Elite soiree with known human rights abuser stained by accusation of human rights abuse

Mark Landler and Kate Kelly of the New York Times published a curiously-framed piece titled, “‘Davos in the Desert,’ a Saudi Prince’s Glittering Showcase, Is Stained by a Grisly Accusation.” The Saudi prince in question is Mohammed bin Salman. Many analysts, politicians, and others suspect bin Salman in the disappearance and probable murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. See here for a rundown of that story by Vox’s Alexia Underwood.

The Times piece recounts the sudden squeamishness of many world elites after the troubling and unresolved story of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

In my opinion, it’s curious that these elites did not think that their fun vacation was already stained. For relevant context, here are some pieces from two major human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International:

Saudi Crown Prince Must Answer For Atrocities In Yemen” (March 18th, 2018)

Saudi Arabia should invest in human rights, not PR campaigns” (March 29th, 2018)

Mohammed Bin Salman Deserves Sanctions, Not the Red Carpet” (April 9th, 2018)

Saudi Arabia: Growing Crackdown on Women’s Rights Activists” (May 23rd, 2018)

For Saudi Women, Freedom to Drive Masks New Crackdown” (June 22nd, 2018)

One might also take a look at the overall human rights reports from HRW and AI covering recent years: see here and here.

This is just a smattering from two major human rights organizations. In light of such widely available public information, is there any reason to take seriously the alleged newfound discomfort from the elite interests attending “Davos in the Desert”? Perhaps more importantly, is there any reason for newspapers like the New York Times to frame a story about this discomfort as if it is authentic?


Presidential derangement syndrome: a brief history

If you pay attention to the sillier parts of political debate (that is, their largest and most dominant parts), you will have heard defenders of Donald Trump accuse his critics of something called “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Here is a recent example from Geraldo Rivera, in which he says, “I think that Trump derangement syndrome is a real thing.”

And here is a video of Fareed Zakaria taking the concept seriously on CNN.

The concept has a history. Here, for example, is an essay on The Economist‘s Lexington Blog from early in the Obama presidency. From the essay:

The economic crisis has transformed this cultural suspicion into a much more potent political force. It is true that Mr Obama’s solution to the recession—spending public money in order to stimulate demand and trying to prevent a run on the banks—is supported by most economists. Mr Bush would have done much the same thing. But it is nevertheless driving many Americans crazy. April 15th—the last day on which Americans can perform the melancholy duty of filing their tax returns—saw rallies (dubbed “tea parties” after the Boston one) in every state, 500 or so in all. The protesters, some of whom dressed in three-cornered hats and waved “Don’t tread on me” flags, repeated a litany of criticisms that has been mounting since Mr Obama won the election—that he is a big government socialist (or fascist) who wants to take people’s money away and crush their freedoms.

The essay notes that Obama Derangement Syndrome had an earlier parallel on the political left, and uses it to predict the future:

Bush-hatred eventually spread from a molten core of leftists to set the cultural tone of the country. But Obama-hatred could just as easily do the opposite and brand all conservatives as a bunch of Obama-hating cranks.

Indeed, nearly every commentator writing about the concept of presidential derangement syndrome locates its origin during the Bush era. As Ezra Klein writes,

In 2003, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer diagnosed a new affliction in some of George W. Bush’s fiercest critics. He described the condition as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” He called it Bush Derangement Syndrome.

Here is the piece by Krauthammer. Incredibly, there is a subsection devoted to the concept in the Wikipedia entry for Bush’s public image, here. (Note how far we’ve fallen even from our already-fallen state: Trump Derangement Syndrome has its own devoted entry.)

It’s true that Krauthammer coined the terminology of presidential derangement syndrome. But readers may be interested to know that he certainly didn’t invent the concept. In 1997, Philip Weiss wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called, “The Clinton Crazies,” here. Says Weiss:

The Clinton crazies — I’d first heard the term used, with tongue only slightly in cheek, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a British journalist who is one of them — are of different types. There are haters like Nichols and Pat Matrisciana, a film maker, who have developed a monstrous view of Clinton as Satan’s nephew. Then there are the professional reporters of a conservative and sometimes conspiratorial bent who tend to portray the President as a figurehead for a corrupt political organization that has its roots in Arkansas. Evans-Pritchard, who writes for The Sunday Telegraph of London, is in this group. Martyrs are in another class: they tend to be Arkansans who feel they have been victimized by what they see as Clinton’s political machine, and they have been embraced by anti-Clinton warriors. Finally there are the freelance obsessives, the people for whom the Internet was invented, cerebral hobbyists who have glimpsed in the Clinton scandals a high moral drama that might shake society to its roots. Prominent in this group is Hugh H. Sprunt of Farmers Branch, Tex., who has made himself an expert in the matter of the death of Vincent Foster.

I am fairly confident that even Weiss can’t lay claim to truly inventing the attribution of president-specific mental illness to political opponents, but I’m not nearly the historian of presidential politics that I should be. I will run over to Twitter and tag all of the presidential historians I can find to see what they know. If anything else turns up, I’ll report it here in updates to the post.

Is there “political support” for raising the federal gun purchase age limit?

Noam Chomsky often makes the point that, in the mouths of American elites, the term “political support” usually means support by elite interests, regardless of public opinion. Here is just one example:

For decades, polls have shown that health care is at or near the top of public concerns — not surprisingly, given the disastrous failure of the health care system, with per capita costs twice as high as comparable societies and some of the worst outcomes. Polls also consistently show that large majorities want a nationalized system, called “single payer,” rather like the existing Medicare system for the elderly, which is far more efficient than the privatized systems or the one introduced by Obama. When any of this is mentioned, which is rare, it is called “politically impossible” or “lacking political support” — meaning that the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and others who benefit from the current system, object. We gained an interesting insight into the workings of American democracy from the fact that in 2008, unlike 2004, the Democratic candidates — first Edwards, then Clinton and Obama — came forward with proposals that at least begun to approach what the public has wanted for decades. Why? Not because of a shift in public attitudes, which have remained steady. Rather, [the] manufacturing industry has been suffering from the costly and inefficient privatized health care system, and the enormous privileges granted, by law, to the pharmaceutical industries. When a large sector of concentrated capital favors some program, it becomes “politically possible” and has “political support.” Just as revealing as the facts themselves is that they are not noticed.

Today, Donald Trump gives us another example in the context of gun control legislation.

Turning to public opinion, we find evidence that Americans pretty strongly (67%) favor raising the age limit, with only 26% opposing.

Who Are the Student Mobbists, and Does David Brooks Understand Them?

In a recent essay, David Brooks seeks to extend “empathy” to some people he calls “student mobbists.” Brooks’ empathy consists mainly in the following two claims:

1. The demands of racial justice have transformed from the interpersonal to the structural: “Now the crucial barriers to racial justice are seen not just as individual, but as structural economic structures, the incarceration crisis, the breakdown of family structure.”

2. Reason no longer matters. “Today’s young people were raised within an educational ideology that taught them that individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivism — what perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.”

The first claim is arguably empathetic in that, if true, it would go some way toward justifying the frustrations of student activists. The second claim does not seem empathetic to me at all, since it attributes a kind of explicit irrationalism to student activists.

Brooks offers very little in the way of evidence for his claims, so it’s pretty hard to evaluate them. I suspect they will just feel right to some readers (especially, conservatives and those liberals who are in or around Brooks’ generation) and wrong to others (especially, the people who the claims are actually about). That being said, he at least locates the claims in time and space. So, when were the demands of racial justice interpersonal rather than structural? And when did reason matter? Brooks’ answer is: the 1980s.

I would begin my stab at understanding by acknowledging that I grew up in one era and they grew up in another. I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we have developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force.

There was also an assumption that while we might disagree on the means, we all wanted basically the same things. For example, though America was plagued by economic divides we all wanted a society in which social mobility and equal opportunity were the rule. Though America is plagued by racism, we all wanted more integration and less bigotry, a place where talent and character mattered more than skin color and prejudice.

Unfortunately, Brooks offers about as much evidence for his praise of the 1980s as he does for his condemnation of the contemporary scene.

The idea that racism has only recently been seen as a matter of a structural rather than an individual problems would come as a surprise to leading activists and theorists who lived well-before Brooks’ Golden Age – for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. The idea that there was an “assumption” that we “all” wanted social mobility, equal opportunity, more integration, and less bigotry is odd in an article that acknowledges the problem of mass incarceration, which even less-racialized accounts acknowledge as becoming a serious problem beginning in none other than the 1980s, during Reagan’s tough-on-crime politics and the then-nascent War on Drugs.

As for what Brooks calls “perspectivism,” it’s hard to know for sure what he has in mind. If pressed, could he find some activists or, better, some prominent, influential thinkers who they rely on, who claim that “perspective” is more important than “individual reason and emotion”? The world is a big place, so, maybe.

It’s more likely that Brooks is obliquely referring to an ideology that has an intellectual grounding in what is sometimes called standpoint epistemology. If so, then Brooks deeply misunderstands the view. The idea of standpoint epistemology is not that one’s standpoint (or “perspective”) trumps reason and the emotional life. Rather, the idea is that certain standpoints (that is to say, certain social, cultural, religious, etc. … positions) in fact give one a better, more accurate perspective on particular issues or aspects of issues. The idea is not that, for example, in virtue of being a black person in America, you are automatically an expert in, say, statistics regarding racial bias among police officers. Rather, the idea is that, in virtue of their racial position, black Americans will tend to have better access to what racial bias among police officers is like, what it is like to live in a context of being intimidated on the basis of such bias, experiential expertise in identifying racism in ways to which those outside of the position have little access, and so on. This view is squarely within the domain of views that take “individual reason and emotion” very seriously.

Whatever one thinks about individual vs. institutional analyses of racism, and whatever one thinks about standpoint epistemology, Brooks’ historical and philosophical claims about both issues are pretty implausible.

Some reactions to Glenn Greenwald vs. James Risen

As explained in this blog’s sidebar, an epistepocalypse is “A disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human knowledge and understanding, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion; a cataclysm, esp. on a global scale.” Even though a major epistepocalypse is ongoing (in virtue of political polarization, increasing concentration of media ownership, the death of the humanities, and other factors), it is healthy to sometimes appreciate resistance to the trend.

In that spirit, I’d like to highlight the recent exchange between Glenn Greenwald and James Risen, moderated by Jeremy Scahill for the Intercepted podcast. Click here for a transcript of the exchange (with a link to video). The exchange is anti-epistepocalyptic, because it involves two people simultaneously disagreeing about important matters while attempting to genuinely understand each other.

As I see it, Greenwald and Risen each offer one major criticism of the other. I’ll summarize those criticisms and offer some (fairly light) critical remarks of my own.

1. Risen’s usage of “traitor” and “treason”

The main catalyst for the exchange was Risen’s recent article, “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?” Risen writes that “if a presidential candidate or his lieutenants secretly work with a foreign government that is a longtime adversary of the United States to manipulate and then win a presidential election, that is almost a textbook definition of treason.” Citing an article by Steve Vladeck, Greenwald argues that Risen’s usage of “traitor” does not fit the intentionally narrow definition in the Constitution.

Here is the excerpt I want to focus on:

James Risen: But the idea that if you’re a presidential candidate and you get elected by colluding with an adversary of the United States, I think most Americans would think in the common usage of the term that that would be treason. Now, I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a traitor.

Glenn Greenwald: There is no definition of treason or traitor besides the legal definition.

JR: Yeah, well, I think, I think that’s, I think you’re wrong about that.

GG: I think it’s a really dangerous standard.

JR: I think there’s a common usage and a legal usage.

GG: I think it’s a really dangerous standard, for you to say, “OK, well maybe treason and being a traitor doesn’t apply in the legal sense, but a lot of Americans think that it would apply in a colloquial sense.” You know what? I can guarantee you, and I’m sure there’s polling to support this in fact, in 2006 and 2007 a lot of Americans believed that the New York Times was guilty of treason.

Even if Greenwald is correct that Risen hasn’t captured the constitutional definition of “treason” or “traitor,” it’s odd to say that there is no non-constitutional usage of these terms. First, there’s the banal point that the words “treason” and “traitor” predate the United States Constitution (the Oxford English dictionary dates both to the 13th century!). But more importantly, I think it’s just intuitively obvious that the ordinary sense of these terms simply involves a serious betrayal of one’s country or people. Even so, Greenwald isn’t wrong that the rhetoric is dangerous and opportunistic (the latter, in the sense that we tend to use it only when the politics match our ideology). And he’s been remarkably consistent on this point. (Don’t believe me? Peruse the results of this Google search!) Moreover, although Risen acknowledged some technical differences between the legal usage and his, he was clearly making some claim to a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution (he says that Mueller will refrain from issuing treason charges as a mere “practical matter”). Nevertheless, it’s not right to pin a wildly inaccurate misuse of language on Risen. Maybe some terms and concepts are so potent that we should totally discard their commonsense usage – but that criticism is different from saying that the commonsense usage is non-existent.

2. Greenwald’s success as a communicator

As any blasphemously loyal Intercept reader (like myself) knows, Greenwald’s position that journalists and pundits often go beyond the evidence in claiming Trump-Russia collusion often gets conflated with a view he has not defended: that there is nothing legitimate about the Mueller investigation, or that collusion didn’t happen. Risen suspects that this isn’t solely other people’s fault:

[Y]ou and I are in the communications business, and if the preponderance of what you write is interpreted by a large number of your readers in a certain way then, and it’s not what you intended, then you failed as a communicator. Have you accurately communicated what you really believe over the last year?

Greenwald regards this argument as “preposterous,” and defends instead the explanation that “there is an attempt to smear people who don’t get on board with the prevailing orthodoxy.”

It seems clear to me that both of these can be partial explanations. In fact, Greenwald’s explanation could be most of the explanation, yet Risen might still have a point. Greenwald cites the (very epistepocalyptic!) run-up to the Iraq War to defend his point in a different context: “opponents of the Iraq war were constantly accused of being admirers of Saddam Hussein. Were they? No they weren’t.”

Perhaps surprisingly, I think that this example highlights how both Greenwald’s and Risen’s points are in fact partial explanations, even if Greenwald’s is the dominant one. One of the rhetorical devices that apologists for state violence use against its opponents is a dishonest argument from silence. When the opponent of state violence against X (say, Saddam Hussein) is either silent on, or minimizes reference to, the crimes of X, the apologist for state violence presents this as positive support for X. We see this all over the place. For example, consider this exchange between Sean Hannity and Yousef Munayyer, in which Hannity requires that Munayyer positively condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization before proceeding with a discussion. You’ll look in vain for similar conversational requirements in the other direction, even in dissident media like Democracy Now!.

It’s true that it is irrational for readers and listeners to infer support for Hussein or support for terrorism based on either silence or lack of emphasis. It’s also true that there are good reasons for silence and lack of emphasis. These include:

i. The object of silence or minimal emphasis is usually a matter of widespread agreement already. (Cf. another interesting example: demands that Noam Chomsky assert that the Holocaust happened, in reaction to the Faurisson Affair. This resulted in one of my favorite Chomsky quips: “It seems to me something of a scandal that it is even necessary to debate these issues two centuries after Voltaire defended the right of free expression for views he detested. It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers.”)

ii. Remaining silent or minimizing emphasis can be an act of solidarity with those who are on the losing end of a one-sided narrative. (For example, it’s perfectly reasonable for black activists to resist demands by their white critics that they condemn “black-on-black crime,” and the like.)

I don’t think either (i) or (ii) really apply to the Russia investigation. So, while it is stupid for readers or listeners to infer extreme skepticism or denial from Greenwald’s persistent demand that journalists and pundits stick to the evidence, and while it is deeply dishonest for critics who know better to pin such things on him, I think that there are nevertheless strong pragmatic grounds for going out of one’s way to avoid this kind of misunderstanding. Imagine, for example, that Greenwald wrote even a short or medium-sized piece explaining what he (as an expert in law, no less!) thinks the extant evidence positively shows or suggests. While such a piece would, perhaps, be something of a capitulation to propagandists, it would not have the humiliating features of a Palestinian being asked to condemn Palestinians, or a Black Lives Matters activist being asked to condemn violence committed by black people, etc.

Since I’ve favorably cited Chomsky (who I admire at least as much as Current Affairs’ Nathan Robinson does), I should say that I think something like the same pragmatic criticism applies to him – who is, likewise, not in the social/political position of a Black American or a Palestinian. Although it is obvious to me that Chomsky does not think that America is the root of all evil, or that terrorism committed by Palestinians is good, or … etc., it is utterly predictable that his writings and speeches will be misrepresented in these ways. As such, it takes more than just an obligatory line or two to combat this tactic.

The upshot is that I think Greenwald is correct that the primary fault for misinterpretation of his writings is with propagandists and even some readers themselves, but that Risen is right that Greenwald could (without too much effort, or self-humiliation) and should do more to reduce the frequency and intensity of these misinterpretations.

Editor-in-chief of The Daily Ant Liveblogs Templeton Foundation Ceremony Honoring Philosopher Alvin Plantinga

The Daily Ant is an online magazine that features premier ant content, including but not limited to their “Philosophy Phriday” series (see here for the updated list of contributions). Tonight, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Ant gave a play-by-play of the Templeton Foundation ceremony honoring Alvin Plantinga. You can read it yourself here!

Mooch Monday: Sackful O’ Ants

Here is a guest post I did for The Daily Ant.


The Daily Ant

Very few things have nothing to do with ants, and Anthony Scaramucci (or, as he is known in the adult cartoon we call reality, “The Mooch”) is no exception.

Many readers will have only just recently learned their Moochian Myrmecology from intrepid journalist and gleeful polemicist Matt Taibbi. Who is Matt Taibbi? Well, let me put it this way. In 2005, Matt Taibbi wrote an essay called “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope” which, like Donald Trump, earned condemnation from both Hillary Clinton and Anthony Weiner. In 2012, he wrote this touching eulogy on the occasion of the actual death of Andrew Breitbart. In the very same year, he also wrote this love letter to David Brooks. (Which reminds me, I swear I once heard Ann Coulter describe David Brooks as the “Elisabeth Hasselbeck of the New York Times,” but I can’t find the…

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