26 November 2015

Let's talk Turkey

Just the thing everyone was afraid of happened this week: a NATO power shot down a Russian plane in the Syrian war zone. That's where the Russians claim it happened, but the Turks say that the Russian bomber had violated their national air space, ignoring repeated warnings (the surviving crewman denies hearing any) before it was brought down. It fell on the other side of the border in rebel-held Syrian territory, from which the surviving Russian was rescued soon afterward. President Putin called the shootdown a "stab in the back" and accused Turkey of supporting ISIS. President Erdogan retorted that Putin is more interested in protecting the Syrian dictator than in his stated goal of destroying ISIS. His evidence is that Russia has been bombing a border region where ISIS is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Turks claim, the Russians are attacking Turkomen Syrians, Sunnis and ethnic kin to the Turks, who oppose Assad but aren't affiliated with ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Russians, however, see any group that opposes Assad as "terrorists." The Turks claim that a campaign of ethnic cleansing is underway in the border region, the Turkomens being oppressed by the Syrian government, by Russian air power, and by pro-Assad Syrian Kurds. The Turks hate Kurds wherever they find them, and the Erdogan government itself has been accused of taking their eye off the ball, of being more interested in fighting Kurds in both Syria and Iraq than in fighting ISIS. Turkey belongs to the "Assad must go" camp; despite alleged authoritarian tendencies of his own, Erdogan opposes the other "authoritarian" forces in this conflict: Assad, the Russians and the Iranians. But let's be honest: this isn't a simple "anti-authoritarian" or "anti-terrorist" conflict for any of the belligerents. That should be obvious when Saudi Arabia is part of the "Assad must go" camp. All the countries in that coalition could live with Assad and his oppression of his people, if he wasn't friends with Iran, if he would make peace with Israel, etc., etc. You can argue likewise that Russia and Iran are less concerned with "terrorism," and much less concerned about the Syrian people, than with the strategic advantages they enjoy as long as Assad retains power. It's fine that all these countries want to destroy ISIS but unless they forswear their other strategic concerns their inherent conflicts will leave openings where Daesh can still flourish, while people who are "innocent," insofar as they are not ISIS, will suffer. If the international community wants to outlaw ISIS, they should not leave it to individual nations to enforce the ruling. Otherwise each nation, unregulated, will pursue its own interests, and their contradictory interests will have consequences like those we've seen in the disputed skies above the battlefield. Syria today is the best argument for international law enforced by a single global authority, indifferent to the interests of any one nation or group of nations. For all we know, a just outcome in Syria and Iraq would please none of the meddling powers, and that might be the proof that it was just.

24 November 2015

Race war in Minneapolis?

Jamar Clark was just another punk or just another victim -- or both, unless you see things purely in black and white. Unarmed, he was fatally shot during a scuffle with police in Minneapolis earlier this month, making the Minnesota city the latest rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement. The cops say he was trying to grab a gun. His friends say he was on the ground, if not already cuffed, when he was shot. Business as usual on both sides, but things escalated when alleged white supremacists showed up to heckle the BLM demonstrators. Last night a group of three such characters allegedly shot their way out of a tense confrontation, wounding five people. In other words, if current accounts are correct, the sort of people who aren't supposed to exist anymore, except in black folks' paranoid heads, showed up in Minneapolis armed for combat. Of course, so far we have only the BLM side of the story. One suspect has been arrested, and another man taken in only to be released, as I write, but I'm sure once we definitely have the shooter or shooters we'll hear a different story, one having a lot to do with self-defense. And I don't doubt that the poor men felt threatened. After all, didn't you know that a black man of teen age or older can kill you with his bare hands? That may not actually be true, but juries and review boards across the country have ruled that you're entitled to believe that, at least if you're a cop or some sort of security guard. I don't know if people will be as indulgent toward the alleged knuckleheads in Minneapolis, but I may be underestimating, despite the evidence I see and hear every day, how infuriated many white people are by Black Lives Matter, which they see as a criminals'-rights movement. My hunch, though, is that examples will be made of these goons, unless truly extenuating circumstances come to light, since throwing the book at them, or applauding the throwing, will show that the rest of us aren't racist like that. Then it'll be time to double down on the true article of faith: the cops are always right.

23 November 2015

Is this a Nixonian moment?

What the country needs now, or next year at the latest, according to Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times' house Republicans, is someone like Richard Nixon. Ideally it should be someone with all Nixon's strengths and none of his weaknesses or pathologies. What were those strengths, exactly? Douthat sees a relevant set of virtues for both domestic and international politics. Globally, Douthat prefers Nixon's "cold-eyed view of world affairs," his realpolitik, to the "full-spectrum hawkishness" of the most likely 2016 Republicans. Douthat wants a President who can "see the strategic chessboard whole, who can instill fear in our rivals but also negotiate boldly in situations where opportunity presents itself." At home, we need more of Nixon's "ideological flexibility," compared to little from President Obama and less from most Republicans.

Some Republicans, and even more Democrats, have speculated that Ronald Reagan could not win a Republican primary today. That begs the question whether a Nixon would be possible in our time. On the domestic front, what Douthat is looking for in a modern Nixon is a tricky talent for appealing to his (or her) party's base voters without really pandering to their more radical impulses. The historical Nixon, he writes, "addressed (liberal historians would say exploited, but we can have that debate another time) widespread anxieties over social change and disorder without ever repudiating racial equality or civil rights." This looks like hair-splitting to me. Many people will tell you that Republicans have never stopped pandering to base anxieties and have never really given them what they've wanted. After all, did Nixon's successors, Reagan and the Bushes, ever "repudiate" racial equality or civil rights? But perhaps Douthat uses those issues as analogies. Perhaps the 2016 Nixon has to address some other base concern without "repudiating" anything really valuable. The context Douthat offers is an economy that requires some loosening of regulations, as Republicans want (e.g. Obamacare) while calming fears of "any fraying of the safety net." But to some ears it's going to sound suspiciously like Douthat wants a President who'll promise something but not deliver. Yet if one thing is indisputably different today from 1972, when Nixon ran for re-election, it's that incumbent Presidents can't get away so easily with promising but not delivering. Who remembers John Ashbrook? He was an Ohio congressman who primaried Nixon from the President's right in 1972. He never polled above 10% in a primary and in some states did worse than a GOP primary challenger to Nixon's left. Nixon never had to debate his challengers and probably never ran an attack ad against either of them. Who doubts that circumstances would be dramatically and expensively different for a 21st century Nixon? Nixon may have had to deal with the Tea Party's precursors in the John Birch Society, but the empowerment of super-rich donors and PACs in our time is something Nixon never really had to reckon with, and the accountability that money enforces might have made him less of a master opportunist than Douthat idealizes.

The changed political economy might also limit a Nixon's options in global politics. Nixon is the only President to have become a proverb, i.e. "Only Nixon can go to China." Well and good, but where does Nixon go now? The obvious answer, I suppose, is Iran, but for what purpose? To crush Sunni terrorism in the Middle East? To break their ties with Russia? Well, why did Nixon go to China? Primarily, it seems, to spook the Soviets, and with the actual result of detente. In our time, our theoretical neo-Nixon could go to Iran in order to spook the Saudis and/or the Israelis into better behavior, e.g. an end to subsidized Sunni radicalism or a definitive settlement of the Palestine question. Again, however, neo-Nixon would have to be prepared to pay a price the original never paid. Nixon's trip to China was a stop on the road to a landslide re-election victory. Nixon 2.0 would almost certainly get primaried after returning from Iran; Sheldon Adelson's existence alone probably assures that consequence, but there are many others like him in their biases if not their faith. The flood of money into politics threatens to make Presidents more accountable to factions and donors within their own parties, and undermines the sort of "imperial" Presidency Nixon supposedly embodied. I have to say "threatens" because we haven't yet seen an incumbent President defeated in a primary campaign, but does anyone doubt that the day is coming? For anyone to be "Nixon" the way Douthat wants, that candidate would almost certainly have to resolve, if not promise, to be a one-term President, and would have to care not a fig for what the party does after four years.

Douthat is open-minded enough to suspect that Hillary Clinton may be the most Nixonian candidate in the 2016 field, but he's also partisan enough -- some might prefer "perceptive enough" -- to see more of Nixon's flaws than his virtues in her. She certainly gave no evidence of Nixonian instincts in foreign policy when she conducted it. Whether Douthat's judgment is fair or not, his warning to Republicans remains this: they'll need to be more Nixonian (in a "better way" that doesn't involve breaking into her offices or files, I presume) to beat her, not to mention deal with the sort of crises Nixon thrived on. I guess it would be interesting to see them try, but they're probably all too pure or simple to succeed.

19 November 2015

The tax seizure of a dissident American newspaper

It looks pretty certain by now that Metroland is dead. The Capital District arts weekly with a political bent hasn't published an issue since October. Its offices were seized by the government for tax delinquency. In its mix of national and local stories Metroland was probably the most anti-establishment in the region, though that really isn't saying very much. It was the paper most likely to be critical of the U.S. government regardless of which party was in charge, especially when it came to foreign policy. It was the paper most likely to endorse Bernie Sanders for President, unless the Green party came up with someone better. There's some sort of irony in taxes being the downfall of the paper most likely to advocate more taxes on the rich, but that's not why I bring this story up. What I want to point out is that Metroland was what we can comfortably call a dissident publication that was shut down, in effect, by the government for violating the law.  Were Metroland published anywhere but in the U.S., Canada or western Europe, and were it shut down under the exact same circumstances, people would immediately speculate that the action was politically motivated, that the government was cracking down on a journalistic gadfly or a brave critic, and that freedom of the press in that country was in danger. In the actual case, however, not even the publisher of Metroland makes such an argument on the paper's behalf or against the U.S. government. He knows too well that business has been bad for print media for the last decade or so. In the U.S., then, the forcible closure of an independent element in the media is no cause for alarm, nor should it have been. That does not mean, as you may think I imply, that there's never anything fishy when governments close down independent media by taking them to court. But it does mean that we should avoid coming to the knee-jerk conclusion that something is always fishy when such actions are taken. The end of Metroland does not prove any conspiracy against independent media, but proves that media are not above the law. That should be true everywhere, and if you're going to question other countries' laws (other countries' leaders may be another story) you may as well ask why media shouldn't enjoy some sort of tax-exempt status, or even state subsidies, to guarantee a diversity of viewpoints in public discourse. No nation will ever do that; the media is as accountable to the market everywhere as it is to the law. Freedom of the press everywhere has limits; that's why freedom of speech is always dissent's last resort before violence. Media must answer to a bottom line, but the courage to speak truth to power is priceless.

18 November 2015

Is Sanders selling out?

Another begging letter from Senator Sanders came in today, but he isn't begging for himself this time. Instead, the Vermont independent wants us to donate to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As others have noted, the Democracy has a shot at retaking the Senate next year if only because far more Republican than Democratic seats are being contested in 2016. If the election were held today, I dare say that Democrats might get wiped out entirely because of the hysteria over the Syrian refugees -- and no one should question that there is hysteria amid the reasonable skepticism -- but conditions may be more favorable next November. Sanders tells us the same things President Obama or former Senator Clinton might tell us, starting with the commonplace that Republicans are no damn good. That just about sums up his argument, and that's kind of funny if you think about it, since the "Republicans are evil" argument is a favorite of those in the Democratic party who'd like to see Sanders abandon his campaign for the presidential nomination. It's the favorite argument for all those who've been saying for the past three or seven that we should do our duty in 11/16 and vote for Hillary Clinton. Another argument they favor is that anything that weakens Clinton, like an aggressive challenge during the primaries, will only improve the Republicans' chances. I don't mean to suggest that Sanders shouldn't say that Republicans are evil, or that they "just don't care" about what's happening to the nation and world, or that they want to "turn back the clock" to a less egalitarian time. It just occurs to me that there's something missing to Sanders's argument, the very something that justifies Sanders's own challenge to Clinton.

The message of the Sanders campaign is that it's not enough to have a Democratic candidate, and that it matters what kind of Democrat gets nominated -- that the likes of Clinton are part of the problem, and a specific problem with the Democratic party. Does he apply the same analysis to the Senate? You can't tell from this begging letter. He cites three actual or possible candidates by name, including former Sen. Feingold of Wisconsin and campaign-finance reform fame, but the letter itself is an implicit endorsement of every 2016 Democratic senatorial candidate, many of whom, obviously, are yet to be determined. How many Senate Democrats actually support Sanders for the presidential nomination? The answer, according to Wikipedia, is none, while 38 out of 44 have endorsed Clinton. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, whom Sanders endorses in the begging letter for the retiring Sen. Reid's Nevada seat, has also endorsed Clinton. Can Sanders depend on these people to support his particular agenda in the unlikely event of his election as President? Recall that his position within the party is tenuous. He seeks the presidential nomination while remaining an independent Senator who chooses (or is allowed to) caucus with the Democrats. Perhaps composing a begging letter for Democratic candidates is one of the prices he pays for that privilege. Sanders supporters should read the letter with care, since it carries no promise whatsoever that the campaigns Sanders asks them to subsidize will produce Senators in his mold. Perhaps he assumes that they'll all have to endorse them if he beats Clinton in the primaries, and probably they would endorse him. But should he get elected, all bets will be off. And for that reason, what Sanders is touting now is a bad bet. Perhaps he values his caucus privileges too much to call for candidates more likely to support him all the way, but the people who plan to vote for him in the primaries should also plan to vote for such candidates, whether he says so or not.

17 November 2015

The refugee crisis and the clash of individualisms

You should know this by now because you're told it often enough: Republicans are the party of individualism, Democrats the party of collectivism and statism. Yet it should be obvious, whatever you think about the U.S. taking in refugees from Syria, that the Democrats, represented by the Obama administration, are taking the individualist position by resisting demands, amplified after last Friday's attacks on Paris, to refuse Syrians entirely, or to allow only Christians while rejecting Muslims. In this case, the individualist position is "We mustn't assume that every Syrian refugee is an undercover terrorist, and we shouldn't allow the majority to suffer because some might be terrorists." Why don't the Republicans recognize this? Rather than jump to the conclusion, "They've never been true individualists, but only tribal bigots," let's recognize that, as always, there are two kinds of individualism in conflict in American politics, rather than a battle between individualism and collectivism. Call it a conflict between "individual liberty" and "human rights." One side is concerned mainly with removing limits on what individuals can accomplish or how much they can accumulate. They want to make sure the individual can be all he can be. The other side is concerned simply with making sure individuals stay alive as long as they can and suffer as little as possible. This side appears collectivist to the other side because their commitment to everyone's survival implicitly limits what any individual can earn in a competitive world. That commitment to what may look like mere survival may appear contemptible from the "individual liberty" standpoint. How can the "human rights" view be individualist if it puts individuals in a state of dependency on the state, as the Syrian refugees are believed likely to become? The answer is that the "human rights" view doesn't equate individualism with autonomy in the same way the "individual liberty" view does. If one side implies that a life with limited autonomy is not worth living, the other rejects the implication. There's an irreducibly hedonist element to the "human rights" position in its desire to minimize suffering and want that can be seen in the readiness to take in refugees, while the "individual liberty" stance is more existential, for want of a better word, in its concern for autonomy and, perhaps more crucially, its contempt for life as an end unto itself.  That accounts for the indifference of avowed individualists to the plight of refugees, but what of the distrust? It may have a similar root. While "human rights" presumes that each and every individual person is an end unto itself and thus automatically entitled to respect and protection, and further presumes that each person is innocent until proven guilty, "individual liberty" sees individuals as something people become by choosing autonomy (or "personal responsibility"), and may not recognize individuals until they distinguish themselves from the rabble whose mere existence is of no concern to them or, worse, a burden they prefer not to carry. "Human rights" sees a mass of people whose self-evident needs are self-evidently compelling, while "individual liberty" reserves the right to ignore them or, if necessary, repel them.

None of the above is meant to sway anyone to one side or the other in the refugee debate. Some people may have reasons to reject refugees, and others reasons to demand unconditional acceptance of them, without reference to the continuum of individualism. That still leaves us with the seeming paradox we started with: those who most loudly avow themselves individualists refuse to recognize refugees as individuals, while those alleged to despise individualism seem more inclined to treat refugees as individuals rather than an undifferentiated "other" or "enemy." Recognizing this probably shouldn't decide one's position on taking in refugees, but it's worth remembering the next time some people boast of their belief in the individual and individualism, should you wish to ask who the real individualists are.

16 November 2015

Are you a Progressive?

George Will has taken a break with his feud with Bill O'Reilly -- they've been arguing over O'Reilly's claim that the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan hastened the President's mental decline -- to cast a contemptuous glance at a controversy on the Yale campus over potentially insensitive or emotionally harmful Halloween costumes. It does sound pretty contemptible, but I'm not sure whether Will's right to blame it on progressivism. His argument is that progressivism as it has evolved in the U.S. is inimical to free expression. Since this obviously begs the question of what, exactly, Will means when he says "progressivism," the columnist has helpfully attempted to define the term. I'll give you his definition in full, and then I'll break it down into individual components:

If you believe, as progressives do, that human nature is not fixed, and hence is not a basis for understanding natural rights. And if you believe, as progressives do, that human beings are soft wax who receive their shape from the society that government shapes. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people receive their rights from the shaping government. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people are the sum of the social promptings they experience. Then it will seem sensible for government, including a university’s administration, to guarantee not freedom of speech but freedom from speech. From, that is, speech that might prompt its hearers to develop ideas inimical to progress, and that might violate the universal entitlement to perpetual serenity. 

"Human nature is not fixed, and hence is not a basis for understanding natural rights." While there obviously is a "human nature" of a biological sort or else we couldn't separate human beings from other species, what Will means to claim is that progressives deny that unchanging moral or ethic claims follow from human nature. Will's own position, presumably, is that we can deduce from an understanding of our nature as humans a "naturally right" social order, or that nature (or "nature's god") confers an inalienable sovereignty on each individual that entitles individuals to resist encroachment upon it. Since God has proven a poor guarantor of human rights, presuming that you attribute them to him, Will must mean that man is the guarantor of his own rights as a matter of instinct, the rights being natural, even though his intellectual tradition argues that the true natural rights are discovered through reason rather than instinct.

"Human beings are soft wax who receive their shape from the society that government shapes." You may be a progressive if you believe this, but I don't know if anyone believes that government exclusively shapes both society and individuals, as Will implies. I am not aware that progressives reject the idea of "civil society," that there are institutions independent of the state (but not of laws) that are crucial in defining each person's identity. As for the rest of this claim, unless all of Will's erudition and ideology are innate, then he has been shaped from outside, though this doesn't mean that there can't be resistance to the shaping from inside, or a complementary self-development as people learn to reason.

"People receive their rights from the shaping government." Practically speaking, rights require a guarantor, and given likely disagreements over assumed natural rights the only effective conferral of rights comes from the only effective guarantor, the government. Governments must determine what rights are in society rather than in any state of nature to which individualists or ideologues might appeal.

"People are the sum of the promptings they experience." Again, I doubt whether any self-styled progressive believes such a thing. They more likely believe that the human mind is capable of analytical and even creative reason, but they're also likely to believe that these are inescapably responses to experience rather than phenomena generated in a "natural" vacuum.

Yet even if I agreed that the ideas listed by Will were progressive beliefs, or if someone actually chooses to affirm them all, I don't see how this leads to Will's conclusion that progressives would want government to guarantee "freedom from speech." Will has made a strawman of the premise that progressives deny intellectual autonomy. His "progressives" are tantamount to totalitarians, and maybe there is a certain trivial totalitarianism on college campuses today. But as I must wrap quickly this evening I'll conclude that on the subject of progressivism, much less progress, George Will is full of crap.