What liberals need to acknowledge

Mark Lilla sums it up:

“So it should come as little surprise that the term liberalism leaves so many Americans indifferent today. It is considered, with some justice, as a creed professed mainly by educated urban elites cut off from the rest of the country who see the issues of the day principally through the lens of identities, and whose efforts centre on the care and feeling of hyper-sensitive movements that dissipate rather than focus on the energies of what remains of the left. Contrary to what the centrist coroners of the 2016 election will be saying, the reason the Democrats are losing ground is not that they have drifted too far to the left. Nor, as the progressives are insisting, is it that they have drifted too far to the right, especially on economic issues. They are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of what was once a great mountain.”

From The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, page 10.

See also Lilla’s acerbic NYT OpEd piece after the election, which began:

“It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.

But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

Magical thinking and the Irish border

When pondering the policies of governments, it usually makes sense to assume that they are based on some kind of logic. Try as I might, though, I can’t make this rationalist perspective work for the UK government’s proposals for how the Irish border will be managed after Brexit.

And it turns out that I am not alone. The Irish Times columnist (and Princeton professor) Fintan O’Toole has written a coruscating piece about it. He summarises the May government’s proposition thus:

to understand how this seems to the Irish government and to most people on the island, imagine you are in a decent job. It is reasonably paid, apparently secure and the working environment is quite amicable. Your neighbour, who you like but do not quite trust (there’s a bit of history there) comes to you with a proposition. She’s establishing an extremely risky start-up venture with a high probability of catastrophic failure. Will you join her? Well, you ask, what are the possible rewards? Ah, she says, if – against the odds – everything goes splendidly, you’ll get the same pay and conditions you have now.

This is, in essence, what the British government is offering Ireland. If everything goes fantastically well, you’ll end up with, um, the status quo. Trade will “operate largely in the same way it does today”. The position paper is effectively a hymn to the way things are now. We don’t have a hard border, and we won’t after Brexit. We do have a common travel area that works remarkably well, and it will continue to go splendidly. The position paper takes existing realities and repositions them as a distant mirage, a fantastical possibility: less emerald isle, more Emerald City.

As with the whole Brexit project, the proposals for Ireland are credible only if you accept two mutually incompatible propositions: a) The UK is creating the biggest political and economic revolution since 1973; b) pretty much everything will stay the same…

The only term I can think of that describes the UK government’s approach to the Border issue (and perhaps to many other aspects of the Brexit process) is magical thinking, i.e. “the belief that one’s thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.”

US foreign policy, Bannon version

From an amazing interview with Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect:

Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

Bannon went on to talk about his main obsession:

“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

Bannon’s plan of attack includes: a complaint under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act against Chinese coercion of technology transfers from American corporations doing business there, and follow-up complaints against steel and aluminum dumping. “We’re going to run the tables on these guys. We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re in an economic war and they’re crushing us.”

Why should we ‘respect’ the Referendum result?

Terrific blog post by Simon Wren-Lewis. Worth reading in full, but here’s the nub of it:

It is an awkward truth that what many people wanted when the voted Leave is either simply impossible, or cannot happen without making everyone significantly poorer year after year. It is this reality that keeps the government in a fantasy world. Almost no one who voted to Leave is going to be happy with the result of government decisions. Those who wanted better access to public services will not get it. Those who wanted more sovereignty will find their sovereignty sold off cheap in a desperate attempt to get new trade deals. Those who wanted less immigration will also find their wishes largely frustrated because the UK cannot afford to reduce immigration.

The parallels with the US are clear. The Republicans, after spending years denouncing Obamacare, found they could not produce anything better. Those promoting Leave also did so without any thought to how it might actually happen, and therefore they have nowhere to go when confronted with reality. As a result, the government invents a magical customs union so that Liam Fox can have something to do. I have never known a UK government look so pathetic.

Der Führer aus Washington

From This is what Happens when you let Trump be Trump by Jack Shafer:

The war for the “control” of Trump, that Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Javanka, H.R. McMaster, Anthony Scaramucci, and now John Kelly have waged, can now be said to be over. Nobody ever had a chance of taming him, of civilizing, of teaching him which fork to use to stab his political opponents. For months now, his supporters said that all of his problems would vanish if his handlers would just Let Trump Be Trump. They finally have, and this is what it looks like.

And also this from The Intercept:

So can we stop playing this game where journalists demand Trump condemns people he agrees with and Trump then pretends to condemn them in the mildest of terms? I hate to say this, but it is worth paying attention to the leader of the Virginia KKK, who told a reporter in August 2016: “The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes, we believe in.”

So can we stop pretending that Trump isn’t Trump? That the presidency has changed him, or will change him? It hasn’t and it won’t. There will be no reset; no reboot; no pivot. This president may now be going through the motions of (belatedly) denouncing racism, with his scripted statements and vacuous tweets. But here’s the thing: why would you expect a lifelong racist to want to condemn or crack down on other racists? Why assume a person whose entire life and career has been defined by racially motivated prejudice and racial discrimination, by hostility toward immigrants, foreigners, and minorities, would suddenly be concerned by the rise of prejudice and discrimination on his watch? It is pure fantasy for politicians and pundits to suppose that Trump will ever think or behave as anything other than the bigot he has always been — and, in more recent years, as an apologist for other bigots, too.

US vs Germany? Give me Germany any time

Nice piece in the Economist prompted by the Charlottesville thuggery:

TO VIEW the footage of crowds in Charlottesville yelling Nazi slogans and flying Swastika banners is troubling anywhere. But do so from Berlin is particularly so. America in 2017 is not Germany in 1933. But the chants about “blood and soil”, the flaming torches, the Nazi salutes, the thuggery and violence turned on objectors—the whole furious display of armed ethno-nationalism—are nonetheless chillingly evocative. Similarly so is the strenuous ambivalence about it all from Donald Trump and some of his media cheerleaders. It could hardly contrast more vividly with how things are done here: Germany today is a case study in how not to give an inch to the dark politics of “Blut und Boden”.

That begins with the significance placed on remembering where this politics led in the past. Every German school child must visit a concentration camp; as essential a part of the curriculum as learning to write or count. The country’s cities are landscapes of remembrance. Streets and squares are named after resisters. Little brass squares in the pavements (Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones) contain the names and details of Holocaust victims who once lived at those addresses….

How to undermine Steve Bannon

Simple: make him out to be a Really Big Deal. The Power Behind the Throne. The ventriloquist who has a US President as his dummy. Then stand back and let Trump’s pathological narcissism do the rest.

Time Magazine is smarter than I thought.

Robotic judgments?

Today’s Observer column:

“The sadness about the bar nowadays,” wrote John Mortimer QC in 2002, “is that the Rumpoles are dying out, to be replaced… by greyish figures who think that the art of advocacy has been replaced by computer technology.”

Now spool forward to October 2016 and to Gower Street, a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn, where a group of computer scientists is huddled in a laboratory in University College London. They are tending a machine they have built that can do natural language processing and machine learning and, in that sense, might be said to be an example of artificial intelligence (AI).

The machine has an insatiable appetite for English text and so the researchers have fed it all the documents relating to 584 cases decided by the European court of human rights (ECHR) on alleged infringements of articles 3, 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. Having ingested and analysed this mountain of text, the machine has been asked to predict the judgment that it thinks the court would have reached in each case. In the end, it reached the same conclusion as the judges of the court did in 79% of the cases…

Read on

The culture wars reach Mountain View

Interesting NYT piece on how the James Damore furore has put Google, Facebook, Airbnb et al firmly in the crosshairs of the alt-right crowd.

There is a certain poetic justice in the alt-right, largely an internet-based political movement, turning against the companies that enabled it in the first place. Like most modern political movements, the alt-right relies on tech platforms like YouTube and Twitter to rally supporters, collect donations and organize gatherings. In that sense, Silicon Valley progressivism isn’t just an ideological offense to the alt-right — it’s an operational threat.

The Silicon Valley crowd now face a pincer movement — from outraged feminists on one side and the Trump crowd on the other. Couldn’t happen to nicer people.