Conservatism, pt. 2

I got away from my main point talking about the shooting, I think. Emotions got the better of me, I suppose.

My point was primarily that I identify with a lot of the toxic beliefs that those angry young white men have. The most toxic one to me is that the world is fair.

It’s not. If you truly believe the world is fair, ultimately, you are going to develop some terrible beliefs. I don’t know how to justify children starving or dying of illness. I don’t think it’s God’s fault, but I also don’t think God is going to help out either.

This is a common problem for religious believers–theodicy, or the problem of suffering–and it’s a large part of why I’m not religious anymore. Bart Ehrman, Duke theologian, articulates it a bit here:

How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?

My fundamental problem with what I see as the core of American conservative beliefs, is that they hold American society to be a mostly fair place.

  • The free market works, AND we live in a free market society.
  • The wealthy earned their money. Therefore, people in poverty too did something to deserve it.
  • Fortunate people are Godly and deserve their good luck. Again, by extension the unlucky deserve their luck as well.
  • Private charity can take of those in need. American society is not so unjust as to require things like social services, affirmative action, etc.

Those are four big problematic ideas for me, and they’re a large part of why I drifted away from conservatism in college. But. But but but but. These are uncontroversial beliefs among many US conservatives. And they are terrible. If you are even remotely privileged, these beliefs essentially tell you it’s okay–you deserve it. 

These angry young white men all had a sense of entitlement that I had. They were decent, young, middle-class men. Surely the world was going to be their oyster. It wasn’t that easy.

But they deserved happiness! They deserved money, and sex, and good careers! Someone took those dreams away from them–whom?

Women? African-Americans? Immigrants?

That’s my point. These angry young men believed they were owed ideals, money, women’s bodies, that never belonged to them. Their core belief system seemed to reinforce the idea that they deserved good things happening to them–it is only fair. But the world isn’t fair.

And so my problem with conservative beliefs in the fundamental fairness of the world, as I see it, is that they create two terrible outcomes.

  1. You are fortunate. Congratulations. Maybe you’ll donate a little bit of money to charity, but fundamentally if people are righteous, decent people they would have your luck. So it’s not really a moral imperative to help the less fortunate.
  2. You’re not fortunate. Clearly you’ve been wronged, because the world is a fair place. It’s time to get angry.

These aren’t the only outcomes, of course–that would be silly. But I’ve seen an awful lot of #1, and #2 seems to not be uncommon either.

The world isn’t fair. And that’s okay, sort of. We’re humans. We can create social systems and structures to mitigate the worst effects of poverty. We’ve made a lot of positive steps towards the equality of all humans. Shit, we’re not living in a feudal system anymore–that alone is worthy of praise. We can improve peoples’ lives if we want to.

But with conservative faith in the Just World fallacy, there’s just this sort of deadly complacency. This seems to be especially true among some of the evangelicals I know–having the “correct” belief is enough to guarantee heaven, so why bother with deeds?–but it’s seen in a lot of conservative policies. You see it when Jeb Bush tells single mothers to just get married already. Or why have abortions, ever, when you can just find the right husband who earns enough to raise all of your children? Why help the poor, when charity will obviously take care of it? Why bother to improve things at all when the world is going to end anyway?

So, anyway, that’s my long-winded explanation of how being raised conservative turned me into a liberal. And it’s why I think those angry young men probably were raised to be conservative–the core belief of entitlement practically demands it. I had it too, years ago, and I still remember its appeal. A simple explanation for the world, where I had been wronged? It was great, and seductive, and the only problem of course was that it was 100% dead fucking wrong.

Charleston, entitlement, and on being raised conservative

Something terrible happened this week. A young white supremacist went to a historical African-American church in Charleston, attended a Bible Study session, and then killed nine people. I am omitting his name because he is a disgrace unworthy of the attention that his pathetic actions warranted. Most of us, perhaps, have one chance in life to really be remembered for something, and he chose the worst possible route.

I think I understand his motives, however, and that troubled me. So here I am today.

Based on his statements so far, he believes some truly wild things. To wit:

Witnesses to the killings said the gunman asked for the pastor when he entered the church, and sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study.

They said that almost an hour after he arrived, the gunman suddenly stood and pulled a gun, and Ms. Washington’s cousin Tywanza Sanders, 26, known as the peacemaker of the family, tried to calmly talk the man out of violence.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told the gunman, Ms. Washington recounted.

The gunman replied, “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

This eerily resembles the manifesto of the Santa Barbara shooter, who similarly deserves to remain nameless. Sexual frustration seemed to drive his shootings too.

It all has to come to this,” Mr. Rodger says, his voice at once placid and chilling. “Tomorrow is the day of retribution. The day I will have my retribution against humanity. Against all of you. For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men but never to me. I’m 22 years old, and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. I have been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. All because girls have never been attracted to me. In those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness.”

“I do not know why you girls aren’t attracted to me,” he said, “But I will punish you all for it.”

These jackasses have a profound sense of entitlement. They feel entitled, apparently, to women’s bodies. Charleston Jackass feels specifically entitled to white women’s bodies, while Santa Barbara Jackass has a less specific desire to be found attractive by women. They did not find him attractive, and this enraged him enough to kill 6 people.

And I can relate to this feeling of entitlement. I don’t like to admit to it, but it’s there. I’m not sure it’s possible to be raised as a white American male and not feel at least a little of it.

When I was growing up, there was an expectation that I Would Make Something Of Myself. My parents had done so, after all. I was their child, and I was a citizen of the Greatest Nation On Earth. Saint Reagan’s Utopia of free enterprise and opportunity.

You can still see a lot of this expectation levied upon millennial graduates in general, I think. A sort of bemused wondering why they haven’t been successful relative to their parents yet. If they are, it’s often with a significant leg up from those same family members. But millennials, unlike the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers, just can’t get their shit together. They’re hung up on trigger warnings and gay marriage and other trivial bullshit. What is their problem?

Well, let’s look at recent history a little bit.

In America, following World War 2, there was a virtual firehose of money directed at white men. The GI Bill subsidized the education of many returning (white!) veterans, who then used their new college degrees and business education to capture an enormous share of the money heading to America from the vast number of nations devastated by World War 2. It was an unprecedented time in human history for white men. If you were a white male business graduate or perhaps an Ivy student graduating in the late 1940s, the world was quite literally your oyster. There were limitless opportunities.

One of the most important factors, perhaps, was public subsidization of education. College degrees were useful, and dirt cheap. This is obviously not the case in 2015, where the proliferation of degrees has rendered them simultaneously essential (everyone has one!) but not particularly useful as a signifier of skills, knowledge or talent. Bloomberg states that college tuition and fees have risen 1120 percent since 1978. Incomes have, of course, not risen by the same percent.

Housing costs, too, are substantial, and have soared well past the inflation rate for decades. A new term has come up recently (the “sharing economy”) to describe the fact that ownership of assets is simply out of the reach of most millennials. This too is significant, because most middle-class family wealth is tied primarily to their home’s value. If you can’t afford a house, you can’t play the game.

So now, if you’re a privileged white guy graduating in 2015, you have a bit of a problem. It’s entirely possible that your father with an English degree (or maybe even a HS diploma) walked onto a job that paid enough for him to buy a house, two cars, and even invest a bit in the stock market. The situation waiting for you is not as rosy: college is very expensive, housing is often out of reach, and you even have to be careful which degrees you try to aim for. The factors that led to success in 1945, or 1965, or 1985, are just not the same as in 2015.

But you live in America. You’re privileged. You believe in the American Dream. Is the problem that you’re a screwup? Or did someone else–like a minority, or immigrants–take that dream away from you?

And so, with the proper conservative upbringing and just enough privilege to not realize that the American Dream is oversold, you get angry. What changed since those golden years in the past? Was it offshoring of manufacturing? Was it women entering the workplace in large numbers? Perhaps it was immigrants? Or maybe it was ethnic minorities finally achieving some measure of equality?

Here’s the thing. A lot of people, when faced with that sort of coming-of-age dilemma, will not turn violent. I didn’t. Most won’t–they’ll accept that the causes are complex and that they need to adjust. But some start looking for explanations in the wrong places.

I’m not saying that a conservative upbringing is going to lead you to white supremacist beliefs. But conservative beliefs are practically essential for the formation of white supremacist beliefs. It’s like the joke about Fox News – not racist, but #1 with racists.

Here’s the thing, too. As news comes out, it appears more and more likely that a lot of people knew about his incredibly racist beliefs as well as his plans to start shooting, but didn’t think this was remarkable enough to notify anyone.

The suspected gunman who massacred nine people inside a historic black South Carolina church Wednesday got a gun for his 21st birthday in April and bragged last week about his plans to “kill a bunch of people,” sources said.

How comfortable with poisonous beliefs do you have to be, to not report a suspected mass shooting of African-Americans? This wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t unavoidable. The shooter held some incredibly common beliefs, and took them one step further. 

Sure, he was raised to be a racist. He just did racist homework, on Rhodesia, and South Africa. He took his beliefs to their awful conclusion.

Maybe his family was just a little racist. Maybe they were ironically racist. Maybe they just loved the Stars and Bars. It doesn’t matter now, because he took those beliefs, ran with them, and now nine wonderful people are dead.


I took a news break for a few days. It was sorely needed.

I have been following the Baltimore news the last few days, though. Twitter has been more useful for following protests than official news outlets: it’s more chaotic, perhaps, but you get a much broader collection of views than you would get otherwise.

Baltimore sun article:

It’s a familiar story. A young African-American man, 25, entered police custody. When he arrived at jail, he mysteriously had a broken spine. He was “rushed” to the hospital but succumbed a week later to his injuries.

To this point, Baltimore police officials have not been very forthcoming.

Police said Gray, who was dragged by officers to a transport wagon, should have gotten immediate medical attention. Batts said the department is investigating whether Gray’s injuries resulted from his arrest or a “rough ride” — in which police vans are driven erratically to harm unbuckled, handcuffed detainees. Batts said Gray could have sustained injuries during arrest and transport.

“We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon as he should have been. No excuses from me. Period,” Batts said. “We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.”


Except, of course, this isn’t the first time this has happened. The Baltimore Sun released an extensive series of articles about ongoing police brutality settlements in the city. Since 2011, the city has averaged about one settlement every other week.

Moreover, economic inequality remains pretty brutal in Maryland. Even though the state borders Washington DC–a metro area offering some of the highest average salaries to be found– black residents are affected disproportionately badly. The NYTimes featured an article about 1.5 million “missing black men” and many of them, oddly, come from this area.

It does not take a great deal of insight to say that there is ongoing violence in Baltimore. But until yesterday, that violence was largely inflicted by society as a whole upon the city’s residents. When the less-powerful start fighting back, well, suddenly the violence is worth reporting.

If you’re wondering why these protests turned violent, well… how much attention did the broader news media pay to Baltimore before yesterday? Did coverage of Freddie Gray crowd out the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Or did it take a burning CVS store to do that?

Progressives in foreign policy: or, where the hell are they?

The dominance of the President, Senator McCain, and Senator Paul on foreign policy should trouble progressives. Why? To state the obvious, because none of these three camps adequately represents the views of most American progressives.

This is true. The President (both Obama right now, and the person who will fill the role in the future) is very likely to pursue a muscular, interventionist foreign policy. He/she is the Commander-in-Chief, and almost certainly has the most immediate and direct influence on foreign policy compared to the sausage factory of domestic politics. McCain, meanwhile, has scarcely seen a fight overseas he would not like to involve the US in. Rand Paul, meanwhile, combines a nominally non-interventionist foreign policy with what I suspect are likely to be Ayn Randian economic and trade views.

What’s more, Chris Murphy has a fairly compelling vision of his own here:

Frankly, it’s not hard to figure out what would be the organizing principles of this vision. A substantial transfer of financial resources from the military budget to buttress diplomacy and foreign aid so that our global anti-poverty budget, not our military budget, equals that of the other world powers combined. A new humility to our foreign policy, with less emphasis on short- term influencers like military intervention and aid, and more effort spent trying to address the root causes of conflict. An end to unchecked mass surveillance programs, at home and abroad, as part of a new recognition that we are safer as a nation when we aren’t so easily labeled as hypocrites for preaching and practicing vastly differently on human and civil rights. And a categorical rejection of torture, under any circumstances.

In a nutshell: an emphasis on diplomatic “soft power,” an increased focus on economic aid, an end to mass surveillance, and a rejection of torture.

Sure, sign me up. To be honest, I suspect you could get many conservatives to agree this is a good start to policy if you change the rhetoric slightly. There are some voters who are never going to be satisfied unless the current US President is literally hacking ISIS members to death with a machete. But if you can convince people that this would shift some of the costs off the US–as it arguably would, since you’d require a smaller military, fewer bases everywhere–you could probably find plenty of sympathetic ears. “Why is Europe allowed to freeload off US defense capabilities?” There.

Of course, the greater challenge might be getting Americans to care about US foreign policy in the first place.

Chinese State-Sponsored Hackers Suspected in Anthem Attack

Well, this is awkward:

Investigators of Anthem Inc.’s data breach are pursuing evidence that points to Chinese state-sponsored hackers who are stealing personal information from health-care companies for purposes other than pure profit, according to three people familiar with the probe.

The breach, which exposed Social Security numbers and other sensitive details of 80 million customers, is one of the biggest thefts of medical-related customer data in U.S. history. China has said in the past that it doesn’t conduct espionage through hacking.

The attack appears to follow a pattern of thefts of medical data by foreigners seeking a pathway into the personal lives and computers of a select group — defense contractors, government workers and others, according to a U.S. government official familiar with a more than year-long investigation into the evidence of a broader campaign.

I have two conflicting responses to this: one, this is fairly normal fare for rival nation-states, and two, this is creepy and possibly an escalation of what was known before. That China has a keen interest in US military technology is no secret, and should not be. That China is almost certainly stealing US technology is similarly not news. That China may be sponsoring hackers to steal private health information of defense contractors, federal employees, on the other hand is news to me.

My first guess would be that this might be useful to determine who might be vulnerable to bribes. If Timmy the Contractor has some serious medical conditions, and you can hack into his bank and determine his overall financial picture isn’t great either, that’s useful information.

I’m honestly not sure how useful knowledge of peoples’ health conditions alone would be. Obama has asthma, so let’s smuggle some mold into the White House? Billy with the DIA smokes, so let’s slowly increase the nicotine dosage on his cigarettes to shave 2 years off his life? Clearly I’m not very imaginative here.

China’s Scary Plans for Global Domination! etc


Hello! It’s been a while. I’ve been reading through End of the Line slowly, and it’s taken up a lot of my spare time.

I read an interesting article on, one of the many smaller news websites like proliferating lately, about China’s secret strategy of global domination. To wit:

China launched a secret 100-year modernization program that deceived successive U.S. administrations into unknowingly promoting Beijing’s strategy of replacing the U.S.-led world order with a Chinese communist-dominated economic and political system, according to a new book by a longtime Pentagon China specialist.

For more than four decades, Chinese leaders lulled presidents, cabinet secretaries, and other government analysts and policymakers into falsely assessing China as a benign power deserving of U.S. support, says Michael Pillsbury, the Mandarin-speaking analyst who has worked on China policy and intelligence issues for every U.S. administration since Richard Nixon.

This is sort of an odd way to start, honestly. It portrays China as this monolithic, scheming entity who has tricked the United States into investing many billions of dollars of capital into it. This is peculiar because the US has been using China to fulfill its own economic policy ambitions at least since Nixon visited China in 1972. The Sino-Soviet split was a VERY well-known wedge between the two biggest Communist nations on Earth, and the US had been trying to use this to its advantage since 1960.

The dream of going to China, and getting access to that sweet, sweet market of 1 billion people, was alive and well in the 19th century. St. Louis was going to be a waystation on the way to Greater Asia. The importance of the Northwest Passage, that futile attempt to find a water route through North America, was entirely so ships could sail to China easily. When Matthew Perry arrived in Japan, it was mostly to ensure US steamships could have a refueling point en route to their real destination.

The accusation of a “Chinese communist-dominated economic and political system,” moreover, rings of protesting too much. It’s like Soviet premiers who couldn’t believe American presidents could actually lose elections. The author is projecting US policy goals (we have a Space Command, for goodness sakes) onto China.

This is not to say that China does not have long-term political and economic goals. I would hope its nations leaders do, since they manage a nation of 1+ billion people, many of whom remain illiterate and impoverished. I think that policy analysts who focus heavily on China’s foreign policy are putting themselves at risk of overlooking the obvious: that China is basically its own giant continent, with significant problems that tend to demand a lot of time and money from Beijing. The US does not have ethnic minority separatist states, to my knowledge. Texas may talk of secession but it is absolutely not serious.

This is also not to say that China’s foreign policy goals will overlap with US goals much or if at all, and I think Mr. Pillsbury is wise to be wary here. But speaking of China’s nefarious 100-year-plan to become a global hegemon overlooks the obvious fact that the United States is presently the one and only global hegemon. Let us see what Mr. Pillsbury thinks our relationship with China was:

“We believed that American aid to a fragile China whose leaders thought like us would help China become a democratic and peaceful power without ambitions of regional or even global dominance,” Pillsbury wrote.

This is absurd. China, again, has 1 billion people. One hundred years ago, they were basically living under a feudal agricultural system. Today they are a nuclear power whose middle-class coastal population alone is greater than the entire population of the US or EU. Of course they are going to be more ambitious now that they have a wealthier populace. They have a lot of power, and China has not historically flexed it very far beyond the South China Sea.

China now is wealthier and wants to raise its citizens’ standard of living while also fulfilling goals that are either antithetical to or indifferent to US ones (procuring raw industrial resources, helping its wealthiest citizens become even richer, re-gaining Taiwan). When Hagrid raised a dragon in Harry Potter, we the readers were not surprised to find out this would be dangerous. Sooner or later, the dragon grows up.


There is still much to be optimistic about. China and the US are heavily interconnected economically, and any open conflict between the two nations would be utterly devastating. US military technology and spending levels furthermore render a military conflict unthinkable. That does mean, however, that you should not be surprised if China seeks to gain advantage economically. It is entirely normal.

The only way that being afraid of China’s behavior makes sense is if you also concede that other nations should be afraid of America’s behavior. Because it too is a large, powerful nation.

Postscript: I think it is entirely reasonable for other nations to be at least somewhat afraid of US actions. It is a large, powerful nation and it is going to sometimes pursue goals that are not your own. This should be expected, however. It’s par for the course. I feel like many American foreign policy journalists and scholars are genuinely surprised when we’re reminded that other nations don’t welcome American hegemony as much as Americans do. Of course they don’t!

Related Storify I wrote yesterday: