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Timothy Taylor and Joe Louis on how to fix what’s wrong with America

Timothy Taylor

There’s an old story about when heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis decided to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1942. A friend of his objected, and said: “It’s a white man’s Army, Joe, not a black man’s Army.” But Joe Louis had observed the Nazi propaganda machine close up, as the result of his two epic fights against the German Max Schmeling (who was not a Nazi, but whom the Nazis attempted to exploit). So Louis told his friend: “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”

In that spirit, I’d say lots of things are wrong with America, but often, the best answers for what’s wrong with America are a bigger dose of what’s right with America…

Andrés Miguel Rondón on how to resist a populist

Andrés Miguel Rondón

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement…

In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.

Don’t forget who the enemy is.

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely…

The problem is not the message but the messenger, and if you don’t realize this, you will be wasting your time.

Show no contempt.

Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind…

Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion…

The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.

Don’t try to force him out.

Our opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Boycotting elections in hopes that international observers would intervene? You guessed it…

You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that spoiled, unpatriotic schemer. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most…

Find a counterargument. (No, not the one you think.)

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this grand idea is better than that one. Ditch all the big words. The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger…

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too… It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

Some interesting post-election commentary

Brendan O’Neill

“You are a white man. Your whiteness defines you. Everything you think is because you’re white, everything you say is because you’re white. Don’t try to be post-white. Don’t try to be colourblind. Don’t say you are ‘over race’. You’re white, own it and deal with it.”

“Really? Oh. Okay. I identify as white.”

“FASCIST!”

Scott Alexander

The only thing the media has been able to do for the last five years is shout “IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS!” at everything, and then when the right wing finally says “Um, i…den-tity….poli-tics?” you freak out and figure that the only way they could have possibly learned that phrase is from the KKK.

Mark Lilla

[Interviewer] You’re white. You’re male. You’re heterosexual. Are you the best person to make this argument?

[Mark Lilla] Arguments are arguments. Period.

Warren Meyer on the fatal flaw in technocratic policy making

Warren Meyer:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry “our only mistake was letting those other guys take control”.  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable…

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on “The Intellectual Yet Idiot”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for…

With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology… and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers…

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote…

George Orwell on the inevitability of biased writing

George Orwell via Peter Wehner:

I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same thing when you read any other book…

Wehner adds

I am struck by the honesty and self-knowledge of Orwell, in particular his acknowledgement that we all write as partisans and that distortions arise because we see “only one corner of events.”

This is among the hardest things for us to accept…

What Orwell was doing, then, was writing from his one corner of events, with as much integrity as he could; but he knew there were things he could not see, perspectives he could not share, areas of understanding that were open to others but not to him.

This doesn’t mean that objective truth doesn’t exist; it simply means that neither you nor I can fully ascertain it…

Brendan O’Neill on what Brexit has revealed about democracy vs. the elites

Brendan O’Neill

Brexit represents a direct challenge to the entire postwar manner of politics. Particularly to the insulation of the elites, of political decision-making itself, from popular opinion…

Brexit challenges that. It’s a metaphorical hand grenade against the idea that technocrats and experts know better than us how our nations should be governed and our own lives run…

it has shone a light — a harsh, unforgiving light — on who the establishment is and what they truly think of us.

These days, everyone in the chattering classes and among the political elites claims to be on the side of the people, to want to help the people, to want to look after the people. They claim to empathise with us, worry about us, care about us. Rubbish. And if you didn’t know that was rubbish before Brexit, you certainly know it now. The clarity of Brexit has shown us what the elites truly think, and my God it is ugly.

I cannot remember a time in my life when there has been as much open contempt and bile for ordinary people as there was after Brexit. All the PC guff was pushed to one side, and we got to see the disgust of the elites for the public.

British voters have in recent weeks been branded ignorant, ill-educated, warped, racist, overemotional, untrustworthy, dumb, prejudiced. Actual 19th-century-style elitism, the kind that said the poor were too dim to look after themselves, never mind engage in the political realm, has made a violent comeback…

The sentiment of the anti-Brexit elite was best summed up in a headline in Foreign Policy magazine. It said: “It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.”…

Scott Alexander on how we can be hypocritical when it comes to different cultures

Scott Alexander:

opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in and of themselves. This is true even if the culture is very poor, if the culture consists of people who aren’t very well-educated by Western standards, even if they believe in religions that we think are stupid, even if those cultures have unsavory histories, et cetera. We tend to allow such cultures to resist outside influences, and we even celebrate such resistance. If anybody were to say that, for example, Native Americans are poor and ignorant, have a dumb religion with all sorts of unprovable “spirits”, used to be involved in a lot of killing and raiding and slave-taking – and so we need to burn down their culture and raise their children in our own superior culture – that person would be incredibly racist and they would not be worth listening to. We celebrate when cultures choose preservation of their traditional lifestyles over mere economic growth, like Bhutan’s gross national happiness program.

This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist…

Andrew Sullivan on the rise of tyranny

Andrew Sullivan:

Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that?… the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat…

In classrooms, “as the teacher … is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.”…

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment…

He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities…

Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power…

Over the centuries, however, many of these undemocratic rules have been weakened or abolished…

What the 21st century added to this picture, it’s now blindingly obvious, was media democracy…

precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin…