On The Origins of Totalitarianism

Recently finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s hard for me to talk about, because the book is filled with such piercing, clear-eyed insight, that if I tried to summarize it properly, I’d end up reproducing it.

I could say that I think the book should be required reading for any citizen of any country, in any age, because I do. And not because of any simplistic need to show that “Nazis are bad,” which (while true) doesn’t need an entire book to demonstrate. The testimony of even one concentration camp survivor should be enough for that.

I think everyone should read The Origins of Totalitarianism because it shows how the logic of totalitarian governments grows out of capitalism itself. Not that capitalism must always lead to totalitarianism, but that it always can. Just as racism and nationalism don’t always lead to a Final Solution, but without racism and nationalism, without some ideology claiming to override our humanity, a Final Solution is not even conceivable.

And yes, I think there are passages of the book, describing the methods of the Nazis and the communists (for Stalin’s government was also a totalitarian one) that are too close to our current administration for my comfort. I can’t read about the Nazis contempt for reality, or the way people in totalitarian movements will both believe the lies told by their leaders and praise them for their cleverness when the lies are revealed, without thinking of how right-wing nationalists in my own country treat the current President. But even if these things were not happening in the United States, it would be a book worth reading.

It is, in short, rightly called a classic. A long one, and a hard one, if we take its insights to heart as readers (passages calling out the middle classes for abandoning their civic duties for isolated home life strike close to home for me; I feel I’ve worked hard for what I have, and want to cling to it, but how many others am I leaving behind, by doing so?).

And yet it is that wondrous thing: a book hailed as a classic work, that is worth all the time and study we can give it. If you haven’t read it, please do.

We’re counting on you.

Choosing the President: A Modest Proposal

The Problem

The way we choose Presidents in the United States is flawed.

It’s too easy for someone with little or no experience to be elected. Requiring just an age and citizenship worked fine when the job was just the implementer of Congress’ will, but the role has expanded, and the requirements should expand with it.

It’s also too easy for a President to win office with a minority of the vote. For a position that is supposed to represent the direct choice of the voters, this is unbearable.

Proposed Solution

I think a few small tweaks to the process of choosing the President would fix these two issues:

  1. Abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election
  2. Require experience in Congress before being eligible to run for President

The Electoral College

The first is something that’s been called for before, and needs to happen soon. The role of the President has evolved over time to one that claims to speak for the country as a whole. That claim cannot be made (though it has been) if the President is not in fact elected by a majority of the population.

To go one step further, I think we should require a President to win more than 50% of the vote in order to take office. If, after the initial ballot, no one has more than 50% of the vote, the top-two vote-getters should participate in a run-off election.

Congressional Experience

Getting to the Presidency should be a multi-stage process. In order to serve as President, you have to have first served at least one full term as a Senator. In order to serve as a Senator, you have to have served at least one full term in the House of Representatives.

Notice that experience on the state level doesn’t count. And it shouldn’t: working at the federal level of government is a completely different thing. The responsibilities are greater. The choices are tougher. And the impact of the decisions made is wider.

In a parliamentary system, the kind of experience I’m advocating happens automatically. No one gets to be Prime Minister without first getting elected to the legislature, and then spending time writing national laws and seeing their impacts.

A presidential candidate with two terms of experience has a record, one that voters can use to evaluate how well they’d do the job. Did they compromise when they could in order to make progress? Did they object to everything and do nothing? Did they fulfill their promises? Did they promise too much?

And a President that’s worked in Congress knows its rules and methods. They’ll have allies (and enemies) in the legislature, people to work with in running the government. They’ll have seen laws they wrote interpreted by the courts. They’ll be more successful, in other words, because they’ll know how to get along with the other major branches.

Objections

“If we remove the Electoral College, it’ll deprive the smaller states of some of their power in presidential elections.”

True. But when we elect governors of states, we don’t worry about disenfranchising the smaller counties. It’s because the governor has to be in charge of the executive branch for the whole state, not just a portion of it.

Similarly, the President has to serve the country as a whole, not be tied to any one state or region. Thus giving any weight to the votes of one state versus another doesn’t make sense.

“Voters should decide if someone is qualified. Anything else is undemocratic.”

This one I struggle with. Certainly I don’t want to go back to the days of deals made in smoke-filled rooms, with the will of the populace a small consideration, if any. And I don’t want to give the individual political parties more control over who runs and who doesn’t.

But I think in terms of goals. What is the goal of representative democracy? Is it to reduce our reps to mere pass-through entities, automatically doing whatever the majority says to do?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no point in having representatives, if those representatives aren’t supposed to use their judgement. Think of the rep that constantly updates their opinions based on the latest poll, and how we view them with contempt. Rightly so, in my view; if they don’t stand for anything except the exercise of power, they don’t deserve to wield it.

And I think republics aren’t born in a vaccum; we didn’t all come together (all 350 million of us) and decide to create a federal system with elected representatives. Instead, a republic is a compromise between the powerful and the people. We give our consent to their use of power, so long as that power is constrained by both law and elections.

In that sense, the most democratic thing is for us to set constraints on who among the powerful can run for office. We, the people, want the best candidates, not just the best speakers or the richest or the ones with the most fervent supporters. Leaving the field wide open puts us at the mercy of demogogues. Narrowing the scope of possible candidates puts constraints on their power, not on ours. We still have the final say, on Election Day.

Conclusion

Will these changes fix our democracy? No. There’s too much that needs fixing, from gerrymandered districts to the Imperial Presidency to the outsize influence of money in elections.

But they will give us better candidates for the Presidency. And they will ensure no one holds that office that doesn’t command the consent of a majority of voters.

Those two changes will make other changes easier. Better candidates will mean better Presidents, and better Presidents will mean better government.

And that’s something we can all, right and left alike, agree we need.

Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

Conservative Arguments

Among the many feelings I have about American politics recently, a recurring one is disappointment.

I’m disappointed that so many who call themselves conservatives have thrown their principles away for a tribal loyalty. Disappointed because when the people on the other side of the issue abandon their own logic, there’s no debate you can have with them anymore.

You can’t find common ground, if the other side doesn’t have any ground to stand on.

So I’ve been thinking about what a principled conservative would have to say about the issues of our day: health care, abortion, etc. What arguments would they make, if they chose ideals over loyalty?

The Roots of Conservatism

Modern European conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke led the charge in England, writing multiple essays against the both the goals and the methods of the Revolutionaries.

Arguing against the intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution – everything from the Independence movements of the Americas (North, South, and Central) to the Bolsheviks in Russia – is how the conservative movement defined itself over the next two hundred years.

At the center of their stance was a belief that people cannot be improved through government action. It was deliberately set against the utopias of socialism and communism, which held (among many other things) that you could get an inherently peaceful and conflict-free society if you but organized it differently.

You can see echoes of this in the Western science fiction writing of the mid–20th Century, which often portrayed dystopias as societies that regulated the thoughts and beliefs of their members “for the greater good”, whether through government fiat (1984, Farenheit 451) or chemistry (Brave New World).

Coupled with this was a conviction that the People did not have a right to revolution. Government had a responsibility to use its power in the pursuit of justice, but if a government was unjust, its citizens had no right to take up arms and overthrow it. They did not have to suffer in silence, but they did have to suffer.

American Conservatives found this second principle more problematic, since their own government was formed via revolution. The compromise they came up with was two-fold:

  1. People do not have the right to overthrow a democratically elected government
  2. Workers do not have the right to overthrow their employers

Thus American conservatives had no problem putting down rebellions in the former colonies (Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc). As corporations and business leaders grew more powerful, conservatives naturally sided with them against unions.

20th-Century American Conservatism

From those two principles, everything about 20th Century American conservatism flowed.

Anti-communist, because communists wanted to build better people via overthrowing business power and regulating personal beliefs.

Pro-nuclear-family, because socialists, anarchists, and others wanted to break the nuclear family as a social experiment (again in the pursuit of better people).

Anti-regulation, because government has no more business trying to make better corporations than it does better people.

Consequences

Unfortunately, the emphasis on the preservation of the “traditional” family (itself a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and elsewhere) and the prerogatives of business put conservatives arguing on the side of injustice for many decades: against the liberation of women, against the emancipation of African-Americans from Jim Crow laws, against the call for corporations to become responsible citizens.

And they stand against similar liberation movements today. They pass laws regulating who can use which bathroom, or restricting a woman’s access to a safe abortion, or surpressing votes that might go to their opponents.

And they keep losing these fights. Fights they should lose. Fights they need to lose.

But instead of re-examining the choices that led them to take on these losing fights, American convervatives have instead double-down on them. Anyone on their side on these fights is an ally, and anyone not on their side is an enemy.

This tribal – not conservative – way of thinking it’s what’s led the Republican Party to choose a twice-divorced sexual predator as its standard bearer for a “moral” society.

They’ve forgotten their roots. You can’t make better people, remember?

A New Conservatism

If American conservatives did let go of their tribal ways and thought through these issues from their own principles, where would we be?

Gay marriage would be legal. Homosexual families means more nuclear families, which conservatives believe are the best way to raise children. Adoption by same-sex couples would be not only legal, it’d be encouraged.

Laws restricting abortion would be lifted. First, because banning it is wielding government power in an attempt to make people “better”, which is anathema to a conservative. Second, because women without access to safe abortions get unsafe ones, which can damage their chances of having children later, which means fewer families, which is bad for a conservative.

Gun ownership by private citizens would be highly regulated. The private ownership of anything more than a hunting rifle can only be meant for either a) murder, or b) overthrowing the lawfully elected government. Neither of those are things a conservative could endorse. For sporting enthusiasts, gun ranges might be legal, but licensed and monitored like any dangerous public service.

Maternity and paternity leave would be paid for by the government, and mandatory. Parents should be encouraged to have children, and to bond with them. That leads to stronger families, which conservatives want.

Health care would be universal and free. Making businesses pick up the tab is an unfair burden on them, and suppresses the ability of all businesses – large and small – to hire. Providing free pre- and post-natal care for mothers encourages having children, as does paying for a child’s health care. And covering health care for working men and women means a) they’re healthier, and so can work more, and b) reduces the financial strain on families in case of accidents, which will help them stay together.

Future Arguments

Even in a world where American conservatives embraced these positions, there’d still be a lot for us to argue about.

We’d argue over the proper way to regulate business, if at all.

We’d argue over military spending.

We’d argue over foreign policy (which I haven’t touched on here).

In short, we’d have a lot to talk about. Without tribal loyalities, we could actually debate these things, secure in the knowledge that we disagreed on principle, not on facts.

Don’t Fall For Republican Nostalgia

Paul Ryan’s only just announced his retirement from Congress, and already people in the media are writing hagiographies to how “different” his brand of Republicanism was from Trump’s.

Don’t fall for it.

These same people wrote the same hagiographies about Bush when Trump won the election. They wrote the same lies about Reagan when Bush was in office. I’m certain they’ve got similar paeons to Nixon, they just can’t get them published.

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has been a party of right-wing nationalists and bullies my entire life.

Reagan’s rise was a dramatic split with the centrist GOP of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. His faction dropped support for the Equal Rights Amendment from the national party’s platform, and embraced the pro-corporate economics (deregulation, tax cuts) that until then sat on the fringes of the party. Once in office, Reagan caused a massive recession, presided over the biggest bank scandal in our history (until W outdid him), and repeatedly lied to Congress about our military engagements. Not to mention his neglect of anything resembling the public health, like the AIDS epidemic, inner city blight, or the rise of crack cocaine. All the while, he bragged about family values and restoring our nation’s confidence.

Sound familiar?

When Bush II was elected, he followed a similar pattern: tax cuts leading to massive deficits and recession, along with misbegotten foreign wars built on lies and sustained via misinformation. And to rally the troops at home? Talk of an “axis of evil”, of the perils of Muslims, and of a restoration of morality to the White House. But nothing about the soaring cost of home ownership, or the stagnant wages of the American worker, or the struggle for single working mothers to find affordable child care.

Trump is just more of the same, but this time with the mask ripped off. Instead of talking of a clash of civilizations, he talks about “shithole countries.” Instead of dancing around a woman’s right to equal pay and equal dignity with talk of “traditional family values,” he brags about the sexual assaults he’s gotten away with. And going beyond talk of tax cuts helping the economy, he flat-out tells us that tax-dodging is “smart.”

So don’t fall for anyone who tries to contrast Trump with some golden era of Republican civility. For the last forty years, that party has been a coalition of radicals hell-bent to undo the progress made during the New Deal. Their policies have bankrupted our government and crippled our ability to respond to the domestic and foreign challenges we face today.

They are not conservatives. They’re radicals. And they’ve been that way for a long time.

On the Google Anti-Diversity Memo

It’s horseshit.

From its title (“Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”) to its claims that its author is the only human capable of rational thought without bias, to its assertion that modern feminist critique only exists because Communism failed, it’s filled with faulty logic and flawed arguments that wouldn’t have held water in any of the philosophy classes I took as a freshman.

It’s clearly a document meant to inflame, to incite, and most definitely not to encourage the kind of discussion the author claims over and over again to want to facilitate.

Let me be clear:

  • The gender pay gap is real. Its size varies across countries and industries, but it exists.
  • Studies of group decision-making show that those with a variation in viewpoints — particularly along gender lines — do better than those that lack such diversity.
  • Bias against women is long-standing in the technological fields, and should be combatted by any means necessary.
  • Feminism goes back a hell of a lot further than communism.
  • Claims of universal values for Left and Right ignore the historical context in which those labels arose, and how fluid the beliefs of the groups assigned those labels have been over time.
  • Affirmative-action programs are not “illegal discrimination”
  • Political correctness is the name commentators on the Right have given to an age-old phenomenon: politeness. Certain beliefs or expressions are always considered beyond the pale. Those expressions change over time. The recent trend in Western society has been to push insults of race or gender beyond the pale. This is not a new thing, it is not a new form of authoritarianism, it is not a symptom of a Fascist Left. It’s civilization. Rude people have always faced censure, and rightly so.
  • Finally, insisting that others are biased, while you are “biased” towards intellect and reason, is absurd. It’s a classic male power move. It denies your opponents any semblance of reason or thought. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s horseshit.

Average

There’s a video making the rounds on Facebook that claims to show how the “average American” views the Trump inauguration.

It’s shows a lone white male, surrounded by flag art, talking about how we liberals should suck it up, and that real Americans, like him, are happy Trump won.

This video pisses me off for several reasons.

First, the guy being interviewed isn’t one of the “real Americans” he claims to represent. He’s an artist, not a coal miner. He profits off of the people he wants to speak for, but he’s not one of them.

Second, the whole idea that “average Americans” are just like this guy, and all happy about Trump, is a lie. It’s code, code that only white, uneducated males are real Americans, and everyone else should sit down and shut up.

What would a video wanting to accurately show an average American be like?

Most Americans are female. So we have to swap the dude for a woman.

Most Americans live in liberal, coastal areas. So now we have to move the woman speaking out of the implied RustBelt setting and to one of the coasts. Maybe New York, maybe California.

Most Americans do think of themselves as white, so she can be white and still be “average.”

But uneducated? Not this woman. She’s got her high school diploma, and taken some college classes. She probably has an associate’s degree, which she’s used to get a better job.

So we have a white, working-class but educated, woman living on the coasts.

She’s probably Democratic. She probably voted for Hilary. She’s likely in favor of the ACA, and the protections it provides for her access to women’s health care.

It’s the exact opposite of what the video portrays, which is why it ticks me off so much.

But more than that, I hate the implication that other people, who aren’t white, or male, or uneducated, are somehow lesser citizens.

I hate the smug superiority the video reinforces. It’s the refuge of bullies and cowards, of people looking to blame someone else for their situation.

I understand that it’s hard to make a living without a college degree. I understand it’s difficult to change careers when the factory you depended on shuts down. I understand you don’t want to move to a strange town to chase a new job.

But if I could offer some advice to them: suck it up.

Because you had their chance. You made fun of guys like me all through school. You ditched classes and slacked off on your studies. You didn’t go to college, didn’t think it was something “real men” did.

You rule out taking on all kinds of jobs, from nursing to teaching to customer service, as “women’s work”. So your wife or your girlfriend has to support you, while you wait for the Industrial Age to roll back through town.

It’s not happening. No one is coming to save you: not Trump, not Pence, not Paul Ryan. They want your votes, but they aren’t going to help you one bit.

You’re going to have to do it on your own.

And it’s your own fault. You voted to cut the ladder of economic advancement out from under yourself and everyone else.

I sympathize with you, but I don’t feel sorry for you.

You’re a crybaby, whining about the good times that have passed you by.

You’re lazy, unwilling to do the work to make something better of yourself.

And you’re a coward, afraid to join the ranks of those who have their own business, who have to justify their existence through service to others in the marketplace.

You’re an un-American burden on the country, and I can only hope the next four years open your eyes to how your pride and the Republican party have deceived you.

There are No Sides. Just the Truth.

Dear U.S. Media: Please stop reporting both sides.

I know you want to appear impartial. I know you want to be trusted.

But here’s the thing: by reporting ‘sides’ instead of facts, you reinforce the idea that having sides is legitimate. Instead of pushing both sides to acknowledge the truth, you let their opinions stand.

The result? Neither side trusts you. Because you’re no longer digging for the truth, you’re just a parrot, repeating what you’ve been told.

This idea that you need to repeat both sides is itself a political one. It goes back to the days of President Nixon, when his staff used the threat of the loss of FCC licenses to get tv news organizations to spend more time giving the President’s “side” of things. Instead of just sticking to facts.

I know, I know. You think the “truth is in the middle.”

But that’s false.

There was no middle ground between Saddam Hussein having nukes or not.

There’s no middle ground about where President Obama was born.

And there will be no middle ground about the lies a President Trump will tell.

So please, stop pretending to be impartial.

The facts aren’t impartial. The facts always support one side over another.

It’s time you started supporting them.

Going Home

Thank the gods 2016 is over.

I think it’s been a rough year for many people. My rough 2016 actually stretches all the way back to fall 2015, when my wife and I upped stakes and moved back to the mid-south to take care of her mother.

The stress of that time — her mother’s health, the terrible condition of the house we bought, the shock of discovering that all traces of the friendly South we’d once known were gone — almost undid us. We felt abandoned, hated by our neighbors and resented by her family.

Things improved when we were able to tread water enough to reconnect with our friends, plug back into the community of accepting nerds and geeks we’d missed.

But the presidential campaign, culminating in the election of a liar, a swindler, and a bigot, convinced us that nothing could make up for the fact that we don’t belong here. And never will.

So we’re moving back to California.

Back to a state that takes life seriously, and so passed the most restrictive gun control laws in the country.

A state that takes liberty seriously enough to want to offer it to refugees from a horrible civil war.

A state that knows the pursuit of happiness means respecting the many diverse ways that its citizens go about it.

I can’t wait to be back home.

No Crisis

I refuse to believe that Trump’s election is a moment of ‘crisis’ for liberalism.

We’ve always been under siege. We’ve always been fighting uphill.

We were fighting uphill when we were abolitionists. We were fighting uphill when we worked to win the right to vote for the women of this country.

We were even fighting uphill when we wanted to stand with Britain in World War II. Not many people know this, but many in this country wanted to stay out, to let the Nazis and the Soviets divide up Europe between them, and let Japan have Asia. It took liberals like FDR to stand up and say, “That’s not the world we want to live in.”

Every time, we have been in the right. It has just taken a while for the rest of the country to see it.

I am reminded of MLK’s phrase, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I remember the victories of the recent past, when we expanded the right to marry to same-sex couples. When we finally decriminalized a drug less harmful than alcohol. When we made health insurance affordable for 20 million more Americans.

This is not a crisis for liberalism. It isn’t the last gasp of conservatism, either, a desperate attempt by the powerful to stave off change.

They are always fighting us. And we are always winning.

This time will be no different.