Politics, Religion

The Arlington Road Election (One Year Later)

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In September 2016, a pseudonymous writer attempted to offer an intellectual justification for the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He titled his article “The Flight 93 Election,” and argued that the consequences of a Hillary Clinton presidency were guaranteed to be so dire, it was reasonable for America to take its chances with Trump. Just as it made sense for the passengers of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to risk their lives charging the cockpit rather than face certain death by doing nothing, the author suggested that it made sense for America to gamble on Trump rather than face certain annihilation by electing Hillary Clinton.

The author of the piece, Michael Anton, is now a national security staffer in the Trump administration. I won’t bother engaging here with the substance of the article, including its fascistic sympathies, anti-Islamic bigotry and failure to take seriously the risks to America and the world of electing a mentally and emotionally unwell, demonstrably incompetent, unapologetically corrupt, serial sexually abusing, racist and nativist demagogue with a loyalty to Vladimir Putin and no respect for the U.S. Constitution or the rule of law.

My purpose here is, instead, to suggest an alternative metaphor for the 2016 presidential election, and for the decision of most conservative Republicans, with a few brave and principled exceptions, ultimately to support Trump.

One year after November 8, 2016, it is clearer than ever that the Trump-Clinton contest was not the Flight 93 Election. It was the Arlington Road Election.

In the 1999 film Arlington Road, Jeff Bridges plays a widower and college professor who suspects that his neighbors, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, are secretly plotting an act of terrorism against the United States. Bridges’ wife died in the line of duty while working for the FBI, and he brings his concerns about his neighbors to the Bureau. But the FBI dismisses him as paranoid. Meanwhile, Bridges continues to accumulate evidence of his neighbors’ sinister plot to attack the federal government.

In the movie’s climactic sequence — SPOILER ALERT! — Bridges follows a delivery van that he believes contains his neighbors’ bomb. The van enters the basement of FBI headquarters. In an attempt to prevent what he believes to be an imminent attack, Bridges forces his vehicle past a security checkpoint and alerts the authorities. Too late, he discovers that the delivery van is empty. He returns to his own vehicle and finds that the terrorists have placed the bomb in his trunk. It detonates.

It was only because of his desperate attempt to prevent the attack that the attack took place.

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

Free Photo: Constructing the Manhattan Bridge

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Economics, Politics, Religion

Constitutional Rot: A Thought Experiment

Free Photo: Dead Casualties, Russo-Japanese War

As more than three in four Republicans continue to support our dangerously unfit president, despite the daily accumulation of evidence that his unprecedented mental and emotional unwellness and incompetence threaten the security of our country, I find myself wondering: how much further can our democracy decline before it collapses? How much more steady constitutional rot can we sustain before there is a true constitutional crisis?

The greatest threat to the future of American democracy, I continue to believe, is the risk that there will be an attack on the United States or other mass-casualty catastrophe, such as an epidemic or cyberattack on critical infrastructure, during the Trump presidency. Whether or not Trump bears responsibility for the catastrophe, through his unfathomable incompetence or otherwise, it seems virtually inevitable that he will respond, as he characteristically does, by blaming his usual enemies—the press, the courts, immigrants, Muslims, and opposition political forces that may now include not only Democrats, women, and scientists, but apparently the FBI and the American intelligence community.

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Economics, Law, Politics, Religion

This Has Never Happened Before

Free Photo: Arica After 1868 Earthquake

Soon, a corrupt, emotionally unstable demagogue and white nationalist fellow-traveler will be inaugurated as President of the United States. He will be supported by a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and, soon, the return of a Republican majority on the Supreme Court. He will also have the passionate, unwavering loyalty of a mass following that believes even his most outlandish lies.

Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency poses the greatest threat to our country of any event in my lifetime. In a future post, I hope to collect in one place what seem to me the best proposals for protecting the United States by opposing and resisting the Trump presidency on every front.

In this post, I would like to consider the stakes of the coming months and years.

The dangers of this presidency have no precedent in modern American history. Since the United States became a global military power, not to mention a nuclear power, no President has been remotely as emotionally unstable, unqualified, hostile to democracy, or allied with enemies of the United States as Donald Trump.

I will offer only one example, focusing on the last point. Our incoming President has openly taken the side, against citizens of the United States, of a hostile foreign power that attacked them. Donald Trump has openly and unapologetically sided with an enemy of the United States against the American victims of the enemy’s attack.

Nothing like this has ever happened before, to my knowledge, in American history.

It is now known that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed attacks on American computer servers and released emails stolen from Americans in an attempt to increase Trump’s chances of being elected. The incoming President has long been pro-Putin—most likely a result of his longstanding, repeatedly announced admiration for authoritarian tyrants, his many business dealings with Russian oligarchs, his susceptibility to cheap flattery, his sympathy for Putin’s anti-Islamic ethnic nationalism, and his unwitting reliance on Russian-funded news media and advisers in the pay of the Kremlin.

Instead of condemning Russia’s violations of the rights of fellow Americans, the incoming President defends Putin. Trump is openly and unapologetically on the side of a foreign enemy that attacked Americans.

Day after day, month after month, year after year, Trump continues to defend this petty tyrant and butcher who promotes ethnic hatred around the world, who has had journalists and political opponents jailed and killed, who has stolen billions of dollars from his people, who is responsible for mass atrocities in Syria and elsewhere, and who recently invaded and occupied a sovereign European state. Putin is not only an enemy of the United States. He is an enemy of the human race.

This is the man that Donald Trump, our incoming President, has praised and continues to praise. An attacker on the United States. A foreign enemy.

Our incoming President supports the butcher Putin, praises him, and defends his illegal interference in our elections and his crimes against our fellow citizens. Our incoming President’s party remains largely silent in response to this unprecedented betrayal of the United States.

This has never happened before. What will happen next?

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

Free Photo: Posing Lumberjacks

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

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Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Is Ecology to Environmental Studies as Rational Choice is to Economics?

Free Photo: Homeless Family Walking US 99

I’ve been working on some poems about the environment lately, and as part of that project I’ve been getting my first exposure to environmental studies and some related fields like ecocriticism. Previously, my exposure to environmental writing was mostly through popular journalism and history by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert and Jared Diamond.

I have to say that what I’ve encountered of environmental studies so far has been a little troubling. The issue is summed up in the title of this post: does the theory of “ecology” dominate environmental studies in the same way that the theory of “rational choice” dominates economics?

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Literature, Religion

The Book of Job: Some Thoughts

I don’t know if anyone else has been reading The Book of Job lately. But let me tell you, the story is problematic.

Basically, one day the Devil comes along, and God’s like: “Hey, have you ever noticed my servant Job? He’s so blameless and upright. He’s the best guy in the whole land of Uz.” And the Devil’s like: “That’s just because you made him so rich with she-asses.”

So, naturally, God turns this into a bet. He’s like: “Okay, you can take away all of Job’s possessions. He still won’t turn against me.”

Let me point out that the Devil didn’t try to start this bet. He didn’t even ask if he could take away all of Job’s stuff. The whole thing is started by God.

So the Devil gets to work. One day a messenger runs up to Job and tells him his sons have been killed and all of his she-asses were taken. And then another messenger runs up and tells him the sky started raining fire and it burned up all of his sheep and some more of his sons. And then a third messenger runs up and says a big house just collapsed on all of Job’s remaining sons and daughters. All of this happens in about thirty seconds.

Oh, and apparently children count as possessions, because God is never like: “Hey, I didn’t say you could kill Job’s children!”

So Job cuts off all his hair, but then he’s like, “You know what? I didn’t have any stuff when I was born. I was fine then, and I’m fine now. Thanks, God.”

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