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What I've been up to, here and elsewhere
I’ve been reliably informed by people who understand this medium better than I do that one of the things I should be using this space for is to let people know where to find what I’ve written lately. So I’m going to do that, and over time also use this end-of-week post to highlight other matters that I didn’t post about but didn’t want to slip by.
Yang Gangs of New York
Over at The Week I had a column about Andrew Yang’s candidacy for mayor of New York:
What Yang has managed to do better than any of his opponents so far is project a spirit of optimism that, I suspect, resonates very powerfully in a city with as many challenges as New York has. Like Ed Koch in the wake of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s or Fiorello LaGuardia in the depths of the Great Depression, Yang exudes energy, enthusiasm and a belief in the future. Like Obama in 2008, I suspect his willingness to speak boldly and think big allows him to take more centrist positions without seeming like a candidate of caution or compromise (which may precisely be what gives liberal voters more permission to embrace him). I also don't think it's an accident that the leader in the polls is the one who's been the most active on the campaign trail all through the ravages of COVID-19 (which, unsurprisingly, he caught in the middle of the brutal winter wave of infections). Yang seems happy to be here — wherever he is. That's an infectious quality, and a hard one to beat by saying: You haven't earned your place in this race.
The column wasn’t intended to be an endorsement, in part because I’m not planning on voting for Yang, certainly not as my first choice (New York is using ranked-choice voting for the first time this year, something I wrote about here last week). But it was taken as such by Yang supporters and I imagine I’ll soon be blamed as one of the media boosters for his election if, as looks increasingly possible based on polling, he does in fact win.
It’s a fair cop on the media, and I am chagrined for being part of the problem in a sense. But here’s the thing: Yang has already made the race about him versus the rest. That’s the reality, and nobody is going to analyze the race as if it’s a free-for-all when it isn’t. I don’t know who would win a genuine two- or three-person contest, but as things stand, with five or six viable candidates all trailing Yang by a substantial margin, I’d expect his dominance of the race only to increase with time. That will, and should, affect the coverage — before New Yorker’s choose Yang, the most important thing they need to know about is him. And the most important thing his rivals need to reckon with is why he is doing as well as he is — substantial reasons why, not flip reasons that insult the electorate like “high name recognition.”
My other column at The Week this week was about Biden’s decision to confirm our withdrawal from Afghanistan without conditions, albeit on a somewhat slower timetable than his predecessor had agreed to. My question: given how little we’ve accomplished over the past twenty years, when should we have left?
The only durable achievement of the war since the end of 2001 was the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan a decade after the war began, the intelligence for which did not clearly require a military presence in Afghanistan at all (though the helicopter raid itself had to be launched from Afghan territory, without which the military would probably have had to rely on drones or stealth bombers to execute the strike).
That would have been a very reasonable time to call it quits — and I personally think the Obama administration erred in not doing so then. The strategic inertia that has characterized the last 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan has done nothing but cost lives, waste money, and undermine America's own sense of self. . . . If we were willing to admit that in 2012 [though], we might well have admitted it in 2002. But would the quick defeat of the Taliban after 9/11 have had any meaning, either to Americans or in the eyes of the world, if we had blithely accepted the descent of Afghanistan into civil war over the next several years, ending with the Taliban's return to power? So was our ultimate war aim in Afghanistan just to stay there long enough to be able to say: We've done all we can do?
While I was looking back, my colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, looked forward, and pointed out that the most difficult challenge for the Biden administration and the American people will be watching the consequences of failure:
How are Americans likely to respond when the Taliban begins an offensive against the capital, building on its territorial gains around the country in recent years, and eventually topples the democratically elected government we midwifed and defended and propped up for so long? Some will no doubt shrug their shoulders and callously dismiss it, claiming it just shows the Afghan people were never capable of democracy in the first place. But many others in positions of power in and around Washington D.C. will be utterly mortified. I told you so.If we'd stayed, this wouldn't be happening. This is on us. We are responsible. We have to make it right.
Shame, guilt, self-loathing, the urge to atone and repent, the craving for expiation of sin — these are powerful emotions, many of them with theological roots, and America is a country of intense, theologically grounded passions. Is Biden prepared for this reaction? Does he have a response ready at hand? I certainly hope so, because he's going to need one.
I think Linker is exactly right when he goes on to point out that it isn’t just the right-wing opposition that will react in this way — indeed, the GOP and the Democrats are both split on the wisdom of withdrawal, and the precise political consequences of a Taliban return to power aren’t obvious. But if we do start looking for redemption in a new conflict, from Ukraine to Taiwan there are plenty of opportunities out there.
Three new pieces here this week, in case you missed them:
“Authority and Expertise” — a piece about the difference between the two, the problem with relying on the latter for the former, and the consequences for overcoming vaccine hesitancy. This has become only more timely in the wake of the FDA’s decision to extend the pause in the use of the J&J vaccine, as Megan McArdle articulates well at The Washington Post.
“Stepping Out” — my first trip to a movie theater since the start of the pandemic. (I saw La Strada and it was wonderful.)
“Reparations and the Black Nationalist Counterfactual” — my thought experiment about how advocacy for reparations would play out in a world where, after the Civil War, America’s freed slaves were dispatched to form their own republic carved out of American territory, rather than being enfranchised (briefly) as equal citizens.
Elsewhere on Substack, I have to recommend two posts from Matt Yglesias at Slow Boring, each of which exemplified what Yglesias does best. The first, “More incarceration is not the answer,” separates the need for effective policing from what was historically the most-common “tough on crime” measure: heavier sentences. He’s in favor of the former and against the latter. The second, “HR1 is kind of half-baked,” similarly separates the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Democratic bill, which if anything should be strengthened, from the rest of the bill, which he sees as a hodgepodge of good-but-not-essential ideas and stuff that doesn’t really make sense. Yglesias’s newsletter is both indispensable and a real downer to read because he’s so much better at this than I can imagine being.
Have a good weekend.