Saturday, May 20, 2017

Size the office to fit the man

Donald Trump at the podium photo by Gage Skidmore
photo by Gage Skidmore
 Donald Trump’s recent behaviour has provoked dark thoughts among American opinion writers. Ross Douthait, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has raised the possibility of declaring Mr. Trump medically unfit for his job and invoking the 25 amendment to the US constitution to remove him.

That is a spectacularly bad idea. It is, to paraphrase Orwell, a bad idea even though National Review says it’s a bad idea. For one thing, the authors of the 25th amendment intended it to deal with a medical crisis, not a policy disagreement or even justified reservations about the character of a president. For another, it doesn’t deal with the structural or even the psychological problems the Trump presidency raises.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What, me worry?

Donald Trump, not worried, by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
by Gage Skidmore
If American news reports accurately describe the events of last week's meeting between President Trump and Russian representatives, somewhere in the Western Asia at least one person probably has a lot less confidence in their future than they did a few days ago. We may never know the name or names of the people who apparently took huge risks to obtain important details of the latest efforts by the Daesh to loose chaos on international air travel. We can only hope the president of the United States did not sentence them to an unpleasant death by recklessly boasting about his intelligence sources.

We have less room for doubt about what happened next. After both his national security advisor and his secretary of state denied the story in carefully worded statements, Mr. Trump took to late night Twitter and cast doubt on their claims by stating he had, in any case, the right to tell the Russians anything he wanted them to know.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Stop quoting Havel and behaving like Brezhnev


East German Trabant, photo by By Adam Jones, Ph.D.
East German Trabant
About a year and a half ago, Yale University sent out an email in advance of the Halloween season, asking students to choose their costumes with some cultural sensitivity. One of the senior residents charged with supervising residence life, Erika Christakis, took exception to this email and distributed her own rejoinder. Student activists in turn protested the email and accused both Dr Christakis and her husband failing to properly supervise residence life. In the end, both Dr. Christakis and her husband left the residence program, an outcome regretted by the libertarian conservative writer Conor Friedersdorf, and even more strongly deplored by Rod Dreher.

In his argument, Rod Dreher quotes, as he frequently does, Valclav Havel's essay The Power of the Powerless. In common with many conservatives who quote Havel, he seems to think power means the ability to say distressing things on "woke twitter", and consider professors who give into "political correctness" the modern equivalent of the Havel's metaphorical green grocer, who puts a "workers of the world unite" sign in the window. I disagree. I think Dreher's argument fundamentally distorts the question of where the real power lies in his society, and where the implied analogy to the Soviet block of Leonid Brezhnev applies.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The right to be wrong is not necessarily the right to be sloppy

Duke divinity library, two views; photo by Duke Divinity Library
photo by Duke University Divinity School Library
We all ignore truths, demands, arguments we would prefer not to face. At my best, I only hold arguments I find offensive to a higher, perhaps impossible standard of proof. At my worst, I ignore truths I would prefer not to deal with and avoid pressing arguments for fear of giving offense to other people.

There is a difference between avoiding uncomfortable ideas and challenges, and making a public virtue of it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Rendemptive anger

Louis Riel, after a carte de visite from 1884.
Louis Riel
Last week, in one of the vicious but not exactly random assaults underlining the inequalities of life in a "western" urban society, an unknown person beat up the principal dancer in the "Buffalo Hunt" scene from the Canadian Opera Company's production of Harry Somers's opera Louis Riel. He and his partner, hurt badly enough to need hospital treatment, they suffered further indignities at the hands of the medical system; some of the people I spoke to clearly considered their treatment negligent.

This racist attack on a talented First Nations dancer, and the callous treatment in its aftermath, could have easily led to worse divisions and deeper mistrust in its wake. Violence of this kind divides and silences people, as the perpetrators and enablers often intend. In a production negotiating the tricky politics of staging a classic Canadian work telling a story involving First Nations, this attack could easily have poisoned the atmosphere.