February 18, 2017

Gopnik vs Gopnik

I've been unusually prolific on my blog since Trump's election (I mean, three posts, but that's prolific compared to my previous months-long streak of nothing). If you don't want to take the time to scroll down and read them, they have all essentially expressed an uneasiness about how over-the-top the reaction to Trump has been on the political left, and about how so many people I have generally found to espouse level-headedness and empiricism in the face of almost anything now seem suddenly to be running through the streets screaming that the sky is falling.

So it was refreshing to read none other than Lord Chancellor of the Liberal Intelligentsia, Adam Gopnik, distill all my arguments into an elegant paragraph this week. (Have you been reading my blog, Adam?)
First, that Donald Trump is a blowhard but not a Benito: the scary things he says are mostly just smoke in the room. Second, that what his opponents most object to are not “Trumpian” policies but Republican ones, which, like it or not, now dominate the electorate. (Even if one questions the popular vote, there are the G.O.P.’s Senate, House, and gubernatorial majorities to explain away.) Then there is the claim that even the most controversial of his policies—though perhaps poorly articulated or sloppily executed—involve actions that are well within the norms and rules of American politics. Finally, there is the warning that continued liberal “hysteria” only further insults and emboldens the armies of Trump supporters, who, whether a strict majority or not, certainly number in the tens of millions. By seeming to call their views illegitimate, according to this argument, one only reinforces their well-earned feelings of rejection.
Psyche! Unfortunately Gopnik was only summarising all these arguments in order to explain why they're bad:
The trouble with these views, and what makes them cheery but false at best—or sinister or opportunistic at worst—is that they are deliberately blind to both the real nature of the man and the real nature of the threats he makes and the lies he tells. Many autocratic governments have built this road or won that war or engineered a realist foreign policy. They remain authoritarian and, therefore, fatally arbitrary. In a democracy, our procedures are our principles. Every tyrant does nice things for someone. You cannot be a friend to democracy while violating its norms—and when we say, “He violates democratic norms,” we undermine our own point, because “norm” is such a, well, normal word. In truth, what he violates by his statements are not mere norms but democratic principles so widely shared and so deeply important that “bedrock value” is closer to the mark than “democratic norm.”
Now, let's set aside for a moment the fact that this doesn't actually engage with any of the very reasonable arguments Gopnik claims to be debunking. Instead it just carries on asserting that Trump is a Benito rather than a blowhard, that he's too dangerous to be rational about, that to do anything except treat all Trump's actions as a step towards fascism is to risk losing forever our "bedrock principles"—which sort amounts to "but, like, he is just SO bad, okay?"

Let's set aside, too, the fact that in tying himself in knots to explain why Trump is so exceptionally evil, Gopnik ends up arguing, straight-faced, that Bush's lying about WMDs to justify the invasion of Iraq was just "normal fibs told by normal people." (Seriously! The real tragedy of the Trump presidency is that it's made Adam freakin' Gopnik say "Oh, the invasion of Iraq? Boys will be boys!")

No, I have a more philosophical (ontological? epistemological?) objection to Gopnik's argument: it's impossible for him to lose. If Trump does turn out to be the world's next fascist dictator, Gopnik can say, see, I told you so, we should have been more hysterical; if Trump goes through an undistinguished four years and then is peacefully booted in favour of a more conventional candidate in the next election, he can say, see, good thing we were so hysterical! That may be a boon rhetorically for him—and indeed anyone making the same argument—but it's a failure of the sort of rational thought that many people making the argument (including Gopnik, usually) profess to like.

The problem is, "Trump will destroy America unless we assume everything he does is intended to destroy America" is an opinion, not a fact, and certainly not an empirically testable fact. It's an opinion you're welcome to hold, but as an opinion it's not a valid reason to reject, if you'll pardon the lingo, the null hypothesis—namely, that Trump is just another in a long line of American presidents. He's a particularly vile American president, and so far he hasn't done anything to make me think otherwise. But that doesn't mean he's going to destroy America.

I bring up the null hypothesis because it, too, is a "bedrock value" in Western thought. It's baked right into our justice system: innocent until proven guilty. Gopnik implies that Trump being mad about a department store dropping his daughter's clothing line is evidence of a dictator-in-waiting, which I suppose ex post facto, if that ends up being the case, will look prescient—but good luck getting a conviction that way. That's why we hold jurists (and scientists) to a higher standard of evidence: it's not enough to find evidence suggesting your belief might be right; you have to find evidence demonstrating that the opposite belief (in this case, that Trump is not a fascist) is definitely wrong.

And for all the articles about Nordstrom, about Russia, about Bannon, about executive orders, I have yet to see a single piece of evidence that demonstrates, without a doubt, that Trump is not just another president that half the country didn't vote for. Again, I don't think he's a good president—but I also don't think that makes him a fascist, or even particularly worse than much of the extreme right has openly been now for quite some time. Major conservative figures have been undermining the "lamestream media" for years, and undermining "activist judges" for years, and talking about voter fraud for years, without the press or the judiciary or democracy collapsing. That Trump continues to parrot these things on Twitter doesn't prove anything. Blowhard until proven Benito.

But hey, I'm just some blogger; what do I know, compared to an intellectual heavyweight like Gopnik? So I'll let 2014 Gopnik have the last word:
On the very day of 9/11, one of the wisest men I’ve known said that the choice it would present for us would be between experiencing the attack as an imagery and experiencing it as an injury. If you allowed it to become imagery, running on perpetual loop in your mind (the planes exploding, the people leaping), you would never be past it. If you experienced it as an injury—a horrific one, but of specific dimensions and significance, a criminal atrocity rather than an intimation of apocalypse—you had a chance to go on. [...] His model of conduct came from a character like Ed Harris’s flight director in “Apollo 13.” Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing. What had happened to the American habit of pragmatic appraisal and a refusal to panic?

Well, nowhere to be found, and still missing. In the contest of imagery versus injury, imagery won in straight sets—the specifics of the injury have been lost in floods of hysteria. If there is one worst moral casualty of the past decade and a half, it surely lies there: Americans have gone from being the hardest of peoples to panic to among the most easily panicked people on the planet. [...]

Terrorists have become skilled at manipulating the Western imagination. There is an easy explanation for why this is so—it is because they are themselves in so many ways Western. [...] [E]xposed to the humiliations they think visited on their faith and distressed by the uncertainties of an open society, [they] turn toward fundamentalism—not for its own sake, but as a weapon against the shaming other, who bewilders and enrages them. They create what amount to GIFs of this other’s helplessness.
2014 Gopnik is writing specifically about terrorist spectacle, of course, but the argument works just as well for the endless newsfeed images of ICE raids, of lawyers in airports filing emergency habeas corpus petitions, of Bannon lurking in the background of the Oval Office, of Republican controlled legislatures enacting draconian restrictions on abortion. Those images are stirring, yes, but they also obscure the extent of the original injury: a lost election; a travel ban, for that matter, facilely blocked within days by the very institutions that Gopnik claims are being eroded as we speak.

So if you feel besieged by 2017 Gopnik and the constant "evidence" that Trump is marching us towards dictatorship, take solace in 2014 Gopnik's sage closing advice:
Reprisal born of optical reflex may work out this time [...] but if it does it would be a rare thing. Wars provoked by pictures tend to begin in clear outlines and bright colors. Imperfection being the inevitable state of human projects, the imagery at the end is always blurred and bloody. This is a truth worth keeping present in our minds, even as it escapes our vision.
It's easy to say Trump is a one-of-a-kind evil, who will snuff out American democracy for good. Making that a political strategy is not likely to go well.