“How to build an autocracy”

How to build an autocracy” appears in this month’s Atlantic and may turn out to be the most important article of 2017. It’s so important that I’m putting it in a standalone post rather than including it as an item amid others in a link list. One hopes that the future David Frum imagines in it doesn’t come to pass.

But if it doesn’t, it won’t because individual people choose not to let it come to pass. Knowledge is one step in that process. Action is another.

We seem to have collectively forgotten history. We’ve seen authoritarianism before. What’s odd is seeing it again—although Richard Rorty may have predicted it twenty years ago; until the last election I complacently thought, “It can’t happen here.” I was wrong.

Links: Bike lanes, book buying, century-old bestsellers, political darkness, and more!

* Why bike lanes may appear to be underutilized.

* Chicago cops, unaccountable by design.

* How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps.

* “The twilight of the liberal world order,” deeply pessimistic and, I hope, a set of ideas that doesn’t come to pass.

* The top bestsellers of 1916.

* Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America:

Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason.

* Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying.

* “Sex and Art in 1950s Manhattan: Patricia Bosworth’s life was a dramatic saga of ambition, sex, affairs and abortion. She reveals it all in The Men in My Life.” The review is good but makes me feel like I don’t need to read the book itself.

* “Time to take a stand,” by Sam Altman, although I would argue that the time to take a stand was before the election.

* “Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.

* The ambiguities of dual citizenship.

* A clarifying moment in American history.

Automatic, unthinking opposition is bad

Elon Musk actually believes Rex Tillerson could be an ‘excellent’ Secretary of State” strikes a skeptical tone about Tillerson, but so far I haven’t seen a strong explanation about why he wouldn’t be. There is much to dislike and fear about Trump—I in particular worry about the way he raises the risks of global nuclear war—but it is unwise to automatically oppose anyone he proposes for his Cabinet or anything he does.

It is also not impossible that Trump will appoint a good FDA commissioner. It is possible that House Republicans will reform Social Security, which is an unmitigated good for anyone under the age of 40 or so (barring a sudden, unexpected takeoff in growth, the Social Security and Medicare edifices will not provide anything like current benefits when people my age are the age of current recipients; workers my age are paying taxes for the fiscal services old people get that we ourselves are unlikely to get when we are that old, and that ought to affect our voting patterns (it doesn’t)).

One should reserve opprobrium for where it is deserved and not fire it off generically, especially based on innuendo or simple partisan affiliation. Again, that is not to approve of Trump or most things House Republicans favor, but it should contextualize the discussion. As far as I can tell, Tillerson could be an excellent Secretary of State (he could also be a terrible one). I know very little about him and wish to avoid castigating him or anyone else based on automatic partisanship.

Doing so is of course hard, for reasons Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Those books are too long to describe briefly, but both show that most people are partisans first and thinkers about individual issues second, or third, or even fourth. There is much evidence for this case, perhaps the most interesting being the last election: Trump is not a Republican in an ideological or issue-based sense, but he did get the nomination and most Republicans and nominal Republicans voted for him anyway.

I’m also not sure I could enumerate the qualities of a good Secretary of State versus a bad one, and I wonder how many people with strongly stated views on Tillerson could. I wonder how many could say anything useful about his views and background. I can’t.

“David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center”

David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center” is excellent. I may be a small part of that intellectual center, to the point of writing a presidential endorsement post in October—something I’ve never done before, because the climate has never seemed to merit it. But given the potential for catastrophe, it seemed necessary. Some readers have complained about the increasing amount of political content on The Story’s Story, but given the worldwide political darkness that has been descending it seems necessary to attempt to understand it. I would like to go back to mostly ignoring politics apart from straightforward analysis.

And the problem of false equivalence is real, as Chait makes clear at the link: “official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand.” Yet official centrists should do more than triangulate. They (or we) haven’t done that. They (or we) have also been somewhat asleep over the last six or so years.

I certainly have been and am now attempting to make up for that slumber, in part because I’ve been so wrong about what I thought was politically possible or feasible. Though I’ve read The Myth of the Rational Voter, I didn’t entirely internalize its lessons. Though I’ve read about the extent to which irrationality pervades most human cognition, I didn’t think that we’d become so wildly irrational on a large-scale, public basis. Though I understand that most people know little about history, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which “little” really means “nothing.”

But knowing and understanding things may not matter very much, since we may be living in a post-literate age and I’m writing material that may go largely unread, especially by the people who most need to understand what’s happening.

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