13 October 2015

A reasonable murder

In case my last post appeared dismissive of black concerns, it's about time I said something about the outrageous outcome of the investigation into the killing by Cleveland police of Tamir Rice a 12 year old boy who'd been playing in a park with a toy gun. It was, in fact, outrageously predictable. As in most such cases, the only thing that really mattered was whether the policeman acted in a "reasonable" way, whether it was "reasonable" for him to believe he may have been threatened by a pre-teen, or "reasonable" to believe the gun was real. Consequences, shmonsequences. That the boy died doesn't matter -- and such are the ways of the police that his life most likely would have mattered no more or no less had his skin color been different. Debate away whether he would have felt less threatened had the boy been white, but don't let that debate distract you from the abominable nature of this case and the cop's likely exoneration. We've heard the cop logic before, and all too often: we can't punish them for making mistakes on hair-trigger judgment calls like this one because that might make other cops hesitate when they really need to shoot. In other words, cops are undeterrable because we can't allow them to be deterred. Society needs them to be hair-trigger death machines, it seems, and the rest of us had best not set them off by doing anything that smacks of non-compliance, much less threat, or else we, as any number of online or phone-in boors will tell you, will only have ourselves to blame. Cases like these could be one of the best arguments for reverting to the individual prerogative of self-defense, but somehow I don't envision the NRA making the argument. But if we must have police and they must be hair-trigger death machines, and they can't be held accountable for mistakes, then it should be up to each killer cop's employer, his municipality, to pay up big time when objective inquiries reasonably determine that innocent people were killed. Maybe the thing to do is get a federal law passed (good luck with this Congress) creating a federal board of inquiry for all killings by cops and mandatory punitive damages charged against the municipality when cops are found at fault. When the taxpayers suffer for the mistakes of their police, we may finally get a consensus for radical police reform. Rather than dream, however, let's reject the cop logic that raises the specters of dead police to scare us into forgiving lethal mistakes. Let the ultimate employers of the police, the people, state with sovereign authority that atrocities like the killing of Rice are unreasonable, and that we will get rid of unreasonable police who can't defend us without wantonly killing people, until we find people who can do the job right. That might lead us to question what doing the job right means, but that can only be a good thing.

The perils of Democratic party crashing

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders are urging people to register as Democrats, and to switch party affiliation if necessary, so they can be eligible to vote for their candidate in their state's primaries next year. This appeal for support from outside the party makes clear why it'll be more difficult for the Sandersites to pull off an insurgent campaign than it was for the Republican tea partiers, most of whom presumably came from the GOP's grass roots. It also begs the question of whether taking over the Democratic party is worth trying, though the question begs its own answer: the way the American political system works, seizing control of one of the two major parties is the only realistic path to power for any self-styled political insurgency. Sanders and his supporters are not so radical as to build a lasting third-party movement. He wants control of the Democratic brand and now must reckon with his lack of brand-name recognition, even after a summer of mostly-friendly publicity before his first true confrontation with Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic contenders tonight. As the Washington Post reminds us, Sanders remains an unproven quantity among black Democrats, who arguably form the core of the party's base, while Clinton can rely on her brand name and enduring good will earned by her husband. Sanders gets told repeatedly what he has to do and say to have any chance at mass black support, while any suggestion that black voters have any obligation to listen to him and consider more than their legitimate-but-still-parochial community concerns is snarled at and condemned as patronizing. You take a big chance, it seems, by suggesting that black voters, activists, party bosses, etc. may suffer from a failure of political imagination, even if you acknowledge how conditions set their priorities. I may take a bigger chance by wondering online whether complaints about Sanders's perceived aloofness or insensitivity actually cover a certain conservatism among the demographic long seen hopefully as the vanguard for radical politics, a reluctance to rock the boat too much. Clinton comes with the implicit promise that old-school machine politics can make the system benefit loyal constituents, while the Black Lives Matter gadflies often look like classic populists -- hence of little use to radicals -- in their implicit insistence that everyone has to change except them. Along with a less conspicuous but likely as formidable cadre of feminist deadenders who want a woman President at all costs, the inertia of black voters explains much of why Sanders supporters are calling as much for an invasion of the Democratic party as for an insurgency. Whether he runs as a Democrat or an independent, Sanders still has to reach out to black voters, and as far as I can tell that's what he's doing. But it shouldn't be up to black voters alone or any pet demographic of the Democrats to determine whether Sanders should appear on a presidential ballot in November. While he's certainly benefited by defining himself as the main challenger to Clinton, he might have been better off for the long run had he dedicated this year to building his own party and inviting blacks and everyone else, instead of loudly crashing a party that most likely will throw him out eventually.

09 October 2015

Dr. Carson: the final solution?

While chasing Donald Trump in the polls this year, Dr. Ben Carson has learned something from the erstwhile front-runner: never apologize. Continuing to riff on gun rights following the Oregon amoklauf, Dr. Carson has incurred the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League. He didn't exactly defame them or their Jewish constituents, though again many feel that history's victims are defamed whenever anyone says they might have put up more of a fight. This is Dr. Carson's position on the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people. He has said that Hitler would have had a hard time  carrying out his agenda had Jews been armed, and he apparently believes that German gun control policies were a necessary step toward the Final Solution. Despite counterexamples from the Arab world, Carson argues, as do many American gun advocates, that gun control is something tyrants do to consolidate their tyranny. He dismisses the ADL objection that gun control made little difference in the course of Nazi history as "foolishness." But just as history was on his side when he recommended collective self-defense against amoklaufers, it appears to refute him this time. It will be recalled that Jewish people got their hands on quite a few guns, admittedly at a late point in the process, and launched an armed uprising against the occupiers of Warsaw -- in vain. At most, many had the satisfaction of dying with their boots on. Like many people today, Dr. Cason has something of a Vietnam mentality that leads him to overrate the effectiveness of guerrilla resistance. If the Viet Cong could hold off and drive out the U.S., and the Afghan mujaheddin could hold off and drive out the U.S.S.R., anything might seem possible for plucky underdogs with firearms. Whether a domestic insurgency in a superpower could fare as well is a separate question that would seem to lead those whose first motive for gun-nuttery is fear of tyranny to claim boundless rights to resistance and the tools of resistance: bombs, missiles, etc. Assault weapons will not cut it. Looking back to the Shoah, Carson may as well have argued that European Jews ought to have bought themselves an air force or made chemical weapons, yet he talks as if rifles and machine guns might have changed history. It's possible that they might have, but would the good doctor, vigilant against tyranny as he is, endorse the tactic of assassination to safeguard liberty? It's not exactly a big leap from reserving the right to armed resistance, but would Carson dare go there? A Jewish terror campaign against the German government might have made a difference, even if history shows that one actual effort along that line, the killing of a German diplomat in France, resulted in the Kristallnacht. So let's give Dr. Carson fresh questions to answer. If an American leader violates the Constitution and appears to menace perceived fundamental liberties, would Dr. Carson recommend that that leader be assassinated? Would he recommend that the people who support that leader be targeted for terrorist attack? If guns are essential to our liberty, let him tell us how to use them, and let us decide whether his ideas would even work.

08 October 2015

The rise and fall of Kevin McCarthy, without the rise

History will still remember Kevin McCarthy as the actor from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie, the guy on the highway shouting, "You're next!" Kevin McCarthy the politician, a Representative from California, will be no more than an anecdote in the chaotic history of the 21st century Republican party. For a moment it looked like he'd be the next Speaker of the House, but then liberals gleefully publicized an illiterate speech on foreign policy McCarthy delivered last month, and more gleefully pounced on a perceived confession that the Benghazi hearings were politically motivated. He may have been treated unfairly that time, but given his proven incoherence it's hard to tell what he means by what he says. McCarthy said, "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee, what are her numbers today?Her numbers are dropping, why? Because she's untrustable." Clintonites inferred, and others assumed that McCarthy had implied, a causal sequence: he put together the special committee because Clinton was thought unbeatable, in order to prove her "untrustable." He just as easily could have meant that while Clinton had been thought unbeatable, once Republicans responded to her perceived mishandling of the Benghazi incident by holding an investigation, she was inevitably proved "untrustable." By this week McCarthy had revealed himself to be inarticulate and possibly indiscreet, but this probably had little to do with his withdrawal today from consideration for the Speakership. It's more likely that McCarthy backed out, while retaining his position as Majority Leader in the House, for the same reason the departing Speaker, Rep. Boehner, is departing: a determined right-wing faction found him neither conservative nor confrontational enough for their tastes. We may actually owe the Tea Party thanks for sparing us so blatant a moron as the leader of the House, but in the current climate we're unlikely to get much better. We're more likely to see this McCarthy emulate his more famous namesake by telling the next front-runner, "You're next!"

07 October 2015

In defense of Dr. Carson

Dr. Ben Carson is wrong on guns like almost all Republicans, but the front-runner (depending on what poll you read) for his party's presidential nomination is getting a bum rap this week for offering advice on what to do during mass shootings like last week's amoklauf in Oregon. A lot of outrage has been worked up over his suggestion that the people under attack gang up, armed or not, and attack the attacker. Carson's comments are being condemned as insensitive to the people in Oregon who did not defend themselves, and as preposterous in a practical sense. On the last point, at least, readers of this blog know better. On numerous occasions, most notably during the amoklauf/attempted assassination in Tucson, shooters have been stopped by people without firearms counterattacking individually or in groups. The bad guys have to reload, after all. Such cases are cited regularly to refute the NRA argument that the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. As for the objection to Dr. Carson's alleged insensitivity, it doesn't follow that he was criticizing, much less insulting the Oregon victims and survivors for not defending themselves. To assume that he was is as petty as the argument that Carson has no right to counsel courage until he's been under fire himself. That argument seems to be offered by people who assume that the doctor would freeze and cower under fire like most people, presumably including the people making this speculative ad hominem argument. It may be true that most of us would freeze and cower, but shouldn't we want to do otherwise, especially when we know it can be done? If no one can say we should be brave because he may be a coward, does that mean we should all be cowards? Trick question! If Dr. Carson is to be faulted this week, it should be for the complacency with which he recommends death-defying heroism as an inevitable necessity. He's almost certainly right to say of the Oregon amoklauf that "this is probably not going to be the last time that happens," especially since his party and his fans would rather such things happen than give up their private arsenals, but the sort of heroes we need now will stop such things from happening, even if that also means confronting violent people, rather than simply tell us what to do when it happens again. But until those heroes appear, we could probably use the sort of heroes Carson is looking for, even if he's no hero himself.

06 October 2015

The Syrian Experiment

You'd think that people who hate and fear Vladimir Putin so much would welcome his entry into the quagmire of Syria. You'd think more people would see it as Thomas L. Friedman does, with Putin's intervention in defense of the Assad regime making Russia more of a target for the self-styled Islamic State and its various sympathizers and increasing hostility toward Russia's geopolitical ambitions among the region's Sunni majority. The U.S. and the west should be eager to tell Putin, "You can have it," especially since Russia has a bigger stake in the outcome, because of its naval base in Syria, than the west does. Yet the vibe I get from what I see and hear is that the usual suspects here see this as all win for Putin and further humiliation for the U.S. and President Obama. I can understand this from the neocons for whom Syria (rather than the IS) actually matters, and who're whining about the Russians attacking our good insurgents, but others who probably couldn't care less about the Syrian people or their form of government are angry about the Russian intervention because they see it as fresh proof of Obama's weakness or indifference to American power. Despite what some snarky liberals want to insinuate, these people probably aren't closet-authoritarian fans of Putin, but they're worked up over Syria right now because, unlike many liberals, they think that Putin can win there, and that by extension the U.S. could have won.

While liberals like Friedman -- call him a neo-liberal if you like -- assume that Putin will provoke a terrorist backlash against Russia, remember that many Americans have never accepted the argument that the terrorists attacked us because we'd messed with their countries and governments or threatened their faith. The alternate view of terrorism is that terrorists are sufficiently motivated by their own evil but, being evil, they are also cowards. This view rejects the premise that an aggressive response to terrorism will only provoke more terrorism. Instead, it is assumed that a sufficient show of force and resolve, as Russia might be expected to show, will cow terrorists into quiescence if not submission. In short, there's a popular if poorly articulated belief that the proper answer to terrorism is ruthlessness, "shock and awe" on a more massive, visceral level than even George W. Bush carried out, that even Bush lacked the will to carry out. Proponents of this view can actually look to Putin's past for an example of this policy if they actually know recent history. Some observers are comparing Putin's intervention in Syria, hopefully, with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which proved a demoralizing disaster for the communist regime. But more recently Putin inherited a quagmire-like conflict in Chechnya from Boris Yeltsin and withstood a terror campaign against Russia (and the inevitable accusations of "false flag" dirty tricks on his own part) while effectively pacifying the region. It wasn't pretty, and reports of air raids on the already-damaged archaeological treasure-city of Palmyra, where the IS iconoclastically maintains a base, suggest that it won't be pretty in Syria, either. But the Americans who look upon Putin with envy rather than admiration probably care little about the further ruination of ruins, or any collateral damage Russia may inflict, much less the collateral damage we continue to inflict in Muslim countries. They're angry at Obama now because they think that Putin can win for Russia (and Iran, and of course Assad) by playing the way they've always felt we should play. So let's see, once and for all, how such a game plays out. Humanitarian hearts will bleed, as I suppose they should, but the political consequences shouldn't matter to us one way or the other. Here's a chance for a risk-free education, with history deciding whether Putin gets a diploma or a dunce cap. It'll be interesting to watch.

05 October 2015

What is populism?

Michael Gerson is the latest opinionator to ask whether ours is a populist moment. He's smart enough to realize that the question begs another, so he attempts a definition of populism. His mistake is to attempt to idealize populism as he defines it, in order to exclude both Donald Trump, on the right, and Bernie Sanders, on the left. Trump is out because he espouses a "conspiratorial nativism" more akin to the Know-Nothing party. Sanders is out because, insofar as he is a social democrat, if not a democratic socialist, he is a technocrat and has a "faith in experts" that Gerson recognizes as alien to populism. For Gerson, the ideal populist would be someone like Pope Francis, who like American history's definitive populist (according to Gerson), William Jennings Bryan, combines compassion for the poor with religious traditionalism. Like most who attempt to define populism, Gerson finds "anti-elitism" at its heart. Unlike some, he tries to exclude xenophobia from populism, at least in its ideal form. Unfortunately, populism is rarely anti-elite without also being anti-other. It seems to come with the conviction that a certain group of us are the authentic People for whom populism is named, while others, both above and below, are not. Gerson notes that the original capital-P Populists of the late 19th century, who briefly turned the People's Party into a major force in politics, had a democratizing agenda, being early advocates of the direct election of U.S. senators, stock market regulation, etc. Some of the early Populists hoped to topple the elites by crossing racial barriers, but their efforts failed and some Populist leaders proved rabid racists. If "populism" is to have a specific meaning, if it isn't just a synonym for "democratic" or "progressive," its exclusionary impulse has to be recognized. Something reactionary about it should be acknowledged as well, because it effectively distinguishes a populist attitude from a progressive one. While some observers have dubbed Sanders or his supporters populists, Gerson senses that it isn't so, and the Vermont Senator's technocratic leanings, such as they are, are only part of the difference. To the extent that Sanders is a socialist or a progressive, he presumably recognizes the need for comprehensive social (if not cultural) change. Populists, too, can call for change if change is necessary to bring the elites or the outsiders under control. Where they draw the line, I've long suspected, is when anyone says that they have to change. That's probably why populism tends to be a dead-end as a political movement, and why it remains a constant if nebulous presence in modern politics.

02 October 2015

Is it a war on Christians yet?

Some people desperately want there to be a war on Christians in this country -- and those people are Christians. We Americans seem to compete with one another to prove who's more persecuted. The presumption of enmity is almost universal. It's reported that the perpetrator of yesterday's Oregon amoklauf asked his captives whether they were Christian. This is described as the shooter "singling out" or "targeting" Christians. From what we've been told so far, the shooter told at least one person who responded affirmatively that it was a good thing, since the victim would be meeting God shortly. It's unclear whether he denounced God or Christianity at that time, and it's possible that the little scene may have been his terrible idea of dark humor. We still don't know much about the man. Supposedly he described himself as "not religious, but spiritual," or words to that effect, and he is said to have had "problems with organized religion." At the same time, he seems to have been a fan of the Catholic nationalists of the Irish Republican Army. Piecing the details together won't be as simple as some would like, and I question whether the Oregon amoklauf will prove any more of an act of "war on Christianity" than the Charleston Massacre from earlier this year. Yet some Christians do love to feel embattled. Why, though, do they presume a war is in the works? It could be as simple as "they hate us because we're good and they resent it," whoever they are, -- but could there be some sort of guilty conscience encouraging these fears? Who will be waging this war? Some anticipate a multi-front attack. Islamists are already waging literal war on Christians in some parts of the world, while the enmity of "militant atheists" is well-established if not proven lethal. But if we look for some large-scale formal assault we may be missing a war already raging. If there's a war on Christianity it's not a political struggle, a Muslim jihad or an atheist conspiracy. It's more likely a battle repeating itself in thousands of American homes. Ask the question again: why wage a war on Christianity? Yes, the American Christian Right may be obnoxious and in some ways a genuine menace to human progress, but compared to their Islamist counterparts our Christianists have been models of civility. Could their positions on abortion or gay marriage, the hot-button issues of our time, really provoke their opponents to kill them? I suspect not, but that doesn't mean that nothing could so provoke people. I suspect instead that hatred of religion in general is born not in the public or political sphere, but in the home. If there's really a war against Christianity, you'll probably see that it's been waged house-to-house for generations. Real hatred of Christianity is often if not most likely personal rather than political, born from a belief that Christianity (or any organized religion) has made a young person's life intolerably miserable rather than from Marxist analysis or enlightened philosophizing. At the least, if there's ever a real war it'll be waged by people with grievances born at home, or maybe in private schools, not by readers of Richard Dawkins. These will be people who won't see themselves as the aggressors; they'll see a "war on Christianity" as a defensive war and they'll fight it as a guerilla war. That's not how they'll be perceived, but that might only mean that people aren't paying attention.