2.11.16

PARSING THE MEANING OF IS.

Yes, I'm alluding to the notorious deposition by impeached, disbarred, President Clinton.  But in Slate, Timothy Noah got to the heart of the matter.
Bill Clinton really is a guy who's willing to think carefully about "what the meaning of the word 'is' is." This is way beyond slick. Perhaps we should start calling him, "Existential Willie."
The ability to parse words carefully is useful in the practice of law.  You don't want to craft a document that gives away the store you're selling.  But it's Mr Noah's allusion to philosophy that matters here.

Before Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, speechwriter David Frum posted an Atlantic column, The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy.  "The American republic was long safeguarded by settled norms, now shattered by the rise of Donald Trump."  It's the radical skepticism, celebrated and encouraged by Smart People With Degrees, that prepared the path.

Mr Frum does not make that charge; rather he charges that Mr Trump got away with being himself.
Here’s the part of the 2016 story that will be hardest to explain after it’s all over: Trump did not deceive anyone. Unlike, say, Sarah Palin in 2008, Trump appeared before the electorate in his own clothes, speaking his own words. When he issued a promise, he instantly contradicted it. If you chose to accept the promise anyway, you did so with abundant notice of its worthlessness. For all the times Trump said believe me and trust me in his salesman patter, he communicated constantly and in every medium that there was only thing you could believe and trust: If you voted for Donald Trump, you’d get Donald Trump, in all his Trumpery and Trumpiness.
That's what happens when you deny coherent beliefs of any kind, and Mr Frum's accounting spells out the ways in which radical skepticism produces incoherence.

First comes the Will to Power.  "From the founding of the republic, Americans have looked to qualities of personal restraint as one of the first checks on the power of office."  But personal restraint is so bourgeois, and before the radical skeptics deconstructed logic, they deconstructed bourgeois convention.  Thus we find ourselves in a Sneering Age.  The way to beat a Michael Kinsley or a Phil Donahue is with a showboat of your own.

Next comes what Mr Frum calls an "expectation of some measure of trustworthiness in politicians."  He was close enough to the intelligence hiccup over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to experience a mugging by reality.  In contrast, "Donald Trump’s dishonesty, however, is qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee."  It might be, as the cynics have it, that everyone does it.  That's intellectually unsatisfying.  Rather, let us focus on the people who put truth in scare quotes, and interrogate narratives to uncover oppression, and all the rest of the dolled-up relativism by which your grievances are more important than your logic.  Thus do the grievances of Mr Trump's voters trump Mr Frum's logic.

Third, Mr Frum charges Mr Trump with being "the most policy-ignorant major party nominee of modern times, or perhaps of any time."  More of those arbitrary standards at work?  Perhaps whether a culture-studies major studies Madonna and Miley or Dickinson and Eliot matters.  De gustibus.  Bad ideas have consequences.  Deal with it.

Fourth, "Trump bungled tests of orthodoxy on abortion, taxes, Obamacare, and national security."  We say orthodoxy, the Russians say pravoslavie, or truth-praising.  Properly viewed, a relativist stance is intellectual discipline: how much of this new phenomenon can I understand using learned standards of evaluation.  But that is so hegemonic.

Fifth, "The guardrail of conservative commitment to U.S. global leadership has smashed, ripping open a danger to the world, and a sinister opportunity to global mischief-makers."  That, too, is so hegemonic.  Whether it's Lyndon Johnson's Best and Brightest or George (43) Bush's National Greatness Conservatives, perhaps it's Will to Power hitting Reality Checks.  But in the incompetent hands of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry ...

Sixth,  "A deep belief in tolerance and non-discrimination for Americans of all faiths, creeds, and origins also once functioned as a guardrail against destructive politics."  That was then.  Now it's "My transgressiveness is OK and yours is oppressive."  Or something.  Oops.  I remember a lesson from social psychology about people internalizing their oppression.  Is anybody surprised if toxic males start behaving, well, in toxic ways?  Mr Frum hints at something deeper at work.
As community cohesion weakens, moral norms change. What would have been unacceptable behavior in a more homogenous national community becomes tolerable when a formerly ascendant group sees itself at risk from aggressive new claims by new competitors. Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans. Those white Americans who respond to his message hear his abusive comments, not as evidence of his unfitness for office, but as proof of his commitment to their tribe.
For "community cohesion," substitute Othering.  For "moral norms," read "social constructions" that can be deconstructed.  For "aggressive new claims," stir in "celebrating diversity" or "affirming authenticity."  What happens next is Not Amusing.

Underclass interacts with underclass: lives are made worse, or lives are ended.

Underclass interacts with bourgeois: someone gets swindled, or the gentry intellectuals seek the sanction of the victim to get the bourgeois to kick in for the maintenance of the underclass.

It's the people in Youngstown or rural Iowa or West Virginia who suffer, whilst the gentry live in Wrigleyville and pull strings to get their spawn onto the fast track.

Finally, Mr Frum argues, partisan identities have hardened.  That's probably a symptom.  The hardening of identities began elsewhere (As a .... I take umbrage at ...)  Perhaps, though, it is the end of the old alignments.

Apologies to the editorial board at New York's Times.  "We want and deserve tin-eared politics in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

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