The Nation: July 29 – August 5, 2019 Issue

AI’s Persona Problem, by Patricia J. Williams: I don’t usually talk much about the front third of The Nation, as most of the stuff they talk about is more recent event stuff that has gone stale by the time I make my way into the stack. Or, more likely, it’s that I’m already sick of the subject by the time I get to it. This one fits well with the technological issues that I’ve been discussing, and is in line with the Team Human themes that I’ve been interested in lately.

Williams talks about the death of privacy, but gets into the ‘code switching’ that people adopt on different areas of the internet. Lord knows I’m guilty of that here. The persona problem that she’s referring to is that that of an individual’s right to self-invention, and the inability of computers to sense the complexity of people’s emotions, or as Rushkoff puts it, the fidelity of human interaction. It’s a short piece, and one that I’d like to see Williams delve deeper into in the future.

The Trump Court, by Elie Mystal: Here is the most terrifying thing about Trump: that besides all of his incompetencies, his madness, and the sheer absurdity, he has been extraordinarily effective at transforming the Federal courts for likely several generations. Mystal is rightly indignant at Democrats for failing to make the Courts more of a campaign issue, and presents a very strong article showing us just how far the Right has succeeded, and what the stakes are for the near future.

Democrats did not make the Supreme Court enough of an issue during the 2016 election, and as a result we now have Justice Kavanaugh. But beyond the relatively high profile of the Supremes, it’s the lower courts that we should really be paying attention to, as the Circuit Courts are the final arbiter of most cases. Mystal picks 7 of the worst ultraconservatives that Trump — or rather the Heritage Foundation — has placed on the courts, and looks at their records on civil rights, gun regulations, immigrants, torture, health care, campaign finance, and so forth.

Mystal is right, Democratics have failed spectacularly when it comes to informing the public about the stakes on this, and we’ll likely be living with the results for generations to come, assuming we can get Trump out of office before the takeover is complete.

Bernie’s Challenge to American Exceptionalism, by Greg Grandin: There is an ongoing theme among the left, a theory about Bernie Sanders, that his brand of democratic socialism is unique, or rather makes Sanders unique among the other contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Ergo, since the other contenders are therefore equivalent, they will ultimately be ineffective at dealing with the problems of capitalism and the issues that gave us Trump.

Grandin make a strong case here that Sander’s platform “is the only thing that can break up the ideological cohesion of the modern right”. He does that by taking us on a historical tour of the war between social rights and individual rights that has been ongoing in America. He writes:

“Individual or political rights are aimed at restraining government power. They presume that virtue is rooted in the individual and that the public good, or general welfare, of a society stems from allowing individuals to pursue their interestsโ€”to possess, to assemble, to believe, to speak, and so onโ€”to the greatest degree possible. A legitimate state is a state that restrains itself, that limits its role to protecting the realm in which individuals pursue their rights. Economic or social rights presume that in a complex, industrial society, with its imbalances of power and often extreme concentrations of wealth, the state has a much more active role to play in nurturing virtue through the redistribution of wealth in the form of education, health, child care, pensions, housing, and other common needs.”

Grandin is the author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which was in Dissent’s Summer 2019 issue. He teaches history at Yale and sits on the editorial board of The Nation as well. I’m starting to find him a very important voice to help understand contemporary America through the lens of history — which is the point of knowing history, of course.

If he is correct that Sander’s is uniquely leading a charge against the individual rights exclusivism that underpins the conservative right, then all progressives and liberals should study that focus and apply it. No matter what ultimately happens with Sander’s presidential campaign. And that’s been my take away from Sander’s 2016 and 2020 runs, that no matter what happens, there are lessons to be gained from it, movements to be built, and people to empower. And I think that has always been Sanders’s goal. Even from those first losses for governor of Vermont, he was showing the way.

The Right Side, by James Oakes: Review of Armies of Deliverance, by Elizabeth R. Varon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone discount the basic premise of an author while effectively building a new thesis on top of the same work. Oakes does this with Varon’s premise that the Civil War was won as various factions, including “enslaved blacks, nonslaveholding Southerners, Northern Democrats and antislavery Republicans, came together to defeat this slaveholder’s rebellion.” To him, this interpretation is incorrect. The battle was not about slavery per se, but against slaveholders, making the Civil War a class conflict.

Oakes is not critical of Varon’s book, in fact his review practically gushes with praise. He considers this and her other volume on Civil War history to be very important chronicles of primary-source materials. Oakes, who is the author of this own volume on the Civil War, makes a compelling case for a reinterpretation of the binding principle of the Union forces against the Slave Power of the Confederacy, one which may be helpful in bringing class struggle to the forefront of modern American consciousness.