Saturday, January 09, 2021

Laying down a marker

Trump supporters with a Trump flag
Trump Rally
by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA
Imagine a miracle. Someone with the power to do so takes every Trump supporter through the voting systems of American democracy. They examine every contested state, every urban precinct, every ballot, voting machine, line of code, signature and mailer envelope. All the millions who came to his rallies, sent in their money, or voted for the man and his enablers, get to see in detail how the voters recorded their choices, how the poll workers counted them, and how the tallies and the counts and recounts worked. 

Let us assume this examination would reveal exactly what the  Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council has said of the election as a whole. Let us assume it confirms what Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has told the world about the Georgia election and its associated recounts, and what the Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona government officials had to say. Assume our imaginary audit shows each Trump supporter why American state and federal courts have rejected thirty-eight lawsuits by the Trump campaign and layers aligned with him.

How many of the Trump supporters who have refused to accept the election results would change their minds? How many of the protestors chanting "stop the steal" would, if presented with irrefutable proof no corruption or tampering sufficient to tip the election results had taken place, change their minds, still their protests, and accept Joe Biden as their president?

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

A trophy of ashes

At a pivotal moment in the film "The Bounty",  when the mutineers under Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) are about to put Captain William Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) and the crew loyal to him into the ship's boat and set them adrift in the Pacific, Bligh asks his former second in command if he thinks he can command the mutineers, "this rabble". Bligh reminds Christian he failed, and Bligh had the law behind him. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Dr. Biden, I presume...

Picture of Dr. Jill Biden
Ralph Alswang, White House 
Now eighty million American voters, well over fifty United States judges, and the electoral college have awarded the title of president elect to Joe Biden, mainstream conservative publications have a problem. Refusing to call Mr. Biden the president elect looks increasingly desperate, increasingly unrealistic, and with increasing clarity, it reveals a lack of respect for American democracy. At the same time, it seems evident a great many people with influence among conservatives don't believe in conceding with any grace. Perhaps they have internalized Winston Churchill's quote:
Nations which go down fighting rise again, and those that surrender tamely are finished.

 Most of us can discern the difference between the Wehrmacht and the Democratic Party, but American politics has grown more extreme lately. Some conservative opinion journalists in search of a hill to defend have found one: they may have to call Mr. Biden the president, but to call the incoming first lady by her academic title of Dr. Biden: never.

It started with an essay in Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal decrying Dr. Biden's use of her title, then spread to National Review, where one article gives the laxity of American libel standards a serious workout by suggesting, with no apparent basis save the writer's own opinion, the University of Delaware had chucked its standards to award a degree to the spouse of a senator.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Voting, voters, and entropy

Tucker Carlson speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland
Tucker Carlson
by Gage Skidmore
A popular metaphor for entropy, attributed to Schopenhauer, goes like this: if you take a barrel of sewage and pour in a glass of fine French wine, you have a barrel of sewage. If you take a barrel of fine French wine and (shudder) pour in a glass of sewage, you have a barrel of sewage.

In one of his nightly opinion pieces, Tucker Carlson sarcastically lauded the triumph of voters who cast ballots from the grave. He later had to retract one of his examples after learning one of the ballots he cited had come from a very much alive widow, who had identified herself as Mrs. (husband's name). Carlson's sarcasm had an interesting effect: it produced an emotional reaction sufficient to briefly cloud my analysis, and I had to take a (virtual) step back to analyze what he had to say. Once I broke his arguments down and considered them, I found a couple of interesting layers, ones hinting at American Conservative strategy going forward. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Problem of Traditionalism

 The American Conservative published a somewhat predictable jeremiad against modern thinking, lamenting the inability of the modern, rationalist outlook to comprehend the phenomenon of Donald Trump's popularity. The author wrote:

 As the AP European History concept outline in my textbook uncritically puts it: “They [Enlightenment thinkers] sought to bring the light of reason to bear on the darkness of prejudice, outmoded traditions, and ignorance, challenging traditional values.”

He later writes: 

One can almost imagine the line I just quoted grafted onto the present: They [Democrats] sought to bring the light of reason to bear on the darkness of prejudice, outmoded traditions, and ignorance, challenging the traditional values of Trump voters in flyover country.

Well, everyone has the right to imagine, or if you insist, "almost imagine" anything, although I cannot quite see why anyone would go to the trouble of "almost imagining" anything. But equating the traditional values of mediaeval and pre-enlightenment Europe with whatever motivated Americans to pull the lever for Donald Trump ignores almost all of the specific principles at issue. The Declaration of Independence, and even more the Constitution of the United States are, after all, manifestos of 18th century enlightenment principles. The analogy falls apart the moment you apply hard specifics: voting, the idea of the people collectively selecting the head of their state, specifically repudiates the idea of the divine right of monarchs, a cardinal value of European politics from the fall of the Roman Republic up until the Long Parliament and the Glorious Revolution. The voters who went to pull the lever for Donald Trump acted out a basic ritual of the enlightenment.

The article did mention a peasant revolt against the extreme rationalism of the French Revolution, but instead of addressing the critical divide between principled conservatism and traditionalism, the author descended into a lament for the students these days.

And thus we have another article exemplifying traditionalism: a bare-knuckle defence of the outrageous innovations of a decade or a century (or two) ago. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

Looking ahead


Gen. Gus Perna, commanding general of Army Material Command, inspects a production facility (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
Gen. Gus Perna, second from left 
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Sunday night, the CBS news magazine program 60 minutes interviewed General Gus Perna about his work preparing to distribute Covid vaccine to all Americans upon completion of the necessary clinical trials. Seeing him speak, seeing him hold himself accountable for achieving results for the American people, seeing him describing the gaps in his knowledge and his method of educating himself, I had two thoughts.

First, for the sake of my American friends, I hope this man succeeds. Second, I hope he's a Republican. The only candidates for the next Republican presidential nomination I have seen floated so far have no practical experience or qualifications except in opinion journalism. Even a short glimpse of General Perna at work suggested how much better Republicans, and indeed Americans, can do.

General Perna may not deliver, of course. A single 60 minutes interview hardly provides a basis for a comprehensive assessment of anyone's character and abilities. Operation warp speed may fail. The whole project, and particularly the military role in it, may turn out badly, and I have observed this administration long enough to know their decisions do not come with a guarantee of quality. But seeing the way General Perna took responsibility for his part in the work, without qualification, gave me a reason to hope for his success, and a reminder of how much better the Republican Party can do.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Alex Trebek and the Donald

 If the clue reads: "In 1984 George Orwell wrote this thing was statistical, though the book says, clearly, it isn't", the correct response is: "what is sanity?"

On the day after most media outlets called the election for Mr. Biden, Alex Trebek died at his home, with his family, after a brave struggle against pancreatic cancer. In his public fight over a year and a half with the cancer, he showed grace, humility, and a defining gentle, self-deprecating humour. 

He provided a useful, even healing, counterpart to the career of that other TV show host, the one who disastrously took his act into the White House. Alex Trebek did more than making "knowing stuff cool"; he made reaching for the truth cool. He made acknowledging and correcting his mistakes cool. The TV show "Jeopardy" taught us many things, some trivial, some not, but perhaps the most important lesson the show taught came not from the clues or the questions, but from the occasional adjustments to scores as the judges accepted a response Mr. Trebek had rejected, or rejected a response he had allowed. Alex Trebek always conveyed these changes courteously, always with a tinge of regret for taking away points, and never, not ever, with any hint of wounded vanity at having his calls overruled. In doing so, he taught us nothing matters more than the truth, not the flow of the play and certainly not the ego of the host. Without display, without fanfare, without even speaking to the matter directly, he taught everyone who watched the show the importance of getting things right.