Did Trump Hand Us A Mirror?

Mirrors can be vicious–and educational.

I know I’m not the only one who finds it easy to indulge in forbidden food and drink, and to ignore the consequences–until I take a good look at myself in the mirror and decide it’s past time to begin that long-postponed diet and exercise regimen.

In a recent column for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank suggested a political analogy to that common phenomenon.

Four years ago, Christopher Parker, an African American political scientist at the University of Washington, made the provocative argument that Donald Trump’s candidacy could “do more to advance racial understanding than the election of Barack Obama.”

“Trump’s clear bigotry,” Parker wrote in the American Prospect, a liberal journal, “makes it impossible for whites to deny the existence of racism in America. . . . His success clashes with many white Americans’ vision of the United States as a fair and just place.”

Milbank lists several examples of Trump’s increasingly brazen embrace of racism; interestingly, the column appeared before the most recent example: his incendiary speech at Mount Rushmore, in which he barely stopped short of donning a white sheet.

It’s not just Trump. it is getting more and more difficult to ignore the evidence that the GOP has become the party of white supremacy. As Milbank reports,

Trump has accelerated a decades-old trend toward parties redefining themselves by race and racial attitudes. Racial resentment is now the single most important factor driving Republicans and Republican-leaning movers, according to extensive research, most recently by Nicholas Valentino and Kirill Zhirkov at the University of Michigan — more than religion, culture, class or ideology. An ongoing study by University of North Carolina researchers finds that racial resentment even drives hostility toward mask-wearing and social distancing. Conversely, racial liberalism now drives Democrats of all colors more than any other factor.

Milbank reviewed the changing responses of Americans to a question that has been used by several pollsters over a number of years to determine racial animus: the question asks people to agree or disagree with the statement “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

In 2012, 56 percent of white Republicans agreed with that statement, according to the American National Election Studies. The number grew in 2016 with Trump’s rise, to 59 percent. Last month, an astonishing 71 percent of white Republicans agreed, according to a YouGov poll written by Parker and conducted by GQR (where my wife is a partner).

The opposite movement among white Democrats is even more striking. In 2012, 38 percent agreed that African Americans didn’t try hard enough. In 2016, that dropped to 27 percent. And now? Just 13 percent.

What these statistics don’t reflect is the rapidly diminishing number of Americans who identify as Republican, and the growing numbers of Democrats, Independents and “Never Trump” Republicans who find the party’s racism abhorrent.  Milbank quotes other political scientists whose research confirms the extent of that revulsion; white women, especially, are offended by the GOP’s appeals to racism.

Vincent Hutchings is a political scientist at the University of Michigan who specializes in public opinion research. He has found that racist appeals disproportionately alienate white, college-educated women, and has opined that such appeals exacerbate the gender gap even more than negative references to gender.

I’ve previously noted that the voluminous visual evidence of bigotry, captured and disseminated by our  ubiquitous cellphone cameras, has made it very difficult for comfortable white folks to believe that America is the idealized, equal-opportunity country described in dusty government textbooks. Every day, Donald Trump adds to that growing, uncomfortable body of evidence by loudly and publicly reconfirming his own ignorance and racism.

The iPhone pictures and videos, amplified by the constant tweets and utterances of a repulsive President, are providing Americans an extended look in the full-length mirror, and most of us don’t like what we see.

We need to remind ourselves that we have the power to change it.

 

 

Statues And Shades Of Gray

Americans are having yet another iteration of a longstanding argument about the various monuments erected to memorialize–or let’s be honest, valorize– Confederate heroes of the Civil War.

People defending these statues argue that they teach us about our history. Proponents of removal respond that placing them in museums is adequate to the teaching of history, and remind us that Germany still remembers the Nazis despite the fact that there are no statues of Hitler or Eichmann “gracing” the public way.

In my view, deciding that Confederate statues should come down is an easy call.

Here’s the test: why was this particular statue erected? To ask that question a bit differently, why is this person being honored? Public statues are uniformly considered “honors”–so the first question to ask is, logically, “why do we honor Senator or General or XYZ?” If the person portrayed has been selected for his participation in the Confederate secession, the monument should go. If the person is historically significant, move the statue to a museum or other teaching venue; if he is just a reminder of Confederate treason, smash him.

As numerous historians have reminded us, these statues weren’t erected in the aftermath of the Civil War; almost all of them were placed in prominent places during the civil rights movement as a testament of white resistance to African-American equality. They aren’t even legitimately “historic.”

The question of public monuments gets more complicated when it comes to people who were less one-dimensional. What do we do, for example, about people like Woodrow Wilson?

As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times awhile back,

When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter. Raised with the bland liberal history that hailed the 28th president as a visionary for championing the League of Nations, I picked up in college what was then a contrarian, mostly right-wing perspective — that many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that’s deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise.

Now his racism has finally prompted Princeton University, which once had Wilson as its president, to remove his name from its prominent school of public and international affairs. This move was made under pressure from left-wing activists, but it also answered conservatives who had invoked Wilson’s name to suggest that progressive racists might be unjustly spared from cancellation.

For this Wilson-despiser, his fall was a clarifying moment. I expected to be at least a little pleased and justified when the name was gone. Instead, the decision just seemed fundamentally dishonest, a case study in what goes wrong when iconoclasm moves beyond Confederates to encompass the wider American inheritance.

Douthat says that monuments and honorifics are intended to honor deeds,  “to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.” I agree.

So–what do we do with monuments to inevitably flawed real humans–to Founders who glorified human liberty while “owning” other human beings, for example?

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

I find myself in agreement with Douthat. The relevant question remains the one I previously outlined: what, exactly, are we memorializing?

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that’s exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

On the other hand, complicated and often profoundly flawed individuals often do very good things. If the statue we have erected was intended to honor those good things, it should stay. If it is only there to remind us that something happened–especially when that “something” was regrettable– it shouldn’t.

If we shouldn’t celebrate what a monument celebrates, it should go.

 

Respect

Tom Friedman isn’t one of my favorite New York Times columnists; I usually find him either tendentious or self-congratulatory. But he’s growing on me.

I especially liked his column last Wednesday, in which he suggested a slogan/bumper sticker for the Biden campaign:“Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.”

If only!!

As Friedman writes, not only are these values held by most Americans, they are in dramatic  contrast to Trump. (I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t have anything we would call “values”–and I have never seen him display anything remotely resembling respect for anyone or anything..Even self-respect would be an improvement.)

Disdain for science is seen in Trump’s antagonism to fact, evidence and reality. It’s bad enough when his contempt for facts involves lying about crowd sizes or windmills causing cancer, infuriating when it involves denial of climate change– but with the advent of Covid-19, it poses an even more immediate threat.

But his disdain for science has become fatal, as we’re seeing in this widening pandemic. Trump has gone from offering quack remedies, like disinfectant, ultraviolet light and hydroxychloroquine, to mocking people, including Biden, for adopting the easiest and most scientifically proven method for limiting the spread of the coronavirus: wearing a face mask.

Trump doesn’t simply reject science. He’s lost whatever grip  he ever had on elementary logic.  Friedman echoes the astonishment so many of us expressed when our Commander-in-Chief–the purported leader of the free world–opined that we have more cases of Coronavirus because we test for it.

Think about that: Stop testing. Then we’ll have no knowledge. Then we’ll have no numbers. Then we’ll have no virus. Why didn’t I think of that?

Stop testing people for drunken driving, and then we’ll have no more drunken drivers. Stop arresting people for shootings, and then the crime rate will go down.

And if we didn’t have pregnancy tests, voila! Population control…

Then there’s the little matter of respecting Mother Nature.

Trump’s lack of respect for nature may be a political asset for him with his base, but it’s been a disaster for the country. …

Respect for nature also means understanding that we live on a hard rock called planet Earth with a thin cover of oceans and topsoil, enveloped by a thin layer of atmosphere. Abuse that soil, junk up those oceans with plastics, distort that atmospheric blanket and we will likely (further) destroy the perfect Garden of Eden that has been the basis of all human civilization.

According to National Geographic, the Russian Arctic has been having an extended heat wave that drove temperatures north of the Arctic Circle to 100.4 degrees F on June 20–the official first day of summer. (I can’t imagine what that will do to all the structures that have been built on the Arctic’s permafrost…)

The Trump administration has rolled back close to 100 environmental regulations–and has failed or refused to enforce a number of others. The administration reserves its “respect” for the bottom lines of fossil fuel and chemical companies that are operating with impunity as the planet heats and widely-used chemicals are found to be lethal.

Respect for other people? Can we even remember the civility, decorum and good manners of the Obama-Biden administration?

Respect each other? That’s not so easy in the midst of our other pandemic — a pandemic of incivility. You cannot exaggerate the impact on the whole civic culture of having a president who has elevated name-calling, denigration and lying to a central feature of his presidency, amplified by the White House.

Friedman acknowledges that there are multiple sources of disrespectful behavior–especially the algorithms of social media platforms–but he notes that restoring interpersonal respect will require  two things: a president who every day models respect rather than denigration, and citizens who actually listen to each other. Right now, we have neither.

Respect for science. Respect for nature. Respect for each other.

I like that.

 

FaceBook, Disinformation And The First Amendment

These are tough times for Free Speech purists–of whom I am one.

I have always been persuaded by the arguments that support freedom of expression. In a genuine  marketplace of ideas, I believe–okay, I want to believe– that better ideas will drive out worse ones. More compelling is the argument that, while some ideas may be truly dangerous, giving   government the right to decide which ideas get expressed and which ones don’t would be much more dangerous. 

But FaceBook and other social media sites are really testing my allegiance to unfettered, unregulated–and amplified–expression. Recently, The Guardian reported that more than 3 million followers and members support the crazy QAnon conspiracy on Facebook, and their numbers are growing.

For those unfamiliar with QAnon, it

is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of an anonymous figure – “Q” – who claims knowledge of a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers. Within the constructed reality of QAnon, Donald Trump is secretly waging a patriotic crusade against these “deep state” child abusers, and a “Great Awakening” that will reveal the truth is on the horizon.

Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center is quoted as saying that Facebook is a “unique platform for recruitment and amplification,” and that he doubts  QAnon would have been able to happen without the “affordances of Facebook.”

Facebook isn’t just providing a platform to QAnon groups–its  algorithms are actively recommending them to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them. And it isn’t only QAnon. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.”

If the problem was limited to QAnon and other conspiracy theories, it would be troubling enough, but it isn’t. A recent essay by a Silicone Valley insider named Roger McNamee in Time Magazine began with an ominous paragraph:

If the United States wants to protect democracy and public health, it must acknowledge that internet platforms are causing great harm and accept that executives like Mark Zuckerberg are not sincere in their promises to do better. The “solutions” Facebook and others have proposed will not work. They are meant to distract us.

McNamee points to a predictable cycle: platforms are pressured to “do something” about harassment, disinformation or conspiracy theories. They respond by promising to improve their content moderation. But– as the essay points out– none have been successful at limiting the harm from third party content, and  so the cycle repeats.  (As he notes, banning Alex Jones removed his conspiracy theories from the major sites, but did nothing to stop the flood of similar content from other people.)

The article identifies three reasons content moderation cannot work: scale, latency, and intent. Scale refers to the sheer hundreds of millions messages posted each day. Latency is the time it takes for even automated moderation to identify and remove a harmful message. The most important obstacle, however, is intent–a/k/a the platform’s business model.

The content we want internet platforms to remove is the content most likely to keep people engaged and online–and that makes it exceptionally valuable to the platforms.

As a result, the rules for AI and human moderators are designed to approve as much content as possible. Alone among the three issues with moderation, intent can only be addressed with regulation.

McNamee argues we should not have to accept disinformation as the price of access, and he offers a remedy:

At present, platforms have no liability for the harms caused by their business model. Their algorithms will continue to amplify harmful content until there is an economic incentive to do otherwise. The solution is for Congress to change incentives by implementing an exception to the safe harbor of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for algorithm amplification of harmful content and guaranteeing a right to litigate against platforms for this harm. This solution does not impinge on first amendment rights, as platforms are free to continue their existing business practices, except with liability for harms.

I’m not sure I share McNamee’s belief that his solution doesn’t implicate the First Amendment.

The (relative) newness of the Internet and social media creates uncertainty. What, exactly, are these platforms? How should they be classified? They aren’t traditional publishers–and third parties’ posts aren’t their “speech.” 

As 2020 campaigns heat up, more attention is being paid to how FaceBook promotes propaganda. Its refusal to remove or label clear lies from the Trump campaign has prompted advertisers to temporarily boycott the platform. FaceBook may react by tightening some moderation, but ultimately, McNamee is right: that won’t solve the problem.

One more conundrum of our Brave New World……

Happy 4th!

 

What Really Matters?

Assuming the accuracy of recent polling, even people who don’t follow politics or the news with the sort of intensity characteristic of people who comment on this blog have come to recognize that President Trump is insane.

The crazy tweets, the babbling, “word salad” responses to even soft-ball questions from Faux News, the cringe-worthy, extended defense of his wobbly descent down the ramp at West Point, and most astonishing (at least to me) his apparent belief that if we just don’t test people, the Coronavirus will magically go away–are finally taking their toll.

My own response to what I see right now might properly be labeled bipolar: on the one hand, I am terrified of Democratic complacency. This pathetic ignoramus won once–it could happen again. There is still a hard core of voters who respond to his racism and share his overwhelming sense of grievance. On the other hand, polling–both state and national–reflects widespread disapproval; credible media outlets have taken to calling lies, lies (not just “assertions for which there is no evidence”) and previously reliable Republican constituencies are forming pro-Biden PACs. (The Lincoln Group–the first such effort–is producing and airing some of the most devastating–and accurate–political ads.)

So… my thoughts have turned to the massive clean-up job that will await the Democrats if–as I devoutly hope–November delivers both the White House and the Senate.

That cleanup is by no means assured. Universal detestation of Trump has unified a party that is famous for its lack of unity. (Who was it who said “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat”?) With victory will come the inevitable fractures between the moderates, progressives and leftwing factions of the party.

In the House, I have some confidence that Nancy Pelosi can avoid truly dangerous schisms; the Senate will be dicier, and if Moscow Mitch is re-elected, he can still do enormous damage as Minority Leader.

It’s all very uncertain, and that uncertainty is made worse by the fact that there is considerable ambiguity about what optimum “repairs”–both structural and policy– should look like. Some examples:

  • The federal courts. It’s not just the Supreme Court.  McConnell has managed to put 200 rightwing ideologues on the federal bench, a number of whom have been rated “unqualified” by the ABA. There are a number of proposed “fixes”–from expanding the number of judges to pursuing impeachment against those who engage in the most egregious misconduct. Whatever course of action is taken, returning the courts to the status of impartial arbiters should be a priority.
  • Other structural issues that cry out for attention sooner than later include gerrymandering, the filibuster, money in politics and the Electoral College. (Whether the Electoral College can ever be fixed–either by the Popular Vote Compact or Constitutional Amendment is a “known unknown.”)
  • Repairing the incredible amount of damage done by Trump’s Mafiosa-like cabinet–especially the savage assault on environmental protections by the procession of fossil fuel lobbyists who’ve run the EPA, and Betsy DeVos’ fundamentalist attacks on the very concept of public education–also requires immediate attention.
  • Repairing America’s reputation abroad–restoring our relationships with allies, signaling that yes, America had a psychotic break, but we’re recovering–is critical. We need to rejoin the alliances Trump discarded, reaffirm our commitment to NATO, etc.,etc. Fortunately, foreign policy has been Biden’s strong suit.
  • Attacking our appalling economic inequality by raising both taxes on the rich and the minimum wage.
  • On the policy front, it is long past time for comprehensive immigration reform–not just the immediate cessation of horrendous ICE practices under Trump, but a sweeping revision of immigration policy that discards the racism that has characterized it.
  • It is equally past time to ensure that all Americans have access to healthcare, whether that is via a public option or single payer. (And maybe we should reconstitute that pandemic task force.)
  • Then there’s our crumbling infrastructure. And the elimination of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuel interests. And a long, hard look at farm subsidies (and who’s getting them.) And in the (highly unlikely) world of my dreams, beginning to dismantle and “defund” the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about.

I bet you all can add to this daunting list…..

Unlike culture-war quarrels about who’s using what restroom, or whether women should be able to control their own reproduction, these are the issues that really matter.

These are the issues that define–or defy–assertions of American “greatness.”