Question: When does a flip flop become an evolution? Answer: When the flip-flop leads to a liberal outcome.
I have in mind the omnipresent use by the media of President Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage. In fact, this evolution was a rather jagged one.
As it’s been pointed out on this web site before, in 1996, Obama said he supported gay marriage. Then, in 2004, he said he opposed gay marriage. He reiterated that stand in 2008. Then, after Obama was elected president, he was neutral on the subject. And now that he’s (re)-embraced his position from more than 15 years ago, the press – using precisely the word Obama does to describe his shifting stance – says the president has “evolved.” As in “became more enlightened.”
To take the important point made by Jonathan on Mitt Romney and abortion in a slightly different direction, here’s a thought experiment. Assume that a decade-and-a-half ago Romney opposed same sex marriage. Then, running for office in Massachusetts, he embraced same-sex marriage. But now, running for president, he announced he once again opposes gay marriage. Do you think the press would describe his position as having “evolved”? Or would the word “benighted” more accurately reflect the tone and spirit of the media’s coverage of Romney?
When a Flip-Flop Becomes an “Evolution”
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The savior complex.
When James Clapper, Obama’s former director of national security, said last night that he questions President Donald Trump’s “fitness to be in this office,” he was referring to the president’s mental faculties. The longtime national security analyst was being coy; in blunter terms, he appears increasingly convinced that the president is mad and “could be” a threat to his country’s national security.
This is an unforgiving assessment of a typically abrasive performance by the president on one of his mock campaign rallies—a confection whipped up by the president’s image-makers to indulge his egomaniacal belief that his volatility won him the White House. Clapper’s assessment is a little excessive considering what an obvious contrivance these exhibitions of presidential pique have become. The scene-chewing displays of grave offense taken on the president’s behalf by his supporters betray the validity of Clapper’s concerns.
“Nice try,” wrote radio host Laura Ingraham. “Crazy thing would be if @realDonaldTrump mimicked failed policies of the bipartisan Establ[ishment].” “Trump’s Crazy?” she continued. “No. THIS is crazy.” She provided a link to a story about the state of Connecticut struggling to pass a budget that reduces the state’s debt burden by cutting education and municipal aid grants. Truly bonkers stuff. Try to stay awake until you get to the part about median net tax-supported state debt per capita.
Partisan bickering over the president’s mental capacity is not new. It’s as American as apple pie, in fact, and a subject of more urgency only as a function of the phenomenal powers invested in that office. It’s one thing to concern ourselves with the unknowable mind of this president, but it’s something else entirely to obsess over the minds of the masses. Those are the thoughts with which so many seem preoccupied. Those thoughts might be wicked thoughts. And since wicked thoughts cannot be proscribed, their very inception must be interdicted. Down that road lies its own sort of madness.
The iconoclasm that seems to have consumed the Western world is a testament to this impulse. The terroristic attack on churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015 prompted Americans to engage in a wild, directionless lashing out at the symbols of the antebellum South. The Confederate battle flag that had flown over so many public spaces for decades came down. Statues that commemorated Confederate figures were vandalized. Many were removed (a purge that has been ongoing for two years and at a remarkable pace). Bubba Watson, the owner of the old Dodge Charger from the sitcom “Dukes of Hazzard,” had the Confederate flag that graced its roof removed as an act of penance. Oddly enough, these efforts did not eradicate violent racism.
Today, in the wake of another racist atrocity, we are taking our vengeance out on symbols. The scope of this backlash is, however, broader now. In New York City, the statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th Century doctor who has been dubbed the “father of modern gynecology,” will come down. Sims conducted extraordinarily unethical experiments on African-Americans in his time, and his likeness is genuine effrontery. A 1931 sidewalk engraving honoring Philippe Pétain in the Canyon of Heroes will also be removed. Marshal Pétain was the hero of the Battle of Verdun, a hero of France in the interregnum period, and the head of the Vichy French government amid Nazi occupation. That last accommodation with evil is the man’s most enduring legacy.
Conservatives argue, though, that this retroactive application of modern ethical standards has no limiting principle. The iconoclasts are making their arguments for them.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property” allegedly now includes the famous monument to Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle. Officially, the reason for such a drastic move is that these statues offend indigenous people or those whose family roots are embedded in Caribbean soil. Unofficially, and more likely, is the activist’s claim that these statues “glorify racism.” Which is to say, they rehabilitate prejudice in the minds of… well, others.
Many an icon seems destined for the chopping block. “The propagation of racist monuments of settlers, like that of T.R., that glorify white supremacy is a message that we will not tolerate,” declared activist Claudia Palacios at a 2016 protest outside the American Museum of Natural History, where a statue of Teddy Roosevelt stands. In London, Admiral Horatio Nelson, a man his critics allege was a white supremacist, might have to go; Battle of Trafalgar be damned. The New York Post observed that the number of monuments to figures with racially questionable views is virtually innumerable. Benjamin Franklin, Fiorello La Guardia, Peter Stuyvesant, Philip Sheridan, Daniel Webster, and many others may have to come down. Identity-based movements that organize around the victimization of forebearers might find these monuments discomfiting, but they also could be putting the wrong ideas in the heads of… others.
The absurdity of this impulse was helpfully exemplified most recently by ESPN executives’ decision to sideline an Asian-American reporter by the name of Robert Lee. You see, his name is just too similar to that of Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia, and people may get the wrong idea. That idea is, I suppose, that the reporters’ parents had posthumously honored this hero of the Old South by naming their son after him. Even General Lee’s old horse isn’t safe. The late general’s horse was named Traveller, which is much too close to Traveler, the white Arabian horse that is the University of Southern California’s mascot. ESPN’s executives aren’t confused about their reporter’s lineage. USC’s administrators know their school’s mascot isn’t a sop to racists. But other people might not.
The fear of what the presumably unenlightened multitudes might think is as much a preventative measure as it is a display of vanity. Rescuing others from the prospect of encountering deviant thoughts and, perhaps, agreeing with them is the act of the savior. Combating the stereotype of the Western redeemer who valiantly liberates the natives from their uncivilized conditions is a specter that haunts identity-based studies. You’d think the left would recognize that, but it seems they can only see this unlovely trait when it’s evinced in… others.
Modern day eugenicists.
Last week’s CBS News report on the virtual eradication of Down Syndrome in Iceland shed rare and necessary light on the growing threats to the dignity of life across the West and in Northern Europe in particular. With new tests that can detect chromosomal abnormalities earlier in the pregnancy and with greater precision, an entire category of human beings faces extermination in societies that claim to prize tolerance and diversity above all.
Well, not if Charlotte “Charlie” Fien has something to say about it.
The 21-year-old from Surrey, England, is fast emerging as one of Europe’s most important anti-eradication advocates. Her activism is especially compelling because Fien is living proof against the argument, frequently proffered by those who support systematic prenatal detection and abortion, that people with the disability are miserable.
Fien has Down Syndrome (and autism), and she is happy to tell you that her life is enjoyable, interesting, and worth living. “I’m happy,” she says in a Skype interview. “I’ve got an amazing life. I’ve got a boyfriend, a lovely sweet boy. I got a job as a golf coach, to teach kids how to play golf.”
She has an active social life. “My friend William, he has Down Syndrome. He has an amazing life. He has a girlfriend. He has an amazing job. Aimee loves her life. She likes to work. She likes to go out dancing. She lives with her housemate Laura, who also has Down Syndrome.” Fien loves cooking, especially paella. She and her friends go to the pub on Thursdays and to a dance club on Fridays. Life is good.
Too often, the nondisabled make false assumptions regarding the subjective experiences of people with disabilities and chronic illness to justify their own policy preferences. Icelandic pregnancy counselor Helga Sol Olafsdottir told CBS, for example, that “we look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication … preventing suffering for the child and for the family.” (Note, by the way, Olafsdottir’s use of dehumanizing language: “a thing,” “it,” “a possible life.”)
For Fien, such assumptions were one of her life’s few sources of unhappiness. It wasn’t nice to hear health-care providers suggest that people like her are better off not being born. Watching “A World Without Down Syndrome?”–a 2016 BBC documentary written and presented by the British actress Sally Phillips, who has a son with the disability–made her aware, for the first time, that people like her are being targeted for elimination.
“I didn’t know mums aborted us,” she tells me. “I didn’t know what abortion is.”
She became active online and began taking public-speaking courses. In March, she addressed the United Nations in Geneva. “We just have an extra chromosome,” she told delegates. “We are still human begins. Human beings. We are not monsters. Don’t be afraid of us. We are people with different abilities and strengths. Don’t feel sorry for me. My life is great … Please do not try to kill us all off.” Her address received a long standing ovation.
People with Down Syndrome are “people of the heart,” as the Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier says. If Down Syndrome is “eliminated,” if the new eugenicists succeed, the rest of us will lose the joy that they bring into our lives and with it the chance to encounter human difference in all its richness and vulnerability. To avert that bleak prospect, start by listening to people like Charlie Fien.
Hate speech is free speech.
Censors are always looking for fresh opportunities to censor. So they relish moments of ideological ferment, antagonism, and intemperateness. At such times, people are more susceptible to moral panic and likelier to silence opposing views. We are living through such a moment now, with neo-Nazis, Communists, and various other haters and cranks on the march, both in the streets and online. That’s why open societies should be doubly vigilant against efforts to restrict free expression.
One such effort got underway this week in England, where the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) revised its guidelines to prosecutors regarding “hate crimes.” Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders on Monday announced the new guidelines in an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper, and British civil libertarians have good reason to be alarmed.
Writing with that unmistakable tone of hauteur common to crusading bureaucrats, Saunders didn’t disguise the fact that prosecutors in England and Wales–Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own prosecution services–will now be in the business of going after people for airing unacceptable viewpoints. “People all over the world are questioning how those in positions of power can counter the kinds of extreme views that are increasingly being aired,” she wrote, “and how societies might do more to prevent such opinions from gestating in the first place.”
There is no easy answer to the problem, Saunders suggested. Then she went on to provide one: treating “online hate crimes as seriously as those committed face to face.” Put another way, the fellow who drunkenly throws racist barbs on Twitter may now face prosecution as vigorous as the neo-Nazi who vandalizes a synagogue or mosque with pig’s blood. The most senior prosecutor in England and Wales has expanded the definition of hate crime so far as to proscribe almost any disagreeable or uncivil statement.
The country already has malicious-communication laws and other provisions against online harassment and abuse, and these are strictly enforced. Last month, for example, a British aristocrat was convicted of malicious communication and sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for offering £5,000 ($6,417) to any of his online followers who would run over anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller. In December an English blogger was convicted of racially aggravated harassment for helping direct a campaign of anti-Semitic abuse at a Jewish MP.
The hate-crime laws are already broad. Authorities define as a hate crime “any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” (Emphasis added. Note that the definition turns entirely on the subjective perceptions of alleged victims.)
Under rules promulgated in 2014, moreover, police are required to investigate hate-crime allegations “regardless of whether or not those making the complaint are the victim and irrespective of whether or not there is any evidence to identify the hate crime incident.”
That resulted in Home Secretary Amber Rudd being investigated for hate over a speech she delivered at last year’s Tory party conference, in which she railed against foreigners “taking jobs British workers could do.” An Oxford physics professor was so offended that he lodged a criminal complaint. The police declined to investigate, but they recorded the matter as a “non-crime hate incident.” (Ironically, Rudd, who represents the nannyish wing of the Tories, endorsed the 2014 rule change.)
Now the CPS intends to take things further by applying the subjective definition embedded in the hate-crime laws to online communications. In her op-ed, Saunders pooh-poohed free-speech concerns. “There are crucial provisions in law to ensure we do not stifle free speech, an important right in our society,” she wrote. Which ones? Saunders didn’t elaborate. She went on: “Hate is hate, however.”
Well, yes, but sometimes hate speech is also protected speech. And in an age of aggressive, and often aggressively stupid, political correctness, merely controversial or disagreeable speech can end up being framed as “hate.” The law and CPS’s guidelines turn heavily on the concept of hostility, which is defined as “ill-will, ill-feeling, spite, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment, and dislike.” It is hard to see how people in England can debate, say, the hot-button issue of transgender bathrooms without running afoul of Saunders’s law against “dislike.”
The real world beckons.
The last three consecutive American presidents all campaigned on promises of humility in the pursuit of American national interests, retrenchment from sprawling U.S. commitments abroad, and an end to the practice of “nation-building.” And then, in office, all three were compelled to retreat from their imprudent campaign trail commitments.
It took ten months for Barack Obama to agree to a surge in Afghanistan. It took eight months for George W. Bush to vow action against those who struck us on 9/11. Donald Trump, who made the most passionate case for a pull back, changed his tune earlier than either of his predecessors.
He seemed uncomfortably aware of the lofty promises he had made as a candidate in his Monday night address to an audience of servicemen and women at Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia. “[A]ll my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump conceded. That’s no cliché. In the course of this bout of public introspection, President Donald Trump positively savaged Candidate Donald Trump.
Full withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Trump said he initially favored, would instead be a disaster, he said. He admitted that America must honor the sacrifice of the men and women who lost their lives fighting to preserve Afghan sovereignty—including the son of his chief of staff, General John Kelly. His initial impulse, the president confessed, would create a vacuum that terrorist actors would undoubtedly fill. Finally, he conceded that isolationism is not an option. The world is a complex tapestry of interwoven interests and overlapping dangers. There is no way to neutralize the threats in Afghanistan without the support of regional partners and the aid of America’s allies around the globe.
In sum, Trump’s campaign trail persona was a grossly irresponsible affectation. If only someone had warned us.
In policy terms, Trump’s about-face means American troops will be in Afghanistan in augmented numbers. That isn’t news. As far back as June, the president revealed that he had handed operational authority over to the Pentagon, which subsequently announced an additional 4,000 troops would be deployed to the Afghan theater. We can assume more soldiers will be traveling to Central Asia soon enough.
What was news was the extent to which the president abandoned the pretense of Fortress America, even amid rhetoric designed to reassure his credulous supporters that he was still the same old Trump.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” Trump insisted. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over.”
We’ve heard it all before.
“I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, ‘we do it this way, and so should you,’” George W. Bush averred in 2000. “Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” Barack Obama insisted just months after ordering the ill-fated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” This sounds lovely, and voters eat it up. But it’s unfeasible.
Trump pledged to secure a “win” in Afghanistan, but the most he can hope for is not losing. That means, first and foremost, leaving behind a functioning central government that controls both the capital and its provinces. It would be nice if that government was endowed with a strong civic culture and politicians not so corrupt that they alienate the public and make a fashionable alternative out of Islamist radicals. Whether we like it or not, tomorrow’s Afghanistan cannot be today’s Afghanistan. Not if Trump is to have peace with honor.
Trump spoke the truth about Pakistan’s clandestine support for rogue actors and organizations, and he should be praised for it. That behavior will ultimately confound America’s mission in Afghanistan if it persists. Unspoken by the president, however, was the problem of Iran’s and Russia’s ongoing efforts to assist insurgent groups. For its part, Moscow is open about its support for the Taliban. The Kremlin insists it is only trying to prevent the Taliban from being subsumed into an even more terrible organization like ISIS, but America’s generals believe Moscow’s efforts amount to little more than material support for an insurrection.
If Trump is serious about securing a noble peace in Afghanistan, that strategy will force him to engage in both nation- and coalition-building. Killing bad guys is all well and good, but the conflict in Afghanistan is being exacerbated by foreign governments, not insurgents hiding in caves.
This is not the first time that Donald Trump has unceremoniously repudiated his shallow, semi-isolationist pronouncements on the stump. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said in October 2016. This necessary evil looked a lot less necessary from behind the Resolute Desk only months later, particularly after Damascus was implicated in a chemical attack on civilians this past April. The cruise missile strikes Trump ordered on Syrian regime targets may have been limited in scope, but they communicated Trump’s willingness to intervene on behalf of civilians. Samantha Power would have been proud.
Obama, Bush, and Trump surely entered office truly believing that a more humble application of American hard power around the world was in the best interests of the United States. They abandoned those beliefs not because these politicians were disingenuous or irresolute, nor because a cabal of military-industrialists corrupted these respective presidents. Retrenchment fails and is ultimately abandoned because it is a fantasy—one whose pursuit only results in chaos, instability, death on a scale that cannot compare to the alternatives.
American power projection remains a hobgoblin in the minds of many. Even today, Trump is drawing fire from the ranks of idealists who would, if confronted with the stark choices facing the president, do precisely as he did last night. Given the right conditions, we all become interventionists. Some of us are just more honest about that than others.
Missing the moment.
For die-hard Trump supporters, there is no reprieve. The president’s achievements are eclipsed by the consistency of his bad judgment. For those Trump fans that have not tuned out the news entirely, a cottage industry of reassuring hot takes has taken the place of dispassionate analysis.
In the name of challenging the conventional wisdom, the Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman took a peek at this emerging trend. “Could Trump possibly be winning this week?” his article’s subhead asked. The premise sounds absurd on its face, but it’s really only phrased inelegantly. Trump most assuredly did not “win” the week that followed the traumatic events in Virginia. Nor, though, did the president’s Democratic opponents.
Freeman’s desire to check in with a few “contrarian observers” is a noble one. The individuals he chose are a testament either to the paucity of contrarianism or the absurdity of contrarian arguments.
Don Luskin, the CIO of Trend Macrolytics, speculated that Americans succumbed last week to a “clinical case of mass hysteria.” He suggested the consternation over Donald Trump’s devouring 96 hours of news by issuing three distinct and occasionally contradictory pronouncements about the relative virtue of white supremacist marchers versus violent socialist counter protesters was a media fabrication. “His sin is that he has failed to express his outrage at the event in a particular way,” Luskin wrote, “or, more precisely, that he has expressed it in a way that doesn’t kowtow to the identity politics lobby.”
While Luskin is handing out psychological diagnoses, he might do well to look up the definition of dissociation. Yes, Trump got himself into hot water by declining to condemn avowed racists and anti-Semites without caveat following a murderous terrorist attack (only to backtrack amid pressure and then to backtrack from the backtrack). In doing so, he wasn’t rejecting identity politics but embracing it.
In Trump’s estimation, a variety of foreign forces was responsible for the lot of the silent but angry majority: illegal immigrant labor, Chinese trade practices, America’s allies who should be expected to pay for the privileges of the U.S.-led world order, Europeans that sacrifice Western culture upon the altar of multiculturalism, etc. Trump wasn’t abandoning this white identity politics last week; he was reaffirming fealty to it.
Freeman’s second contrarian is a predictable one. The cartoonist Scott Adams has found a second career in reflexively ascribing brilliance and foresight to every presidential synapse. On Thursday of last week, Trump reacted on Twitter to an ongoing terrorist attack in Spain by alluding to the utterly apocryphal story of General John Pershing’s crimes of war. The story—one Trump knows is false because it was attacked as false when he used to tell it on the campaign trail—alleges that the American war hero discouraged Islamist terrorism in the Philippines by burying Muslims with the bodies of pigs so they might find no peace in the afterlife.
You might not be surprised to learn that Adams thinks this is yet another masterful example of public persuasion. You see, Trump is communicating his toughness on terrorism. By lying, he will compel media to fact-check him, amplifying his persuasive persuasion.
Trump has persuaded himself right into history as the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency in the history of modern polling. There’s no honest way to claim a week that resulted in the broadest critical reaction among Trump’s Republican allies since the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was a great week for the president. Even if Trump spent a week skipping through a minefield, though, that doesn’t mean his opponents’ fortunes were advanced.
An online poll commissioned by Axios found that a “remarkable” 40 percent of adults signed on to Trump’s assertion that both demonstrators on the left and the right were responsible for the violence in events in Charlottesville. They see members of the academy defend political violence, even as liberals pen hallucinatory love letters to themselves congratulating their movement on its restraint. They’ve watched with apprehension as an agitated mob tears down a statue of a nondescript Confederate soldier in North Carolina as though it were a likeness of Felix Dzerzhinsky.
They watch as liberal commentators call for an end to the veneration of figures like Washington and Jefferson, just as Trump said they would and (have been doing for years), even as coastal elites insist that no one advocates such things. On Monday, Baltimore awoke to see a 200-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus destroyed by a vandal with a sledgehammer. They know that this is not some isolated event but an extension of the madness they’ve seen take hold of the country, even amid lectures about how connecting these dots is woefully unenlightened.
“The people asking these questions (over and over and over) are not racist,” wrote Senator Ben Sasse. “Rather they’re perplexed by the elite indifference to their fair questions.” Liberals dismiss these sentiments at their peril. Despite a Republican president’s unpopularity and the dysfunction of his party in Congress, Democrats have so far been unable to capitalize on the environment. Even by its own modest standards for success, the Democratic National Committee’s fundraising has been bleak. On Thursday, Cook Political Report shifted the race for Senate in four Democrat-held states in the GOP’s direction.
Attributing Donald Trump’s wink and nod in the direction of white supremacy last week to strategic genius is simply deluded. That does not, however, suggest that Democrats are benefiting from Trump’s recklessness. Liberals have given the public no assurances that they can govern from the center, or that they even see that as a desirable enterprise. And yet, Democrats still appear convinced they are the default beneficiaries when Trump falls on his face, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.