04 March 2015

Choices and judgments

Everyone loves it when a Republican says something outrageous, it seems. There was a furor on the internet today, or an attempt to create one, over the remarks on homosexuality of Dr. Ben Carson, this cycle's token black candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. On the genuine political subject of gay marriage, he thought there ought to be arrangements short of "marriage" that gave gay couples the sort of shared rights over property, insurance, etc. that he presumes them to want when they demand a right to be married. He may be missing a point here but I leave it to homosexuals themselves to clarify the matter. Everyone can be outraged, however, over Carson's argument that prison conversions to homosexuality prove that sexual orientation is a choice and not some innate individual trait. To be clear, it's the part about prison that's outrageous. But had he left prison out of the conversation, some might still be outraged over his belief that homosexuality is a choice. There's been more at stake in this distinction than there should be. It seems to be important to some that sexual orientation is not a choice. I assume this is because once you concede that someone can choose to be gay, you also concede that they can choose not to be, while others will assume they should choose not to be. I don't see how the last point follows. The fear on the gay-rights side seems really to be that if homosexuality is chosen, it thus somehow becomes subject to judgment in a way it could not be if homosexuality were recognized as an innate trait. You can be judged for what you do, that is, but you should not be judged for what you are. To deny the role of choice is to preempt judgment. This ought to be an unnecessary argument. I'm inclined to believe that there's an element of choice in sexual orientation because my suspicion is that every human being is potentially bisexual. That element of choice may not be conscious or intellectual, since we're talking about sex and emotion, but there's certainly an element of will to it, especially if attraction runs up against any existing taboo. I doubt whether anyone is any more immune to same-sex attraction than anyone is immune to developing sexual fetishes. Many people may never experience an event triggering a fetish or a same-sex attraction, but the potential is probably there just the same. The main point is that the choice, such as it is, and so long as it involves consenting adults, is not liable to moral judgment. The better gay-rights argument isn't that you have no right to judge a person's sexual orientation because it's an innate trait, but that you have no right to judge a person's gender preference in sexual partners, period. On that understanding, so long as Carson didn't mean to say that prisoners who choose to be gay need to be reconverted or deprogrammed, he really said nothing wrong -- just something somewhat stupid.

03 March 2015

The Netanyahu speech and Islamic 'aggression'

Prime Minister Netanyahu was more diplomatic toward President Obama in his much-vaunted, much-dreaded speech before Congress than his Republican fanboys usually are. The Israeli leader made a point of mentioning several "not widely known" cases of Obama's assistance to his country while hinting at further services that "might never be known" for security reasons. Understandably enough, Netanyahu saved his rhetorical venom for Iran. He spun a word portrait of Persian enmity toward the Jews dating back to the time of the Book of Esther, with the mullahs of the Islamic Republic as the heirs of the hated Haman He did not mention that the Persians ruled the Jews at the time and were in fact hailed by them as liberators from the hated Babylonians; that Esther was a queen of Persia in the story; and that Haman was destroyed by his own master, the Persian emperor. Instead, Netanyahu hailed Esther for winning "for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves," though he looked to the U.S., or more specifically today to Congress, to defend them from Iran. And for what it's worth, it's unclear whether Haman was ethnically Persian at all, in scripture or in reality.

Netanyahu portrayed the Iranians as the aggressors in the entire Middle East since the Islamic Republic came into existence in 1979. According to his reading of the Iranian constitution, the Revolutionary Guards are mandated to "fulfill the ideological mission of jihad." To clarify his meaning, he quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini's exhortation to "export the revolution throughout the world." The Islamic Republic, in stark contrast to the American Republic, is dedicated to "death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad," Netanyahu said. They are the aggressors in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Yemen. By supporting the Assad government in Syria they promote slaughter and tyranny, and through their sponsorship of Hezbollah they are aggressors against Israel itself. Their current head of state pines for the annihilation of Israel and his Hezbollah puppet itches to massacre Jews.

It's easy to argue that Iran is a tyranny to the extent that the Supreme Guide and principal ayatollah is accountable to no one, and to the extent that many citizens find many of the Republic's religiously-based restrictions oppressive. But even if we concede that the Islamic Republic is a tyranny by any standard other than its own, does that make it inherently an aggressor? The Iranians themselves, naturally, don't see things that way. Like Islamist movements everywhere, the partisans of the Islamic Republic see theirs as a defensive struggle against Imperialism, Zionism, and an international Sunni (or "takfiri") conspiracy. From their perspective, the 1979 revolution liberated Iran from the secular tyranny of the Shah and his American backers, the 1980s war with Iraq was motivated at least partly to liberate that country's Shiite majority from Sunni domination, and the liberation of Palestine from Zionism is an enduring obligation.  All of this can be dismissed as rhetoric, of course, and it can still be argued that the Islamic Republic is inherently aggressive because it expresses an illegitimate will to power on the part of the mullahs. But that isn't the Israeli argument. Netanyahu's position is that Iran's pretense of a liberating mission is spurious because the settled order of the Middle East, such as it is but above all inclusive of the existence of a Jewish State, is indisputably legitimate. Neither Persians nor Arabs nor Muslims as a whole have a veto on Jewish nationhood and the nation's entitlement to a geographic state. To deny the legitimacy of Israel (or its "right to exist") is aggression from this perspective.

Who ever actually boasted of being the aggressor in a war? Even Hitler had to claim that the Poles fired on Germany first, and so Israel sees Iran as the aggressor and Iran sees Israel and the U.S. as aggressors. Islam sees Christianity (and its Jewish client) as the aggressor ever since Islam itself went off the offensive after 1683, if not ever since the Crusades, while Christianity sees Islam as the aggressor ever since the successors of Muhammad began building an empire in the 7th century A.D. No matter who the objective aggressor is, each side accuses the other of aggression in order to claim moral superiority or deny the other some right it claims -- in this case, Iran's asserted right to develop nuclear power and its inferred desire to build nuclear weapons. Iran must not have nuclear power of any weaponizable potential, Netanyahu insists, because the Iranians are proven aggressors and explicitly desire the destruction of Israel. The U.S. must pressure Iran into surrendering its ambitions, and Congress if necessary must pressure an otherwise helpful President into firmness against the aggression of the Iranian nuclear program should Obama waver out of weakness or some obscure sense of evenhandedness. The American public most likely agrees with Netanyahu about the menace of Iran, even if many don't see it as our special job to protect Israel in particular from such a menace. Few if any of us would argue for favoring Iran over Israel, but fewer want more war in the Middle East. The only reason to deny nuclear power to Iran is a conviction that fanaticism would motivate the mullahs to launch a first strike against Israel, being indifferent to reprisal since it would only mean martyrdom. But if we assume that the mullahs and their more secular collaborators in Iran are aggressors out of a desire for power, aren't their motives ultimately selfish and therefore subject to deterrence, just as those of the Soviet Union's leaders were? Netanyahu's reasoning may not stand scrutiny, but he's probably stuck with it. He must call the Iranians aggressors, even in preference to "fanatics," because it's always possible that a fanatic, unlike a pure aggressor, has a grievance that might be entitled to consideration. Whether Iran, a nation somewhat far from Israel, has any real grievance with the Jewish State -- whether Palestine is any of its business -- is a fair question, but in that case distance should diminish American interest in the entire region. Ours is a free country, however, and our people can take interest in any nation they wish and try to make their government take interest as well. That might be as good a definition of aggression as any we've heard lately.


27 February 2015

Who is the Opposition: death of a 'Putin critic'

There's been a political assassination in Russia. The victim is Boris Nemtsov, once a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and a high-profile opponent of Russia's involvement in Ukraine. That last part may have been enough to get Russia's nationalist rabble riled up at Nemtsov, since people in any country who oppose its foreign policy are likely to be thought of as traitors. Nemtsov himself worried that his stand would get him killed. That his murder was a political act is almost certain, but who done it? Here's another case in which news media shape the narrative possibly without even realizing it. Predictably enough, many headlines on news sites identify Nemtsov as an "Opposition" figure or leader. Just to nudge readers further, some sites identify him as a "Putin critic." This is still breaking news in our part of the world, and Putin himself has condemned the murder as good political form requires, but the way Nemtsov has been presented to the outside world will most likely lead people here to echo the victim's own suspicions. He believed that Putin himself would have him killed, or so he told a Russian website, as the BBC reports. Perhaps we should defer to the fears of a man who dealt with Putin at closer quarters than we ever will, but even an authoritarian bully ought to be considered innocent of each particular crime until proven guilty. An analogy might help keep things in perspective. Let's say some goons killed an American anti-war activist, or for the sake of arguments a prominent anti-war politician, ten years ago. Few of us would leap to the conclusion that George W. Bush or the Republican party had ordered the murder, because we know our own country and we know what our reactionary yahoos are capable of. It's not hard to believe that Russia is just as full of reactionary yahoos who are just as capable of acting on their own initiative to take down a perceived traitor. It would hardly reflect less badly on Russia if Nemtsov has been killed by random reactionary yahoos, yet the authoritarian specter of Putin so haunts the west that many here will automatically assume him responsible for any misfortune suffered by the "Opposition." If we want to see Russia clearly, warts and all, we have to resist the impulse to treat Putin's consolidation of power as the one master narrative, the only thing that's really happening there. A big problem with American attitudes toward the rest of the world is that we look at other countries and only see their leaders. It may be a wider problem, but I suspect that populations less obsessed with the threat of dictatorship have at least a potentially clearer view of other countries. If we look at Russia today and see only Putin, we definitely have a problem. Nemtsov's murder may prove that Russia is a dangerous place, but its danger to us will be all the greater the less carefully we understand its danger to its own people.

25 February 2015

Who is the Opposition?

Bangladesh is a Muslim nation that defies western expectations. It's a Muslim nation in which the two most powerful politicians, leaders of the country's major political parties, are women. Khaleda Zia is a former prime minister and the current leader of the opposition to her rival, Sheikh Hasina. There's a warrant out for her arrest on an embezzlement charge. Zia has been trying to force Hasina's government to call early elections after boycotting last fall's parliamentary votes. Her party accuses Hasina of authoritarian tendencies while Hasina darkly accuses Zia of terrorism. I can't judge between the two leaders or their parties. But I noted something interesting in the global coverage of their power struggle and the arrest warrant. Browsing through the headlines on a Google News page, I found Zia almost invariably identified as the "Opposition" leader. It's an accurate description, and for non-Bangladeshi readers it probably makes sense to identify her affiliation as Opposition rather than BNP or Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But how often do you hear about "Opposition leader" John Boehner or "Opposition leader" Mitch McConnell? If you're an American you'd probably see no reason for such labels, since you know the names of your country's major parties and their relation to each other. In fact there's nothing wrong with identifying Republicans by their party name or GOP rather than Opposition. The problem is actually on the other side.

When the news identifies a conflict between parties as "Government" vs. "Opposition" we're tempted to think of the conflict in polarized terms, to imagine the stakes higher than they actually may be. American liberals, I suspect, are especially tempted to see such polarized conflicts as struggles with freedom or human rights at stake. Predictably, in Bangladesh the BNP sees political motives behind the warrant for their leader's arrest. I expect many American observers to sympathize with that perception, to the extent that they're aware of the crisis in Bangladesh, because they tend to be suspicious anytime an "Opposition" leader in a foreign country is arrested or even accused of a crime. The prosecution of Alexei Navalny in Russia is the current textbook case; few western observers take seriously the charges against an Opposition leader, while perceptions of Vladimir Putin only encourage further skepticism. The dichotomy of Government and Opposition shapes perceptions of the underdog individual threatened by the monolithic state. Since dissent is the only proof of freedom many will accept, whenever a dissident falls into legal jeopardy people feel that freedom itself is in jeopardy if not under direct attack by a lying government. We might step back from such extreme perceptions if we recognized a Navalny or a Zia as just another partisan politician. Labels won't change the truth of each case either way, but we should want to avoid extending the "partisan immunity" principle in domestic politics across the globe. In the U.S. partisans often protest against a "criminalization of politics" when their own people are accused of crimes, but they don't extend the same courtesy when the other party is similarly embarrassed. Cynicism aside, that's because the parties here know each other well enough, and are so nearly evenly matched in voting strength, that neither can be taken seriously in the abstract Opposition role so often assigned to dissident parties abroad. Americans as a whole are jaded enough to recognize that crooks are likely to exist even within each person's favorite party, but we seem less jaded when we look beyond our borders. The tragedy of politics everywhere is that sometimes the only thing standing between a population and a really lousy government is some sort of a crook. Putin may be an authoritarian goon, but Navalny may also be a crook. Hasina may be trying to consolidate power dangerously, but Zia may also be a crook. Political choices are rarely as morally simple as we'd like them to be. If they were, we wouldn't see so many polarized electorates and politicized criminal cases. A desire to oversimplify such conflicts may only complicate them further.

24 February 2015

Amoklauf in Czech

According to the latest summary, a middle-aged man who had shortly before called into a TV program to complain about suffering some form of bullying entered a pub in the Czech town of Uhersky Brod today and started shooting randomly. Eight people died before the man turned a gun on himself. Authorities know the shooter to have been mentally unstable, yet he possessed firearms. The Czech Republic reportedly has liberal firearms regulations, and the nation is a major manufacturer of small arms. One of the leading manufacturers is based in the very town where today's shooting took place. No psychological test is required before an applicant receives a gun license, but it should be noted that people may go crazy well after getting a license. In any event, two details here are consistent with amoklauf incidents elsewhere: the firearms themselves and the peculiarly modern sense of entitlement to kill that makes such incidents more prevalent around the world. That sense of entitlement -- in short, that rage -- motivates people even where guns aren't had so easily, as the mass knife attacks across China in recent years testify. Stricter regulation of guns around the world will reduce the lethal potential of that rage against humanity, but the rage itself clearly has a lethal potential that must be addressed separately. Either-or choices such as those forced on us by gun lobbyists who blame everything but firearms are inadequate to the problem. But liberals also need to look past an exceptional notion of American violence to recognize that gun control alone also falls short. Some will turn their attention to the culture, or more specifically the media, but violent media are themselves more likely symptoms than causes of the larger problem. Is the desire to see destruction and death, not to mention cause it, a media creation? In some cases maybe, but in general I suspect not. The more we think about this as we ought to, the more we may realize that nothing sort of a cultural if not a moral revolution must take place that may not be possible without a social revolution as well.

23 February 2015

Love (of country) means never saying you're sorry

Rudy Giuliani has as much right to say that President Obama doesn't love his country as Kanye West did to say that President Bush didn't care for black people. Some people are acting like Giuliani committed some form of treason, or else proved himself an untouchable bigot, for questioning Obama's patriotism last week, but so long as we can freely accuse Republicans of hating whole segments of the American population Giuliani is equally within his prerogatives as an American. Of course, everyone else remains within his or her prerogative to judge Giuliani, but the implication that he has, or should have, no right to say what he did goes too far. What's supremely asinine about Giuliani's remarks, and his efforts to clarify them afterward, is the former mayor's own apparent lack of confidence in his country's objective moral standing. His complaint, as he has elaborated, is that Obama is too often critical of the country's past and insufficiently affirmative of its historic virtue. For Giuliani, as for other overly aggressive advocates of American exceptionalism, the rating game of nations is played by zero-sum rules. To bring up the nation's crimes, or even its mere shortcomings, in this view, is to disqualify the U.S. from its rightful role as Leader of the Free World. Giuliani would seem to think that people who learn of the bad things done by the U.S. will conclude that the U.S. is a bad country, and he blames such a conclusion on Obama's failure to affirm often enough all the good things about America. As many critics have noted, Obama has affirmed those good things quite often, but either still not often enough for Giuliani or, more likely, not at the right times. What Giuliani would like, I suspect -- if he wouldn't actually prefer that Obama not criticize our past at all -- is that every presidential talk on history have a "despite that" moment. Despite all that, Obama should say after every recitation of American failings, the U.S. for however so many reasons remains the Greatest Country in the World. If Obama doesn't correct the balance in every single speech, Giuliani worries, people can't be trusted not to conclude that the U.S. has been a historic experiment in wickedness, and Obama can't be trusted not to believe that himself.   Why else would the former mayor think that Obama has demoralized the nation? Either he assumes that Americans are so stupid that they're incapable of balancing the bad and the good in their own heads, or else Giuliani himself must worry that the U.S. will be found wanting in the scales of history. If he didn't believe himself that slavery, conquest, generations of bigoted injustice, etc. may damage the nation's standing beyond repair, he wouldn't get so worked up over Obama's attempted history lessons. Obama himself presumably draws different conclusions. While he may be more circumspect than past Presidents about the U.S. unilaterally dominating the world, he has never appeared to doubt a special American entitlement to throw our weight across the globe. Moreover, those inclined to see Obama as an egoist or narcissist ought to suspect that the President sees his own election and reelection as redeeming the nation's past sins if not sufficiently proving its exceptional greatness themselves. In short, why wouldn't Obama love a country that made him President? Only a truly paranoid mindset of the sort that still imagines an international communist conspiracy would dare answer...and that's why you let people like Giuliani, who might yet aspire to political power, speak their minds without inhibition. Only then do you know how their minds really work. For that reason, Rudy should be thanked for doing us all a public service.

21 February 2015

Revolutionary paranoia and Venezuela's 'endless coup'

It's a sign of how polarized and nearly equally divided politically Venezuela is that the mayor of its capital city is part of the opposition to the late Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. And it's a sign of how desperate things have gotten there that Maduro had the mayor, Antonio Ledezma, arrested this week, accusing him of participating in a conspiracy to remove Maduro from power by a coup d'etat. Maduro grew expansive in his suspicions, claiming that Bolivarian Venezuela is beset by an "endless coup" of the wealthy, backed by the U.S. That phrase sums up neatly the way revolutionary politicians see their opposition. When you're convinced that revolution is an unconditional imperative, any opposition, any disagreement, becomes counterrevolution, and all disagreement is potentially if not inherently conspiratorial. In the most basic terms, it's a negative conspiracy of refusal to get with the program or submit to the will of the people, or the will of history as the Leader understands it. The problem with this point of view is its failure to make distinctions under insecure conditions. One might accept that revolutionary change is an unconditional imperative, but it never follows from that that the Leader is always right, or that the Leader should never be contradicted. Revolutions often go off the deep end that way, but that's not the situation in Venezuela. The opposition there is adamantly opposed the the Bolivarian revolution, and elements of the opposition did attempt a coup against Chavez. None of this proves that Mayor Ledezma is a coup plotter, but just as a diagnosis of paranoia doesn't mean that you don't have enemies, liberals should not make an absolute presumption of Ledezma's innocence. Venezuela is in bad shape and from all appearances Maduro isn't helping things much. He lacks the charisma and apparently much of the political skill of Chavez, and the worldwide oil glut has punished the country's petro-centric economy. I can't judge how badly Maduro is f'ing things up, but if people were ready to take down Chavez when the country was doing relatively well economically, how many more may find Bolivarism intolerable in a bad recession. People might have very good reasons to believe that Maduro should go, but none of them entitle citizens of an electoral democracy to remove him by extralegal means. The opposition screams that Chavez was becoming a dictator or that Maduro is, but such cries were belied by Bolivarian acquiescence in opposition election victories. Only now, arguably, comes a real test. If Ledezma is guilty, it's up to Maduro to make sure a free and fair election replaces him, even if that makes someone of Ledezma's party the next mayor. If he uses the charges against Ledezma to ban his party or disqualify it from the next mayoral election, Maduro would go a long way toward proving all the old charges against his movement. If he starts to treat all opposition as illegal counterrevolution, Maduro will be on the way to dictatorship, and all constitutional bets would be off. In short, Ledezma's trial is coming, but Maduro's is here.