Friday, June 23, 2017

It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization

This is a mess of a column. From The End of the Left and the Right as We Knew Them by Thomas B. Edsall. I enjoy reading Edsall's work. He is among the strongest left leaning commenters, principally because he so often bases his arguments on logic applied to data rather than based on simple ideological emotion. Engaging with his arguments is almost always useful and a learning experience.

That's why this column is so surprising. The argument seems almost incoherent. No doubt we live in unsettled political times with electorates across the OECD turfing out the smug and comfortable vested elites, choosing unknown, incomprehensible, or even inconceivable alternatives.

Edsall looks at this pattern and wants to make it an issue of globalism versus populism which seems a pretty weak reed. Yes, globalism, among many other issues, is involved. And yes, the rejection of the vision of the self-anointed elites might be characterized as populism. But globalism and populism are words of clay, molded to mean whatever you want them to mean.

Edsall has a lot of OECD examples and data but he, as a voice of the American Left, seems compelled to make this consistent with the American postmodernist, critical theory assumptions. Race and xenophobia have to be a root cause. Those with whom we disagree must be racist. He ends his column with:
What we are seeing now is the replacement of class-based politics, a trend apparent in the United States and Europe. This gives us a more racialized and xenophobic politics, on one hand, and a politics capitalizing on increasing levels of education and open-mindedness in the electorate on the other. If the building of a viable left coalition is possible, it is likely to require some thoughtful and humane co-optation in the form of deference to our limits and boundaries.
These global changes aren't about race as we understand it in the US. Edsall tends to be much more sophisticated than this.

Scott Alexander, another intelligent writer of the left, has had a number of excellent thought pieces on the foolishness and profoundly immoral instinct to ascribe everything to an ad hominem slander of racism. Its not about racism and xenophobia. Its much simpler than that. If the self-anointed elite of both the left and right keep blinding themselves to the interests, challenges, and needs of the majority, then the electoral upsets will continue happening. From You are still crying wolf by Scott Alexander, November 16th, 2016.
Trump made gains among blacks. He made gains among Latinos. He made gains among Asians. The only major racial group where he didn’t get a gain of greater than 5% was white people. I want to repeat that: the group where Trump’s message resonated least over what we would predict from a generic Republican was the white population.

Nor was there some surge in white turnout. I don’t think we have official numbers yet, but by eyeballing what data we have it looks very much like whites turned out in equal or lesser numbers this year than in 2012, 2008, and so on. [EDIT: see counterpoint, countercounterpoint]

The media responded to all of this freely available data with articles like White Flight From Reality: Inside The Racist Panic That Fueled Donald Trump’s Victory and Make No Mistake: Donald Trump’s Win Represents A Racist “Whitelash”.

I stick to my thesis from October 2015. There is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s “the candidate of the KKK” and “the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement” is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.

I avoided pushing this point any more since last October because I didn’t want to look like I was supporting Trump, or accidentally convince anyone else to support Trump. I think Trump’s election is a disaster. He has no plan, he’s dangerously trigger-happy, and his unilateralism threatens aid to developing countries, one of the most effective ways we currently help other people. I thought and still think a Trump presidency will be a disaster.

But since we’re past the point where we can prevent it, I want to present my case.

I realize that all of this is going to make me sound like a crazy person and put me completely at odds with every respectable thinker in the media, but luckily, being a crazy person at odds with every respectable thinker in the media has been a pretty good ticket to predictive accuracy lately, so whatever.
And just this week Alexander has Against Murderism. Murderism being analogized to racism - a generic moral claim to the high ground without the hard work of actually comprehending the position of the other.
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

And I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”
Across the developed world, citizens are revolting against the regulated rich (bankers, lawyers, doctors and everyone else whose access to wealth is regulated by the government) and the protected powerful (the bureaucrats writing the regulations). This is an issue of vested interests, a structural deficit in democracy, and self-annointed elite dehumanizing their less fortunate fellow citizens in order to pursue policies beneficial to the regulated rich and the protected powerful.

This isn't about ignorance and racism, deplorables and bitter clingers. This is about empathy, understanding, and a capacity to comprehend the rational desires of one's fellow citizens.

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