Posts Tagged 'hillary clinton'

The media vs. the populists.

In June I published a long essay inspired by the memoirs of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957-63.

It’s kind of rambling and haphazard and I wouldn’t say it has a thesis, exactly. But to my mind its various digressions share a common theme, which is how in many ways Diefenbaker presaged modern populist conservatives like Trump, FarageLe Pen, Salvini, Orban, etc. – not in his policies, which were particular to mid-century Canada, nor in his rhetoric, which was pompous and long-winded by modern standards, but in the intense allergic reaction he provoked in the establishment, especially the media.

For those unfamiliar with Diefenbaker’s career (and not quite up to tackling my 6,000-word essay): in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives edged out a Liberal government that had been in power seemingly forever; the following year he won what was up to then Canada’s largest ever parliamentary majority; and in 1963, fatally wounded by a mutinous cabinet, a hostile media, and an opposition Liberal Party openly in cahoots with the U.S. administration of John F. Kennedy, he was defeated.

He made many unforced errors during his six years in office, and his bristly, paranoid personality alienated many allies. But the specific issue that led to his downfall was his resistance to accepting American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missile system his government had over-hastily purchased a few years earlier to contribute to continental defence against Soviet bombers.

Diefenbaker seems initially to have been happy to take the nukes, subject to negotiations to ensure that Ottawa would have a meaningful say if it ever came to launching them. He dragged his feet for a few years, attempting to reconcile his cabinet’s hawks and doves, but was finally won over to his foreign minister’s position: that there was no formula for hosting U.S. nukes that would preserve Canada’s military sovereignty, that a nuclear-armed Canada would lose the moral authority to argue for disarmament, and that the Bomarcs were pretty much useless anyway, with or without nukes.

I’m neutral on the nuclear issue. I can see how Diefenbaker might have accepted the need to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty in order to preserve a strong NATO front against the Soviets. I can also see how nuking up might have seemed to him a provocation more likely to lead to war than to deter it.

But as a Generation Xer who has spent his whole life steeped in a media culture that portrayed the arms race as little better than a case of collective hysteria, and the pro-nuclear side as a mob of sinister psychopaths and spittle-spraying buffoons, I was surprised by the consistently negative spin mid-’60s journalists put on Diefenbaker’s anti-nuke stance. They called it incoherent, divisive, anti-American, and most of all, the word that shows up again and again in nearly every account of the Diefenbaker years, indecisive.

(Then they praised Liberal leader and secular saint Lester B. Pearson for, uh…decisively repudiating his previously held position, and announcing that he would take the nukes Dief had refused.)

It’s not searchable on Google Books and I’m too lazy to confirm by re-reading the whole thing, but I’d guess that the words indecision and indecisive appear on every fifth or sixth page of Peter C. Newman’s bestselling critical account of the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power; and that if I threw in synonyms and near-synonyms like hesitate, prevaricate, waffle, etc., I’d find a reference to Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness on every other page.

Indecision was to the Diefenbaker years what chaos has been to the Trump years – the lens through which journalists observe their subject, bringing certain events and narratives into focus while reducing others to an irrelevant background blur.

Take this editorial by John Ivison in the National Post back in June, in which President Trump’s reluctance to blame the Iranian leadership for an attack on oil shipping in the Persian Gulf was cast as an instance of Trumpian chaos:

Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.

While there are any number of U.S. actions in recent years to which the description “permanent destabilization” might reasonably apply, surely declining to launch missiles at Iran isn’t one of them. But when evaluating Trump, Ivison’s instruments of punditry are permanently set to “chaos”, so that’s all he’s capable of seeing.

***

Speaking of Ivison, I chuckled at his quixotic attempt a couple weeks ago to paint Canada’s relentlessly progressive prime minister as a populist:

[T]here are few more capable exponents of populist techniques than Justin Trudeau. He is clearly not an authoritarian right-wing demagogue, playing on the insecurities created by cultural competition that have left many voters feeling estranged from the predominant values in their own country.

But even if his causes are more cosmopolitan – globalism, diversity, women’s empowerment – they are similarly tribal and, at times, equally disdainful of divergence from their orthodoxy.

Trudeau and his team have been adept at using polarizing rhetoric, symbolism and identity issues, even while accusing his opponents of adopting “the politics of division.”

What is a populist, anyway? In his memoirs Diefenbaker recalled challenging a Conservative Party bigwig who’d dismissed him as a “western populist” to explain what he meant by the phrase:

He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Diefenbaker’s “western populist” government relaxed immigration rules, expanded social welfare programs, made liberal reforms to the criminal justice system, and took modest steps to make government more accessible to linguistic and ethnic minorities. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that Diefenbaker refused to go along with the agenda of a glamorous Democratic president who was beloved by the media. Therefore he could be dismissed as an uncultured bigmouth from the sticks.

(I suspect that if Diefenbaker had stayed in office long enough to quarrel with the unloved Lyndon Johnson, he’d have a much better reputation today.)

Nowadays, the populist agenda includes restricting immigration, using targeted tariffs to protect blue-collar jobs, and bringing the troops back home. These are currently associated with Donald Trump and the American right, but until a few years ago the latter two causes were largely the province of the left.

(Through the Bill Clinton era, the left also harboured a significant anti-immigration constituency; Bernie Sanders was playing to this vanished audience as recently as 2015.)

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump; her agenda was, arguably, more popular than his. And yet it was Trump, and not Clinton, who was labelled a populist. Clearly this had less to do with Trump’s popularity than with his unpopularity among those with the power to label him.

As Diefenbaker put it, populism encompasses all those things the influential people disapprove of. Or to be more precise, it’s whatever is currently popular among ordinary folks and unpopular among the elite.

***

At the local level, populism often entails citizens rebelling against plans imposed by a remote and unresponsive city hall – plans like paving over beloved green spaces, plunking social housing in sleepy suburbs, and rezoning low-density neighbourhoods to permit apartment blocks. Such rebellions also tend to jumble left-right ideological alignments.

Think of the writer Jane Jacobs, who rose to local fame organizing the opposition to a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. As described by Alex Mazer in The Walrus,

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts – be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors – and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks.

The urban model Jacobs advocated – bustling, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use streets like those of her beloved (1960s-era) Greenwich Village – is now generally associated with the progressive left, and opposed by the kind of populists who rail against bike lanes and gas taxes. And yet her most famous book, 1960’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a paean to small businesses and bottom-up organization.

Nowadays she’s as likely to be lauded in right-wing publications like The American Conservative and City Journal as in left-wing ones like Salon and Slate; if anything, she gets rougher handling on the left, where the woke vanguard kvetches that she was white and out-of-touch.

Death and Life lambastes the practices of her era’s urban planners, under whose guidance cities were diligently bulldozing poor but functioning “slums” and replacing them with brand-new public housing projects that quickly became cesspits of crime and decay.

They pursued these ruinous policies in the name of an academic fad Jacobs mocks as “radiant garden cities”, combining aspects of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow into a glossy vision of urban life with all its noise and disorder banished to the margins.

The trouble was that in the real world, banishing noise and disorder also entailed banishing street life and economic diversity, creating at best well-manicured dead zones, and at worst unfenced reservations for street punks to roam.

While some of Jacobs’ modern fans would like to believe that her foes were villains “oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning”, she’s clear in Death and Life that the “radiant garden city” vision was pursued by intelligent men with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose neighbourhoods they were wrecking. Jacobs compares them to an earlier movement of self-confident blunderers:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by which rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, Jacobs goes on, the practice of bloodletting was “tempered with a certain amount of common sense”, until in the United States it was pushed to new levels of recklessness by the brilliant and revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, under whose instruction the technique was applied “in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use”:

He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians.

And yet, as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling “the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

Jacobs doesn’t mention that Dr. Turner’s opposition to bloodletting derived from his adherence to a then-trendy form of alternative medicine known as the “chrono-thermal system”, brainchild of the Scottish doctor Samuel Dickson.

Dr. Turner wrote the introduction to the American edition of Dickson’s jeremiad The Principles of the Chrono-thermal System of Medicine, which had been ridiculed in the British and Foreign Medical Review:

The plain truth is, as every one must see, the whole book is a farrago of nonsense; a hash of a few old truths and many fantastic speculations, made piquant by the most amusing self-laudation on the part of its author, and the most extravagant abuse of his professional brethren and imagined rivals.

I’m no doctor, but from what I can glean of his system, Dickson was indeed some kind of crank. However, if you submitted to his treatment, the worst that was likely to happen was he failed to cure you; whereas a doctor who stuck to the conventional wisdom as represented by the British and Foreign Medical Review might very well open your vein and kill you.

The 1960s urban planning consensus has held out a little better than the 1850s medical consensus. While doctors rarely bleed their patients these days, planners continue to blight cities with roads that hinder the movement of pedestrians while doing little to improve the movement of cars. Still, Jacobs’ critique has been so successful that it no longer qualifies as populist: it has been absorbed into the establishment against whom the anti-density, pro-freeway rabble hoist their pitchforks.

I won’t make a fool of myself by attempting to predict which wacky idea currently disdained by the academy, the media, and most of the people reading this essay will in a half-century be seen as so obvious that only fools and villains could ever have opposed it. Today’s populism will become tomorrow’s establishment, and a new populism will burble up to be snickered at and hand-wrung over.

M.

Provocation, martyrdom, and Muhammad.

I’d planned to wrap up my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series by New Year’s, but I prolonged it so I could publish this old essay in time for the fourth anniversary of the event it was written to commemorate: January 2015’s Charlie Hebdo massacre.

In 1994 my teenage punk rock band performed a song called “Pee on Jesus” at a battle of the bands at our high school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

As a co-writer of the song I can attest that it had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation. The first verse began,

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

This was one in an escalating series of futile attempts to achieve some kind of high school martyrdom, all of them thwarted by the indifference of the authorities and my fellow students. True, halfway through our song, the vice-principal jumped from his seat and hustled backstage with the intention of unplugging the speakers. But the song was only a minute and a half long, and ended before he could censor us. Afterward our singer was given a mild lecture. Nothing at all happened to the rest of us. The singer went on to be elected senior class valedictorian.

I think of “Pee on Jesus” whenever someone gets killed or threatened with death over some supposedly insulting depiction of Muhammad or the Muslim religion. A few years back, during the flap over the Danish cartoons, it occurred to me that I ought to put up some Muhammad cartoons of my own, out of solidarity with the persecuted cartoonists. I didn’t, because first off, I couldn’t think of anything witty to say. Also, as you’ll see, I can’t draw. I’m the last person who should be making cartoons for any reason.

Secondly, I was hindered by a residual sense of white guilt. Who am I to be taking a dump on Islam? I don’t really know what it’s all about. My familiarity with Muhammad is limited to a couple brief biographical sketches in western history books. Based on those sketches, and compared with what I know about founders of other world religions, Muhammad has never struck me as an especially admirable guy. I don’t know much about Jesus either, or Buddha, but their reputations aren’t burdened with stories of child brides, assassinations, and mass executions. But some of the stories in the Old Testament are pretty bloodthirsty, too, and I don’t hold those against modern Christians or Jews. Who knows, maybe Jesus would’ve taken a bunch of wives and slaughtered a bunch of people if he hadn’t gotten himself killed so early in his messianic career.

Anyhow, it struck me as kind of gratuitous, drawing a Muhammad cartoon I didn’t really care about, merely to spite some zealots I was unlikely ever to interact with. Prior to the Danish cartoon controversy I don’t recall feeling the slightest interest in drawing Muhammad. In a more peaceful world I might go my whole life without the temptation once arising. If Islamist violence stopped today, as I hope and believe it someday shall, I would return within weeks to my default state of not giving a hoot one way or another about Muhammad, and thinking about Islam maybe once or twice a year, if at all.

So I can understand, in the wake of atrocities like the murder of the editor and much of the staff of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, why western political leaders would prefer if we’d all just please stop saying provocative things about Islam. If you and I could refrain from making inappropriate Muhammad jokes, the logic goes, maybe the more humourless Muslims would lose their enthusiasm for sawing our heads off, and after a few decapitation-free years we’d forget about Muhammad and go back to making inappropriate jokes about rape and the Holocaust like we used to, and the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation would finally be broken.

I don’t know, though. What keeps striking me is how not-terribly-provocative most of our side’s supposed provocations are. Take a look at those Danish cartoons again. Only five or six of the dozen could even be considered critical of Islam, and pretty mildly, at that. Or rewatch that hilariously incompetent YouTube trailer that was blamed for the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Hillary Clinton called that trailer “disgusting and reprehensible”. Is it really? I mean, as the co-writer of “Pee on Jesus” and half a dozen other punk rock songs whose titles I am literally too embarrassed to reproduce here, I know a thing or two about disgusting. I think I could come up with some disgusting things to have Muhammad do in a cartoon. Nasty, blasphemous, deviant, scatological things. I’m imagining some pretty hair-raising cartoons right now. You’ll have to take my word for it.

But it’s not just those disgusting imaginary cartoons that the guardians of sanctity would like me not to draw. It’s stuff like Muhammad petting a kitty cat:

kitty cat

…Or licking an ice cream cone:

ice cream cone

…Or receiving word that he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize:

nobel prize

That’s how easy it is to be edgy nowadays.

***

After scratching out the above masterpieces I checked out Peter Hitchens’s blog to find out how he would tweak our liberal pieties about the Paris massacre. He didn’t disappoint, reminding readers that the free-speech heroes of Charlie Hebdo were quite willing to enlist the power of the state to muzzle those whose opinions they found offensive:

The French Leftist newspaper Libération reported on September 12, 1996, that three stalwarts of Charlie Hebdo (including Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier) had campaigned in their magazine to collect more than 170,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ban on the French National Front party [the right-wing, anti-immigration party of Jean-Marie Le Pen]. They did this in the name of the ‘Rights of Man’.

In his Radio Derb podcast this weekend John Derbyshire mentioned an incident a few years back where a gang of leftist protesters assaulted some white nationalists who were meeting in a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Maybe I’d have heard of this event if the victims had died, instead of merely being hospitalized, but I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been much in the way of “I am a white nationalist” social media sloganeering afterward. Derbyshire’s point is that our culture has taboos too, and we’re willing to look the other way when our own hotheads act up, including in violent ways, in defense of those taboos.

In light of that, is it hypocritical of me to belatedly clamber onto the Muhammad cartoon bandwagon? While acknowledging it was brave of Charlie Hebdo to provoke Muslims as it did, Hitchens asks:

And what was the purpose of this bravery? What cause, anywhere in the world, was advanced by it?

It’s a question that deserves answering. I don’t claim any allegiance to, or knowledge of, whatever idiosyncratic and contradictory cause the Charlie Hebdo artists thought they were pursuing. Let alone a share of their undoubted bravery. My own cause is merely that a kid in Mogadishu or Damascus or Peshawar or Prince Albert ought to be able to get up onstage at his high school battle of the bands and sing “Pee on Muhammad”, or something equally stupid, and nothing gets burned, and no-one gets killed. I honestly don’t know if drawing Muhammad is helpful to that cause. But our current strategy, repressing and censoring ourselves in deference to Islamic sensibilities, doesn’t appear to be yielding great results either. I think we should try the alternative: free expression and open debate.

M.

April 2018’s Toronto van attack made me reflect on how my teenage surliness might have taken a dark turn in the internet age; also last year I tried to take an empirical approach to Hollywood’s purported stereotyping of Muslims; and in 2017, re-reading Kurt Vonnegut prompted some thoughts on the blurry line between principled free expression and just being an a-hole.

Owning (some) blame.

Saturday night here in Vancouver I went to a screening of the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with live electro-hypnotic-avant-garde accompaniment by the Oliver-Film Ensemble, conducted by Mark Oliver, a grandson of one of the film’s producers. It was excellent. I encourage you, if the Ensemble ever brings its act to your neighbourhood arthouse, to check it out.

Oliver introduced Caligari as the story of a sideshow barker who hypnotizes people to perform wicked acts against their will. He proposed that it remains eerily relevant today – particularly, he added, in light of the events of the past week. It was an overwhelmingly lefty-artistic crowd so he didn’t need to stage-whisper Caligari is Donald Trump for us to get his drift.

At the risk of spoiling the ending of a film that’s closing in on its hundredth birthday, Oliver’s synopsis was a little incomplete. In the final moments we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum, and that the nightmarish tale he’s just finished telling us is a delusion into which he’s woven his fellow patients and the hospital staff, with the head doctor in the role of the sinister puppetmaster Caligari. [1]

I can’t have been the only one thinking, as Mark Oliver returned to the podium for the post-show Q&A, Hang on, doesn’t that ending kind of invert the moral of your Trump analogy? But I wasn’t about to risk the crowd’s wrath by suggesting a different parallel between Caligari and our anxious post-election mood – the possibility that progressives have been kicking and spitting at an enemy partly of their own invention.

***

There’s been a lot of encouragingly thoughtful talk since last Tuesday about media bubbles, epistemic closure, ideological silos…I went with “cocoons” in my last post so I’ll stick with that.

We’re all in cocoons. Some of our cocoons are tight and cozy, while others are roomy enough to permit a degree of shouting back and forth. But all of them muffle and distort outside voices.

We couldn’t stay sane uncocooned. The amount of data in the world is overwhelming. State elections in India, minor disasters in Africa, run-of-the-mill atrocities just one town over – our cocoons filter out all this useless information. We’re aware, dimly, that the five or ten or twenty stories being talked about inside the cocoon are only a tiny sample of all the events that have occurred outside in the last few weeks. But we believe they’re a meaningful sample.

When we run into those weirdos from the next cocoon over, it’s hard to get a conversation going. Inside our cocoon we all share the same basic beliefs, so we can compress a lot into a few words. You and I know what we mean by justice. We don’t have to trace the philosophical threads all the way back to Plato. When we talk to outsiders all our certainties are set adrift. Justice? Diversity? Progress? You can spend all night trying to figure out where your definitions diverged, before you can even begin to argue about how those concepts apply to the latest celebrity tweet crisis.

It’s less stressful to simply avoid awkward conversations with outsiders. And they’re easy to avoid these days, when you can build an ever more exclusive cocoon with far-flung people you meet on the internet. Our cocoons are getting ever cozier, their walls ever thicker. With a little effort, we need never go anywhere there’s a chance of having to converse with someone who doesn’t share our beliefs.

But we still have to share our countries with them. And when they win elections, and threaten to impose policies we think are deranged because we’ve never heard them objectively let alone sympathetically described – it’s terrifying.

***

You sometimes hear progressives arguing that speech isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. They say conservatives shouldn’t go around making reckless and dishonest claims and then yelling “Freedom of speech!” when they’re challenged.

I agree one shouldn’t make reckless and dishonest claims. But if everyone agreed on the definition of recklessness and dishonesty there would be no need for speech protections. Person A thinks it’s irresponsible to talk about illegal immigrant rapists and drug dealers; Person B thinks it’s irresponsible to euphemize illegal immigrants as “undocumented citizens”. Okay, each side started out thinking the other was wrong, and all we’ve added with this irrelevant talk of “responsibility” is that each side can now accuse the other of being illegitimate, not even worth listening to. The slim chance of mutual understanding, therefore of intelligent argument, has been made even slimmer.

However, maybe there’s another responsibility that free speech entails – the responsibility to try, wherever possible, to increase understanding. And it occurs to me that, during the just-ended U.S. election, those of us in the broad middle-of-the-road – those of us whose cocoons overlapped supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – shirked that responsibility.

Take my own case. Along with a plurality of anti-Trump opinions ranging from the right to the centre-left, my cocoon takes in a handful of pro-Trump voices of the centre (Mickey Kaus, Scott Adams) and the right (Mark Steyn, Steve Sailer). Which means that I’ve seen some of the more simplistic anti-Trump narratives challenged. And I’ve been exposed to some anti-Clinton narratives that my left-cocooned friends have been shielded from. But most importantly, I got a more accurate picture of what Trump support looked like than most of my friends, who could dismiss it as a remote upwelling of inarticulate white male resentment unlikely to be present in any intelligent lifeform they’d encounter. I learned more about the mood of America from occasionally skimming the comments on Sailer’s blog than I ever did from reading the National Post‘s editorial page – but, primed by the media to regard those commenters as uncouth barbarians who’d soon be slouching back to their wattle-and-daub huts beyond the Rhine, I gave their observations less weight than they deserved.

So I kept my mouth shut even when I heard my progressive friends denounce Trump and his base in ways that struck me as, in either sense of the word, unbalanced. I figured, Ah, what does it matter – he’s gonna lose anyway – why make stress by arguing.

My influence is infinitesimal. I never had the power to sway a single vote. I’m not even American. But there must have been millions of Americans – undecideds and independents and miscellaneouses like me – who felt there was something off about the media’s election coverage, who found themselves questioning the non-stop Madman Trump narrative, and who chose to remain aloof. In retrospect, that was irresponsible of us. In the role of neutral envoys we might have insinuated a few Trump-sympathetic messages into our progressive friends’ awareness, helping to disabuse them of the smug belief that their cocoon encompassed all thinking people. Which might have forced their candidate to come up with a more compelling argument than “Fall in line, losers”.

M.

1. Apparently Caligari’s writers protested the insertion of the framing story, which they felt negated the film’s anti-authoritarian message. They had a point – but without that last-minute twist, their one-note plot would scarcely have held filmgoers’ attention for ninety-odd years.

In a post last year I discussed Bertrand Russell’s and G.K. Chesterton’s constrasting takes on ideological cocooning.

Last-minute Trump risk calculations.

To quote the scuttled first draft of what was meant to be my election-eve blog post:

While I’m generally pro-trade and pro-immigration, I’m in partial agreement with Donald Trump on this, at least: to tolerate uncontrolled low-skilled immigration into your country, while simultaneously signing trade deals with low-wage countries that will accelerate the departure of low-skilled jobs, is self-evidently self-sabotaging. One or the other, maybe. Not both.

This was to be the beginning of my argument that, in spite of all the sound and oft-aired reasons not to vote Trump, it was defensible for an American (which I’m not) concerned about the disappearance of well-paid manual-labour jobs (which I am) to consider voting Trump anyway. But I abandoned it because A) I was afraid it would make my progressive friends mad at me, and B) I discovered that Mickey Kaus had already said pretty much exactly what I wanted to say (but better) in his election-eve blog post:

Trump opens up a different path, where we are willing to give up a few points of GDP – slowing trade, controlling the influx of eager new workers – in order to have the kind of society we want, where communities are displaced more slowly and “we are equal in the eyes of each other.” We could still let in plenty of newcomers, of course. But we would democratically choose to do so.

Add to this Trump’s seeming intention to protect entitlements from Ryanesque plans that subject them to market-like uncertainty, and his resistance to regime-changing military adventures, and you’ve beneficially transformed the Republican party along four major axes.

Kaus is a Democrat, a centrist ex-Slate blogger, who in 2010 ran a no-hope primary campaign for California senator Barbara Boxer’s seat. (He got 5%.) His number one issue – the issue he’s been banging on about for a decade or more – is enforcement-first immigration reform. He argues that until the inflow of new illegal immigrants is stopped, granting amnesty to existing illegals is irresponsible, as it will only incentivize future millions to enter the U.S. in hopes of qualifying for the inevitable next amnesty, a couple decades down the road. (The previous amnesty, remember, was in 1986, ten or twelve million illegals ago.) Only once numbers are stabilized should Americans move on to deciding whether and how to grant permanent status to those already in the country.

It would be a stretch to try and smear Kaus as a racist or demagogue. Even if you disagree with him, you can’t say that his manner is aggressive or that his rhetoric is extreme. He builds his case around the traditional left-wing theme of egalitarianism – that while illegal immigration increases the supply and thus undercuts the price of unskilled labour, driving down wages for Americans who work with their hands, those who work with their brains are becoming ever richer, losing all connection and sense of social obligation to their unluckier fellow citizens.

One predictable outcome of this separation is that figures like Trump will arise to channel the inarticulate anger of the unlucky. Those who are comfortable under current arrangements dismiss the plebs’ champion as a crude buffoon – fairly enough, in this case – but their offered alternative, the globetrotting, Hollywood-hobnobbing, million-dollar-speechgiving wife of an ex-president, seems to have been consciously designed as a living totem of everything her foes are resentful about. Her only memorable comment of the entire campaign was to dismiss those foes – well, half of them – as a “basket of deplorables”.

Anyway, after a decade hammering away at his enforcement-first message – reasonably, sanely, non-scarily – Kaus has gotten nowhere. It’s forgivable for him to conclude that Trump, an ugly and overloaded vehicle, is the only ride into town.

***

I won’t try and predict which way the vote will go. Trump thinks he’s in good shape because polls don’t capture his true strength. A lot of his supporters, he claims, are “shy” – embarrassed to admit, even anonymously to pollsters, that they’re thinking of voting for him.

I think this is a real phenomenon. Why? Well, look at me: I’m reluctant even to publish this non-pro but not-exactly-anti-Trump post. I find myself compelled to throw in phrases like “crude buffoon” and to include the caveat that I expect Trump, as president, would be a disaster. Which is truthful, but when I say “disaster” I’m thinking in recent-historical terms: he could be a George W. Bush-scale disaster, a Lyndon Johnson-scale disaster, maybe even a Richard Nixon-scale disaster. But a lot of people – serious, intelligent, non-crazy people, including some who are good friends of mine – believe Trump will destroy one or both of A) American democracy, and B) the world.

Normally I’d write that off as election-season hyperbole, but I think they’re sincere. Which might explain why so many middle-of-the-road voters – non-pro-but-not-exactly-antis like me – proved immune to the yearlong eruption of scandal that inescapably infected our Facebook feeds with the tangerine hue of Trumpish scowls. Because, look: if you believed it was the only thing preventing The Next Hitler from coming to power, you’d go on TV and say The Next Hitler had grabbed your pussy. Wouldn’t you? If you believed this wasn’t just a race between two deeply flawed but basically well-meaning candidates, but in fact a struggle for the survival of liberty, of the United States of America, of humanity itself – what skulduggery would you refuse to stoop to?

Can you blame pro-Trumpers, then, for suspecting that anti-Trumpers would do anything to take him down? When you hear liberals’ dark prophecies of vengeful white mobs descending on innocent Mexicans, of Commandante Trump teaming up with Vladimir Putin to drop atom bombs on Aleppo, of David Duke and Pepe the Frog roaming the West Wing arm-in-arm – if they sincerely fear these things, all preventative measures must be on the table. Mustn’t they?

Paranoia is infectious.

***

This seems like the place to mention Scott Alexander’s anti-Trump piece, by far the most clear-eyed I’ve come across. His argument is that Trump is the high-variance candidate. We know what to expect from Hillary Clinton: roughly the same stuff we’ve gotten from Obama – the measured expansion of the nanny state – with an uptick in petty corruption of the email-deletion variety, maybe a sex scandal or two courtesy of the First Gentleman. Nothing to get excited for, but nothing to be terribly scared of either.

Whereas with Trump, the likeliest outcome is four years of incompetent flailing enlivened by the occasional entertaining temper tantrum – but, there’s a non-negligible risk of him doing something really stupid and destroying, if not the world, then at least the American economy.

Is he that reckless? Who knows. He seems to have been a quite successful real estate developer, which I assume requires a great deal of skill – but he’s had an entire lifetime to learn that skill. Whereas he would have to pick up the knack of being president in just a couple months. Judging by his rambling stump speeches and debate appearances, he doesn’t appear to have much – or really any discernible – grasp of policy. But then, he’s not concentrating on being the president right now, he’s concentrating on running for president. And he’s doing pretty well at it, despite having had his chances written off over and over by the know-it-alls in the media. So it’s possible to hope that, safely elected, he might buckle down and figure out how to be successful at the presidency the same way he’s been successful in business – presumably, by setting broad policy goals and delegating the details to capable minions.

I’m not expecting this to happen. However if, per Scott Alexander, Trump is the high-variance candidate, his range of potential presidential outcomes would encompass not just world-destruction but also the possibility of surprising competence. Or, to put it another way, if it’s not crazy for his opponents to fear that Trump will destroy the world, neither is it crazy for his supporters to hope he’ll do a decent job.

Just a few more hours for pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers to indulge their hopes and fears. Tonight, very probably, Hillary Clinton will eke out her long-predicted victory and restore us to boring, comfortable stasis.

***

Later in his election-eve post, Kaus tries to calculate whether, given his plentiful reservations, it’s still justifiable to vote Trump. He concludes that since he lives in California – whose 55 electoral votes are guaranteed to go to Clinton regardless – he can risk a Trump vote to send a message to future, less-hysteria-inducing candidates that a firmer stance on illegal immigration can find support even in an immigrant-heavy state.

Of course – and Kaus doesn’t mention this – if Trump wins, he could misinterpret the message as “I’m 100% behind you, Donald! Follow your most reckless instincts!” That’s the problem with trying to send a message via ballot. The nuances tend to get lost.

I don’t think I could vote Trump, even as a throwaway protest in a safe state. My preference is for the narrowest possible Clinton victory both in the popular vote and the electoral college, with the Senate and House staying in Republican hands to constrain her. Right now this seems like the likeliest outcome anyway, so rather than dirty my hands with a Trump vote that I’d probably regret if he actually won, I’d vote Libertarian, or spoil my ballot. If I lived in a competitive state the calculation would be different. But luckily I’m Canadian, so it doesn’t really matter. Don’t worry, Democrats, there’s little chance of me moving to the States anytime soon.

M.

Um, has anyone noticed this Muhammad video is hilarious?

The sadly unsurprising lunacy on display in the Middle East over the last couple days has cast a morbid shadow over the online artifact that supposedly triggered it all, Muhammad Movie Trailer.

That’s too bad, because if the video hadn’t gone viral in the course of triggering demonstrations, riots, and maybe the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, it deserves to go viral for being hilarious.

Muhammad Movie Trailer supposedly shows highlights from a feature film called Innocence of Muslims, which presents a silly and sensationalized account of Muhammad’s rise to power.

Germany’s Foreign Minister calls the trailer “unspeakable”. Hillary Clinton says it’s “disgusting and reprehensible”. Bloggers and journalists are examining it with the same solemn rigour they’d apply to documentary footage smuggled out of a war zone. I guess that’s their job; the trailer is news now, and it’s associated with some very grim events. But all this fake seriousness is counterproductive, because it reinforces the idea widespread in the Muslim world that the movie is something not to be giggled over.

But how can you not giggle? The makeup, the costumes, the special effects, the acting, and especially the script attain such heights of unbelievable badness, I’m half-expecting a sheepish announcement that the whole thing was actually the work of some alternative comedy troupe. In a more sensible world, we’d all be celebrating the emergence of a classic of found comedy – the Birdemic of religious satire.

I like to think Muslims would acknowledge its ridiculousness, too, if they simply allowed themselves to watch the stupid thing. Maybe once everyone over there is done breaking stuff – or rather, once they resume their customary posture of readiness-to-break-stuff-on-a-moment’s-notice – they’ll put aside their piety for a few minutes and we can all join together in mocking some of the most incompetent filmmaking ever seen.

But I’m not holding my breath.

***

It’s possible the trailer’s incompetence will actually make it more effective as anti-Islamic propaganda. I clicked to it out of curiosity, planning to watch just enough to get the gist, not expecting to actually sit through the entire 14-minute clip. But it was funny enough to hold my attention to the end.

Afterwards, curious to see how much this silliness really owed to the historical tradition, I flipped open my copy of H.G. Wells’ Outline Of History to the chapter on the life of Muhammad, and read the following:

Near Medina was a castle of Jews, against whom Muhammad was already incensed because of their disrespect for his theology. … Muhammad now fell upon them, slew all the men, nine hundred of them, and enslaved the women and children.

Nor was his domestic life … one of exceptional edification. Until the death of [his first wife] Kadija, when he was fifty, he seems to have been the honest husband of one wife, but then, as many men do in their declining years, he developed a disagreeably strong interest in women.

This led to much trouble and confusion, and in spite of many special and very helpful revelations on the part of Allah, these complications still require much explanation and argument from the faithful.

One of his wives was a Jewess, Safiyya, whom he had married on the evening of the battle in which her husband had been captured and executed. He viewed the captured women at the end of the day, and she found favour in his eyes and was taken to his tent.

These are salient facts in these last eleven years of Muhammad’s career. Because he, too, founded a great religion, there are those who write of this evidently lustful and rather shifty leader as though he were a man to put beside Jesus of Nazareth or Gautama, or Mani. But it is surely manifest that he was a being of commoner clay …

This critique, which sticks to the acknowledged facts of the prophet’s life, is a lot more damaging than Muhammad Movie Trailer, with its bedroom antics and goat innuendos. Wells goes on to say that in spite of all the above, Islam is in his view a pretty good religion, one which

created a society more free from widespread cruelty and social oppression than any society had ever been in the world before.

One of the precepts of Islam in its currently ascendant fundamentalist form is that, in order to prevent idolatry, the human form must never be depicted. This taboo is particularly acute in the case of Muhammad, who was not a god or supernatural being, Muslims emphasize, but only a man. The antique term “Mahomedans” they reject because it implies they worship Muhammad.

But the violent obsession with defending Muhammad’s honour, on display yet again these last few days, is more idolatrous than merely setting up a shrine could ever be. It’s possible, in fact it’s essential, to separate Muhammad, the sometimes horny, sometimes vengeful human being, from Islam, the faith that he created. That faith ought to be strong enough for its adherents to shrug off petty insults to their prophet. Sometimes I suspect these dauntless defenders of Islam of being mere Mahomedans after all.

M.

In March 2005 I wrote a lengthier post on Wells’ Outline of History.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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