Sad but True: The Republican Predicament

The conservative intellectual Peter Wehner has an Op-Ed in Thursday’s New York Times called “Why I Will Never Vote for Trump.” Though Wehner’s thesis is in many ways a belaboring of the obvious, it’s worth reading, as much for its condensed summary of the obvious as for the obvious things it manages to omit. The omissions offer an interesting glimpse into the thought processes of the most morally decent thinkers on the political right. What the glimpse reveals, I think, is that even the most morally decent thinkers on the political right are too clueless and bereft of original ideas to cure what’s wrong with it.

Much of the piece consists of undeniably obvious criticisms of Trump, along with reasons why those criticisms entail that Republicans shouldn’t vote for him. I won’t belabor my agreements with Wehner. I’m just going to focus on what he gets wrong.

He starts by describing his impeccable Republican credentials, including stints in the Reagan and both Bush White Houses. Credentials secured, he tells us that he won’t vote for Trump, even if Trump becomes the Republican front runner. But he won’t vote for Hillary Clinton either, “because I consider her an ethical wreck.” As it happens, I have the same opinion of both Clintons. What I don’t understand is how Wehner manages to conclude that the Clintons are more of “an ethical wreck” than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush were. In other words, it’s apparently obvious to Wehner that Hillary Clinton’s standing by her man during the Lewinsky scandal or concealing her emails during the Obama presidency was more an “ethical wreck” than Ronald Reagan’s standing by Oliver North during the Iran-contra hearings, or George Bush’s launching a pointless and ruinous war in Iraq. I think most non-right-wing Americans would be inclined to say that these assumptions are almost self-evidently ridiculous, and raise more questions about conservative ethical standards than conservatives seem inclined to answer.

Having described his rejection of Trump and Clinton, Wehner finds himself in what he regards as a dilemma: if he can’t vote for either of the two front runners, and can’t find “a responsible third-party alternative,” he’ll have to sit out the election. It apparently hasn’t occurred to Wehner that one alternative is to go to the ballot box, vote for a “write in” candidate, and literally write out your dissatisfaction in the “write-in” slot. One brief and obvious way to do it would be to write “NOTA” for “None of the Above.” Very few people do that because very few people realize that it can be done.  But if more people did it, NOTA might come to send a message to the Democratic and Republican party machines in this country: they have to do a better job of finding better candidates for elected office than they recently have. And if the wrong candidates always seem to be running, they have a responsibility to figure out why and come up with a remedy.

Of course, they’ll have no incentive to do any of that if we just keep voting for the worthless people they keep putting on the ballot, fortified by Wehner’s assumption that “[i]f those who don’t get their way pick up their marbles and go home, party politics doesn’t work.”* A better approach might be to grasp the obvious differences between voting and a game of marbles, and to acknowledge that Wehner’s marbles-based approach to politics provides a very good explanation for why party politics doesn’t work. Nothing in human life works very well if you resign yourself to the choices other people have dictated for you, and then regard yourself as duty-bound to give your moral imprimatur to whatever rubbish they’ve put on offer.

Wehner goes on to offer a laundry list of Trump’s sins. I don’t disagree with any item on the list, but one item is conspicuously absent, and one item is described in a rather peculiar way. The missing item is Trump’s most notorious moral faux pas, his resurrection and “exaggeration” (to put it mildly) of the 9/11 celebration rumors. Wehner doesn’t say a word about it, despite its having dominated news coverage for the better part of the month of December.

The oddly described item is Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering (or later, immigrating) to the United States, which Wehner describes, along with his other anti-immigrant proposals as a “nativistic pipe dreams and public relations stunts.” I don’t dispute the truth of that characterization; what I’d dispute is that the characterization gets at the real problem with Trump’s attitudes.

Imagine that a white nationalist political candidate said something like this:

I’m fed up with the power that Jews have in this country. The least we can do is stop any more from entering the country, and do our best, within the limits of the law, to keep them out of public office.

You might call that “a nativistic pipe dream and a public relations stunt,” but if that’s the best you could do, people might well be inclined to wonder whether you’d ever heard of a phenomenon called “anti-Semitism,” whether you thought it was morally wrong, and whether you thought a political candidate who indulged in it should be called out for it.

I think we’re entitled to ask versions of the same questions of American conservatives. I assume that many of the more militant of them have heard of the phenomenon known as “Islamophobia,” because so many of them spend so much time in denial that it exists or is even possible. But it’s an interesting question for the most decent conservatives, like Wehner, whether they believe that there is such a phenomenon, and whether they regard it as wrong.

I haven’t read a scientific study on right-wing attitudes toward race, but as an anecdotal matter, I would describe it by saying that American right-wingers wholeheartedly believe in only one form of racism, anti-Semitism, which they police with ferocious vigor, and often confabulate into existence where it doesn’t exist at all. They pay reluctant lip service to the existence of anti-black racism, a lip service that operates in the most egregious cases of racism (where denial would be absurd or itself an expression of racism) but also takes the form of vigorous efforts to downplay it or accuse others of exaggerating it. In other words, what they regard as assiduous adherence to principle in the case of anti-Semitism becomes “playing the race card” or “crying wolf” in the case of anti-black racism.

But Islamophobia is simply unreal to them. The front-line excuse for denying its existence is to insist that Muslims are not a race. That’s true, but neither are Jews or Coptic Christians, and no one has any trouble conceptualizing the possibility that Jews and Copts can be on the receiving end of racism by those who treat them as though they were racial groups, even if neither is one.

The second-line excuse is to point out that Muslims are a threat to our national security, and we can’t afford to coddle the sensitivities of people who constitute such a threat. There’s no question that some Muslims have threatened our national security, but so have some Jews and some Catholics. No Muslim American has done to the United States with the Rosenbergs or Jonathan Pollard did. No Islamic Society has done to America what the Catholic Church has done during and in the wake of the scandal over pedophile priests. And yet no responsible conservative would suggest that the examples of the Rosenbergs + Jonathan Pollard make anti-Semitism a non-issue in this country, or suggest that organizations like the ADL (et al) should calm down, pack it in, and close their doors. Nor would such a conservative suggest that the pedophile priest scandal should make it open season on Catholic priests or the Catholic Church. It will be quite a while before anyone (much less Michelle Malkin) writes some version of In Defense of Internment: The Case for Herding Catholic Priests, En Masse, into Detention Centers for the Confinement of Sexual Predators.**

You might have thought it a similar non-sequitur in our post-Korematsu age to assert, suggest, or insinuate that (Fort Hood + San Bernardino) proves that Islamophobia is a non-issue. But the non-sequitur in question is pretty common on the right, a fact you wouldn’t discern from Wehner’s essay. As far as Wehner is concerned, the problem with Trump is not that he’s the Muslim equivalent of an anti-Semite or the twenty-first century equivalent of Father Coughlin. The problem with him is that he’s an unsophisticated and unrealistic champion of a message that is to some unspecified degree true.

It may sound like nitpicking to fixate on mere differences of degree in the condemnations that have been offered of Trump, as though political criticism were a competition where the most outrage-laden critique is crowned the winner. But the fact remains that if you think Trump is a moral menace, and you find conservatives underplaying the nature of that moral menace, you’ll be apt to side with those who respond to Trump with the degree of outrage you think he deserves.

In other words, if you’re on the fence between the Republicans and the Democrats, and you think that racism is a real problem in American life–and think that the Democrats offer stronger criticisms of racism than the Republicans–you’ll side with the Democrats even if you think that the Democrats are sometimes a little too keen to play the race card (as I do), and even if you’re skeptical of the moral legitimacy of affirmative action (as I am). And “side with” means join the Democratic Party and vote Democratic. Neither party is perfect on race, but it’s probably safer to side with a party willing to grasp the reality of all forms of racism than to side with a party in denial about one of its most prominent forms. This is a lesson that has yet to penetrate the hearts and minds of the American right, and I’m skeptical it ever will.

Wehner ends with this claim:

Mr. Trump is precisely the kind of man our system of government was designed to avoid, the type of leader our founders feared — a demagogic figure who does not view himself as part of our constitutional system but rather as an alternative to it.

If “Trump is precisely the kind of man our system of government was designed to avoid,” how has he become the Republican front-runner for the American presidency? He hasn’t, after all, broken any laws, much less violated the Constitution. Despite his political inexperience, he’s simply played the American political game with greater facility than anyone else in the race. That may have been what “our system of government was designed to avoid,” but it’s precisely what our system of government currently facilitates, given the design flaws of the past and the predilections of the present (and everything in between).

That suggests in turn that the American political system is either fundamentally ill-designed, or fundamentally dysfunctional, or both. And that’s why there is such a thing as radical political theory, and why academic political theorists, whom conservatives glibly deride as being “out of touch with the real world” have always been uncomfortable with the complacent celebratory spirit at the center of so much conservative rhetoric.

Whether they can admit it or not, Donald Trump is the mirror of the American right. That’s why he’s been the Republican front runner for the last seven or eight months, and that’s why he threatens to become the Republican nominee for the presidency. Crying about his rise to prominence in an election year is practically the definition of a remedy that amounts to too little and too late. So, for that matter, is the anti-climactic announcement that one refuses to vote for the political monster one helped to create. After such ignorance, what forgiveness?

Postscript, January 28, 2016. I can’t blame the liberals for making hay of the Republicans’ panic over Trump: they richly deserve it. Here’s Salon, asking whether “the right’s empty suits can stop” Trump. Well, they haven’t so far. Here’s a nice skewering, also at Salon, of the vacuous David Brooks. But the best commentary–the most acute, consistent, and prescient–has in my view been Paul Krugman’s at The New York Times. Some of my favorites: “Doubling Down on W” (Dec. 28, 2015); “The Donald and the Decider” (Dec. 21); “Empowering the Ugliness” (Dec. 11); “The Farce Awakens” (Nov. 20); “Fearing Fear Itself” (Nov. 16); “The Crazies and the Con Man” (Oct. 12); “GOP Candidates and Obama’s Failure to Fail” (Aug. 10); “Fantasies and Fiction at GOP Debate” (Sept. 18); “A Heckuva Job” (Aug. 31); and (to stop for now) “From Trump on Down, the Republicans Can’t Be Serious” (Aug. 7). I could easily go on, into the summer of 2015, into the spring of 2015, back into 2014…

It took me awhile to warm up to Krugman, but to his credit, he’s told a single consistent, principled, fact-based story about the embarrassing demise of the Republican Party in recent years. It’s a story of the triumph of dogma over reality, of rhetoric over substance, and of bigotry over a concern for moral principle. It sounds simple because it is.

Compare that with the right-wing idea of a critique of Trump. Here’s Ross Douthat, who starts one of his latest columns with a candid admission of failure: “This is of course a pointless column.” It certainly is. He has no specifically ideological insight to offer, so he decides to offer nitty-gritty “practical” advice for defeating Trump. As he recognizes, the supposedly practical advice comes too late to be put into practice. As he fails to recognize, the supposedly practical advice wouldn’t have worked even if it had been enacted earlier–chiefly because no part of it comes as news, and no part of it worked when it came to light months ago.  The advice is to forget about ideas, and dig up dirt on Trump. “You have to flip his brand.” It sounds so street smart. But what does it mean?

Supposedly it means: Tell the people that Trump inherited his money. But they already know that. Tell them about his failed companies. But they already know that. Tell them about the workers who suffered from his failed companies. They know that, too. Tell them that he used eminent domain to build his empire in Atlantic City. We’ve known that for years. My favorite: “persuade people that he’s a con artist, and they’re his marks.” Earth to Ross Douthat: where have you been for the last six months? If we can’t persuade people that he’s lying about the 9/11 celebrations, how do you think we’re going to persuade them about anything else?

The question to be asking here is why people have been so easily persuaded about Trump, and so fideistic in their commitment to him despite his conspicuous lack of credibility–not an easy question for the Party of Faith to address. You might have thought that Republicans might take advantage of the fact that Trump’s strongest supporters are “a certain kind of Democrat.” You’d think that until you realize that Trump’s strongest supporters are isomorphic with the so-called Reagan Democrats, and you can’t expect the Party of Reagan to repudiate the “legacy” of Ronald Reagan at this late date. Hell, even doctrinaire libertarians sing his praises (unsurprising, considering how many of them served in his administration). Meanwhile, the question remains.


*That’s also the answer to a ridiculous criticism of Wehner in the letters section of today’s Times:

Peter Wehner should be ashamed to promote the notion that citizens should sit out elections if neither candidate appeals to them. Surely he has a better understanding of each citizen’s obligations in a democracy. If we cannot vote for our ideal candidate, we must still choose the lesser of two evils, as it were, if we are repulsed by the personality of one and disagree with the policies of the other.

It is our democratic duty as Americans to wrestle with this dilemma and cast a vote, regardless of our emotions. Blood was shed to secure this solemn obligation.

No, it wasn’t. Blood was shed to secure the right to vote, not the duty to choose the lesser evil–or, put another way, to incentivize the imposition on us of a series of further evils.

**I’m the first to “concede” the fact that many liberals are as bigoted about Catholics as conservatives are about Muslims. But as far as my argument is concerned, that’s a neutral truth rather than a “concession,” and however you characterize it, it doesn’t help the conservative case with respect to Islamophobia.

36 thoughts on “Sad but True: The Republican Predicament

    • I think the leftist view on race is essentially right. I don’t accept the legitimacy of race-based affirmative action, and I don’t think leftists take worries about the black crime rate seriously enough. There are also individual cases of overplaying the race card. But I think the left is correct about structural racism in two domains–zoning and law enforcement.

      The book to read on the first subject is David Kirp’s Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia. The book to read on the second is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Kirp’s book is a case study of zoning policy in New Jersey; Alexander’s is a study of law enforcement policy nationwide. Kirp argues that zoning policy is systematically and covertly racist; Alexander makes the same claim about law enforcement, especially drug enforcement. Much of what they say coheres with what libertarians have said, but race is the missing variable from a lot of libertarian analyses, and and I think Kirp and Alexander are right to invoke it. Though Kirp’s book is about New Jersey, I think it’s plausible to think that its claims generalize elsewhere. Alexander’s book is, frankly, shocking. I haven’t read the critical literature on it, but if half of what she’s saying is right, we’re all underplaying the race card. Kirp’s book is very good, but Alexander’s book is a classic, and really ought to become the manifesto of a political movement.

      On Douthat: I’m not impressed. It’s not that what he says is literally false, but like Wehner, some of what he says is trivial, some irrelevant, some misleading, and some things he omits altogether.

      To start with the omission: he forgets that the topic under discussion is not “immigration” but a refugee crisis, and the refugee crisis has its roots in the war for the liberation of Iraq initiated by a Republican President, George W. Bush. Bush started this war on the pretext of enforcing the weapons provisions of UN Resolutions 687 and 1441 (which even I agreed with at the time, to my regret), but insisted on turning it into an episode of Regime Change for Democracy (which I rejected all along). That insanity created the power vacuum that facilitated the rise of ISIS and created the Iraqi-Syrian part of the refugee crisis. What Douthat omits is the responsibility we bear for the refugee crisis, something that doesn’t apply to Germany. If Germany refused to admit Syrian refugees, especially after the Cologne incident, that would be understandable. But if we do it, it’s not understandable or excusable.

      I agree with his point (1), the importance of the nation-state. Generally, I agree with every point he makes against the more wild-eyed advocates of Open Borders, which I regard as a ridiculous idea that ought to be drowned in the sea. I don’t agree with his sub-Burkean poetry about the state (“meaning, memory, purpose, solidarity…”)

      (2) “Immigration is a perilous solution to demographic decline.” True but irrelevant. We’re not taking refugees in to correct demographic decline.

      (3) “Culture is real…” OK…

      (4) “Commonality facilitates assimilation, difference spurs balkanization…” This is true as well, but precisely because “no single variable is a trump,” this claim doesn’t say all that much in the form Douthat gives us.

      My view: What we ask of immigrants is that they learn English (or try), that they become self-supporting (if possible), and that they respect rights and the parts of the law that respects rights (not negotiable). But if they want to live in their own ethnic enclaves while they do all that, that’s fine. It’s tendentious to call that desire “balkanization,” as though every ethnic enclave was Sarajevo ca. 1995.

      (5) “Punctuated immigration encourages assimilation, constant immigration limits it.” Unfortunately, a great deal of Douthat’s rhetoric about “assimilation” in this section comes across as the anxiety that immigrants won’t act like white people. How else to read the evident relief that Italians have blended in and are indistinguishable from Anglos? That point aside, this whole issue is beside the point. How does the punctuated/constant distinction apply to an in-migration due to a refugee crisis?

      I had to chuckle at the passage on British Pakistanis, not that it’s entirely wrong. It’s certainly a problem when people immigrate from rural Pakistan and then insist on cousin marriages. What I find amusing is the melange of factors Schwarz throws together, as though all of it were on a par:

      Two-thirds of British Muslims only mix socially with other Muslims; that portion is undoubtedly higher among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis specifically. Reinforcing this parallel life is the common practice of returning “home” for a few months every two or three years and an immersion in foreign electronic media.

      Don’t white people generally mix with other white people? Why isn’t that a problem? That’s the humor in the Jimmy Kimmel skit. As for the rest, I do all that. I’m not romantically desperate enough to marry any of my cousins, though (not yet–but as single life wears on…)

      (6) “Cosmopolitanism is unusual, tribalism the norm.” I think we need more precision as to what these concepts mean. If living 18 miles from your mom is “tribalism,” it’s time for a conceptual analysis. By the way, his reliance on Putnam’s research seems to me a paradigm of how not to bring social science into a political discussion.

      For some reason, I can’t find point (7).

      Claims (9) and (10) are true, but have no clear implications.

      Claim (8) is true–immigration leads to transformation which leads to backlash–but everything turns on what it means to “take account” of the backlash. What I find amazing about conservatives is the insistence with which they construe “take account” to mean “appease.” But that is the whole point of my criticism of the right: for the last seven or eight years, since the rise of the Tea Parties, instead of realizing that they were dealing with something fundamentally irrational and “taking account” of its irrationality, what they did was “take account” of an irrational phenomenon by trying to ride the wave of irrationality it generated. Donald Trump was the predictable result of that maneuver. That’s why I don’t have any sympathy for people like Wehner, who have finally figured out in January 2016, that, gee…this Trump fella, well, I’m not gonna vote for him. And the rest of these fellas, well, they’re pretty messed up, too. So now what?

      But this set of developments didn’t happen yesterday. We’re not living in a Kafka novel, where one day you wake up and all of a sudden all of the Republican candidates for the presidency (except Kasich) are insane. This has been building for years. How could the paid intellectuals of the right have missed something that big? The answer is, they didn’t miss it. They tried to exploit it, and now it’s out of control–like Frankenstein’s monster. By the way, the fate of the monster, as described by the last line of Frankenstein: “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”

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      • Your main disagreements with Douthat seem to be: (a) to the extent that his worries regarding the value of culture and the capacity of a culture to assimilate others who are different in potentially important respects are valid, you question that they are more important than competing concerns (such as racism), (b) he and others run the risk of confusing legitimate worries about assimilation with simply anxiety about people who do not act Anglo/white and (c) there is a thin line between taking account of somewhat-irrational “tribal” backlash in a dominant culture (against newcomers) and appeasing the irrationality, hate, racism, etc. inherent in such a backlash (as a mixed, cultural phenomenon of this sort). All these differences, though, are differences of emphasis, issues of “what is most important, here.” Such differences are hard to adjudicate…

        However, it is quite important that Douthat is trying to start a conversation about culture (and race) that the Left does not want to have. To my mind, this is at least as important as identifying the extent to which culture warriors on the Right are culpably ignorant, tribalist, racist, xenophobic, etc. – and more importantly efficacious in bringing about morally and materially harmful results that have insufficient mitigating benefits. For a long time, I’ve mostly supported conservatives or Republicans in practical politics because I’ve regarded the mostly-good results of liberal cosmopolitanism to be both secure and sometimes in need of trimming back – in short, the xenophobic stupids can’t hurt things much but can be instrumental to getting sensible, intelligent folks on the right to do some of the good things that the Right stands for. The direction of our politics, however, has me questioning whether the stupids and ideologues of either party can be effectively controlled. Whether they can or not is a causal, empirical question (maybe Trump would mostly carry on things as they are but beneficially cut some cynical but effective deals with the Chinese or the Russians that enhance the prospects for peace). But I don’t like what I see when I look at what gets people – and by this I very much mean a modern-media driven mob – excited on each side (an issue of intentions and attitudes and what one takes offense at). And I’m a lot less sure than I was that the crazies won’t end up running the asylum.

        Though I’ll readily admit that what offends me most politically is a matter or personal history and hence bias (and that this colors my guesses on the empirical questions of what causes which harms and benefits), I remain unmoved by the idea that (too many) conservatives are either egregiously culpably bad people – racists or xenophobes perhaps – or especially likely to cause social harms. (On the good/bad results front, I suspect that Cruz as president would increase the risk of catastrophic military conflict. For me, this is the biggest reason to, say, vote for Hillary in the general if she is the Democratic nominee.) Irfan, I worry that you are simply so offended by the anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and racism (culpable irrationality and immorality) of the Right that you cannot support conservatives or Republicans. Or perhaps you take there to be a very direct connection between bad character and bad results? If politics is mostly a practical task (not, say, the task of forming and maintaining a moral community), then I think we need to focus on likely results. For example, however much Trump justifiably offends me (at many levels), if he is a practical deal-maker, this is potentially quite an asset in being an effective politician and statesman. Though I don’t like irrational, morally corrupt cultures or social institutions, and though I believe that over time they do cause significant harm, what matters for me in political advocacy is the relatively-short-term horizon of likely effects. And we should all admit that we are pretty ignorant and biased on this extremely-complicated, empirical issue.

        P.S. I’m planning to take a look at the Michelle Alexander book for sure.


        • I’m going to post a (very) long response to both you and Peter on Islamophobia and related topics either later today or tomorrow. For now, I just wanted to respond specifically on the Douthat column, because I think that you (Michael) are (vastly) understating my criticisms of Douthat.

          Having now read the Putnam research that Douthat coyly half-references, I have to say that Douthat’s column comes out looking like a joke (at his expense). The irony here is that you credit Douthat with starting a conversation that the left has failed to have, but if you read the Putnam research, what becomes clear is that it’s centrist liberal academics like Putnam who have started a conversation that conservatives like Douthat have not only failed to have, but have decided to misrepresent for their own partisan purposes. Putnam’s research dates back to 2007. It draws on decades of prior research, and has inspired almost a decade of further research, most of it done by liberal academics. Put simply: the liberal academics have done the actual empirical research here; conservative polemicists like Douthat have arrived late to the party, and then decided to cherry pick the findings.

          I don’t see a reason to budge from my original assessment of Douthat’s column:

          It’s not that what he says is literally false, but like Wehner, some of what he says is trivial, some irrelevant, some misleading, and some things he omits altogether.

          In your response, you just leap-frog over what I said about refugees. But insofar as Douthat’s discussion of immigration is a response to the refugee crisis, his claims ignore what I regard as the fundamental normative fact at issue here. When you go to war, and create a refugee crisis in the process (which we did), you bear some of the burden of ameliorating it, and the most obvious way of bearing the burden is to give the refugees somewhere to go. Douthat’s column doesn’t say anything about that. The issue here is not “hard to adjudicate”: to fail to mention the most fundamental fact is to relegate one’s claims to triviality (unless Douthat thinks that it’s trivial to create a refugee crisis, or disputes on factual grounds that we did create one, or more plausibly, disputes how much of the crisis is our responsibility, whether causally or morally).

          He says that the refugees will put more strain on Germany than Germany should find it prudent to bear, but (a) Germany didn’t wage the Iraq or Syrian wars, hence (b) Germany bears no responsibility for the refugee crisis, and (c) the US is a long, long way from admitting anything like a comparable number of refugees. Germany has let in several hundred thousand refugees. We are proposing to let in 10,000. (Jordan and Turkey, which had nothing to do with the war, are letting in 1.4* and two million, respectively.)

          What I’m really saying about Douthat’s claims is that they’re trivially obvious and/or normatively indeterminate. We didn’t need Douthat to tell us that when you admit foreigners to a country, there are, consequently, difficulties of adjustment on all sides. Unless his view is that no action should ever be taken unless all of its consequences are all positive, the preceding claim says nothing. We’re talking about his column, and his argument: he bears the burden of proof for showing that the difficulties are such as to entail a more restrictive immigration policy than we currently have. He doesn’t show that at all. None of his ten theses, taken jointly or individually, yield that conclusion, no matter how charitably you read them. Some of them are just truisms totally irrelevant to the conclusion: theses (1), (2), (3), (9), and (10) do no dialectical work at all in securing the intended conclusion, except to state what every non-(libertarian anarchist) would regard as blatantly obvious. Since there’s no thesis (7), that leaves theses (4)-(6) and (8).

          Thesis (8), however, is either a triviality or a moral evasion (or both), depending on how one interprets the phrase “take account of.” If we let immigrants in, Douthat tells us, there will be a backlash. That’s a triviality. That we have to “take account of” this fact is also a triviality, something that the left has done a much better job of discussing than the right. But if “take account of” means “appease,” the claim is either a triviality or a counsel to outright cowardice. Yes, you have to “appease” a backlash if it’s so overwhelming that appeasement is required to avoid a civil war. But you don’t justifiably appease a backlash by giving in to the basest instincts of the basest part of the population when there’s no such risk (and there isn’t).

          He mentions Pegida, Trump, and the National Front, and then has the nerve to describe the attitudes they’ve expressed as “(what you think of as) their bigotry and nativism and racism.” The parenthetical is an evasion. Are Trump and the National Front merely what some people “think of” as bigots? Or are they actually bigoted? Is he telling us, well “Yes Trump and the National Front are bigoted, but bigotry or not, we have to appease them”? Or is he saying, “No, no: Trump and the National Front aren’t bigots; they really have a point we ought to be taking on board!” No matter how you slice it, there’s more mystification here than content.

          This is what he says:

          If you make choices that very predictably empower the National Front or Pegida or Trump, you cannot wash your hands of those consequences by saying, “oh, it’s not my fault that my fellow countrymen are such terrible bigots.” The way to disempower demagogues is not to maintain a high-minded moral purity that’s dismissive of public opinion’s actual shape; it’s to balance your purity with prudence, so as to avoid handing demagogues issues that might eventually deprive you of power entirely, and render all your moral ambitions moot.

          Taken at face value, this passage says nothing of an action-guiding character with respect to immigration or refugees. Even if you only let in one refugee, you’d predictably empower Trump, who might seize on the fact that the refugee was wearing a turban and might accuse you of being a secret Muslim and a member of ISIS for letting him in. What then? Send the guy back to Syria in the name of prudence? All that this does is to invite surrender to racism while fooling ourselves that we’ve outsmarted the racists…by surrendering to them. Contra Douthat, I don’t see why appeasement of irrationality or injustice is an instance of “prudence.”

          Two semi-digressions: Douthat mentions Putnam, but fails to mention that Putnam’s research treats immigration and desegregation in parallel. Once you read Putnam’s paper, it becomes apparent that every one of Douthat’s arguments could as easily be applied to desegregation as to immigration. If culture is important, and previously segregated populations are culturally different from one another, Douthat’s argument leads to the conclusion that…we should “take account” of the predictable racist backlash that arises from desegregation by leaving segregation in place.

          By this argument, Dwight Eisenhower would have to be accused of moral priggishness for sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to desegregate the schools there. If only he’d just backed down on his high minded moral purity and let Orville Faubus and “the actual shape” of racist opinion have their way, that would have been the “prudent” thing to do. Never mind that it also would have been an act of betrayal, injustice, and cowardice. Unsurprisingly, the Ross Douthats of 1957 said exactly what the Ross Douthat of 2016 is now saying: we can’t desegregate because prudence counsels our appeasing the anti-segregationist backlash. What Douthat has done is to recycle those arguments, and give them a veneer of “social scientific” respectability with respect to immigration/refugees.

          By the way, Douthat’s summary of the Tyler Cowen post at the bottom of thesis [8] is a blatant misrepresentation of what Cowen is saying. In fact, Cowen’s post does zero to support Douthat’s point: the backlash Cowen has in mind is not Douthat’s backlash, and the arguments Cowen is refuting have nothing to do with Douthat’s thesis [8]. Actually, Cowen is rejecting Douthat’s argument, a fact that Douthat conveniently omits. Either Douthat has a lot of trouble with reading comprehension, or he’s not very interested in accuracy.

          And that brings me to theses (4)-(6). I haven’t read all the research Douthat mentions, but I have read the Putnam research, and his handling of it doesn’t inspire confidence. The paper in question is Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30:2 (2007). Here is the abstract of the paper:

          Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.

          Even the abstract of the paper contradicts Douthat’s use of it. What happened to sentences 2 and 5? And if the evidence was “new” in 2007, how well-confirmed is it today?

          As for the paper: Pages 139-141 of the paper summarize “The Prospects and Benefits of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity.” Pages 159-165 describe Putnam’s inferences from the data, which are not Douthat’s. No mention of either thing by Douthat. Putnam: “Ethnic diversity is, on balance, an important social asset, as the history of my own country demonstrates” (p. 138). Not the impression you’d get from Douthat.

          No mention, either, of what Putnam regards as the provisional nature of the evidence (“initial evidence,” p. 144), and the susceptibility to change of the patterns it describes. No mention of the fact that since Putnam is a centrist liberal, he regards certain findings as negatives that conservatives are apt to regard as positives: diversity fosters lower confidence in government action, and arguably less support for government spending (pp. 149-50)–in other words, ethnic diversity fosters Hayekian libertarianism! Shouldn’t conservatives regard that as good news? Diversity is doing their work for them.

          Putnam’s research does clearly say that in the short- to medium-term, ethnic diversity leads to a loss of social trust. But he doesn’t address the causal mechanism of the loss of trust.

          Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their communities, and its leaders….Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us. (pp. 150-51)

          Putnam describes this as though “diversity” were a causal factor capable of “producing” a turtle-like reaction, but that’s elliptical for saying that people react to diversity by having that reaction. He doesn’t claim to know why. Putnam’s thesis is neutral as between saying that the reaction arises because ethnic minority populations are, due to the intrinsic defects of their cultures, responsible for the loss of social trust, and saying that the wider culture, caught up in irrational hostility for ethnic minorities, is responsible for it (or both, or neither). But you can’t do much with Putnam’s thesis unless you know the causal mechanism behind the loss of trust–and it’s only a hunch that the same mechanism will explain the phenomenon across the country. If we knew that desegregation led to (“produced”) loss of social trust, and that’s all we knew, we wouldn’t have even a prima facie reason for opposing desegregation. We’d just know that desegregation comes at a price. But we already knew that about immigration, too.

          In any case, it’s really not possible to read Putnam’s paper and conclude that the right has inaugurated an honest conversation about the costs of immigration that the left has been afraid to have. The last section of Putnam’s paper, “Becoming Comfortable with Diversity” (pp. 159-165), discusses the issues far more sensibly than Douthat does.

          Nevertheless, my hunch is that at the end we shall see that the challenge is best met not by making ‘them’ like ‘us, but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of ‘we’, a reconstruction of diversity that does not bleach out ethnic specificities, but creates overarching identities that ensure that those specificities do not trigger the allergic, ‘hunker down’ reaction.

          A footnote at the end of the last sentence goes to David Hollinger’s 2000 book, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. After that, Putnam quotes a 2007 stump speech by Obama that echoes his own view. I’m inclined to think that what Putnam, Hollinger, and Obama et al have to say makes more sense than anything I’ve heard on this subject from the political right.

          I think it’s amusingly ironic that Douthat actually says “One need not delve into, say, Robert Putnam’s research and social trust…” That haughty phrase makes it sound as though Putnam’s research is the kind of thing that Ross Douthat polishes off before breakfast. In retrospect, it makes me wonder he’s read the study at all.

          *I had originally misread the figure and written “fifteen million.”


      • Irfan, you are right that the relevant context here is the immigrant crisis in Europe. Apologies for gliding over this. We are at least partially responsible for this crisis. We don’t necessarily need to remedy this by letting tons of Syrians into our country, but maybe we do, and we certainly owe some significant participation in an appropriate remedy. My point is simply that Douthat brings up some good points (or provides a good outline argument) about why the right is concerned about immigration. It is not that these points carry the day. Here is an argument for restricting immigration that I find more specific and convincing: Salam concludes that letting in more higher-skilled immigrants (even if the numbers stay the same) is important. It is hardly surprising that there is some cherry-picking from Putnam on the part of Douthat. I’d love to take a look at the Putnam article – maybe I’ll get time sometime soon. On backlash: an important point at issue is just how racist or xenophobic the American right is. I find the comparison to desegregation strained. Worries about assimilation need not be motivated entirely or largely by xenophobia and racism. To pretend that this is the case – and I take the left to be generally guilty of this (a way of overplaying the race card) – is to anger the right and ramp up its racist and xenophobic elements. Similarly, though – as Salam points out in his article at the above link – Republicans make things worse if their line is that we should simply close our doors to immigrants. This is a simplistic solution that is morally (racially and ethnically) insensitive, plays into genuine racism and xenophobia in their ranks, and plays into the left’s fevered fantasies about right-wing perfidy.


        • Well, if you’re admitting that maybe we do need to let lots of Syrians into the country, then there’s literally nothing left of Douthat’s argument. But it’s hard to imagine what alternative remedy there could be.

          Douthat didn’t just cherry pick a bit of Putnam’s article here and there, as though he preserved the overall gist of what Putnam was saying. He ignored half of the article, fastened on one claim in the favored half, took the one claim out of context, and tried to give the impression that Putnam’s findings supported his argument. And what he did with the Cowen post is pretty egregious.

          You’re misunderstanding the reason why desegregation has come up. The issue is not that immigration is like segregation. It’s that Putnam’s findings show that diversification leads to short- to medium-term loss of social capital (by Putnam’s definition of that term). But diversification is an effect common to both immigration and desegregation. If loss of social capital were an argument against a policy, it would be as much of a constraint on immigration policy as on policies of desegregation. If the claim is “We must constrain immigration lest we suffer a loss of social capital,” exactly the same argument applies to desegregation: “We must constrain desegregation lest we suffer a loss of social capital.” If the latter argument is unacceptable, so is the former; if the former is acceptable, so is the latter.

          In other words, the point is not that a restrictive immigration policy is like segregation, but that Douthat’s invocation of Putnam-type arguments in debates about immigration is ad hoc and opportunistic.


  1. Irfan, I would like to ask you to help me understand something.

    Although I am by no means a scholar in this matter, I have read a fair amount about the history of Islamic civilization and about the content of the Islamic religion. I have also paid some attention to current events related to terrorism over the last 15 years (9/11 awakened me from my carefree slumbers in this regard). As far as I can see, and please do correct me if I am horribly wrong, (1) Islamic civilization has failed to produce healthy, productive, progressive, rights-respecting societies, especially in relation to the status of women, because it is fundamentally authoritarian in that it requires as a matter of basic doctrine the submission to the arbitrary will of Allah in heaven and the arbitrary edicts of Allah’s representatives on earth; and (2) Islamic civilization and the Islamic religion are essentially at war (within the “Dar al-Harb” or “land of war”) with every other civilization and religion on the planet, from animism to Zoroastrianism (and, I might add, especially atheism and secular humanism), because jihad is the primary method by which Islam has always spread and continues to spread.

    It is true that various other religions and civilizations are far from perfect. It is also true that Western civilization is far from perfect. But perfection is not an option. I would roughly measure each civilization and religion and philosophy by how well it fosters human flourishing, and on that rough measure I would place Islam at the bottom of the heap and Western civilization at the top.

    It is also true that individual people such as the Rosenbergs or Jonathan Pollard have done damage to American society. To personalize matters even further, it is true that individual people who are Jewish or Catholic or Protestant or whatever have committed rape. But they did so as individuals and not in on behalf of their religion or to advance an ideology. Compare that to the recent instances of large-scale “rape jihad” in Cologne and other German cities, where, apparently, hundreds of Islamic men publicly abused women in order to violently spread Islamic values (e.g., the “value” that women belong at home and not out in public unless accompanied by a close relative).

    Based on everything I know and have observed, from the perspective of Western civilization and its values Islam is something to be feared. This is not an irrational “phobia”, but a rational fear based on all of Islamic history and doctrine, as well as events across the world over the last 15+ years.

    This does not mean that every Muslim is a terrorist – I am sure that there are plenty of Muslims who are moderate in their behavior and attitudes. It does mean that war against all other civilizations and religions and philosophies is a fundamental tenet of Islam. Furthermore, to pick out the bad actions of individual Jews or Catholics or Protestants (etc.) and equate that with a widespread pattern of bad actions that are motivated by an authoritarian ideology of submission and war against all others is fundamentally anti-intellectual.

    At least, this is how I see it based on my limited experience and understanding. Perhaps I am missing something; if so, I sincerely hope that you will enlighten me because you are just about the only person I know with whom I can have an intelligent discussion about these matters.



    • I’d start by making two clarifications. The first is that I don’t think “Islamic civilization” or “Western civilization” are valid concepts.

      The phrase “Islamic civilization” gives the impression that there is a single unified phenomenon, a civilization, characterized by adherence to the norms of Islam, so that adherence to those norms provides the basic explanation of the behavior of the people living within the civilization. I would flatly deny that there is any such thing–or even any approximation to such a thing in the 21st century world. The world consists of 1.2 billion Muslims spread out in different nation states. What they have in common is adherence to a religion, ranging from nominal adherence to devout adherence. They’re also affected by other factors extrinsic to their faith. For instance, the vast majority of them live in countries that were once empires, and are now dysfunctional post-colonialist or post-imperial nation-states (or quasi-states, like Palestine).

      Both of these factors–adherence to Islam, conditioning by post-imperial politics–play a role in explaining why what we call “the Muslim world” is dysfunctional. So do other factors. But there is no a priori reason to assume that adherence to Islam plays either the determinative role or even a fundamental role. For instance, there is no way of inferring from the degree of a person’s devotion to Islam to the degree of their sympathy for terrorism. Nor is there any way of inferring from someone’s sympathy for (or participation in) terrorism to the degree of their devotion to Islam.

      The bottom line is, whatever role Islam plays in explaining the dysfunction of the Islamic world, it plays in conjunction with other factors that have nothing to do with Islam as a religion. But it’s invalid to group both (or all) of those things under the description “Islamic civilization.” I actually happen to think that what people call “Islamic civilization” has made contributions to human civilization (literature, architecture, music, philosophy, algebra, etc). As a non-believer, I don’t happen to think that those contributions have a source in Islam. So I don’t regard them as deriving from “Islamic civilization.”

      I also don’t think that “Western civilization” is a valid concept. We’ve come to use “Western civilization” as a portmanteau term to refer simultaneously to “the Judeo-Christian tradition” and to aspects of European history from Greece through Rome into the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc. through to the discovery of the New World and beyond. When people praise “Western civilization,” they use the term in an ad hoc way to refer to the part of that entire history that they favor, dropping the parts they disfavor. If the Judeo-Christian tradition is part of “Western civilization,” there is no reason to omit the conquest of Canaan, the mass slaughter of the Persians as recorded in the Book of Esther, the Crucifixion, the Crusades, or the Inquisition from “Western Civilization.” But none of that is praiseworthy.

      If we drop the Judeo-Christian tradition from “Western civilization,” we’ll want to drop the more irrational features of pagan Greece and Rome (and Germany and Russia) as well. (I love Homer, but nothing in the Qur’an is even half as ferocious as the Iliad, and nothing in the Qur’an approximates the Hebrew Bible for genocidal belligerence. Even the tragedians and epic poets of Greece and Rome were pretty crazy. Don’t Aeschylus and Virgil expect us to admire Orestes and Aeneas, at least a little? But they were at least as bloodsoaked as the early Muslims.) Once we’re done with these omissions, we’re left with a totally revisionary understanding of “Western Civilization,” i.e., rational human achievements. But that revisionary understanding of “Western Civilization” would have to include the rational human achievements of “Islamic Civilization” as well, like algebra. And at that point, we’ve lost the rationale for the original contrast.

      So my summary answer is that I think the contrast of “Western civilization” and “Islamic civilization” is misleading. What we call the Western world is now a liberal world, and liberalism explains a great deal of our progress. But liberalism arose in the wake of imperialism, and imperialism explains a great deal of the rest of the world’s lack of progress. It’s not the only thing, but it’s enough of a factor to suggest that Western civilization/Islamic civilization is not the relevant contrast.

      Now to the particular examples. The Cologne incident was a monstrous crime, but what part of it is explained by appeal to “Islamic civilization”? What we have here are dysfunctional youth engaged in misogynistic, predatory activity, which is what one would expect of an anarchic situation produced by a war. After all, mass rape happened in the Bosnian war, and in those cases, the victims were Muslims, and the perpetrators were Serbian Christians. But Islam/Orthodox Christianity are not the relevant variables for explaining those events, despite the tendency of both religions to misogyny. The explanation is political. I brought up the Rosenbergs precisely because no one would invoke Judaism to explain what they did; we all recognize that it’s irrelevant. But it’s not clear why Islam is all that relevant to the Cologne criminals. Some of them, after all, committed robbery–but we don’t need to invoke Islam to explain robbery.

      In the case of the sexual abuse scandal, you’re seriously underestimating the complicity of the Catholic Church–and of rank and file Catholics–in generating and covering up those crimes. The pedophile priests invoked their authority as priests to commit the crimes they committed. They did it in huge numbers–numbers that dwarf what happened in Cologne. They did it for decades. The Catholic Church covered up those crimes for decades. The Church induced police departments and prosecutors to cut them slack in the name of the immunity they claimed to enjoy from state prosecution–which they read off of canon law. The Church actively covered up these actions and crimes, and continues to do so to this day. And the event was worldwide.

      Here you have every sinister feature attributed to Muslims, and then some–sexual predation rationalized by religion and by religious authority, accompanied by the subversion of the rule of law in the name of the same religion by people who inflitrated the heart of a liberal society. Still, it would be unthinkable to suggest that the rights of Catholic priests be ignored or violated because we face a crisis that demands the wholesale violation of their rights. But that is what people have come to believe about Muslims. And it would be a stretch to say that Catholicism is a “rape religion,” despite the fact that the Church invoked bona fide Catholic doctrine to protect itself from the ramifications of the scandal (and to enact it).

      Though I brought up the Rosenbergs precisely because Judaism doesn’t explain their actions, I would say that Judaism certainly plays a role in explaining Zionism, and Zionism is as repressive an ideology as Islamism. The Israeli occupation of Palestine is morally speaking on a par with much of the oppression of the Islamic countries. That can’t be explained by the actions of isolated individuals; it’s an institutional phenomenon persisting across decades. (But even there, I wouldn’t say that “Jewish civilization” explains the occupation.)

      As for whether Islam is to be feared, I would just say this. I regard Islam, along with all of the Abrahamic faiths, as a fundamentally irrational system of belief. I don’t so much fear as resent the irrationality that issues from them and the excuses made for that irrationality. But religious faith is just one of many forms of irrationality, and I resent all forms of irrationality equally. That said, it’s worth noticing that a large number of the photos in my header for this site depict places of worship–Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. That’s because I recognize that there’s a noble aspiration at the heart of all three of those faiths, even if I reject the faith at the heart of all three. I find that attitude useful in dealing with adherents of all three faiths. I understand what the best of them are trying to achieve, and some of the best of them are the most devout and orthodox. I happen to think their attempt is quixotic. But if they can respect my rights, I’m happy to respect theirs. I’ve spent enough time among Muslims, including devout ones, to feel as justified in applying this policy to them as I do to others. Anyone can forfeit my respect by their actions, but I impose no doctrinal conditions on who can earn it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Since you started by making some clarifications, I’ll do the same.

        I don’t think the concept of a “white race” is valid. Mainstream Americans once included only the English. Over the last 250+ years, other peoples have become mainstream – the Dutch, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Scots Borderers (shunted off to the western frontier), Germans (recall Franklin’s concerns that they would maintain a separate culture), French Canadians (my ancestors), Irish (the source of horrendous tensions in New York and Boston), Italians, Poles, Russians, Jews, and so on (perhaps eventually east Asians and other peoples will be added to the list, too). Now they’re all considered “white” but they originally had quite different cultures, family systems (cf. the work of Emmanuel Todd), child-rearing methods, work habits, etc. To say that they are all of the same “race” is a conceptual error.

        Over time the four founding English cultures of America (cf. Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer) have melded quite a bit, but those currents still remain somewhat distinct (see my essay “Ayn Rand and American Culture” at Through the so-called founder’s effect those cultures have formed the bedrock of our expectations within American society, and when we talk about assimilation it is to that melded culture that individuals assimilate. You are right that the phrase “Western civilization” is too broad, because at root American culture is downstream from English culture. It is only in England that humanity escaped the traditional Malthusian trap – what Ernest Gellner called “The Exit” and what Alan Macfarlane called “The Making of the Modern World”. And that was largely due to the significantly individualistic nature of Anglo-Saxon culture going back as far as records will take us (to the 12th century and further, even to the observations of Tacitus on the ancient Germans – way earlier than your idea that liberalism post-dates imperialism). Now, Anglo-American culture is an offshoot of European culture more broadly, but the family system prevalent in most of England (and parts of the Netherlands and Scandinavia including the areas where the Angles came from) is more individualistic than what is commonly found on the Continent. (By the way, we can see some of the differences within “Western civilization” through the differences between North America and South America – here read The New World of the Gothic Fox by Claudio Veliz).

        Objectively speaking, there are good and bad aspects to and episodes within every civilization. However, it is only from out of Europe, and more specifically from out of England and the Anglosphere, that modernity emerged. I can forgive a lot of sins in a culture that produced a world within which science, technology, enterprise, contracts, respect for women, free expression, individualism, trial by jury, property rights, and in general human freedom are fundamental norms (even if those norms are violated more often than we might want).

        Those norms are deeply at odds with everything I know about Islam. You are probably right (I have not made the time to study the matter in depth, as I have for the emergence of modernity in the West) that there are significant differences among the peoples of the Islamic world – Arabs and Persians, Egyptians and Turks, Pakistanis and Malaysians, etc. – and there is no one Islamic civilization. Yet has any of those peoples produced a society that is worthy of approbation on the standard of human flourishing? And furthermore, has any of those peoples found a way to build a more humanistic culture that is aligned with modernity?

        It is true that both the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (personally I don’t know if the two can be readily conjoined) and the “Greco-Roman tradition” (ditto) are also replete with violence – all of human history is, sadly. Yet the Iliad didn’t instruct the Greeks to convert the barbarians to Zeus worship on the point of a sword, and the Christian Bible tells believers to go forth and multiply, not to go forth and slaughter the infidels. Yet jihad is a fundamental *doctrine* of Islam, and it can’t be waved away by drawing distinctions among the Islamic peoples or saying that there is no one Islamic civilization – there certainly is one Islamic religion (yes, I know, Sunni vs. Shia etc.) and one Islamic holy book, no?

        Finally, I am trying to make sense of your assertion that it’s not understandable or excusable for us (i.e., Americans) to refuse to admit Syrian refugees (granting for the moment that they really are all refugees, but not granting that there is a human right to immigrate to whatever country one pleases, because there is no such right). As far as I can see, this assumes a notion of collective guilt that I, as an individualist, cannot accept. Let’s say imagine that those Cologne “rape jihad” attacks had happened in Times Square. Would it be unacceptable for Americans to be outraged and to refuse admission to more of the kinds of people who planned and carried out the attacks, simply because the U.S. government started a war that helped to cause the instability that led to those men choosing to leave Syria (and wanting to come to America of all places, the land of their enemy – not to the lands of their Islamic fellow-believers in Egypt or Morocco)? If you were a nice New York liberal who voted against Bush and protested the war, would it be OK if your daughter was raped in Times Square by jihadists because Americans had it coming? How is that much different from the ravings of Ward Churchill that the employees at the World Trade Center essentially had it coming because they were little Eichmanns?

        I can understand that these issues are quite personal for you, but I think you need to read a lot more history (see references above) in order to understand and truly value the modern society in which we live, and thus to understand and properly evaluate the radical threat that militant Islam poses to modernity and to humanity.


        • I’m losing my sense of what we’re disagreeing over. So I’ll respond to what you’ve said, and then come back at the very end to what I regard as the disagreement.

          I agree that there is no such thing as a “white race.” “White race” doesn’t explain the behavior of the people colloquially referred to as “white.” (Neither does “black” or “brown,” etc.)

          Your second paragraph suggests, just as I thought, that by “Western Civilization” you meant something much narrower than what that usually denotes (insofar as it denotes anything). You’ve narrowed it down to Anglo-Saxon individualism. I am not sure why the unit of admiration has to be a particular nation or ethnicity. Surely there are human achievements beyond Anglo-Saxon individualism that merit admiration–say, Aristotle’s Organon.

          And there are aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture that don’t merit admiration. The Anglo-Saxons may have escaped the Malthusian trap, but they also perfected the triangular trade. If your standard is human flourishing, then anything merits admiration that promotes it, and nothing does that retards it. In that case, the Anglo-Saxons have something to contribute, the Greeks have another, the Arabs have a third. But there is no need to insist that some one nation is the fundamental causal source of human flourishing as such. If you insist on that approach, you have to cherry pick the historical record in just the way you’ve done, focusing on the good in a given culture but ignoring or minimizing the bad in that culture.

          And you are minimizing the bad. You say that you can forgive the sins of a culture that produced the list of things you name. Let’s grant that it produced all those things. Still, why would that lead us to forgive its sins? All societies prior to the twentieth century have had some form of slavery, but no society enforced a system of slavery on as large a scale as the European powers during the triangular trade (with England playing a leading role).

          Nor can we claim that slavery was incidental to European history after 1500. It was central. The Industrial Revolution was built on slavery. Subtract slavery from European history from 1500 to 1800 and it becomes unrecognizable science fiction. The same history includes the wholesale slaughter of the native populations of the Americas by all of the colonizing European powers, along with the slaughter and subjugation of African, Asian, and Australasian people–on a scale that no prior society had ever contemplated, much less brought about. There’s no need to excuse or forgive any of that.

          It’s one thing to honor the achievements by picking out the process by which the achievements arose. But if you follow that principle, you’ll find achievements spread out across the globe. By contrast, if you insist that we must focus on a place, and judge the place and the people who inhabited it, then I’d insist that we give verdicts on the good and the bad. If we look at English history, we see great accomplishments worth admiring, and monstrous immoralities that deserve condemnation. It also turns out to be an unfortunate contingency of history that many of the achievements were causally dependent on the atrocities (e.g., the Industrial Revolution on slavery). It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.

          I think that respect for rights is incompatible with devotion to a God (any God) who issues coercive ultimatums. So the norm of rights is, as far as I’m concerned, incompatible with all three Abrahamic religions, including Islam. But I don’t think Islam is distinctively incompatible with rights. The God of the Hebrew Bible is a lot more coercive than the God of the Qur’an. It’s the Hebrew Bible, not the New Testament, that tells believers to go forth and multiply. It also tells the followers of Moses to commit genocide. There is nothing in the Qur’an that even begins to compare with the orgy of violence–hundreds and hundreds of pages of it–commanded by the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical injunctions don’t even pretend to be defensive. They’re explicitly aggressive.

          And while the New Testament doesn’t enjoin violence, Jesus famously tells us that he came to complete, not to abrogate the Jewish law–and he doesn’t say a word to abrogate the Jewish conquests or slaughter. The implication is that God justly commanded those things, but His work is done, so we needn’t continue it–but we certainly can’t condemn it, either. If we go beyond Scripture, Christians have always been able to produce plausibly theological justifications for the use of force, simply because taken literally, Jesus’s injunctions to pacifism are impossible to put into practice.

          On the Greco-Roman tradition: The Iliad doesn’t instruct the Greeks to convert the barbarians–it valorizes the wholesale destruction of Troy as revenge for the kidnapping of Helen! Even the Qur’an doesn’t go as far as that. The Qur’an leaves the wholesale destruction of whole cities to God. There are no stories in the Qur’an in which Muhammad is admiringly presented as doing anything like what Achilles does at the end of the Iliad. This is Bernard Knox’s interpretation:

          The images of that night assault–the blazing palaces, the blood running in the streets, old Priam butchered at the altar, Cassandra raped in the temple, Hector’s baby thrown from the battlements, his wife Andromache dragged off to slavery–all this, foreshadowed in the Iliad, will be stamped indelibly on the consciousness of the Greeks throughout their history, immortalized in lyric poetry, in tragedy, on temple pediments and painted vases, to reinforce the stern lesson of Homer’s presentation of the war: that no civilization, no matter how rich, how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force. (Introduction to the Penguin edition of the Iliad, p. 37)

          Yes, the Greeks were ambivalent about their wars–as the tragedies suggest–but the fact remains that Achilles is an epic hero. What is “stamped indelibly on the consciousness of the Greeks throughout their history” is precisely Achilles’s heroism, as Muhammad’s heroism is for Muslims. But valorizing Achilles is at least as problematic as valorizing Muhammad.

          In broad outline, the Qur’anic doctrine of jihad says just about the same thing as the Christian doctrine of just war. It commands holy war to repulse oppression and warns free riders not to shirk their duty. It enjoins force as a last resort and enjoins retreat on favorable terms. It doesn’t define any of its key terms, and for that reason is wide open for abuse. It doesn’t simply tell believers to go forth and slaughter infidels anywhere and everywhere. That’s a misreading (probably a misreading of Surah 2:191, which is often misread this way). It not only doesn’t enjoin conversion by the sword, but prohibits it: la iqraha fid-din, there is to be no compulsion in religion (2:256), is one of the most famous sayings in the Qur’an. I’m the last one to wave jihad away, but I don’t think it makes Islam uniquely aggressive among the Abrahamic religions.

          On refugees: I think there is such a thing as collective national liability for harms done by one’s nation in its official capacity. We don’t have any difficulty conceptualizing corporate liability. If BP spills oil in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is liable. At that point, it’s not the prerogative of every individual employee of BP to say, “Well, I’m an individualist, so I’m not liable,” and absolve BP of the responsibility of cleaning up the oil. They may not be individually liable, but the corporation is. In the case of a state, I’d say there is an analogue of corporate liability. Neither of us are guilty for what the state does in our names, but all of us are liable for it–that’s what it means for the state to act in our names. (That’s why we have a tax liability to pay for the state in the first place.)

          Now, one way to escape that liability would be to forswear reliance on (and consent to) the state. That’s fine, but it entails living in a State of Nature and very few people want to do that. But you can’t help yourself to the goods of the state, which are paid for through a collective tax liability, and then back out of collective responsibility for the harms it imposes.

          If more people realized that when the U.S. government starts a war, it makes each citizen a co-signatory to the war, maybe people would become less apathetic about foreign policy and induce the government to stop fighting so many wars.

          If the Cologne attacks had happened at Times Square, I certainly think that the American people would be justified in wanting to bar “the kinds of people” who engaged in the attacks. They wouldn’t be justified in equating “Syrian refugee” with “that kind of person.”

          The view I’m holding is different from Ward Churchill’s because Churchill’s view implies that the victims of 9/11 were all morally culpable of, e.g., killing Iraqis during the sanctions on Iraq. I don’t think Americans are all culpable. I think we’re all liable. You can be liable for harm you had a hand in causing without being morally culpable of anything. Churchill’s view also valorizes Al Qaeda, but I’m not valorizing anyone. I’m not even valorizing the refugees.

          But I think there’s some serious exaggeration here of the liability that falls on the average American. The average American will never see a Syrian refugee, much less get raped by one. The chances of being raped by a Syrian refugee are infinitesimally small. So, distributed across 300 million Americans, the liabilities are pretty small.

          Meanwhile, girls are sexually assaulted by the bucketful on America’s college campuses, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that we herd these rapists up and put them in detention centers, or take away their citizenship, or anything of the sort. The Cologne incident looms large in everyone’s minds simply because it involves Muslims. That such things happen every weekend on every college campus in America–and have done so for decades–somehow escapes attention.

          If we handled Syrian refugees the way we handle privileged American college kids, we’d be handing them over to college disciplinary officers. But if we handled privileged American college kids the way we handle Syrian refugees, huge numbers of middle class youth would be rotting in prison, permanently disenfranchised, and unable to get housing, employment, or loans when they got out. That this hasn’t happened, and will never happen, suggests to me that reactions to Cologne have less to do with a horror of rape than a free-floating horror of Muslims.

          That’s what I’m criticizing when I criticize “Islamophobia.” It’s one thing to reject the claims of the Islamic religion or regard them as incompatible with liberalism. It’s another thing to apply standards to Muslims that apply to no one else. Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Muslims, exaggerated out of all proportion to an objective estimation of any threat from them. It’s no different from the fear people once had of gay men, based on stereotypes of “the predatory sexual culture of the gay bathhouse” or the fear anti-Semites have of Jews, based on stereotypes of “Jewish cunning, clannishness, and lust for power.” The Islamophobic picture of the Muslim is just one more depiction in that gallery.


      • Some points regarding the exchange between Peter and Irfan:

        (i) How does one individuate and evaluate – either in terms of its praiseworthiness or in terms of its likely bad impacts on human welfare – a culture or a movement in a culture (on any scale)? I agree that identifying something called “Islamic culture” is probably too crude (as is the idea of a “clash” of cultures or civilizations along Islamic/Western lines). How about “radical Islam,”, “Sunni radical Islam,” or “Shia radical Islam” (as cultural or political movements, not doctrines)”? Is there “Republicanism” or “conservatism” as a culture (again, not a doctrine) in the U.S. (and does any kind of unified, holistic evaluation of it as good or bad make sense)? Similarly for libertarian or progressive cultures or cultural movements. Culture is complicated and hard to evaluate, but it matters a lot (causally, to human welfare), so we need to be able to individuate and evaluate in rough-and-ready but sensible ways.

        (ii) We should avoid, in trying to individuate civilization-scale culture, placing too much emphasis on doctrine, particularly religious doctrine. Cultures pick and choose from their religious scriptures and I suspect that the precise content of any reference scriptures are relevant only in that cultures have picked some bits to realize in their folkways, morals, and politics. If we could measure the degree of illiberalism or violence in sets of reference scriptures and order sets of reference scriptures along these lines, I’m not sure it would tell us much about a culture that it draws from this or that set of reference scriptures.

        (iii) Cultures have impact on human life as carriers of ideals and (more importantly) social institutions. We should, then, be focused on: (a) good and bad ideals and institutions and (b) how strongly a carefully-defined culture or element of a culture realizes and transmits them. The right sorts of claims to make, then, are about specific cultural elements or entities that are causally significant and specific good or bad ideals and institutions that they embody. Peter, though I liked your specificity about the specific, historical cultures that loosely come under the heading “Western culture,” invoking such general ideas as “individualism” may not be that helpful. On the other hand, the impartial rule of law is an important institution and the cultures/politics that originated it and continue to carry it forward deserve credit and support. I worry, too, that some of your formulations invite at least soft forms of tribalism/racism. Irfan, you do well to remind us of the overly-simple Islam vs. the West meme (and the danger of this expressing or allowing for something like racism) – and to remind us of the horrible things that cultures that come under the heading of “the West” have stood for and brought about. But are there not cultures or cultural elements today that are particularly contemptible and dangerous? And even if a simple-minded anti-Islam (or even perhaps anti-radical-Islam) stance is too simple and an invitation to racism are there not some important cultural elements or entities – ways of living, being and interacting with others, along with a common sense of identity perhaps – from the Islamic world that are contemptible and dangerous? You seem to be bringing in good but pretty specific standards relevant to human welfare, observing that all plausible cultural elements or entities fail, and just throwing up your hands – a curse on all of your houses. That does not very effectively address the efficacy of culture and the need to evaluate it. In a lot of ways, this kind of approach can be functionally similar to cultural relativism.

        The social-science geeky issues here are inherently hard. An alien from another planet would have his work cut out in identifying cultural elements and entities and evaluating with respect to human welfare. Both because culture nonetheless matters (so we have to do our best at this hard task, inevitably screwing it up along the way, sometimes tragically) and because we are Paleolithic tribalists, we don’t have the luxury about not talking (and fighting) about these things.


  2. In the spirit of stirring up our most recent disagreement, let me raise some questions to one of your claims here (rather tangential to your main points, most of which I naturally find quite right). You write:

    A better approach might be to grasp the obvious differences between voting and a game of marbles, and to acknowledge that Wehner’s marbles-based approach to politics provides a very good explanation for why party politics doesn’t work. Nothing in human life works very well if you resign yourself to the choices other people have dictated for you, and then regard yourself as duty-bound to give your moral imprimatur to whatever rubbish they’ve put on offer.

    I assent wholeheartedly to that claim, but I see something like that thought as the reason why I refuse to join a political party. You, to the contrary, have said that you regard joining a political party as necessary in order to (attempt to) bring about change. Here, though, is a potential complication. For much of the last eleven years, I have lived in the state of Texas, which has open primaries. In the time I lived in New Hampshire, the only election on which I felt myself sufficiently informed to vote was the presidential election of 2012, and I did not need to vote in the primary for that purpose. Coupled with the fact that Texan Republicans are typically so far to the right that I need only about five minutes to determine that I will not vote for them, my choices have been simple and I have not been prevented from voting in primaries by not being a member of the Democratic party. Despite all the grumbling and griping I might do about the Democratic party as such — rather different in many respects, I think, from the sort of grumping and griping that you might go in for about it — I have voted almost entirely straight blue for the last eleven years, and I certainly have no intention of doing otherwise in the near future. I don’t join the party officially in large part because I find much of its platform, whether rhetorically or substantively, questionable. But I find the Republican platform both rhetorically and substantively laughable, and I see no other superior alternative. My pragmatic attitude is quite the opposite of Wehner’s — I will vote for Clinton or Sanders in the general election because I regard them as substantially less awful than any Republican alternative, and since I am not going to vote Green (much less libertarian!) there is no other sensible choice, and so I will vote for the (substantially, in my view) lesser evil.

    Now, I recognize from your comments above that there might be good reason for me to consider voting NOTA instead, especially if I am still voting in Texas (let us hope that I find long-term employment elsewhere in the meantime!), which is guaranteed to go red. But setting that possibility aside for a moment, my question is: what objections do you have to someone like me not joining the Democratic party? I’d consider it if I should be lucky enough to find a fantastic job in another state that happened not to have open primaries, but supposing that I continue to live in states that allow me to vote in whichever primary I like, what reason do I have to join the Democratic party, or any party, for that matter?


    • Yeah, that’s a good point. I actually thought of it when I wrote the offending sentence, and it’s why the sentence in question has a slightly outlandish quality:

      Nothing in human life works very well if you resign yourself to the choices other people have dictated for you, and then regard yourself as duty-bound to give your moral imprimatur to whatever rubbish they’ve put on offer.

      I put things that way because I really do regard it as an accurate description of Wehner’s attitude (as described in the piece). But I think Wehner’s attitude is to be distinguished from someone who joins a party because she wants to effect change, while reserving the right to contest anything questionable within the Party.

      I regard a vote as having fundamentally different significance than party membership. A vote is a purely symbolic act. You vote because and only because you’ve giving moral approval to someone’s candidacy as an officeholder. There can be cases in which you vote for a candidate you intensely dislike because given the options, that one is the best candidate. In that case, you’re not literally voting for the lesser of evils, but voting for what you regard as a suboptimal (but not evil or fundamentally immoral) candidate because given these options, this candidate is certainly better than that one (Hillary Clinton over Trump, let’s say). But the point is, you would not do that if the suboptimal candidate fell below some floor of moral acceptability, simply because they were better than the completely evil candidate.

      You might think that it’s unfair of me to criticize Wehner because after all, that’s what he seems to be saying, as well. He’s not voting for anyone because he can’t bring himself to vote for either of the two evil candidates, on the premise that Hillary Clinton is somehow just as bad as Trump. (I could dwell on the absurdity of the claim, but let it go.) But the original attitude he describes is literally one of resignation to anything in the name of democracy. He then writes as though now–now that the reality of a Trump presidency looms before him–he has suddenly realized that…wait…you can’t just be resigned to anything now, can you? Correct, you can’t. But did it really take him this long to figure out that there are moral limits to the demand that you must vote for whoever’s on the ballot?

      As I see it, joining a party is a purely instrumental activity. You join to effect change in the party that is best positioned to make the best changes. (Got that? Lots of bests.) In joining it, I don’t think there’s any presumption that you agree with the platform as stated. Political platforms are platitudes in vacuo. They don’t mean anything, and you’re not signing on to them when you join. Now, naturally, you don’t join a party whose platform is insane. E.g., if it begins “We Are the Voice of the New Embattled White Minority!” red flags should go up. But if the party’s views are reasonably in the ballpark, and you know independently that this party is the best one, I wouldn’t quibble about this or that formulation in the platform: after all, part of the reason for joining the party is to effect changes in it, and one change could very well be a change to the wording of the platform.

      But your question is, why join a party at all? Let me make a distinction here. First you have to figure out whether your life and schedule permits you to engage in political activity. It may not. If it doesn’t, the only reason for joining a party is to vote in primaries, on the assumption that your state has party-specific primaries. (And the only reason for voting in primaries is symbolic, since voting is not an instrumental activity.) But if you lack the time for front-line political activity, and you live in an open primary state, I agree that there’s no reason to join a party.

      But suppose that you want to engage in real nitty-gritty political activity. For better or worse, political activity in the US is controlled by party machines. Putting aside hyper-local municipal politics and street-level activism, there is no way to get access to the levers of political power except through party membership. Again, if you’re content to speak at zoning board meetings or town council meetings merely as a citizen, or content to attend demonstrations, or even organize them, or go into community organizing, or do stuff through your church, or just become a pest by showing up a lot at your local legislator’s office (etc.), you needn’t join a party. But for anything beyond that, you do. You need to find a route into the local machinery of the party you favor, and by incremental steps to put yourself in a position to make changes in it.

      My claim about party membership wasn’t so much one about the obligations of a citizen qua citizen but of a citizen qua politically engaged citizen, with many provisos and qualifications implicitly understood. So you may not have reason to join the Democratic Party, at least right now. But I say that partly because I happen to know that you’re early in your career and need to get that settled. But once it is settled (for academics, once you have tenure), party membership becomes an issue insofar as you want to be politically engaged at a certain level. And I’m inclined to think that one should try (once it’s feasible, rational, etc.) to become active. But if you take political activity seriously, then unless you want to “specialize” in local politics where party membership is not necessary, party membership just becomes an unavoidable way of extending the scope of your activity.

      So I don’t really have an objection to your not joining the Democratic Party right now. But fast forward a decade and let’s say that you get John Cooper’s job at Princeton. So you’re David Riesbeck, the Henry Putnam University Professor of Classics and Philosophy with the corner office in 1879 Hall. At that point, I’d think that you would need and want to put some of that theorizing you’ve done into practice. Isn’t that what it’s for? At that point, I’d say: Back into the Cave, Dave. And somewhere down the line, you’d have increasingly strong reason to join the Party.

      P.S., Incidentally, I meant to say that I don’t really see that a vote for Clinton is literally a vote for the lesser evil. I dislike the Clintons, but I don’t see them as politically evil or immoral. They’ve unsavory, dishonest people. But this is one case where, on the whole, I don’t think their personal immorality has huge political implications, i.e., enough to imply that in voting for them you’re voting for someone who’s politically beyond the pale.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It occurs to me that there’s a misleading sentence in my original post, where I say that a person concerned with race should side with the Democrats:

        And “side with” means join the Democratic Party and vote Democratic.

        I really should have written: “And ‘side with’ means joining the Democratic Party and/or voting Democratic.” I didn’t mean to suggest that if you side with them, you have to join the Party. I meant, siding with that could very well include joining the Party.


      • Well, I might be able to accept that. I’m never going to get John Cooper’s job, though, so this might all be entirely hypothetical. Should that happen, however, we will be living fairly close to each other, and therefore I shall invite you to tea. Or whiskey, if you’re down with that.


          • So virtuous. At this point, though, I think Princeton is the turf of Ben Morison and Hendrik Lorenz — they are, in effect, the new Cooper and Nehamas. They’ve also got plenty of other excellent folks there who aren’t going away any time soon, so I’ll have to look elsewhere. At this point I’m thinking that just about anything will do. I really don’t want to have more time to post on PoT.


    • I just happened to read an unpublished paper by Roderick Long called “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.” I don’t have time to spell out the relevance, but it turns out to be relevant both to aspects of my exchange here with both David and Peter. Though I don’t accept the specifically libertarian claims Roderick makes, I accept the overall logic of this argument as applied to social-political ills. I think his argument helps explain why we have a responsibility to take in Syrian refugees, especially if we helped cause their plight (my discussion with Peter), and why, assuming you regard the Democrats’ political program (not necessarily their platform) as promotive of justice, you have an obligation to contribute to the party’s promoting justice, and, I would add, to do so by taking an active role in steering the party toward justice (my discussion with David).

      I don’t think I can directly link to the paper, but here is a link to the post containing a link to it. The link is in (roughly) the twelfth paragraph (depending on how you count paragraphs).

      By the way, I’ll respond to Peter and Michael’s comments, but probably later this week or this coming weekend. Impossible during the workweek.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I finally got around to reading Roderick’s paper. I remember it in its earlier incarnation as a blog post, but it’s nice to see it developed further. I generally agree with it, though it’s at some points difficult for me to disentangle it from its libertarianism and to see just how its underlying ideas work if we reject the NAP in favor of a conception of justice that generates more robust duties to promote and preserve the common good. Setting aside questions of what can and can’t be legitimately enforced, though, I certainly think we have an imperfect duty to promote the common good and that participation in a political party might be one way of doing so. But just how is that imperfect duty supposed to become a perfect duty? Or is it? Is your idea that, assuming the Democrats’ program promotes justice, I have a perfect duty to contribute to it by taking an active role in steering the party toward justice, or is it rather that, on the same assumption, I have an imperfect duty to contribute to the party, one that I might but need not meet by joining it? My own thought is that I meet all the duty I have by voting for its candidates, but that might be because I see no further gain from joining the party, given that I have no intention of devoting a considerable portion of my time to doing what would be required to make a real change in the party’s platform.

        On a less immediately relevant note, one thought that I find myself having upon reading Roderick’s paper is that the difficulty of avoiding small contributions to evil is one of the things that social and political institutions backed by law can help to alleviate in ways that are impossible or at least considerably more difficult in a minimal state (let alone in no state at all). He of course would disagree, not only because he thinks the state is a much greater evil for all kinds of reasons, but because he thinks institutions of the relevant sort can develop and thrive in the absence of the state. So I say this not as any kind of argument that he or like-minded folks should accept, but simply to note one way in which the issues he’s considering take on a different shape when we leave behind his libertarian/anarchist framework.


  3. I think part of Trump’s rising success, is that there is no viable alternative on the left. they have a bizarre and insular view of things and the world in general. the rights are bigots and the left are in denial most of the time. it kinda sucks


    • I don’t think the Democratic Party in the US is really a “left” party. It’s slightly to the left of center, but it’s an exaggeration to call it left wing. Yes, Sanders is a socialist, but only in America would the “socialist” candidate be sure to stress his respect for gun rights. I don’t think Hillary Clinton qualifies as a leftist any more than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter did. After all, Clinton presided over the 1996 welfare reform act, and Carter was the president who initiated deregulation. I don’t regard Obama as a leftist, either.

      I suppose that there is denial on the left and among the Democrats, but on the whole, I would say that Obama has been the most rational president this country has had since I started paying attention to politics. If Biden had run, I’d have had no qualms voting for him, but I don’t have that many qualms voting for Clinton, either. I’d trust her to be more in touch with reality than any of the Republicans–in the bathroom or out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m in the same situation as you. I’ve read some of his articles for the popular press, but haven’t read his scholarship. It seems solid, but I’m not only not an expert, I haven’t even done the reading. So I wouldn’t even qualify as a student of Putnam’s work–except at Felician University, where no student does the reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So here’s a quick tack-on comment. Having read one paper by Putnam–really a lecture in published form–I got a lot out of it, and basically agree with him politically. But (1) I’m not competent to judge the statistics or the research design of the study, and (2) as I say below, I would need to read and think a lot more about the concept of “social capital” before I was convinced that it was the right way of conceptualizing things in this domain.

        This could be regional chauvinism or methodological illiteracy on my part, but I was puzzled why the locations surveyed in the study omit the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia/Baltimore/Washington DC area (p. 145, Figure 2). Obviously, Putnam’s point is that the places they did survey are ultimately representative of the country as a whole, and therefore support the generalizations he makes, but I wonder about the validity of inferences from the locations they surveyed in the study to locations they didn’t survey. That said, I don’t think even Putnam is claiming that his findings generalize beyond the United States.


  4. The talk about balkanization is an expression of a rather dumb idea, sometimes expressed by Leftists but much more prevalent among conservatives: the notion that a large, diverse population is somehow more difficult to govern than is a smaller and/or culturally homogeneous one, and if large enough becomes “ungovernable”. As any Objectivist knows, the primary driver of government complexity is its involvement with an ever-increasing breadth of issues. A sharp divergence or disagreement among the populace over a particular issue need not concern a government that is uninvolved with it; it’s only concern is to ensure that nobody comes to blows over it. It is only the octopodian regulatory state, with its tentacles extending anywhere they please into private matters, which finds itself dealing with so many contradictory and conflicting demands. Faced with this inherent hostility of statism (including the democratic form) to individual diversity, the answer put forth by conservatives is not to reject it, but simply to treat it as a given and balkanize it — to break up large states into small fiefdoms of culturally (if not racially) more homogeneous communities. Here is an exhibit:

    Your talk of imperialism is critical because it brings to mind a point that any Burkean conservative should be fine with but for some reason fail to apply to things like imperialism: cultural effects can be resilient and unexpected and institutions have memories. For example, in the book War, Peace, War: The Life Cycle of Imperial Nations, Peter Turchin argues that the mass slavery of the Roman Empire–which was at its most intense in Sicily and Southern Italy–is still depressing the social capital of the area centuries later; that the socially disintegrative effects of mass slavery can persist long after the institution has been abolished.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, that’s a very illuminating comment, and I agree with almost all of it. The Turchin point is particularly well-taken.

      I am skeptical of Douthat’s use of Putnam, but I think it’s worth bearing mind that you’re talking about governability, whereas I think the Putnam research concerns political participation. Your point is that heterogeneous populations are perfectly governable by a limited state, but I think Putnam’s point is that heterogeneous populations tend to be content to be governed by the state but are more reluctant to participate in the process of self-government.

      This issue of self-government is, I suspect, somewhat foreign to non-Americans, who don’t put great value on self-government in the sense stressed by Tocqueville (in Democracy in America). So there are two issues here: how important is self-government? If it is important, what are the implications of Putnam’s research here?

      I haven’t read Putnam, so I can’t say for sure, but if you go back to the Douthat piece, and click the link for the Putnam research, it goes to an article discussing the research in the Boston Globe. Here is his one-sentence summary of his findings:

      “People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes.

      For whatever it’s worth, that coheres with my own experiences. But notice that the etiology of the finding is totally ambiguous. Do people hunker down because the ethnic minorities “stick together” and don’t care about the wider polity? Or do they hunker down because they simply don’t trust one another? Is the hunkering down just a matter of lack of political saavy by ethnic minorities, i.e., they don’t know how the system works? Or is part of the distrust the racism of the majority, so that in treating these findings as static, we’re merely appeasing their xenophobia? I think the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” but if so, the answers don’t have the implications Douthat is insisting on.

      Then Putnam offers a proviso:

      His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.

      Shouldn’t that be as obvious as the first finding? I think so, but Douthat doesn’t mention it, and the conservative press has criticized Putnam for saying it. To say that ethnic diversity has negative effects (if it is a negative effect) is, according to them, a hard empirical datum and an OK thing for a political scientist to say. But to point out that the effects are amenable to change and could ultimately lead to a net gain is impermissible “advocacy.”

      Well, both claims state facts. To my mind, both state fairly obvious facts. At any rate, they’d be obvious to anyone who’d lived in both homogeneous and heterogeneous communities. But liberals seem to be uncomfortable with Putnam’s findings, and conservatives want to cherry pick them.

      Incidentally, the absurdity is that one finding discussed toward the end is that ethnic diversity leads to lower levels of spending on public schools. So conservatives, who are always on the lookout for ways to cut public spending, would prefer to focus on the fact that the spending cuts come from ethnically heterogeneous* communities than the fact that they are spending cuts. If there is a concern for principle there, I’ve missed it.

      *I originally had mistakenly written “homogeneous.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Having read the paper, I now think you’re partly right to say that Putnam’s findings are about governability, because they’re partly about social trust.

        But it’s still unclear (at least to me) how Putnam’s research connects with what you’re calling governability. His claim is that ethnic diversity in the United States is negatively correlated with “measures of social capital and civic engagement” (p. 149), or with social capital defined as “social networks and the associated networks of reciprocity and trustworthiness” (p. 137), but some of this implies a political passivity that might make governing easier than it would be with a more politically active population. And some of the findings have absolutely nothing to do with governability, e.g., reported happiness (down), and time spent watching television (up). It might be unpleasant having to live in a community full of unhappy people who watch too much television, but they’re not hard to govern.

        My response to Michael P. below is somewhat relevant, too.


    • That’s a very interesting post by Malik. I don’t disagree with him, but what he says motivates me to go out and read the original Putnam research, because I think the same problem is operating here as I mentioned in response to Moataz Kadada’s comment just above: I think Putnam’s findings are being taken somewhat out of context and applied to contexts to which they don’t obviously apply. I think Malik’s misapplications (if that’s what they are) are fairly benign, but I think he’s missing the real point of the research, at least as I understand the summaries of it that I’ve seen.

      First, I was under the impression that Putnam’s research was specific to the United States. Second, I was under the impression that the research was about civic participation. But Malik is talking about Britain, and he’s talking not about civic participation but civic trust. On the first point, it isn’t clear to me that data derived from the American experience generalizes to the British one. American immigrant culture is very different from British immigrant culture (and even different from Canadian immigrant culture). On the second point, though trust and participation are obviously related–trust is a necessary condition for participation–they’re not the same thing.

      So even if Malik’s claims are true for Britain, they may have limited application to the US. In Britain, it could be that diversity involves an outright hostility to the idea of assimilation with the larger culture and pervasive distrust at the level of even ordinary interaction. Meanwhile, in the US, it could be that diversity involves not hostility but relative indifference to the issue of assimilation and doesn’t involve pervasive distrust at the level of ordinary interaction with others, but simply involves a disincentive to active civic participation with others. So the American version of the problem could be much milder than the British one, even if there’s a family resemblance between them.

      I’d have to read it to be sure, but I get the sense that people are engaged in premature panic at Putnam’s findings. They’ve taken the simplistic soundbite version of the findings rather than the actual findings, and decided to wring their hands over them.

      An anecdote: I was teaching the topic of pornography in my ethics class the other day and cited a study to the class that said that 90% of the top rented pornography videos depict at least one incident of physical or verbal abuse. Within short order, the class had taken this to mean that “90% of porn involves abuse.” When I looked the study up, what it says is that “Of 304 scenes analyzed, 88.2% contained physical aggression…while 48.7% of scenes contained verbal aggression…” So strictly speaking, even my version of the findings was wrong. I think something similar may be happening with the Putnam research.

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      • Having now read the Putnam paper (but no more than that), I can say that my hunches have been confirmed in all but one respect. Putnam’s research is specific to the US. It’s not clear at all that it generalizes to Britain. And the hand-wringing over its findings is not only premature, but actually contradicts what the paper goes out of its way to say.

        I was wrong, however, about the paper’s being about civic participation rather than civic trust. It’s about both. The thesis is that diversity causes a loss of “social capital,” where social capital is defined as “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” (p. 137). The definition comes from his famous 2000 book, Bowling Alone, which I (embarrassingly) haven’t read, but offhand, it does seem to me that the concept of “social capital” may end up subsuming too many disparate things, and that research could be improved by disaggregating the data. But that’s a tentative thought. I really need to read more than I have to know for sure.


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  7. Not a source I normally rely on for accurate information, but sometimes on target–here is David Brooks reporting on Robert Putnam on the misuse of his research in the immigration debate.

    What about the rise of social distrust? Restrictionists often cite a 2007 Robert Putnam study finding that more diversity leads to less trust. But Putnam tells me they are distorting his research. He found that diversity’s benefits outweigh its disadvantages, that trust declines over the short term as places grow more diverse, but that over the long term Americans find new ways to boost social solidarity.

    I’ve read Putnam’s Bowling Alone since this exchange, and regard the hunch I mentioned above, as well as my reading of the 2007 paper, confirmed.

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    • Yeah, I noticed that and remembered our discussion here, too. I like to read the paper and sort it out for myself. I enjoyed this Brooks column (especially the first half of it), thought I thought it showcased both his strengths and his weaknesses.


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