Bret Stephens: Hi Gail. We missed our conversation last week because I was in Ukraine. But even from there, it's hard to miss news of Donald Trump's latest pending indictment. Your mind?
Gail Collin: Bret, I am in awe of your Ukrainian expedition but a little distressed to realize that Americans cannot escape Trump, even while they are in the hospital at Irpin.
Bret: Trump's return to the White House and withdrawing American support for Kyiv is the second biggest threat to Ukraine, after Vladimir Putin. And did you hear Trump call Chinese dictator Xi Jinping “smart” and “brilliant”?
But back to the latest potential indictment….
Gail: From a criminal justice perspective, I think it's very important to convince the nation that no one, including the president, can get away with urging angry mobs to attack the Capitol.
Bret: Specifically a president.
Gail: But politically, I strongly suspect that an impeachment will help him in the Republican primary. It's sad that law and order parties apparently lose interest in law — or, for that matter, order — when that doesn't serve their goals.
Bret: If there is any truth in the advertising, Republicans should change their name to the Opposing Party. They are the party of law and order. Now they want to abolish the FBI. They are a party that honors the symbol of the nation. Now they think the January 6th riot was something like”regular tourist visits.” They are the party of moral character and virtue. Now they don't care that their standard bearer hangs out with porn stars. They were the party that looked up to the Evil Empire. Now they are Putin's last best hope. They are a free trade party. Now they are protectionist. They are parties to support Citizens United's 2010 Supreme Court decision, which stated that corporations have free speech. Now they are being sued by Disney because the company dares to express opinions they don't like. They are those who once believed that “family values don't stop at the Rio Grande,” as George W. Bush put it. Now some of them want to invade Mexico.
Bret: So that makes me want to ask about your column last week. What's not to like about No Label?
Gail: Bret, going to skip my normal rant on the crime of Joe Lieberman, spokesman and symbolic head of No Labels, which is dotted around the country trying to get the presidential line on the ballot in multiple states.
Bret: Lieberman is perhaps our only irreconcilable differences. I love that guy.
Gail: My point is that third parties — even those led by people far better than Mr. L. — are a danger to the American democratic system. You start a party that makes a lot of money from… helping hummingbirds. Tell voters who don't like either of the two regular candidates that they can Vote for a Hummer and be happy. You won't win the election, but you can mess things up. In some states, those small changes are enough to give you wins where you never wanted to. Say the Crow Coalition.
Bret: I would oppose No Labels if I believed that all it would do was take Joe Biden's vote and give Trump the election. But it depends on who takes the Unlabeled slot: If it's a former Democrat, it might cost Biden. If it's a former Republican, it could hurt Trump even more.
Gail: Possible. I prefer to have people choose between two real possibilities — each representing a broad coalition and certainly offering a stark choice. I don't like plotting to win by messing up the ballot.
Bret: But most of all, Gail, I need a party I can choose from. And I think that feeling is shared by a growing number of voters who may be center left or center right but are increasingly appalled by progressive Democrats and reactionary Republicans. So any party that represents our views is good for democracy, not a threat.
Gail: No, no, Bret. Even if you vote for a third party that perfectly represents your views — or at least your views on a favorite issue — if you don't win, you're throwing out your vote. The vote for the Greens, for example, is the vote Biden would probably have gotten otherwise. This means that the Green Party is helping Trump.
Bret: I agree – mostly. I used to vote exclusively for the Republican Party, even though I disagreed on many social issues. Now I prefer the Democrats, even though I disagree on many economic issues. But I've never felt that level of discontent with either side, which is what makes No Labels… interesting. We'll see if it goes anywhere.
Gail: OK, I've rambled on enough. Let's talk about something important that no one wants to talk about: Congress. The huge defense budget was hampered by some House Republicans wanting to incorporate far-right social issues that everyone knew the Senate would never accept. Even regular military promotions were halted by a Republican senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who wanted to abolish travel assistance for enlisted women seeking abortions.
These should all be your people. Explain what we can do about all of this.
Bret: Now, this is just another way in which I am really appalled by so many Republicans right now. They have no trouble effectively freezing and even reducing military spending in favor of their debt ceiling antics, though admit to being deeply concerned about military threats from China (or Iran or Russia). And now they are committing the sin they routinely accuse liberals of committing: injecting a partisan social agenda into matters of national security.
But Gail, Congress is too pathetic. Let's talk about the actors' and writers' strike. Should we join them, at least morally?
Gail: I see two big things about strikes. One is tricky and important: How do you compensate for creative talent when movies and TV are available around the clock via streaming?
Others are more emotional and understandable: Creative talent scramble for adequate paychecks while the top people — producers and corporate executives — make tons of money out of the current system.
In short, I'm on the writer-actor side. How about you?
Bret: Don't tell anyone about this, but me too. I think the strike is about more than just how the so-called creative class is paid. It's really about whether there might be a creative class at all.
My working assumption is that in 20 years, if not sooner, AI will be able to write, direct, and act (via computer-generated images that are indistinguishable from real people) movies and TV shows. It would write novels and credible news and opinion columns and compose film scores and pop music. It probably doesn't affect me that much, if only because I'm approaching retirement. But that means more and more creative endeavors will no longer easily find meaningful vocational outlets. It will be a kind of material degradation of human civilization that may prove irreversible.
Gail: Take a picket sign!
Bret: Never thought I would be a fan of any form of organized work, but there it is. And it's also a good opportunity to commend President Biden for trying to come up with some shared ethical guidelines for AI development
Gail: I'm the last person to make informed predictions about anything to do with science and technology, but you're right: It's good to know that we have some principled leaders trying to figure things out.
Bret: Though the sad reality is that humanity doesn't have a very good track record controlling new technologies, especially when those technologies could make some people richer or others more powerful. The historian in me says the same is probably the case with every transformative technology of the past, from the wheel to the printing press to nuclear energy. Perhaps artificial intelligence will follow the same path. But AI is also the first technology I can think of that doesn't complement human creativity, but rather competes with it.
Gail: And jeez, Bret, we've agreed on almost everything this week – including an organized workforce! Next week I swear we'll talk about something that sparks a fight.
Bret: I believe I will have strong views of the film “Oppenheimer” once I see it. Have I mentioned that I think Harry Truman is totally right to drop the bomb?
Gail: We can compare thoughts then. Hopefully you get a chance to see “Oppenheimer” soon – though I must warn you, three hours feels like a long time to ponder atomic warfare. In an old theater with creaky seats.
I'm definitely not a World War II expert, but I hate the idea of killing some 200,000 people to demonstrate our country's breakthroughs in technological weapons.
Bret: History is full of counterfactuals. I wonder how many American fighters, including my grandfather – and, for that matter, how many Japanese soldiers and civilians – would have been killed if we invaded Japan's home islands as we had to do to take Iwo Jima or Okinawa. I think the aggregate number will be much higher.
Gail: I can see that our ongoing conversation about this is going to be tough and deep, Bret. I will bring wine. And maybe we should also make sure to see “Barbie” before we chat again. We can talk about global collapse and mass market capitalism at the same time.