the commentary I’ve read, it showed no curiosity as to the perspectives, hopes, fears, or values of millions of women that led them to vote for Trump (or at least not vote for Clinton). Instead, and again, it simply told them what they didn’t care about, what their moral failings were, and what they must do now.
While I appreciate the frustration, I think this approach is an awful strategy. Lambasting people, especially conservatives, for bigotry has not been terribly effective at changing their minds (or votes). Berating the other side seems to mostly get them to tune out entirely when the inevitable accusations of prejudice begin. And the rampant shaming of Trump supporters clearly did nothing to dissuade them throughout the primaries (when shaming was coming from conservatives and liberals alike) or the rest of the election. Why would it work now, when they’ve won? They have less reason than ever to be concerned about the opinions of people who show no understanding of their perspectives or interest in their wellbeing.
But it’s not just that I think accusing people of bigotry is poor strategy; I think it’s poor reasoning too. In this post I go through three theories of how voting for Trump was bigoted and explain whether I think those theories make sense.
Theory 1 – Internalized sexists: women voted for Trump instead of Clinton because they are sexist against female candidates.
How Trump measured against Clinton is a major factor. The pantsuit nation adored Clinton, of course, so for them this was no contest at all. But we aren’t looking into what HRC’s biggest fans thought; we’re exploring the millions of women who disagreed.
It’s not that everyone who voted for Trump thought he was wonderful: exit polls show that 20% of people who voted for Trump had an overall unfavorable opinion of him. Nearly a quarter of Trump voters said he wasn’t qualified for or did not have the temperament to be president, and a full 17% of people who voted for Trump to be President said they would be “concerned” if he were elected!
But 28% of Trump voters said they chose him mainly because they disliked Clinton. Trump received about 60M votes, which would mean about 17M cast their votes primarily as a vote against Clinton. Along the same lines, while voter turnout for Trump was slightly lower than it had been for Romney, voter turnout for Clinton was much lower than it had been for Obama.
Some will argue that these numbers show sexism: people so rejected the idea of a female leader they either stayed home or voted for someone they despised just to stop Clinton. Actually women get accused of sexism no matter which way they vote: Women who backed Clinton are accused of bias, just “voting with their vaginas,” and the rest of us are accused of not voting for her because we’re misogynists. It’s a lose-lose.
But these theories ignore the fact that women don’t generally vote based on gender, and gender stereotypes end up being less relevant than party affiliation in voting decisions. In other words, we vote based on political positions. The reality is that most of the women voting for or against Clinton did so based on a variety of competing concerns and priorities, just as most men choose their candidates.
CNN reported that millennial women in particular “rejected the notion that gender should be a factor in their vote.” As FiveThirtyEight put it:
Clinton’s stunning loss Tuesday night showed that issues of culture and class mattered more to many American women than their gender. The sisterhood, as real sisterhood tends to be, turned out to be riddled with complications.
On average, for the last 5 presidential elections, 89% of Democrats chose the Democratic nominee and 91.4% of Republicans chose the Republican. Last week 89% of Democrats chose Clinton and 90% of Republicans chose Trump. If internalized sexism were a major factor in terms of female nominees, we’d expect 2016 to show a drop in Democrats voting for the Democrat (as internally sexist Democratic women abandoned Clinton) and perhaps even a jump in Republicans voting for the Republican (as internally sexist Republican women were motivated to stop Clinton). But there was no such change.
Similarly, if internalized sexism was a major factor we’d expect Clinton to get a lower proportion of women’s votes compared to previous Democratic nominees. Yet, as mentioned above, she got exactly the average proportion of women Democratic nominees have had in the last five presidential races. Or, if we’re operating under the idea that only conservatives can be bigots, we’d at least expect a higher proportion of women to vote for Trump in order to stop Clinton. Yet Trump got just slightly less than the average proportion of women Republican nominees have had for the last five races.
If anything, these stats suggest women weren’t influenced by gender at all.
Theory 2 – Indifference to sexism: women cared more about party lines than taking a stand against Trump’s misogyny.
There are several assumptions embedded in this line of thinking: (A) The women who voted for Trump accessed the same information we did about him. (B) When they assessed that information, they came to the same conclusions we did about the degree of Trump’s misogyny. (C) There was nothing else in the balance for them in this election that could have meant more to them than Trump’s misogyny.
2a. Trump voters were likely accessing different information.
Hopefully it’s not a secret that conservatives and liberals consume different media. I wish I had time to do an entire blog post on how drastically this impacts our views of each other and of our political landscape. But the main point is we should be very careful when assuming that everyone else—especially people that run in different social circles and already hold different perspectives—“knows” the same “truths” we know. Which stories get reported and how they’re described varies a lot, and sadly, at least in my experience, most people don’t look for sources from worldviews they don’t hold. Or, if they do, it’s not in an attempt to observe and understand, but to feel outraged and argue.
So when John Oliver does a witty, biting piece on “making Donald Drumpf again” and you see it reposted over and over, that doesn’t mean everyone saw it. The people who already hated Trump were a lot more likely to see it than anyone else. Late night comedy is, after all, a bastion of liberal derision.
2b. Trump voters were likely interpreting information in different ways.
That’s not to suggest Trump supporters were wholly unaware of criticisms against him. I think it’s unlikely, for example, that many Trump supporters didn’t at least hear about the Hollywood Access recording. But the context in which conservatives in general, and enthusiastic Trump supporters specifically, interpreted that was often quite different than how leftists saw it.
Many people (including me) were disgusted and horrified by Trump laughingly talking about getting away with kissing and groping women without their consent. But many others mostly heard politically-motivated faux outrage. The same people so focused on Trump’s comments and the sexual assault allegations against him remained dismissive or defensive about the long history of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Bill Clinton—and Hillary Clinton’s role in silencing Bill’s accusers. Clinton fans retorted that Hillary isn’t responsible for Bill’s behavior, but that misses the point. She’s responsible for her behavior: she referred to these women as “floozy,” “bimbo,” and “stalker,” and put great effort into “destroying” their stories.
Good luck telling conservatives they must take a principled stand against sexual assault while refusing to acknowledge that the Clintons basically embodied rape culture.
Of course the Hollywood Access tapes are only one example of Trump’s sexism, but the pattern remains the same. Whatever example you point to, if outraged accusations of bigotry are coming from leftists or the media, conservatives are extremely skeptical. In fact, getting back to point 2a, conservative circles are more likely to have articles about people who made upstories ofhate crimes – stories which, before being shown to be false, often caused viral online outrage (as well as extensive donations to the alleged victim).
I find this problem very frustrating. I do believe the left is too quick to claim bigotry, but I believe the right is therefore too quick to dismiss actualbigotry. Robby Soave of Reason.com summarized this view well:
[It’s] the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him—it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.
After all, these same voters have watched as every Republican candidate in recent memory has been accused of waging a “War on Women.” If Democrats are going to claim that Mitt Romney and John McCain hate women (and they did), then they shouldn’t be surprised when voters ignore them when they say Donald Trump hates women. If every Republican is a misogynist, then no Republican is.
I don’t believe the right’s resistance to recognizing bigotry is all the left’s fault. I think that’s a factor, but ultimately we’re all responsible for assessing each situation and trying to be fair-minded about it.
Even so, I think many conservatives viewed the outrage over Trump as nothing more than yet another chapter in a long history of selective and manufactured leftist outrage, and so they discounted it. So even if they had watched John Oliver, they probably would have just rolled their eyes at another leftist show mocking conservatives again.
2c. Trump voters were weighing a lot of additional concerns apart from bigotry.
But there were a lot of conservatives who heard about the problems with Trump and were seriously concerned. Many of them became the #NeverTrump crowd, but others still voted for Trump. Why? Because they weren’t balancing the problems of racism and sexism against nothing. They were taking those issues and factoring them in with a lot of other issues, weighing each one, and coming to a decision. Even women who voted against Trump had other concerns they considered more important than sexism.
Many reject as ridiculous this concept of weighing multiple factors, saying it’s a weak excuse to try to cover up bigotry. They assert nothing could outweigh the civil rights threats Trump represents, and therefore the people who came down on Trump’s side, by definition, just didn’t care enough about civil rights.
Interestingly, I saw the same reductive thinking from conservatives trying to berate #NeverTrump people into voting for him. If you didn’t vote for Trump—if you voted for Clinton, or even if you voted third party—you must not care about massive government abuse and corruption, our country’s impending economic collapse under an overregulated welfare state, and, possibly above all, the killing of tens of thousands of babies.
Does that last part sound hyperbolic to you? Because, for a huge portion of the pro-life movement, that was the assertion. Many pro-lifers view abortion as morally equivalent to any other unlawful human death. If you want to imagine the abortion debate from a pro-life perspective, just replace the concept of “fetus” with “toddler,” and listen to how the arguments sound. So when Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform of no restrictions through all three trimesters and requiring Medicaid to cover abortions, that was an absolute deal breaker for many people. Abortion happens in this country roughly 1 million times a year. Imagine for a moment you were choosing between (1) a candidate who stirs racial animosity and blatantly disrespects women and (2) a candidate who unapologetically embraces policies making it legal to murder a million toddlers a year. Who would you pick?
If your first response is to explain why that second description is false, you’re missing the point. Yes, I understand that for many, abortion is nothing at all like killing a toddler and even the comparison is offensive. I’m not trying to convince anyone here how to feel about abortion. I’m trying to convince people that you can’t sincerely talk about what motivates others if you refuse to acknowledge their actual perspectives. People who voted for Trump could (a) recognize Trump’s racism and sexism, (b) care greatly about those issues, and (c) still believe the threats Clinton represented were more dire. The only way you can genuinely believe that every single vote for Trump represented at minimum a callous disregard for civil rights is if you ignore or dismiss the circumstances and value systems of millions of people.
Passion about abortion likely affected many of women who voted for Trump. LV Anderson was aghast that more than half of white women would vote for a man who said he’d appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is amazing to me that so many people are still taken off guard when women are antiabortion. Half of American women are against abortion, and that has been true since long before Trump entered the primaries. Yet each time thousands or millions of women don’t go for the pro-choice position, pro-choice people are just so surprised. This is another example of the same pattern: be totally unaware of what people have repeatedly said they care about, and then be surprised and angry when they vote for the things they said they cared about all along.
I’ve used abortion as an example of competing values, but it’s only one of many. A recent New York Times article profiled women who voted for Trump. While 22-year-old Nicole Been mentioned her deep opposition to abortion as part of her stance, other women discussed Trump’s approach to veterans, their own dire financial situations, and their disillusionment with Democratic efforts to improve their lives. Another New York Times article profiled college-educated women who voted for Trump; they, too, opposed abortion, but focused more on economic security and job and college prospects for their children.
Note that racial anxiety is one of the recurring themes. The left seems to want to reduce this narrative to bigotry and nothing more, and I’ve spent a lot of time here explaining why I think that’s inaccurate. But the right seems to want to reflexively deny bigotry had any part to play, and I don’t think that’s true either. At minimum there was certainly a racial component to Trump’s candidacy. Looming large in the support of Trump were concerns about minority groups getting unfair preferential treatment and resources, immigrants taking resources and increasing criminal activity, and terrorists threatening our safety.
Theory 3 – Institutionalized sexism and racism – regardless of personal motivation, women who voted for Trump supported a platform that would disproportionately harm minority groups.
A major hurdle with discussions of racism and sexism is the use of the same words to mean very different things. In my right-leaning circles, “racism” generally means an individual’s disdain or animosity towards others based on race. Same thing with “sexism,” but based on sex. In my left-leaning circles, “racism” and “sexism” often mean individual disdain or animosity, but can also mean cultural norms and systemic and institutionalized systems that disproportionately negatively impact minority groups.
So when someone claims that a vote for Trump was racist, they could either mean (a) the person casting the vote has disdain or animosity toward people of other races or (b) the person casting the vote, regardless of his or her motivations, helped to uphold systems that have major negative impacts on women and nonwhite people.
The interesting thing about the “effects not intentions” version of racism is that it can be empirically verified. Motivations can be pretty complicated, multifaceted, and irrational. Effects can be objectively measured. So if “racism” (or sexism or Islamophobia or homophobia) is defined as “policies and practices that hurt these groups,” and if electing Trump ends up hurting these groups, then it follows that electing Trump was racism, by this definition.
3a. It’s reasonable to believe electing Trump will end up hurting these groups.
Trump campaigned on ending sanctuary cities, suspending visas, and deportation. If implemented, those policies would disproportionately affect undocumented immigrants (about half of which are Hispanic or Latino, followed by Asian) as well as American citizens from families with mixed citizenship statuses. Whether you agree with these policies or not, and whether you personally care how these policies affect others or not, it’s hard to deny that they will negatively impact immigrants and their family members who are American citizens.
Trump has talked about requiring immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to register upon entering the U.S. Alternatively he called for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the country; while he clarified this would not apply to American citizens, it’s hard to believe such policies and related rhetoric about Muslims won’t affect public perception of and reaction to Muslims already living here. The FBI has released data showing a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015. Some are worried this trend is related to Trump’s rise and campaign rhetoric; others say there are other factors–such as 2015 terrorist attacks–that likely played a part. But I think either of those reasons underscores the central point: when the public increasingly perceives a group as dangerous, violence against innocent people in that group becomes more likely.
It seems like Trump’s potential effects on African American communities have been less of a focus, but there are reasons for concern. (This link includes some reasons I think conservatives will dismiss as more faux outrage, but, for what it’s worth, I believe some of these points are pretty valid.)
While Trump didn’t propose specific policies against LGBT folk, the 2016 Republican Party platform did object to legalized gay marriage and take other positions seen as anti-gay. Because Trump was the Republican nominee and can now nominate SCOTUS judges, many believe he will work to adopt those Republican positions. I think it’s unlikely gay marriage will get overturned, but I don’t think it’s a certainty, and I see why many people are worried their marital status could be threatened.
Trump has a history that suggests a pretty disrespectful view of women, not to mention (again) his statements in the Access Hollywood recordings. To the extent women believe support for Trump signals societal dismissal of sexual assault, that belief could have another chilling effect on women reporting assaults and seeking help. I watched this play out on both the national level and with women I know personally after the Access Hollywood firestorm. Women (and men, for that matter) who have experienced sexual assault listened as friends and family who were Trump supporters minimized, dismissed, and, in my opinion, very generously interpreted Trump’s statements. That was difficult. Victims of sexual assault hear those reactions and believe the reactions would be the same if they came forward with their own stories. I can understand why people fear this kind of dismissal of sexual misconduct will only get worse now that Trump will be president.
A vote for Trump lent support to these policy proposals and attitudes, even if the person voting didn’t personally support one or any of the above. In this sense I think Theory 3 is truer than the other theories—I think a Trump administration will very likely make life harder for these groups.
3b. First problem: negative effects count as racism regardless of what they’re being weighed against.
Consider Trump’s campaign regarding Islamic terrorism. I do believe requiring (mostly) Muslim immigrants to register upon entering the country, or refusing to let them enter at all, will negatively affect the public’s views and behavior toward Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants already here.
But I also recognize that the people who support these measures believe they will significantly increase our national security and safety. Based on my understanding of Theory 3, what Trump voters believe about these measures (and how those beliefs speak to their motivations) is irrelevant, because Theory 3 is all about effects on minority groups, not the intentions of the people pushing these policies. Whether they sincerely believe these measures will save American lives doesn’t change whether or not this approach is defined as racist.
And we’ve only talked about what they believe, not what is objectively true. Apparently NSEERS, the similar Bush-era program that required immigrant registration, was ineffective at preventing terrorism; it sounds like it was just more security theater, but in this case directed at specific groups. But suppose, hypothetically, immigrant registration made a huge difference in national security. Suppose—as I suspect is the belief of some who support this idea—that without immigrant registration we’d have more San Bernadino and Pulse nightclub shootings. Or another World Trade Center.
If these policies actually prevented terrorism deaths in our own country, does that change whether they are racist? If I understand Theory 3 correctly, it does not. In this way Theory 3 rings a bit hollow for me, because while it is at least technically accurate and objectively measurable (does X policy negatively impact Y community or not?), if it ignores all other factors I still consider it misleading.
3c. Second problem: conflating Theory 3 with Theories 1 & 2.
In my experience, the left frequently blurs the line between “negative impacts” and “personal animosity.” A great example is the Slate article “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Supporter.” Chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump supporters do not merit empathy because they “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes.” He cites other authors who have claimed Trump’s victory does not reveal an “inherent malice” in the populace (referring to the “personal animosity” definition of racism). Bouie counters with the “negative impacts” definition:
Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency…If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question.
But, as the title of the piece suggests, Bouie is not condemning only the effects of voting for Trump; he’s condemning the Trump voters themselves. He asserts that it is myopic and even “morally grotesque” to suggest Trump supporters are good people. He compares Trump voters to the men in the early 20th century who organized lynchings (they “weren’t ghouls or monsters. They were ordinary.”) and the people who gawked and smiled at those lynchings (“the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”) He sums up: “Hate and racism have always been the province of ‘good people.’”
Note the switch here. Bouie is no longer talking about practical outcomes; he’s talking about hate. He has switched from the “negative impacts” definition of racism back to the “personal animosity” definition. So is he saying that most Trump supporters did not have inherent malice but should be condemned for the policies they supported? Or is he saying that anyone who can support Trump has to be, at least in part, motivated by hate?
And this is often how I see the conversation going. To (heavily) paraphrase:
Person A: If you voted for Trump, you’re racist.
Person B: I’m really not. I disagreed with a lot of what he said but I thought Clinton would do more damage in XYZ ways.
Person A: Yeah, you may not personally feel racist but you supported racist policies. It just shows you think the concerns of white people are more important than the actual human rights of everyone else.
Person B: That’s not what I think at all!
Person A: It’s not about what you personally think! It’s about what you supported!
In other words, in principle motivation is supposed to be irrelevant because racism is about effects, but in practice accusations of racism nearly always boil down to motivation—at best a selfish indifference and at worst outright malice. So, in principle, I think Theory 3 has some merit and is worth talking about. In practice, I find I just end up repeating the arguments I made for Theories 1 & 2.
It didn’t happen. When the dust settled, not only had Trump carried the presidency, but he’d also carried Utah by a wide margin: he took 46.8% of the vote, compared to 27.8% for Clinton and 20.4% for McMullin. So much for the “Mormon problem,” I guess.
Not so fast.
As my friend Nate Oman wrote a couple of days ago, one way to look at how Trump fared in Utah this year is to compare how much of the vote he got in 2016 vs. how much the Republican candidate (Mitt Romney) got in 2012. You could call this gap the “vote swing,” and if you really want to know if there’s any substance to the idea of a “Mormon problem,” you’ve got to compare Utah’s vote swing to the vote swings for the rest of the country. This is how that looks:
This is definitely an interesting chart. You can see, for example, that Clinton had a negative swing in almost every single state, whereas Trump had a mixture of positive and negative swings. But–for the question at hand–we can see quite clearly that Trump’s negative swing in Utah is unlike anything else (for either candidate) in this election.
Quick technical note before we move on. If there were only two candidates in 2016 and in 2012, then one candidate’s negative swing would equal another candidate’s positive swing, but that’s not the case. Although third parties didn’t have a major impact on the national level, McMullin took over 20% of Utah’s votes. That’s why Trump has such a starkly negative swing for 2016, but Clinton’s positive swing is quite small.
Now, before we move on, you might be suspicious. After all, Mitt Romney wasn’t just any Republican candidate in 2012. He was a specifically Mormon candidate, so maybe it’s not so much that Trump has a huge Mormon problem as it is that Mitt Romney just did unusually well in 2012. Well, based on the data, that’s not really the case. Romney took 74.6% of Utah’s votes in 2012 and McCain took only 64.5% in 2008, but in 2004 Bush did just about as well as Romney with 73.3% of the votes, and he also did quite well in 200 with 68.3%. So the Romney-Trump swing was 27.6%, but if we used the average of non-Romney Republican candidates over the previous few elections, the swing is still 21.7%, much higher than any other swing in 2016. In short: Mormons disliked Trump a lot more than they liked Romney.
Nate was curious to get a bit more historical context, however, and so he sent me a data set containing the electoral results for every presidential election going back to 1828. I ran some very quick analysis at the time, and he posted an addendum here. I’ve had a bit more time to go through the data since then, however, and so I want to share a few more observations of my own.
First, a couple more notes. I couldn’t actually use all of the data from 2016-1828 because in several cases there were third parties (or even fourth parties) that attracted significant votes. The whole idea of “vote swing” only works if you’re dealing with basically two candidates from the same parties. So I only included pairs of consecutive elections where:
Third parties captured 5% or less of the national vote in both elections
The candidates from the primary two parties were from the same party in both elections
Doing this left me with 20 pairs of elections to look at. Since the data is older than some states, I ended up with 971 individual elections. Finally, to keep things a little simpler, I only used one vote swing for each year. In those years where there were no third party candidates at all, this was simple, because whatever votes one candidate gains come from the other candidate, and so the vote swings are equal anyways. (One is positive, one is negative.) Since I included some elections where third party candidates took up to 5%, I couldn’t rely on the vote swings being identical, so instead I just took the absolute value of the maximum vote swing.
OK, methodological notes aside, here’s what the histogram of vote swings looks like for all the eligible elections between 2016 and 1828:
From this chart, you can see that the vast majority of vote swings are less than 10%, and that a vote swing of over 27% is very rare but not unprecedented. To be exact, there were 932 vote swings less than Utah’s 2016 swing and 38 vote swings more than Utah’s 2016 swing. That puts Utah’s vote swing this year in the 96th percentile.
So that makes the 2016 defection from Trump very unusual, but far from unprecedented. There were larger swings than Utah’s 2016 swing in elections from 1976, 1964, 1952, 1948, 1932, 1920, and 1900. However, when we look at those years, something else pops out of the data that makes the Utah swing this year even more unusual.
So the thing that should be sticking out in both of these charts is that in the other years with major vote swings, these were national or regional phenomena. I’ll make a few annotations to see if I can draw that out:
So, in the years where there were bigger vote swings than Utah’s in 2016, there were much bigger vote swings across the nation as a whole and there were significant spikes in multiple states (usually states in the Deep South, for obvious historical reasons.) What sets Utah apart is not just that the anti-Trump vote swing was very high, but also that it happened in a year where the rest of the vote swing was actually pretty mild and that it was localized in just a single state.
There’s another way to measure that, by the way, which is to look at the difference between the maximum vote swing and the 2nd highest vote swing. So the all-time greatest vote swing was in Mississippi in 1948 at 83.5%, but during the same election Alabama had a vote swing of 81.7%. So the gap between the highest vote swing and the second-highest was really small: just 1.8 percentage points.
Contrast that with 2016. Utah had a 27.6% swing and the next-highest was 11.9% in North Dakota. The gap between the two was 15.6%. It turns out, that was higher than the gap between the largest and second-largest swing in any other election year.
So that “Mormon problem” that everyone was talked about? Even though Trump managed to take Utah, it’s still totally a thing. He suffered a historically large election-over-election vote swing as Utah voters abandoned the GOP for third parties, for the Democrats, or to just stay home. It’s not the resounding repudiation I’d hoped for with an Evan McMullin win, but it’s still a pretty clear signal.
And, before we wrap this up, it’s worth noting that when it comes to Mormons’ anti-Trump sentiment, the feeling is mutual. Just yesterday, Trump picked Steve Bannon as his senior adviser (think: Karl Rove). Bannon was the CEO of Trump’s campaign and, before that, he took over Breitbart after founder Andrew Breitbart passed away and turned it into the alt-right mouthpiece it is today. Along the way, he’s taken pot-shots at Mormons more than once, including calling Mitt Romney’s sons out for serving full-time missions and running an anti-Mormon, anti-immigration piece from Tom Tancredo. With Evan McMullin continuing his conservative insurgency and Trump placing anti-Mormon advisers in top positions, the Mormon/Republican rift is unlikely to narrow–let alone heal completely–any time soon.
In the article, Campbell and Manning explore three stages in the evolution of moral culture:
The essence of honor culture is reputation. That is because–in a society without a strong, centralized authority–the best defense against predation is a reputation for drastic overreaction. If people believe you will overreact to any provocation, they are less likely to provoke you. Unfortunately, when everybody is trying to build a reputation for toughness and overreaction at the same time, “people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult other.” This causes damage to reputation, and so we have “a high frequency of violent conflict as participants in the culture aggressively compete for respect.”
When strong, formal authorities begin to emerge, the logic of the honor culture dissipates. If someone insults you and you react by physically assaulting them, then–in the presence of a strong authority–you’re going to end up getting punished more harshly than they are. When there is a legitimate criminal justice system to handle major offenses, the best response to a minor offense is to simply ignore it. As a result, reputation is not as important in dignity cultures. In an honor culture, appealing to an outside authority is a sign of weakness. In a dignity culture, failing to appeal to an outside authority is taking the law into your own hands.
The transition from an honor culture to a dignity culture is vitally important, because a dignity culture has a much greater capacity for pluralism. Free speech is more than a legal framework or a constitutional right, it’s also a tradition. In a dignity culture, where having a thick skin is encouraged, that tradition can flourish because minor conflicts and disagreements don’t carry the risk of exploding into open hostility and violence.
Victimhood culture is an outgrowth of dignity culture that combines the worst of honor and dignity cultures. It is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties.” The “sensitivity to slight” comes straight from honor culture, and the “heavy reliance on third parties” comes straight from dignity culture. The basic idea of victimhood culture is to manipulate third parties to intervene in a dispute on your side by appearing to be the victim.
The bigger the apparent injustice, the greater the chance of persuading a third party to take your side and the more drastic the action you can convince them to take on your behalf. Victimhood culture, then, is fundamentally about manufacturing and maintaining the highest degree of apparent victimhood. As Campbell and Manning point out, one simple way to achieve this is through the use of outright hoaxes and “hate crime hoaxes are common on college campuses.”
The gold standard in victim culture, however, is the microagrresion. Microaggressions are essentially a form of bundling. First, you bundle individual instances of minor offenses into larger patterns. Second, you bundle individual people (victims and perpetrators alike) into larger cohorts. By using this approach, an isolated and incidental comment from one individual to another becomes a symptom of systematic oppression of one entire category of people by another category. These forms of bundling are important, as we will see at the end, because they forge a link between victimhood culture and identity politics.
According to Campbell and Manning, one of the results of the rise of victimhood culture is a “clash between competing moral systems” as dignity culture and victimhood culture come into conflict. This is certainly true. Progressive social justice theories like Critical Race Theory “[reject] the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy,” which are the heritage of dignity culture. There is no doubt that victimhood culture–championed by progressive social justice ideology–is incompatible with dignity culture.
This is why so much of the push-back against second-wave political correctness has been bipartisan. There are plenty on the left of American politics who still cling to old-fashioned notions of liberalism like freedom of expression, the marketplace of ideas, and the dignity of individuals. Aligned with conservatives who share these concerns, they form a bipartisan coalition that is engaged in the conflict Campbell and Manning predicted: dignity culture attempting to hold off the insurgent victimhood culture.
But there is another conflict going on as well. The most vociferous push-back against progressive social justice ideology (and ostensibly the victimhood culture it embraces) comes from the alt-right. What is notable about this push-back, however, is that instead of genuinely objecting to victimhood culture, the alt-right has embraced a re-branded version of it. The best example of this is the most obvious: Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again” and his obvious appeal to white grievance.
Just as with the progressive social justice movement, Trump’s appeal works because it has enough truth in it to give it the feel of veracity. One of the best explanation of this comes (believe it or not) from a Cracked article: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind. The article (which includes lots of non-censored swearing) does a fantastic job of outlining the legitimate grievance of white, rural America.
One of the things that contemporary theories of racism as systematized prejudice and discrimination fail to appreciate is that in the United States there is more than one system. The legacies of systemic oppression of racial minorities are absolutely still in place. My review of The New Jim Crow should leave no doubt about where I stand on that. But the existence of systematized anti-black discrimination in the criminal justice system does not obviate, cancel out, or justify the creation of anti-white (usually: anti-poor-rural-conservative-white) discrimination in other systems, like academia in general or social psychology in particular.
So this is where we stand: in the battle of victimhood culture against dignity culture, Trump and the alt-right are not fighting against the so-called social justice warriors. They are–with their grievance-based, identity-centric campaigns–quite literally part of the problem. They are fighting fire-with-fire while the whole world burns down.
Along these lines, David Marcus’s recent Federalist piece (How Anti-White Rhetoric is Fueling White Nationalism) is a must-read. In it, Marcus attacks another prong of the progressive social justice approach to race, writing that a shift to emphasizing privilege amounts to “ask[ing] white people to be more tribal” and is even “abetting white supremacy.” Marcus points out that the number of active Ku Klux Klan chapters more than doubled (from 72 to 190) just between 2014 and 2015, and argues that “one of the key components of this racism is the almost-daily parade of silly micro-aggressions and triggers.” He adds:
Young white men, reacting to social and educational constructs that paint them as the embodiment of historical evil, are fertile ground for white supremacists. They are very aware of the dichotomy between non-white culture, which must be valued at all times (even in the midst of terror attacks), and white culture, which must be criticized and devalued. They don’t like it.
It may seem like a stretch to draw parallels between ill-advised anti-racism efforts and the alt-right (let alone the KKK), but here’s a headline that might give you pause: Cal State LA offers segregated housing for black students. According to the article, the decision came after the Black Student Union cited “microaggressions” as part of their call for “housing space delegated for Black students.”
Journalism student Aeman Ansari recently made a similar case in the Huffington Post, justifying the expulsion of student journalists from an event because those journalists were white and arguing that safe spaces are different because “segregation was imposed on people of colour by people of privilege, not the other way around.” That’s a legitimate difference, but it doesn’t erase this fact that the two groups of people in America who think whites and blacks should not mix are the KKK and progressive social justice activists. The different terminology–safe space vs. segregated space–and the differing power dynamics can’t efface the fact that both of them have the goal of racial separation.
It is a genuine tragedy that–after such great (albeit incomplete) progress towards racial equality in this country–we are now seeing a resurgence of the kind of hardcore, strident racism that has not been prevalent for decades. But this is where we are today.
Victimhood culture, as Campbell and Manning note, originated with the political left because “the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially congenial to a leftist worldview.” However, there is nothing about the tactics of victimhood culture that dictate it must remain exclusively an artifact of the left, and it has not. “Naturally,” Campbell and Manning observe, “whenever victimhood…. confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it.” White identity politics is a natural and inevitable response to minority identity politics, and it follows basically the same playbook.
So, while victimhood culture was initially created by left-wing activists in college campuses, it has metastasized and spread throughout American society. Because it is such an effective political weapon, it is has proved irresistable to many of the folks who originally set out to destroy it. Based on grievances both real and imaginary, the alt-right has embraced the logic and tactics of victimhood culture. Because victimhood culture is fueled by identity politics and tribalism, the rise in the co-option of victimhood culture by the alt-right necessarily entails a reawakening of old-school racism the likes of which we have not seen openly promulgated for decades, if not more.
I agree with the solution that Marcus proposes, and it’s a solution that applies not only to the resurgence of racism in the US but to the broader problems plaguing our society. He writes that “our anti-racism efforts must be refocused away from guilt and confession and towards equality and eradicating irrational judgments based on race…we must return to the goal of treating people as individuals, not as representatives of their race.”
I would only add that this vision could be expanded even farther: we must treat people as individuals, not as representative of their race, gender, political party, or any other kind of identity-tribe.
I didn’t get a chance to make that pithy observation in a Facebook exchange this morning because my interlocutor gave me the boot. That’s OK, I may have been blocked from somebody’s Facebook feed for thinking bad thoughts, but I can’t get blocked from my own blog! You can’t stop this signal, baby.
So, just as two wrongs don’t make a right, let’s use this Columbus Day to talk about two stupids that don’t make a smart.
Bad Idea 1: The Noble Savage
There’s a school of thought which holds, essentially, that everything was fine and dandy in the Americas until the Europeans came along and ruined it. The idea, seen in Disney and plenty of other places, is that “native” peoples lived at harmony with the Earth, appreciating the fragile balance of their precious ecosystems and proactively maintaining it. This idea is bunk. The reality is that in almost all cases the only limit on the extent to which any culture restricts its exploitation of natural resources is technological. Specifically, humanity has an unambiguous track record of killing everything edible in sight as they spread across the globe, leading to widespread extinctions from Australia to the Americas and upending entire ecosystems. If our ancient ancestor didn’t wipe a species out, the reason was either that it didn’t taste good or they couldn’t. As Yuval Noah Harari put it Sapiens:
Don’t believe the tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.
Harari specifically describes how the first humans to discover Australia not only wiped out species after species, but–in so doing–converted the entire continent into (pretty much) the desert it is today:
The settlers of Australia–or, more accurately, its conquerors–didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition. The first human footprint on a sandy Australian beach was immediately washed away by the waves, yet, when the invaders advanced inland, they left behind a different footprint. One that would never be expunged.
Matt Ridley, in The Origins of Virtue, lists some of the animals that no longer exist thanks to hungry humans:
Soon after the arrival of the first people in Australia, possibly 60,000 years ago, a whole guild of large beasts vanished — marsupial rhinos, giant diprotodons, tree fellers, marsupial lions, five kinds of giant wombat, seven kinds of short-faced kangaroos, eight kinds of giant kangaroo, a two-hundred-kilogram flightless bird. Even the kangaroo species that survived shrank dramatically in size, a classic evolutionary response to heavy predation.
And that pattern was repeated again and again. Harari again:
Mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia whenever people settled another part of the outer world.
Have you ever wondered why the Americas don’t have the biodiversity of large animals that Africa does? We’ve got some deer and bison, but nothing like the hippos, giraffes, elephants, and other African megafauna. Why not? Because the first humans to get here killed and ate them all, that’s why not. There’s even a name for what happened: the Pleistocene overkill. Back to Ridley:
Coincident with the first certain arrival of people in North America, 11,500 years ago, 73% of the large mammal genera quickly died out… By 8000 years ago, 80% of the large mammal genera in south America were also extinct — giant sloths, giant armadillos, giant guanacos, giant capybaras, anteaters the size of horses.
In Madagascar, he notes that “at least 17 species of lemurs (all the diurnal one is larger than 10 kg in weight, one as big as a gorilla), and the remarkable elephant birds — the biggest of which weighs 1000 pounds — were dead within a few centuries of the islands first colonization by people in about 500 A.D.” In New Zealand, “the first Maoris sat down and ate their way through all 12 species of the giant moa birds. . . Half of all new Zealand’s indigenous land birds are extinct.” The same thing happened in Hawaii, where at least half of the 100 unique Hawaiian birds were extinct shortly after humans arrived. “In all, as the Polynesians colonized the Pacific, they extinguished 20% of all the bird species on earth.”
Ridley’s myth-busting doesn’t end there. He cites four different studies of Amazon Indians “that have directly tested their conservation ethic.” The results? “All four rejected the hypothesis [that the tribes had a conservation ethic].” Moving up to North America, he writes that “There is no evidence that the ‘thank-you-dead-animal’ ritual was a part of Indian folklore before the 20th century,” and cites Nicanor Gonsalez, “At no time have indigenous groups included the concepts of conservation and ecology in their traditional vocabulary.”
This might all sound a little bit harsh, but it’s important to be realistic. Why? Because these myths–no matter how good the intentions behind them–are corrosive. The idea of the Noble Savage is intrinsically patronizing. It says that “primitive” or “native” cultures are valuable to the extent that they are also virtuous. That’s not how human rights should work. We are valuable–all of us–intrinsically. Not “contingent on passing some test of ecological virtue” (as Ridley puts it.)
Let me take a very brief tangent. Ridley’s argument here (as it relates to conservation) is exactly parallel to John McWhorters linguistic arguments and Steven Pinker’s psychological arguments. In The Language Hoax, John McWhorter takes down the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is the trendy linguistic theory that what you think is determined by the language you think it in. Just like the Noble Savage, this idea was originally invented by Westerners on behalf of well, everybody else. The idea is that “primitive” people were more in contact with the timeless mysteries of the cosmos because (for example) they spoke in a language that didn’t use tense. Not only did this turn out to be factually incorrect (they just marked tense differently, or implied it in other cases, as many European languages also do), but it’s an intrinsically bad idea. McWhorter:
In the quest to dissuade the public from cultural myopia, this kind of thinking has veered into exotification. The starting point is, without a doubt, I respect that you are not like me. However, in a socio-cultural context in which that respect is processed as intellectually and morally enlightened, inevitably, to harbor that respect comes to be associated with what it is to do right and to be right as a person. An ideological mission creep thus sets in. Respect will magnify into something more active and passionate. The new watchcry becomes, “I like that you are not like me,” or alternately, “What I like about you is that you are not like me.” That watchcry signifies, “What’s good about you is that you are not like me.” Note however, the object of that encomium, has little reason to feel genuinely praised. His being not like a Westerner is neither what he feels as his personhood or self-worth, nor what we should consider it to be, either explicitly or implicitly.
The cute stories about the languages primitive peoples speak and the ways that enables them to see the world in unique and special ways end up being nothing but a particularly subtle form of cultural imperialism: our values are being used to determine the value of their culture. All we did was change up the values by which we pass judgement on others. Thus: “our characterization of indigenous people in this fashion is more for our own benefit than theirs.”
The underlying premise of Harrari, Ridley, and McWhorter is what Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate tackles directly: the universality of human nature. We can best avoid the bigotry and discrimination that has marred our history not by a counter-bigotry that holds up other cultures as special or superior (either because they’re in magical harmony with nature or possess unique linguistic insights) but by reaffirming the fact that there is such a thing as an universal, underlying human nature that unites all cultures.
Universal human nature is not a byproduct of political wishful thinking, by the way. Steven Pinker includes as an appendix to The Blank Slate a long List of Human Universals compiled by Donald E. Brown in 1989. It is a long list, organized alphabetically. To give a glimpse of the sorts of things behaviors and attributes common to all human cultures, here are the first and last items from the list:
abstraction in speech and thought
actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control
affection expressed and felt
weather control (attempts to)
white (color term)
The list also includes lots of stuff about binary gender which is exactly why you haven’t heard of the list and why Steven Pinker is considered a rogue iconoclast. These days, one does not simply claim that gender is binary.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the idea of the Noble Savage as it relates to ecology, but of course it’s a broader concept than that. I was once yelled at quite forcibly by a presenter trying to teach us kids that warfare did not exist among pre-Columbian Native Americans. I was only 11 or 12 at the time, but I knew that was bs and said so.
The point is that the whole notion of a mosaic of Native Americans living in peace and prosperity until the evil Christopher Columbus showed up and ruined everything is a bad idea. It’s stupid number 1.
Bad Idea 2: Christopher Columbus is Just Misunderstood
So, this is the claim that started the discussion that got me blocked by somebody on Facebook today. The argument, such as it was, goes something like this: Columbus looks very bad from our 21st century viewpoint, but that’s an unfair, anachronistic standard. By the standards of his day, he was just fine, and those are the standards by which he should be measured.
The problem with this idea is that, like the first, it’s simply not true. One of the best, popular accounts of why comes from The Oatmeal. In this comic, Matthew Inman contrasts Columbus with a contemporary: Bartolomé de las Casas. While Columbus and his ilk were off getting to various hijinks including (but not limited to) child sex slavery and using dismemberment to motivate slaves to gather more gold, de las Casas was busy arguing that indigenous people deserved rights and that slavery should be abolished. Yes, at the time of Columbus.
The argument that if we judge Columbus by the standards of his day he comes out OK does not hold up. We can find plenty of people at that time–not just de las Casas–who were abolitionists or (if they didn’t go that far) were critical of the excessive cruelty of Columbus and many like him. Keep in mind that slavery had been a thing in Europe for thousands of years until the Catholics finally stamped it out around the 10th century. So it’s not like opposition to slavery is a modern invention. When slavery was restarted in Africa and then the Americas many in the Catholic clergy opposed it once again, but were unable to stop it. So the idea that–by the standards of his day–Columbus was just fine and dandy doesn’t work. He’s a pretty bad guy in any century.
Two Stupids Don’t Make a Smart
I understand the temptation to respond to Noble Savage-type denunciations of Christopher Columbus by trying to defend the guy. You see somebody making a bad argument, and you want to argue that they’re wrong.
But that isn’t how logic actually works. A broken clock really is right twice a day, and a bad argument can still have a true conclusion. If I tell you that 2+2 = 4 because Mars is in the House of the Platypus my argument is totally wrong, but my conclusion is still true.
The Noble Savage is a bad bit of cultural luggage we really should jettison, but Columbus is still a bad guy no matter how you slice it. Using one stupid idea to combat another stupid idea doesn’t actually enlighten anyyone.
The Bell Curve of Extremism
There are basically two kinds of moderates / independents: the ignorant and the wise. It really is a sad twist of fate to stick the two together, but nobody honest every said life was fair.
To illustrate, let me introduce you to a concept I’ll call the Bell Curve of Extremism:
To flesh this out, I’ll use some examples from voting.
A person on the left doesn’t know who they’re going to vote for because they don’t know much of anything at all. They may not even know who’s running or who’s already in office. This doesn’t mean they’re stupid, necessarily. They could be brilliant, but just pay no attention to politics.
A person in the left knows exactly who they’re voting for, and it’s never really been in question. What’s more, they can give you a very long list of the reasons they are voting for that person and–what’s more–all the terrible, horrible things about the leading contender that make him or her totally unfit for office and a threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. This is the kind of person who consumes a lot of news, but probably from a narrow range of sources, like DailyKos or RedState. They’re not bad people, but they high motivation tends to lead to an awful lot of research that is heavily skewed by confirmation bias.
A person on the right may also be unsure of how they’re going to cast their vote, but it’s not because they don’t know what’s going on. The problem is they do, and this knowledge has led them (as often as not) to fall right off the traditional left/right axis. I called myself a radical moderate when I was in high-school. At the time, it was mostly because I was on the far left but I wanted to sound cool. Later on in life I found myself near the peak of the bell-curve, a die-hard conservative with all the answers who was half-convinced that liberals were undermining the country. But then I went to graduate school to study economics (one of the areas where I was staunchly conservative) and lo and behold: things got complicated. I fell off the peak and I’ve been sliding down the slope ever since. And what do you know, but I found out recently that radical moderates are actually a thing. They even include some of my very favorite thinkers, like John McWhorter (cited above) and Jonathan Haidt (cited in a lot of my posts). I’ve come full circle, from know-nothing moderate to know-that-I-know-nothing radical moderate.
It’s kind of lonely and depressing over here, to be honest, and we don’t often find an awful lot to shout about. Which is why the conversation tends to be dedicated by peak-extremists who know just enough to be dangerous. About the only banner you’ll see us waving is the banner of epistemic humility. And really, how big of a parade can you expect to line up behind, “People probably don’t know as much as they think they do? (Including us!)”
But one thing that I can share with some conviction is this post, and the idea that–when it comes to ideas–fighting fire with fire just burns the whole house down. There is validity to the idea that things were better before Christopher Columbus showed up. There was a helpful lack of measles and small pox, for example. But blaming the transmission of those diseases (except in the rare cases when it was important) and the resulting humanitarian catastrophe on Columbus doesn’t make any sense. He did a lot of really evil things, but intentional germ warfare was not among them. Relying on it because the numbers are so big is lazy. There is also validity to the idea that Columbus lived in a different time. Many of the most compassionate Westerners were motivated not by a modern sense of equal rights but by a more feudal-tinged idea of noblesse oblige. De la Casa himself, for example, first suggested making things easier on Caribbean slaves by importing more African slaves before later deciding that all slavery was a bad idea. And if you fast-forward to the 19th century abolitionist movements, you’ll find plenty of what counts as racism in the 21st century among the abolitionists who were motivated (in some cases) by ideas of civilizing the savages. Racial politics are complicated enough in the 21st century alone, of course we can’t bring in perspectives from six centuries ago and expect all the good guys to neatly align on bullet point of focus-group vetted talking points!
So yes: I see validity to both sides of the fight. If your goal is to win in the short term, then the most useful thing to do is double-down on your strongest arguments and cherry-pick the other side’s weakest points. This is the strategy of two stupids making a smart, and it doesn’t work.
If your goal is to win in the long term, then you have to undergo a fundamental transformation of perspective. The short-term model isn’t just short-term. It’s ego-centric. The fundamental conceit of the idea of winning is the idea of being right, as an individual. Your view is the correct one, and the idea is to have your idea colonize other people’s brains. It is unavoidably an ego-trip.
The long-term model isn’t just about the long-term. It’s also about seeing the whole that is more than the sum of the parts. In this view, the likeliest scenario is that nobody is right because, on any particular suitably complex question, we are like the world before Newton and the world before Einstein: waiting for a new solution no one has thought of. And, even if somebody does have the right solution to the problem we face now, that will almost certainly not be the right answer to the problem we will face tomorrow. In that case, it’s not about having the right ideas in the heads of the read people, it’s about having a culture and a society that is capable of supporting a robust ecosystem of idea-creation. The focus begins to shift away from the “I” and towards the “we.”
In this model, your job is not to be the one, singular, heroic Messiah who tells everyone the answer to their problem. Your job is to play your part in a larger collective. Maybe that means you should be the lone voice calling from the wilderness, the revolutionary prophet like Newton or Einstein. But more probably it means your job is to simply be one more ant carrying one more grain of sand to build the collective pile of human knowledge and maybe–through conversations with friends and family–shift the center of gravity infinitesimally in a better direction.
I’m not a relativist. I’m a staunch realist in the sense that I believe in an objective, underlying reality that is not dependent on social construction or individual interpretation. But I’m also a realist in the sense of acknowledging that the last living human being to have ever understood the entire domain of mathematics was Carl Friedrich Gauss and he died in 1865. No living person today understands all mathematical theory. And that’s just math. What about physics and history and chemistry and psychology? And that’s just human knowledge. What about the things nobody knows or has thought of yet? An individual is tiny, and so is their sphere of knowledge. The idea that the answers to really big questions fall within that itty-bitty radius seems correspondingly remote. In short: the truth is out there, but you probably don’t have it and you probably can’t find it. It may very well be, keeping this metaphor going, that the answer to some of our questions are too complex for any one person to hold in their brain, even if they could discover one.
I’m not giving up on truth. I am giving up on atomic individualism, on the idea that the end of our consideration with regards to truth is the question of how much of it we can fit into our individual skulls. That seems very small minded, if you’ll pardon the pun. Instead, I’m much more interested in ways in which individuals can do their part to contribute to building a society that may understand more than its constituent individuals do or (since that seems a bit speculative, even to me) at a minimum provides ample opportunity for individuals to create, express, and compare ideas in the hope of discovering something new.
Two stupids can’t make a smart. The oversimplification and prejudice necessary to play that strategy is not worth the cost. Winning debates is not the ultimate goal. We can aim for something higher, but we have to be willing to lay down our own egos in the process and contribute to something bigger.
I’m not sure if Shirky’s slapshot case is meant as a serious argument or merely a pretext for a rant. This paragraph, which comes towards the end when the tone shifts abruptly from reasoned to strident, highlights my confusion:
Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people. Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them.
Nevertheless, the first 1,000 words present a case, and so we’ll take it on the merits. But first, let us simply observe that accusations of disloyalty are Plan A when it comes to browbeating recalcitrant idealists into conformity.That’s not to say there’s never truth to the idea that we should sometimes put our personal preferences aside for the sake of a group’s welfare. It is to say that deploying the exact logic under which despotic regimes have justified silencing voices of protest throughout history ought to be treated as a red flag. Besides which, there’s a big difference between issues of personal taste and issues of conscience. That’s something we’ll return to in the end.
Shirky’s argument about protest votes boil down to two claims. First, it’s a “message no one will hear” and second, it “will change no outcome.” Both these claims are false.
When it comes to “no one will hear,” Shirky argues that since it doesn’t change the outcome of the vote, not voting and voting for a third-party candidate are equivalent. His argument seems to be that, since we can’t guess why a voter would pick Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or to abstain altogether, no information is transmitted. But if no information is transmitted, then we ought to be able to say absolutely nothing whatsoever about the differences in political preference between a group of Gary Johnson voters, a group of Jill Stein voters, and a group of non-voters. But we can infer all kinds of things about the preferences of these groups from the votes they cast. What’s more, if we can’t derive why they voted from the who they voted for, then that applies to voters who pick Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as well. If we can’t say anything about third-party voters or non-voters based on their votes (or lack thereof), then we can’t say anything about anybody based on voting behavior.
On the other hand, maybe Shirky isn’t saying that it’s impossible to derive the why from the who, but just that nobody will take the trouble to do the derivation: “But it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending, because no one will receive it. No one is listening.” This approach doesn’t fly either. As Shirky points out, in a parliamentary system the coalition-building happens after the votes are cast when various small, relatively ideologically pure parties have to form a coalition to govern. In a 2-party, winner-take-all system the coalition-building happens before the votes are cast, with the Republican and Democratic parties pulling together various constituencies to form coalitions. But how does he think that this happens if the respective parties don’t pay very careful attention to what they can infer about voters from every source available, including third-party votes? It is emphatically not the case that “no one is listening.” We have an entire industry of pollsters, analysts, and consultants who make a living by listening to the signals that voters send, and a protest vote is a pretty clear signal.
It’s easy to see how the argument that protest votes “will change no outcome,” falls immediately after the argument that they are a “message no one will hear.” The Democratic and Republican parties are not going to spend millions and millions of dollars every year on small armies of pollsters, analysts, and consultants to infer voter preferences for the purpose of crafting their coalition and then just ignore the results.
If literally the only thing that you are willing to consider is the result of one, particular election then–and only then–does it make sense to say that protest votes are indistinguishable from non-voting and therefore don’t exist. But pretending those future elections don’t exist doesn’t actually mean that they don’t.
If you want to change the behavior of one of the two major parties, then the best way to do it is not to stay home, but rather to vote for someone else. If you would like to change one of the two major parties to be more like the other one, than by all means switch from R to D or from D to R. In that case, protest votes don’t enter into it. But if you wan to move either (or both) of the major parties in a direction neither is amenable to, then the best and clearest way to send that signal is through a third party.
Of course, there is a cost associated with that. The protest vote is going to have no impact on today’s election and only a possible impact on future elections. And so the most reasonable theory of protest voting is to attempt to weigh the benefit of sending a corrective signal for the future against the cost of not influencing an election in the present. This is a very, very difficult calculation to make and the stakes are high. That is why reasonable people can come to differing conclusions, even when their political views are quite similar.
Notably, however, the simplest and most straight-forward explanation of protest voting is omitted from Shirky’s piece, which posits only three options: boycott, defection, or “step to third-party victory.” Each of these options has some validity to it, but none of them are as potent or as simple as the one given here. Most tellingly: none of them incorporate Shirky’s own analysis of the incentives of coalition-building in a 2-party system. Defection is closest to what I have in mind, but Shirky explains it only in terms of simplistic: “voters believe they can force a loss on either the Democrats or the Republicans, and thus make that party adopt their preferred policies, rather than face another such loss in the future.”
It is neither necessary nor possible for protest votes to “force a loss.” It is not possible for the simple reason that–like any complex event–there is never one, singular explanation for the outcome of a vote. It is not necessary because the two major parties are in constant competition with each other to build the bigger coalition. Protest voters do not need to threaten or coerce them–although that might help–but only to clearly communicate what they want.
One major thing to keep in mind: the entire point of having an election is that we don’t know ahead of time what people want. If we had perfect knowledge of preferences, we wouldn’t need to vote. Ergo, the parties don’t actually know–with perfect precision–what constituencies exist out there and how best to appeal to them. Protest votes are an extreme form of conveying that information, and that is a much lower bar than the idea of having to “force a loss.”
Finally, the reactions to protest vote are going to be subtle, temporally distant, and often intentionally muted. They will be subtle because a major party is a coalition: a delicate balance of overlapping constituencies. They do not, with rare and historical exceptions, make abrupt changes in any direction because it threatens the cohesiveness of the overall balance. They will be temporally distant because the very earliest that a party can visibly react is the next election, a minimum of two years away, and in practical terms the lag will be even greater. And they will often be intentionally muted because part of the narrative every party tries to present is that it’s always been right, and so changes–especially in reaction to third-party protest votes–will be deliberately downplayed in front of most audiences.
But the fact that the impact of protest votes is not easy to spot doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. To believe that, you’d have to believe either that protest votes convey no useful information about voter preferences or that Democrats and Republicans ignore useful information about voter preferences, neither of which is tenable.
Shirky’s argument is very hard to take seriously on its merits, since it requires us to ignore obviously relevant factors (like future elections) and accept flagrantly false premises (like the idea that protest votes either convey no useful information or that major political parties don’t care about that information). However, it does provide an approximately thousand-word pretext for the real payload of this article, which consists of claims like these:
Advocates of wasted votes don’t bring up this record of universal failure, because their votes aren’t about changing political results. They’re about salving wounded pride.
Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego…
The people advocating protest votes believe they deserve a choice that aligns closely with their political preferences.
This makes this whole piece an example of bulverism, a coin terms by C. S. Lewis.
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.
Another explanation of how bulverism works shows how it relates in this case:
Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant — but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.
I’ve also seen this general tactic referred to as “the heuristic of suspicion.” The general idea is that we give very short shrift to what our opponents actually think–to the objective case they are making–and instead rush quickly past it to psychological analysis that takes their error for granted and indulges in self-satisfied dissection of their inferiority. I’m not saying we can indulge in zero time spent on analyzing the motives or intentions of our interlocutors, but I do think we should try to shift the balance onto the arguments at hand and take them seriously. And, on that basis, Shirky’s argument that protest votes are indistinguishable from non-voting, simply do not hold up to any level of scrutiny.
Now, at the very end, I want to return to the first comment I made about personal taste and conscience. Here is the beginning of Shirky’s concluding paragraph:
None of this creates an obligation to vote, or to vote for one of the two viable candidates. It is, famously, a free country, and you can vote for anyone you like, or for no one.
If Shirky really believes that there is no obligation to vote for a major party candidate, than his entire essay collapses into nonsense. The whole point–from start to finish–is that protest voters are selfish egotists who are abdicating their duty and “making the rest of us do the work of deciding.” If that isn’t a violation of an obligation, then what on Earth could be?
That fact that we are allowed under the law to behave in a certain way is not the only nor the final word on what our obligations may or may not be. The set of things that are obligatory (in any sense) and the set of things that are legally required are not the same. So–far from celebrating a genuine sense of freedom in which government refrains from attempting to demarcate the boundaries of the permissible–Shirky is engaging in a kind of totalitarian thinking in which what we must do and what the law requires are assumed–despite all common sense–to be identical.
This is not an incidental misstep. It’s integral to Shirky’s case. After all, if a protest vote is really just a matter of personal preference–if I prefer Candidate Alice to Candidate Bob in the same way in which I prefer rocky road to mint chocolate chip or blue to red–then it would be the height or selfishness to become an absolute stickler on that point to the detriment of the group. This is a world of moral relativism, where all moral decisions are reflections of personal preference and can pretend to no greater validity.
It’s not a very coherent world. In it, Shirky first argues that protest votes are immoral because they place one’s personal preferences ahead of the common good. But, in this incoherent world, Shirky has to immediately repudiate his own argument. You are an arrogant, hypocritical egoist if you vote third party! Not that that means you can’t do it, of course. You can do whatever you’d like. Who am I to judge? I’m not saying. I’m just saying. The whole thing collapses into irrelevant, incomprehensible muttering.
But if there is such a thing as an objective moral reality, then when a person refuses to vote the way you’d like them to out of conscience, you can’t simply browbeat them for being selfish. Perhaps they are! But perhaps they are acting out of an earnestly held believe in a universally applicable moral stand, one that does not suddenly become irrelevant or disposable merely because it is unpopular or inconvenient. And so, in this world, the specifics actually matter. In this world, some people who vote third party are irresponsible and selfish and some are responsible and selfless. It’s frustrating that we can’t always line up the good guys and the bad guys based on how they vote. It’s downright dangerous when we try to do so anyway.
Shirky offers a thin pretense of not telling you how to vote, but in fact he not only tells you how to vote, but specifically who to vote for. His post has a form of non-judgmentalism but denies the power thereof. I’ll do you the courtesy of not pretending to be neutral. Instead, I’ll just go ahead and tell you what I think you should do without any caveats or qualifications: you should vote, and you should vote informed, and you should vote your conscience. Consider the costs and the benefits of voting for one of the two candidates who will almost certainly win vs. the costs and benefits of voting for a candidate who will almost certainly not win. Take it it seriously, do your homework, and if you’re religious pray for guidance. Then vote accordingly.
And hey, if you’re looking for a silver lining during this awful election, here’s one. In the past, I always felt that there was a clear-cut candidate that should win. There was always a little strain and tension when family or close friends felt the same, but about the other guy. This year, I don’t have that strain. It’s all a mess, and I can see compelling cases for voting in a lot of different ways. I have people I respect voting for Clinton, voting for Trump, voting for Johnson, and voting for McMullin. And–for the first time–I actually have absolutely zero reservations about their voting differently than I am. Not to say I agree with all of them–I don’t! I can’t!–but I can see where they are coming from. So that, at least, is a nice side-effect of this ongoing train wreck.
Let me start out by saying upfront: this book rocked my world a little bit. As any readers of Difficult Run will probably know by now, I’m extremely critical of contemporary social justice activism. I try not to use the pejorative term “social justice warrior” these days, but you’ll recognize the notion by buzzwords like “trigger warning” or “microaggression.” And so when I picked up Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it was with a side of skepticism.
On the other hand, being a Christian means taking issues of social justice seriously. Of course, what I have in mind when I say “social justice” might not line up very well with the social justice movement as it exists today, but there’s no escaping the simple reality that both Old Testament prophets and the New Testament teachings of Christ are often most pointed on precisely the topic of justice in society.
“The Lord standeth up to plead,” wrote Isaiah, “and standeth to judge the people.” And what was God’s condemnation? “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” And in one of Jesus’s most powerful parables, he taught that visiting prisoners was a service to God, saying, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And then, lest there be any confusion, he also stated that, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
So, a book about oppressing vulnerable people by imprisonment? My skepticism was on hand, but my mind was also open. This is important stuff, and I wanted to hear what Alexander had to say.
I’ll get right down to it: on her primary argument, she has me convinced. And this is her primary argument: although the War on Drugs is ostensibly race-neutral, it systematically impacts black and poor Americans to the detriment of their communities while scrupulously avoiding the same kinds of impacts on white and prosperous Americans.
The first component of that argument, that the War on Drugs has a racially disparate impact, is based on a central fact: whites and blacks commit drug crimes at roughly comparable rates, but blacks are far more likely to be charged and convicted of crimes. Here is how that plays out in practice. First, Alexander notes that:
It is impossible for law enforcement to identify and arrest every drug criminal. Strategic choices must be made about whom to target and what tactics to employ. Police and prosecutors did not declare the War on Drugs, and some initially opposed it, but once the financial incentives for waging the war became too attractive to ignore, law enforcement agencies had to ask themselves, if we’re going to wage this war, where should it be fought and who should be taken prisoner?
The answer is simple: vulnerable communities will be targeted (because they can’t fight back politically) and specifically racial minorities will be targeted (because of stereotypes about drug offenders). In regards to the first, she writes:
Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets.
And in regards to the second, she writes:
In 2002 a team of researchers at the University of Washington decided to take the defense of the drug war seriously by subjecting the arguments to empirical testing in a major study of drug law enforcement in a racially mixed city, Seattle. The study found that, contrary to the prevailing common sense, the high arrest rates of African American in drug law enforcement could not be explained by rates of offending. Nor could they be explained by other standard excuses, such as the ease and efficiency of policing open-air drug markets, citizen complaints, crime rates, or drug-related violence. The study also debunked the assumption that white drug dealers deal indoors, making their criminal activity more difficult to detect. The authors found that it was untrue stereotypes about crack markets, crack dealers, and crack babies–not facts–that were driving discretionary decision-making by the Seattle police department.
Alexander’s case is particularly strong when she notes the difference between mandatory sentences for stereotypically white and black versions of the same drug (e.g. cocaine vs. crack) and provides the legal history of attempts to challenge the racially disparate outcomes of the criminal justice system. There’s McCleskey v. Kemp, for example, in which a death penalty conviction was challenged on the basis of research by David C. Baldus showing that “even after taking account of 39 nonracial variables, defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence than defendants charged with killing blacks.” The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, however. Alexander writes:
The majority observed that significant racial disparities have been found in other criminal settings beyond the death penalty, and the McCleskey’s case implicitly calls into question the integrity of the entire system. In the Court’s words, “taken to its logical conclusion, Warren McCleskey’s claim throws into serious question the principles that underly our criminal justice system. If we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty.” The Court openly worried that other actors in the criminal justice system might also face scrutiny for allegedly biased decision-making if similar claims about bias in the system were allowed to proceed. Driven by these concerns, the Court rejected McCleskey’s claim that Georgia’ death penalty system violates the 8th Amendments ban on arbitrary punishment, framing the critical question as whether the Baldus Study demonstrated a Constitutionally unacceptable risk of discrimination. It’s answer was no. The Court deemed the risk of racial bias in Georgia’s capital sentencing scheme Constitutionally acceptable. Justice Brennan pointedly noted in his dissent that the Court’s opinion “seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”
According to an LA Times survey of legal scholars, it’s one of the worst post-World War II SCOTUS decisions. Prior to reading this book, I’d never heard of it. Nor had I heard of United States v. Armstrong, which found that defendants who suspected that they were victims of discrimination had to prove that they were victims of that discrimination first, before they could get access to prosecutorial records that would be necessary to prove the question of discrimination. Alexander writes:
Unless evidence of conscious, intentional bias on the part of the prosecutor could be produced, the court would not allow any inquiry into the reasons for or causes of apparent racial disparities in prosecutorial decision making.
Her case is also very strong when she makes two key points. First, violent crime can’t explain mass incarceration. This is something that came up in the Facebook comments after I posted Mass Incarceration is Not a Myth. Walker Wright recently wrote a solid follow-up piece with even more data: The Stock and Flow of Drug Offenders. So one of the common rebuttals to Alexander’s criticism–that incarceration is about violent crime rather than drugs–doesn’t hold up. However, it is worth noting that black men do commit violent crimes at higher rates than white men (in contrast to drug offenses) and so higher differential rates of incarceration in that case are not evidence of racial discrimination, a point that Alexander concedes.
Second, and even more strongly, she points out that incarceration itself is not the real problem. The problem is that a felony conviction is basically the modern equivalent of a scarlet-F: it makes you basically unemployable, excludes you from many government programs (like student loans), and therefore makes it all but impossible for people who have paid their debt to society (as the saying goes) to actually re-enter that society. This is why Alexander refers to “a system of control” that extends well beyond literal prisons. She’s right.
But there are some parts where I think Alexander gets important things very wrong. First, she tends to be a little blind to issues of class, which is also a leading problem with most contemporary social justice activists. Interestingly enough, Cornell West–in the introduction–draws this point out much more clearly than Alexander does in her own book, writing:
There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black people, the issue would be a national emergency. But it is also true that if young black middle and upper class people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black poor people, black leaders would focus much more on the prison-industrial complex. Again, Michelle Alexander has exposed the class bias of much of black leadership as well as the racial bias of American leadership for whom the poor and vulnerable of all colors are a low priority.
After reading the entire book, it sounds to me like West went much farther than Alexander was willing to do, although she has a lot of the pieces right there in the book. Alexander is very critical of affirmative action, first arguing that it does more harm than good and then arguing that middle- and upper-class blacks have in effect accepted affirmative action as a kind of “racial bribe” for their complicity in mass incarceration:
It may not be easy for the civil rights community to have a candid conversation about [affirmative action]. Civil rights organizations are populated with beneficiaries of affirmative action (like myself) and their friends and allies. Ending affirmative action arouses fears of annihilation. The reality that so many of us would disappear overnight from colleges and universities nationwide if affirmative action were banned, and that our children and grandchildren might not follow in our footsteps, creates a kind of panic that is difficult to describe.
As a result of both affirmative action and the takeover of civil rights organizations by lawyers, she concludes that the entire movement is mired in hypocrisy and inaction:
Try telling a sixteen-year-old black youth in Louisiana who is facing a decade in adult prison and a lifetime of social, political, and economic exclusion that your civil rights organization is not doing much to end the War on Drugs–but would he like to hear about all the great things that are being done to save affirmative action? There is a fundamental disconnect today between the world of civil rights advocacy and the reality facing those trapped in the new racial undercaste.
In examples like these, Alexander is clearly demonstrating that race alone cannot explain what is happening, but she is still unwilling to follow that logic to its conclusion. We’ll return to that in a moment, because it’s my biggest problem with her analysis. Before we get there, however, I want to point out that she also tackles a lot of the conservative criticisms head on. In addition to the violence/drug question, there is the issue of “gangsta culture.” Isn’t it a fact, conservatives might ask, that inner city black culture glorifies illegal and anti-social conduct, and that therefore there’s something rotten at the heart of black culture?
This is an important question, because it is a serious one but also one that conservatives generally can’t ask without simply being shouted down as racist. The inability to have a serious conversation about black culture as it relates to crime is probably the single biggest cause of our dysfunctional national conversation about race (or the lack thereof). As long as social conservatives aren’t even allowed to voice their most important questions, there’s really nothing to talk about. But Alexander doesn’t dismiss the question; she takes it seriously and addresses it. She does so in two ways. First:
Remarkably, it is not uncommon today to hear media pundits, politicians, social critics, and celebrities–most notably Bill Cosby–complain that the biggest problem black men have today is that they “have no shame.” Many worry that prison time has become a badge of honor in some communities–“a rite of passage” is the term most commonly used in the press. Other claims that inner-city residents no longer share the same value system as mainstream society, and therefore are not stigmatized by criminality. Yet as Donald Braman, author of Doing Time on the Outside states: “One can only assume that most participants in these discussions have had little direct contact with the families and communities they are discussing.”
Over a four-year period, Braman conducted a major ethnographic study of families affect by mass incarceration in Washington, D.C., a city where three out of every four young black men can expect to spend some time behind bars. He found that, contrary to popular belief, the young men labeled criminals and their families are profoundly hurt and stigmatized by their status: “They are not shameless; they feel the stigma that accompanies not only incarceration but all the other stereotypes that accompany it–fatherlessness, poverty, and often, despite very intent to make it otherwise, diminished love.” The results of Braman’s study have been largely corroborated by similar studies elsewhere in the United States.
If this is correct–and I have no reason to doubt it–then it means that the idea of a monolithic culture of disrespect for law and glorification of crime (not to mention outright misogyny) is a myth. Even in the inner-city there is respect for rule of law, manifested in deep shame accompanying incarceration.
But if that’s true, why is black culture most frequently represented by gangsta rap that does, in fact, engage in that kind of anti-sociality? That’s Alexander’s second point:
The worst of gangsta rap and other forms of blaxploitation (such as VH1’s Flavor of Love) is best understood as a modern-day minstrel show, only this time televisd around the clock for a worldwide audience. It is a for-profit display of the worst racial stereotypes and images associated wit the era of mass incarceration–an era in which black people are criminalized and portrayed as out-of-control, shameless, violent, over-sexed, and generally undeserving.
Like the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, today’s displays are generally designed for white audiences. The majority of the consumers of gangsta rap are white, suburban teenagers. VH1 had its best ratings ever for the first season of Flavor of Love–ratings drive by large white audiences. MTV has expanded its offerings of black-themed reality shows in the hopes of attracing the same crowd. The profits to be made from racial stigma are considerable, and the fact that blacks–as well as whites–treat racial oppression as a commodity for consumption is not surprising. It is a familiar form of black complicity with racialized systems of control.
The most important part of this response, again, is simply the willingness to engage the issue seriously. This is critical, because once this issue is on the table it’s possible for dialogue. Additionally, however, I find her two-pronged approach compelling.
OK, so let’s get back to my biggest complaint with Alexander’s work: what’s behind the racially disparate impact of the War on Drugs? Throughout the book, she contends that (1) it is exclusively racist and (2) it is deliberately racist. Neither of these claims are supported by her own arguments, and they hurt her case. This starts fairly early on, and then runs consistently throughout the book. Here’s an early example:
The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind. The words “slave” or “negro” were never used, but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism, the division of power between the states and the federal government was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slave-holding states.
In other words, Alexander is arguing that federalism is nothing but a ruse to covertly encode racism within the Constitution. It’s true that federalism enabled slavery to continue by making it a state-level issue, but to say that that is why federalism existed is to deny that the Founders had any independent, reasonable reasons to support federalism, and that’s not plausible. Federalism was, first and foremost, an attempt to avoid the centralized tyranny of the British monarchy that was the ideological raison d’etre of the American Revolution. To dismiss that as incidental is to fundamentally misunderstand the history and philosophy of the Constitution.
At another point, she clearly states that “all racial caste systems, not just mass incarceration, have been supported by racial indifference,” but she also argues that–at the dawn of the era of mass incarceration–“Conservative whites began once again to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time.” In other words, Federalism was part of an intentionally racist program (slavery), separate-but-equal was part of an intentionally racist program (Jim Crow), and color-blindness is part of an intentionally racist program (mass incarceration). But I’m not convinced.
Oh, there’s strong evidence–smoking gun evidence, as far as I’m concerned–that Nixon and Reagan appealed to racism as part of their “law and order” approach to the War on Drugs. But that was nearly a half-century ago. And no, I don’t think that the US has emerged into a post-racial utopia since then. Obviously not! But I do think Walter Williams had it right:
Back in the late 1960s, during graduate study at UCLA, I had a casual conversation with Professor Armen Alchian, one of my tenacious mentors. . . . I was trying to impress Professor Alchian with my knowledge of type I and type II statistical errors.
I told him that my wife assumes that everybody is her friend until they prove differently. While such an assumption maximizes the number of friends that she will have, it also maximizes her chances of being betrayed. Unlike my wife, my assumption is everyone is my enemy until they prove they’re a friend. That assumption minimizes my number of friends but minimizes the chances of betrayal.
Professor Alchian, donning a mischievous smile, asked, “Williams, have you considered a third alternative, namely, that people don’t give a damn about you one way or another?” . . . During the earlier years of my professional career, I gave Professor Alchian’s question considerable thought and concluded that he was right. The most reliable assumption, in terms of the conduct of one’s life, is to assume that generally people don’t care about you one way or another. It’s a mistake to assume everyone is a friend or everyone is an enemy, or people are out to help you, or people are out to hurt you.
Williams (who is a black economist) was actually talking specifically about race relations in his piece. He said:
Are white people obsessed with and engaged in a conspiracy against black people? I’m guessing no, and here’s an experiment. Walk up to the average white person and ask: How many minutes today have you been thinking about a black person? If the person wasn’t a Klansman or a gushing do-gooder, his answer would probably be zero minutes. If you asked him whether he’s a part of a conspiracy to undermine the welfare of black people, he’d probably look at you as if you were crazy. By the same token, if you asked me: “Williams, how many minutes today have you been thinking about white people?” I’d probably say, “You’d have to break the time interval down into smaller units, like nanoseconds, for me to give an accurate answer.” Because people don’t care about you one way or another doesn’t mean they wish you good will, ill will or no will.
Alexander had it right when she talked about “racial indifference.” Even overt racism is virtually never racism for racism’s sake. Alexander herself said, “By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery; they were motivated by greed.”
So, based on the evidence she presents, what’s the real story of racism in America? Powerful people want to maintain their power at the expense of less powerful people. Race, which Alexanders correctly observes “is a relatively recent development,” is only the most potent and insidious means of perpetuating inequalities that are, at their roots, totally agnostic with respect to race or creed or language or ethnicity or religion. All of these are just social markers that can ennable power inequality, but which are mostly irrelevant in and of themselves. So even when race is appealed to directly, it’s always a means to another end, never an end in itself.
So much for the idea of deliberate racism. What about the exclusivity of the racial aspects of mass incarceration? Here, Alexander uses a military analogy:
Of course, the fact that white people are harmed by the drug war does not mean they are the real targets, the designated enemy. The harm white people suffer in the drug war is much like the harm Iraqi civilians suffer in U.S. military actions targeting presumed terrorists or insurgents. In any way, a tremendous amount of collateral damage is inevitable. Black and brown people are the principal targets in this war; white people are collateral damage.
No analogy is perfect, of course, but in this case her chosen analogy undercuts rather than strengthens her position. The point of “collateral damage” is not merely that it is incidental, but that it is scrupulously avoided whenever possible. I’m not saying that the US is perfect at that, but avoiding collateral damage–at least in theory–is what we strive for.
But if white people were really “collateral damage” in the War on Drugs, then of course we would not only see fewer of them in jail, we’d see none at all. Unlike dropping bombs from miles up, it’s easy to ascertain the race of a suspect before they go to jail. If race were the exclusive characteristic–if mass incarceration were designed specifically to target exclusively African Americans–then why are white drug dealers ever sent to jail? Or Asian, or Hispanic, Native American, etc? Alexander might argue, “to provide enough cover for people to believe it’s truly race-neutral,” but that explanation is thin and overly complex. It falls for the same fundamental mistake as all conspiracy theories: a drastic overestimation in the human ability to plan the future. The War on Drugs was not a consciously designed system of racial oppression that ensnares a set number of white people just to provide a thin veneer of racial neutrality. To see that this is true, just ask yourself: “Who determines the requisite number of white people required to give the system cover, and how do they coordinate all the local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to make sure the quota is hit?” The whole setup doesn’t makes sense.
No, the War on Drugs isn’t a cleverly designed mechanism. It is an opportunistically cobbled-together mish-mash of policies, laws, practices, and agencies that exploits the vulnerable and powerless because of the blind logic of power, not because it was designed to target minorities. The War on Drugs also feeds off of and reinforces racist stereotypes. It is, without doubt in my mind, systematically racist. But it’s not exclusively racist; it’s also classist. And it does not exist today because of deliberate racism; but because of inertia, racial indifference, and power politics.
There are not just technicalities. They have profound implications for how we talk about race, how we analyze racist institutions, and what solutions we deploy against them. And this is where I found Alexander’s logic to be at its weakest. She is steadfastly set against colorblind policies. And, given the ability of the criminal justice system to be ostensibly colorblind and still produce racist outcomes, I understand. But her logic breaks down when she dismisses colorblindness entirely. This is most obvious when she writes that:
The uncomfortable truth, however, is that racial differences will always exist among us. Even if the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration were completely overcome, we would remain a nation of immigrants (and indigenous people) in a larger world divided by race and ethnicity. It is a world in which there is extraordinary racial and ethnic inequality, and our nation has porous boundaries. For the foreseeable future, racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.
Contrast that with her prior statement that “The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines.” If race is a “recent development,” can we really be so confident that “racial differences will always exist among us?”
No, we can’t. Race is a fluid concept. Not only was it largely invented in the 17th century, but it continued to change dramatically after that. In the 19th and 20th century, Catholic Irish, Jews, and many other groups were considered non-white. Today, the Irish have a distinct cultural identity within the United States, but nobody would seriously argue that they are non-white. How do the Irish fare vs. narrower racial definitions of whiteness on metrics like housing, household wealth, income, or educational attainment? My guess? Nobody knows because nobody even measures it.
I will agree with Alexander this far: race-blindness didn’t stop the racist bent of mass incarceration and it never can. We may need to be proactive about measuring racial outcomes, at a minimum, in our efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system. However, I’m not convinced that the dream of a colorblind society should be so easily dismissed.
Of course, the historical model of an ever-expanding category of whiteness won’t work in the future. First, because any racial definition has to have at least two groups. So if “white” exists as a category, there will have to be non-white. As long as we see the world in racial terms, universal racial inclusiveness is impossible. Second, I would hardly expect African Americans to be enthusiastic about a solution of universal whiteness even if it were possible (which it’s not).
“It’s OK, you can be considered white, too, one day,” is not an acceptable solution to our history of racial prejudice.
There are alternative possibilities, however. The way out of racial binaries is to drop race as a valid characteristic. A Marxist can do this by seeing only the bourgeois and the proletariat, just as one proof-of-concept. But, if we don’t want to all become Marxist, then we’ll have to figure something else out. Nationalism is another approach, although not without its own complications. And who knows: there may be other concepts we haven’t even thought of yet. The point is, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to hope for a day when the difference between an African American and an Irish American becomes much more like the difference between an American whose family came from Scandinavia and one whose family came from Italy.
We can’t get there from here if we do not redress the real and obvious racial disparities within our nation, and the racist War on Drugs seems like a great place to start. But I’m also not sure if we can get there from here as long as we view colorblindness as an intrinsically undesirable destination. If we insist on defining people in racial terms, then Alexander is probably right: “racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.” So maybe we shouldn’t plan on doing that forever.
At the end of the day, I found this book to have its flaws, but on the central points it has me convinced. I was already skeptical of the War on Drugs, but now I’m downright convinced that it is a needlessly oppressive and exploitative racist and classist juggernaut that somehow we need to stop.