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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Thoughts on Capehart on Kagan

I ì'm reading the Washington Post and note one very outstanding op-ed by Catharine Rampell which you should just read. She links to excellent summaries of social science research and notes that Republicans don't listen to experts and aren't reality based.

But I want to write about a dumb op-ed by Jonathan Capehart. I'm picking on him partly to explain what is so extraordinary about Rampell. The op-ed is a summary and review of a speech by noted neoconserviative Robert Kagan. Writing it did not involve googling. Capehart is, more or less, reporting a speech. He didn't check claims of fact with various competing published sources. Now I don't work enough to complain about his work effort. I really just want to stress that it is amazing how much Rampell taught me.

I also want to discuss Kagan. Kagan notes that the post WWII liberal world order is an aberration. Such a period of near peace with so many once rival countries working together is extraordinary. His valid and important point is that we should not assume it is the natural order of things and assume it will last. He argues that US engagement is necessary to preserve the (relatively) peaceful order and that America first isolationism is unacceptable.

Oddly, the op-ed doesn't identify him as a neoconservative. This is, I think, highly relevant context. As briefly summarised Kagan doesn't explain how he thinks the US should engage. In practice he has advocated invading countries. Does his respect for the world order require the USA to submit to the rules imposed on other countries ? What does he think of foreign aid ? How about global warming ?

I think Capehart is trying to unite anti-ùTrumpers, bury hachets and refrain from grinding old axes. He presents Kagan as an idealistic internationalist and doesn't get around to discussing whether he is a hawk or a dove. On reflection, I think this is good strategy and will post this post only because almost no one will read it.

Kagan's version of recent history and the rise of neo-isolationism includes

But after the end of the Cold War, Kagan says, “A lot of Americans increasingly [began] asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’” The question got louder as the United States began ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of the last decade and as the economy collapsed in 2008.

I object to lumping together Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that, while the longest US war in Afghanistan with no hint of victory in sight is very frustrating, that it would not have caused a neo-isolationaist public reaction. The decision to invade is as close to unanimous as is possible with 340 million people. It is still rarely questioned. In contrast, at least with the benefit of hindsight, invading Iraq seems insane.

Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq was a break with the previous 58 years of US foreign policy, and was presented as such by advocates. Advocates of invasion treated stability as a dirty word. I think that 2003 was the breaking point, and neoconservatives did every thing they could to break the old order. It would be uncharitable to suggest that Kagan bears as much of the blame for the current situation as his limited power allows and to suggest that he might consider shutting up forever. I am feeling uncharitable.

But what is even odder is that he basically leaves two rather important countries out of his discussion of the late lammented liberal world order -- the USSR and the People's Republic of China. He decides that japan and Germany finally became peaceful because of the extraordinary virtue of the USA. The possibility that the peaceful coexistence and then close alliance of ancient adversaries had more to do with a common enemy than a common ally is barely mentioned. The cited phrase "cold war" is literally the only hint.

I too am a nationalist, but the excessive credit Kagan gives the USA is absurd. This is actually relevant. He must argue that the USA played an essential role *and* that we can do so again even though Putin and Xi are only moderately terrifying. If the relative near peace since 1945 was based on a balance of power between super-powers, deterrence and mutual assured destruction, it will be harder to recreate it with good intentions.

Anyway I just wanted to get that off my chest here where almost no one will read it.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Matt Bruenig Tries to Figure out Harry Potter from op-eds

So it turns out that Noted commentator Matt Bruenig has an almost unique perspective because he can read but hasn't read any Harry Potter books. So Elisabeth Bruenig interviewed him trying to find out what he could figure out about Harry Potter based on Harry Potter references in political commentary.

It is actually very interesting.

Matt Bruenig is a total hero, because he is willing to display total ignorance on a topic where many (most) people are well informed. He is especially a hero, because the actual content of the interview will not be helpful to his causes.

Bruenig is notably a leftist (no he's not old, his twitter avatar is a photo of John Rawls). His view of Harry Potter is largely based on a Ross Douthat collumn and he, oddly, assumes that Douthat is more or less fair to JK Rowling (who is also a leftist even if Bruenig seems unconvinced).

There are two interesting misconceptions. Bruenig guesses that Voldemort is the dean of Hogwarts & can't figure out what Dumbledore is doing in the book. And Bruenig assumes that wizards don't just segregate themselves from muggles but also act as a ruling class (not just death eaters and in book 7 but all of them starting in book 1).

I think it is mildly interesting that Bruenig assumes the bad guy is in power at the beginning of the series. Listening to the podcast, I am struck by the importance of the very first chapters of the first book in which the Dursley's abuse Harry Potter. After that, it is not easy to think of muggles as an oppressed under-class.

Bruenig denounces the good guy wizards and Rowling for segregating. He sure doesn't believe in separate but equal. But the point is that no one (successfully) communicated to him that the Harry Potter books are set in the contemporary UK with parliament and prime ministers and such. He doesn't consider the possibility of separate but equal as fantasy. It might be that Douthat was being mischievous and trying to portray the leftist Rowling as an elitist & Bruenig just assumed that things were as insinuated by Douthat. It is certainly true that the premise of the books is not plausible (for example, magic would be even more widely abused -- oh and magic doesn't really exist -- that's implausible too).

I am now reading the Douthat column. I must admit that "For the six readers who have never read the Potter books but who have stuck with the column thus far nonetheless:" is a good line. By that point, however, Douthat had left no doubt that he considers Rowling a political enemy -- she will not be forgiven by a never Trump Republican for unfavorably comparing Trump to Voldemort. Rowling is quite left wing, but it would be nice if one conservative left politics out of it once, just to see what it's like. Oh and it would also be nice if one ever accepted that non-conservatives don't reject all thoughts of conservatives out of tribal hostility (and projection ?).

Douthat honorably notes that he got his idea from someone who uses the pseudonym Spotted Toad. Mr Toad doesn't make much sense. He says the appeal of Rowland is to people who are loyal to a school like Hogwarts. Uh Spotted (can I call you spotted) if Rowland appealed only to people loyal to elite educational institutions, she wouldn't be so rich. There aren't enough such people to buy a book onto the best sellers list (notably there are lots of people, including Douthat, who are ostentatiously disloyal to the elite educational institution without which they would not be prominent). On the other hand, Bruenig's belief that muggles are an underclass is based on ignoring Douthat's clear explanation "Muggles are non-magical folks, the billions of regular everyday human beings who live and work in blissful ignorance that the wizarding world exists. " which is actually also a good line -- a very brief very clear summary of a point that Bruenig missed. Douthat does insist that, in real life, Hogwarts graduates rule the world & that this is a problem. This is forcing the discussion to the home territory of an pseudo anti-elitist member of the elite of the elite. This may have confused Bruenig, but it wasn't a trick. In contrast, Douthat did assert that Hogwarts is coterminous with the wizarding world & the challenges to Hogwarts come from inside the school which explains why Bruenig thought Voldemort was at Hogwarts and had no idea that there is a Ministry of Magic in the books.

I think we do actually learn something about Bruenig from the fact that he seems to assume that power will be abused, so even the nicer wizards rule over muggles. It is certainly true that the Rowling idea of wizards hiding, even though they have the power is not plausible.

But the very alarming thing is that Bruenig proposes violent overthrow of wizards followed by something along the line of genocide -- he conceeds that Harry Potter seems to be a nice guy so it would be OK to just sterilize him. But he has the idea that there can't be peace and equality with some people so much more capable than the rest of us.

I have to admit that he might be right -- disbelief in the possibility that wizards generally hide their skills can be suspended, but disbelief sure makes a good bit of sense. But the idea that rough equality of ability must be achieved by sterilization and a sort of egalitarian eugenics does sound a good bit like a right wing parody of the left.

I suppose, the open mindedness based on not reading the books and suspending disbelief has its advantages. I do wonder what humanicy could do with the extreme inequality of ability of wizards and muggles (this is also a big theme in the generally underappreciated Marion Zimmer Bradley Darkover novels).