Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween 2017

Nearly every year I write a blog post for Halloween. I have reflected upon the value of this holiday as a sacrament for a post-religious age and a valuable opportunity for transgression and release and the possibilities of transformation. For 2017 I’ll consider how Halloween might relate to this age of anxiety.

The 2017 Halloween season was bookended by two major news stories. October began with the largest mass shooting in American history and it concluded with the indictment of President Trump’s campaign advisors. No, this is not a political essay. I’m not going to preach about guns (one way or the other) and I’m not going to slander Halloween by making it about Donald Trump. But these two stories nicely encapsulate a growing sense of instability and the ongoing loss of faith in our ability to solve our problems.

How might this relate to Halloween? This is the season of fear and the time for fearful experiences deliberately sought out. In anxious times, this activity might seem superfluous. Between reports of mass shootings and corruption as well of stories of sexual assault there seems to be plenty of angst to go around. But there is a difference between the anxiety we feel watching the news and the fear we experience while screening a scary movie, reading a ghost story, or visiting a haunted house. The anxieties of the everyday are complex and ongoing but also dull. They wear on us the way the tide erodes the seashore. The thrill of contrived fear is intense but limited. It has a specific beginning and end and is therefore graspable. And mortal fear—even if it is just simulated—is satisfying because it is so immediate. It is also usually solvable. Stories in which the hero drives the stake through the vampire, exorcises the possessed daughter, or just survives the night provides us with a sense of agency and closure.

Earlier this year I attended a workshop on civility in the workplace. The presenter described the state of being “flooded” with adrenaline when we are angry and she explained that we are physiologically incapable of rational thought in that state. The culture of this moment resembles that psychological condition. Hyper-partisanship, the politics of outrage, and the disenchantment brought about by social-media have created a culture that is flooded. We are all stewing in our own outrage, unable to communicate, and ready to lash out at one another.

In stressful and anxious times, we need specific and controlled dosages of fear. The good clean scare of a horror movie or a haunted house not only reinvigorates us but it also exorcises our pent up anxieties from everyday stresses and uncertainties. And with some of that anxiety diminished we are able to think clearly, cope with those daily challenges, and start to address them constructively.

Fear can also be a bonding experience. This is most dramatic among soldiers returning from combat and there are plenty of stories about the unity and brotherliness forged among men and women facing mortal terror. In a lighter way, the same principal explains why horror films are such popular date movies. A scary story is a manageable traumatic experience. When we watch a good, intense scare with another person we bond with them. And if we can all get scared together through a popular movie, tricks or treats, or a shared holiday, we can establish some commonalities.

So let’s all get scared this Halloween, if only a little, for our own sanity and for the sake of the world we live in. The world is a scary place but sometimes we need to conjure up a little illusion in order to face reality.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Nazi Flags Are Not Incitement

In recent weeks American Neo-Nazis have experienced a cultural moment after the protest and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia and the violence and loss of life that resulted. The national exposure of the white supremacist menace is long overdue. Neo-Nazis and their ilk have made inroads into mainstream society over the past decade but they have been largely ignored until now. We can speculate on the reasons why but what concerns me at this moment is how the rest of us respond to fascists so that we preserve free speech and liberty while combating fascism and racism.
The ascendency of contemporary fascism comes at a time when we seem least able to confront it. Right wing and conservative institutions have capitulated to the alt-right (which is to say Neo-Nazis who chew with their mouths closed) and liberals and the political left are increasingly hostile to ideas that don’t fit within their matrix of belief. This has created a tense political environment. In the past year or so, leftist protesters have lashed out violently against their opposition, so much so that extremism experts are starting to worry about America’s political left. Protests against speakers at Middleburry College and UC Berkeley have turned violent and college campuses are now hostile to the marketplace of ideas. And yes, the Charlottesville counter-protesters were violent. Granted, the violence was not symmetrical; none of the anti-fascists opened fire into a crowd nor did they murder members of the opposition with a car. However, the Vice report on the events of that day shows the organizer of the “Unite the Right” march being chased from a city hall press statement by counter-protesters who clearly had violent intent.

Admitting that the anti-Nazi protesters were violent is not apologizing for fascism nor is it equivocating between the different philosophies they represent. But it is possible to fight fascism and lose the moral high ground. 

Counter protest is good—that’s the marketplace of ideas at work—but that’s not what’s being advocated by some on the political left. This cartoon from the website #drawninpowerpoint is widely circulating through social media and it neatly summarizes the argument of the pro-violence left. It is also legally and philosophically wrong.

The cartoon claims that Nazi flags are “incitement” and that the United States Supreme Court has decreed that incitement is not legally protected speech. Therefore, anti-fascist protestors have the right to physically assault Nazi demonstrators. While it is true that incitement is not legally protected speech, Nazi flags do not qualify. As determined in Brandenberg v. Ohio, incitement must inspire “imminent lawless action.” This does not include agitating or offending the audience or the possibility of inspiring violence at some point in the future.  A political cartoon that directs the audience to punch a racist but nonviolent demonstrator is much closer to incitement than carrying a swastika flag although this particular cartoon isn’t specific enough to qualify as incitement either.

The matter of white supremacist banners was also addressed by the Supreme Court and not in the way that this cartoon claims. National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie determined that the swastika did not constitute “fighting words” and that Nazis had the right to march through a largely Jewish neighborhood with their flags on display.

But let’s set aside the legal arguments for a moment and consider this from a philosophical point of view. The argument that Nazi and white supremacist banners should not be afforded the same tolerance as other symbols is rooted in our revulsion of what those symbols represent. Nazism and white supremacy are so offensive to so many because they represent the antithesis of American and democratic ideals. The conceit that we are all equal under the law and deserving of equal protection underscores all contemporary ideas of freedom and human dignity. The alt-right, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, or whatever you want to call them, represent an affront to that idea. Despite extolling the virtues of Western civilization and demanding credit for it, they want to tear the whole thing down. Because white supremacists have no respect for democratic values, so the argument goes, they should not be afforded the protection of democratic rules and institutions.

But just as tolerance of diversity distinguishes anti-fascists from their opposition, so does a commitment to free speech and the marketplace ideas. Make no mistake—fascists do not believe in freedom, especially of speech. Fascists detest the marketplace of ideas because their ideology can’t survive it. They would much rather express themselves in a street brawl because that at least gives them a fighting chance. And a physical confrontation represents the breakdown of the marketplace of ideas and of civil society, which is what fascists ultimately want.

Attempts to cordon off racist ideas with speech codes and other restrictions aren’t helpful either. At best, these measures only drive Neo-Nazis underground and shield their ideology from criticism. Isolated white supremacy festers like mold in a damp basement. It surreptitiously gains a foothold in young people who are susceptible to these ideologies and don't have the critical faculties to combat them. At worst, speech restrictions enable fascist violence. Censorship plays right into the victim complex at the heart of contemporary white supremacy and once pushed out of the marketplace of ideas, fascists are no longer bound by the nonviolent expectations of civil society.

The anti-fascist protesters who demonstrate for freedom, equality, and justice do so heroically in the face of a movement that would just as soon see them dead. But our emotional reaction against white supremacists must not obfuscate the values that we are defending. Free speech and an open discourse of opinions and information—the marketplace of ideas—is a prerequisite of democracy and civil society. If we start carving out exceptions and making excuses to preemptively respond with violence then we risk betraying the very ideals that we are fighting for and do the fascist’s work for them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hitler, Trump, and Assad

Since the ascendency of Donald Trump to the presidency, I’ve been mostly quiet on this blog. Some of that is due to a personal shift toward social media (I’ve taken to sharing articles and passing observations on my Twitter account) but it’s also due to an inability to keep up. It feels like every day brings a new scandal or the impression of one. The volume of incompetence and corruption is bad enough but what really makes it overwhelming. is the shrill and panicked tone with which this news is delivered.
For eight years, Republicans and other right-wingers suffered through Obama Derangement Syndrome in which the President’s every action was cause for hysterical claims that he was a socialist, a black nationalist, a Kenyan, a Muslim, and all manner of meaningless labels and baseless accusations. In truth, Obama was none of these things. He was just another mediocre politician. But he was on the other team and in this age of political tribalism that is enough to call someone a traitor to the country.

In the age of Trump, we are witnessing the same unhinged reaction but this time from the left. Trump Derangement Syndrome has overtaken the President’s opposition and it has paralyzed critical thought and careful analysis. Calls for Trump’s impeachment are made with the same mindless furor that fed the anti-Hillary Clinton “Lock her up!” chants during the 2016 election.

Please do not mistake this as a defense of Donald Trump or his administration. The man is intellectually, experientially, and psychologically unfit for office and he has appointed people to his cabinet with those same qualities. Unlike the accusations against President Obama, there is actually reason to believe Trump is a kleptocrat whose policies are primarily driven by personal enrichment. And the facts in the Russia scandal must be pursued to their conclusion, wherever they might lead.

My concern here is about tone. And tone matters.

Among the President’s detractors, it’s been taken as an article of faith that Donald Trump is the worst Chief Executive in the history of the republic—despite being in office for less than six months. This accusation is short sighted. He has not, for instance, invaded a sovereign nation based on falsified evidence and started a war that killed thousands of American service people and hundreds of thousands of civilians while setting the stage for the rise of one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups. Trump has not authorized torture (although he has bragged that he will). He has not ignored a major city while it drowned in the aftermath of a hurricane and then overseen a botched emergency response. And, to the best of our knowledge, none of his employees are trading drugs and sexual favors with lobbyists of the industries they are supposed to be regulating.

Trump is also frequently compared to Adolf Hitler. Again, this parallels the rhetoric during the Obama years in which the forty-fourth president was often caricatured as somehow akin to the leader of the Third Reich. The Hitler analogies are part of a broader context of uncivil and stupid discourse. We live in a culture in which Godwin’s Law has come to define all political discussions in any medium, whether it is among strangers on Twitter or between family members around the dinner table.

No, Donald Trump is not Hitler. He’s not even George W. Bush.

These meaningless analogies occur while another world leader is actually deserving of comparison to Hitler or at least to Slobodan Milošević and Idi Amin. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has engaged in a litany of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians, and news recently broke that one of Syria’s military prisons now includes a crematorium to conceal atrocities.

Our inability to confront Assad or grapple with this travesty is at least partly due to our frenzied rhetoric. When everyone is Hitler, then no one is. A consistently hysterical tone degrades our ability to make distinctions or present compelling moral arguments.

Hysteria also makes it impossible to have a rational discussion about the President’s actual faults. The arguments made by those afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome are saturated in outrage and dissent is treated with indignancy. That’s no way to build the kind of political movement required to remove a world leader from office. Confronted with such browbeating, Trump’s supporters are more likely to double down than be swayed.

Moving forward, it is incumbent upon Trump’s opposition to hold firm but they must also measure their tone and temper the expectations of their constituents. To listen to the rancor on cable news, liberal websites, and from some Democratic leaders, it would seem that President Trump’s impeachment is going to happen any day now. That’s unlikely. There have been plenty of terrible Presidents but only two of them were ever impeached – and neither of them were actually removed from office. The chain of events that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon took years and that occurred in a very different political, cultural, and media environment than the one we live in now.

But should he get impeached, the short-term joy of seeing Donald Trump get fired will inevitably give way to accusations that Mike Pence is the new Hitler. And meanwhile, actual dictators and war criminals will benefit from the cover of our shrill political discourse. That just seems to be the world we live in now.