On Ross Douthat, Cosmopolitanism, and Cultural Relativism

I’ve been thinking to myself for some time about how certain parts of the discourse of the right have seemingly flipped over the years. Today, for instance, we have the spectacle of conservative writers responding to student movements by adopting an absolutist position on free speech that would have been anathema to conservatives warring against communism, obscenity, and the perversion of American society not too long ago. As I wrote in Harper’s earlier this year, God & Man at Yale, the text that many argue launched the American conservative movement in earnest, was a full-throated jeremiad against free expression and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses. Now, writers at William F. Buckley’s magazine mock students who agree with Buckley’s stance in Yale as idiots. So it goes.

It seems as though Brexit, Trump, and furor on both sides of the pond over immigration have revealed an even more dramatic and complicated shift. The right has finally succumbed to cultural relativism.

It’s not liberal relativism, but it’s a kind of relativism nonetheless and the inevitable outcome of years of conservative pop sociology that sought to explain – defensively, ham-fistedly, and incorrectly – American political divides as largely immutable and easily defined by certain cultural markers.

One of the most salient critiques the left has been leveling of late against liberal pundits is that the explanatory mode is essentially amoral. To concern oneself merely with the explanation of what is and what seems within the immediate realm of possibility rather than with what is ultimately right or wrong is to bias oneself towards the status quo and ignore the reasons why we engage in political thought in the first place. We should be striving towards a general Good. The things around us – cultures, systems, practices – don’t take on a moral weight simply because they exist. They need to be justified or thrown away.

This, broadly speaking, rings true as far as material politics are concerned. Social politics are more complicated This is not dissimilar to the central claims conservatives have made against cultural relativism and multiculturalism: They erase right and wrong. Not all ways of living are equal. An explanation for a culture is morally insufficient as justification for its practices. Et cetera. This is the kind of thinking that animates paranoid right-wing fantasies about minority cultures and helped lead Brexit to victory.

But lately, it’s become clear that the right’s opposition to relativism only goes so far. Ross Douthat is the latest conservative writer to explain Brexit in the terms of “tribalism.” There’s nothing new about this lens – it’s another iteration of the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus-type routine David Brooks hawked to explain American politics in the last decade. It’s the background of every piece written about how liberals just don’t understand gun culture. Here, Douthat sketches a picture of the cosmopolitan tribe:

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West…are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise.

This is an old critique of multiculturalism based on an old and flat stereotype of liberals that few would deny holds at least partially true. There are, as Douthat writes later, “open borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project” and “American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools”. Liberal hypocrisy on race is a fact and a shame. This gets pointed out in cosmopolitan outlets far more often than Douthat implies, and cosmopolitan city-dwellers are held to account for their own racism most stridently and compellingly by minority voices that are not at all conservative. But that’s not the point here.

The point is that when cultural conservatives such as, say, Allan Bloom used to advance this critique – the idea that liberals are only shallowly interested in other cultures and end up subsuming difference into a bland monoculture – it was an appendix to a larger and more important argument: that we should be invested in the idea that certain ways of living and thinking are Good, or at least better than others. Multiculturalism, cultural conservatives have argued, denies this. Liberals like myself believe critics like Bloom were wrong to suggest that multiculturalism is incompatible with ethical striving. We also believe that kind of thinking is an open door to, if not an outright self-justification for, the kind of bigotry we’re seeing here and abroad. But they weren’t wrong about the existence of right and wrong or about the existence of the Good being an inevitable source of tension between cultures.

I’m certain Douthat believes this. But his column argues simply that, “Human beings seek community, and permanent openness is hard to sustain.” Given this, the tribalism of cosmopolitan “elites” and anti-immigrant Brexiters alike is presented as an inevitability. It is natural. People are simply different. Absent here is any kind of moral evaluation of either side, beyond the potshots takes at liberals not for letting multiculturalism distract from a notion of the Good or core principles, but for not being multicultural enough. Cosmopolitans, he argues, are just as much of a closed community of similar people as Brexiters are.

In his rendering these are two closed cultures in conflict, and it seems almost irrelevant whether one side has the better end of the argument, politically, economically, or ethically. He is explaining, not judging because, he seems to imply, it’s not our place to judge. Douthat’s critique of multicultural cosmopolitans is itself couched in a kind of empty multiculturalism. It is a limp cultural relativism advanced in a whataboutist defense of a “tribe” and a culture that constitutes a significant threat to minorities.

The fact that liberals can be hypocrites on diversity and the fact that liberals can be blind to the reasons why others resent them has no bearing whatsoever on the rightness or wrongness of the way Brexiters speak about, treat, and would like to deal with immigrants. If pressed, Douthat would say this himself. But in this piece we see the kind of smoke-screening that seems reflexive on the right in debates about culturally potent issues. Again, the dynamics of the gun debate are similar. Actual arguments against gun control are flanked by pieces like these in which the divide on guns is explained as a cultural divide liberals are too ignorant to understand. A deep cultural divide certainly exists. It is not obvious what bearing that ultimately has on how we should think about gun control as a matter of ethics and a matter of policy.

Likewise, conservatives obviously do advance actual arguments (that I disagree with) about the challenges posed by high levels of immigration. Douthat has made them elsewhere. But it seems that conservatives find actual debate about the efficacy and ethics of immigration policy insufficient. As with the gun debate and other debates, it must evidently be coupled with rearguard defenses of entrenched cultures that just happen to be on the right. This reflex would be less suspect if conservatives defended, say, Islam or African-American culture just as regularly. Of course, they don’t. For minority cultures, the prescription is routinely assimilation and the erasure of differences and cultural practices for the greater good. Tolerance – the taking of cultures as they are without demanding or expecting change – is for gun owners, Brexiters, and Trump supporters. Their cultures are to be explained and not challenged.  It’s an inconsistent and self-serving kind of relativism. But it is relativism.

Me, Myself, and I

Today in Slate, senior editor Laura Bennett has a piece up exploring the rise of the (often squeamishly) personal essay as one of the most popular mediums on the web:

First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher. For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.

The key problem with what the title of the piece calls “The First Person Industrial Complex” is its opportunism. These essays aren’t better, substantively, than the “hot take”, but the fact that they recount lived experience lends them credibility, whether or not, Bennett argues, they demonstrate meaningful introspection or self-awareness. I would personally add that they are uniquely protected from the kind of probing criticism one might give an analytical piece making the same arguments. Moreover, they fuel a weird, disquieting confessional arms race:

The mandate at xoJane, according to Carroll, was: the more “shameless” an essay, the better. Carroll describes how “internally crushing” it became to watch her inbox get flooded every day with the darkest moments in strangers’ lives: “eating disorders, sexual assault, harassment, ‘My boyfriend’s a racist and I just realized it.’ ” After a while, Carroll said, the pitches began to sound as if they were all written in the same voice: “immature, sort of boastful.” Tolentino, who worked as an editor at the Hairpin before Jezebel, characterizes the typical Jezebel pitch as the “microaggression personal essay” or “My bikini waxer looked at me funny and here’s what it says about women’s shame,” and the typical Hairpin pitch as “I just moved to the big city and had a beautiful coffee shop encounter, and here’s what it says about urban life.”

This is all of a piece with the primacy of lived experience granted (for some people, anyways) by what I suppose could be called the Identity Left. As Bennett notes, the personal essay boom has meant that a growing number of outlets have dedicated space to telling the stories offered by minority writers, just as the Identity Left has (re)emerged to insist that those stories illuminate things about life in our country that abstracted analysis cannot. These trends are reinforcing each other and that is largely good. Concerns should arise though, for anyone who believes that personal experience, while critical to understanding how the abstractions and contextual facts about issues like race manifest themselves in actual life, cannot nourish that understanding alone. It is a simple thing for a writer to talk in personal terms about the injustices, misunderstandings, and ignorance they encounter in their own lives. It is  harder to understand and write about the policies that reinforce them. There are plenty of young writers doing the former and too few doing the latter.

On Jonathan Chait, Fredrik deBoer, and Political Correctness: A Facebook Comment/Essay

I wrote this an hour or so ago to a Facebook friend named Harry. I did not mean to. The grammatical and spelling errors will serve as proof until I get around to fixing them.

“Suppose Harry, that I wanted to convene a center-left pow-wow of sorts. A discussion group, or book club, or even a class explicitly or implicitly put together to cater to those on the center-left. Suppose then that one day an individual comes to my pow-wow and, in our weekly round of introductions to each other, this individual says something to the effect of, “Hello. My name is ___________. I, like you, believe that things should be done to alleviate poverty and want in the United States. I also happen to believe that the state does not have the right to collect income taxes. No, I haven’t studied economics or policy at all. I don’t really even read the news. I dunno. I just sorta kinda believe it. But don’t worry about it. I’m one of you.”

There are, I think, two approaches I could take in response to the presence of this person. One would be to spend time, over the course of a few months or a year or however long it would take to try to get this person to assimilate to the views of the wider group. You’d print out articles. Explain to him how income taxes came about in America and the Constitutional precedents used to justify their existence. You’d engage him in philosophical discussions about the role of government. At the end of it all, he might not come around. But he also might. And so I might decide to put in that effort.

The second approach would be to say to this person, “No, sorry. What you believe is actually fundamentally different from what I believe in a number of ways. You don’t belong.” Suppose I took this approach, but was quite mean about it. I might mock or ridicule this person for their ignorance. I might make a show of indignation. “What you believe would lead to the ruin of all we hold dear in this country, and you’re morally bankrupt for thinking it.” This would almost certainly lead this person to abandon the idea that they might be on the center-left. And, unbeknownst to me, center-leftism might lose one more potential advocate. This would be sad.

It would not, though, be sad enough to merit inclusion in a 3,000+ word New York Magazine feature as an indication of the collapse of American liberalism. I do not think Jonathan Chait would have been paid very much to argue that the conversion of people with libertarian tendencies to center-leftism is central to the future of center-leftism as an ideology. Taking the second approach would certainly lose the center-left a few allies. Or many. I do not think very many people, though, would be worked up about it. The second approach, in fact, is taken by many people of many ideologies at many colleges on issues of domestic and foreign policy every day. No one really cares. And to the extent that certain people might actually care, no one, I think, would be truly worked up about it enough to excoriate me for it in a profanity laden blog post.

There is something about identity politics that is different to people like Chait and deBoer. It is not immediately obvious why that should be. The gap between someone who believes gender differences are innate and someone who doesn’t is about as wide, I think, as the gap between someone who thinks income taxes shouldn’t exist and someone who thinks that they should. In one area, Chait thinks that choosing not to extend a hand is reprehensible. I have a hard time believing Chait – who has earned a living being mean to people on the center-right and right for longer than I have been alive – would believe the same about the other.

Ideology *is* groupthink. Always. There are boundaries to the realm of acceptable beliefs within ideolgical groups. Lines that, once crossed, put you outside of that group. This is something that we accept without much thought when it comes to matters of rote policy. But whenever identity politics and social politics are discussed broadly, there is an insistence from people on the center-left that the left should build and maintain bridges. That center-leftists would be natural partners of the left on social issues if the left would only realize it and be less mean. Chait and deBoer are smart enough to know that socialists and people who think that capital gains taxes should be raised are not the same and want very different things at the end of the day, no matter how politically convenient their marriage might be on certain fronts. They understand that socialists and center-leftists can and do have ferocious fights about such things. They are okay with this. But for some reason, they are appalled that people who believe men and women are not different refuse the friendship of people that do.

This is because deBoer and Chait believe that disagreements on identity politics are frivolous and unimportant. They take issues of race and gender less seriously than rote policy. Both are too cowardly to say this. But that disdain drips from every word they write about so-called p.c. culture. Fredrik deBoer does not think believing there are innate differences between men and women is that big of a deal. Gender-neutral pronouns probably annoy Jonathan Chait. But the institutions that they emerged from and the young people that inhabit them (and the new outlets of opinion journalism) increasingly disagree. They have new and energetic competitors from the left – both ideologically and professionally. And sometimes these competitors say things that hurt. Chait and deBoer are losing ground on the basis of issues they consider trivial in the wider scheme of things. And they hate it.

They’ve chosen to respond by insisting that the expanding gap on identity and social politics between them and a now-p.c. minded left isn’t very much of a gap at all. That the substantive differences between Jonathan Chait and Jezebel are dwarfed by differences in tone and temperament. This is not, I suspect, actually true. But it is convenient. It is their way of trying to wheedle their way back in to the positions of ideological authority they are used to without engaging their p.c. opponents in substantive debates they suspect they might lose or offend people by participating in.

Here’s the bottom line: Center-leftists like Jonathan Chait and I do not have the right to insist to leftists that we are their friends. That is for leftists to decide. They are reevaluating our relationship with them. In their review of our 100+ years of history with them, they may well decide that in spite of the incremental progress we’ve made together on social issues, the partnership has fallen short. We want, at the end of the day, either different things or the same things delivered at different paces. For Chait to insist, from his perch at a mainstream cultural publication – with all the clout and authority he’s been granted (and I’m speaking purely in terms of the acceptability of his politics; his race and gender, to many, make all this even more risible) – that he knows what the left wants and that those things really happen to be the same thing that he, Jonathan Chait, and all the center-left want and that the left can’t be taken seriously until they are willing to dilute their beliefs enough to welcome back Jonathan Chait et al into the fold…this is naked, undiluted arrogance. The left is capable of expanding without my help and the help of Jonathan Chait and Fredrik deBoer. They are doing so now by taking up the concerns of constituencies marginalized and excluded by the institutions that Jonathan Chait owes his livelihood to. Constituencies that include many who believe that the center-left has insufficiently represented their interests. It is not surprising, or interesting, or offensive to me that the p.c. left has decided that it has little time for people like me, and Jonathan Chait, and the rest of the center-left. Or that college students can be pedantic assholes about their beliefs. But Chait has a writing gig at New York Magazine. And I do not. So.”

The New New Republic Shapes Up

Most people interested in the world of political media that haven’t been living under a rock for the past month have likely heard – and have likely had something to say – about the crisis at The New Republic. (If you have been living under a rock, Ryan Lizza’s story on the whole mess is probably the only thing that you need to read, although The Awl‘s Choire Sicha impishly put together a fairly comprehensive list of “hot takes” about it all a while back. Of them, Coates’ is, unsurprisingly, the most worthwhile.)

Today, incoming editor Gabriel Snyder, formerly of The Atlantic Wire and Gawker, put out a letter broadly addressing the situation and the magazine’s complicated legacy.

The New Republic has always been both in love and at war with its prior self. The magazine’s early decades were marked by abrupt ownership changes, unceremonious dismissals of editors, shifting policy positions, and uprooted headquarters, all accompanied by masthead upheavals.

In 1974, Martin Peretz, a 35-year-old social studies lecturer at Harvard College, bought The New Republic. He pledged to leave things as they were and to keep then-editor Gilbert Harrison “for a minimum of three years,” as Harrison told the Times. Sooner than that, however, Peretz installed himself as editor, resignations followed, and much of the staff was replaced by his former students. They would go on to dominate the masthead for the rest of the century.

A decade into Peretz’s tenure, Michael Straight, the owner-editor after World War II and son of the magazine’s first financial backer, wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books announcing “the spirit which Croly created and which Gilbert Harrison maintained in recent years was shattered.” Peretz, who stood accused of endorsing Israel’s 1985 bombing of Beirut, rightly ridiculed this appeal to constancy. “What spirit of The New Republic exactly would they be violating?” he replied to the letters page. “The magazine has had a long and complicated history.” Last year Peretz was the one complaining, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the current owner, Chris Hughes, is “not from the world of Herbert Croly.” A survey of the many deaths and rebirths of The New Republic shows, if anything, that its most important survival skill has been to attract new champions from beyond its inner sanctum.

The most relevant paragraph for those of us with a more than passing interest in the magazine’s racial history – and those of us who want to make a living in this business – was this one:

As we revive one proud legacy of The New Republicthe launching of new voices and expertsthose new voices and experts will be diverse in race, gender, and background. As we build our editorial staff, we will reach out to talented journalists who might have previously felt unwelcome at The New Republic. If this publication is to be influential, and not merely survive, it can no longer afford to represent the views of one privileged class, nor appeal solely to a small demographic of political elites.

Interestingly, it was announced today that one of the “new voices” that’s set to grace the magazine’s pages in the near future will be Jeet Heer, a Canadian journalist who was one of many to examine exactly why non-white and non-male journalists were “unwelcome” for so long in the immediate aftermath of the staff departures:

Heet has some additional thoughts on The New Republic and gender on his blog Sans Everything.

Other “new voices” announced today: New York Magazine‘s Ann Friedman, freelance writer Batya Ungar-Sargon, poet and writer Cathy Park Hong, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Inga Saffron, The Hairpin contributing editor Jazmine Hughes, Jeffery Ball, scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Center for Energy Policy and Finance, freelance writer Thomas Rogers, Mental Floss contributing editor Jen Doll, and novelist William Giraldi. It’s not entirely clear what exactly “new” means in this context given that pieces from most of these writers has been published by TNR over the past few months. Still, it’s definitely a diverse and promising slate.

Until We Meet Again…


An incredible sendoff to an incredible character. I’ve been watching since middle school. I grew up politically as a member of the Colbert Nation. This was a genuinely, potently sad moment for me and I imagine countless other viewers. But Stephen’s off to do bigger and, hopefully, even better things. Best of luck to him. Over at Jezebel, Rebecca Rose has the most comprehensive list I’ve yet seen of all the people who were on the set:

There were way too many people to name right now, but here’s the ones I can remember as I type this out: Alan Alda, Jon Stewart, Willie Nelson, Bryan Cranston, Tom Brokaw, Mandy Patinkin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Michael Stipe, Cindi Lauper, Katie Couric, James Franco, Charlie Rose, Barry Manilow, Jeff Daniels, Patrick Stewart, Dr. Francis Collins, Andy Cohen, Henry Kissinger, Andrew Sullivan, Arianna Huffington, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Christian Amanpour, Goerge Lucas, J.J. Abrams, Bill Clinton, Keith Olbermann, Jeff Tweedy, Tim Meadows, Mike Huckabee, Mark Cuban, Bob Costas, Ken Burns,Gloria Steinem, Thomas Friedman, Claire McKaskill, David Gregory, Eliot Spitzer, Yo Yo Ma, John Ratzenberger, Samantha Power, Vince Gilligan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bill DeBlasio, Randy Newman, Sam Waterston, Toby Keith, Bo Dietl, Cory Booker, Elijah Wood, Pussy Riot, Leslie Stahl, Smaug, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Debra Wilson, Paul Krugman, Jon Batiste, Stone Phillips, Peter Frampton, Alexi Lalas, Chuck Schumer, Chief of Staff of the Army General Ray Odierno, Nate Silver, Bradley Whitford, Jake Tapper, Jeffrey Toobin, Leon Wieseltier, Ric Ocasek, Dean Kamen, Trevor Potter, Jon Alter, Richard Clarke, Norm Ornstein, David Hallberg, Kevin Spacey, Grover Norquist, George Saunders, astronaut Garrett Reisman in ACTUAL SPACE, a group of military servicemen and women in Afghanistan and a WHOLE BUNCH OF OTHERS. Alex Trebek also made an appearance at the very end, but was not part of the musical number.

A probably unprecedented and probably awkward gathering. Matt Taibbi tweeted a hint of what it was like backstage:


I’m proud to have played an intern-sized part in Slate‘s marvelous feature on the internet’s outrage economy and the controversies that had us fuming – and clicking away – in 2014. Slate editor Julia Turner:

Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home. And the same cycle occurs regardless of the gravity of the offense, which can make each outrage feel forgettable, replaceable. The bottomlessness of our rage has a numbing effect.

And The Awl editor Choire Sicha:

We used to yell at the TV but it couldn’t hear us. Finally someone can. So you turn to all the people next to you, all the friends and followers, and you are typing and then you are hitting send, post, tweet, submit.
…You are speaking, first, into the echo chamber of your friends. But not everyone is in your silo. And so then some stranger is mad at you; then some friend is noticeably silent. You are blocked or you are yelled at. Spiraling conversations come from realms unexpected and unwanted. You are embarrassed, or you are angrier, defensive or passive-aggressive, or laughing at them all. It is a rush of emotion that stretches long but is only an instant. Then, with a slithery zip, the moment is sealed shut.

It’s all almost as exhausting to participate in as it is to think about, but if you’re in the mood, the essay series is worth perusing, as is Slate’s comprehensive, soon-to-be-365-day calendar of the things we let ourselves get upset about this year. What made us mad on my birthday, November 2nd? Lena Dunham’s memoir. Oh yeah! I remember that….

Cuba Libre?

I’ve been taking in all of the Cuba takes over the past day. Yesterday’s historic shift was unambiguously good – this is clear to sane people. Vox has a good summary of the deal. Materially, the U.S. secured the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross and 53 political prisoners as well as concessions on internet access and new permissions for the United Nations and Red Cross in exchange for the release of three Cuban spies, the ease of certain business, travel, and banking restrictions, and higher allowances for remittances from Cuban-Americans to their families back home. Oh, and travelers will be able to import up to $100 dollars’ worth of Cuban cigars into the U.S.

The fate of the embargo remains up in the air as does the possibility of a Cuban embassy – Congress will need to take action on both. It seems obvious, though, that the embargo’s days are numbered. And its end can’t come soon enough, whether or not opening our doors to Cuba actually undermines the regime significantly. As Daniel Drezner writes in The Washington Post, there’s good reason to believe it won’t:

Let’s be clear about this. Generally speaking, neither negative economic statecraft (sanctions) nor positive economic statecraft (inducements) works terribly well at changing the nature of a hostile regime. And Cuba is still a hostile regime. Raul Castro embraced the opening Wednesday while still “acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy.” So there are still pretty elevated expectations of future conflict between Washington and Havana.

Interestingly, Drezner also points to a 2012 paper in the American Political Science Review that suggests that remittances of the kind Obama’s action will bolster can actually strengthen totalitarian regimes by providing an influx of income that allows repressive governments to spend existing resources in ways that further empower them. If families can get money from abroad, the logic goes, regimes spend less money on providing them the services and resources that placated them and spend more money on, say, militaries.

This is actually precisely the kind of logic embargo defenders should heed. Cutting off resources to an oppressed population could make them more dependent on a regime rather than less. Who else will they turn to for aid? It is, I imagine, considerably easier to try to procure food and services from your oppressors than it is to procure the same by trying to overthrow them. As Cuba Research Center President Philip Peters wrote in The American Conservative earlier this week, to assume the opposite is to assume, in the case of Cuba, that the Cuban people remain perpetually “one spark short of a political uprising,” They are not. The Cuban people have suffered through the embargo for half a century. They suffered through the fall of the Soviet Union, their primary economic partner – a calamity so devastating to the Cuban economy that the average Cuban lost twenty pounds in the immediate aftermath. Neither produced regime change. It seems that the greatest chance for slow, long-term change will be provided by the same kinds of policy changes that will provide immediate relief to the Cuban people in the short term – the kinds of changes Obama has implemented. Although remittances seem to enable regimes to spend resources on things that keep them in power, different regimes are secured by different things. And the reforms Raul Castro has put in place over the past few years evince a belief that economic reforms – not jackboots – are the key to holding on. Peters in The American Conservative:

Ten years ago, Cuban citizens could not travel abroad without a government exit permit. Cell phones were available to officials, foreign businessmen, and tourists, but not average Cubans. Hotels and resorts were reserved for foreigners only. Computers were not for sale, only components. Cubans could only sell cars of 1959 or earlier vintage. Home sales were illegal even though 85 percent of Cuban families hold title to their homes. And an unannounced policy capped the number of licenses to engage in private business at about 150,000.

All those prohibitions are gone today.

Cubans are traveling wherever they can get a visa, and the United States granted 19,500 visitor visas in the first half of this year. Cuban dissidents now visit Washington, Miami, and European capitals regularly—then they return home and travel again. Private brokers and online listing services are sorting out supply and demand in a new residential real estate market. Internet connectivity remains limited and expensive, but it is improving and 1.9 million Cubans—more than one-fifth of the adult population—now have cell phones, some now with access to e-mail.

Will economic changes be undermined or pushed along by new remittances? I think a case can be made for the latter given that the new allowances are coupled with expanded access to Cuba for American entrepreneurs – Cuba will see both new money and new demands on what that money should be able to do – demands that will be made by new people in an undermining of the strength of Cuba’s public sector that Peters says is already underway:

New economic policies have led to an explosion of small enterprise, where nearly half a million Cubans—triple the number of four years ago—are working in service businesses of all kinds. Larger private businesses, legally organized as cooperatives, are emerging; some of the 600 in operation are state enterprises that have been turned over to their workers, while others are start-ups that began with citizen applications. Market-based agriculture has expanded with land grants to 170,000 private farmers and cooperatives, and the agriculture bureaucracy is being pared back gradually. The government has trimmed its payroll by 650,000 workers, and ultimately expects 45 percent of the workforce to be occupied in the private sector. A new foreign investment law was approved last March, and the courtship of potential investors is under way.

Prospects for economic progress aside, Cuba’s human rights abuses remain well worth examining and criticizing. From Matthew Yglesias’ summary at Vox:

According to Freedom House, Cuba has the most restrictive press censorship in the Western Hemisphere and is the only country rated “not free” in the Americas. All official media is owned by the state and controlled by the government. Dissident bloggers are regularly arrested. According to Amnesty International, protestors are regularly arrested and detained without trial. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba says there were over 6,000 arbitrary detentions of human rights activists in 2013.

Once in jail, detainees face harsh conditions. “Prisoners often slept on concrete bunks without a mattress,” according to the State Department’s human rights report on Cuba, “with some reports of more than one person sharing a narrow bunk. Where available, mattresses were thin and often infested with vermin and insects.”

As for Cuba’s dubious role in international terrorism, The Hill has a rundown of the State Department’s gripes:

“In the case of Cuba, State listed three primary reasons for keeping the island nation on the list. First, it noted that Cuba continued to provide a safe haven for about two dozens members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), a group charged with terrorism in Spain.

State’s report, though, seemed to give Cuba some credit for hosting peace talks between the government of Colombia and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The report notes that Cuba offered aid to FARC members “in past years,” and indicates that Havana is no longer supporting the rebel group.

A second major reason for listing Cuba was that the government “continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.” That language is unchanged from last year’s report.

And thirdly, State said Cuba has deficiencies in the area of anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism, just as it did in last year’s report. This year, however, State also noted that Cuba has become a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America, which requires Havana to adopt anti-money laundering recommendations.

…A Washington lawyer with expertise in Cuba and international law, Robert Muse, told The Hill that none of the three reasons listed by State are enough to satisfy the legal requirements that must be met to list a country as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Muse said arguments about harboring U.S. fugitives are especially weak, since U.S. law says designations must be made against countries that “repeatedly provided support for international terrorism.”

Whether Cuba can credibly be considered a sponsor of terrorism or not and despite its clear abuses, we should, I think, find ourselves at least uneasy with the idea of pursuing political objectives by inflicting suffering on innocent people who likely share those objectives. “The embargo was originally conceived in a 1960 State Department memorandum,” Peters writes, “as a way to deny ‘money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.'” Hunger and desperation. As official U.S. policy. This is what sanctions are designed to do – in Cuba, in Iran, and elsewhere. Sometimes they work. Sometimes. But vicious and destructive circular logic gets employed when they don’t. Daniel Larison in The American Conservative yesterday:

“There is almost no other kind of policy that thrives off of failure more than sanctions and embargoes. If the regime’s behavior doesn’t change, that is taken as proof that the economic pressure is insufficient and must be increased. If the regime is open to a negotiated settlement of outstanding issues, that is also treated as an invitation to impose more sanctions to “keep up the pressure.” Economic sanctions can never be lifted for fear of “rewarding” the government that the U.S. tried to punish, and so they remain in place for as long the other government endures.”

The biggest fans of this circular logic in the case of Cuba are the stooges of the Cuba lobby. Prominent among them are two GOP 2016 hopefuls – Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Both have been vocal and absurd in their criticisms of everything that’s happened over the past day. The benefits to them of defending the stats quo politically aren’t immediately obvious. The Cuba lobby, after all, isn’t that powerful in the grand scheme of things. And a recent Atlantic Council survey indicates incredibly broad support for normalization. 56% of Americans, 63% of Floridians, 52% of Republicans, and 60% of Independents support it. The only constituency Cruz and Rubio could conceivably be appealing to is the contingent of Republican primary voters broadly contemptuous of Obama’s foreign policy. Cuba, in and of itself, doesn’t matter to them. This is the “Lead From Behind”/”Blame America First” crowd.

Finally, Noah Feldman has a decent analysis of the broader political takeaway from all this in Bloomberg View: There is power in small but dedicated political constituencies like the Cuba lobby. But Obama seems to be demonstrating an increased willingness to take them on.

What Obama must be hoping is that groups with a passing interest in the opening to Cuba will get on the bandwagon just long enough to counterbalance the power of the lobby and get the necessary legislation passed. Big ag will still have a diffuse interest, not a concentrated one — but perhaps the vision of money on the table in the near future will motivate sufficient support.

The risk that Obama carries in taking on a concentrated lobby isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. After all, he tried to take on the NRA by pushing gun control after the Newtown shootings. When he lost, the political cost to him was much less than the cost of doing nothing. With regard to Israel, Obama has tread much more carefully, limiting himself to the unmistakable message that he thinks West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace and that Benjamin Netanyahu is, too. Many pro-Israel lobbying groups detest him for it, but they haven’t yet had the occasion to go to war against him.

With the end of his presidency in view, Obama has to take risks if he wants to score some legacy points. His gamble on Cuba may not be fully realized. But the results will have implications for the structure of American interest group politics more broadly.

The Obama Adminstration Moves on Immigration…For a Corrupt Ecuadoran Family

Gawker ran this under the headline “The Obama Administration is Corrupt as Fuck”, which is overstating things maybe (although the ambassadorial nominations of late are particularly infuriating and not a good look). A biting story from The New York Times:

The Obama administration overturned a ban preventing a wealthy, politically connected Ecuadorean woman from entering the United States after her family gave tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, according to finance records and government officials.

…The Obama administration has allowed the family’s patriarchs, Roberto and William Isaías, to remain in the United States, refusing to extradite them to Ecuador. The two brothers were sentenced in absentia in 2012 to eight years in prison, accused of running their bank into the ground and then presenting false balance sheets to profit from bailout funds. In a highly politicized case, Ecuador says the fraud cost the country $400 million.

…while scrutiny has typically focused on whether the family’s generous campaign donations have helped its patriarchs avoid extradition, the unorthodox help given to Ms. Isaías, the daughter of Roberto, has received little attention.

…For more than a year, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and his staff engaged in a relentless effort to help Ms. Isaías, urging senior government officials, including Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, to waive the ban. The senator’s assistance came even though Ms. Isaías’s family, a major donor to him and other American politicians, does not live in his state.

The Obama administration then reversed its decision and gave Ms. Isaías the waiver she needed to come to the United States — just as tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the family poured into Mr. Obama’s campaign coffers.

…In an interview this year, Roberto Isaías said the family’s donations were targeted to members of Congress who fight for human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America. He said he had met Mr. Menendez once or twice. “If you go to his website,” Mr. Isaías said, “it says, ‘If you have an immigration problem, call me.’ ”

The senator’s website does offer such casework assistance, under a category titled “Services for New Jerseyans.”

That, beautifully, is how the piece ends. The kicker on all this is that Ms. Isaías’ waiver might have been secured by a one Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s former Chief of Staff in the State Department. This is all going to be swallowed up by the news cycle, but it’s an important reminder, I suppose, of just how little the Obama administration has differed from administrations past in its willingness to engage in this kind of wheeling and dealing. And Menendez seems like an embarrassment, honestly.

First They Came for the Buddy Comedies….

Jeet Heer on the ongoing The Interview debacle, which we should all take seriously, I guess, even though it’s really, really hard to. For me anyways.

If there’s anything that can be taken away form this, it’s that derailing the entertainment industry is apparently pretty damn easy. I’m more worried about GamerGate-type trolls benefiting from that lesson than I am about our geopolitical foes.

Heet’s Twitter essay on the whole thing is worth a read, as is his group blog, Sans Everything, which I’ve only recently discovered.