Good Friday Morning, and raise your hand if you’re on the Tennessee Titans’ daily injury chart. The Thursday chart for the Titans listed 23 people on it, which is 43% of the total roster. I’ve seen some banged-up football rosters in my time, never anything like that. Fortunately, we’ve got the Jacksonville Urbey Meyer’s this weekend.
Apologies for no podcast this past week. I’ve been fighting off sickness for the past week or so. It had me wiped out late Sunday. Hopefully, I’ll be more on the mend this weekend. But this week’s episode will be a game-time decision. I’m on my own injury list.
My Friday CI column will cover many arguments around Mitch McConnell getting Republicans to allow Democrats to pass a two-month extension on the debt limit increase. In short, I think McConnell is expertly playing a hand here, strengthening Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, protecting the filibuster, and extending the misery of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer by locking them into more infighting over the ongoing infrastructure/reconciliation bill debates. Here’s are the essential things you need to know about this contest:
- McConnell ran this two-month extension idea by Manchin and Sinema, getting their buy-in. They eagerly jumped on it.
- The extension kills the growing media talking point that Republicans were sitting idly by as the country was coming up on a debt limit crisis (that Democrats created, but that’s another story). McConnell killed that narrative and delivered the ball back in Democrat’s court, where things are awful for Schumer and Pelosi.
- When Schumer gave his speech, ripping into Republicans — after the GOP extended the debt limit timeline — Joe Manchin can be seen burying his head in his hands in the background. As Schumer continued his rant, Manchin got up and appeared to leave. Manchin gave a brief press Q&A afterward. He reiterated his refusal to get rid of the filibuster for things like the debt ceiling. The filibuster is another thing McConnell is seeking to protect here, and playing ball provides ammo to Manchin/Sinema on that front.
- Pelosi/Schumer face an uphill battle now to pass legislation that has to go together. Infrastructure (the bill everyone wants) has to get enacted with the budget reconciliation boondoggle, which has ranged everywhere from $1.5 trillion (Manchin) to $6 trillion (Bernie Sanders). They must do that with an absent White House, which continues sinking in the polls.
- On the Republican side, some interesting things occurred. Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham both voted against the proposal by McConnell and leadership. Ted Cruz launched into one of his rants about it. Cruz is positioning himself for a White House run, which is why he’s doing this. Romney and Graham were surprises. Graham even criticized McConnell’s decision. These moves suggest some early movement towards a post-McConnell leadership. McConnell is still the undisputed leader, but he’s not getting any younger. Graham/Romney both appear to want the job, and this vote was about positioning for that role.
This week, I’m taking a different direction and talking about some ideas I’ve been sketching out in broad strokes about thinking about what we know and how we know it. More specifically, what our vantage point is when looking at something both in the present and historically. This is all vague; hopefully, it’ll make sense when we jump below—links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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Sotomayor’s pain could be America’s gain – The Conservative Institute.
Biden caves to AOC and the Progressive Caucus – The Conservative Institute.
The vantage point problem, or how we’re blind to the present.
“The real story of a war is no story at all—blackness, sadness, silence. The stories they tell of comradeship and valor are all to make up for what they lacked. When I was in the army I was always surrounded by thousands of men, and yet I was almost always alone. Whenever I made friends, they were killed. “If I describe what I saw of the war, you’ll know it from the point of view of the living, and that is the smallest part of the truth. The truth itself is what was finally apprehended by those who didn’t come back.”
“…but it was a time of peace, and he did not need to think of fighting, and he would not have to die young. This was history’s gift to him, he was grateful for it, and he refused to demean it by imagining a war that did not exist. He was free, and he knew it.”
“I’m not surprised that scholars and critics don’t understand it. Giorgione lived in the time of the plague, and the scholars and critics, for the most part, have had to do without plague or war, which make the simple things one takes for granted shine like gold. What does the painting mean? It means love. It means coming home.”
Passages from A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
I’ve been thinking, which I admit is a dull way to start things off. Still, nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about what America has been thinking about. I don’t necessarily mean the average, everyday American. That kind of person is likely thinking more about playoff baseball, football, or the upcoming holiday season (welcome to the 7th inning stretch of the year).
This past week, specific segments of elite conservative opinion-making became hyper-focused on some public opinion polling out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which suggests elements of Biden and Trump voters want secession — splitting the country in half to deal with the great divides. David French rushed out to declare a “Whiff of Civil War in the Air,” while the City Journal called it the “New Secession Movement.” On the left, the case was made why this was a dumb discussion. Rich Lowry of National Review made a point I didn’t know. There were dueling books on the topic last year:
Last year, there were dueling secession books. From the right, George Mason University’s F.H. Buckley published American Secession, arguing that “the United States is ripe for secession” and “there’s much to be said for an American breakup” (although Buckley favors what he calls “home rule” for the states, a new constitutional compact giving them much more authority). From the left, The Nation’s Richard Kreitner wrote Break It Up, contending that “we must finally finish the work of Reconstruction or give up on the Union entirely.”
In other words, secession is on the minds of America’s elites. Lowry makes several points that secession and a national divorce are lousy ideas. I don’t disagree with any of those points. I think those are correct on the merits.
It just strikes me that we’re having this discussion at all. I say that because conversations regarding secession say more about how little we understand about the time we live. We joke about being doomed to repeat history, and Twain said history rhymed. But I believe it’s entirely possible to understand history, yet not understand the era you live in. It’s not enough to know the past (or see the future, as progressives believe they can do); you must “understand the signs of the times,” to crib a line from Jesus.
But at times, instead of understanding the present, we’re blinded to it. There’s a joke from the Office tv show where one of the characters says, “I wish you knew, in the moment, when you’re living in the good old days.” It’s a talent to be able to recognize that.
The third quote, from the Helprin novel above, gets at this. “I’m not surprised that scholars and critics don’t understand it. Giorgione lived in the time of the plague, and the scholars and critics, for the most part, have had to do without plague or war, which make the simple things one takes for granted shine like gold. What does the painting mean? It means love. It means coming home.”
In that quote, he’s referring to art. The protagonist, Alessandro Giuliani, refers to a painting that depicts a soldier amid war and famine, looking back on a woman and child. Giuliani is a young man who gets called up to serve in the Italian Navy and trenches of the First World War, the “Great War.” His point is profound and simple: he says that he never understood the painting either, why the soldier is looking back on the woman and child in the painting. He didn’t understand it until he went to war and experienced it firsthand.
He remarks that he’s not sure any critic, living in a time of peace and plenty, can genuinely understand that painting either. The critic’s vantage point is from that of peace and prosperity. The soldier’s vantage point is far different. The book chronicles how Guiliani views these changes as he experiences them over a lifetime.
Logically, he has a point (which makes sense since this character is a professor of philosophy, emphasizing the understanding of beauty). What he’s describing is a form of selection bias. In a nutshell, selection bias means that you don’t have a representative sample. In polling, for instance, you want to poll a random selection of Americans. If you over-poll one demographic, your model isn’t quite as good and can get thrown off.
Wikipedia provides a narrower version of this too, observation bias: “Philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that data are filtered not only by study design and measurement, but by the necessary precondition that there has to be someone doing a study. In situations where the existence of the observer or the study is correlated with the data, observation selection effects occur, and anthropic reasoning is required.”
The present versus the past.
I’ve come to wonder if our understanding of events and the present is overly distorted by people with a single vantage point, that of the privileged American, free from war, strife, or want. And if so doing that, what seems like extremism is, when measuring historically, pretty mild.
Here’s where we plug this into the current dust-up in “The Discourse” online. How is it truly possible for people right now — the critics of the moment — how can they understand something like proper polarization? These people talk about the whiffs of the Civil War while spending their day doom-scrolling social media sites catering to their every interest, binge-watching an endless supply of entertainment molded to things they love, and dashing off hot takes on everything imaginable.
We say we’ve never been divided like we are now. When you compare our polarization to any other historical period is laughably untrue. We live in the most ridiculously peaceful time in humanity’s history. We are obscenely wealthy by any metric, and our advanced technology seeps into every corner of our lives, seeking to improve every possible square inch of our lives.
That’s not to say there aren’t serious issues. There are. But we measure these differently because the real things we should fear from polarization are so rare that any time we experience something even remotely negative, it shocks us to our core.
I’ll give you an example of true polarization: race relations. A few years ago, only 17% of Americans believed race relations were good in this country. You could find a plethora of white progressives asserting that race relations had never been worse.
One hundred years ago, America experienced the Red Summer of 1919. It was so named for a few reasons. First, this was during the Russian revolution, and so many things of that era had a tinge of communism. But this was also post-WWI; you had some of the first Black soldiers returning from war, decorated for their service, trained in how to use weapons, and getting mistreated by the country they had just served. Today, people like talking about how we disgraced Vietnam vets, the treatment of Black soldiers makes that pale in comparison.
The NAACP was in its infancy, organizing protests, and the summer of 1919 saw those protests turn violent. Whites lynched Blacks, some of those Blacks retaliated against that violence. Hundreds were killed in cities across the United States, and more were injured. Remember, this was only 54 years after the end of the Civil War. A person in 1919 looking at 1865 is like us in 2019 looking at the 1960s. The last veterans of the Civil War died in the 1950s.
Do you want to talk about polarization and division? In 1919, people were ready to raise mobs and posses to murder other Americans — American war veterans, no less — over those divisions. Right now, we measure political polarization by political opinion polls, and people are freaking out about the results of a survey, suggesting we’ve never seen such.
The lost perspective.
We’ve lost perspective. You can only get that perspective by reading the past and understanding the ancestry around us. Successive generations don’t build each time anew; they build on what came before them.
There’s an old Star Trek episode where the ship encounters a race of people with some of the most advanced technology ever created. The tech can make or do anything. It’s also largely autonomous tech, and over time, everyone forgets how the tech runs. It’s nothing more than magic after several generations of people not understanding how to work it or fix it. That loss causes the alien race to lose perspective of the tech and knowledge they developed so long ago.
I love Inky Johnson, the former Tennessee Volunteer who suffered a career-ending injury and has turned motivational speaker. He has a speech he does where he talks about how people can become victims of their talent. Some people are so talented that they can fake their way through any situation, and no one will know but themselves. Subsequently, they never grow from where they are, and they take that talent for granted.
America is in a similar spot: we live in such ridiculous wealth, prosperity, talent, and more that we’re shocked by even the slightest thing that’s off-balance. That’s not a bad thing, mind you; it’s a testament to the world we’ve built. When things are so peaceful and unique that the slightest thing makes people wonder if polarization has gone too far, we’ve crossed a few levels. But the most critical part of that is that we don’t understand our own moment in the context of the history we inhabit.
To know your place as you stand on the shoulders of those before you is just as crucial as understanding history. I don’t believe the polls are wrong on polarization. However, I want to convey that what we’re fighting about right now is radically different from any other age. There are fights and disagreements worth having on a multitude of issues. I believe abortion will be an issue that divides the nation in radically new ways soon.
But we are critics living in a time of peace, trying to understand a past full of war and misery, things we don’t understand. John Adams said:
The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts.
I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.
Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
The Founders succeeded. Our ancestors followed, too, from the Revolutionary, Civil War, and World Wars; we’ve forged that dream. The last actual global-sized conflict our people knew was Vietnam. Afghanistan and Iraq were/are long-lived but radically small when compared to past events in American history. And I’m concerned we’ve taken that fact for granted, that we’re losing grip to the thing that created this unique moment in history. That makes it imperative to understand the things that brought us here. Conversely, to know how to apply those lessons to the present.
Right now, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic where more than 700,000 Americans have died from a virus. And we’re so wealthy we can afford to debate whether to force people to vaccinate because we also can treat people with miraculous cures. Also, people have mostly returned to normal. Every football stadium is packed, every event is sold out, and people live life despite the pandemic raging on.
You can debate whether or not this is good or not, but what’s happening can’t be denied: we live in a moment where we can afford to be this way. Our vantage point, our observer’s bias of history, and how it applies to us when you can whiff the Civil War is so radically different from our predecessors that it’s hard to make comparisons.
The question to ask is this: is this vantage point we inhibit, this extreme level of wealth, talent, and peace, is it the norm which we should correctly judge everything, or is it the exception to the rule? Are we living in a false narrative of reality? Are we the peace-time critic trying to understand the art of our past, which was made under far different circumstances?
When reading about the rest of the world, or history, it’s hard to avoid the fact that we live in the exception. What that means in terms of building a proper understanding of politics and policy is beyond me. But I do believe our blindness to that prevents us from making better decisions.
One last example, and we’ll wrap up. Consider the secession question at face value. Let’s say America does divide up into two countries. Would that work? Of course not. America isn’t one country. It is a plurality of many nationalities. If secession occurred, it wouldn’t be into two nations; it’d be a breakup into many countries with regional and political factionalism dividing everything up into increasingly smaller sovereignties. There wouldn’t be one secession; there would be many. And with that breakdown would die the most remarkable example of liberty in world history.
And all of this ignores one cold hard reality: the Civil War ended the secession question. There is no seceding. It is impossible both by law and blood. There is no vote; once a state enters, that is permanently binding. Secession is more of a pipe dream of people who dream in absurdities.
The degree of disconnection of reality that those who dream of secession display far outstrips any critic who doesn’t understand their time. Even those critics are taking bong hits off bogus opinion polls instead of focusing on the reality around them.
Links of the week
Today’s deep question: Why does Biden use a stage set instead of the White House? – Ed Morrissey, Hot Air
Why Biden’s Approval Rating Isn’t Bouncing Back – Nathaniel Rakich, FiveThirtyEight
Joe Biden’s brother-in-law asked Hunter Biden to help him secure a business license in China, emails show
Hunter Biden wrote, ‘Is there a way we can help him expedite this? Time is of the essence here’ – Cameron Cawthorne, Fox News
Americans Really Don’t Like This President – Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review
What the ‘Smart Money’ Knows About China’s Evergrande Crisis: On Wall Street, hype almost always leads to heartache. Investors who hopped on the China bandwagon are learning that lesson the hard way. – Jason Zweig, WSJ
Federal Probe Scrutinizes Financial Dealings of the American Conservative Union: Sources say that investigators are looking into possible criminal campaign-finance misdeeds by the political organization headed by Matt Schlapp. – Andrew Egger, The Dispatch
Did Maricopa County ‘Delete All Records Used for Election Results’? No. – Khaya Himmelman, The Dispatch
Fact Check: A Seattle Times Op-Ed Claimed that CBP Agents Wielded Whips Against Migrants: The author asked for the reference to be changed, and the article has been corrected. – Alec Dent, The Dispatch
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Thanks for reading!