Sunday 12/4/16

  1. Different moralities?
  2. Secretary of Defense
  3. What the alt-right really means
  4. The Chuck-It Bucket
  5. Climate heretic
  6. Bethlehem — Steel, that is
  7. Today’s Federalism Problem
  8. Bonus


First Things

1

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean.

Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to – whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

(C.S. Lewis via Francis J. Beckwith, Taking Rites Seriously)

Tertiary Things

2

Goodness knows I’ve been critical of Donald Trump. Not I’ll give him his due.

His selection of Retired Marine General James Mattis as Defense Secretary appears to be excellent but for one little thing: he’s barely a civilian. Indeed, Marines proudly boast that you’re always a Marine. Is civilian control of the military a tradition we’re ready to abandon? Should we be?

The most critical comment I’ve heard other than that about Mattis from intelligent sources was via Daniel Larison, quoting Erin Simpson, a Mattis admirer:

The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this shit. Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.

3

The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell takes to New York Times Opinion pages in a piece titled What the Alt-Right Really Means. His byline rang a bell and made me willing to at least glance at the column.

At the end of the day, the the alt-right really means nothing coherent, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the day is uninteresting:

[White Nationalist Richard B.] Spencer, however you describe him, calls himself a part of the “alt-right” — a new term for an informal and ill-defined collection of internet-based radicals. As such, he poses a complication for the incoming president. Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, whom Mr. Trump has picked as his chief White House strategist, told an interviewer in July that he considered Breitbart a “platform for the alt-right.”

Perhaps we should not make too much of this. Mr. Bannon may have meant something quite different by the term. Last summer “alt-right,” though it carried overtones of extremism, was not an outright synonym for ideologies like Mr. Spencer’s. But in late August, Hillary Clinton devoted a speech to the alt-right, calling it simply a new label for an old kind of white supremacy that Mr. Trump was shamelessly exploiting.

Groups such as Mr. Spencer’s, which had indeed rallied behind Mr. Trump, were delighted with the attention. Mr. Spencer called the days after the Clinton speech “maybe the greatest week we ever had.” While he does not consider either Mr. Trump or Mr. Bannon alt-right, Mr. Spencer has expressed hope that the press’s describing them as such will help his own group grow.

The alt-right is not a large movement, but the prominence that it is enjoying in the early days of the Trump era may tell us something about the way the country is changing …

The adjective “alt-right” does not just denote recycled extremist views — it also reflects the way those views have been pollinated by other internet concerns and updated in the process.

For example, the alt-right has an environmentalist component, centered on a neo-pagan group called the Wolves of Vinland. The Norwegian heavy-metal musician Varg Vikernes, after serving 16 years for murder, has an alt-right blog that contains his musings on everything from Norse mythology to the meaning of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. There are sci-fi and video-game enthusiasts, too, including many who participated in the “GamerGate” uproar of 2014, which pitted (as the alt-right sees it) feminist game designers trying to emasculate the gaming world against (as the feminists saw it) a bunch of misogynist losers …

The internet liberates us to be our worst selves. Where other movements have orators and activists, the alt-right also has ruthless trolls and “doxers.” The trolls bombard Twitter and email accounts with slur-filled letters and Photoshopped art. Doxing is the releasing of personal information onto the internet ….

“Perhaps we should not make too much of this” is my choice for “Best Understatement” in the column. Don’t let the press you expose yourself to make too much of the alt-right label, smearing people or groups who don’t deserve smearing. Example: Washington Post online has an “In the news” line just below the headline. Saturday morning’s line included the label alt-right, which took the viewer here.

4

A Mollie Mettler tells in the Wall Street Journal Why You Should Have a Retirement Chuck-It List. Obvious choices include business attire. But she also invited comments, and one comment stood out:

  • Voices, words and images that bring you down and pollute your soul — websites, news channels and programs, TV shows, pundits and personalities, social media and online comment sections that are snarky, nasty, negative, hateful, arrogant, insulting or disrespectful of other people.
  • Agitprop.
  • Selfies.
  • Status symbols (e.g., expensive cars, jewelry, clothes, etc.)
  • Trying to impress other people.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses.
  • Criticizing or insulting other people; resentment and jealousy.
  • Talking about yourself or your children.
  • Talking too much instead of listening.
  • Trying to be in control of others or events.
  • Hurrying, impatience.
  • Hatred.
  • Hanging out with people who can’t chuck any of the above.

You shouldn’t need to agree with all to agree with some. I’ll skip the confessional picking of personal favorites.

5

[W]hen the White House puts a target on your back on its website, people notice. … Rep. [Raul] Grijalva explained in a letter to my university’s president that I was being investigated because Mr. Holdren had “highlighted what he believes were serious misstatements by Prof. Pielke of the scientific consensus on climate change.” He made the letter public.

The “investigation” turned out to be a farce. In the letter, Rep. Grijalva suggested that I—and six other academics with apparently heretical views—might be on the payroll of Exxon Mobil (or perhaps the Illuminati, I forget). He asked for records detailing my research funding, emails and so on. After some well-deserved criticism from the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union, Rep. Grijalva deleted the letter from his website. The University of Colorado complied with Rep. Grijalva’s request and responded that I have never received funding from fossil-fuel companies. My heretical views can be traced to research support from the U.S. government.

But the damage to my reputation had been done, and perhaps that was the point. Studying and engaging on climate change had become decidedly less fun. So I started researching and teaching other topics and have found the change in direction refreshing. Don’t worry about me: I have tenure and supportive campus leaders and regents. No one is trying to get me fired for my new scholarly pursuits.

But the lesson is that a lone academic is no match for billionaires, well-funded advocacy groups, the media, Congress and the White House. If academics—in any subject—are to play a meaningful role in public debate, the country will have to do a better job supporting good-faith researchers, even when their results are unwelcome. This goes for Republicans and Democrats alike, and to the administration of President-elect Trump.

Academics and the media in particular should support viewpoint diversity instead of serving as the handmaidens of political expediency by trying to exclude voices or damage reputations and careers. If academics and the media won’t support open debate, who will?

(Roger Pielke, Jr., My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic) His “heresy” consisted not of denying anthropogenic climate change, but denying that this or that evidence for it was incorrect (e.g., extreme weather events actually were not increasing in frequency).

On whom do you suppose Donald Trump’s White House website will put a target? Corporations trying to maximize shareholder value? …

6

… Speaking of which:

Soon Bethlehem Steel raised its prices. Other companies followed.

Now [President] Kennedy was enraged. Accepting [Bethlehem Steel]’s decision would undo all his wage-price guideposts. It would also constitute a blow to the prestige of the presidency. And labor would never trust him again.

So he went to war. At a news conference the next day he called the steel companies’ actions “a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest” by “a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility.” …

Kennedy ordered the Defense Department to shift its steel purchases from U.S. Steel to companies that hadn’t raised prices. The Justice Department under Attorney General Robert Kennedy launched an antitrust investigation, summoned a federal grand jury, and sent FBI agents to the homes and offices of steel executives. There were rumors of threats of IRS investigations of expense accounts and hotel bills.

Bethlehem Steel was the first to back down …

It was a big win for Kennedy but it was a bloody affair, and on some level he knew it. His relations with business never quite recovered. The administration’s brutality left a stain …

The lesson, to [Arthur] Schlesinger? Kennedy triumphed against the odds, even though he “had . . . no direct authority available against the steel companies. Instead, he mobilized every fragment of quasi-authority he could find and, by a bravura public performance, converted weakness into strength.”

Well, no, not quite. JFK’s performance was bravura, but presidents shouldn’t abuse their power—and he did. They especially can’t do it to shore up their own political position, and he did that, too. But it’s also true he thought he was right on the policy and that the policy would benefit the American people.

And the American people could tell. His approval ratings, high then, stayed high. People appreciate energy in the executive when they suspect it’s being harnessed for the national good. The key is to wield it wisely and with restraint. But yes, a little muscle judiciously applied can be a unifying thing.

(Peggy Noonan)

7

Tocqueville acknowledged, in the first volume of Democracy in America, that federalism is an exceedingly “complicated” system of government that “demands the daily exercise of a considerable share of discretion on the part of those its governs.” Indeed, he asserted that the U.S. Constitution itself, which he regarded as “the most perfect federal constitution that ever existed,” presupposed an astonishing level of knowledge and discernment in those being governed. Yet it seemed to him that even the humblest Americans of the 1830s had an instinctive grasp of federalism:

I have never been more struck by the good sense and the practical judgment of the Americans than in the manner in which they elude the numberless difficulties resulting from their Federal Constitution. I scarcely ever met with a plain American citizen who could not distinguish with surprising facility the obligations created by the laws of Congress from those created by the laws of his own state, and who after having discriminated between the matters which come under the cognizance of the Union and those which the local legislature is competent to regulate, could not point out the exact limit of the separate jurisdictions of the Federal courts and the tribunals of the state.

In this glowing encomium is also buried a sober warning. Such a complex government would, Tocqueville observed, “be ill adapted to a people which has not been long accustomed to conduct its own affairs,” a statement that perhaps begins to convey some of what is at stake in the current efforts to revive federalism in the United States.

(Wilfred McClay)

Adiaphora

8

A list of portmanteaus.

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.