The Left Seeks to Return to Familiar Ground, Confident that 2016 Was an Anomaly
Any directed tour depends on prior knowledge of the scenery so it can be introduced as it comes into view. A guided tour into the unknown is impossible by definition. What has kept pundits from accurately predicting what comes next in these years of turmoil is that they were surprised by developments like everyone else.
The result is that the Narrative is now burdened by a tremendous accumulation of events whose significance no one can quite understand. The liberal response to this jumble of mysteries has been less to explain it than seek a way to return to familiar ground. They want to go back to the old story. Reports that anonymous officials in the White House are waiting to topple the president via the 25th Amendment or arguments that no one appointed to the Supreme Court can be validly confirmed periodically raise hopes that some shortcut to their Trump nightmare may yet be at hand.
But the idealized past continues to fade under each new initiative of this astonishing administration. The cancelation of the Paris Agreement, the end of the Iran nuclear deal, the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem, the rejection of the PLO, the renegotiation of trade agreements, tariffs on China, a new strategic alliance with India, the formation of a Space Force, rapprochement with North Korea, the rejection of the International Criminal Court, and a set of sanctions against Russia, Turkey, and Iran are but a few of the demolition charges detonating against the face of the global world order.
Nor is Trump the only termite in the building. Europe appears to be unaccountably in the midst of what the media vaguely describes as a drift to the "extreme right." Even Sweden, long the iconic "moral superpower" of the left, is developing a distinct right-wing list. So far the liberal analysis of this growing challenge has been to treat it like an aberration. Their strategy for getting things "back to normal" has focused less on adapting their political program than on concentrating on breaking the momentum of the populist uprising.
Apparently, the expectation is that if the populist tide can be stopped at America's 2018 election, as Hitler's panzers stalled before Stalingrad, it will of its own accord subside into the sewers of bigotry and flow back into the septic tank of history. The trouble is, this model repeatedly failed to work in Europe as shown by this BBC graphic. Time and again the expected ebb never came. But the 2018 elections are so important that this time, if the mighty liberal establishment proves unable to effect a pivot, it may finally be forced to admit that something has really changed.
Thomas Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that crises were the normal precursor to change. "Discovery begins with the awareness of anomaly ... [and] anomaly appears only against the background provided by the paradigm." But lest anyone think failure in 2018 will force the left to re-examine its premises, Kuhn noted that a sufficiently powerful orthodoxy could avoid a paradigm shift by either subsuming the anomaly or coexisting with a powerful rival model indefinitely.
All crises close in one of three ways. (i) Normal science proves able to handle the crisis-provoking problem and all returns to "normal." (ii) The problem resists and is labelled, but it is perceived as resulting from the field's failure to possess the necessary tools with which to solve it, and so scientists set it aside for a future generation with more developed tools. (iii) A new candidate for paradigm emerges, and a battle over its acceptance ensues.
Which way the crisis will develop is suggested by the institutional strength of the progressive paradigm. It will try to stay unchanged and is so powerful that suppression and coexistence are likely to be more likely than the acceptance of error as a response to dissidence. Suppression is already in evidence. Numerous instances of censorship have prominently figured in the news. "In many creative spheres, in fact, censorship hasn’t just been decentralized. It’s been crowdsourced. Which is to say: The very writers, publishers, poets, musicians, comedians, media producers and artists who once worried about being muzzled by the government are now self-organizing on social media (Twitter, especially) to censor each other."
The willingness to self-censor speaks volumes about how important it is to preserve the paradigm. Even mathematics is not immune. "Theodore Hill, a retired professor of mathematics at Georgia Tech, claims that activists successfully pressured the New York Journal of Mathematics to delete an article he had written for the academic journal because it considered a politically incorrect subject: the achievement gap between men and women at very high levels of human intelligence."
Where paradigm suppression is impractical, coexistence will be next preferred. Google, faced with a irrepressible power of Beijing, simply decided to create a version of its search engine that China would accept. John Hennessy, chairman of Google's parent company, explained its return to China to the Wall Street Journal. "It's hard to ignore one of the largest countries in the world. The question to ask yourself is, are the Chinese people better off with a limited version of Google, or are they better off with no access at all? And that's not so clear to me. There's a shifting set of grounds of how you think of that problem, and how you think about the issue of censorship. The truth is, there are forms of censorship virtually everywhere in the world." How can one object to censorship if everybody does it?
But the Narrative, however powerful, cannot remain unchanged forever. If the liberal world order does not break up along left-right fault lines then it will fragment under the regulatory schemes aimed at carving it up into fiefdoms It may in the end prove impossible to determine in which direction the "arc of history" bends. #TakeItBack? There's nothing to take back. The future we imagined on September 11, 2001, and the one promised by Barack Obama in 2008 were not what we wound up with. Maybe that is all for the best. About the only thing we can confidently predict is that tomorrow will surprise us.
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Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person -- capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or "tribes," a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific