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Wrapping It Up
A week goes by so fast
I can’t quite figure where this week went. I know I wrote a few things; I know I had a few meetings; I know I paid a shiva call, had a board meeting, joined a friend’s birthday dinner, went to synagogue . . . but the week feels like it went by in five minutes flat, and I can barely recall its passing. Is this what reopening feels like? Or is it just me showing my age.
Is Taiwan a Country?
Two-column week this week, and the first tackled this thorny question. It’s not, actually, a particularly thorny question from a metaphysical perspective; Taiwan really has all the attributes of a country one could want . . . except for widespread recognition of it as such.
The column basically argues for a continuation of the current policy of ambiguity, which is consistent with views I’ve articulated before in the same space. As China modernizes and builds up its military, it becomes less and less credible for America to threaten war over Taiwan’s status. The Chinese view the matter as a core interest, and it’s only a vital interest of America’s inasmuch as it’s vital that we restrain China, so providing a security guarantee to Taiwan is about as provocative an action as we could take. Taiwan needs to invest in a credible asymmetric defense strategy of their own, something they are doing, and America’s primary role is to buy them time and manage the situation to avoid war in the interim.
Something I gesture towards but don’t really substantiate is a fear that popular enthusiasm for “Taiwan is a country” could feed into policy, encouraging politicians to make sweeping statements and gestures that then they feel the need to back up rather than back down. I even made an analogy to Chinese nationalism, which is actively promoted by the regime, starting to get out of control and to infect their diplomacy in ways that predictably hurt Chinese interests. But the thing is, notwithstanding hashtag campaigns, I’m not sure there is any real popular enthusiasm for “Taiwan is a country,” and I question whether making any kind of formal commitment to Taiwan, to say nothing of going to war for Taiwan, would be popular.
If you look at polling, there’s a big partisan divide over whether we should have a more inward-facing and unilateralist or outward-facing and multilateralist foreign policy. Republicans are concerned about Chinese aggression, but promoting democracy and human rights is very low on their list of priorities. My guess is this means that going to war to defend Taiwan after a Chinese sneak attack might well be popular enough, with Republicans eager to counter the PRC and Democrats eager to defend a democracy. But extending the American security umbrella proactively, to say nothing of encouraging independence, strikes me as much less likely to play well with either party. “Taiwan is a country” seems to me like an elite project in search of a popular base of support.
But the right leader could very well pull that off. The precedent of President Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the subsequent signing of the Abraham Accords, could provide a road map for a President Tom Cotton or a President Nikki Haley to follow. Like that move, recognizing Taiwan as a country would be stating the obvious and undiplomatic truth and daring those who disagree to do something about it. The sheer pugnaciousness could be seen as the policy’s primary virtue.
Any such move would still be predicted on the Taiwanese having invested adequately in their own defense capabilities not to be perceived as free riding. If the Taiwanese get serious, though, it’s a scenario to keep an eye on.
Will the Left Choose New York’s Mayor?
My other column this week was about the NYC mayoral race and the dynamics of ranked-choice voting. The argument in the piece is that even though the left-wing candidates are collectively polling well behind the moderate candidates, the left could still decide the race. If they coalesce behind their favorite among the moderates, at least as their second choice on the ballot, they could easily put that candidate (likely Kathryn Garcia) over the top. If, on the other hand, they coalesce behind one of the left-wing candidates, whether on the first or the second ballot, that could possibly still put a left-wing favorite into Gracie Mansion—or, more likely, through the election to one of the left’s least-preferred candidates. Therefore, strategic voting is just as important in ranked-choice systems as in traditional elections—it’s just must less obvious what is actually good strategy.
Since the column came out, one of the left’s top hopes, Maya Wiley, surged into second place in the latest poll, and left-wing outlets have begun to argue explicitly for coalescing around her for strategic reasons. All the polling in this difficult-to-poll race should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s not clear that voters know that, and the bandwagon is a pretty great vehicle to ride in a primary. Meanwhile, early voting has already begun, so any arguments made now, strategic or substantive, are landing on a steadily diminishing audience.
Two posts this week, about as different as can be.
First, a piece about Korach’s rebellion in the Book of Numbers. I gave a version of this piece as a talk in shul this past Shabbat morning. It went over pretty well. If you enjoyed reading it here, please let me know; that might encourage me to post more specifically Jewish, biblical and/or religious stuff.
Second, a downbeat piece about the threat of election subversion and how the real nightmare scenario in Democratic minds probably isn’t amenable to legislative remedy. I encourage readers to read it in conjunction with this piece by Bill Scher which is basically serves as the jumping-off point.
The World Elsewhere
David Mikics reads Thomas Mann; me, I watch Mare of Easttown. I think Mikics is living life more rightly. Watching the show, I kept thinking that Detective Zabel should be talking into a voice recorder to a mysterious “Diane” and remarking on the extraordinary quality of the cherry pie. Or, I guess, the shoofly pie. But the point is: I remain amused by the survival of genre without irony after it has been comprehensively taken apart and exposed for what it is, and genuinely disturbed by the willingness of people to invest in a realism of texture when any semblance of realism in character or action has long since been abandoned. I’m neither wedded to nor averse to realism, but I am averse to the “fake real” and this show fell headfirst into the uncanny valley, or I guess the unintentionally-funny-valley, between social realism and soap, so I couldn’t take it seriously in any terms.
For my sins, I’ll probably try The Underground Railroad as well, which will probably also be a mistake, albeit a different one. But we’ll see. I abide in hope, and always try to find something to enjoy. In Mare of Easttown, that was Kate Winslet, who I would watch stare into the bitter distance while vaping for hours, and did.