The founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS: Or, Contingency exists

Donald Trump’s latest “gaffe” is his claim that Obama is the founder of ISIS. Now even Trump seems to admit — to the extent compatible with his “never back down” policy — that this is a hyperbolic way of saying that Obama’s Mideast policies “caused” ISIS to come into existence. We can easily imagine a leftist making a similar claim about George W. Bush, insofar as there is a very plausible case to be made that ISIS never would have come into being if not for the disastrous and criminal Iraq War.

I would suggest, however, that neither Obama nor Bush “caused” ISIS to exist. In reality, the founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS. There was no inner necessity growing out of the Iraq invasion of 2003 that leads to the ISIS of 2016. Is it likely that a militant Islamist organization would emerge under the circumstances created by the Iraq War and its aftermath? Absolutely. But there was no necessity that it should take this particular form and pursue these particular goals. The organization and its priorities are the product of its own leaders and membership, who exercised their own agency in circumstances that they did not choose and cannot fully control. The emergence of something like ISIS may have been predictable to some extent, but the existence of the ISIS we actually know is a contingent outcome of historical forces and human decisions.

The very fact that the Iraq War is at the root of the phenomena we’re discussing should actually highlight the role of contingency in this process. One of the greatest critiques of the war is that it was a war of choice, taken up gratuitously and arbitrarily by a particular circle of politicians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) with the ear of a pliable president and a submissive public. To some extent it was a “natural outgrowth” of the long-standing US policy favoring regime change in Iraq, which is probably why it attracted bipartisan support, but the shitty equilibrium that had persisted for over a decade (Saddam in office, but hemmed in by sanctions and a no-fly zone) could presumably have persisted indefinitely. There was no inner necessity that Saddam should be removed right then.

And indeed, the reference to Trump should further emphasize the role of contingency in politics. Yes, Trump is riding on certain deep trends in American politics, and his success thus far was predictable to some extent — though I suspect that many such predictions are more like lucky guesses. But Trump is a very particular person, with a very particular life trajectory, and the “movement” that has coalesced around him seems to be very, very dependent on Trump the individual. After all, there were over a dozen empty suits who were clearly willing to take up Trump’s “message,” but none of them seemed to pass the laugh test for Trump supporters.

What does all this add up to? Basically, I’m tired of reading too-clever-by-half post-hoc analyses of how everything that happens grows directly out of historical necessity — the “I can’t believe you’re surprised by this” school of political commentary. There has to be some way to acknowledge the contingencies growing out of human agency without collapsing into individualistic moralizing.

The Republicans cannot overreach

In American poltical discourse, legitimate opinions are represented by two different, but equally important groups: Democrats and Republicans. Political debate, as it is commonly understood, just is the dispute between the two parties. This is why it is possible to implement policies using American political institutions while at the same time “putting the politics aside” — because politics is defined as a dispute between Democrats and Republicans, a bipartisan consensus is no longer political. And since American political discourse lives in mortal fear of political division — a condition that is taken to be unnatural and illegitimate — bipartisan consensus is the most highly desired outcome.

Failing that, of course, political commentators and journalists reflexively return to the idea that the two parties, which should agree in all things, are at least in agreement as to their faults. If “both sides” were not of the same moral caliber, evincing the same degree of corruption, dishonesty, ignorance, and other undesirable traits, then that would call into question the legitimacy of one of the two sides and forever close down the possibility of bipartisan consensus. It would open up the possibility of permanent political division, rather than momentary disagreement between people of good faith whose different starting points ultimately enrich our great national dialogue, etc., etc., etc.

Within this system, neither political party can be wrong. Individual outliers within a given political party can be wrong — indeed, they can make statements and propose policies so ridiculous that, in the eyes of respectable discourse, all citizens of good faith should put the partisanship aside in order to vote against that person. Most often, those outliers are painted as outsider populists who abuse the primary system to subvert the real spirit of their party. It is even possible for the party as such to err in the short term, as the Republicans may well be doing by nominating Trump and pushing through a scary right-wing platform. Yet in the long run, each party is definitionally in the right, insofar as the Democrats and Republicans represent the only two legitimate options within the American political field. Trump will have been an overreach if the Republicans decide that he was — if they double down, Trumpism will turn out to be legitimate Republicanism.

It goes without saying that such a system is gameable, that the Republicans figured this out long ago, and that the Democrats believe so deeply in respectability that they are forced to play along with the charade of two equally legitimate “sides” — because to do otherwise would be to open up the prospect of a permanent and unbridgeable political division, which may well be the one sole taboo of American political discourse.

Posted in blog posts, politics of the absurd. Comments Off on The Republicans cannot overreach

No lives matter

When it comes to real, tangible effects, human lives matter because other human beings say they matter. We can imagine that all lives matter from God’s perspective, but here below, mattering takes recognition. Mattering is not a given, but a historical outcome. For some of us, mattering comes easily. For others, it takes struggle. But in no case is it guaranteed. Even though I’m white, straight, and male as they come, with a credit rating that could move mountains, there could come a day when, in some concrete situation or under some political regime, I don’t matter anymore. That situation may be a hypothetical in my case, but for others, it is a daily lived reality. Everyone who is not a naive child realizes that there are lives that objectively don’t matter to American society, lives that society at large does not recognize as making any legitimate claim upon anyone.

One such group is the homeless. Individual homeless people matter to their friends and family. As a group, they matter to many activists and charity workers. But in the eyes of mainstream society, they don’t matter. Not only does mainstream society fail to set up an impersonal welfare mechanism that could eliminate homelessness at a trivial cost (after all, it’s not very expensive to make someone merely poor, rather than desperately poor). Mainstream society takes it a step further. It lays down spikes in secluded corners, puts in armrests to keep people from laying down on public benches, and criminalizes panhandling. What are homeless people supposed to do in that situation? Only one answer is possible: They should just disappear. They should stop existing. That’s how little the homeless matter to the most powerful institutions in American society (and in other Western countries as well). To say that the homeless do matter can only be a protest against a situation in which they objectively don’t, at least not to the people who matter.

So what happens when black people, seeing that there are so many ways in which they objectively don’t matter in American society, seeing that they can be essentially thrown in the trash and posthumously slandered to save the reputation of a trigger-happy cop, push back and assert that they do matter? What happens when they demand to be recognized?

They hear in response that “All Lives Matter.” And oh, what a pious thought that is! What a beautiful utopia it would be if all lives really did matter — concretely, in the real world of mutual recognition, not in some heavenly ledger.

In some contexts, “all lives matter” could function as a moral imperative, a harsh and urgent critique of our society. But in this context, even though it is saying something admirable (if vague), what that phrase is doing, what it is really accomplishing is a power play. By asserting “all lives matter,” the mainstream is effectively saying, “No, you don’t get to decide which lives matter. You don’t have the perspective or authority necessary for that. We get to decide — and what we decide must be best, as you can tell from the pious sentiment we are mouthing right now.”

In other words: “All lives matter — to the precise extent that we decide they do.” Only the first half needs to be explicit, whereas the second half is implicit in the very act of saying it. All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize this. But for many of us, black people apparently don’t matter enough to spare even that small solitary moment — even after years and years of pointless deaths. A black life does not even matter enough to think about the situation from the perspective of someone who has a gun pulled on them for no reason or from the perspective of someone who has lost that person, for no reason. Our own comfort, our own belief in the system that recognizes that we matter and therefore must be a good and wise system, matters too much to risk even that small solitary thought.

Why not Mormonism?

Periodically, one reads of an evangelical leader or Republican legislator who believes that the Bible has a great deal to say about America. Yet biblical scholars are buzz-killingly insistent that all of the biblical writings were composed during a time when no one in the Eastern Hemisphere had any idea that the Americas existed. Even more buzz-killing: if there is an analogue for America in the Bible, surely it is Babylon or Rome, both of which are demonized as simultaneously opponents and unwitting tools of God.

There is an existing version of Christianity that gives evangelicals everything they want: Mormonism. As people my age learned repeatedly from watching commercials offering free Books of Mormon, that book includes accounts of “other sheep” who will “hear my voice” (John 10:16) — i.e., Jesus’s post-resurrection visit to America. It’s a bold retcon, but it’s not the only one. It makes the American West the explicit promised land. It dials the emphasis on family up to 11 compared with traditional Christianity. It takes a belt-and-suspenders approach to textual inerrancy: the original document is written on metal plates (hence no need for a manuscript tradition that might introduce errors), and Joseph Smith’s translation is “re-inspired.” And if there is any worry about the Church becoming irrelevant or behind the times, there’s a principle of progressive revelation that takes the fundamentalist idea of dispensationalism (where God has different requirements in different historical periods) and shifts it into the contemporary world.

Perhaps there are signs of a rapprochement in the evangelical embrace of Romney last time around and the general trend of greater alliances on social issues. But if anything, the question is why it’s taken so long — Mormonism actually is what evangelical Christians think Christianity should be.

(Note: I do not say this to make fun of Mormonism, which I think is a really interesting historical phenomenon and which, all things being equal, seems to contain a similar mix of bad and good as evangelicalism or any other mainstream contemporary religious movement.)

An update on the Spirit of 9/12

A sit-in on the House floor initially seems like the most un-Hillary thing conceivable — a point that was only underscored when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren put in an appearance. Yet at least one of the measures they’re fighting for fits in perfectly with the call to return to “the spirit of 9/12” in the wake of the Orlando attack. Liberals once would have protested against dystopian Bush-era measures like the no-fly list, and now they’re nonviolently resisting in order to expand their scope.

This bill is the perfect distillation of the signature Clinton gesture: the “pivot.” The term has become a cliche meaning “move on to the next topic,” must as “deconstruction” means “close analysis” in popular usage. But the popular reception misses an important element — maintaining a foothold in one issue in order to swing your policy-leg (or whatever) onto an adjacent one. In this case, Democrats are “pivoting” from anti-terrorism into the vicinity of something like gun control. The result is a centrist pre-compromise that concedes the terms of debate to the “guns don’t kill people, people [specifically Muslim terrorists] kill people” crowd. A spoon full of racism makes the gun control go down.

Except it won’t, and everyone knows it. They are fighting to have an on-the-record vote. And the only purpose behind that can be that they are then able to tar their opponents with that vote in campaign ads. It’s a symbolic gesture to enable a symbolic gesture that they can use to show that they “fought for” a good policy (again, a symbolic gesture — “fighting for” is a substitute for winning, the political equivalent of a participation trophy).

Except it’s not even a good policy. Maybe with 20/20 hindsight it would have prevented this one individual massacre. Maybe he would have just found another way to get guns. I don’t know. But in the hypothetical situation where it miraculously passes, they’re setting themselves up for a big fall when the next attack happens — because suddenly the debate wouldn’t be about those mean Republicans in the NRA’s pocket, it would be about how the Democrats made big promises about gun control legislation but it didn’t work.

We’ve all heard of 11-dimensional chess — this is 11-dimensional idiocy. And again, it’s very much a return to the spirit of 9/12, where the Democrats’ brilliant plan was, “Hey, what if we took this illegitimate president whose brother stole the election for him and gave him literally everything he wants?”

“America is already great”

Nothing could more vividly illustrate the fact that Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the status quo than her pathetic rejoinder to Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan: “America is already great.” The system is fine, we just need a competent and experienced manager to oversee it — and Hillary is certainly competent and experienced at doing the kinds of things the US generally does, both domestically and abroad.

From this perspective, her invocation of the “spirit of 9/12” — which, to satisfy the internet’s demands that every single piece of online writing be completely standalone and not presuppose any familiarity with the author’s views or previous writings whatsoever, I should have more roundly denounced in yesterday’s post as utterly obscene and frightening and contrary to all my political instincts, which were initially forged in total, unqualified revulsion and horror at the crimes of Bush and Cheney — shows just how much the state of emergency in which we live has become the norm.

Under Obama, you could almost forget that the War on Terror was going on, but though he preferred drone strikes to ground troops, he was still pursuing the bipartisan foreign policy of restoring chaos in the Middle East. But neoconservatism with a human face is apparently not good enough for her. Plausible deniability is not good enough for her. She wants the fear, the panic, the uncertainty, the pliability of a public openly at war — an endless war to no rational end.

Am I going to vote for her? Yes, because — unimaginably — Trump could very well be worse. Even if he drops out and they replace him with a “normal” Republican, that would still be worse (on domestic policy, if not on foreign policy). But all that can be said for this particular status quo is that at least we know what it is. It’s not an alternative to chaos, but a slightly more managed and familiar chaos. It will destroy lives, but destroy them predictably — whereas no one can be sure which lives Trump will destroy, only that he will destroy as many as he can.

This is the end result of Clinton-style triangulation: the lesser evil is openly and indisputably evil. The devil we know is very clearly the devil. And we should choose it because there is no hope, because there is no alternative and no other option. The Democratic Party doesn’t know how to do democracy, only democracy as blackmail. And meanwhile the guy who was supposed to be our savior is devoting nearly all his energy to tinkering with the primary process.

Our only hope is that Clinton continues Obama’s halting steps on climate change, so that the planet remains livable for future generations to enjoy the benefits of endless war, market competition, and deficit reduction — forever.

The Spirit of 9/12

The katechōn has spoken: in response to the Orlando attacks, Hillary Clinton believes we need to return to “the spirit of 9/12.” I’m glad she gave us a day to reflect, because the spirit of 9/11, as I remember it, was one of confusion and even awkwardness. On the morning of 9/11, my roommate said, “They bombed the World Trade Center!” From his wording, it sounded similar to the attempted, much smaller attack a few years previous. I got ready and went to do some software training, and during the session, there was definitely an air of… “Should we actually be doing this? I guess we already are?” I arrived in class, and it was decided — apparently on the spur of the moment — that classes would be cancelled. It was as though no one knew they were living through a world-historical event. We make fun of George W. Bush for reading “My Pet Goat” while the attack was occuring, but we were all like that.

For me, the spirit of 9/12 is the dawning horror of realizing, not only what has just happened, but what the US was going to do for revenge. It was my senior year at the very conservative Olivet Nazarene University, and I felt pretty alone in my concerns. I very distinctly remember a group of students crowded around Craig Keen — a professor I would come to treasure, but of whom I was very suspicious precisely because he was popular among Olivet kids — more or less begging him to say something that made sense and wasn’t arbitrarily cruel. I don’t remember what he said, but he met those basic requirements, which was a rare thing in those days.

The thing with 9/11 is that it really did feel like it came out of nowhere. Yes, I know that the short-lived X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen virtually predicted 9/11 and, difficult as it is to believe, the iconic War on Terror show 24 actually started prior to 9/11. Maybe it was percolating in our collective unconscious, but it was genuinely shocking. And that’s why this current tragedy can’t and won’t be a new 9/11 — because it’s all too common. It’s a theme and variation of the standard mass shooting, of which there have been hundreds. We all feel pain and anger and even shame about this, but not the shock of someone turning a plane into a suicide bomb. No one woke up on 9/11 and thought, “Oh God, this again?”

Almost everything the US did in response to 9/11 was unforgivable, but in one single respect, we did the right thing: we did exactly what was necessary to prevent another attack like that. Now it is physically impossible to do what the 9/11 terrorists did. Assuming the regulations remain the same, a 9/11-style attack will never happen again. I have my doubts that we will enjoy the same results this time, and not only because politicians are cowardly or corrupt. Box cutters and easy access to the cockpit were not a deeply embedded part of American culture. No one’s sense of belonging and identity hinged on being able to wait in line for the bathroom at the front of the plane.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that this post may be interpreted as being too soft on the horrible crimes the US committed in the wake of 9/11. It may surprise those readers to learn that this is not the first and only thing I have ever written. See, for example, this recent piece on George W. Bush.

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