I was on Stossel's State of the Union special last night, so I watched the speech in the company of David Boaz, Matt Welch, and Governor Gary Johnson. I had a lot to say about it on television, which you can watch here.
I thought the speech was better-written and better-delivered than many of the critics I read this morning; it had a lot of good applause lines (along with, yes, the groaner about spilled milk), and the president is stylistically a very good speaker.
But I also thought that, three years in, I'd like to see a little more from his speeches than base-pleasing applause lines and pleasing delivery. The content of the speech was sorely disappointing.
The harsh way to put it is that the speech was an extended whine about how all the rich bankers and George Bush have screwed everything up. That was fine campaign rhetoric when he was a Senator. But it's pretty weak when he's been in charge for most of a full term--two years of that with a majority in congress.
Of course, one can argue--correctly--that Obama actually doesn't have the power to fix the economy; the recession was deeper than he thought it would be. I'm entirely sympathetic to this argument except for one thing, which is that Barack Obama got himself elected by claiming that "the Republicans have driven the economy into a ditch" and he could drive it out again. It doesn't seem unfair to judge him on his failure to actually deliver what he promised:
Lauer: "At some point will you say, `Wait a minute. We've spent this amount of money, we're not seeing the results. We've got to change course dramatically.' "
Obama: "Yeah, look, I'm at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years and...
Lauer: "You're going to know quickly how people feel about what's happened."
Obama: "That's exactly right. And you know, a year from now I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."
If Obama didn't want to be judged on the basis of the economy's performance, he shouldn't have let his mouth write checks that he couldn't cash. If it turned out to maybe be a little harder to steer the economy where you want it than he thought it was, then maybe he should lay off claiming that the Republicans drove the thing into a ditch.
But he hasn't. Instead he's complaining that the GOP won't let him steer--pretty rich considering that he started out with a 60-seat majority in Congress, and chose to ignore the economy in favor of passing a health care bill that has gotten even less popular since we passed it to find out what was in it.
That's the harsh version. The slightly kinder version is that Obama, stymied by an economy that's still pretty weak, and an opposition that has no more interest in cooperating with him than Republicans did with Hoover, has turned to a laundry list of weak proposals that sound pleasing to interest groups, but wouldn't achieve much. Of those, the best was allowing students who study here to stay here; the stupidest was probably adding yet another investigation of bank fraud (what have you been doing for the last three years, Mr. President?) And the worst was the bizarre proposal for states to force students to stay in school until graduation or the age of 18. Beyond the obvious enforcement questions, by the time people drop out of high school, they're normally already badly lagging their classmates, with low grades and test scores, and high rates of truancy. Commanding them to physically stay in the building for another two years is not going to fix those problems; presumably, it's a sop to any teachers he pissed off by proposing that we might fire those whose students aren't learning.
There's no real common thread holding all of these proposals together except what you might call "nostalgianomics".
Think about the America within our reach: a country that leads the world in educating its people; an America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs; a future where we're in control of our own energy; and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.
We can do this. I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.
What a strange thing to say. "We know how to do this?" Do what? Have World War III?
Surely Obama's economic advisors have not told him that they know how to replicate the growth of the 1950s--and if they did, surely the last three years have given the lie to this belief.
I think the speech made it even clearer that other speeches have that the president's vision of the world is a lightly updated 1950s technocracy without the social conservatism, and with solar panels instead of rocket ships. Government and labor and business working in tightly controlled concert, with nice people like Obama at the reins--all the inventions coming out of massive government or corporate labs, and all the resulting products built by a heavily unionized workforce that knows no worry about the future.
There are obviously a lot of problems with this vision. The first is that this is not what the fifties and sixties were actually like--the government and corporate labs sat on a lot of inventions until upstart companies developed them, and the union goodies that we now think of as typical were actually won pretty late in the game (the contracts that eventually killed GM were written in the early 1970s).
And to the extent that the fifties and sixties were actually like this, we should remember, as Max Boot points out, that this was not actually the day of the little guy. Big institutions actually had a great deal more power than they do now; it was just distributed somewhat differently--you had to worry less about big developers slapping a high-rise next to your single-family neighborhood, and a whole lot more about Robert Moses deciding he wanted to run a freeway through the spot where your house happened to be.
The military model of society--employed by both Obama, and a whole lot of 1950s good government types--was actually a kind of creepy way to live. As Boot says, "America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies." If you want the 1950s except without the rigid conformity and the McCarthyism, then you fundamentally misunderstand what made the 1950s tick.
Finally, there's the fact that the 1950s ended in the 1970s. In the 1950s, American products were envied all over the world; by 1980, they were a joke. This is not some radical disconnect; it is the beginning and end of the same process. The technocratic American institutions became sclerotic agents of inertia. Bosses whose pay was capped poured their energy into building personal empires instead of personal fortunes. Unions like the UAW began making demands on their companies so heavy that even the UAW president who had negotiated these amazing pay increases began to fear that his members had lost their minds.
As David Boaz said last night, Obama's talk of blueprints was telling. A blueprint is a simple plan that an architect imposes on an inanimate object. Obama really does seem to think that he can manage the economy in the same way. No, I don't think that he is a socialist. Rather, I think that he really believes there are technocratic levers that can make the income distribution flatter, the rate of innovation faster, and the banking system safer, without undesireable side effects.
The problem with all nostalgia isn't even that it's necessarily wrong--by many standards, the 1950s was a great time to live. Rather, the problem is that it almost always wants to turn a transient moment into a steady state--or worse, only "the good parts" of those transient moments.
I had hoped that the last three years had taught Obama the limits of this sort of thinking. But if they have, he certainly hasn't chosen to share that hard-won knowledge with the rest of us.
The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.
The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.
Memorial Day has the tendency to conjure up old arguments about the Civil War. That’s understandable; it was created to mourn the dead of a war in which the Union was nearly destroyed, when half the country rose up in rebellion in defense of slavery. This year, the removal of Lee’s statue in New Orleans has inspired a new round of commentary about Lee, not to mention protests on his behalf by white supremacists.
The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
Just seven months into his presidency, Trump appears to have achieved a status usually reserved for the final months of a term.
In many ways, the Trump presidency never got off the ground: The president’s legislative agenda is going nowhere, his relations with foreign leaders are frayed, and his approval rating with the American people never enjoyed the honeymoon period most newly elected presidents do. Pundits who are sympathetic toward, or even neutral on, the president keep hoping that the next personnel move—the appointment of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, say, or the long-rumored-but-never-delivered departure of Steve Bannon—will finally get the White House in gear.
But what if they, and many other people, are thinking about it wrong? Maybe the reality is not that the Trump presidency has never gotten started. It’s that he’s already reached his lame-duck period. For most presidents, that comes in the last few months of a term. For Trump, it appears to have arrived early, just a few months into his term. The president did always brag that he was a fast learner.
An analysis of Stormfront forums shows a sometimes sophisticated understanding of the limits of ancestry tests.
The white-nationalist forum Stormfront hosts discussions on a wide range of topics, from politics to guns to The Lord of the Rings. And of particular and enduring interest: genetic ancestry tests. For white nationalists, DNA tests are a way to prove their racial purity. Of course, their results don’t always come back that way. And how white nationalists try to explain away non-European ancestry is rather illuminating of their beliefs.
Two years ago—before Donald Trump was elected president, before white nationalism had become central to the political conversation—Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, sociologists then at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to study Stormfront forum posts about genetic ancestry tests. They presented their study at the American Sociological Association meeting this Monday. (A preprint of the paper is now online.) After the events in Charlottesville this week, their research struck a particular chord with the audience.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?
Since 1907, Portland, Oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since 2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken part. This April, all of that changed.
In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”
Anti-Semitic logic fueled the violence over the weekend, no matter what the president says.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was ostensibly about protecting a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was about asserting the legitimacy of “white culture” and white supremacy, and defending the legacy of the Confederacy.
So why did the demonstrators chant anti-Semitic lines like “Jews will not replace us”?
The demonstration was suffused with anti-black racism, but also with anti-Semitism. Marchers displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” one demonstrator told Vice News’ Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at a local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Nazi websites posted a call to burn their building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building when they were done praying.
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
If the president is concerned about violence on the left, he can start by fighting the white supremacist movements whose growth has fueled its rise.
In his Tuesday press conference, Donald Trump talked at length about what he called “the alt left.” White supremacists, he claimed, weren’t the only people in Charlottesville last weekend that deserved condemnation. “You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he declared. “Nobody wants to say that.”
I can say with great confidence that Trump’s final sentence is untrue. I can do so because the September issue of TheAtlantic contains an essay of mine entitled “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which discusses the very phenomenon that Trump claims “nobody wants” to discuss. Trump is right that, in Charlottesville and beyond, the violence of some leftist activists constitutes a real problem. Where he’s wrong is in suggesting that it’s a problem in any way comparable to white supremacism.