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Does the red pill have an antidote?

Why do previously reasonable people go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, and what can be done to bring them back?

A handful of problems can plausibly be put forward as obstacles to solving all other problems: climate change and the corruption caused by money in politics are two that pop to mind. Whatever other problem you might be trying to solve, chances are that at least one of those two will get in your way.

But a third problem is joining that group: the explosion of conspiracy theories and the disinformation they spread. Want to control the pandemic? You’ll wind up dealing with people who think Anthony Fauci has been behind the virus all along, or that the vaccines contain microchips that track your movements.

Want to cut greenhouse gas emissions? You must have been duped by the conspiracy that is using the climate change hoax to institute a global socialist dictatorship.

Worried about the state of our democracy? You obviously don’t understand that there’s nothing to save, because all our elections are already rigged. Millions of illegal immigrants are allowed to vote! And dead people. And the servers that count our votes are actually in some other country.

Whatever else you might want to focus on is a waste of time anyway. It’s just a distraction from the blood-drinking child-sex ring that controls the world. That’s the real problem.

David Neiwert’s book. I first heard of David Neiwert when he was writing the Orcinus blog. Already in 2004, he was warning about the right-wing drift towards fascism, but doing so in a responsible way, i.e., actually defining fascism and checking current developments against that definition rather than just throwing around loaded words. (That’s why he called the drift of 2004 American conservatism “pseudo-fascism”. It had the seeds, but they hadn’t fully sprouted yet.)

His 2020 book Red Pill, Blue Pill: how to counteract the conspiracy theories that are killing us is a quick read that is full of insight. It falls into a few separable parts:

  • a history of conspiracy theories from the medieval blood libel to the Yellow Peril to the Red Scare to QAnon. I found this fascinating, but if you don’t, you could skip over it.
  • why conspiracy theories are attractive and who they attract
  • how someone can get drawn in
  • what can be done to pull someone out

The title comes from the red-pill/blue-pill choice Morpheus gives Neo in The Matrix. The red pill represents awakening to the hidden reality that other people fail to see or refuse to see. Conspiracy theorists often talk about the moment they were red-pilled.

How to tell real conspiracies from conspiracy theories. A question I often raise on this blog is whether a term actually means something or is just an insult. Political correctness, cancel culture, critical race theory — do they have any content beyond being pejorative labels?

You might think conspiracy theory is another term with little objective meaning — just “a theory other people believe, but I don’t”. But Neiwert uses the term more precisely than that: A conspiracy theory isn’t just a theory about a conspiracy, it’s a theory that goes against everything we know about actual conspiracies.

People really do conspire sometimes, but actual conspiracies (Watergate, say) are narrow in scope, limited in time, and involve a fairly small number of conspirators. Cross any of those three lines, and odds are excellent that your conspiracy won’t stay secret long enough to achieve its goals.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, postulate vast conspiracies that control everything and yet operate in the shadows for decades or even centuries. The Illuminati has been manipulating world politics since the 1700s, and the conspiracy of blood-drinking child abusers is so large that QAnoners expect thousands of arrests and executions will be needed to stamp it out. The goal of the reptilian conspiracy is to control the Earth, forever.

Some conspiracy theories start with a plausible hypothesis. It’s not crazy, for example, to wonder if alien civilizations exist, or if alien explorers might have visited this planet. But such speculations become conspiracy theories when countervailing evidence that would at least prune the branches of an ordinary hypothesis gets explained away by expanding the conspiracy to completely implausible proportions.

Conspiracy theory epistemology. Conspiracy theorists are hard to argue with because they literally think differently. A conspiracy theory catches on not because it is well supported by evidence, but because it connects a lot of dots. The wider and wilder a theory is, the more interest it generates.

A person trained in mainstream critical thinking will want to pick out a small part of a theory and nail down whether it is true or false before moving on to other parts. But a community of conspiracy theorists isn’t interested in that kind of analysis. The attraction of the theory is its broad sweep; whether any particular part of it is true is almost irrelevant. For example, the fact that JFK Jr. did not return from his apparent death a few weeks ago probably did not disillusion most of the people who came to Dallas expecting to see him.

Think about the attempts to debunk Trump’s Big Lie of how the election was stolen from him. (Neiwert’s book came out before the election, so the Big Lie is not discussed.) Debunkers are fighting a hydra: There is no single explanation of how the election was supposedly stolen, but rather dozens of independent theories of rigged voting machines, hacked servers, boxes of ballots appearing from nowhere, dead voters, fraudulent mail-in ballots, illegal voters, and so on. Debunk one, and the theory’s proponents shift to another. (And as soon as your back is turned, the theory you debunked will rise again.) The conspiracy constantly grows as even Republican officials — Brad Raffensperger, the Michigan Senate — refuse to validate it.

It is not inherently crazy to believe that elections can be stolen. But by now the Big Lie is clearly recognizable as a conspiracy theory.

Psychology of conspiracy theorists. The experts Neiwert quotes paint the following picture: People who feel a lack of control in their lives are attracted to conspiracy theories for two main reasons:

  • The conspirators become scapegoats. They — not me — are to blame for the way the world (and my life) is going. Rather than falling victim to random events or societal trends, I have an enemy: Illegal aliens have taken my place in the economy, and the Jews helped them do it.
  • The theory inserts the believer into a more hopeful, more powerful narrative. By learning about the conspiracy, the believer has joined a heroic resistance group that will expose and ultimately defeat the evil conspirators.

These underlying motives explain why conspiracy theorists reject debunking evidence: Evidence was not the primary reason they bought into the theory in the first place.

How people get drawn in. If your first contact with a conspiracy theory is full-blown nuttiness, you’ll probably turn away without a second thought. No one hears out of the blue that the British royal family are shape-changing alien reptiles and thinks, “I should look into that.”

But even the wildest conspiracy theories have a plausible-looking public face. Jeffrey Epstein, for example, appears to have really maintained a stable of under-age sex partners he could offer his global-elite-level friends. Understandable concern for the possibility that missing children could have been kidnapped for sex leads many people to read social media posts or watch YouTube videos that slowly introduce them to the QAnon theory that such a child-sex ring has world-dominating power.

And once you start investigating one conspiracy theory, you will run into others that connect even more dots that you had always wondered about. The people you meet in one conspiracy-theory online community will introduce you to other conspiracies, which interlock in weird ways.

Social media algorithms accelerate this process. If you watch a video that raises plausible-sounding doubts about the effectiveness of masks or vaccines, YouTube will then suggest more radical videos suggesting that vaccine side-effects are being covered up, and then others claiming Covid was engineered by the Chinese — maybe with the connivance of the CDC — to attack America.

If you’d run into that last video first, it probably would have made no impression. But YouTube has groomed you to accept it.

A common mistake. Neiwart points out something I had not thought of: The way we typically research new topics increases our vulnerability. Dylann Roof is a case in point: His journey into mass murder began with a simple Google search: “black on white crime”.

The problem is that the phrase “black on white crime” is primarily used by White racists. (The people who do academic research on crime seldom break things down that way. But how would you know that if you hadn’t thought about this topic before?) If you read one of the White-racist articles Google sends you to, you’ll run into other phrases that are part of that worldview (and seldom occur elsewhere). Google them, and you’re on your way down the rabbit hole.

Instead, Neiwert recommends a media-consumption practice that media-literacy expert Michael Caufield calls SIFT: Stop, Investigate, Find, Trace.

Before reacting to something you see on social media, and rather than continually going deeper into a topic, take a moment to stop and investigate the source: Who is making this claim? What other claims have they made? How credible are they?

Then try to find a more reliable source for the same information. And once you have, trace claims back to their origins: If, for example, so-and-so is supposed to have said something outrageous, see if you can find a full transcript or a video. If a new law is supposed to do something horrible, what law is it exactly? And what does it really say?

Where the rabbit hole goes. It’s striking how many parallels there are between conspiracy theories and drug addiction. The drug provides a feeling that life is getting better, while actually making it worse; so the perceived need for the drug grows.

If someone’s underlying problem is a lack of efficacy in life, believing in a conspiracy is not going to fix it. Instead, a conspiracy obsession will pull a person away from their support system, alienating friends and relatives. But each loss in the real world makes the conspiracy a more important part of the life they still have. Believers become ever more attached to other conspiracy theorists, and to the fantasy that someday (after the Storm comes, say) their former friends and loved ones will see the truth and come back to them begging forgiveness.

Eventually, the believer has no human contacts outside the conspiracy-theory community. And since many of the other conspiracy theorists are broken in one way or another, conspiracy-related relationships tend to be brittle. Groups often fracture, or turn against individual members.

When someone has given up everything for a conspiracy-theory obsession, and then feels rejected by the conspiracy-theory community too, the stage is set for violence.

Like drug addiction, not everyone goes all the way. Most casual users of illegal drugs never become street people who will do anything for their next fix. For many, similarly, Trump’s Big Lie is a relatively harmless way to meet people online and channel an otherwise amorphous rage. They have learned not to discuss their conspiracy-theory hobby with normies, and they will never storm the Capitol or beat police with flagpoles.

But the possibility is always there, and it’s hard to say what will send someone into a tragic spiral.

Can you pull a friend out? Independent of the negative effects conspiracy theories have on our democracy and our social cohesion, many of us know and care about individuals whose lives are being sucked down that rabbit hole. Is there anything we can do to help?

The closing chapter of Neiwert’s book is a 15-step plan based on research he gleans from a number of sources. Before explaining the steps, he warns that the plan doesn’t always work, it takes a lot of effort, and if you aren’t really committed to it you can make things worse.

The gist of the program is that people are pulled out of conspiracy theories when they’re ready and through personal relationships with people who care about them. Again, I see addiction parallels: You’re not going to pull a friend out of drug addiction during the early phase when the drug seems to make everything wonderful.

So the underlying idea is to stay in an honest relationship with your friend — not pretending to agree about stuff you think is crazy, because they’ll eventually see through you — until they hit a crisis of their own and are looking for a way out. Don’t try to argue them out of it by assembling counter-evidence, because evidence is not the point. Instead, try to understand the needs the conspiracy fills and how it fills them. Compassionate listening plays a bigger role than passionate explaining. Keep your other shared interests alive and even expand them if you can. And wait.

The final pages of the book are about the holes conspiracy theories fill in society, and how we can close them. This is largely a work in progress. For example: Conspiracy theories are largely a problem of trust, and who can claim that our current institutions are 100% trustworthy? Long-term, the challenge is to create more trustworthy ways of getting information, and to rebuild our power structures to be more transparent and more responsive to people’s real needs.

Does America Need an Anti-Cancel-Culture University?

Will the University of Austin promote “the often uncomfortable search for truth”, or create a new safe space for traditional biases?

Last Monday, the former president of another educational institution announced that he and a collection of intellectuals who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in academia (as it is currently constituted) were forming a new University of Austin in Texas. “We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves,” wrote Pano Kanelos, the former head of St. John’s College in Annapolis, “so we’re starting a new one.”

His essay is dotted with high-minded phrases like “the fearless pursuit of truth”, “freedom of inquiry and civil discourse”, and “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It includes stirring rhetoric like: “We can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry.”

Many of his criticisms of existing universities are hard to argue with: “At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite.” Four in every ten students who enter a college or university leave without graduating. The soaring cost of higher education has left students with $1.7 trillion of debt — much of it owed by that 40% that didn’t even manage to buy a marketable credential. “[A]n increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction.” Those who do graduate learn “ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living”.

Kanelos’ conclusion that “something fundamental is broken” is not one I’m inclined to dispute. Too many college classes, particularly introductory ones, belong in a credential-producing factory, not a successor to Plato’s Academy. Like Kanelos, I feel the romance of a school “where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom”.

But beyond the educational theory and his nostalgia for Golden Age Greece, Kanelos’ truly motivating concern seems to be the “illiberalism” that “has become a pervasive feature of campus life”. One factor unites the truly impressive list of names Kanelos gives us: original co-founders Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, and Arthur Brooks, later joined by “university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt, Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen” not to mention “journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.” They’ve almost all been critics or self-styled victims of “cancel culture”. [1]

That’s the context through which I read Kanelos stated goal: producing “a resilient (or ‘antifragile’) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively.” Today’s university students, with their trigger warnings and safe spaces and whatnot, Kanelos seems to imply, are snowflakes. Austin U won’t cater to such whimps, but will forge tough-minded students who can take the rough-and-tumble of real debate.

That vision is undercut, though, by one of the surveys Kanelos quotes to bolster his argument about the current campus illiberalism. He summarizes a survey by Heterodox Academy as saying that “62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe”. However, if you dig into that survey, you’ll find the main reason students give for suppressing their opinions is that “other students would criticize my views as offensive”. In other words, I keep quiet because other students might respond to my free expression with their own free expression. [2]

So who’s the snowflake?

Which makes me wonder: Will Austin U really have more “free inquiry and discourse”, or will it just be a safe space for those who like to say things that are racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise offensive to people who didn’t previously complain because they didn’t previously have a voice? Kanelos’ essay may criticize institutions that “prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth”, but looking at his list of participants, I have to ask if the University of Austin will just prioritize the emotional comfort of a different set of people. [3]

The more I think about “free inquiry” the more I’m reminded of “free markets”. We may imagine that such freedom occurs naturally whenever authority gets out of the way. But in reality, neither discussions nor markets can be “free” without a substantial structure of rules and values and habits and institutions. The “natural” freedom idealized by pre-revolutionary philosophers like Locke and Rousseau happens in the wilderness. Bringing freedom into society requires structure.

There are questions a community can’t discuss without undermining the discussion itself. At German universities in the early 1930s, for example, Jewish students and professors (before they were banned completely) had to face discussions of “the Jewish question“, or even “the Jewish problem” — whether or not they should have a place in German society at all. How freely could they discuss that topic, or whatever topics might follow?

Or suppose I freely state my opinion, and the next person uses his freedom to suggest that people who think like me should be killed — and, by the way, here’s Doug’s home address for anybody whose plans might require that information. How long will that discussion stay free?

We need to understand that freedom inside society can never be pure or absolute. We can only be free in certain ways, and only because we accept limitations on certain other aspects of our freedom. My freedom to drive across the country depends on giving up my freedom to drive on the left side of the highway.

In particular, the kind of “free inquiry” Kanelos champions can only happen if all the participants retain their safety and dignity. This is easy to grasp when your own safety or dignity is threatened — as Austin U’s prospective faculty apparently believes theirs has been. But it is more difficult to appreciate how your own freedom may need to be reined in to accommodate others. Maybe an American university should discourage debate over the genetic inferiority of its Black students, or whether its gay and lesbian students are sick and need to be cured. Maybe women on campus can’t be kept safe from harassment and rape without men yielding some of the benefit-of-the-doubt they have historically been granted. Maybe respecting the dignity of trans students requires using their chosen pronouns, rather than insisting that you know more about their gender than they do.

And so on.

An age-old adage says that your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. Until recent decades, though, large classes of people understood that they just needed to keep their noses out of the way, because other people’s fists had to remain free.

That has changed — not everywhere and not completely, but moreso on college campuses than most places — and if you belong to one of the previously dominant classes you may feel disoriented. What a repressive world it suddenly seems to be, when you have to look all around before you start swinging your arms! How can you still be free, when the people you have been offending for years acquire their own freedom to respond?

There actually is intellectual work to be done here: I don’t think anyone perfectly understands yet exactly where the boundaries ought to be. Perfectly free discussion and inquiry is a myth; as long as we live in society, we will have to live within rules. But what rules, values, practices, and institutions do the best job of creating the environment we want for our universities, one where people of all descriptions can come closest to achieving the Socratic ideal?

That seems to me to be exactly the kind of question that universities ought to work on. And if they do that thinking well, they may become models for the rest of society.

So if the founders and supporters of the University of Austin truly have something positive to contribute to that discussion, I wish their experiment success. But if they just want to turn the clock back to a time when they felt more personally comfortable, I doubt they’ll do much good, even for themselves.

[1] I’d say “all” rather than “almost all”, but I’m not willing to do the research necessary to back that up. I recognize many of the names from various controversies and anti-cancel-culture manifestos.

MSNBC’s Katelyn Burns describes the U of A backers as “a group of self-described ‘heterodox’ academics and journalists (who all happen to have the same opinions on the the two topics they collectively discuss most often, trans rights and racism)”.

[2] A question worth asking: How many conservative students’ fears are justified, and how many have been manufactured by Fox News’ anti-cancel-culture propaganda?

[3] The Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones compares U of A to conservative Christian universities like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty U.

Falwell was no outlier. The right has long dreamed of alternatives to traditional higher education. The televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent University for similar reasons. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to shelter homeschool graduates and funnel them into Republican politics. Hillsdale College has assumed a sharply right-wing political identity over time, and rejects federal funding “as a matter of principle.” (A Hillsdale professor sits on the University of Austin’s board of advisers.) These schools exist as laboratories for right-wing thought; they are committed not to free expression but to indoctrination. The University of Austin will be no different.

I will add that Fox News’ founding rhetoric sometimes sounded as idealistic as University of Austin’s: It would be the “fair and balanced” alternative to the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media.

How Ominous Were Tuesday’s Elections?

The Democratic candidates for governor lost in Virginia and barely won in New Jersey, two states that have been reliably blue in recent years. What does that say about 2022 and 2024?

Tuesday, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin won the governorship of Virginia, a state Joe Biden carried in 2020. Youngkin won by 2%, a 12.1% improvement over Donald Trump’s 10.1% loss. Meanwhile in New Jersey, a state Biden carried by 16.2%, incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy could only manage a 2.6% margin, a 13.6% fall-off from 2020.

Those results, along with a comparable decline in Biden’s approval numbers (currently underwater with 7.5% more people disapproving than approving), have Democrats panicking about their prospects for the 2022 and 2024 elections, and pointing fingers at each other to assign blame. The parallel in everyone’s mind is 2009, President Obama’s first year, when poor performances in the same two governor’s races did indeed predict a massive 2010 loss.

Democrats look at 2009 as the alarm that went unanswered, and are determined not to make the same mistake this time around. That leads to two big questions: What exactly happened in 2009? And what comparable mistakes do we need to fix now? Hence the finger-pointing.

Is it 2009 again? Will next year be 2010? Let’s start by examining the basic premise: How much does the current situation resemble 2009? There are a number of similarities:

  • A Democratic president elected by a wide margin (9.5 million Obama, 7 million Biden) is much less popular a year later. Biden’s approval/disapproval was +17% on Inauguration Day and -7.5% now. Obama’s (by a different measure) was a whopping +54% at inauguration and down to +10% by November, 2009.
  • The president’s ambitious agenda is stuck in Congress. Both Obama and Biden had early legislative victories with a stimulus plan. But ObamaCare wouldn’t pass until March, 2010, and his climate bill never did pass. Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill passed Friday night (too late for the 2021 elections), and his Build Back Better plan is still in limbo.
  • The economy is improving, but still not good. In 2009, GDP bottomed out in the first quarter of 2009, but the improvement still wasn’t showing up in October’s unemployment rate: 10% (the peak), compared to 7.3% the previous December (the numbers available on Inauguration Day). This year, Biden has already seen improvement in both GDP (up 9.2% in the last year) and unemployment (4.6% in October compared to 6.7% last December), but inflation (up 5.4% in the last 12 months) is worrisome and the economy still doesn’t feel normal.

One other similarity is harder to support with hard numbers, and may be in the eye of the beholder: the significance of racism in the Republicans’ winning message. Youngkin made the mythical “critical race theory” a centerpiece of his campaign, and race always lurked in the background of anti-Obama messaging.

While granting the similarities, I want to call your attention to two points against doomsaying:

  • 2009 was worse. Obama won Virginia by 6.3% in 2008, but Republican Bob McDonnell (whose 2014 corruption conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2016; he’s currently a professor at Pat Robertson’s Regents University, where all Republican sins are forgiven) won the governorship by 17.3% in 2009, a 23.6% reversal for the Democrats. Obama won New Jersey by 15.5% in 2008, but Chris Christie was elected to his first term as governor in 2009 by 3.6%, a turnaround of 19.1%.
  • While 2009 did presage a 2010 congressional wipeout, Obama got re-elected in 2012. 2010 really was the “shellacking” Obama said it was. Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, 63 House seats, and 6 governorships. But in 2012 Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3.9% or 5 million votes.

An additional nebulous factor is that the benefits of ObamaCare phased in slowly; you couldn’t get coverage from the ObamaCare exchanges or use a ObamaCare subsidy until 2014. So in 2010, Republicans had free rein to demonize imaginary “death panels” and the “government takeover of health care“. ObamaCare’s favorability rating turned negative in 2010 and didn’t turn positive again until 2017.

Biden’s bills should be much harder to smear with dark fantasies: His infrastructure plan may not have new bridges open by next November, but work will be underway and people will be getting jobs. We still don’t know what (if anything) will be in the BBB bill if and when it eventually passes, but we can hope for immediately popular items like reducing the price of prescription drugs or a child tax credit. Even the bill’s increased taxes are popular, if they really do focus on the wealthy.

In short, there are definite resemblances, but 2021 is not 2009, and 2022 doesn’t have to be 2010 unless we let that happen.

What exactly happened in Virginia? Our political dialog goes wrong when people decide what they want the story to be before they look at the facts. So before we start assessing blame and breaking glass for the emergency, let’s get straight what really happened.

538 does a good job analyzing the polling, and by “good job” I mean that they are appropriately humble about what can and can’t be deduced from what we know. As always, Democrats were strong in Virginia’s cities, and Republicans in the rural areas, while the suburbs were a battleground. The interesting question, though, is not the parties’ absolute strength, but where votes shifted to erode Biden’s 2020 margin. The answer is the suburbs.

According to exit poll data, Youngkin won 53 percent of these voters across the state, which is roughly the opposite of what happened in 2020, when exit polls suggest President Joe Biden carried voters in those areas with a similar share of the vote.

From that data, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that McAuliffe lost the kind of people we associate with the suburbs: educated professionals. But no. Youngkin’s gains on Trump were mostly among non-college whites.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t look like white college-educated voters, often disproportionately associated with the suburbs, necessarily drove Youngkin’s victory. The polarization of white voters by educational attainment has been a developing trend in recent years, and the Virginia result shows an even more substantial split, thanks mainly to Youngkin gaining among white voters without a college degree. Remember, plenty of white voters without a four-year degree live in suburban places, too.

538 finds it hard to assess the impact of Youngkin’s critical race theory message, for reasons that I’ll illustrate with an example: If I run for office promising to stop the Martian invasion, exit polls will undoubtedly show that I won among voters who were worried about the Martian invasion. But did they vote for me because of that issue, or were they my voters first, and just repeated my anti-Mars rhetoric when a pollster asked? Voters who, say, watch a lot of Fox News, are upset about CRT and voted for Youngkin. But what caused what? As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp put it:

partisans who would have voted for their party anyway often parrot whatever message they heard from the campaign or allied media.

A lot of Youngkin voters said they cared about education, but probably not in the usual sense of wanting better funding and higher test scores. In addition to his race-related issues

Exit polling found that voters who believe parents should have “a lot” of say in what their child’s school teaches overwhelmingly supported Youngkin over McAuliffe (77 percent to 22 percent). … Youngkin also made appeals to parents fed up with more than a year of remote learning and other COVID-19-related school policies, like requiring masks in schools. But all of this falls under the category of “education,” which makes it incredibly hard to disentangle which issue had a bigger impact on voters.

Ordinarily, you would expect an education-focused parents-rights campaign to overperform among parents, but that didn’t happen either. Youngkin won White parents, but not by a margin larger than Republicans typically do.

538 wound up concluding that

disappointment with Biden’s presidency is what ultimately drove support for Youngkin.

Most interestingly, opinions about Biden had more impact than opinions about Trump.

almost twice the share of people who had an unfavorable view of Trump backed Youngkin (17 percent) than the share who disapproved of Biden and backed McAuliffe (10 percent).

Beauchamp agrees:

The election returns from Virginia show a uniform swing against McAuliffe, not an especially strong backlash in areas where CRT was an especially prominent issue. In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, there was a similarly sized swing against Democrats despite CRT not being a major part of the campaign.

A broader look at election night on November 2 tells a different and more familiar story: McAuliffe lost because of a nationalized backlash against an unpopular incumbent president.

The red and blue theories of government. In general, Democrats and Republicans campaign differently because their voters are looking for different things from the government. Democrats believe that government can improve people’s lives. As Abraham Lincoln (in an era when the Republicans were the activist party) put it:

The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.

So, for example, I can take public transportation, but I can’t build it. I can sign up for broadband internet, if the big internet providers feel like offering it in my community. But if they don’t, I need government to push them. I can hope that new drugs have been tested before the pharmaceutical corporations put them on the market, but I can’t do it myself. I can’t manage the money supply for full employment, or test for lead in my drinking water, or prevent climate change, or do any of a thousand other things government does (or could do) for me.

Republicans, on the other hand, see government more as an obstacle and a source of interference. In their worldview, individuals should mostly fend for themselves, and to the extent they need to organize, the market will organize them. All the things government can usefully do are already being done (and then some), and happen more or less automatically.

So Republican campaigns aren’t about what government can do to improve your life. You don’t vote for a Republican hoping to stop a pandemic or get health insurance or pay for college. Instead, you vote Republican so that someone will use the bully pulpit of government to speak for you. Republican officials don’t do much to help their voters, but they stop other people from doing things their voters disapprove of, like getting abortions or changing their pronouns or kneeling during the national anthem. What Trump voters loved most about him was not any particular government action, but that he forcefully agreed with them and viciously insulted people they resent.

This is also why Republicans can invent issues out of nothing and Democrats can’t. Free community college isn’t an issue unless real people want to attend community college. But critical race theory can be an issue whether it actually exists or not, because it’s about other people, and who knows what devilry they might be up to?

As far back as 1988, Bush the First was making a issue out of the pledge of allegiance. He wasn’t promising to do anything about the pledge of allegiance, but somewhere out there people were refusing to say the pledge, and Mike Dukakis had defended them. After Bush won, the words pledge and allegiance didn’t appear in his 1989 inaugural address, because the pledge had nothing to do with his plans to govern. Nobody had expected that it would.

Thirty-three years later, Democrats still haven’t solved that problem. Terry McAuliffe was flummoxed by critical race theory just as Dukakis was by the pledge issue. Because how do you fight something that isn’t real?

Democrats need results. In short, pretty much every election hinges on whether the public focuses on symbolic issues or real-life issues. Death panels or the War on Christmas presages a Republican victory; the minimum wage or affordable health care a Democratic win.

Real issues tend not to be as click-baity as symbolic issues; wealth inequality is tedious compared to canceling Dr. Seuss. So voters looking for entertainment will trend Republican. (That’s the other thing Trump’s fans love about him: He’s never dull.) But why shouldn’t voters reduce politics to entertainment if it’s all hot air anyway? If neither Medicare for All nor JFK Jr.’s return is ever going to happen, why not choose the more engaging fantasy and follow Q rather than Bernie?

That’s why Democrats need results. People need to see that politics leads to something, and isn’t just an identity or an excuse for tribes to battle each other. Biden was popular those first few months because he seemed to be doing what he had talked about. He said he would beat the pandemic with vaccines, then he signed a bill to fund vaccine distribution, and sure enough: vaccines started rolling out. By June, the pandemic seemed to be over, the economy was coming back, and Biden had moved on to talk about fixing bridges and bringing broadband to rural America.

Politics works! So Biden (and Democrats) are popular.

Then the Delta variant hit, vaccine resistance became a thing, the economic recovery paused, and Biden’s further proposals bogged down in Congress. So politics doesn’t work; it’s just a bunch of people yelling at each other. Suddenly Biden’s popularity crashes and Democrats underperform in elections.

Pointing fingers. Several well-known commentators were quick to assign blame for Tuesday’s disappointing results, and their voices were amplified by the majority of the beltway press, particularly in The New York Times. Probably the voice that got the most attention was James Carville, who denounced “stupid wokeness”. NYT columnist Maureen Dowd quoted Carville, and went on to attack the Biden agenda.

Biden has pursued his two bills with Captain Ahab-like zeal; he pines to be F.D.R. and eclipse Barack Obama, who pushed him aside for Hillary.

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi hail the bills as transformational. But what are you transforming into? The election cratering showed that such overweening efforts are putting off many voters who are still struggling just to get by, as they move beyond the degradation wrought by Trump and Covid.

Outside the editorial page, The Times’ post-election analysis gave plenty of space to similar complaints.

More pointedly, [Virginia Rep. Abigail] Spanberger said Mr. Biden must not forget that, for many voters, his mandate was quite limited: to remove former President Donald J. Trump from their television screens and to make American life ordinary again.

“Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” she said, alluding to the sweeping agenda the president is seeking to enact with the thinnest of legislative majorities.

And the NYT’s editorial board echoed:

Tuesday’s results are a sign that significant parts of the electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party, including on priorities like Build Back Better, which have some strong provisions and some discretionary ones driving up the price tag. The concerns of more centrist Americans about a rush to spend taxpayer money, a rush to grow the government, should not be dismissed.

Again in the NYT, Mark Penn and Andrew Stein made the point even more forcefully:

Swing voters in two blue-leaning states just sent a resounding wake-up call to the Biden administration: If Democrats remain on their current course and keep coddling and catering to progressives, they could lose as many as 50 seats and control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. There is a way forward now for President Biden and the Democratic Party: Friday’s passage of the bipartisan physical infrastructure bill is a first step, but only a broader course correction to the center will give Democrats a fighting chance in 2022 and to hold on to the presidency in 2024.

This kind of beltway common sense apparently needs no supporting evidence. Only Penn and Stein quote poll results, and they rely exclusively on Penn’s own poll, which is obviously skewed. (Example: Only 62% of the respondents say they have “gotten the vaccine”. But according to the CDC, 70% of Americans over 18 are fully vaccinated, and 80% have gotten at least one dose. Penn and Stein call attention to the 58% who oppose the “$1.5 to $2 trillion dollar social spending bill” if it would be “financed by increasing the deficit and tax increases”, which is phrased to imply that the respondents’ own taxes would go up. But 66% of even Penn’s skewed sample supports a 15% corporate minimum tax and 59% favor a wealth tax on billionaires. Throughout the survey, Penn’s questions frame issues as Republicans frame them. “Do you think the schools should promote the idea that people are victims and oppressors based on their race or should they teach children to ignore race in all decisions to judge people by their character?” But who exactly is teaching students not to judge people by their character? Unsurprisingly, 63% oppose such teaching.)

Let me repeat a point I made above: When pollsters (other than Mark Penn) tell Americans what’s in the two bills, they like it — and that was when the reconciliation bill was $3.5 trillion. When they’re told rich people’s taxes will go up to pay for it, they like it even more.

The problem isn’t that the Biden agenda is too big or too expensive or too left-wing. The problem is that Democrats have been talking about it for a long time and it’s not done. (Or at least it wasn’t done when voters cast their ballots on Tuesday. Jennifer Rubin wonders if we might have seen a different result after all the good news that came out Friday.) As long as it’s just a set of proposals in Congress that change every few days, the American people aren’t going to take it seriously. That’s not action, that’s a bunch of people arguing about stuff that may never happen — precisely what Americans hate most about politics.

So why isn’t it done? The answer to this question is really simple, and it’s the complete opposite of what the beltway-press echo chamber is saying: The bills weren’t done in time to help Terry McAuliffe because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema slow-rolled them.

I am not saying that there is anything illegitimate about either moderate or progressive Democrats pushing their views and trying to get the best deal they can. Personally, I think the current Manchinized $1.7 trillion reconciliation bill is considerably less good than the original $3.5 trillion proposal. (The Washington Post’s editorial board agrees with me, for reasons that go beyond the spending total.) But that’s not my point. Manchin and Sinema are senators, and the bill can’t pass without them. There’s no reason why they (or anyone else) should have to vote for a bill they don’t believe in.

But let’s assume that some kind of BBB bill is eventually acceptable to both factions of the party — maybe the current $1.7 trillion version, or something with even more concessions to the two rightmost Democrats.

Why couldn’t that same bill have passed in July?

The answer to that question has nothing to do with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the progressive caucus, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Joe Biden. Some version of the reconciliation bill didn’t pass months ago because Manchin and Sinema have stalled and are still stalling. When all the other Democrats were ready to get on with serious negotiating, Manchinema were hard to pin down. They expressed vague qualms without making counter-proposals. That’s what has taken so long.

So if Terry McAuliffe wants to blame somebody, that’s where I’d look.

What’s the real lesson of Tuesday’s elections? Get stuff done, especially popular stuff that people can see happening. Certain phrases, like “defund the police” and “critical race theory” are unpopular, so Democrats shouldn’t run on them — but no major candidate was doing that before Tuesday.

When you do get stuff done, make sure people know about it.

If you can’t get stuff done, make sure the public understands that Republicans are the obstacle, not other Democrats. As much as possible, Democrats should do their within-the-party negotiating behind closed doors. The House should pass some nice, simple, one-popular-issue bills, like resolving the Dreamers’ immigration status or protecting voting rights or eliminating obviously corrupt billionaire tax breaks. And then Chuck Schumer should make as big a show as he can out of Republicans blocking those bills in the Senate. (The 2022 attack ad writes itself: “Billionaire hedge fund managers can thank Ron Johnson for saving their giant tax break. Given how much dark money is pouring into Wisconsin to support Johnson’s re-election effort, maybe they already have.”)

A final note about “wokeness”. Black Americans started telling each other to “stay woke” long before I noticed the phrase. A 1938 Leadbelly song says “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” The term showed up in a 1962 NYT article on Black slang. More recently, a 2008 Erykah Badu song and then a Childish Gambino song popularized it. Zaron Burnett III defines its original meaning as “an earnest expression that Black people need to stay conscious of the agendas operating against us”.

Becoming (as opposed to staying) woke was a consciousness-raising experience similar to what feminists used to express with the word “click“. A feminist click-moment was when some switch flipped in your head, and you suddenly saw familiar situations in a new way. For a while, White allies in the anti-racist movement used woke that way.

More recently, though, conservatives have made pejorative term out of woke. In particular, it has become a racist dog whistle: Some person or movement or proposal is “too woke” if it’s too Black. Burnett says:

Woke is now a funhouse mirror version of itself. It no longer refers to being aware of the agendas that operate against Black people, nor does it mean to stay conscious and present, or even skeptical. It’s been mockingly weaponized so that it can be an expression of winking anti-Blackness by someone like [Senator Josh] Hawley. 

… “Wokeness” in this context is also an update of the tired, more obvious dog whistles like “thug,” “inner-city youth” and “urban contemporary.” They’re all just polite ways to say (or whisper) Black. And so, for the modern tech-savvy racist, to be against woke culture is a casual, more acceptable form of anti-Blackness (i.e., no white hood necessary). 

One of the things I thought we had learned from George Lakoff’s framing articles in the early 2000s was not to use opponents’ frames. Using the vocabulary of the Right strengthens the Right, and using the vocabulary of racists strengthens racism.

So Democrats and liberals (especially White Democrats and liberals) should never, ever use the pejorative form of woke. (They should be careful with the positive sense too, because it seems to have timed out.) Whatever you’re trying to say, find some other way to say it. Because when you talk about “stupid wokeness”, you’re telling the White supremacists that you’re on their side.

James Carville should know that. Shame on him.

Freedom Isn’t What It Used To Be

From the ancients to the Founders, a “free” citizen was one who had a voice in making the laws, not one the laws left alone.

Today, the words freedom and liberty are trademarks of the Right. In Congress, the House Freedom Caucus includes only the most right-wing members. Liberty University is where religious right-wingers send their children. FreedomWorks is an arm of the Koch octopus.

The same groups espouse a faith in the Founders that is virtually religious, and sometimes literally so. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington … if not for monotheism these men would have ascended to godhood by now. A well-known painting by conservative artist Jon McNaughton (reproduced below) shows Jesus standing between Jefferson and Washington with the Constitution in his hands. Madison stands behind the Constitution, while a representative politician, professor, journalist, and Supreme Court justice tremble at the left hand of God in the company of Satan.

The same conservative movement has become very skeptical of democracy and elections. You’ll frequently hear conservatives explain that the Founders made us “a republic, not a democracy”. Elections are only valid if they win, and if not, perhaps it’s time for second amendment remedies to right the ship, or even another civil war. People who rioted in an attempt to usurp the 2020 election are “patriots“, while the president elected with a seven-million vote majority is a “tyrant“.

In any era, it’s tempting to think that words have always meant what they mean now. So quotes from the Founders about freedom and liberty are often co-opted into these arguments.

But is that really what the Founders meant when they they used those words? Did they mean tax cuts, deregulation, and the other standard conservative positions? Would they have been appalled by vaccine mandates and similar expressions of government power, if such power were being exercised by a government of the People, in accordance with the majority will?

The recent book Freedom: an unruly history by Annelien de Dijn offers an alternative view.

In general, I love these history-of-an-idea books, especially if they’re surprising in some way, as this one is. De Dijn tells the story of how freedom started out meaning one thing and then changed to mean something else, and how this change got erased from popular memory.

The two kinds of freedom have been called different things at different times, but I think of them as “public freedom” and “private freedom”. Both kinds of freedom are about self-determination, but at different scales. Private freedom is the right to live your life with minimal interference from outside powers like the government — how today’s conservatives use the word. Public freedom is your right to have a voice in making the laws that govern you.

You could imagine having either kind of freedom without the other: You might live under a dictator who chooses to leave you alone, or under a democracy whose laws constantly get in the way of what you want to do.

De Dijn makes a good case that in ancient times, freedom meant public freedom. Herodotus, for example, contrasted the “free” Greeks against the “enslaved” Persians — not because the Persian laws were significantly more invasive, but because Greek city-states made their own laws rather than receiving them from an emperor. A Greek citizen (especially, but not uniquely, an Athenian) could criticize a law in the assembly and try to convince his neighbors to change it, while a Persian subject dared not. Similarly, Cicero opposed Caesar not because Caesar’s government did terrible things — on the whole, Caesar was a fairly good lawmaker, certainly no worse than the republican consuls who preceded him — but because Caesar issued decrees under his own authority, without consulting the Senate or the popular assembly.

It’s not that classical thinkers didn’t value living their lives without interference, but they regarded public freedom as a long-term precondition for private freedom: If people like you have no voice in making the laws, sooner or later the laws will oppress you.

But when the Roman emperors turned Christian, Christian leaders like St. Augustine abandoned the classical notion of liberty, and taught instead that imperial authority was sanctioned by God. This view persisted through the later Middle Ages, to the point that Dante placed Caesar’s assassins (Brutus and Cassius) next to Judas in the lowest pit of Hell. It survived into the Founding Era as the divine right of kings, which Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence rejected.

When the Renaissance humanists rediscovered classical authors, though, they also revived the classical notion of freedom, i.e., public freedom. This developed into the Enlightenment notion of the social contract, which was the basis not just of the American Revolution, but of a series of revolutions throughout Europe and the former European colonies in the New World. Again, the problem with George III’s government of the American colonies wasn’t that everyday life was oppressive, it was that he denied Americans a voice in making their own laws. The issue wasn’t high taxes, but “taxation without representation”.

The currently popular notion of freedom as purely private freedom, being left alone, is comparatively recent. It developed in the backlash after the French Revolution, and was promoted by the same aristocrats who had opposed democracy all along. This view has also consistently opposed any expansion of democracy, on the grounds that democracy is merely a means to an end (good government) and not a human right. Why, for example, do women need to vote if their husbands treat them well? Haven’t men of property been making better laws for the landless workers than such foolish and poorly educated men would make for themselves?

Along the way, de Dijn answers a question I have occasionally raised in this blog: What is the origin of the currently popular conservative distinction between a republic and a democracy, which the Right uses to justify anti-democratic fossils like the Electoral College, the Senate, and the filibuster?

A Heritage Foundation report titled “America is a Republic, not a Democracy” is typical of the genre:

[C]alls to abolish or circumvent the Electoral College in the selection of our chief executive represent the most visible sign of this democratic antipathy to our republican institutions.

Another symptom Heritage finds worrisome is “the increased dissatisfaction with the efficiency and responsiveness of our deliberative political institutions”, i.e., calls to end the filibuster. Ranked-choice voting is on a list of notions that are suspect because they represent “more effective and immediate ways to express the will of the majority”. (Notice, however, how this conservative critique of majority rule goes away when the local majority wants to ban abortion or outlaw critical race theory.)

Conservatives will tell you the republic/democracy distinction comes from the Founders, particularly James Madison in Federalist 10. If you read that essay, though, you’ll find a purely formal distinction between the two, not the anti-popular-sovereignty sentiment right-wingers now project onto it. Madison defines a democracy as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person” and a republic as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. Nothing in his essay argues that a republic’s popular majority is not entitled to elect a majority of representatives, or that this legislative majority should be thwarted in passing popular laws. Madison sees representative government as a temporary buffer against volatile public moods, not a a way to permanently obstruct the will of the People, as the filibuster currently does on any number of issues.

So where does the a-republic-not-a-democracy idea really come from? From the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, not the Founding Era a century before. De Dijn traces it to a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner, who was highly influential in his day, but is now largely forgotten.

[Sumner] believed that liberty could survive only if popular power was checked by strong countermajoritarian institutions. Indeed, he explicitly rejected democratic government, arguing in favor of “republics” instead. By making this distinction, Sumner gave an entirely new meaning to the word “republican.” During the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, “republic” had been more or less synonymous with popular government.

One final warning: By the time you check Freedom: an unruly history off your reading list, you will have a longer list. Names that were little more than placeholders in your history textbooks will suddenly seem like major holes in your education. (How did I make it this far into life without reading either Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France or Richard Price’s sermon “A Discourse on the Love our Our Country” that Burke was arguing against?)

What Conservatives Tell Themselves About “Critical Race Theory”

The research I do for this blog occasionally garners me some unexpected spam email. Last week, the Heritage Foundation decided I might be the target audience for its free e-pamphlet (they call it an e-book, but at 20 pages, that’s an exaggeration) “Critical Race Theory: Knowing it when you see it and fighting it when you can”. (You can request your own free copy here.)

In some sense, they weren’t wrong: I did request the pamphlet and read it, heedless of whatever future spam that might lead to. I was curious, not because I’m afraid of CRT corrupting children at my local schools, but because I have been totally puzzled by the conservative usage of the term. Whenever I hear that somebody is supposedly “teaching CRT in the public schools”, those words turn out not to mean what they would ordinarily mean.

For example, if I told you someone is teaching the Pythagorean Theorem in public schools, I would mean that there is a class (Geometry) whose textbook has a “Pythagorean Theorem” chapter, which the teacher will at some point cover. But nobody’s high school textbook has a “Critical Race Theory” chapter. If you have attended a class that was accused of teaching critical race theory, almost certainly you did not hear the phrase “critical race theory”.

Ditto for teacher training classes. Teachers might be trained on managing racial diversity in their classrooms, or creating an environment more conducive to the success of students of color. But at no point would the instructor say, “Now we’re going to learn critical race theory.” You might hear the phrase “critical race theory” if you study law, because it was coined in the 1970s to describe the idea that “formally colorblind laws can still have racially discriminatory outcomes.” But that’s not going to happen in anything related to K-12 teaching.

In short, CRT in the public schools (or the workplace or the military) is almost invariably a label that some disapproving person applies from the outside. A teacher or teacher-trainer says something, and then somebody else says “That’s critical race theory.”

Labels. So let’s talk about applying negative labels from the outside, which people of all political persuasions do, and which isn’t necessarily bad. For example, if someone is calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat to seize the means of production, I might be doing a public service if I correctly identify that person as a “communist”, whether he uses that word himself or not.

Similarly, John Gruden doesn’t call himself a “racist”, and in fact denies that he is one. But when it came out that he had written in an email that a black representative of the NFL players had “lips the size of Michelin tires”, other people characterized his statement as racist.

I don’t see anything wrong with outside-labeling in general, because people can’t be trusted choose their own labels without external criticism. If I call myself “pro-choice” and somebody else calls himself “pro-life”, it’s just part of normal political debate if we label each other “pro-abortion” and “anti-women’s-rights”.

That said, there are responsible and irresponsible ways to negatively label someone from the outside. The responsible way has several features:

  • The label is defined rather than hurled like an insult. So Michael Flynn is called a “confessed felon” because he pleaded guilty to a felony. But AOC is called a “bitch” because … well, just because.
  • The definition actually fits the labeled person. Too often, a negative label gets attached to somebody based on what other people say about them rather than anything they’ve said or done themselves. Sometimes an authentic quote that was harmless in its original context gets run through a game of telephone until it’s unrecognizably outrageous.
  • The definition also applies to the people typically associated with the label, and captures the essence of what is blameworthy about such people. That was the problem with Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism: To the extent Goldberg defined “fascist” at all, it was a synonym for a particular sense of “totalitarian” that he confessed could also be described as “holistic”: Liberals are “fascist” because they “see no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say”. So if you want to ban sugary sodas, regulate vaping, and boycott speakers who traffic in racial slurs, Goldberg lumps you in with other “holistic” figures like Hitler and Mussolini.
  • The definition justifies the emotional baggage the label is being used to carry. In some conversations, it might be reasonable to use “communist” to mean nothing more than someone who wants to redistribute wealth. But if that’s the definition you verify, you’re not entitled to also invoke the emotional resonance of being America’s enemy in the Cold War.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a label is being applied responsibly or irresponsibly. For example, if someone calls Donald Trump a “fascist”, they could be hurling an insult at him the way they might hurl eggs at a detested speaker. Or they could have a reasonable definition of fascism that fits Trump like a glove, as well as capturing key traits that made Hitler and Mussolini what they were.

The CRT label. OK, now let’s talk specifically about critical race theory. Until recently, I’ve been assuming the CRT label was being applied irresponsibly for the first reason: The people throwing the term around were sure it was bad, but hardly any of them could say what it meant or why it was bad. Now though, at long last, the Heritage Foundation, a think tank full of the highest-level conservative intellectuals, was going to fix all that by spelling out how to recognize CRT.

Sadly, the pamphlet does not actually define CRT, but I give it credit for providing the next best thing: a list of characteristics. And here they are:

  • Systemic racism. “Critical race theory’s key assertion is that racism is not the result of individual, conscious racist actions or thoughts. Racism is ‘systemic’ and ‘structural.’ It is embedded in America’s legal system, institutions, and free-enterprise system, and imposes ‘whiteness’ as the societal norm.”
  • Race drives beliefs and behaviors. I didn’t make much sense out of that phrase until I read the longer explanation: “American culture is a conspiracy to perpetuate white supremacy by imposing white concepts on people of other races.”
  • White privilege. Critical race theorists “say that white people are born with unearned privilege that other Americans are denied. … Any curricula or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program that compels students or employees to accept their white privilege and/or work to abandon it are part of CRT.”
  • Meritocracy is a myth, because the system won’t let non-whites succeed. “Any curriculum or training program that says color blindness is a myth and advocates for eliminating standard measurements of success, including standardized testing for university admissions for reasons of racial equity, are part of CRT.”
  • Equity replaces equality. “‘Equality’ means equal treatment of all Americans under the law. CRT’s ‘equity’ demands race-based discrimination. Because systemic racism has produced disparities between the races and because the system will only deepen these disparities by rewarding the ‘wrong’ criteria, government must treat individual Americans unequally according to skin color to forcibly produce equal outcomes.”

That’s it — the whole list. Notice what’s missing: the long litany of teachings that are banned in the numerous anti-CRT state laws that have passed red-state legislatures in the last few months. Here’s Tennessee’s:

a. One (1) race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
b. An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
c. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;
d. An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;
e. An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
f. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex;
g. A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
h. This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;
i. Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government;
j. Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;
k. Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex;
l. The rule of law does not exist, but instead is series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
m. All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
n. Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

You can find exaggerated versions of Heritage’s characteristics in this list (b, for example, resembles Heritage’s “white privilege”) but the really outrageous parts don’t show up in Heritage’s pamphlet. Heritage doesn’t claim CRT teaches “One race is inherently superior to another race” or “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex” or “All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, much less that it promotes “violent overthrow of the United States government”.

By limiting its list of characteristics, Heritage is all but admitting that if you look for CRT in your community, you’re not going to find the teachings listed in anti-CRT laws (which mainly exist for propaganda purposes). You’re not even going to find people claiming that the “the United States is irredeemably racist”, because promoting anti-racism would be pointless if that were true.

What you might find, though, are people teaching about systemic racism, cultural imperialism, white privilege, and racially biased measures of merit, while calling for an America where the gaps between races go away in reality rather than just on paper.

Is there something wrong with that?

Before reading the Heritage pamphlet, I thought anti-CRT rhetoric failed my first test (no definition). Now that I’ve read it, I think it fails my last test (a definition that won’t carry the label’s emotional baggage).

Let’s take a look at the ideas that Heritage says CRT is really about.

Photography as paradigm. I grew up using beige-pink crayons that were labeled “Flesh”, which is pretty much the definition of “imposing whiteness as the societal norm”. My skin wasn’t exactly that color, but it was close enough to mark me as “normal” — unlike people of other races, whose flesh had some color totally different from “Flesh”.

Later I found out that my crayon was just the tip of an iceberg: Kodak’s color film (the industry standard) had been engineered to reproduce “flesh tones”, i.e. Caucasian flesh tones, with particular accuracy. Black people, on the other hand, often showed up on a color photo as white eyes and teeth in the middle of a dark blob. Black parents saw the problem immediately, but it wasn’t fixed until decades later, when furniture and chocolate makers complained that they couldn’t accurately represent their brown products in advertisements.

Aside from the dispiriting effect that dark-blob class photos must have had on black children, racially biased photography necessarily had a negative impact on entire generations of black professionals: models, photographers, TV journalists, athletes hoping to endorse products, and any other dark-skinned people who needed their images to reproduce in an attractive way. Even a movie director completely without racial bias might be reluctant to work with black actors, simply because of the technical problems involved. If you wanted a face whose subtle emotions would show up on the big screen, a white face was the better choice.

So even if bias wasn’t in individuals, it was in the system.

BTW, this is not ancient history: Facial recognition software still works better for light-skinned people than dark-skinned people.

The team that [MIT researcher Joy] Buolamwini assembled to work on the project was ethnically diverse, but the researchers found that, when it came time to present the [facial analysis] device in public, they had to rely on one of the lighter-skinned team members to demonstrate it. The system just didn’t seem to work reliably with darker-skinned users.

Curious, Buolamwini, who is black, began submitting photos of herself to commercial facial-recognition programs. In several cases, the programs failed to recognize the photos as featuring a human face at all. When they did, they consistently misclassified Buolamwini’s gender.

To me, this is the paradigm of systemic racism. Nobody at Kodak or Google was out to get black people; they just had other priorities. If photographic systems didn’t work well for dark skin, that was a shame. But, well, so what?

Now multiply that through the whole of society. System after system was designed for (and usually tested by) white people (and men and English speakers and cisgender people and neurotypical people and … and … and …). If it also happened to work for non-whites, great. But if not, who really cared?

So, in spite of the Heritage pamphlet’s claim that CRT is “a philosophy founded by law professors who used Marxist analysis”, systemic racism isn’t some invention of a Marxist propagandist; it’s a simple reality. The Heritage Foundation wants us to hide that reality from school children.

Privilege. If you’re white, like I am, it’s easy to overlook examples of your own privilege, because privilege is most obviously present when something doesn’t happen: I drive somewhere, and cops don’t pull me over for no reason. (Republican Senator Tim Scott, by comparison, says he has been pulled over 18 times for “driving while black”. I have to wonder how many of the encounters that result in police killing black men or women would not occur at all but for race.) I walk down a city street, and nobody stops and frisks me, or asks for my ID. Security people don’t shadow me in department stores. In one situation after another, I just go about my business undisturbed, never noticing that I’m enjoying a racial privilege.

Similarly, if I apply for a job, I don’t have to notice that I’m more likely to get an interview because I’m white. Or if I seek a mortgage, I just see the interest rate I’m offered, not the higher one a comparable black borrower might be asked to pay.

Some longer-term aspects of privilege are related to systemic racism: My parents were part of the expansion of the middle class that happened during the GI generation, largely because of government action. My grandfather’s farm was saved by a New Deal farm loan program (and multiplied in value many times before I sold it). After World War II, the government subsidized home ownership and higher education. It smoothed the path of unionization, which raised the wages of factory jobs like my father’s.

Some of those wealth-creating New Deal and post-war programs also worked for non-white families, but many did not. As a result, our whiteness was a factor in creating the family prosperity that allowed me to get an advanced degree without running up student debt.

In short, white privilege isn’t some sinister notion promoted to increase white guilt. (And I actually don’t feel personal guilt about this, but instead recognize a responsibility to seek a more just system.) It’s a description of how life works in America.

This aspect of American life is also something Heritage wants us to hide from children.

“Equality” without equity implies inferiority. The Heritage pamphlet makes superficial equality under the law the be-all-and-end-all of racial justice. In its response to CRT’s claim of systemic racism, the pamphlet says:

Racial discrimination is illegal in America. In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the government rejected racial discrimination and made it illegal in all public aspects of our lives. Likewise, the civil rights movement affirmed that prejudice has no place in American life. There are racists in America, as in all other countries, but the vast majority of Americans we work and worship with, live and learn alongside, embrace the equal rights and dignity of all.

So that settles that, I guess. The laws on paper say we don’t discriminate, so never mind that we continue to see large racial gaps in income, wealth, incarceration, infant mortality, life expectancy, and just about every other aspect of life. Asking for these gaps to close is demanding “equity” — equal outcomes — which (in Heritage’s world) marks you as a critical race theorist.

But think about what the persistence of these gaps implies, if (as Heritage claims) no widespread discrimination or systemic racism actually exists. If black people can’t keep up in America, and yet there is nothing wrong with America, then there must be something wrong with black people.

There’s no getting around that logic. The Heritage Foundation may not want to put it in print or say it in polite company, but I see no way to embrace their pamphlet as truth without also believing that black people are inherently inferior to white people.

What’s more, I think school children (of all races) are smart enough to draw that conclusion for themselves: If the game is fair, and yet the same people always win, then the winners must just be better than the losers.

In short, if we label all alternative explanations of racial gaps as “critical race theory” and ban schools from teaching them, then by process of elimination we’re really teaching the only remaining explanation: white superiority. The Heritage pamphlet may claim it wants to “ensure school curriculums uphold the intrinsic equality of all humans”. But in fact they’re guaranteeing that children will learn the exact opposite.

Heritage’s white-comforting fantasy world. If I restate the Heritage pamphlet’s underlying message in my own words, it amounts to this: “We had a nice fantasy going until these damned teachers started telling kids how the world really works.”

In the Heritage fantasy world, America outlawed racism back in the 1960s, so any advantages or disadvantages people have accumulated since then are purely due to their individual talent and hard work, or lack of talent and laziness.

If two people are given the same opportunity, but only one takes advantage of it, they will naturally have different outcomes. The only way government can try to produce equal outcomes for them is by taking away the result from the first person, or unfairly giving the unearned benefit to the second. Attempts by government officials to take the fruits of your achievements and give them to those who did not earn it will hurt those whose rewards are diminished as well the intended beneficiaries. This betrays the idea that the American dream belongs to all of us, and everyone should have the same opportunity to pursue success.

And let’s not talk at all about inherited wealth that originated in the Jim Crow era, which Heritage wants to safeguard against “death taxes”.

America isn’t dominated by “white culture”, but by “universal values” (which white people happened to discover first because of their innate superiority, but don’t say that part out loud).

American culture is based on a timeless understanding of rights rooted in the inherent value and nature of the human race. People of all colors and national backgrounds come here and flourish because our culture embraces common humanity and dignity.

And while it may be true that white people are doing better in America (in just about every measurable way) than black people, that can only mean that white people are enjoying “the fruits of your achievement”, which should not be taken away and given to “those who did not earn it”.

The real way to deal with racial disparities is just not to measure them, because that’s (as the Tennessee law puts it) “promoting division between, or resentment of, a race”. The ideal society is a colorblind society, where nobody notices that the people on top are mostly white and the people on the bottom are mostly black. As soon as you start noticing stuff like that, you’re “dividing America“, which was perfectly united in its color blindness until social justice warriors started quoting statistics.

Or at least it would be nice to think so, if you’re white.

2022. Republican candidates are hoping to use their anti-CRT campaign to regain ground that Trump lost in the white suburbs by being too explicitly racist. (The test case is next month’s Virginia governor’s race.) CRT is supposed to threaten precisely those white parents who were disturbed by Charlottesville. It’s supposed to remind them that Democrats are too pro-black, without pushing an explicitly anti-black message that might ring alarm bells.

That tactic might work, because critical race theory really does constitute a threat to prosperous white people. It threatens to torpedo the very comfortable fantasy that the game they’re winning is perfectly fair.

Reading While Texan

Your worst fears about Texas schools aren’t true. But your next-to-worst fears probably are.

Here’s how deep the rabbit hole goes: NBC News received an audio recording of an administrator in the Dallas suburb of Southlake [1], telling teachers that a new law (HB 3979) requires them to offer an “opposing” perspective if they have books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries. When a teacher asked “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” the administrator didn’t offer a suggestion, but replied “It’s come up. Believe me.” [2]

What’s most disturbing in this recording, to me at least, is that the administrator doesn’t sound like Holocaust denier who has been itching for years to get her extreme opinions into the curriculum. In general, she sounds like she’s on the teachers’ side. “If you think a book is OK, then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we’ll fight it together.” She doesn’t seem ideological, she just wants to keep the school district out of trouble — like administrators in every other Texas school district.

On the calm-down side of this story, the NBC article also quotes experts who say that she overreacted to the law. And the school district posted this statement on its Facebook page:

During the conversations with teachers during last week’s meeting, the comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history. Additionally, we recognize there are not two sides of the Holocaust. As we continue to work through implementation of HB 3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts.

So — big relief! — Southlake’s school libraries can still display The Diary of Anne Frank without “balancing” it against Mein Kampf.

What is controversial? Even if you accept that the Southlake administrator’s interpretation of the law was over the top, it’s worth taking a moment to read the portion of HB 3979 she was “overreacting” to:

(1) a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs;

(2) a teacher who chooses to discuss a topic described by Subdivision (1) shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective;

Apparently, cooler heads have determined that the Holocaust is not “widely debated and currently controversial” in Southlake (and thank God for that). But what is? The law is only eight pages long, and doesn’t give school districts any guidance on exactly how widely debated an issue must be before “diverse and contending perspectives” have to be “explored without deference”.

Worse, “debated” and “controversial” are fundamentally subjective notions. An issue becomes “debated” not because it is objectively dubious, but because somebody chooses to debate it. It becomes “controversial” whenever someone starts a controversy, no matter how baseless that controversy might be. [3] As much as I want to accept the school district’s assurance that “this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts”, I can’t find such a clear statement in the text of the law.

And even if you grant an exemption for “historical facts”, the very distinction between facts and opinions is itself controversial these days. The essence of Trumpism is to deny that objective facts can be found by examining evidence. (American intelligence agencies say one thing, but Vladimir Putin says something else. Who can determine where the truth lies?) If Trump repeats something often enough, it is true — or at the very least it becomes an “alternative fact“. Any evidence that refutes his opinion is “fake news”.

So it appears to me that if, say, a large number of people in some Texas community believe the Earth is flat — or if the Oracle of Mar-a-Lago starts making that claim — a classroom’s globe might become debated and controversial; it might need to be balanced against some other representation of the Earth. HB 3979 would then require teachers not to “defer” to the view that the Earth is spherical.

Or suppose one of your students has a parent like this guy, who wore a “Six million wasn’t enough” shirt to a Proud Boys rally in December. (They’re available online.) Would that make the Holocaust “controversial” enough to invoke the provisions of 3979? Or maybe you regard the fact of the Holocaust as beyond controversy, but describing it as “a terrible event” is a value judgment that this guy disputes. Doesn’t that make it “debated”? How many people have to agree with him before it’s “widely” debated?

Maybe that’s what “It’s come up. Believe me.” means.

The big chill. But OK, let’s say you live in a sane town, where the Holocaust and the globe aren’t widely debated. Let’s say your local biology teacher can describe how evolution works without giving a “contending perspective” from Genesis, or that teachers at all levels can refer to Joe Biden as the President without any kind of disclaimer.

Or, at least, that’s how the law would be interpreted by a judge if a case went to court.

If you find that comforting, you’re ignoring the fact that most school administrators don’t want to go to court. Teachers, by and large, don’t want to be at the center of a public controversy. They want to spend their prep time on next week’s lesson plan, not on explaining to a review committee what they said or what books they made available. They don’t want to lose hours in meetings with the school district’s or their union’s lawyer, getting advice on how to present their case to a judge.

In practice, that means that bills like HB 3979 have chilling effects that go far beyond their legally enforceable boundaries.

So hurray! You can teach about the Holocaust, and maybe even say that it was wrong. What about slavery? Jim Crow? Government programs that helped White families accumulate wealth, but weren’t available to Black families? How far do you want to stick your neck out? [4]

New Kid. In a related Texas case, the Houston suburb Katy cancelled a virtual appearance by author Jerry Craft, and pulled his graphic novel New Kid from the shelves after a parent circulated a petition.

“New Kid,” a Newbery Medal-winning graphic novel, is about a seventh grader at a prestigious private school where he is one of the few students of color. …

“It is inappropriate instructional material,” [the petition-starting parent] said. “The books don’t come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do.” [She] claimed the book promoted critical race theory as well as Marxism. The petition gained a few hundred signatures in a district of more than 80,000 students.

This article, also by NBC News, seems to imply that a “few hundred signatures” is not many. To me, it seems like an incredibly large number of people in one town to take a position on a children’s book. I have to wonder how many of the signers had ever heard of New Kid, and how many just believed that this petition would stop somebody from teaching “critical race theory”, whatever they imagine it to be.

Although HB 3979 is often referred to as a bill against teaching “critical race theory”, the law does not mention that term, and the particular things it does outlaw are a bizarre caricature of anything actually being taught, like

an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex

The petition has been taken down, so I don’t know the text of it. But I doubt it directly invokes the new law. It seems more like a standard attempt to get elected officials to take action.

My reading. I didn’t want to assume baselessly that the woman charging “critical race theory” and “Marxism” is crazy, so I read the book Saturday. (It’s 250 or so pages, but it’s a graphic novel; reading it takes maybe an hour, depending on how closely you examine the images.) Having now done my own research, here’s my newly informed opinion: She’s crazy.

New Kid is a pretty thoroughly uplifting book. What I got out of it is: If you ever reach a point where you can see past your own struggles, you’ll find that just about everybody is struggling in their own way.

The central character is a Black kid named Jordan Banks, so he struggles in a way that a Black kid might, including from the clueless assumptions of White kids and teachers. As the book develops, though, he gets enough slack to raise his glance and see the struggles of the other kids — including one White kid who is pathologically ashamed of the burn mark on her arm, and another who is afraid Jordan won’t like him because his family is too rich.

I can’t fathom what CRT or Marxism has to do with any of this, other than being buzzwords that MAGA-hatters throw at whatever they don’t like.

Craft himself describes what he’s trying to do this way:

As an African American boy who grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, I almost never saw kids like me in any of the books assigned to me in school. Books aimed at kids like me seemed to deal only with history or misery. [5] That’s why it has always been important to me to show kids of color as just regular kids, and to create iconic African American characters like Jordan Banks from New Kid. I hope that readers of all ages will see the kindness and understanding that my characters exhibit and emulate those feelings in their day-to-day lives.

If you look at this book and see nothing but an attempt to make “white children feel like oppressors”, I don’t know what to tell you.

Happy endings? Like Southlake and the Holocaust, the story of Jerry Craft and Katy has an ending that is sort-of-happy, if you don’t look at it too closely: A review committee ruled that the book is appropriate and rescheduled Craft’s appearance. [6]

But again, consider the chilling effect. Suppose you’re a teacher putting together a reading list, or assembling a mini-library for your classroom. Now you know: Even a Newberry Medal book is suspect. Even if nothing on your list would offend any sane person, your name still might wind up in a petition, and you might need to justify your choices to a review committee.

How many worthwhile books (that we’ll never hear about) have teachers struck off their suggested-reading lists, not because they contain anything remotely objectionable, but because the teachers don’t want the hassle of dealing with crazy people? How many children, who might have discovered that reading could actually be interesting, will instead receive bland assignments that have nothing to do with their experiences?

[1] If you think you’ve heard of Southlake before, probably it’s from a previous racial controversy, which became the subject of a six-part NBC podcast.

[2] Let me offer an answer to the Southlake teacher’s question: You can balance a Holocaust book like The Diary of Anne Frank with The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, a first-person novel told from the point of view of an SS officer.

This is not a serious pedagogical suggestion, because Littell’s book is way too long and difficult for most students, not to mention upsetting. (I would worry about a student who managed to finish it.) But if you need to cover your ass, it does present an opposing (or at least contrasting) perspective.

An in-between perspective might be Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy of detective novels. Kerr’s detective Bernie Gunther isn’t a Nazi himself, but given the times, he frequently finds himself unable to say “no” to cases of interest to people like Heydrich or Goebbels. Kerr should be readable by advanced students at the high-school level, and might give them sympathy for the unsavory choices ordinary people face when they live under a totalitarian regime.

Similarly, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 detective trilogy humanizes one of Stalin’s secret policemen.

[3] Part of what makes a position “debatable” in practice is the wealth and power of the people who debate it. Climate change, for example, is still “debatable” because fossil fuel corporations have the resources to keep their point of view in the public eye, in spite of the scientific consensus on the other side.

[4] The text of the law might be on your side, if you make it into a courtroom.

[T]he State Board of Education shall adopt essential knowledge and skills that develop each student’s civic knowledge, including an understanding of: … the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong

[5] One of the running gags in New Kid is the lack of diversity in the themes of “diversity literature”, which Jordan parodies as “a gritty, urban reminder of the grit of today’s urban grittiness”. One panel is labeled “African American escapist literature”, and features books titled “Escape From Gang Life”, “Escape From Slavery”, “Escape From Poverty”, and “Escape From Prison”.

[6] I give Craft credit for not saying “Fuck you” to the whole town.

What to Make of the Pandora Papers?

There are reasons why you should care.

Last week, a vast trove of documents called the Pandora Papers became available to the public, and stories based on these documents started appearing in newspapers around the world. The documents reveal much about the wealth that the global elite keep hidden.

If that story sounds familiar, it should. This is the third round of such revelations from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), following the Panama Papers in 2016 and the Paradise Papers in 2017. That’s why The Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Sternberg responded with “Everyone already knows this stuff.

In other words: Yeah, the world is corrupt and here’s more of it. But so what? The super-rich play by a different set of rules — always have, always will. What’s the point of looking into how it all works?

It’s hard to imagine a more corrosive take on this story. It’s one thing if a few masterminds are so clever that their crimes escape detection. But if no one cares when hidden crimes are exposed — or if a few scapegoats are punished, but the system rolls on unchanged — then the world is very sick indeed. As The Washington Post’s editorial board observed:

[T]he big picture — of a vast, no-questions-asked-zone, open to legitimate and illegitimate transactions alike — is concerning. Corruption and cronyism can undermine political stability and legitimacy as surely as violence can, albeit more insidiously. To the extent the world’s offshore havens are facilitating official malfeasance, they are contributing to the global decline of democracy.

So while I could spend my time exploring how the offshore systems works, or raising outrage about extreme cases, or reacting in some other way, I think the most valuable thing I can do is try to answer that basic so-what question: Why should you care about all this?

After looking at what a variety of other people are saying and talking to a few insightful friends, I think the answers boil down to these:

  • The importance of corruption as a central issue connecting all other issues.
  • The accomplishments of previous rounds of revelations.
  • The momentum of ever-larger exposures of secrets.
  • America’s role in building and maintaining the corrupt system has to end.

Corruption. It’s not an exaggeration to say that corruption is the most important issue of our time. Money buys power, and power gathers more money. No matter what issue you care about, progress is impeded (or maybe blocked completely) by wealthy special interests that can influence the course of events in ways that go well beyond you and your vote and your voice in the public square.

Brooke Harrington points out that the issue is not just money.

“[T]ax havens” aren’t really for avoiding taxes: They exist to help elites avoid the rule of law that they impose on the rest of us. The offshore financial industry is generating much of the economic and political inequality destabilizing the world.

It’s one thing when money works its influence openly. If some giant corporation runs ads telling us all how wonderful it is, if it puts out press releases telling us what public policies it wants, and if it endorses and supports candidates who promise to implement those policies, then the People can judge. Climate-denying Senator James Inhofe, for example, is widely known as “the Senator from Exxon-Mobil”. But if the voters of Oklahoma know that and elect him anyway, that’s democracy.

What’s really destructive, though, is secret money in all its forms: lobbyists who work behind the scenes, writing laws that legislators attach their names to; candidates supported by political action committees with benign names, whose donors are not known; “academic” research whose conclusions are dictated by invisible donors, and so on.

The ultimate form of secret money is wealth whose owners can’t be identified at all, and which can be transferred from one person to another without any traceable transaction. Such wealth allows dictators to siphon their nation’s wealth away, and to hang onto it even after they lose power. It allows bribes of any size to go to officials in any country.

The existence of secret wealth and a system for transferring it from one malefactor to another is more than just a tax on the legitimate economy, it corrodes the public trust that is necessary for collective action. Conspiracy theories of all sorts seem more plausible, given the extent of what we know we don’t know. The vague awareness of an untouchable global elite can motivate authoritarian populism, the desire for a man-on-horseback who can sweep it all away without being caught in the tangle of corrupt laws and contracts.

Past accomplishments. Sternberg’s so-what take on the Pandora Papers roots itself in the assumption that the Panama and Paradise Papers turned out to be “duds”.

There they go again. Another year, another breathless media uproar over “revelations” of the financial comings and goings of the world’s super-rich. Reporters spend many months combing through documents extracted—we’re never told how—from various law firms and other service providers presumably because the reporters think exposing this information will accomplish . . . well, we’re never sure what.

He notes that only one world leader — the prime minister of Iceland, if you call that a world leader — had to resign. But Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 10-year prison sentence should count for something, even if he was already out of office. And that’s not the only kind of impact. For example, by 2019, the Panama Papers had led to governments recovering $1.2 billion in taxes.

Brooke Harrington observes that impacts on the reputations of the rich and powerful are also important. Subjects of ICIJ revelations may stave off legal consequences, but the embarrassment stings.

And focusing on what the people exposed by the Panama and Paradise Papers got away with is not the full story: The whistleblowers also got away with it. The ICIJ succeeded in shielding their sources from exposure.

Five years on, we still do not know the identity of “John Doe,” who leaked the Panama Papers, nor of the person or people who leaked the Paradise Papers four years ago.

And that’s one reason why the troves of leaked documents are getting bigger: The Pandora Papers come from 14 different financial services companies, where the Panama Papers all came from one.

Brooke Harrington:

As I found in talking with wealth managers all over the world, a significant number understand that their work has contributed to dangerous levels of economic and political inequality; they want to do something, and many understand that one of the most effective uses of their insider position would be to pull back the veil of secrecy that makes so much of offshore corruption possible.

As whistleblowers are emboldened, potential clients of the offshore industry may be discouraged: The firm that promises you secrecy may not be able to fulfill that pledge.

Momentum. So the right metaphor for the various “papers” is hammer blows against a wall. The first blow didn’t bring it down, and neither did the second — though each left a mark. The third probably won’t bring it down either, though we can hope for a bigger mark, or maybe even a few chips flying.

But it’s not going to stop.

What the ICIJ has done during these five years is construct an infrastructure for attacking financial secrecy. And that makes these revelations fundamentally different from past Pulitzer-winning exposé from the point of view of one crusading newspaper like The New York Times or The Washington Post. ICIJ has constructed a searchable database that allows each local news outlet to research the story most relevant to its audience.

So while the national papers tell us about the King of Jordan‘s secretly purchased $106 million mansions in Malibu, Georgetown, and London, or the Czech prime minister‘s $22 million chateau in France, The Miami Herald writes about the local mansion secretly owned by empoverished Haiti’s richest man. (The Czech opposition parties gained enough seats in this weekend’s election that they may be able to unseat the prime minister, who has a nice chateau to retire to.)

In Florida, the Bigios have lived behind protective gates in the most exclusive of zones, Indian Creek Island. They’ve enjoyed protection from local police officers who around the clock staff the entrance gate to the private island community. Property records show their home is held in the name of two corporations: Agro Products and Services, registered in Florida, and Porpoise Investments Ltd., a shell company registered in the Isle of Man, a self-governing low-tax British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea.

In other words, there’s not just a mechanism for protecting people who reveal the secrets of the super-rich, there’s a path for getting that information to the people who will care most about it.

The ultimate point of these hammer blows is not to send some scapegoat to prison or embarrass another one into retiring from politics. The point is to change public opinion in ways that change the landscape of what is politically and legally possible. Changing public opinion always seems impossible until it happens. (Same-sex marriage is a good example.) But once it starts happening, it can move quickly.

Change starts at home. We’re used to thinking of offshore tax havens as tiny island nations like the Bermuda, or places with a long tradition of secrecy like Switzerland. But perhaps the most shocking thing I learned from the Pandora Papers articles I read was that South Dakota now rivals Zurich, the Cayman Islands, and other famous wealth-hiding havens. One Dominican family’s money came from exploiting poor workers in the sugar cane fields; it now sits in trusts in Sioux Falls, where it should be safe against worker lawsuits.

Other states competing to lure wealth include Alaska, Delaware, Nevada and New Hampshire.

Think about how you felt a few paragraphs ago, when you read about “the world’s offshore havens … facilitating official malfeasance [and] contributing to the global decline of democracy” or “help[ing] the elite avoid the rule of law”. Maybe you got angry at some imagined remote island paradise, where corporations are headquartered in post office boxes.

Nope. It’s the United States (and the UK). The people undermining the rule of law and contributing to the global decline in democracy? It’s us.

It’s got to stop.

This isn’t somebody else’s problem that we can feel superior about or shake our fists helplessly at. If public opinion is going to turn against secret money anywhere, and if popular resolve is going to force the system to change, it’s got to start here.

So sure, the overall story of the Fill-In-the-Blank Papers is hard to get a handle on. The topic is intentionally confusing, the examples are too diverse to sum up easily, and the time scale is longer than stories we usually think about. But don’t lose track of this, because it’s important, things are happening, and it’s your problem too.

Pandemics are beaten by communities, not individuals

We win by changing the statistics, not through an iron-clad personal defense.

Here’s what frustrates me most about the US struggle against Covid-19: the widespread attitude that rejects any partial solution, and instead demands a rock-solid personal guarantee. “If I do this and this and this, I’ll be OK.” And if that kind of assurance isn’t possible, then what’s the point?

Masks can’t offer that guarantee, unless you’re willing to walk around in a full hazmat suit. Distancing won’t do it unless you become a complete hermit. Vaccines allow breakthrough cases. Even the just-announced Merck treatment pill isn’t a complete cure: It claims to cut your risk of hospitalization in half, not eliminate it completely.

So what’s the point? No matter what I do, I’ll either catch the virus or I won’t. I’ll live or I’ll die.

The flip side of this binary attitude is a deep gullibility about snake-oil “cures”: I’m not worried about Covid, because I’ll just take hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin. Or maybe I’ll prevent it by gargling iodine or something. Some guy on YouTube claims that always works.

Or maybe I’ll deny the problem completely: There is no virus. The panics at ICUs in states with low vaccination rates are all staged by “crisis actors”. Really, it’s all about government forcing us to wear masks and get shots. If they can do that, the global dictatorship is at hand.

All of this makes me despair about my former profession. I used to be a mathematician. Apparently we’ve done a really bad job teaching people how to think statistically.

You see, fundamentally an epidemic is a numbers game.

Maybe you’ve seen TV episodes where a deadly disease gets loose until a heroic scientist intuits a miracle cure: Some chemical everybody has in the garage or under the sink turns out to be a perfect antidote to whatever-it-is. You swallow a teaspoon of baking soda or something, and you’ll be fine.

The reason TV writers go for a that kind of scenario is that they need to wrap things up by the end of the hour. But it’s hardly ever how things actually work.

Maybe you’ve noticed that there’s an outbreak of Ebola in Africa every few years. One spilled over into the US briefly during the Obama administration, but they happen every now and then. The latest one was in Guinea, and it was declared over in June.

There’s still no reliable cure for Ebola. [1] And there wasn’t a vaccine until 2019. But they beat back the outbreaks — including the 2014-2016 outbreak that made it to the US — anyway. Plagues of all sorts get controlled somehow, usually without a cure.

It’s a numbers game.

So let’s talk about numbers.

During a surge in new cases, you’ll hear a lot about exponential growth, where the number of new infections doubles every so-many days: I get sick. I infect two other people. Each of them infects two other people, and so on. Before long, the ICUs are full and bodies are stacking up in the morgues.

Fortunately, though, the same dynamics can also get you exponential decay, where the number of new cases gets cut in half every so-many days.

The difference between the two scenarios can be subtle. If every 10 infected people give the virus to 11 more, you’re on an exponential growth path. But if they only give it to 9, you’re in exponential decay. [2]

That’s how a community can beat a virus without a rock-solid method of prevention or cure. So sure, masks and distancing don’t guarantee you won’t pick up an infection. Vaccination doesn’t guarantee you’ll shake it off, or even that you won’t pass it on. But if those tactics just change the odds a little bit — get those 11 new infections down to 9 — the community will beat the pandemic rather than lose to it.

That’s how we win.

Now we run into the second problem: It isn’t just that people don’t understand how to think statistically, often they don’t want to. We don’t like to think of ourselves as drops in a statistical ocean, because we are individuals. [3] The evil of modern society was summed up more than half a century ago in “Secret Agent Man“:

They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.

Conservative rhetoric in particular is tuned for me-thinking rather than we-thinking. [4] But pandemics are fundamentally statistical — they’re waves that pass through an ocean — and we beat them by acting for the common good, even if we can’t get an individual guarantee.

It’s not that you aren’t an individual, but the individualism/collectivism thing is kind of like wave/particle duality in physics. You are an individual, while simultaneously being a drop in the ocean. Whether your individuality or your membership in the community is more important depends on what question is being asked.

Pandemics are ocean-level challenges: You can’t create one by yourself, and you can’t solve one either.

We also have a bias towards all-or-nothing thinking about risk. Instinctively, we don’t want to manage risk, we want to nuke it. [5] We want to tell ourselves “Bad things can’t happen because I’m doing this” rather than “I’ve shifted the odds in my favor.”

While that kind of thinking is natural, it’s also something to be overcome, because it either incapacitates us or pushes us into denial. Every time I get into my car I risk dying in a traffic accident. I could just refuse to go anywhere, or I could deny the risk via some kind of magical thinking about my exceptional driving ability or the power of my St. Christopher medal.

Instead, I do what I can to turn the odds in my favor: I wear a seat belt. I drive carefully, and avoid getting on the highway when I’m tired or influenced by drugs.

Probably you do something similar. We know how to manage risk. We just need to do it. And if enough of us do it well enough, exponential growth turns into exponential decay.

[1] The FDA approved its first Ebola treatment in 2020. In the trial, only 33% of the people who got the drug died, compared to 51% in the control group. That’s what success looks like.

[2] I know that 11/10 isn’t 2 and 9/10 isn’t 1/2. But the weird thing about exponentials is that all the curves you get from exponents over 1 look one way, and all the curves from exponents under 1 look another way. All that changes is the scale on the time axis. In other words, the value of “so-many” in “every so-many days” changes.

[3] Except for that one guy in Life of Brian.

[4] Perversely, though, it’s often the do-your-own-research crowd that is most influenced by group-think.

Today, being pro- or anti-vaccine has become essential to many people’s social identity during the pandemic. William Bernstein, a neurologist and author of The Delusions of Crowds, pointed me to the “moral foundations” theory, which attempts to understand what motivates the decision-making of people on the right and left ends of the political spectrum.

That theory holds that, within the American right, the concepts of loyalty and betrayal are more influential to their worldview than on the American left. Staying true to your group is a powerful pull for conservatives.

“For these folks, facts mean nothing; membership and identity, everything,” Bernstein said over email. “Groupishness, in-/out-group differentiation … is much stronger on the right.”

That’s why not-getting-vaccinated or not-wearing-a-mask can become such a point of principle that people will lose their jobs or even get violent rather than comply: It’s not just the inconvenience or the relatively minor risk; it’s betraying the group they feel loyal to.

[5] The scholarly name for this is “zero-risk bias“. If you ask people what they’d be willing to pay to eliminate some low-probability high-impact risk (like toxic waste contamination in their neighborhood or a radiation leak in a nearby nuclear power plant), you’ll get one number. But if you ask what they’d be willing to pay to cut that risk in half, you’ll get a number close to zero.

People don’t want risks to shrink. They want them to go away.

The Big Lie Refuses to Die

The Arizona audit’s re-affirmation of Biden’s victory ought to finish off Trump’s stolen-election hoax. But it hasn’t.

The Cyber-Ninjas “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Arizona finally reported its findings, only four months later than planned. Guess what? Biden won.

“The ballots that were provided to us to count in the coliseum very accurately correlate with the official canvass numbers,” Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan said during the presentation. He noted that the hand recount found President Joe Biden gaining 99 votes in Maricopa County and former President Donald Trump losing 261 votes — which he called “very small discrepancies.”

So there you have it: Not even vote-counters completely biased in Trump’s favor could come up with a way to claim he won in Arizona. The Cyber Ninjas hired by the Republican majority in the state senate tested the Maricopa County voting machines that were supposed to be haunted by the ghost of Hugo Chavez, looked for evidence of fake ballots shipped in from South Korea (or maybe China), and pursued every other lunatic theory of how Democrats could have stolen the state for Biden. They came up with nothing.

Biden won.

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chair Jack Sellers, a Republican, summed up:

This means the tabulation equipment counted the ballots as they were designed to do, and the results reflect the will of the voters. That should be the end of the story. Everything else is just noise.

But it’s not the end of the story, and Trump’s noise continues. The Great Steal has become dogma inside his personality cult, so inconvenient facts must be trimmed to fit.

Just asking questions. The quote from Chief Ninja Logan hints (if you listen closely) at the direction the conspiracy theory goes next: “the ballots that were provided to us” were counted properly, and show a Biden win. But what if some number of those ballots were cast illegally by people not entitled to vote? Or by legal voters who messed up in some way that should have allowed Republicans to disqualify them?

After all these months, Logan can’t point to any specific ballots that fit those descriptions. But what if? And what if those speculatively dubious ballots are all Biden votes? Then maybe Trump really should have won Arizona — and maybe Georgia and Pennsylvania as well. Maybe he should still be president, even without an insurrection.

That’s why a large chunk of the Ninjas’ report is devoted to casting doubt on “the ballots that were provided to us”, using the technique Tucker Carlson has made famous: Raise questions without doing even the simplest legwork to answer them, and then imply that there are no answers or even that powerful people don’t want you to ask.

Robert Graham of the Errata Security blog comments:

[The Cyber Ninjas] are overstretching themselves to find dirt, claiming the things they don’t understand are evidence of something bad.

Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice expressed the same idea in different words.

They’re desperately trying to suggest that what are routine procedures are suspicious, because they don’t have election administration experience or knowledge.

And precisely because the Ninjas lacked so much experience and knowledge, the “things they don’t understand” were many, and even humorous at times.

The most inflammatory allegations came from [Ben] Cotton, who claimed he discovered that thousands of files had been deleted from election department servers, and that several pieces of election equipment had been connected to the internet. 

One internet-connected device Cotton specifically named was REWEB1601, which Maricopa County’s twitter account explained very simply.

REWEB1601 (as you might gather from the naming convention) connects to the internet because it is the server for This is not the election system. We shouldn’t have to explain this.

And the deleted files? That wasn’t very sinister either.

CLAIM: Election management database purged

BOTTOM LINE: This is misleading. Nothing was purged. Cyber Ninjas don’t understand the business of elections. We can’t keep everything on the EMS server because it has storage limits. We have data archival procedures for our elections and @MaricopaVote archived everything related to the November election on backup drives. So everything still exists.

Oh, but what about the people voting multiple times in different counties?

Cyber Ninjas said it found thousands of voters who potentially voted twice in Arizona. The company came to this conclusion because it found 5,047 voters with the same first, middle and last name and birth year as people who voted in other counties.

“Bottom line,” the county wrote in a tweet in response, “There are more than 7 million people in Arizona and, yes, some of them share names and birth years. To identify this as a critical issue is laughable.”

Dead voters? Sometimes living people fill out a ballot, mail it, and then die before Election Day. Sometimes computer searches confuse the dead John Smith Sr. with the living John Smith Jr. of the same address, who voted. It’s not fraud. Voters who have moved? If they went to college, joined the military, or decamped to a vacation home from which they plan to return, their vote is still legal. And so on.

In short, the Cyber Ninjas found the kind of “suspicious” ballots that appear in every election everywhere. What they didn’t find was the slightest evidence of fraud.

The Romney prophesy fulfilled. When questioned, the Republican promoters of these partisan “audits” say they’re simply responding to widespread doubt about the integrity of the 2020 election, and that the point is to restore public faith in our democracy — ignoring their party’s (and often their own) role in raising those doubts in the first place by spreading lies.

The model here is the disingenuous justification Ted Cruz and ten other senators gave last January for objecting to the certification of the Electoral College vote.

A fair and credible audit — conducted expeditiously and completed well before January 20 — would dramatically improve Americans’ faith in our electoral process and would significantly enhance the legitimacy of whoever becomes our next President. We owe that to the People.

These are matters worthy of the Congress, and entrusted to us to defend. We do not take this action lightly. We are acting not to thwart the democratic process, but rather to protect it. And every one of us should act together to ensure that the election was lawfully conducted under the Constitution and to do everything we can to restore faith in our Democracy.

Mitt Romney had the right response back on January 6:

For any who remain insistent on an audit in order to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen, I’d offer this perspective: No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters — particularly when the President will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership.

The truth is that President-elect Biden won the election. President Trump lost.

This week’s events proved Romney right. After the Arizona audit report leaked, 2020 Loser Donald Trump did continue to say the election was stolen.

The leaked report conclusively shows there were enough fraudulent votes, mystery votes, and fake votes to change the outcome of the election 4 or 5 times over. There is fraud and cheating in Arizona and it must be criminally investigated!

And his allies were still not convinced of his loss. At a rally in Georgia Saturday, Trump rehearsed a litany of false claims about fraud in Arizona. And then his endorsed candidate for secretary of state said “Nobody understands the disaster of the lack of election integrity like the people of Georgia. Now is our hour to take it back.” His lieutenant governor candidate said “I can assure you if I’d been our Lieutenant Governor, we would have gotten to the bottom of this thing.”

And the crowd cheered.

Undeterred by the objective failure of the Cyber Ninjas to either find fraud or restore confidence, Trumpists continue to push the Arizona-like audits that are either proposed or already underway in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and even Texas (which Trump won, but by a margin that presages future trouble for Republicans unless they do a better job suppressing the non-white vote).

In each case, Republicans claim to be “restoring confidence” in elections by responding to “doubts” about the accuracy of the 2020 outcome — doubts that they caused themselves by spreading lies. Already, we can anticipate the ninja-like outcome: reports that find no hard evidence of any miscount or fraud, but continue to “raise questions” based on nothing.

It’s almost like sowing doubt is the intention.

The goal: destabilizing democracy. WaPo’s Greg Sargent raises that issue explicitly:

Oozing with unctuously phony piety, Republicans told us again and again and again that this audit was merely about allaying the doubts of voters who have lost confidence in our elections, a specter that Republicans have widely used to justify voting restrictions everywhere.

But, now that this audit “confirmed” Biden’s win, it is still telling us that we should doubt our outcomes, and that more voting restrictions are necessary to allay those doubts. Why, it’s almost as if that was the real point all along!

The Atlantic’s David Graham points to the damage done: Whatever the outcome of the Arizona “fraudit”, its mere existence kept the stolen-election story going for five more months. The implication that there really was something to investigate (and that maybe there still is) lives on. Millions of low-information voters are left with the vague impression that there is something inherently hinky about election returns from big cities with lots of non-white voters.

The goal was to substantiate a new consensus Republican belief that Democrats cannot win elections legitimately, and that any victory they notch must be somehow tainted. It is not a coincidence that the places where audits have focused are those, like Maricopa County, or Harris County, Texas, or Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, with high levels of minority voters, who can be disparaged—mostly implicitly, but occasionally more directly—as illegitimate participants in the polity. Trump has been the foremost proponent of the theory, but he’s been joined by eager sycophants, demagogues, and conspiracists.

As for where this is going, neo-conservative thought-leader Robert Kagan presented an ominous vision in “Our Constitutional Crisis is Already Here“, where he predicted

a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.

Kagan foresees Trump running again in 2024, being nominated, and staging a better coup next time.

Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Trump’s attempt to overrule the voters in 2020 may have failed, but not by much, and it was not thwarted by institutional safeguards.

Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate. These were not the checks and balances the Framers had in mind when they designed the Constitution, of course, but Trump has exposed the inadequacy of those protections.

Contrary to John Adams, the Republic was saved in 2020 not by laws, but by individuals. And those brave individuals are being replaced.

[T]he amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. [1]

In the end, the “forensic audit” movement isn’t about overturning 2020 any more: The deeper purpose is to “raise questions” about elections and about democracy in general, so that fewer people will be able or willing to take a principled stand against the Coup of 2024.

[1] The point of that shift is that gerrymandering insulates Republican majorities in key state legislatures from the voters. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Democratic voting majority that carried the state for Biden has also elected a Democratic governor and secretary of state. But the legislature is well fortified against the will of the People.

Seven Days in January

Did General Milley take steps to prevent a coup or to participate in one?

On paper, the American chain of command is simple: The Constitution makes the President commander-in-chief. Typically, he exercises that authority through a civilian Secretary of Defense and a hierarchy of generals, but nothing about that is necessary. On paper, the President can give orders to any soldier.

That authority over the entire military is summed up by an LBJ anecdote: As he was preparing to leave a military base, President Johnson walked toward the wrong helicopter until a young officer stopped him, saying “Your helicopter is over there, sir.” Johnson is supposed to have replied, “Son, they’re all my helicopters.”

At any level of the American military, though, there is an exception for illegal orders. If a superior tells you to execute prisoners, for example, you can say no. But you can well imagine that the bigger the gap in authority, the harder that “no” would be. Could a private or a green lieutenant really say no to a president?

And that brings us to the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. According to accounts from CNN and The Washington Post of the still-unpublished book Peril by Bob Woodward and Roberta Costa, Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley did two questionable things in the late days of the Trump administration. [1]

  • Milley made two phone calls (October 30, 2020 and January 8, 2021) to his Chinese counterpart to say that America was not planning an attack on China.
  • He instructed military officers not to execute any attack orders from the White House without consulting him.

Critics have a made a big deal about the China calls, but this appears to be fairly normal behavior in crisis situations. American military officers frequently cultivate personal relationships with their counterparts in other countries, and use those connections to smooth over possible misunderstandings. Politico reports:

A defense official familiar with the calls said … the calls were not out of the ordinary, and the chairman was not frantically trying to reassure his counterpart.

The people also said that Milley did not go rogue in placing the call, as the book suggests. In fact, Milley asked permission from acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller before making the call, said one former senior defense official, who was in the room for the meeting. Milley also briefed the secretary’s office after the call, the former official said.

But the second revelation raises more serious issues.

Woodward and Costa write that after January 6, Milley ‘felt no absolute certainty that the military could control or trust Trump and believed it was his job as the senior military officer to think the unthinkable and take any and all necessary precautions.’Milley called it the ‘absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility,’ the authors write.

Milley’s fear, I surmise, was that Trump would skip over the top military leadership and directly order some junior officer to take extreme (and possibly illegal) military action, which could be either a wag-the-dog foreign attack or a coup at home.

This apparently did not happen. But it was not an unreasonable scenario to plan for, especially given what was going on in the Justice Department, where Trump was going over the head of the Attorney General to push investigations and public statements in support of his stolen-election lie.

What Milley did, though, raises questions about civilian control of the military. Might the generals, at some point, simply refuse to obey presidential orders they disagreed with? And if those orders are illegal, or arise from “serious mental decline” (as the book says Milley believed about Trump), should they?

On paper, responsibility to protect the country from an insane or mentally incapacitated president lies with the vice president and the cabinet, who can remove the president via the 25th Amendment. No military officer plays any role in that process.

But what if they’re not doing their job? If you’re the person getting the crazy orders, does that responsibility fall to you, no matter what the Constitution says?

These questions point to a grey area in our system: If you believe that the train of constitutional government has already jumped its rails (say, because the president is planning or executing a coup), at what point do you take (or prepare to take) extra-constitutional actions yourself?

I don’t have a good answer to that question.

Republicans like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have called for Milley to be fired, while President Biden has expressed confidence in him.

I have trouble taking Hawley seriously, given his own treasonous inclinations. But I give more weight the critique of retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, who Trump fired (along with his brother) in retribution for Vindman’s testimony at Trump’s first impeachment. He also believes that Milley should resign or be fired.

In recent years, too many leaders have succumbed to situational ethics, and the public has looked the other way when people considered those leaders part of their faction. Doing the wrong thing, even for the right reasons, must have consequences. Many people in the Trump administration — including me — resigned or were fired exactly because they did the right things in the right way. Milley may have done the wrong thing for the right reasons. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not deserve greater consideration for doing the wrong thing — he deserves greater scrutiny. As my friend and former Pentagon official John Gans tweeted: “You can break norms for a greater good, but that often comes with a price. Paying it is the only way to ensure the norms survive for the next time.”

That do-it-and-face-the-consequences path reminds me of my analysis of the ticking-bomb scenario. Remember? The Bush administration believed CIA agents should be able to torture terrorism suspects, because doing so might save lives if the suspect knew about a ticking bomb. The law, I wrote at the time, should never authorize torture in advance. In the unlikely event that an American official found himself in a ticking-bomb situation, and was certain that torturing a suspect would save many lives, the right move would be to break the law, and then confess and trust the mercy of a jury. Do it if you think you must, but don’t hide from the consequences. An official who isn’t willing to risk a jury disagreeing shouldn’t be torturing anybody.

Similarly, I think Milley should have made a full public confession as soon as the crisis had passed. (After Biden’s inauguration, say.) In a roundabout way, he has done this by talking to Woodward and Costa. [2] He will be appearing before Senate Armed Services Committee a week from tomorrow, where I suspect he will be asked a lot of questions related to the Peril revelations.

However, I think Republicans should approach this hearing carefully. At some point a Democrat might ask, “What specific behavior did you witness personally that convinced you that President Trump had undergone ‘serious mental decline’ after his defeat in the November elections?” Whatever else the hearing might uncover, the answer to that question is likely to be the headline.

[1] When you think about this story, you need to bear in mind how far we are from the root facts: The general public can’t even see the book until tomorrow. CNN and the WaPo are summarizing what Woodward and Costa report that various newsmakers told them. Even if you trust everybody involved, it’s still third-hand information.

[2] I am assuming the quotes attributed to Milley come from direct interviews.