All posts by Jerrod A. Laber

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War on Terror Unites Trump and the Establishment

It’s conventional wisdom that Washington, DC is a city marked by gridlock. Republicans obstructed President Obama’s agenda on principle, as Democrats are attempting to do now with Donald Trump. To give even an inch is a sign of political weakness. Trump is, admittedly, a polarizing figure, and there is certainly plenty of dissent in today’s political environment on a host of issues. The War on Terror, though, continues the same trajectory it’s been on for the better part of this century. President Trump, like President Obama before him, has mainstream support for his terror policies and approach to the conflicts in the Middle East.

The incredibly hawkish nature of the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy has been well documented, and Trump is picking up right where he left off. He launched his first drone strike within days of being sworn in as president. There are reports that Trump is giving authority for these strikes over to the CIA and will tolerate more loss of civilian life – essentially giving the reins of an already non-transparent lethal program over to a group of people who lie for a living. And, of course, there is the infamous botched raid in Yemen by American Special Forces which took the life, among others, of a Navy Seal and an eight year-old American girl on January 29th.

Continue reading at Antiwar.com.

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Commercialism in Music Is Totally Justified

Commenting on the events of the Academy Awards last month, Amanda Petrusich writes in The New Yorker an ambiguous column about the commercial phenomenon and success of Justin Timberlake. Timberlake opened the ceremony with a performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from the animated movie Trolls. Petrusich runs through the highlights of Timberlake’s career and observes that “[t]hese days, we have mostly divested ourselves of any notion that art and profit are inherently at odds, or that work made in service of consumerism is fundamentally compromised….Timberlake might be, at present, our most expressly and unapologetically commercial artist.”

The notion that art and profit are inherently incompatible is inconsistent with the historical record, and this is exactly why Timberlake is as omnipresent in the entertainment industry as he is. He consistently delivers a product that consumers enjoy and are willing to buy.

Artistic Value

According to Petrusich, Timberlake’s career has been shaped by corporate and commercial designs. He began his career with “The Mickey Mouse Club” and then joined the band N’Sync, a group “designed primarily to make money.” He recorded a jingle that was widely used by McDonald’s for advertising in the early 2000s. He has also “had a fashion line, a record label, restaurants, a golf course, and a minority stake in the Memphis Grizzlies; he cheerfully endorses many products, including a fragrance, a car, and Sony electronics. In 2012, he hosted a corporate meeting for Walmart shareholders.” All the while, his solo albums have sold almost 30 million records worldwide.

The amalgamation of Timberlake’s talent, public persona, and commercial presence has turned out to be a winning combo for him. Much like the corporations and businesses he has acted as spokesperson for, his products create value for listeners (and moviegoers), which is why they are willing to depart with their earned income to purchase them.

Continue reading at FEE.

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Obama’s foreign policy legacy undermines his C-SPAN ranking as 12th best president

C-SPAN recently released the 2017 Presidential Historian Survey, in which a group of presidential historians rank all previous presidents from best to worst. President Obama did extremely well, coming in as the 12th best president of all time. Obama was commended for his handling of the economy, public persuasion, and (the most unsettling reason) his moral authority. Survey respondents seemed to have overlooked a simple fact, though, which should shatter any image of moral authority from the Obama tenure in office: his destructive and inhumane foreign policy.

Obama’s record on warfare is, frankly, abysmal. It’s particularly galling considering that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped over 26,000 bombs on seven different countries; that’s three bombs every hour. The campaign in Libya destabilized the country in a vein similar to the US invasion of Iraq. He killed a 16 year-old American citizen living in Yemen, and recently increased US involvement in the Yemeni civil war — a war that is starving the country’s citizens. And there is significant skepticism that his administration came even close to telling the truth about the amount of civilians killed in drone strikes over the last eight years.

This does not sound, at all, like a president that retained any semblance of moral authority. To the group’s credit, they gave him “below-average” marks in international relations. It seems like a generous standard, though, for an administration that had a secret “kill list” and caused foreign teenagers to dream about their own deaths by drone strikes.

Continue reading at The Libertarian Institute.

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Consider that You Might Be Wrong

Election cycles are always hyper-partisan. Every new cycle we have pundits telling us that this is the worst it’s ever been, but generally this an exaggeration that gains credibility simply because the current cycle is at the front of our minds. But they are always nasty – it’s the nature of politics. People do not like to be challenged on their political ideals, as Diana Mutz documents in her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy, and people will go to great lengths to only associate and interact with like-minded others. Try to imagine all of the potential social gains one misses out on with this kind of thinking. Or rather, if you happen to not share the politics of your parents, imagine your life without them. Clearly, this shows that politics is a poor reason to divide us in the way that it does, and that, lest we forego a lifetime of unknown benefits (with some costs, to be sure), we should take steps to not allow hyper-partisan thinking to cloud our judgement of everything.

So, I was encouraged when reading through Cass Sunstein’s Bloomberg column on “Five Books to Change Liberals’ Minds.” Sunstein, a very influential legal theorist and a known progressive, argues that walling yourself off to people who do not agree with you is “not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as ‘the other side’” and goes on to list five books that he takes very seriously despite the fact that he disagrees with their more conservative or libertarian political implications.

When it comes to politics, too few people are willing to admit they might be wrong and we are all subject to a host of biases that entrenches this even further. Here are my five books that I have read that were successful in making me think really hard about why I believe the things that I do:

  • Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion: This book made it onto Sunstein’s list. As a hyper-rational person there are times when I struggle with understanding moral reasoning. But Haidt’s explanation that our moral compasses are initially driven by gut feelings and intuitions, followed by after-the-fact reasoning was eye-opening. Also, as someone who leans libertarian, understanding that there is more to morality than harm and fairness goes a long way to shaking off simplistic approaches to the social world.
  • Samuel Bowles – The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Good Substitute for Good Citizens: I tend to think that we could probably commodify most things (two controversial examples are kidneys and bone marrow). But Bowles’s book shows that sometimes intrinsic motivations can outweigh extrinsic reward, and certain incentive structures can crowd out commonly-accepted civic virtues. This means maybe we shouldn’t put a price tag on everything.
  • John Tomasi – Liberalism Beyond Justice: Citizens, Society, and the Boundaries of Political Theory: Tomasi argues that because our political emphasis on individualism will inadvertently influence the ethical culture of non-political life, then we need a way to combat this if we are going to take pluralism seriously.
  • Ian Morris – War! What is it Good For?: I am fervently anti-war. Morris’s argument that “productive” war creates large states that are able to foster internal security, trade, and prosperity was provocative enough to both cause my blood pressure to rise and make me think, is he right? While ultimately I don’t believe he is, this is one of those really good books that makes an ambitious claim and is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.
  • Thaddeus Russell – A Renegade History of the United States: This may not be the alternative history that most people wanted, but given the puritanical and social authoritarian impulse that has guided much of American history, it’s the one we deserved. This is a great look at how pretty much everything we value about the modern world was given to us by “bad” Americans: “drunkards, prostitutes, ‘shiftless slaves’ and white slackers, criminals, juvenile delinquents, brazen homosexuals, and others who operated beneath American society[.]” Instead of Howard Zinn, read Thaddeus Russell. Or read them both.

If you think intellectual honesty and humility are important, then by all means read these books. Read the books Sunstein recommended. Read any book that you think might make you feel uncomfortable. If you are a progressive, have a political conversation with a conservative (or a libertarian) and vice versa. Think for just a second that maybe they have something to say that could be useful and illustrative for you – consider that you could possibly be wrong. Dare to be different, and don’t let politics divide anymore than it already does.

Jerrod A. Laber is a Program Manager at the Institute for Humane Studies. He is a Young Voices Advocate.

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Popular Culture Is Something to Celebrate

Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa is probably my favorite living novelist. His work is heart-wrenching and vivid, a celebration of the power of the individual — an island of true liberalism in the sea of Marxism that makes up modern literary fiction in Latin America.

So, I was disheartened to read his most recent collection of nonfiction, Notes on the Death of Culture. In it, he decries what he sees as a devolution of modern culture from classical forms of art, to a “civilization of the spectacle.” While I make no attempt to normatively evaluate the two stacked against one another, I do think there is a lot to celebrate in this “spectacle,” as he calls it.

Replacing Substance with Entertainment?

Vargas Llosa’s spectacle can basically be defined as modern forms of entertainment and mass media, and the values underlying most people’s consumption of those mediums. Having “a good time, escaping boredom” has become the “universal passion,” has led culture down the path to banality and frivolity, and has given rise to tabloid-style journalism.

The two most important factors in these developments are the post-WWII economic gains experienced by the West and certain Asian economies, and the further democratization of culture, in which literature and the arts are no longer only the domain of the elites. Now, everyone gets a seat at the cultural table which, he contends, has caused a “cheapening and trivializing” effect that has downgraded the content of our cultural consumption, to the extent that “a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones, and a performance by Cirque du Soleil have equal value.”

Continue reading at FEE.