Five Things You Need to Read Today
A couple of quick notes before I get into my list of links for today.
First, my new project, Symposium, launched last week and has so far gotten a very gratifying response. If you haven't done so already, check it out.
Also, I won't be covering the Derek Chauvin verdict in any depth—that's the Minneapolis police officer who was just convicted of "second-degree unintentional murder" in the death of George Floyd—because that story is turning out to be the dog that didn't bark. I had warned that Chauvin might not be convicted, against all the expectations created in the press, but at trial his defense fell apart. His lawyers needed to show that he was using force in a reasonable way and that Floyd might have died from a drug overdose instead of excessive restraint—but they couldn't get their own expert witnesses to back up either claim.
The conviction means, in part, no immediate return to the riots of last summer. So let's hope that this summer we can instead enjoys the benefits of the freedom made possible by a massive vaccination effort.
1. The Rebellion
The petty tyranny of "wokeness" or Political Correctness is reaching a crisis point summed up in a recent case at—I am sad to say—the University of Virginia.
A medical student at UVA was flagged as an offender, ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling, then ejected from the university grounds, all for asking a pointed question at a panel on "microaggressions." Here are the words of the complaint against him.
"This student asked a series of questions that were quite antagonistic toward the panel," wrote Kern. "He pressed on and stated one faculty member was being contradictory. His level of frustration/anger seemed to escalate until another faculty member defused the situation by calling on another student for questions. I am shocked that a med student would show so little respect toward faculty members."
This aggression seems really, really "micro" to me, but I guess that constitutes an answer to the student's question about what constitutes a "microaggression": failing to show unlimited deference to the petty tyrants who wield institutional authority. The truly Kafkaesque aspect of the affair is that the more the student resisted the claim that he was being "hostile," the more this was used as evidence of his hostility.
Let's just say that I'm glad they didn't have these standards when I was in college, because if it were unacceptable to point out contradictions uttered by faculty members, I wouldn't have made it through my freshman year.
The other curious aspect of this story is that it is entirely a beef between relatively privileged members of racial minorities: an Asian-American physician (Kern) leveling charges against an Indian-American medical student.
This highlights a notorious aspect of "woke" ideology. While nominally being aimed at helping the "marginalized," it is most frequently deployed by members of the elite as a means for gaining privileged status.
That is captured in an interesting little article by a University of Chicago professor lamenting the mental habits of his students, whose careerist ambitions are filtered through the identity politics in which they have been immersed for much of their childhoods.
Meritocracy and wokeness seem to be at odds, particularly in debates about criteria for college admissions or the continued existence of selective public secondary schools. Between those who see meritocratic admissions as giving fair rewards to hard work and ability, and those who demand that schools focus on students' identities rather than individual performance, there appears little room for compromise.
But the two positions have unexamined common ground, coexisting in the consciousness of students and teachers....
The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.
The article's sub-heading puts it more succinctly: "How telling the right stories about overcoming oppression in the right way became a requirement for entering the elite credentialing system."
(This, by the way, is my theory about the ongoing fiasco with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who did an interview with American billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey about how oppressed they all are. It might seem jarring to see people with all the benefits of wealth and status complaining about their victimhood. But if you remember that victimhood is status, it all makes sense. For an ambitious social climber in today's world, the climb to the top is not complete without the crowning status of being a victim.)
But the big story here isn't the latest woke outrage of the day; there is a cottage industry devoted to documenting these as they go by. What is far more interesting is the growing rebellion against wokeness.
I've mentioned that we see this as an era of out-of-control woke orthodoxy, but it is also an era that is creating new liberal institutions. One of those is FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism," which seems to be an attempt to create an actual, liberal "anti-racism" movement to pre-empt the fake anti-racism offered by the illiberal left.
This effort really announced itself with the publication of a letter from Paul Rossi, a teacher at an elite private high school in Manhattan.
As a teacher, my first obligation is to my students. But right now, my school is asking me to embrace "antiracism" training and pedagogy that I believe is deeply harmful to them and to any person who seeks to nurture the virtues of curiosity, empathy and understanding....
My school, like so many others, induces students via shame and sophistry to identify primarily with their race before their individual identities are fully formed. Students are pressured to conform their opinions to those broadly associated with their race and gender and to minimize or dismiss individual experiences that don't match those assumptions. The morally compromised status of "oppressor" is assigned to one group of students based on their immutable characteristics. In the meantime, dependency, resentment and moral superiority are cultivated in students considered "oppressed."
All of this is done in the name of "equity," but it is the opposite of fair. In reality, all of this reinforces the worst impulses we have as human beings: our tendency toward tribalism and sectarianism that a truly liberal education is meant to transcend.
Rossi got the same predictable response. It is a sin to doubt, and for raising philosophical objections to the racist "antiracism" doctrines, "I was reprimanded for 'acting like an independent agent of a set of principles or ideas or beliefs.' And I was told that by doing so, I failed to serve the 'greater good and the higher truth.'" Funny, advocates of liberalism hear the same criticism, in exactly the same words, from religious nationalist conservatives. Rossi notes the parallel: "I find the claim that exposing 11th and 12th graders to diverse views on an important societal issue will only 'confuse' them to be characteristic of a fundamentalist religion, not an educational philosophy."
Rossi has, of course, been fired after publishing his letter, and he responded by exposing his higher-ups as cowardly frauds, releasing recordings in which the head of the school acknowledged that the new dogma is "demonizing white people for being born."
Read Rossi's whole letter, and keep following this story.
But the most devastating blows to the woke orthodoxy will come from the people it claims as its beneficiaries. Check out Conor Friedersdorf's interview with Ndona Muboyayi, part of the Congolese-American community in Chicago, who is running for the school board in Evanston—a well-off suburb surrounding Northwestern University—specifically so can challenge this woke curriculum.
My children have always been so proud of who they are. Then all of a sudden they started to question themselves because of what they were taught after arriving here. My son has wanted to be a lawyer since he was 11. Then one day he came home and told me, "But Mommy, there are these systems put in place that prevent black people from accomplishing anything." That's what they're teaching black kids: that all of this time for the past 400 years, this is what [white people have] done to you and your people. The narrative is, "You can't get ahead."
Of course I want my children to know about slavery and Jim Crow. But I want it to be balanced out with the rest of the truth. They're not taught about black people who accomplished things in spite of white supremacy; or about the black people today who got ahead, built things, achieved things; and those who had opportunities that their ancestors fought for....
I've spent a lot of time in Central Africa because my dad is from the Congo. And some of the propaganda that's being spread right now here in Evanston is similar to some of the divisiveness that took place in Rwanda before the massacre. I'm not saying that is what's going to happen here, but when you start labeling people in a negative manner based on their race or ethnic group, this leads to division and destruction, not finding common ground and positive solutions.
The more this destructive dogma is imposed in the schools, the more it is going to summon forth this kind of resistance.
The rebellion is just beginning.
2. "The Institutional Collapse of the Right"
In the New York Times, Ezra Klein notes that the Biden administration has been farther to the left—in a big-spending, pro-regulation kind of way—than was perhaps advertised.
Biden was rarely, if ever, the voice calling for transformational change or go-it-alone ambition.
But you'd never know it from his presidency. The standard explanation for all this is the advent of the coronavirus. The country is in crisis, and Biden is rising to meet the moment. But I don't buy it. That may explain the American Rescue Plan. But the American Jobs Plan, and the forthcoming American Family Plan, go far beyond the virus. Put together, they are a sweeping indictment of the prepandemic status quo as a disaster for both people and the planet—a status quo that in many cases Biden helped build and certainly never seemed eager to upend.
This is all oversold, and Biden's policies are not all that unexpected. Joe Biden is still what he has always been: the Man in the Middle. It's just that the middle has shifted way far out to the left since the Reagan years. Klein does identify this fact.
Biden is a politician, in the truest sense of the word. Biden sees his role, in part, as sensing what the country wants, intuiting what people will and won't accept, and then working within those boundaries....
When the mood was more conservative, when the idea of big government frightened people and the virtues of private enterprise gleamed, Biden reflected those politics, calling for balanced budget amendments and warning of "welfare mothers driving luxury cars." Then the country changed, and so did he.
This is partly, he notes, the result of a younger cohort of Democrats coming up who grew up after the 1970s, unchastened by stagflation, who never learned any lessons from the failures of Big Government. Klein writes about this trend sympathetically, as if these people have cast off some kind of irrational superstition. But then again, being in his mid-30s, he is one of the people who never learned those lessons.
This explains the political pressure on Biden from the left. But what about the right? Here, Klein almost but not quite manages to identify what has really changed: "the institutional collapse of the right."
Most discussions of the renewed ambitions of the Democratic Party focus on ideological trends on the left. The real starting point, however, is the institutional collapse of the right. Before Biden, Democratic presidents designed policy with one eye on attracting Republican votes, or at least mollifying Republican critics. That's why a third of the 2009 stimulus was made up of tax cuts, why the Affordable Care Act was built atop the Romneycare framework, why President Bill Clinton's first budget included sharp spending cuts. Both as a senator and a vice president, Biden backed this approach. He always thought a bipartisan deal could be made and usually believed he was the guy who could make it.
But since then, according to Klein, Republicans have become intransigent and unwilling to sign up to go halfway in whatever direction Democrats want to go, "And so Democrats stopped devising compromised bills in a bid to win Republican votes."
Like Biden, Ezra Klein is also a man in the middle, a fairly reliable mouthpiece for the outlook of the left-wing DC establishment, so take this less as a description of reality than as an indication of the story they would like to tell about themselves: that they are reasonable people proposing reasonable policies, and everything is the fault of Republicans for wanting to make anything more than cosmetic changes to their proposals.
But if you read between the lines, you'll notice the actual institutional collapse of the right isn't due to their increased intransigence—oh, how I wish—but due to their capitulation on the central economic issues. Klein makes only a glancing reference to this: "Republicans abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism, and Trump raised—but did not follow through on—the fearful possibility of a populist conservatism, one that would combine xenophobia and resentment with popular [sic] economic policies."
Joe Biden is still the Man in the Middle. Combining Ayn Rand's descriptions of Wesley Mouch and Mr. Thompson, he is the zero at the meeting point of opposing forces and had never aspired to be anything else.
So if that meeting point has shifted toward Big Government, the right should be looking at where and how it is deploying—or failing to deploy—its own forces.
3. "Enveloped in Incoherence"
Jim Geraghty has another good description for President's Biden's approach to governing: "Joe Biden Is Making It Up as He Goes." Not only is he the Man in the Middle, but he is constantly feeling out exactly where that middle is with every new step.
Geraghty wrote that in response to Biden ham-handedly and semi-accidentally endorsing Major League Baseball's boycott of Georgia over its new voting law. That brings me around to the current tussle over voting laws. The best, most balanced description I've read about it is this one from Derek Thompson, which describes the incoherence of both sides.
What can we honestly say about the new Georgia voting-rights law? The legislation is based on a craven conspiracy theory about 2020 voter fraud. It has drawn a barrage of criticism from Democrats, including the president, that toes the line between moral indignation and unhelpful hyperbole. And it has triggered a spasm of corporate activism that seems ethical but is, the closer you look at it, scattershot.
If that paragraph feels a bit incoherent, it's because the fiasco surrounding the Georgia law is enveloped in incoherence.
It starts with the law's reason for being. After the November election, Donald Trump insisted that he lost Georgia (among other states) because of widespread voter fraud, an accusation that melted on contact with reality before it dissolved in the legal system.... Democracy is complicated, but voting should be simple. You register; you get a ballot by mail or at a polling station; you check a box and deliver the ballot; your vote is counted. While the Georgia law isn't all bad, it complicates almost every step in the voting process, especially for absentee voters....
The most ominous provision of the law affects the final step in the voting process: the official count. The new law removes the Georgia secretary of state as chair of the State Election Board and allows the GOP-controlled legislature to handpick his replacement. "This issue is potentially pernicious," Richard Hasen, a law and political-science professor at UC Irvine, told me. "The reason you didn't have a total meltdown in Georgia last year is because you had a heroic secretary of state and a group of election administrators behind him who were not willing to mess with the fair counting of the vote. If this law had passed, there would have been other decision makers who would have had power to mess with the vote."
Like I said, it's not about the 2020 election, it's about the next one.
And yet, most experts predict that the law won't have much effect on turnout, and the claims made against it, from the president on down, are caricatures.
President Joe Biden has called the law "Jim Crow on steroids" and has falsely suggested that it mandates ending voting hours early. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has seemed to double down on these misleading accusations. (During the expanded early-voting period, the law requires that polling stations are open, at a minimum, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Biden claimed that these minimums were actually maximums that outlawed casting a ballot after 5 p.m.)
And the reactions of businesses who have caved in to calls for boycotts are hypocritical.
Baseball's headquarters and Hall of Fame are in New York, which has "abysmal election administration," Hasen said. He added that if New York "were a southern Republican state, there would be protests and calls for businesses to boycott [the state], because it's that terrible. But it's a blue state, so you don't see that."
In other words, this is all Barone's Law in action—or perhaps more accurately, this is politics that is more about symbolism and attention-getting than it is about substance.
4. "We Thought You Should Know"
Meanwhile, twelve years of a bipartisan foreign policy that basically amounts to the US wallowing in self-pity about its domestic problems and hoping the rest of the world will go away is having the predictable effect of emboldening all the bad guys.
Thus, China has been ramping up its aggression against Taiwan, which seems to be woefully unprepared. We can assume that Taiwan would not be so complacent if not for years of relying on American protection—and China would not be so aggressive unless that protection is in doubt.
At the same time, the Kremlin just might be getting ready to swallow Ukraine.
Fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russia's pet separatists in the East has intensified. Russian tanks and guns are moving to reinforce Crimea. This footage purports to show long lines of tanks and artillery en route to the peninsula. The video is either a fake or those are Russian tanks pouring over the Kerch Strait Bridge. It couldn't be anywhere else. The railings are distinctive. Russia began building the bridge immediately after invading Crimea (to link it to the motherland, literally and figuratively).
I was going to say that this is all a result of years of American foreign policy neglect. But perhaps it is also our enemies anticipating that the neglect might be coming to an end—and trying to push their advantage while they can.
President Trump's only interest in Ukraine was using it to manufacture investigations into Hunter Biden. But the United States now has a renewed interest in resolving the crisis. Institutional memory has kicked in: Americans seem to remember that it is their longstanding policy to support, not blackmail, the brutalized former Soviet satellite states. So when peace talks come, Crimea's status is apt to be determined by the outcome of this battle of attrition and Russification. The injection of troops is probably part of this gambit.
But as Senator Thompson used to remind us, this business could get out of control.
The question is: How big will this get? Ukraine is not yet part of NATO, so the allies are under no formal duty to intervene. But the agreements that brought an end to the Cold War—and persuaded Ukraine to surrender thousands of nuclear weapons—were predicated on promises to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity. Since the 2014 revolution, the Ukrainian government has done what it can to be close to the West.
Since 2014, hearts have hardened toward Russia among the United States and her allies. Russia's interference in Western elections, along with its liberal use of Novichok at home and abroad, have caused many to conclude it ought not keep expanding.
Columns of tanks heading toward a disputed territory are rarely a good thing. When the combatants, chain of command, and objectives are murky, the risks are heightened along with the ramifications. The Pentagon is on high alert. The Western media is snoozing right through it. But this really does have the potential to be an old-fashioned, Cold War-style face-off. With itchy-fingered irregulars at the most finely balanced point, to boot.
We thought you should know.
I like that last line. This is from Claire Berlinski's outfit The Cosmopolitan Globalist, and I recently discussed with them how hard it has become to get Americans to pay any attention to the rest of the world.
To be sure, each of these regimes has very big problems of its own—which is part of what is driving them to more aggressive actions, as a way of overcompensating for the permanent crisis of legitimacy that plagues every dictatorship.
But in a world where authoritarian dictatorship is spreading and emboldened, it is past time for the US to re-engage and to actively support our allies and defend our interests.
I just talked about Americans not wanting to pay attention to the rest of the world, but we have to because what happens out there obviously affects us. If a Russian strongman, for example, reconstitutes a new model of authoritarian nationalist dictatorship, that can become a model that is exported around the world, and even here to America.
I remember back in the mid-1990s, when I was just starting out in this business, I was searching for an example of a conflict that was so remote and complex that it couldn't possible be in our interests to get involved in any way. I chose the civil war in Afghanistan—a conflict that would come home and hit us very hard about five years later. It's a lesson I haven't forgotten, though many others have.
Hence my concern that President Biden is planning to follow the previous administration's plan for the removal of our residual forces in Afghanistan. Since the rest of the NATO troops there are expected to leave at the same time, this is basically a plan to abandon Afghanistan.
Nominally, that will mean some kind of power sharing between the central government and the Taliban, but who are we kidding? The Taliban want a new Islamic dictatorship and there is nothing to prevent them from trying to impose it.
David Ignatius points out how this ignores big lessons from the past, including from Biden's time as vice-president.
The military, for all its worries about withdrawal, has hated the meat grinder of Afghanistan. Most of today's Army and Marine commanders have fought there, and many of their sons and daughters have, too. They share Biden's desire to get the hell out. But that's checked by a feeling that the only thing that's worse than remaining in what seems an unwinnable stalemate is pulling out troops—and then having to go back in.
That's what happened in Iraq after the withdrawal of US forces in 2011. They were back five years later, dealing with the slaughterhouse that was the Islamic State. And if Biden was right about Afghanistan 10 years ago, he was dead wrong about getting out of Iraq, which he also strongly advocated.
That's the awful danger of this decision. Sometimes cutting the knot and removing US troops opens the way for peace; more often, in recent years, it has been a prelude to greater bloodshed.
David French points to the wider danger: the narrative of defeat and of defeatism—that is, defeat as a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is motivating this policy.
If you're older than, say, 40 years old, I want you to take a short trip down memory lane. As much as possible, remember your mindset on September 12, 2001. Smoke still poured from the gaping hole in downtown Manhattan. The Pentagon still smoldered. We hadn't yet learned the details of the passengers' heroic sacrifice on Flight 93, and many of us were hearing the name Osama bin Laden for the first time.
If I had told you then, at that moment, that the United States was about to embark on a military response that would, over the course of the next twenty years, 1) almost immediately depose the Taliban and ultimately kill Osama bin Laden, 2) defend our nation from enduring even a single further large-scale terror attack, and 3) cost fewer American combat fatalities in Afghanistan than were lost in a single day on 9/11, would you have thought, 'sounds like we lost'?...
And as America withdraws and once again—as it did when Barack Obama withdrew from Iraq—opens up our allies to the prospect of a jihadist blitzkrieg, I can't help but think that the withdrawal is due in part to a false narrative, that America was "losing" its longest war.
As in Iraq, this is not about giving up in a war we lost. It is about taking a conflict in which we have achieved our main strategic objectives and require only a long-term commitment from a small follow-on force—and instead creating a defeat of our own choosing.
It's the necessity of a long-term commitment that is the real key here. When people talk about the cost of the war in Afghanistan, they are not referring to its cost in lives or money, which as French notes are at this point "minimal exertions of our national strength." Far less money than we casually throw around on bogus stimulus bills and far fewer lives than we willingly sacrifice to partisan talking points about the pandemic.
No, they are referring to the epistemological cost: the need to pay attention and devote serious thought to a far-off and distant part of the world, and to think about policy over a long term of years or decades rather than fighting symbolic partisan skirmishes on social media.
If we leave Afghanistan—and we've promised before and not done it—we can expect the Taliban and al-Qaeda to return, and we'll be back where I was 25 years ago, blissfully unaware that what goes on in this remote and chaotic part of the world just might affect us.