Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving 2020

Happy Thanksgiving! Arlo Guthrie announced his retirement earlier this year for health reasons; you can read his statement on his website here. I saw him perform a few years back and at least half a dozen times over the years, most often with Pete Seeger. It's too bad he can't tour anymore, but he's currently 73 and started young, so he been performing for over 50 years, which is pretty impressive. His story/song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" starts with a real story about Thanksgiving and a closed garbage dump. Here's the original 1967 version, from Arlo's debut album, Alice's Restaurant:

Arlo performed the massacree on tours only every decade or so, and I was happy to hear it live. He added some funny stuff about Nixon, and later rerecorded his entire debut album, including his updated version, plus pretty arrangements of the other songs. From 1996:

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Armistice Day 11/11/20

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly. (No new post this year.)

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Punishment Conservatives

As far as this problem of law and order is concerned, I am for law and order.
– Richard Nixon, accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.
I remember this guy, [reporter Ali] Velshi, he got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas, and he went down. He didn't, he was down. 'My knee, my knee.' [Crowd laughter] Nobody cared, these guys didn't care. They moved him aside. [Crowd laughter] And they just walk right through. It was like, it was the most beautiful thing. [Crowd hooting] No, because after we take all that crap, for weeks and weeks, they would take this crap, and then you finally see men get up there and go right to, didn't, wasn't it really a beautiful sight? [Crowd cheers] It's called law and order, law and order.
– Donald Trump, at a September 19th, 2020 rally.

Conservative claims often can't be taken at face value. Almost all of the time, when they say "freedom," they really mean privilege. And when they say "law and order," they likewise mean something else. They don't really support the law, because they don't support due process, and they certainly don't support the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters or reporters or anyone else they view as Other. They do care about "order," not in the sense of a fair, equal, just system, but meaning their preferred hierarchy, with themselves on top, and punishment enforced against anyone uppity enough to step out of line.

Possibly the only good thing about Donald Trump is that he sometimes says the quiet parts out loud. Digby covered the September Trump rally in more depth – including its blatant racism – but Velshi responded, "So, @realDonaldTrump, you call my getting hit by authorities in Minneapolis on 5/30/20 (by a rubber bullet, btw, not a tear gas cannister) a "beautiful thing" called "law and order". What law did I break while covering an entirely peaceful (yes, entirely peaceful) march?" The footage of cops using tear gas and then rubber bullets on Velshi and others for no good reason is chilling. Velshi reflected, "I’ve since said to colleagues, if we were covering this somewhere else, we’d be saying, 'An authoritarian regime was silencing opposition and targeting media.' That’s what it felt like. That’s not the way it’s supposed to go here." Police brutality remains a serious problem on its own, but it also reveals a significant problem about the conservative base. The violence against Velshi and others was unnecessary and arguably unlawful. And Trump was reveling in it, as was the crowd, who he egged on. The conservative base views journalists reporting the news factually and doing their jobs as one of their many enemies. They might approve of Velshi or other being arrested, but what they really want to see is violence inflicted on the people they dislike. Whether that's legal or a good, sustainable system doesn't matter to them; they just want to know that the right people are being hurt and pushed around. Instead of being "law and order" conservatives, they can be more accurately described as punishment conservatives.

Punishment conservatives contrast strongly with the people who believe in due process, which does include some self-described conservatives, such as Alberto Mora and others who opposed the Bush torture regime. Due process conservatives stand with plenty of liberals and self-identified independents in believing in due process, the social contract, the Commons, voting rights, civilization in general, and respecting that representative government can make decisions even if they don't approve of all the actual decisions. But such people are a minority in the conservative movement and the Republican Party and have no real power in them. Many have fled and changed their political party or self-identification.

Conscientious citizens are left with the growing problem of what to do about the conservative base – movement conservatives – punishment conservatives – or whatever they should be called. Perhaps "punishment conservatives" is just another name for authoritarian conservatives or is a subset. But what they believe is more important than their label. They support violence against those they don't like, regardless of its legality. They oppose a free and accurate press. They oppose democracy and universal voting rights. They view any election result they don't like as inherently illegitimate and believe they get to veto any decision by a representative government they don't like. They believe in entrenched inequality and a hierarchy with themselves on top, and have an undying (and unjustified) faith in their own inherent superiority. They dogmatically believe in significant falsehoods and seek to make reality bend to their warped views. Trump is the most prominent and powerful current example of these punishment/authoritarian conservatives, but he's also just one part of a long and dangerous movement.

Consider the conservative response to Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old who traveled from Illinois to Wisconsin with guns to confront protestors for racial justice and is "accused of fatally shooting two demonstrators and injuring a third"; he has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide. He acted as a vigilante, but quickly became a martyr figure for some conservatives. His mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, received a standing ovation in Wisconsin at a Waukesha County Republican Party event, as relayed by conservative Michelle Malkin, who added that she "was able to talk to Kyle by phone & THANK HIM for his courage!" Other conservatives started fundraisers for Kyle Rittenhouse, and some conservative politicians praised or defended him, including Donald Trump, who could muster condemnation for an anti-fascist accused of a shooting but none for Rittenhouse. Worse than that, "federal law enforcement officials were directed to make public comments sympathetic to Kyle Rittenhouse." Rittenhouse might not have acted lawfully, but that hasn't mattered to his conservatives fans, because he inflicted violence on people they fear and hate.

Consider as well the case of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who, like many other governors, issued stay-at-home guidelines earlier in the year to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. In response, angry conservative activists, overwhelmingly white and many of them with guns, swarmed the state capitol on multiple occasions. Many conservatives have refused to wear masks or follow other safety guidelines to help halt the pandemic, continuing a conservative trend of denying science and fighting ferociously for the bedrock conservative principle that anything I don't like is unconstitutional. Trump, as always making things worse, tweeted in all caps, "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and repeated the pattern for other states.

In early October, the FBI announced that it had prevented a frightening plot by conservative "militia" groups to kidnap Whitmer, put her on "trial," and murder her. The general national reaction was shock, but conservative media outlets tried to deny that the criminals were conservative, and Michigan Republican candidate Paul M Smith claimed the plot was a "totally bogus sham," a "pre-election stunt" and that "these citizens never did anything illegal." (To its credit, the state party disowned Smith.) Other conservative conspiracy theorists, including Alex Jones, claimed the plot was a false flag operation to make conservatives look bad yet simultaneously approved of the terrorists' alleged actions. Conservative Rick Wiles similarly blamed Whitmer for provoking the plot.

In Whitmer's address on the plot and the crazy situation in Michigan, she condemned "hatred, bigotry and violence" and also public figures who didn't call it out or even encouraged it, including Trump. Rather than tamping things down, Trump responded with another set of angry tweets and then attacked Whitmer again at a Michigan rally. At a subsequent Michigan rally, petulant manchild Trump mused that maybe the kidnapping and murder plot against Whitmer wasn't a bad thing. As usual, the crowd approved of Trump's irresponsible, vindictive attitude. As Digby observed, Trump is openly excusing terrorism now, and she further quipped, "Very fine people can disagree whether it’s a problem to kidnap and execute a sitting Governor because she closed gyms for a couple of weeks and asked people to wear masks. I mean, she probably deserves it, amirite?" The problem is not just Trump, because his many supporters agree. And Trump and his supporters have shown that they approve of cops assaulting protesters, cops assaulting journalists, vigilantes killing protesters, and vigilantes kidnapping and killing duly elected officials doing their jobs trying to protect the public. (On a related note, Dr. Fauci and other health officials have unconscionably received death threats merely for advocating for public health.) We shouldn't make excuses for Trump and his supporters and should assume that they're completely serious about all their authoritarian, violent rhetoric. They should be held to account.

Conservative hostility toward the press goes back decades, at least. Trump has put the press in pens at his rallies and verbally attacked them, leading the conservative faithful in booing the press or otherwise harassing them. It brings to mind the less dangerous but still troubling and illegal "free speech zones" used by the George W. Bush administration for protesters. Timothy McVeigh, 1995's Oklahoma City bomber, killed 168 people and injured at least 680 others, yet in 2002, Ann Coulter said, "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to The New York Times building." Coulter reiterated her remarks several times and also accused The New York Times of treason for coverage she didn't like. Coulter tries to be shocking, of course, but she has largely gotten a pass throughout her career, and more importantly, she expresses an entitled hatred endemic among the conservative base. At a Trump rally in 2016, a photo made the rounds due to a Trump supporter's t-shirt, which said, "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required." Such shirts date back to the Bush era at the very least. Such eliminationist rhetoric is common among conservatives, whereas it's pretty rare among liberals and other nonconservatives. As John Dickerson observed in 2006, the left-wing blogosphere wants the press to do a better job, because "when the press gets it wrong, left-wing bloggers believe, the people are ill-informed and democracy suffers." In contrast, "At some level, the right doesn't much like that the press exists. They don't want to fix it, they want to drive a stake through its heart." Authoritarian conservatives don't want the truth – they want the party line. And they'd like to see anyone who doesn't toe that line punished.

Conservatism has always had an antidemocratic strain. Authoritarian conservatives tend to view any election they lose as inherently illegitimate, and approve of conservative voter suppression efforts, other election cheating and any other tactics to undermine outcomes they don't like. (The people's will be damned, unless it happens to match their own.) In 1980, Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the so-called Moral Majority and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), told his fellow conservatives, "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

In 1994, ultraconservative, Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, member of the Foreign Relations Committee, threatened President Bill Clinton, saying in the context of visiting military bases, "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard." Helms later said he didn't mean to be taken seriously, but the Secret Service felt otherwise. To their credit, other Republicans criticized Helms, but his remarks were telling; Helms went on to say Clinton was not up to the job of commander-in-chief and that he had "serious problems with his record of draft avoidance, with his stand on homosexuals in the military and with the declining defense capability of America's armed forces." Helms further complained that Clinton should not be "immune from criticism," but apparently criticizing Clinton without suggesting that military personnel would or should assault or even kill the president of another party was beyond Helms' moral capabilities.

In 2009, when President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress, Republican South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shockingly interrupted Obama, shouting "You lie!" In point of fact, Obama was telling the truth that his health care plan would not insure illegal immigrants. Wilson later called the White House to apologize, but refused to apologize on the House floor. He was admonished by the House of Representatives, but the vote was mostly along party lines, so his fellow Republicans sided with Wilson. Wilson received a huge surge in donations after the incident (as did his Democratic challenger at the time), showing that other conservatives and Republicans outside Congress also approved of Joe Wilson's actions. Wilson has had his words used against him by protesters since, but he's still in Congress and the overwhelming favorite to win reelection in 2020. Wilson's interruption was an unprecedented, stunning show of disrespect, and given the subject and speaker, there was a strong undercurrent of bigotry: a white, conservative Southerner putting an uppity black man in his place, to the approval of his party and other conservatives.

On October 7th, 2020, conservative, Republican Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted, "We’re not a democracy" and "Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that." Vox provided the most charitable reading of Lee's comments, placing them in a conservative tradition of selective reading of the founding fathers, which still leaves Lee's claims as utter bullshit on both historical and moral grounds. Mike Lee is not an outlier, and was merely more open than usual about expressing the authoritarianism deeply woven into U.S. conservatism, a dynamic that has become increasingly troubling. The New York Times account of Mike Lee's remarks included a key passage:

The New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat called his comments an "escalation of GOP and WH rhetoric about protestors being a mob and Dems being 'too dangerous to rule,' " adding, "Such talk often precedes ‘exceptional’ and authoritarian gov’t actions. Look for more of this in future."

Mike Lee's statements should be viewed in the context of decades of voter suppression by conservatives. We should also consider Donald Trump's repeated threats about not leaving office even if he loses the election, as if he has a choice. Charles P. Pierce correctly links the Whitmer kidnapping plot to the power grabs of Wisconsin and North Carolina Republican legislators, and observes, "Republicans no longer accept the results of any election they didn't win, nor do they accept the legitimacy of any elected official except their own. That is the one abiding principle left to this listing hulk of a political party, and it's frankly terrifying." In "Trump’s Voter-Suppression Strategy Is a Crisis (Even If It Backfires)," Eric Levitz notes attempts by the Republican Party nationwide to suppress the vote, and points out that even if Biden and the Democrats win, "there is no contradiction between acknowledging that the 2020 election is likely to witness historically high turnout and believing that the election will be tainted by voter suppression. What qualifies as a historically high turnout rate in the United States is just mediocre by international standards." Conservative acceptance of elections and the basic tenets of modern democracy and representative government is conditional at best.

This hostility toward a fair system is by no means a new development – it's definitional for a major strain of conservatism if not the whole movement and ideology. As Steve Benen observed in 2010, when conservatives say "freedom," they don't mean freedom for everyone. As Matt Taibbi observed the same year, conservatives strongly support social spending for themselves but oppose it for Those Other People – in other words, conservatives are "full of shit." They believe in their own inherent superiority and that the people they hate and fear should be treated as second-class citizens, even if they do not explicitly use such language. These attitudes don't necessarily include racism, but unsurprisingly, they often do. Increasingly, American conservatives can be viewed in the European tradition of Herrenvolk republicanism, which reserves social democracy for the white majority. White conservatives have grown increasingly nasty in the belief that their political, financial and cultural power is slipping away.

Conservative policies are completely awful on the merits. But conservatives also want an unfair power structure. These two factors are deeply interwoven – conservatives lie and cheat because they're unlikely to win in an honest discussion of competing policies. But they'd be especially unlikely to succeed in convincing the general public of their core dogma that they should always win; they should always rule; they should always get their own way. Conservative arguments such as Mike Lee's ahistorical claims against democracy, Cheney and Addington's unitary executive theory, the sovereign citizen movement, Ammon Bundy's claims that he can seize public lands and not pay taxes, the theocrats claiming United States was founded as a Christian nation, Mitch McConnell's fabricated and shifting rules for judicial appointments, and hollering that it's unconstitutional to be asked to wear a mask – all of these claims are counterfactual and complete bullshit, but in addition to that, the common thread is the underlying tenet: we can do whatever the hell we want, with no accountability.

It does bear mentioning that American conservatives are constantly lied to, with decades of conservative dark money shaping political discourse, and major conservative media outlets increasingly becoming sheer propaganda. But those lies and propaganda work in large part because conservatives already firmly believe in significant falsehoods. They believe that if they succeed, it's due to their own merits, and if Those Other People succeed, it's because they were given an unfair advantage, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Liberals are concerned with fairness, whereas conservatives focus on power, so they can use the same terms yet mean radically different things. Conservatives also typically believe that life and politics are a zero-sum game, so they fight for personal or tribal group advantage, not for a fair system for everyone. This brings us to a crucial point:

The conservative base does not hate many of their fellow Americans because they believe false things. They believe false things because they hate many of their fellow Americans. This is one of many reasons conventional fact-checking does not work on them. They have no real commitment to the truth or learning. They believe they already know the truth and have little interest in changing their views.

One of the most telling statements about American conservatism was made in 2019 by a woman who was negatively affected by Trump and the Republican Party shutting down the government for political leverage: "I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this. . . . I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting." She said the quiet part out loud. The conservative base, authoritarian conservatives, punishment conservatives, are driven by spite, and this sums up their toxic mix of entitlement and resentment – they want to see their many perceived enemies hurt or put in their place.

How should we think of conservatives? Some self-identified conservatives believe in due process and democracy and civilization and all those good things, and liberals and other nonconservatives can work with them. We share a common foundation in reality and a commitment to building, maintaining and improving a system for everyone (even if some improvements lag woefully behind). Alas, such conservatives are a minority in the movement and have no meaningful power in the Republican Party.

Other conservatives can be thought of decent people with redeeming qualities in other parts of their lives, but bad citizens. Treating other Americans as second-class or being antidemocratic is simply not compatible with being a good citizen. These people may be devoted to their families, for example, but because they view politics as a zero-sum game, they will often fight for their families or insular groups at the expense of larger communities, and thus a normally positive trait fuels negative actions politically. Some of us may be friends with such people, and they can be reached, but it often takes greater life experiences, education, travel, or a labor-intensive, one-on-one approach from a trusted friend or family member.

Some conservatives are pretty awful as people in addition to being bad citizens, unfortunately. And professional political hacks and politicians are generally a lost cause.

Calling out the ills of conservatism is important, but it's been hampered for decades by conservative shouting, as well as the press giving conservatives unearned respectability and trafficking in false equivalences, or "both siderism." Likewise, people who think of themselves as moderates, or centrists, but certainly as reasonable and fair-minded, are often loath to call out their conservative family and friends for their bigotry or extremism. This problem is particularly acute for white people who, say, have fond childhood memories of their Uncle Jim, who's now raving about Pizzagate and other batshit crazy QAnon conspiracy theories. (For more on false equivalencies, check out past posts from Digby, driftglass, Roy Edroso, Balloon Juice, LGM and my own archives.)

Looking at the 2020 general election, if nothing else, it could provide some useful data. Donald Trump is clearly unfit for office. His incompetence has been deadly and glaring, and his corruption has been blatant. Supporting him requires some mix of stupid, evil and crazy.

Trump's conduct raised plenty of red flags before the 2016 election, too, yet close to 92% of self-identified Republicans voted for him anyway. At this point, no one can credibly claim ignorance of his nature or his performance. What percentage of Republicans will vote for him this time, and how many total? What percentage of self-identified conservatives will vote for him, and how many total? What percentage of the electorate will vote for him, and how many people total? Authoritarian conservatives will support almost anything– how many does America have, and how many of them regularly vote? How big is the challenge we face, not just with oligarchs and authoritarian leaders, but their supporters in the general population?

Whatever the outcome of the election, conscientious citizens are left with a significant problem: what is to done about the conservative base – authoritarian conservatives – punishment conservatives? It's important to note that conservatives seek to suppress the vote and rig the system to keep and increase power, whereas the liberal ideal is to have honest, factual discussions, increase voting rights, and provide public education. It is inclusive. None of that's to say that actual liberals are perfect or America wouldn't have a ton of challenges even if it wasn't imperiled by authoritarian conservatism, but the liberal and conservative approaches to democracy and how to make the country better remain radically different. Liberals and nonconservatives are not trying to disenfranchise conservatives, and that's all the more reason that it's critical to show up, speak out, vote, govern responsibly, and keep authoritarian conservatives out of power, regardless of how much they complain. (Characteristically, they're gleeful bullies in power and insufferable whiners out of it.) Voting is a critical tool of democracy, but even if Trump, conservatives and Republicans lose in the 2020 general election, a tremendous amount of sustained work remains to be done.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)