Quick hits (Part I)

1) Patrick Skinner is back and always worth reading, “We’re police officers. You should know our names. That goes for Portland, too.: Anonymity is for CIA officers (a job I also held), not for federal law enforcement countering protesters in America. It denies local accountability.”

My name is Patrick Skinner, and I’m a local police officer. I love that I can say that. For me, one of the best things about being a local police officer is the openness of the job. On patrol my name is on my uniform; as a detective my name is on my business cards. Either way, it’s always on my tongue: I introduce myself to literally every single neighbor I meet while on duty. By definition and design my work is in public as I work with the public. There is nothing anonymous or unidentifiable in my work. My authority comes from my neighbors, and my ability to do my job comes in part from my neighbors knowing who I am.

My name is Patrick Skinner, and I’m a former CIA operations officer. I love that I can say that now, but at one time I could not say that. Overseas my name sometimes wasn’t even my name; at home my name was my own, but my work was hidden. Either way, the cover story was always on my tongue. My work was clandestine and covert. Even my workplace, my employer, was secret. By definition and design, my work was not in public. There was nothing identifiable or attributable in my work. My authority came from presidential findings and national security laws, and my ability to do my job came in part from my neighbors not knowing who I was.

My name is Patrick Skinner, and I’m a very worried American. I hate that I must say that, but I love that I can. For me, one of the best things about being an American is the freedom and even the obligation to speak out against injustice, and to speak up for those who aren’t being heard. By definition and design, my voice and your voice are public. Our authority comes from the Constitution, and our ability to do our job comes in whole from us knowing who our government is.

2) Fred Kaplan with a strong case for breaking up Homeland Security:

Many lessons and warnings can be drawn from President Trump’s dispatch of heavily armed federal agents to put down protesters in Portland, Oregon, but one of them is that it’s time to bust up the Department of Homeland Security.

The DHS was a sham from the get-go. It was the brainchild of Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who proposed the new department in late 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, as a way of showing that the Republicans in the White House weren’t the only ones trying to tackle terrorism. President George W. Bush opposed the idea, seeing it as burdening the government with another bureaucratic layer. But then, the 9/11 Commission hearings revealed that al-Qaida succeeded in toppling the World Trade Center in part because the FBI, CIA, and other agencies hadn’t shared intelligence about the hijackers’ movements prior to the attack. Coordination and consolidation were suddenly seen as nostrums to our problems.

So, under pressure, in late 2002, Bush signed Lieberman’s idea into law. DHS wound up subsuming 22 agencies from eight federal departments—with a combined budget of $40 billion and a payroll of 183,000 employees—into one hydra-headed behemoth.

Ironically, the agencies that had mishandled intelligence before 9/11 were not included in this roundup. The CIA and FBI were powerful enough to retain their independence, though they did strengthen or create counterterrorism bureaus and tighten lines of communication. Instead, the components of DHS—FEMA, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, various immigration and customs bureaus, and a Pentagon agency devoted to cybersecurity, among others—had been performing distinct functions. Piling them into one entity didn’t make fighting terrorism, or performing any other mission, more efficient.

In fact, it made the government less efficient. For instance, before the consolidation, the head of FEMA had been a Cabinet-level official—a member of the National Security Council who attended interagency meetings and enjoyed direct access to the president. Now this official is an undersecretary of DHS. The secretary of DHS can closely follow only a few of the dozen or so issues the department covers. If emergency management is one of the top priorities, then that particularly undersecretary at least has indirect access to the top; if it isn’t, the mission goes largely ignored. This may have been one reason the Bush administration responded so sluggishly to the great natural disaster of 2005, Hurricane Katrina.

Before DHS, the jobs of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—which is supplying most of the men brandishing heavy arms and firing tear gas at the protesters in Portland—were handled by two separate agencies: U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services. These were independent, fairly professional agencies, with clear authority over limited jurisdictions. Now, fused into Customs and Border Protection and shunted into DHS, it’s a large law enforcement agency with a mandate as narrow or as broad as the secretary of homeland security decides. And since the current secretary, Chad Wolf, is an acting secretary, whose nomination has not been submitted to the Senate and who therefore has no accountability to Congress or the public, the CBP’s armed agents can behave as Trump’s goon squad.

3) I’m pretty damn confident on what scientists are going to be able to do with creating a vaccine.  The real concerning part is that we’ll depend upon the federal government for an effective distribution strategy (hundreds of millions of doses ain’t easy!!) and even if this is Biden’s government, it’s going to be absolutely crippled by having been Trump’s for four years:

Even if all of this goes well—the earliest candidates are effective, the trials conclude quickly, the technology works—another huge task lies ahead: When vaccines are approved, 300 million doses will not be available all at once, and a system is needed to distribute limited supplies to the public. This is exactly the sort of challenge that the U.S. government has proved unprepared for in this pandemic.

4) NYT Magazine, “‘White Fragility’ Is Everywhere. But Does Antiracism Training Work?”  I think you know the answer.

5) Jennifer Rubin on the future of the Republican Party:

I wholeheartedly agree with my friend and fellow Never Trumper Bill Kristol when he says the fate of the Republican Party is up in the air. He rightly reminds us that some intellectual humility is in order. As he puts it: “Lost cause or worth trying to save? I don’t know.”

There are actually two questions here. The first: What will happen to the Republican Party? For starters, this assumes (as is increasingly wise) that the Republicans are heading for a big loss. If they do not lose, the Republican Party remains the party of authoritarian, right-wing nationalism, and the country is in deep trouble. But if President Trump does lose, what happens to the party depends on a myriad of factors — the size of the loss, the fate of the Senate majority, the degree to which the party splits with Trump during the final stretch, the attitude of donors who will have wasted collectively hundreds of millions of dollars and — yes — how Democrats govern going forward. It is going to be a long time before that all works itself out.

The second question is normative: What should happen to the Republican Party? As a proud co-founder of the “they deserve to go out of business” faction, I maintain that Republicans’ collective failure to defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic, to stand up to a dangerously defective president and to adhere to some semblance of objective truth renders this crop of Republicans undeserving of the public’s trust. Since a party is the sum-total of its elected officials and supporters, Republicans, from my perspective, should be disqualified from holding office until there is a new generation of Republicans untainted by support for Trump and willing to repudiate Trumpism.

I confess to having no specific loyalty to a shell of a party; it is the ideas it propounds and the leaders it offers that determine whether it deserves support. The question then becomes: What kind of party does the country need if the current Republican Party is relegated to the dustbin of history? We need a functional two-party system in which each party offers alternative policy ideas and restrains the other. However, if the Trump era taught us anything, it is that certain core values are required to participate in the political process (e.g., fidelity to the rule of law; devotion to separation of powers; recognition that the United States is defined not by race, gender or religion, but by our creed that “all men are created equal”). To gain admission to the political playing field, a party must buy into the constitutional system and reflect basic human decency. Trumpism has proved utterly unwilling to do that, and its core philosophy — to the extent there is one — is a brand of populism that is antithetical to a pluralistic democracy.

By the same token, the philosophy that ran its course in the GOP (e.g., tax cuts for the wealthy, antagonism toward government, aversion to racial fairness) does not provide a viable alternative to progressivism. There simply is not sufficient support for a party featuring unfettered faith in the free market or denial of systemic racism. It is not morally tenable to feature voter suppression and discouragement as a party strategy.

Without Trumpism or dead-end conservatism, what is left? The task for former or disenchanted Republicans, I would suggest, is defining what political philosophy is appropriate to our times and distinct enough from progressivism to offer a choice. Whatever you call it — conservatism 2.0, moderation, pragmatism, “small-l” liberalism — it must defend democratic institutions, address yawning gaps in wealth and opportunity, integrate into a global economy, tackle systemic problems such as climate change and racism, root out corruption and cronyism, and exercise leadership in a world in which illiberal regimes are increasingly aggressive and confident. There are numerous attempts to forge ideas and an overarching philosophy that might be competitive in the political arena. Out of that maybe a new party or ideological movement will arise.

In the meantime, the existing Republican Party should be defeated, and all Americans should encourage the Democratic Party to govern honorably and advance the best progressive ideas with an appreciation for unintended consequences and the value of free markets. A spirit of innovation and pragmatism, rather than dogma and one-size-fits-all solutions, would serve the country well. I suspect if Democrats do not fall prey to excess or corruption, they will be in power for a good, long while — until an alternative party offers something of value to Americans. Right now, the only thing Republicans offer is a brew of meanness, propaganda, science denial, corruption and racism.

5) For my money, John Williams is the greatest classical/orchestral composer of the 20th century.  Great piece in The New Yorker.

6) I didn’t really love Ian McEwan’s Machines like me (but did like it enough to finish), but I thought it was kind of cool that a solution to the Does P=NP problem was a key to book’s alternative world.

7) This is pretty interesting essay on trying to makes sense of social justice culture:

In 2014 Jason Manning and I first wrote about the rise of a new moral culture. We called it victimhood culture because among those who embrace it, victimhood comes to act as a kind of moral status. While there are right-wing versions of it, most of the activists embracing this new culture are on the Left, and they see themselves as pursuing social justice. This culture, then, which can also be called social justice culture, is a moral framework concerned primarily with documenting and fighting oppression.

This new moral culture differs from prior ones, particularly in dealing with conflict. The honor cultures of many traditional societies valued bravery above all else, and in these societies people needed to stand up for themselves, often by engaging in violence, to demonstrate they weren’t cowards and wouldn’t let others take advantage of them or insult them. A duel over an insult, which seems so strange to most of us, made sense in this context. Surely if someone calls me a liar, we might think, our firing guns at one another doesn’t prove I’m not a liar. But what it does prove is that I’m not willing to let such an insult stand without a fight, that I’m willing to risk death to try avenging it. It may not prove I’m honest, but it does demonstrate my bravery, which may be more consequential.

In the United States and elsewhere, honor culture eventually gave way to dignity culture. It became more important to recognize one’s own and others’ inherent worth, so reputations weren’t so important. People came to believe they should let most insults stand, and that they should rely on the legal system for solving more serious disputes.

Social justice culture is similar to honor culture in that people might be concerned even with small slights and insults (microaggressions) that would be ignored by people in a dignity culture, but it’s similar to dignity culture in that people often appeal to authorities and other third parties rather than handling the slights themselves. The elevation of one virtue over others—from demonstrating bravery in honor cultures, to recognizing the worth of every individual in dignity cultures, and opposing oppression in social justice cultures—occurs along with different ways of conceiving of and responding to transgressions. It is important to note in this context that people immersed in different moral cultures commonly find each other’s behavior offensive or incomprehensible. And just as those in dignity cultures object to the violence of honor cultures as being foolish and cruel, and just as those in honor cultures object to the avoidance of conflict or the appeal to law in dignity cultures as cowardly and weak, those in dignity cultures sometimes see social justice activists as self-absorbed and childish—snowflakes. What they miss is that their behavior makes sense given their assumptions. That doesn’t mean it’s always sincere—people don’t always have pure motives when they express moral outrage and condemn wrongdoing—but it seems it often is, and it’s probably as sincere as that of any other activist group.

8) This “20 questions to ask before sending your kids back to school” from Harvard and Portland State Public Health is great.  2 of my K-12 kids will be fully on-line to start the Fall, but my special education son will be in person.  I’m going to be a damn squeaky wheel on the indoor air quality questions 5-7.

9) EJ Dionne on Trump’s corruption, “The risks of herd immunity to Trump’s corruption”

We could all spend a lot of intellectual energy debating whether President Trump’s failures are due primarily to corruption or incompetence, but it would be a waste of time.

Understanding that his incompetence flows from his corruption should animate the arguments against his reelection and inspire the work journalists do in making sense of the chaotic mess Trump has made of our government.

It won’t be easy. Trump has been involved in so many scandals and says so many reprehensible things that our country has developed a kind of herd immunity to the outrage that just one of his actions would have called forth in any previous administration. We have allowed Trump to fend off one scandal with . . . another scandal.
The key is seeing that Trump’s entirely selfish approach to the presidency has a measurable and material impact on the lives of citizens and on the policies he pursues — to the extent that he is interested in policy at all. He cares above all about his own finances, his ego, his ratings and escaping accountability. Everything else falls by the wayside.

Consider the past couple of days. The New York Times offered a jaw-dropping article that Trump instructed the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, to ask the British government to “help steer the world-famous and lucrative British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry Resort in Scotland.”

This is the sort of corruption that would have made Boss Tweed proud — using our nation’s diplomats as fixers for Trump’s interest. But it also reflects Trump’s indifference to the idea that the State Department serves the national interest. Turning an ambassador into an errand boy for Trump’s money-losing golf course undercuts our envoys’ ability to carry out the work of the nation.
10) Teen Vogue with, “How to Talk to People Who Won’t Wear Face Masks.”  No shaming; “empathetic messaging.”

11) Could our country be any worse with this.  And, yes, failures like this are really on Trump. “‘It’s Like Groundhog Day’: Coronavirus Testing Labs Again Lack Key Supplies: Just weeks after resolving shortages in swabs, researchers are struggling to find the chemicals and plastic pieces they need to carry out coronavirus tests in the lab — leading to long waiting times.”

12) This is a thought-provoking piece on “The Four Quadrants of Conformism

One of the most revealing ways to classify people is by the degree and aggressiveness of their conformism. Imagine a Cartesian coordinate system whose horizontal axis runs from conventional-minded on the left to independent-minded on the right, and whose vertical axis runs from passive at the bottom to aggressive at the top. The resulting four quadrants define four types of people. Starting in the upper left and going counter-clockwise: aggressively conventional-minded, passively conventional-minded, passively independent-minded, and aggressively independent-minded.

I think that you’ll find all four types in most societies, and that which quadrant people fall into depends more on their own personality than the beliefs prevalent in their society. [1]

Young children offer some of the best evidence for both points. Anyone who’s been to primary school has seen the four types, and the fact that school rules are so arbitrary is strong evidence that the quadrant people fall into depends more on them than the rules.

The kids in the upper left quadrant, the aggressively conventional-minded ones, are the tattletales. They believe not only that rules must be obeyed, but that those who disobey them must be punished.

The kids in the lower left quadrant, the passively conventional-minded, are the sheep. They’re careful to obey the rules, but when other kids break them, their impulse is to worry that those kids will be punished, not to ensure that they will.

The kids in the lower right quadrant, the passively independent-minded, are the dreamy ones. They don’t care much about rules and probably aren’t 100% sure what the rules even are.

And the kids in the upper right quadrant, the aggressively independent-minded, are the naughty ones. When they see a rule, their first impulse is to question it. Merely being told what to do makes them inclined to do the opposite…

Since one’s quadrant depends more on one’s personality than the nature of the rules, most people would occupy the same quadrant even if they’d grown up in a quite different society.

Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote:

I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.

He’s too polite to say so, but of course they wouldn’t. And indeed, our default assumption should not merely be that his students would, on average, have behaved the same way people did at the time, but that the ones who are aggressively conventional-minded today would have been aggressively conventional-minded then too. In other words, that they’d not only not have fought against slavery, but that they’d have been among its staunchest defenders.

I’m biased, I admit, but it seems to me that aggressively conventional-minded people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the trouble in the world, and that a lot of the customs we’ve evolved since the Enlightenment have been designed to protect the rest of us from them. In particular, the retirement of the concept of heresy and its replacement by the principle of freely debating all sorts of different ideas, even ones that are currently considered unacceptable, without any punishment for those who try them out to see if they work. [2]

Why do the independent-minded need to be protected, though? Because they have all the new ideas. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be right. You have to be right when everyone else is wrong. Conventional-minded people can’t do that. For similar reasons, all successful startup CEOs are not merely independent-minded, but aggressively so. So it’s no coincidence that societies prosper only to the extent that they have customs for keeping the conventional-minded at bay. [3

In the last few years, many of us have noticed that the customs protecting free inquiry have been weakened. Some say we’re overreacting — that they haven’t been weakened very much, or that they’ve been weakened in the service of a greater good. The latter I’ll dispose of immediately. When the conventional-minded get the upper hand, they always say it’s in the service of a greater good. It just happens to be a different, incompatible greater good each time.

For the record, I had a hard time placing myself.  Definitely high on the “aggressive” dimension, but in some ways I’m quite conventional and in others quite independent.  But, always aggressive about it :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Quick hits (Part I)

  1. itchy says:

    12. Easy. Passively independent. (Assuming that typing comments into blogs is a passive act.)

    But hopefully “subversively passively independent” — such that my ideas are eventually funneled to the aggressive independents, who will then do more than just type them. Maybe change requires an ecosystem …

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