Shitholes: Where the President is Wrong

I am both a brilliant social scientist and a sensitive moralist. Both facts force me to wade into the “shithole” controversy. I will try to diverge from what has been said ad nauseam in the media but I cannot avoid some repetition.

First, I would bet 60/40 that he said it, just as reported. The president is a sort of verbal pervert, an addict. He gets so much pleasure from scandalizing the prim liberals that he can’t stop himself. Policy successes only encourage him; they give him room to maneuver, so to speak. I can certainly empathize. So, I don’t want to deny him but I wish he had not said it. See why below.

Second, yes, some countries are shitholes. That’s why so many, NOT displaced by war, are eager to risk drowning in the cold winter Mediterranean to escape. That’s why some escape a couple of unnamed countries in the Caribbean by floating on inner tubes. That’s why Venezuelan border guards are unequal to the task of keeping immigrants out. (I made this up. I want to make sure you are paying attention.) All the same, there are plenty of good people who live in shithole countries, friends and potential friends of America. The president should avoid making them feel worse than they already do.

Third, there was rush, a veritable melee, to charge President Trump with racism because of the comment. Rude and crude is not enough because not enough Americans care. (Many of us are both; many more are one or the other, at least occasionally.) The president has to be a racist; that’s important. So, this leaves me pondering: If Mr Trump had called, say, Russia a shithole it would have been OK because Russians are 97% white? Do you see the credibility problem here?

What provided the steam, the power in this matter is Mr Trump’s infatuation with merit-based immigration. His eruction took place shortly after Mr Trump had declared the US needs more immigrants from countries such as Norway (where many people must have merit, obviously).

I think that here his logic is dead wrong or, at least, mostly wrong.

For whatever historical reasons or because of their own current virtues, or because of their oil deposits, Norwegians live very well. I think it’s all Norwegians. Even poor Norwegians have it good. Possibly, it’s especially poor Norwegians who have it good because of an insanely generous social safety net. I hate to tell you but Norwegians have both a GDP/capita higher than Americans AND a welfare state. The only weak spot is the climate but then, they are used to it, what, after centuries, and many are rich enough to go south for part of the winter anyway.

Given all this, what kind of Norwegians would think of emigrating to the US? I think, two kinds. First, there would be adventurers and very ambitious entrepreneurs. Second, there would be the scum of Norwegian society, including a large criminal element not satisfied with the lifestyle the dole provides.*

Now, think of a society that is less than rosy. (I won’t call it a bad name because I follow my own advice.) I am thinking of a society where there is no escape from garbage and even from human feces except deep in the tropical forest. Would the well educated, decent people with middle-class aspirations from such a society wish to come to the US? You bet! That society has given us thousands of quality entrepreneurs, many dedicated and hard workers, and talent in every segment of American society, including academia, the judiciary, and literature. I am thinking of India, of course.

So, here is the question: Would we rather have the cream of an objectionable society such as India or the scum of a good society such as Norway**. I think that’s the real choice and Mr Trump does not begin to understand it.


* I use the conditional here because there is currently practically no way for a Norwegian to emigrate to the US except by marrying an American.

** I understand that there are moral objections to skimming off the cream of poor societies such as India. Another topic, obviously.

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What is the best book about Argentina?

A couple of days ago, Tyler Cowen asked which is “the best book about each country:”

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance…

He explicitly skips South America. I can’t blame him, as I’ve never found a book that fully captures (the interrelationship between) the five things that make Argentina Argentina:

1. The fight between Buenos Aires and the Interior for fiscal resources. This was the main cause behind the civil wars of the XIXth century, and the eventual solution — the creation of a federal state that could check the power of Buenos Aires, and where the provinces of the interior would be politically over-represented — continues to be a defining feature of the country’s political economy to this day.

2. The division between “unitarios” and “federales,” which also began in the XIXth century. Although this cleavage was ostensibly about how to organize the country territorially, we should not forget that “politics is not about policy:” the actual division was about the relative status of different social groups. Specifically, he federales fell in the “Trumpian” side of the spectrum, praising the common, unsophisticated man “from here” as opposed to the high-brow cosmopolitanism promoted by the unitarios. Again, this division did not end in the XIXth century; Argentina’s political history during the XXth and beyond — and most notably the phenomenon Peronism — simply cannot be understood without making reference to this opposition.

3. The great immigration. Between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, Argentina embarked in a great social experiment that sought to transform the country by importing huge numbers of European immigrants. During this period, Argentina was the country that most immigrants received as proportion of its population, being second only to the US in the absolute number of immigrants it received. The assimilation of such immigrants was mostly successful, but also had profound consequences in terms of demographics, language, culture, cuisine and surnames (where do you think mine comes from?), as well as the way Argentineans perceive themselves: as a middle-class country of immigrants in which hard work allows you to get ahead in life.

4. Nationalism. One of the unintended consequences of the great immigration was the (government-sponsored) construction of a new national identity, defined in terms of territory rather than blood, race, or national history. This is the origin of Argentines’ sickly relationship with national boundaries, most patently seen in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands issue.

5. Pretorian politics. Between 1930 and 1983, Argentina was governed by no less than five different military regimes (in 1930, 1943, 1958, 1966 and 1976, respectively). The last of them (1976-1983) was especially murderous, as the military  systematically “disappeared” thousands of guerrilla members, political activists, union leaders and Left-wing sympathizers in a vain attempt to engineer a new political system. It is impossible to make sense of the political, social and cultural attitudes that have predominated in the country since 1983 without understanding this past.

Unfortunately, no book comes even close to capturing all these factors simultaneously. That said, the ones that best approach this ideal are the following:

1. Juan José Sebreli, Crítica de las Ideas Políticas Argentinas [A Criticism of Political Ideas in Argentina]. As far as I’ve seen, it’s only available in Spanish, however.

2. Larry Sawers, The Other Argentina. The Interior and National Development. As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated; please tell me I’m wrong.

3. Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina. There is also a Spanish edition.

PS. If you’re going for some XIXth-century work, don’t get swayed by the beguiling prose of Sarmientos’s Facundo; it’s too dominated by mood affiliation. Juan Bautista Alberdi’s Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Organización Política de la República Argentina [Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic] is a far better choice.

Lunchtime Links

  1. High Hitler (drugs, drugs, drugs!)
  2. every generation gets the drugs it deserves
  3. Lawsplainer on federal and state marijuana laws
  4. why illegally obtained evidence is generally inadmissible in court
  5. Putin and patriotism: national pride after the fall of the Soviet Union (excerpt)
  6. long, fraught history of Pakistan and the US
  7. Old Dogs, New Tricks: Turkey and the Kurds
  8. Good piece, but I’m still waiting for a great book (or article) on the Hanseatic League. All the great ones are probably in German…

A quick update, then liberals and democracy, followed by racism and rectification

I have been busy. I picked up a gig at RealClearHistory as a ghost editor, and I also write a weekly column there. I have a baby daughter (she’s 8 months old). My musings here at NOL have been sporadic, but I have been learning a lot. Bill (morality) and Federico (law and liberty) continue to make me smarter.

Tridivesh’s thoughts here so far have a heavy element of “democracy-is-best” in them. I find this to be the case for most South Asian liberals. I wonder if this community has had the time to ponder Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom…, which laments the fact that most liberals worldwide have eschewed the “liberty” in the phrase “liberty and democracy.” One is surely sexier than the other, and there are probably many pragmatic reasons for this phenomenon, but it’s worth repeating here that you can’t have liberal democracy without liberty. China holds elections all the time, but this doesn’t mean the Chinese are free.

Michelangelo’s most recent note on race is interesting, as always. If it’s just the US Census then I agree with Thomas: eliminate the race question. Matt’s idea, to leave it blank and let people fill it in themselves, is a good idea, too, provided the Census continues to pry too much into the lives of people living in the US. As far as race goes in general, the American system of classification is ridiculous (to be fair to us, I’ve never come across a good one). However, the US government has committed some heinous crimes based on racist classifications and as such I do think there is a need to continue asking race-based questions. My approach would be much simpler, though. I’d ask:

  • Do you identify as African-American?
  • Do you identify as Native American?
  • Do you identify as Japanese-American?

That’s it. Those are the only 3 questions I would ask about race. These three groups are groups because the US government, at some point in time, classified them as such and then proceeded to implement plans that robbed them of their labor, or their land, or their freedoms, and justice has yet to be delivered.

Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.

From the Comments: the Ottoman Empire, the millet system, and nationalism

Barry has an excellent response to Jacques’ equally good essay on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism:

Jacques, the Millet system was as much constructed as destroyed in the late Ottoman period. The idea of such a system was itself projected back onto the earlier Ottoman system to reflect modern assumptions about national belonging, which was understood to exist in the Ottoman state through a systematic accommodation of Christian nations.

The classical Ottoman system was very dispersed and irregular in the functioning of power under a sultan who [had] absolute power in certain spheres and certain circumstances. So the contrast of the millet system with emergent Turkish nationalism itself presumes nationalist categories anachronistic to the earlier Ottoman state. The understanding of a millet system does of course coincide with the destruction of said system, since the idea of such a system comes from a kind of nationalism, or at least [an] assumption of a top down administrative state with strongly homogenising tendencies. The greatest massacre of Armenians took place in 1915 under the direction of an element of Young Turks (the general term for reformists) manifested in the most extreme tendencies of the Committee of Union and Progress.

In any case there is some continuity with the policies of Sultan Abdülhamit following a version of Ottoman statism constructing a homogenising administrative state after suspending the constitutional system and its representative assembly. If we apply ‘millet system’ to the early Ottoman system, with the reservations I mentioned, you can of course talk about greater peace for Ottoman Christians than that experienced during the 30 Years War, in exchange for the surrender of young sons for training as ‘janisseries’, new believers serving the sultan as soldiers and administrators. However, the picture is less sunny if we look at the massacres of Alevi, what were known at the time as Qizilbash, that is followers of a rather unorthodox offshoot of Shia Islam. Particularly under Selim I, Yavuz Selim, Selim the Grim (an appropriate moniker) in the 15th century Alevis were massacred by the tens of thousands in connection with his wars against Iranian Shia. Maybe if we compare the Ottoman system with the Christian states of the time, we see more religious peace, but relatively speaking.

In any case by the late nineteenth century the peace was eroded by wars of separation and by persecution of ‘dangerous’ minorities within the remaining Ottoman lands. In terms of Ottomanist ideological legacy, Abdülhamit is a hero to religious-conservative and ultranationalist currents mobilised by an ideal of strong Muslim rulers presiding over a Muslim community and with Abdülhamit taken as a model. Of course they are applying something foreign to the Ottoman system in its earlier years and which even Abdülhamit would have found alien in its commitment to Turkishness. The actions of Abdulhamit and then the trio at the head of the CUP who orchestrated the massacres of 1915 show the dangers of statist modernisation. In both cases though, they would have understood their actions as done to protect the glory of the Ottomans.

Barry has more at NOL here. Jacques has more at NOL here. Both can often be found in a responsive mood in the ‘comments’ threads, too, as long as your comments aren’t too nasty or vulgar…

On the Race Question 

As in, in regards to the US Census Race question. The one that asks whether you identify as white, black, Asian, or Native American. Heritage has just published a blog post on the issue. There’s lots of things I disagree with in the post. The author is correct that the current race classification system is relatively recent, but the race question itself isn’t. I disagree with the author that we should let anthropologists decide what races to include. Anthropologists should stick to what they’re good at: managing websites.

I do agree however with the general point that the current race question is really weird. I am very skeptical that race as a biological concept has any meaning. Race is, I think, more about culture. Someone in my book is a “Hispanic” not because their skin is a certain tone, but because they can make a good taco. In so far that race is about culture, do we really think that a “white” American from the south shares much in culture with their counterparts in New England? Likewise it’s unclear to me South Asians share much of a culture with their Central or West Asian cousins.

Given the chance I would replace the unidimensional race question with a battery asking about the crucial cultural elements that distinguish us. Who is your favorite football team? (war eagle!) What is the best burger chain? (In N Out) What is the best scifi series? Star Wars or Star Trek? (Trick question: Dune)

What do you all think? If you were in charge of the US census how would you modify the race question? Would you remove it altogether? #microblogging #IDontGetHashTags