A View from Afar
Michel Houellebecq’s praise of Trump is a timely send-up of decades of American triumphalism, which seems to be imploding under its own weight [“Donald Trump Is a Good President,” Revision, January]. But the joke ultimately falls flat, because the replacement approach that Houellebecq envisions is even more disturbing than the status quo.
The philosophical roots of liberalism in the eighteenth century, and the real-world liberal order that arose in the latter half of the twentieth, at least tried to grapple with how different religious, ethnic, and political groups could live together in peace with equal rights. It was far from perfect, but the alternative is endless war, and a return to policies based on ancient honors, grievances, and blood feuds that governed human affairs for most of recorded history beforehand. I don’t begrudge Houellebecq some sarcasm at America’s expense right now, but the ahistorical appeal to nationalism won’t lead to the people of different nations being happy “tourists” at one another’s capitals, as he suggests. It will just tempt them to burn those cities down.
Harper’s Magazine could not have found a better avatar of those beloved Trump voters in Midwestern diners than Houellebecq. He is anti-intellectual and disdainful of expertise: “I’m not a historian,” he says, and then expounds at length on (selective) history. He is blithe in his cherry-picking of facts: his assertion of Trump’s modest disengagement from the Middle East is especially ill-timed, coming on the heels of the Senate’s vote to curb American support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, which Trump vowed to veto. He is casually xenophobic: “One of the constants in Europe’s long history is the struggle against Islam,” he claims, beginning history in the eighth century ad and skipping over a good bit of intervening time. He is not shy about discarding principle in favor of prejudice: in the space of a short essay, he urges both the dissolution of a Europe that shares no history or language, and the healing of a centuries-old schism in European Christianity. Above all, he is depressingly provincial: “The Americans are getting off our backs,” he grunts, with the “our” presumably being European isolationists—the rest of the world (to say nothing of Trump’s own constituents) be damned.
In the end, Houellebecq comes across not as a brave iconoclast, nor as a serious conservative thinker, but as a cranky old white man yelling at those kids across the Atlantic to get off his lawn.
Joshua H. Cohen
New York City
Machines of Loving Grace
Fred Turner notes that “for all their sophistication, the algorithms that drive Facebook cannot prevent the recrudescence of the racism and sexism that plagued the communes” [“Machine Politics,” Essay, January]. Built into this line is an assumption about what is a feature and what is a bug.
The algorithms to which he refers are designed to get our attention and elicit our engagement first and foremost, even if that means promoting or ignoring the sort of cultural conflict and tribalism responsible for the rise of authoritarianism in the 1930s. In fact, it’s unclear whether these consequences were even a concern until recent public scrutiny. The result of Facebook management’s ignorance, willful or otherwise, is the division and pitched rhetoric we have today.
Mercer Island, Wash.
Turner’s criticisms reveal something of a blind spot: he views the authoritarian threat of the internet only from the perspective of the political left. But is there not something authoritarian about a traditional media industry that demands unvarying attitudes toward sexual orientation, race, and the #MeToo movement? Does a person have a right to publicly hold unorthodox beliefs and keep their job? Or even to simply ask questions of prevailing beliefs? It’s quite dystopian, no matter which side you’re on.
What we have discovered through the internet’s democratization of opinion, though, is that our fellow humans are not as uniform as we imagined. What if, regardless of technology, they can never be what we hope? Whose responsibility is it to change them? And what if they don’t want to be changed?
Kevin Baker notes the way that our Constitution restrains democracy through disproportional representation in the Senate and the Electoral College [“The Crisis of Our Constitution,” Easy Chair, January]. Though the theoretical arguments in favor of these institutions are well known, it is difficult to conceive of any intellectually respectable theory for the current method of apportioning representation in the House, which Baker fails to discuss, and which, unlike the Senate, is supposed to be proportional to each state’s population.
California, for example, has more than sixty-eight times the population of Wyoming, but has only fifty-three House seats to Wyoming’s one. This, in turn, exacerbates the problems with the Electoral College that Baker outlines, since the distribution of presidential electoral votes among the states equals, by constitutional mandate, the sum of each state’s congressional representation.
A campaign to make the House of Representatives truly proportional seems far more feasible than Baker’s extreme goal of abolishing the Electoral College, and the result would be similar.
Michael B. Tolcott