Sunday, December 11, 2016

What determines legitimacy?

In response to my post called “The Silver Lining,” a friend of mine noticed that I didn’t think the law in general was “legitimate.”  He asked what I meant by that, and "what determines legitimacy?”  Here is my response.

In layman’s terms, legitimacy is simply “the consent of the governed”: a people’s agreement to be subject to a certain governing system and to obey its laws.  I and many other people value this consent as a necessary prerequisite to ethical government; without it, what right does anybody have to rule anyone?

Unfortunately, it's practically impossible to get ALL of the governed to consent to much of anything in a nation of any significant size, so no government can ever be fully legitimate.  In practice, this means legitimacy can only exist on a spectrum, based on what portion of the governed have consented to be subject to the government in question.  As in any other area of life, the consent must be active, ongoing, and unambiguous, or it cannot be assumed.

The best way I know of for the people to specify what government they do and do not consent to is to write down it down in a formal contract, also known as a “social” contract or a constitution.  The best constitutions specify, as clearly as the language of the day allows, precisely which powers the governed people consent to have wielded over them, as well as which rights the governed people wish to keep for themselves.  By finding whichever version of that contract is acceptable to the highest number of people, and then ensuring that the government strictly abides by the terms of that contract moving forward, we can at least maximize our government's legitimacy relative to alternative systems.

Of course, historically speaking, the actual circumstances of most constitutions' creation is much less democratic than my ideal scenario would hope for. And even under ideal circumstances, there are practical shortcomings to this approach.  For example, the consent of one's children cannot be assumed just because the parent has given it, which means technically states should be tinkering with these contracts with each successive generation.  I don't know a pragmatic way to do that.  A libertarian from the late 1800's named Lysander Spooner wrote a pretty famous essay called "The Constitution of No Authority" in which he basically tears apart the multitudinous logical fallacies inherent in the notion that anybody alive today has meaningfully consented to the government we have.  I’m sympathetic to his arguments.

But even so, written constitutions are the least-bad way I know of to keep the government’s actions roughly in-line with the powers the people have consented to grant it.  The United States was the first nation to truly experiment with this model, and so far I think it has been a successful experiment. Thanks in part to that success, written constitutions have fundamentally revolutionized the way people the world over now conceive of their relationship with the state, in ways I believe were also overwhelmingly positive.  I’m proud of that history, and committed to the continued success of that experiment, which is why I swore an oath to “support and defend” that constitution whenever it’s threatened.

Unfortunately, as I wrote in this article, I don’t believe our modern government’s level of legitimacy is anywhere near as high on this spectrum as it should be, nor as high as it’s often portrayed.  One primary reason for this is that the powers wielded by our government have grown egregiously beyond those powers authorized by the constitution it’s supposed to be adhering to.  In place of proposing explicit amendments to the contract, and putting them up for a vote requiring a high threshold of consent (roughly 67-75% over the course of several years), politicians have found it more expedient to either include their proposals under preposterously broad re-interpretations of the constitution’s original meaning, or to simply point to slim and fickle victories in a deeply flawed election process as proof the people support their proposed new power.  This trend, alongside others in law enforcement, have made our government’s claim to legitimacy even more tenuous than it already was.

It is ridiculous, in my opinion, to pretend that winning a plurality of the votes in a politically ignorant nation, in an election between two very unpopular people selected by two very-unpopular parties, with only 55% voter turnout, and millions staying home due to the Electoral College and gerrymandered districts, amounts to any meaningful consent on the part of the governed to EVERY SINGLE POWER which that candidate may wish to wield.  As such, claims that whatever new uses of state violence Trump has dreamed up amount to a legitimate expression of the popular will strike me absurd.

If “the people have spoken” at all in this election, it came out pretty garbled, and is no basis for inferring “consent” to anything.

Two discussions on the relationship between Islam and violence

Last week, the Dalai Lama made the following comments about religion and terrorism:

“Buddist terrorist…Muslim terrorist…that wording is wrong!  Any person who wants [to] indulge in violence [is] no longer genuine Buddist [or] genuine Muslim.  Because it is a Muslim teaching, you see, [that] once you involve bloodshed, then actually [you are] no longer [a] genuine practitioner of Islam…

All major world religious traditions carry [the] same message: message of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self-discipline – all religious traditions.  So these are the common ground and common practice.  On that level we can build genuine harmony on the basis of mutual respect, mutual learning, mutual admiration.”

I posted a video of him saying this on my timeline.  The reception was generally positive, but two of my friends objected.  The transcripts of both conversations are below.  As always, their names are changed, and their text is in italics, whereas mine is in regular font (unless I was quoting someone else).

Conversation One:  Is Islam inherently more violent than other world religions?

Marty: Quran (4:89) - "They wish that you should reject faith as they reject faith, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper." Verse 4:65 says that those who have faith are in "full submission" to Muhammad's teachings. This verse explains what should happen to Muslims who do not have faith.

Andrew Doris Interesting quote Marty! Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of Leviticus 24:16, which reads "anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death."

Seems like the Dalai Lama was right - the world's major religious traditions really are more similar than we think!
Now that you've piqued my curiosity, let's see if we can find any other similarly-themed Bible passages...

Exodus 35:2: "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does anywork on it is to be put to death."

Leviticus 20:14: "If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you."

Leviticus 25:44: "you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you."

Exodus 21:7: "If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do."

Deuteronomy 22:13-29: “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, ‘I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,’ then the girl’s father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate...if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.

If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you."

Aren't Ancient cultures FUN?

In all seriousness, now...I am a proud Christian, and I don't believe any of the shit I just pasted above. I doubt you do either, because like me, you probably realize a) it was written by people who, divinely inspired or not, lived thousands of years ago under a set of moral norms that simply don't apply today, b) it was then subjectively spliced and edited and translated and re-translated hundreds of times, by people who were neither perfect nor divine, and in fact had strong biases and incentives and political motivations of their own, and c) it is recanted and outweighed by the vast bulk of Biblical passages in both the New and Old Testament that preach themes of peace, forgiveness, and loving your neighbors in spite of their sin. In other words, you are capable of thinking for yourself, and so take the verbatim verbiage of antiquated texts that contradict your conscience with a grain of salt (or even a whole pillar of it!)

To deny 1 billion Muslims the courtesy of the same interpretative leeway about what their own text actually means in its totality, when it's written in their language and they have studied every word of it since they were very little, is hypocrisy at best and bigotry at worst.

Frank: Great point, but of course nobody is using those ancient quotes from the Bible to murder anyone today - and haven't for hundreds of years. But every day radical Islamic terrorists kill nonbelievers or their own people for violations of the Quran all around the world.

MartyYes, but the difference between the Qur'an and other religious books is that the Qur'an is very clearly states that, in the case of contradicting statements, the contradicting passages that come later cancel out the earlier ones. In the Qur'an, the violent passages come after the peaceful ones.
And the Qur'an was written by one man.

Andrew Doris Frank: Sure, and neither I nor the Dalai Lama are denying that such acts occur more often in Islamic parts of the world, nor that terror attacks are waged more often by self-professed Muslims than they are by self-professed Christians even in Western countries like our own (and we can trade theories for why that is if you like). He's just saying that of the over 1 billion self-described Muslims in the world, the extreme minority (under 0.1%) who even affiliate with radical Salafi terror groups (much less carry out attacks themselves) are the ones whose interpretation of the religion is wrong, and that in fact by carrying out such acts they contravene Islam so completely that they cannot rightfully be called Muslims. I haven't studied the Koran intensively by any stretch, but I'm inclined to trust the opinion of a globally beloved leader who has devoted his life to religious study since he entered a monastery at the age of six, and has lived in a country with 172 million Muslims since 1959, over that of my Trump-loving Facebook sparring partner from PA.

MartyYeah, I don't love Trump by any stretch... And don't believe me? Fine. Read the Qur'an and find out for yourself. Think for yourself.

FrankTrue again, but one of the fundamental precepts of Islam is that only a Muslim can accurately interpret the Quran so most scholars would say that while they might agree, or hope to agree, with him, the Dali Lama isn't qualified to render an opinion on the Quran.

Conversation Two: How do we define who is and isn’t a member of a religion?


Are religions a dangerous tool, especially prone to justifying violence, that the modern world has no use for?

KyleI have read all the above responses to this and as always, I appreciate your dedication to factual accuracy where applicable. I also really like that as a Christian, you went out of your way to find commonalities in the Quran and Bible, because while I reject all faiths and wish for their end, I know that until such a time, interfaith pursuits are of great value.

That being said, I think this is all bullshit for a very simple reason: No one gets to decide who is and who is not part of any religion, especially those with as many sects and schisms as the Abrahamic faiths. The Dalai Lama knows this, he is just ignoring it to promote a well-meaning message of peace and support for the Islamic community. Muslims who are inspired by their religion to commit acts of terrorism or general violence are as much a part of Islam as their altruistic, peaceful counterparts (not saying that they're equal in number, just equal in claim to the religion).

Andrew Doris This touches on a very common debate about the parameters of various ideological labels and who gets to determine where they are. There is never an objectively right answer, as all of language is a constantly evolving human construct and the fenceposts are largely up for interpretation.  I can appreciate that major world religions with so many subdivisions are necessarily a big tent and don't mean to appoint myself gatekeeper of who is and isn't Muslim.  Certainly radical Salafi terrorists are culturally Muslim, whether or not their ideas meet whatever criteria our definition of Muslim would establish.

With that conceded, the flip side of the coin is that if ideological labels are to mean anything at all, and we're going to have any sort of productive discourse on their merits without just talking past one another, there has to be a certain constancy of terms. We can't just have words mean whatever is convenient for our argument or our self-conception. For example, as a libertarian, I am frequently frustrated by people who support mass deportation, an aggressive war-hawk foreign policy, the war on drugs, torture, warrantless NSA surveillance and social conservative policies turning around and calling themselves "libertarian" because they like low taxes and think it's a more chic thing to call themselves than Republican nowadays. After a certain point (subjective though it may be) those people are wrong about what they are and that needs to be stated plainly. Affiliations must have definitions and an apple can't be an orange just because it claims to be one.

So it is with Islam. Smart people can define it differently and disagree about which of the thousands of offshoots do and don't make the cut, but somewhere along the line there needs to be a cut. There exists that which isn't Islamic. I think the Dalai Lama's point was just that the ideology practiced by a billion people and the ideology advanced by ISIS are so irreconciliably different as to warrant distinct descriptive terms.

KyleI agree with you about the inherent fuzziness of big tent ideologies. They create confusion and lead to semantic arguments. This is the root of my issue with how pretty much everyone talks about Islam. Big tent ideologies are not one thing. That's why no one gets to say a person who derives their personal religious beliefs from Islamic sources isn't a Muslim.

If you want to say one group of people is not part of the same specific religion as some other group of people, great, use well-defined terms (which absolutely exist in this case), but don't continue to muddy the water of religious terminology by intentionally omitting information so you can pretend your umbrella religion is flawless. If the Lama's point was what you think it is, the way he's communicating it is a huge disservice to the overall conversation about Islam. And for the record, I don't think it was his point. I think he purposefully crafted his statement to be vanilla peace-talk to protect everyone's stupid feelings and insecurities. And I think that makes him kind of an asshat (not overall, just situationally).

Andrew Doris "Big tent ideologies are not one thing. That's why no one gets to say a person who derives their personal religious beliefs from Islamic sources isn't a Muslim."

That's not really what he said though, especially if we give him even the slightest bit of interpretative leeway as a non-native speaker. In context, he appears to have objected to a reporter who chose to describe someone as "buddist terrorist" or a "muslim terrorist," and sternly argued "that wording is wrong." The reason he thinks that’s wrong isn't necessarily because such people wouldn't technically be categorized as Muslim in a census or poll. I already conceded they are at least culturally Muslim. The reason the wording is wrong is that it's irrelevant, in his opinion, to why they are a terrorist, and as such is a misleading adjective for describing their motivations. If I were to murder you, and then a Bears fan described it as "the act of a crazed Packers fan", your family might also respond that the wording was wrong - not in the technical sense (because I am a Packers fan) but in the larger sense that it's not WHY I killed you and Packers fans are actually nice people by and large so saying that doesn't make any sense (and could even counterproductively stoke tensions).

You don't have to agree with him that it's irrelevant to their motivations, but it's sort of begging the question to say such people are "inspired by their religion to commit acts of terrorism or general violence" Were they? Or were they inspired or angered or motivated by something else to commit such acts, which they then tried to square with their self-identity as Islamic men? It's sort of like saying racist Southern homophobic Christians are inspired to be hateful by Christianity. Are they? Were they neutral on those questions until they read Leviticus and the quotes above, after which they were convinced and inspired solely on the weight of those passages that homosexuality must be an abomination, and so is eating shellfish and touching pigs and wearing polyester? Or did they likely form strong prejudices against gays and racial minorities for secular reasons (like deeply ingrained patriarchy and white supremacy) and then retroactively try to square and mesh such beliefs with the only comprehensive ideological framework accessible to them (their Church?)

Maybe you'd disagree with me about which theory is more accurate, but you should at least concede it's an open question. And surely you can see the parallels to how the factors which radicalize people who happen to be Muslim are neither exclusively nor necessarily "Islamic sources." If terrorists are pushed into committing terrible acts not by dispassionate and level-headed religious study of such sources, but by a toxic mixture of growing up in communities devastated by western imperialism and lacking access to education, which in conjunction renders them desensitized to violence, resentful towards the West, distrustful of modernization, and susceptible to manipulation at the hands of anyone who can explain their suffering in the terms of the only comprehensive ideological framework accessible to THEM, I think it's fair to argue that whatever that original ideological framework may happen to be isn't the cause of their terrorism.

It is very common for the left to accuse self-described Christian conservatives of acting in a very un-Christian way towards the poor and powerless. Wouldn't it also be fair to call them even more anti-Christian the moment they decide to do something so heinous as bomb an abortion clinic, for example? And if so, why can't the Dalai Lama opine that terrorism is a fundamentally anti-Islamic act based on his own interpretation of that faith?

One last point…you write:

"If you want to say one group of people is not part of the same specific religion as some other group of people, great, use well-defined terms (which absolutely exist in this case), but don't continue to muddy the water of religious terminology by intentionally omitting information so you can pretend your umbrella religion is flawless."

But again, those weren't his terms! He was admonishing someone else's terms: the vaguest possible description of what in truth is very narrow sect. So which of them were truly the ones trying to "muddy the waters of religious terminology"? The broader your definition of Muslim, the murkier the definition of that term becomes.

As it usually turns out in semantic arguments, neither of us are right - we just want words to be defined in a way that comports with our worldview. The Dalai Lama believes religion is mostly a force for good in the world; you believe it is mostly a force for bad. There's a set of activities which nearly everyone can agree are evil, so naturally it fits your narrative to see them as quintessentially religious and it fits his narrative to see them as deviations from "genuine" or "major" religion. All three of us are "intentionally omitting information" that would harm our thesis, because we have confirmation biases we're currently uninterested in re-examining. So maybe I should stop typing and go to bed.

Kyle: He absolutely is saying that people who commit acts of violence and identify themselves as Muslims/Buddhists are not true Muslims/Buddhists. That is verbatim what he is saying. If he stopped after saying "Buddhist terrorist. Muslim terrorist. That wording is wrong," I would agree with you 100%. In that context, all he's saying is that using the umbrella religion these people identify with as their primary descriptor is unfair and harmful to the religions at large, which is objectively true. They are terrorists who are Buddhist and terrorists who are Muslim. But he doesn't stop there; he delivers a condescending exclusionary message about violence and Islam being totally incompatible, which is definitely not objectively true.

Acting like you can steal away elements of their character as people is not helpful. All it does is make peaceful religious people feel good about themselves and allows the further division and extreme polarization of major religions. When you make it okay for people to deny others the right to claim the word Islam over violence, it makes it okay to do the same over any other issue a Muslim considers fundamental to their interpretation of Islam. Wouldn't it be insulting for someone to tell you that you're not a real Christian (for whatever reason they might have). You're an intelligent, well-adjusted person, so you're not going to lash out at them, but it's still insulting. And they shouldn't feel like it's reasonable for them to do that. When that happens to people who aren't as smart or well-adjusted, we get lots of fuel for the new wave of insane Christian Conservatism we have now (remember how a bunch of moderate Christians felt like it was okay to say that if you're not openly accepting of homosexuality, you're not a real Christian?)

You are right that I don't agree that people's religious beliefs are irrelevant to their motivations. What you are wrong in assuming is that I subsequently believe that terrorists are inspired primarily by their religion to commit acts of violence. You obviously understand that the motivations of terrorists are complex. There are geopolitical elements, cultural elements, economic, and so on. Being able to normalize and justify to yourself and others the violence you are inspired by your complicated negative environment to commit is a huge step. Historically, that justification is rooted in religion with terrifying frequency. And today, that justification is undeniably centered on Islam. That doesn't mean Islam is totally to blame. It means it plays a meaningful role. It is just as wrong to say that Western imperialism has nothing to do with the motivations of ISIS as it is to say that Islam isn't relevant to their motivations.

Other minor points that don't fit neatly:

- I don't think religion is "mostly a force for bad." I think that whole "force for good v force for bad" argument is nonsense. I think religion is a poorly-designed, obsolete tool. It's like a blunt rock tied to a stick. You can use it as a hammer and do just fine. I'll even concede that at one time it was the best we could do, but some people are inevitably going to bash their fingers in due to its inelegance and sometimes the rock will come untethered and fly off into someone else's face. What makes it really terrible is that we have better tools available that do all of its jobs without all the inevitable negative consequences (like hammers, pneumatic presses, science, and humanism).

- I'd like to address your analogy of "saying racist Southern homophobic Christians are inspired to be hateful by Christianity." Are they inspired to be hateful by Christianity? No, not in the way you're getting at, but indirectly, yes they are, and it makes perfect sense to my point about complex motivations above (so thank you). Kids grow up not understanding religion, but they are still forming prejudices based on their environment. So are people who grow up surrounded by racists and homophobes themselves racist and homophobic because they're Christian? No, but their racist, homophobic environment was heavily influenced by Christianity, so it's still PART of the problem. I'm not saying Christianity in general is racist and homophobic, but due to its inelegance as a tool (see above), there are totally valid interpretations of the Bible that are explicitly homophobic, supportive of the institution of slavery, and exalt a chosen race who are above all others.

Andrew Doris First, just want to say I’m thoroughly enjoying the conversation.  It seems our disagreement revolves around two primary focal points.  First, were the Dalai Lama’s comments in this instance generally accurate, conciliatory, and likely to reduce religious violence? or generally inaccurate, exclusionary/divisive and likely to stoke that violence?  And secondly, in a historical sense, is religion (and especially Islam) most often used to restrain people’s violent temptations, or to justify them?  You have good points on both arguments, but I’d like to start with the second, where this quote in particular stuck out to me:

“Being able to normalize and justify to yourself and others the violence you are inspired by your complicated negative environment to commit is a huge step. Historically, that justification is rooted in religion with terrifying frequency. And today, that justification is undeniably centered on Islam.”

This is a very strong argument.  It’s more nuanced than my earlier comment had given you credit for, and needs reckoning with because it’s pretty clearly true.  I just think it’s incomplete.  My objection is twofold: a) the only reason the justification for violence has historically been rooted in religion is that religion has historically been the only widely accepted ethical framework available to justify anything.  I don’t think the secular moral codes which have subsequently emerged are less prone to an interpretation which justifies violence by those amply motivated to engage in it, and would point to things like nationalism leading to world wars and egalitarianism leading to vicious (and atheist) communist regimes as evidence of that.  And b) the extent to which religion has been successfully used as a tool to normalize and justify violence needs to be weighed against a second, unseen effect in the opposite direction: the extent to which religion has successfully RESTRAINED those who wanted to wage violence, but were convinced not to after consultation with a trusted religious leader or text.  This effect is unseen (it makes neither the news nor the history books when someone decides NOT to be violent) and consequently it is difficult to quantify.  But I suspect that over the thousands of years that monotheistic religion has dominated relatively primitive human societies, this positive effect has probably dwarfed the misuses of religion you described.

This leads me back to the first focal point of our disagreement, about this video specifically. You write that the Dalai Lama’s comments were “a condescending exclusionary message about violence and Islam being totally incompatible” and worry this will “allow further division and extreme polarization of religions,” by making it “okay for people to deny others the right to claim the word Islam…over any other issue a Muslim considers fundamental to their interpretation of Islam.”  That’s fair enough, it just doesn’t mesh with your other theory that terrorism is made possible when religion normalizes and justifies violence.  If you agree that people are initially inspired to commit violence by a series of geopolitical, economic or cultural gripes, but argue religion shares the blame because it allows them to then take the “huge step” of justifying that violence to themselves or others, how can you then admonish efforts of religious leaders to prevent that step from being made?

If people tempted to commit violence by secular motives are going through that crucial justification process you described – trying to square XYZ horrible beliefs with Islam – a respected religious leader telling them that XYZ beliefs DO NOT SQUARE with Islam is exactly what they need at that crucial moment!  To the extent that there’s a period of soul-searching going on among those who conceive of themselves as pious Muslims and have the potential to be radicalized, the Dalai Lama’s message is precisely calibrated to leverage that self-conception for good by threatening exile from the community they fancy themselves a part of, which is just what that audience needs to hear to deter violence.

The only circumstances under which his statement would offend someone would be if they have already made up their mind that violence is justified, in which case it’s too late to be conciliatory.  And even in that case, it is far less insulting for people to be told that theirs is an aberrant interpretation of a religious text than it is for them to be told that their entire religious text is an obsolete farce, and that’s basically what you’ve been saying.  You can’t roll your eyes at “vanilla peace-talk to protect everyone’s stupid feelings and insecurities” in one comment and then lament how exclusionary and divisive he’s being in the next.

To continue my earlier analogy, I will continue to proclaim that white nationalism and libertarianism do not mix, even if some self-described libertarians are currently Klansmen.  I will make it very clear, in public, that whatever the self-professed overlap, they are in truth separate and ideologically incompatible.  I will loudly explain why anyone who tries to do both is contradicting themselves.  And my hope is that by doing this, anyone who is attracted to aspects of libertarian ideology, and would like to conceive of themselves as libertarian, will be deterred from accepting any white nationalism at the same time (or at least be forced to choose between which of these distinct self-identities they prefer to adopt).  And I believe my status as a self-described libertarian may make me more successful in this deterrence than an outsider to libertarianism who tries to convince them that both ideologies are wholly irredeemable.

Lastly, you describe religion as “a poorly-designed, obsolete tool,” which may have served some necessary function previously but today is just more dangerous and less effective than the many more refined tools we have available.  To follow your analogy, I counter that it’s more like a multi-tool, perhaps a Gerber or Swiss Army Knife for example.  To be sure, this is still a limited tool.  Sometimes it breaks and is kind of useless, and if you give it to a stupid person they can do a lot of harm.  It also cannot perform every function we humans need tools to accomplish, and even within its limited functions (cutting, carving, sawing, opening bottles, clipping nails, etc.) there may be other tools that can do some of those things just as well or better.  It is good that we develop those other tools alongside it, and maybe its services are no longer required for some of the tasks it used to be used for.

And yet, we might not want to throw away the multi-tool.  Just as hikers have limited pocket space, human beings have limited capacity to comprehend and apply dozens of complex moral philosophies at once, especially when the teachings that are ultimately no less subjective or arbitrary than religion.  Organized religion offers, in one package, a sense of purpose to people’s lives; opportunity for fellowship and community; a reason to be kind in your daily interactions; pressure to forgive those who have wronged you; a reason to do good and charitable works, to be selfless and place others before yourself.  It offers a sense of perspective and belonging in the universe.  It offers reasons to celebrate life and ways to make sense of death.  It counteracts arrogance.  It instills discipline and self-restraint.  It fulfills a deep-seeded need to feel spiritual connection with the other people on this planet.  It also has shortcomings.  But by and large, I don’t know anything else that offers all those things in one ideology, so I’m glad humanity has this tool on its belt (even if I wish we were a bit more selective in when we chose to bust it out).

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Silver Lining

Even before Donald Trump won the presidential election last month, he had already made America a much worse place.  Trump’s emergence over the past 18th months have made our political discourse much more hostile and much less coherent.  Presidential campaigns have always suffered from lack of substance, but Trump’s mere existence as a topic stripped the entire 2016 season of whatever ideological clash it might have otherwise offered.  His racism, misogyny, and lack of filter for either goaded our sensationalist media into handing him much more free airtime than he deserved, creating a constant and insufferable distraction from anything important or newsworthy in American politics over the past year.  He incited violence by both his supporters and his opposition. He stoked racial tensions and polarized our country like never before in my memory.  And beyond our nation’s borders, he has already done incalculable damage to America’s image and reputation as a leader worth turning to for guidance and example.

Now that he’s won, the next four years will surely bring much worse.  With Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, Trump may attempt to deport millions of illegal immigrants, ripping mostly innocent parents from their wholly innocent children as punishment for victimless crimes.  He will likely attempt to make most Muslim immigrants register on a database, even those who have lived here peacefully for years, and deport any who do not comply. He has appointed a cabinet full of war hawks, drug hawks, authoritarians, labor protectionists, climate change deniers and racists, plus an Attorney General who’s all of the above. He may be able to impose abortion restrictions, and perhaps even appoint judges willing to overturn Roe v. Wade.  His foreign policy remains unclear, but vaguely ominous, having floated support for multiple war crimes during the campaign. He will almost certainly expand domestic surveillance, expand detentions at Guantanamo, and expand a unilateral drone program that already had far too few limitations or checks. He has threatened to censor media outlets which criticized him. Although the Supreme Court will almost certainly disallow some of this, the disastrous spectacle of the President openly defying their rulings has never seemed so plausible.

With such frightening possibilities on the immediate horizon, I am reluctant to write this entry at all. Optimism seems irresponsible at the present moment.  It is not the time for libertarians to shrug, laugh it off and hope for the best.  This is a time for libertarians to re-forge their Bush-era allegiance with the left, and to focus our combined energies on four years’ worth of resistance and disruption strategies.  Make no mistake: the glass is more than half-empty.

Nevertheless, I see reason for hope over the long-term, and for the next few years to be bearable libertarians will need to cling to it.  The silver lining is this: Trump’s rise to power will cause millions of people to drastically reconsider their views on democracy, the state, and its proper role in our lives, in ways which stand to benefit libertarian efforts to constrain those institutions.  For all the damage Trump has done and will continue to do to both our discourse and our policy, his presidency may have a sobering effect on political insiders from both the right and the left that makes it easier to improve those institutions after he’s gone.

On the right, Trump has done the political dialogue a tremendous service by teasing out what’s rotten from what’s worth keeping.  Specifically, he has teased out the racism from the libertarianism, such that libertarians have an opportunity to shed the oft-hurled accusation of racism so long as we consistently and passionately oppose Trump.

The libertarian label has long been an appealing hiding spot for racists in disguise.  From Goldwater’s segregationists to Ron Paul’s newsletters, the Alex-Jones crowd has polluted our tolerant individualist ideology with a hateful collectivist strain. But Trump’s emergence has temporarily solved this problem by forcing self-labeled libertarians to choose between ideologically consistent small-government conservatism on one hand, or white-resentment and animosity towards racial minorities on the other.  Which side you picked determines where your allegiances truly lie.

Consequently, the so-called “alt-right” has emerged as its own ideological affiliation, recognizably distinct from libertarianism, whereas its members would formerly get lumped together and give libertarians a bad name.  As I wrote months ago, “In destroying the Republican Party, [Trump] has demolished the dual hiding place of nativists pretending to be intellectuals, and intellectuals pretending half the country agreed with them.” As it turned out, the Republican Party may not be dead quite yet, but even so my point stands.  Conservative intellectuals appalled by racism, who had formerly supported the Republican Party without qualm, must now take a hard look in the mirror as they reexamine their political bedfellows.  Meanwhile, those libertarians who remain unbranded by the scarlet letter of Trump support will have an easier time convincing audiences of their intentions and credibility moving forward – especially now that Trump’s victory prevents conservatives from abandoning him and pretending he never existed.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Trump’s presidency stands to deal a devastating and long-overdue blow to left-wing people’s faith in government at large.  That faith has always been misplaced, and we’re about to witness why.  The 2016 election has already rattled people’s faith in democracy, including even that puny smidge of it my cynical heart had left.  With any luck, his administration it produces will only continue to weaken people’s confidence in the state as the proper mechanism for achieving social change.  If that lesson sticks, it will be very good for liberty in the long-run.

All through primary school, Americans are taught a series of comforting myths about our political system.  In fact, instilling these myths was one of the primary purposes for which public schooling was originally created. There is no grand conspiracy behind it, but that purpose remains alive and well today, at least subliminally.  Nation-centric history books teach us one-sided fables about how the government was founded, how it has governed since then, and how it works today.  We are taught nursery rhymes about our founding story and the legislative process.  We’re taught that democratic government is “all of us,” and can therefore be trusted; that “We the People” call the shots.  We’re even made to stand in unison and recite a creepy pledge to a piece of fabric each morning in which we remind ourselves that OUR government offers “liberty and justice to all.”  We play the national anthem before every sports game from middle-school up, and expect everyone to stand silently for its duration: motionless and hat-less, heads bowed as if in prayer to some revered entity.  Politicians of all parties reinforce these themes every chance they get.

All of this is intended to make you believe that our government is three things: legitimate, morally authoritative, and a noble instrument for social change.  Decades of subliminal indoctrination aim to convince you that the state operates “with the consent of the governed” – that you and your neighbors have a meaningful say in shaping the law, which you should be both proud of and contented with.  From there, the argument is made that the law is a moral authority: because the law arises from the bottom up, from the people, it allegedly follows that the law is righteous, the law is just, and we have a sacred obligation to obey the law.  And finally, the leap of logic is made in our imaginations that because the law is the arbiter of right and wrong, whenever we detect something wrong in the world, we should turn to the state to make it right.  We fantasize that this government of ours, which we’ve been taught is so unique and so virtuous and such a courageous experiment in “self-rule,” is THE essential tool for solving our society’s problems – perhaps even the world’s problems. 

All politicians want you to buy-in to these three beliefs, because these three beliefs have implications on which their power depends.  The implication of legitimacy is that you should vote, encourage others to vote, shame those who don’t vote, and then accept whatever governing decisions your voting produces as a rough approximation of what most people want.  The implication of moral authority is that after you’ve voted, you have an obligation to obey even those laws which you personally opposed.  And the implication of government being an instrument for social change is that the whole endeavor of governance is transformed from the relatively simple one of protecting our most basic rights, and creating the conditions necessary for human progress to emerge through peaceful means, into one in which the state itself must hire men with guns to spearhead our personal moral crusades if any progress is to be made at all.

The beauty of Donald Trump’s victory this November is that the most educated among us can no longer square these myths with the reality before them.  It is very difficult to claim President Trump’s every opinion represents the legitimate will of the American people when his favorability ratings hover at 37%; or when only 55% of Americans voted, and only 46% of those who voted picked him; or when he lost the popular vote to one of the least popular candidates in US history.  It is very difficult for thinking people to believe that majority rule is morally authoritative when anything close to a majority has supported someone as plainly immoral as Donald J. Trump.  And it is darn-near impossible to view the American as a harbinger for social progress when that system stands to undo so many decades of progress in a single election.

The truth is that our government – and all governments – are nothing close to the patriotic pornography that the West Wing opening credits would have you believe.  Government is ugly.  It is clumsy, it is heated, it is inherently violent, it is lethal, it is unconvincing, and 99 times out of 100 it is ill-suited to making the world a better place.  There’s nothing poetic about it.  Donald Trump’s opinions do not represent the “will of the people,” and neither did Obama’s nor any president before him.  On the contrary, his opinions render obvious, to any progressive for which it wasn’t obvious already, that democracy it isn’t all of us deciding things together, nor even most of us.  It is only some of us, appointed by others of us, and no matter how many elections they win they shouldn’t get to tell the rest of us how to live.

Just as Trumps candidacy forced conservatives to choose between racial resentment and small-government idealism, Trump’s presidency will force progressives to choose between advancing progress and statism.  I hope the choice is apparent.  Democracy is not sacred, and neither are its verdicts.  That’s not a comforting realization for the millions of Americans which have come to fetishize it, but it is an overdue one.

The next four years will cause more and more Americans to dispel, one and for all, with these fictions [sic]. As more and more become disillusioned with the state, libertarians need to have answers ready for the questions they will start to ask: what caused this?  How did things get so fucked up?  What lessons can we learn from it?  How can we make the best of it while it lasts, and how can we prevent it from happening again?  If we can publicize compelling answers to those questions, we will be in line to snatch up millions of new votes by the time we do another one of these damn elections.  

But more importantly, we’ll have finally gotten through to people about the absurdity of it all. When people come to see the state for what it is – not a battleground for the fate of humanity, but a necessary evil for a narrow function – they’ll stop letting political affairs have such power over their very self-identity.  They won’t be sucked in so gullibly to these 18-month media melodramas over which inflated personality caricature will “rule the free world!” next, but will instead seek to reduce the role this outsized and outdated institution plays in their lives so they can get on with living them.

The law is an opinion with a gun; resist it when you can, ignore it when you can’t.  The next four years will be embarrassing and will hurt lots of people, but they won’t be Armageddon.  Life will move on.  The greatest joys in life have nothing to do with the state, and nor do the most exciting ways in which the world is getting better. We don’t need government to improve the world, so let’s not wait until 2020 to start trying.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Please avoid vague, ambiguous, inflammatory buzzwords

There’s been a lot of talk recently about why our country is so divided and what we can do to create a healthier political climate.  I have lots of ideas on this, many of which I have written about before on this blog (even long before Trump began his ugly campaign). Today, I will expand on just one of those topics in particular: how to avoid talking past one another.

Part of the challenge of discussing politics with people who disagree with you is that in addition to differences in values, information and experiences, people also have different mental dictionaries.  Certain words in our political discourse can mean vastly different things to different people, which makes it difficult to find an agreeable starting point from which any conversation could proceed. My advice for those hoping to have productive conversations with the other side is to spot such words, refrain from using them as much as possible, and clarify which meaning is intended if they are used.  This is especially important for words that can be perceived as insults and spark defensive reactions in others.

A few examples: “socialist,” “isolationist,” “radical,” “corrupt”.  These words each have a vaguely negative association.  But they’re also very broad; each could describe a wide range of different beliefs and behaviors, some of which are much more offensive to the average American than others.  Most Americans would reject full-blown Soviet or Marxist style socialism – but they rather like certain programs (like Social Security) that have socialist elements. Most Americans think we should trade with the world and sign international treaties and conduct diplomacy and defend our allies when they are attacked, but far fewer would object to scaling back our interventions abroad.  Almost all Americans abhor corruption in principle, but if campaign finance disputes are any indication, they don’t always agree on what it looks like in practice.

For decades, hyper-partisan people have strategically used words like these to describe the other side, without specifying which severity-level of the insult they are alleging, nor even acknowledging that there’s any nuance to the terms at all. The strategy essentially allows the speaker to spread misinformation and hyperbole without technically having said anything demonstrably false. By exploiting the ambiguity of such broad terms, partisans can rally people who feel angered or threatened by the most severe meaning, and then piggyback off the moral outrage produced by such offensive connotations to advance their political aims.  And of course, our increasingly sensationalist media eats it right up.  Over the short term, it can be quite an effective strategy. (Socrates might have called this “sophistry”: a method of argumentation that deceptive and unhelpful towards the pursuit of truth, but nevertheless carries great rhetorical effect with a crowd.)

Over the long term, though, using these buzzwords so flippantly has catastrophic consequences for the constructiveness of our discourse.  First, it causes confusion and anger on both sides, which hampers our ability to truly listen to and understand people with different opinions.  Second, overusing these words makes them almost meaningless, which eventually causes people to tune-out; this deprives activists of the lexicon they need to draw attention to important underlying issues.  And thirdly, this mass indifference in turn creates a “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, where cases that actually ARE the most-severe-possible version of the buzzword, and actually DO warrant moral outrage, are met with a shrug and a yawn.

Nowhere is this clearer than it is with perhaps the most ambiguous and widespread political attack word of modern times: racist.

I have called Donald Trump racist on several occasions. I do not retract it; it seems clear to me that Trump and most his supporters are driven in part by white resentment towards minorities, or at least by a statistically unfounded distrust of them.  It also seems abundantly clear to me that whatever his motivation, and however innocuous his intent, his policies will worsen the de facto conditions of racial oppression.  By my understanding of the word, that’s enough to qualify him as a racist man.

And yet, I found myself feverishly nodding along with every word of this fantastic post by Scott Alexander. It is long but worth it; a meticulous, compelling, 8,000 word smackdown of the apoplectic racial hyperbole that surrounded Donald Trump from the moment he announced his candidacy.  If you read nothing else about politics this week, follow that hyperlink; conservatives, because you will want to stand up and applaud, and liberals because you might just need a reality check.  In case you don't follow my advice, here's a one-sentence summary: the exaggeration of Donald Trump’s racism over the past year has been absolutely unreal, and almost completely unchecked. Too many people (myself included) let it slide because it was an election year, and he was the bad guy, and we didn’t want to make it seem as if we were at all sympathetic to him or his policies.  That was cowardly of us.

You can call me privileged until you’re blue in the face, but it won’t change the truth that not all racism is equally horrid.  The preference for a tougher criminal justice system is not akin to the explicit belief that some races are superior to others.  Anxiety about immigrants from certain Muslim majority nations, in which we have been fighting wars for decades, is less reprehensible than Nazi-style anti-Semitism.  If you’re going to define racism so broadly as the left has chosen to define it, the tradeoff to that is you can no longer demand people respond to the entire, growing list of things you call racist with the same level of outrage they formerly reserved for Klansmen lynch mobs.  The larger and larger your conception of institutional racism becomes, the more ethically distinct behaviors it encompasses.  Those distinctions matter, and glossing over them is counterproductive.

This doesn’t mean you can’t call racism racism.  Just like economics and foreign policy and corruption, racism is important and needs to be talked about.  Sometimes you can’t discuss these topics without using the overused word in question, and I’m not suggesting we forego those conversations just to prevent confusion or offense.  Just remember that for the conversation to be worth having in the first place, for it to be at all constructive, the parties to the conversation need to settle on a fixed, mutual understanding of the terms they use before they go on using them.  

Don’t be a sophist.  Be a responsible steward of the American political lexicon, and isolate the thing you are referencing from whatever additional baggage its label might imply.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A heartfelt message from a swing-state third-party voter who preferred Clinton to Trump

I’d like to begin this post with a pretty sobering confession.  I am a college graduate whose home-of-record is in swing-state Pennsylvania. I have been politically active for my entire adult life.  This year, like most educated, politically active people, I recognized that Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Donald Trump – and then I voted for Gary Johnson anyway. 

At the time, I reckoned this was a pretty safe gamble.  The polls had Clinton leading Pennsylvania pretty comfortably, and most experts I read online expected Clinton to win the presidency in a landslide.  Why not vote my conscience, I thought?  It probably wouldn't matter anyway.

To my horror, the polls were wrong.  As it turned out, Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin (about 68,000 votes, compared to the 142,000 Johnson received in PA) and it was this very state which (chronologically) nudged him over the 270 Electoral College voters he needed to win the presidency.

Having glumly reflected on my role in all this for almost a week now, I’d like to own up and say a few words to Hillary Clinton and her supporters.  They come from the heart, and while I cannot speak for everyone who voted for Gary Johnson (we libertarians are notoriously resistant to being collectivized) I do suspect that most of those four-million Americans would say the same to you, if they could:

You’re welcome.

You’re WELCOME, Clinton fans, that our joint efforts to get Gary Johnson on the ballot in all 50 states allowed you and your corrupt, warmongering, universally despised candidate to save face by winning the popular vote.

Now, thanks all the votes we drew away from Trump, you can continue to lie to yourselves and the world in asserting that Hillary Clinton was the true “people’s choice.” Now, thanks to us, you can assuage your troubled heart with the consolation prize of feeling slighted by an antiquated system.  Now, thanks to us, you can attack a tired scapegoat for a little while longer before being made to confront the deep-rooted failings in both your 2016 candidate and your long-term strategy for enacting social change.

Oh - was that not what the message you were expecting?

If not, perhaps you read Jezebel’s headlines the morning after election day – “Fuck Gary Johnson” followed by “Oh, and Fuck Jill Stein too” – and in your anger, eagerly surmised from this that they had crunched the numbers and determined third-parties cost Hillary Clinton the election.  If so, fret not: your truth-seeking skills are no worse than those of the inquiring journalists at CNN, whose headlines reported this same finding as fact (leaving it to the reader to fill in the F-bomb implications). 

Or perhaps you listened to Rachel Maddow – who basically brought libertarian VP nominee Bill Weld on her show for the explicit purpose of getting him to convince his own supporters not to vote for him – when she lashed out at those who ignored her advice on election night. True to form, a dude on her NBC blog followed up with an argument that “third-party voters had an enormous, Nader-like impact” on the 2016 election” on the logic if 100% of Stein and 50% of Johnson’s voters had voted for Clinton without ANY Johnson voters voting for Trump! – it would have been enough for her to take the presidency. Within hours, this faulty reasoning had become “proof” that Jill Stein and Gary Johnson made the difference, and by the following day Vanity Fair was so certain of this that they called it “undeniable that third-party voters cost Clinton the election.

With all this talk of undeniable proof, you’d be forgiven for declining to check the numbers yourself.  That would be time-consuming, and surely our media wouldn’t dare report it if it weren’t true, right? Surely they’re much too invested in their sterling reputation as dispassionate fact-finders to risk whipping-up unfounded partisan mud-slinging at such a time as this.  That would be irresponsible of them, especially at a moment of fierce national tension, when everybody’s looking for something or someone to blame!

But for whatever reason, a nagging voice in my head told me to go check it out with my own two eyes.  So I did.  And because I’m a nerd who gets excited by Excel, I made a nice little color-coded project out of it that took up my entire afternoon.  You can see my full handiwork here. If you’re short on time, though, I’ll save you the hassle: it’s all bullshit.  Third-party voters might have swung Michigan from Clinton to Trump, and they might have swung New Hampshire from Trump to Clinton, but no other states would likely have been flipped in a world with neither Johnson nor Stein on the ballot.  In order for Clinton to have won the election in that world, even assuming 100% voter turnout among those disillusioned third-party voters (which is preposterous), she’d have needed 100% of would-be Stein voters to prefer her (unlikely) and 57% of would-be Johnson voters to prefer her (absurd).  In fact, when you isolate the effects of my candidate, you find that Donald Trump would probably have won the popular vote too had there been no Libertarian on the ballot.  So again, you’re welcome.

Listen, the left is right to be angry by what happened on Tuesday.  I sure as hell am.  But that doesn’t make this recurring myth of a scapegoat any less pathetic.  It is the height of illogic to blame Gary Johnson or Jill Stein for who won the White House last week. Period.  Even supposing Johnson drew evenly from both sides (an eyebrow-raising assumption for anyone familiar with the conservative tendencies of most libertarians) there was simply no plausible mechanism by which to peel off half of Gary Johnson’s supporters towards Clinton without sending the other half scurrying to Trump.  Maddow tried, to be sure, but that blew up in Weld’s face. You can’t implore an entire class of people to abandon their preferred candidate for one with a chance to win, unless they would otherwise prefer the opposite candidate from you, in which case they should totally stick with the guy with no chance to win. There is no actual world in which your strategic voting could have been applied by only that half of Johnson supporters who preferred your candidate.

Many commentators wouldn’t even settle for half, anyway.  I am sincerely amazed by how many imbeciles on my timeline are simply looking at the margin of victory in battleground states, noting that third-party vote totals exceeded that margin, and then literally just ADDING that figure to Clinton’s totals to conclude that third-parties cost Clinton the White House.  Since when has libertarianism EVER been a left-wing ideology?  Since when has the left EVER been expecting our votes?  And if they were hoping for our vote this time around, when did they EVER indicate that to us beforehand?

My hypothetical conversation with any Democrat frustrated by libertarians voting for the libertarian candidate would go something like this:

Democrats: “God, why didn’t libertarians grow-up and vote for Clinton???”

Me: “Did you ever try to draw them into your coalition?”

Democrats: “No, I called them all assholes, but they should have got the message!”

Hillary Clinton’s vote was never mine to lose.  I would not have bothered to request, fill out and mail-in an absentee ballot from halfway across the world had she been the best option on that ballot, and I won’t be guilt-tripped into regretting that based on faulty logic.  I, on an individual level, could not have changed the outcome by strategically voting for my preferred major party candidate.  And we, as both Johnson voters and third-party voters on a collective level, could also not have changed the outcome by strategically voting for our preferred major party candidates.  There’s no story here.

I started off this post by confessing that a week ago today, I never expected my vote would make a difference.  Sure enough, it fucking didn’t.