I’m Glad They Agree

If you express an opinion and somebody disagrees, they’ve given you an opportunity to change your mind. If the other person’s opinion is better than yours, you’ve learned something. That’s a positive outcome. There can also be a positive outcome if the other person agrees with you. It makes you feel good (although if you were wrong to begin with, agreement will just make the situation worse). 

I had two instances today where somebody agreed with me. This made me feel good (I’m going with the assumption that I wasn’t wrong to begin with).

First, the philosopher Justin E. H. Smith criticized the idea that we may be living in a computer simulation, in response to David Chalmers’s book Reality + (my contribution, not as elegant and with a lot fewer words, was “Reality, the Virtual Kind and the Unlikely Kind”):

According to Chalmers’s construal of the “it-from-bit” hypothesis, to be digital is in itself no grounds for being excluded from reality, and what we think of as physical objects may be both real and digital. One is in fact free to accept the first conjunct, and reject the latter, even though they are presented as practically equivalent. I myself am prepared to accept that a couch in VR [virtual reality] is a real couch — more precisely, a real digital couch, or at least that it may be real or reified in consequence of the way I relate to it. But this does not compel me to accept that the couch on which I am currently sitting is digital.

There is a persistent conflation of these two points throughout discussions of the so-called “simulation argument”, which Chalmers treats in several of his works but which is most strongly associated with the name of Nick Bostrom, who in 2003 published an influential article entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” … Here I just want to point out one significant feature of it that occurs early in the introduction and that the author seems to hope the reader will pass over smoothly without getting hung up on the problems it potentially opens up. Consciousness, Bostrom maintains, might arise among simulated people if, first of all, “the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained”, and, second of all, “a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct.”

What is this widely accepted position, you ask? … It is, namely, the view, which Bostrom calls “substrate-independence”, that “mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences.” Arguments for functionalism or computationalism have been given in the literature, Bostrom notes, and “while it is not entirely uncontroversial, we shall here take it as a given.”

It is of course possible that conscious experiences may be realized in a silicon substrate or in a complex arrangement of string and toilet-paper rolls, just as they may be realized in brains. But do we have any evidence that the arrangements that we have come up with for the machine-processing of information are in principle the kind of arrangements that, as they become more and more complex or fine-grained, cross over into conscious experience? In fact, there is very good reason to think that the appearance of consciousness in some evolved biological systems is the result of a very different sort of developmental history than anything we have seen so far since the dawn of artificial intelligence in the mid-twentieth century….

Unquote.

Second, Michael Tomasky of The New Republic responded to the Republican National Committee’s characterization of what happened on January 6, 2021, as “legitimate political discourse”:

It’s now official: The Republican Party is no longer a political party in any known American sense. Honestly, it hasn’t been for a quite some time, but with last week’s resolution condemning Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the party made it official. We don’t always grasp the historic importance of events in real time, but rest assured that future historians, assuming the United States remains enough of a democracy to have honest ones, will point to Friday, February 4 as a pivotal day in the party’s war on democracy….

The money quote in this episode is the line in the resolution that condemns Cheney and Kinzinger for “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” This is right out of 1984. When The New York Times reported that this meant that the RNC was referring to the January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” RNC gauleiter Ronna McDaniel howled that of course she has condemned violence, and the legit discourse business referred to other stuff.

What other stuff, it’s hard to say. The text of the resolution didn’t leave room to interpretation. And the select committee on January 6 is not exactly investigating Republicans across the country who are, say, protesting mask mandates. In fact, it’s not investigating any kind of “discourse.” It’s looking specifically at actions by people on and around the date of the infamous riot….

The truth here is obvious: The party is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The obvious intent with that sentence is to minimize and legitimize what happened on January 6…. And now that T____ himself has said he may pardon everyone charged with January 6–related crimes, it was clear that McDaniel saw her job as aiding [him] in that project: If it’s the official party line that the insurrection was legitimate, then there’s nothing outrageous about pardons.

The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report finding that more than 100 Republican candidates on various ballots in 2022 have explicitly embraced extremism or violence … This is not some aberration that time will correct. It is a storm that will continue to gather strength, because it’s where the action and the money are, and no one in the GOP is opposing it—except the two people who were just essentially read out of the party….

The Republican Party … has become an appendage of T____ dedicated to doing his will and smiting his enemies. I had to laugh at the part of the resolution that denounced Joe Biden for his alleged pursuit of “socialism”…..

The Republican Party is further down the road to fascism than the Democrats are to socialism. And when, by the way, might Democrats start saying that? What are you waiting for, people? How much deeper does this crisis have to get before you start telling the American people the truth about what the GOP has become? It’s time to say it and to put Republicans on the defensive….We are at a moment of historical reckoning…. But Americans won’t know it, Democrats, unless you tell them.

Unquote. 

In other words: “When Do We All Get To Say They’re Fascists?”

When Do We All Get To Say They’re Fascists?

From The New York Times:

The Republican Party on Friday officially declared the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and events that led to it “legitimate political discourse,” and rebuked two lawmakers in the party who have been most outspoken in condemning the deadly riot and the role of D____  T____ in spreading the election lies that fueled it. . . . 

From the resolution unanimously adopted by the Resolutions Committee at the Republican Party’s winter convention:

WHEREAS, Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger have engaged in actions in their positions as members of the January 6th Select Committee not befitting Republican members of Congress . .

WHEREAS , Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger are participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse . . .

RESOLVED, That the Republican National Committee hereby formally censures Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and shall immediately cease any and all support of them as members of  the Republican Party for their behavior which has been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic . . . 

From The Times again:

It was the latest and most forceful effort by the Republican Party to minimize what happened and the broader attempt by [the former president] and his allies to invalidate the results of the 2020 election. In approving it and opting to punish two of its own, Republicans seemed to embrace a position that many of them have only hinted at: that the assault and the actions that preceded it were acceptable. 

It came days after [he] suggested that, if re-elected in 2024, he would consider pardons for those convicted in the Jan. 6 attack and for the first time described his goal as aiming to “overturn” the election results. . . . 

The censure  was carefully negotiated in private among party members . . . 

In response:

Then there’s this from Vanity Fair:

Over the last several years, there have been many opportunities to throw around terms like “fascist“ and “fascism,” typically in the context of the Republican Party and the wannabe dictator to whom many of its members have pledged their undying loyalty. In response, said Republicans have frequently gotten bent out of shape about such terms . . .  And yet . . . 

Per Insider:

Amid the [Republican Party’s] nationwide push against teaching about race and sexuality in schools, two members of the Spotsylvania County School Board in Virginia advocated for burning certain books, according to the Fredericksburg-based Free Lance-Star newspaper. This came as the school board directed staff to begin removing “sexually explicit” books from library shelves, after voting 6-0 in favor of the removal, the Lance-Star reported. The board has plans to review how certain books or materials are defined as “objectionable,” the paper said, which opens the door for other content to be removed. 

Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg both championed burning the books that have been removed . . . 

An Expert Says It’s Typical Fascism

Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale University and the author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, analyzes a new piece of fascist propaganda disseminated by Fox News:  

Patriot Purge, Tucker Carlson’s new three-part series, is propaganda built around D____ T____’s Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election and buttressed by a bizarro world, alt-right and alt-reality retelling of the January 6th insurrection. But Carlson’s message being profoundly dishonest doesn’t stop it from being profoundly dangerous: both because it contains kernels of tough truths the country has been scared to face, and because it follows a classic template of propaganda that has brought down democracies before.

The conceit of Patriot Purge is that the real “Americans” — the country’s greatest Patriots — were those who went to Washington on January 6 to join what was to be a peaceful rally protesting the supposed stealing of the 2020 US Presidential Election. They were a multi-racial group of patriotic Americans coming to the capital to voice their concerns. But then Antifa, apparently working in tandem with the FBI, disrupted the peaceful protests with agents provocateurs who urged participants into the capital building. The seditious “deep state” has in this way entrapped the country’s warriors, who are now the subject of government targeting that was honed during the War on Terror.

The message of the series is clear: a great wrong has been done. The government and media have engineered a false narrative directed in the first instance towards discrediting the patriots who seek to address it, and, ultimately, with the goal of hunting down and violently suppressing them. Our media’s complicity is demonstrated by their differential coverages of the BLM protests, which are here portrayed as senseless violent riots, and the events of January 6. The patriots are innocent Americans seeking only to preserve democracy in the face of a fraudulent election. The forces arrayed against them are almost impossibly powerful. It is a repeat of the war on terror, by the same forces who engineered it, but directed against the most representative of our citizens, the “real” Americans.

It is impossible to accept this message in total without taking it to justify violent mass action against the current government, or something like a police and military coup.

Carlson’s Patriot Purge finds a martyr for its movement in Ashli Babbitt, who was shot trying to get past a Capitol Police barrier near the House chamber. Her death, in great and gruesome detail, comprises the final shots of Part I.

Babbitt’s assigned role is familiar to anyone who has seen or studied Twentieth Century fascist propaganda. Martyrs are ideally pure and innocent, and killed in a noble attempt to defeat enemies of the nation. In fascist ideology, these enemies are communists and liberals, who are represented as subverting the will of the “true” people, whose only goal is to install their beloved leader, the true father of the nation. Honoring the memory of the martyr is to worship the leader, and give all in the quest to defeat his enemies and place him as the leader of the nation.

This series is a further contribution to the months long narrative construction of Babbitt as the T____ movement’s Horst Wessel, the Nazi stormtrooper killed in a brawl in 1930, most probably by communists (but for unclear reasons), and elevated to martyrdom status by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In this case, the martyr is an innocent, patriotic white woman. . . .

The unquestioned premise of this series is the “Big lie”, that the election was stolen, and that T____ won. The Big Lie structures the entire narrative here. It is only on this assumption that we should grant a movement that promulgates this lie full political legitimacy, and equal weight in government decisions and media representation. It is only on this assumption that those who promulgate this lie can be represented as innocent victims.

Key to fascist propaganda is an overwhelming sense of danger, one that threatens to make the country’s dominant majority into a powerless and endangered minority. T____ loyalists in this series appear only as targeted victims, at existential peril, without representation in. any branch of government or media. Throughout, law is represented as merely an instrument in the service of power. The series does not discuss what these attitudes have justified – the wave of laws sweeping Republican dominated state governments enabling the mass disenfranchisement of minority voters on the basis of dubious claims of fraud, the stacking of election commissions by T___ loyalists, or the nationwide targeting of educators associated with Critical Race Theory or Black Lives Matter. The series does not mention the mass targeting of democratic institutions, from elections to schools, the curtailing of voting rights and speech, that are the calling card of the T____ist Republican Party in its current fascist phase. And the series does not, of course, discuss the fearsome power of Fox News.

In the inverted world of the series, those who support the authoritarian cult of the leader, his base, are the democratic patriots. Those who seek to preserve fair elections are the fascists. Fascist propaganda is relentless projection, justified by lies. Carlson has proven to be a master in its use. . . .

Throughout, Carlson is correct about several important matters. He is right about the dangers of mass surveillance. He is right about the moral obscenity of the war on terror, which has created an ugly toolkit that can be used to target relatively powerless American citizens. It is past time for these to be shared bipartisan assumptions. Embedding these truths within a larger framework in the service of destabilizing democracy makes it dangerous propaganda indeed. . . .

I share his view that ordinary fellow citizens who fall under the sway of propaganda should not be demonized. Our opprobrium should instead be directed at those leading the assault, billionaires . . . [like Rupert Murdoch], elite Ivy League-trained [politicians] like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and, of course, wealthy and powerful mainstream media propagandists like Tucker Carlson.

Unquote.

Unlike Professor Stanley, however, I think the “ordinary” citizens who are so open to right-wing propaganda deserve plenty of opprobrium too. But our leaders aren’t comfortable saying that.

Not 1930s Germany, But 1820s Britain

Prof. Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, doesn’t see our former president as a political strongman, the harbinger of an American brand of fascism. He sees the Republican Party using the Constitution to hold the line against the majority’s desire for progress, and therefore truly conservative. From The New Yorker:

. . . Fascism called the young to the cause of novelty and creation. Today’s right is nothing like that. It is an artifact of the world’s most ancient and extant legal order, holding on to the Constitution, and the institutions it authorizes, for dear life. . . .

. . . Seeking to counter their waning position, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have come to depend upon three pillars of counter-majoritarian rule: the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court. These institutions are not authoritarian or fascist—indeed, they are eminently constitutional—but they are antidemocratic. They are also mainstays of the right. In a remarkable statement, now forgotten, issued three days before January 6th, seven conservative members of the House warned their colleagues that [Republican] presidential candidates have

depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes—based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election—we will be delegitimizing the very system that led [our party] to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.

The current moment is less reminiscent of the last days of Weimar than of Britain in the years before the Reform Act of 1832. With a scheme of representation dating back to the twelfth century, Parliament was the playground of grandees from rural and sparsely populated regions of the South. Growing cities in the Midlands and the North had no representation at all.

Standing atop this “aristocracy of mere locality,” in the words of the historian and Whig politician Thomas Macaulay, were the Tories. For six decades, virtually without interruption, they leveraged this Senate-like system of rotten boroughs to keep the Whigs out of power, enabling an increasingly isolated group of aristocrats and gentry to maintain their privileges. While “the natural growth of society went on” among the middle classes and in the cities, Macaulay said, “the artificial polity continued unchanged.”

Other features of this system will sound familiar. Polling places were few and far between; one of the leading items on the reform agenda was to increase their number. Electoral laws were so byzantine, and generated results so murky, that an army of well-paid lawyers was on the payroll for years, sorting out the returns and arguing over their validity. The “artificial polity” kept politics frozen in time, discouraging both parties from taking up vital economic questions of the day, and preventing new social forces and the partisan realignment that was eventually to come . . .

Last Wednesday and the Grotesque Old Party

Paul Krugman’s last two columns dealt with the insurrection and the Republican Party. I’ve taken apart “This Putsch Was Decades in the Making” and “Appeasement Got Us Where We Are” and rearranged some of the pieces:

So, is it finally OK to use the F-word?

One shouldn’t use the term “fascist” lightly. . . Mitch McConnell’s brand of politics has, in my view, greatly damaged America; but cynical legislative maneuvers aren’t the same thing as threatening and encouraging violence, and I wouldn’t call McConnell a fascist.

Dxxxx Txxxx, however, is indeed a fascist — an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals. So are many of his supporters. If you had any doubts about that, Wednesday’s attack on Congress should have ended them.

And if history teaches us one lesson about dealing with fascists, it is the futility of appeasement. Giving in to fascists doesn’t pacify them, it just encourages them to go further.

********

One striking aspect of the Capitol Hill putsch was that none of the rioters’ grievances had any basis in reality.

No, the election wasn’t stolen — there is no evidence of significant electoral fraud. No, Democrats aren’t part of a satanic pedophile conspiracy. No, they aren’t radical Marxists — even the party’s progressive wing would be considered only moderately left of center in any other Western democracy.

All the rage is based on lies. But what’s almost as striking as the fantasies of the rioters is how few leading Republicans have been willing, despite the violence and desecration, to tell the MAGA mob that their conspiracy theories are false.

Bear in mind that Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and two-thirds of his colleagues voted against accepting the Electoral College results even after the riot. (McCarthy then shamelessly decried “division”, saying that “we must call on our better angels.”)

Or consider the behavior of leading Republicans who aren’t usually considered extremists. On Sunday Senator Rob Portman declared that we need to “restore confidence in the integrity of our electoral system.” Portman isn’t stupid; he has to know that the only reason so many people doubt the election results is that members of his party deliberately fomented that doubt. But he’s still keeping up the pretense.

And the cynicism and cowardice of leading Republicans is, I would argue, the most important cause of the nightmare now enveloping our nation.

********

Of course we need to understand the motives of our homegrown enemies of democracy. In general, political scientists find — not surprisingly, given America’s history — that racial antagonism is the best predictor of willingness to countenance political violence. Anecdotally, personal frustrations — often involving social interactions, not “economic anxiety” — also seem to drive many extremists.

But neither racism nor widespread attraction to conspiracy theories is new in our political life. The worldview described in Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is barely distinguishable from QAnon beliefs today.

There’s only so much to be gained from interviewing red-hatted guys in diners; there have always been people like that. If there are or seem to be more such people than in the past, it probably has less to do with intensified grievances than with outside encouragement.

For the big thing that has changed since Hofstadter wrote is that one of our major political parties has become willing to tolerate and, indeed, feed right-wing political paranoia.

This coddling of the crazies was, at first, almost entirely cynical. When the G.O.P. began moving right in the 1970s its true agenda was mainly economic — what its leaders wanted, above all, were business deregulation and tax cuts for the rich. But the party needed more than plutocracy to win elections, so it began courting working-class whites with what amounted to thinly disguised racist appeals. . . .

But it’s not just about race. Since Ronald Reagan, the G.O.P. has been closely tied to the hardline Christian right. Anyone shocked by the prevalence of insane conspiracy theories in 2020 should look back to “The New World Order,” published by Reagan ally Pat Robertson in 1991, which saw America menaced by an international cabal of Jewish bankers, Freemasons and occultists. Or they should check out a 1994 video promoted by Jerry Falwell Sr. called “The Clinton Chronicles,” which portrayed Bill Clinton as a drug smuggler and serial killer.

What has changed since then? For a long time Republican elites imagined that they could exploit racism and conspiracy theorizing while remaining focused on a plutocratic agenda. But with the rise first of the Tea Party, then of Dxxxx Txxxx, the cynics found that the crazies were actually in control, and that they wanted to destroy democracy, not cut tax rates on capital gains.

And Republican elites have, with few exceptions, accepted their new subservient status.

********

Consider a few milestones on the way to the sacking of the Capitol.

One big step happened in February, when every Republican senator other than Mitt Romney voted against convicting the president on impeachment charges despite clear evidence of his guilt. Susan Collins famously justified her vote by hoping that Txxxx had “learned his lesson.” What he actually learned was that he could abuse his power with impunity.

Another big step came in the spring, when armed protesters, with Txxxx’s encouragement, menaced Michigan authorities over Covid-19 restrictions. That dress rehearsal for this week’s violence drew some tut-tutting from Republican politicians, but no serious pushback. Indeed, one of the leaders in these events — who was also involved in Wednesday’s rioting — is in line to become co-chair of the Michigan G.O.P.

Again, the lesson was clear: Right-wing activists can get away with threatening elected officials, even when this includes brandishing weapons in public spaces.

Then came Txxxx’s unprecedented refusal to accept electoral defeat. Many Republicans joined him in trying to reject the will of the voters . . .

But even those who didn’t actively join his attempts to stage a coup tried to let Txxxx and his followers down easy. McConnell waited more than a month before accepting Joe Biden as president-elect. One senior Republican said to The Washington Post, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” Well, now we know the answer.

********

What happened on Wednesday? A Txxxxist attack during the confirmation of Biden’s victory was completely predictable. So why was security so lax? Why were there hardly any arrests?

What we know suggests that the people who were in charge of protecting Congress failed to do so because they didn’t want to be seen treating the MAGA mob as the danger it was. . . .

And even if the inauguration goes off smoothly, the threat will remain. If you imagine that the people who stormed the Capitol will just go away once Biden is installed in the White House, you’re delusional.

********

You might have hoped that a significant number of sane Republican politicians would finally say that enough is enough, and break with their extremist allies. But Txxxx’s party didn’t balk at his corruption and abuse of power; it stood by him when he refused to accept electoral defeat; and some of its members are responding to a violent attack on Congress by complaining about their loss of Twitter followers.

And there’s no reason to believe that the atrocities yet to come — for there will be more atrocities — will make a difference. The G.O.P. has reached the culmination of its long journey away from democracy, and it’s hard to see how it can ever be redeemed.

********

So what can be done? It’s time to stop appeasing the fascists among us. Law enforcement should seek to arrest as many of the participants in Wednesday’s attack as possible . . . and anyone who tries to violently interfere with the transfer of power. . .

Finally, there needs to be an accounting for whatever crimes took place during the past four years — and does anyone doubt that Txxxx allies and associates engaged in criminal acts? Don’t say that we should look forward, not back; accountability for past actions will be crucial if we want the future to be better.

Appeasement is what got us to where we are. It has to stop, now.