27 May 2015

Corruption and greed in government

Frustrated with legislative and gubernatorial inaction in the face of embarrassing scandals, the attorney general of New York State takes a proposal to "End New York Corruption Now" to the people through the pages of the Albany Times Union. With the erstwhile Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader both awaiting trial on corruption charges, Eric Schneiderman offers a mix of the most-proposed remedies. He would reduce the amount anyone can donate to candidates while reducing perceived loopholes and restricting donations by lobbyists. He would expand his own capacity to prosecute "public corruption." He would minimize conflicts of interest by forbidding outside employment for legislators. So far, so good, but Schneiderman's proposal of a pay raise for legislators may cost him much of his readers' good will. He proposes it as if it would compensate for the ban on outside employment, arguing that legislators should "be paid like the full-time professionals they are." Merely to describe them that way will scandalize some readers, especially if they see the entrenched power of a "full-time professional" like Sheldon Silver, the disgraced Speaker, as a big part of the problem. Ideally a legislator should not care what he's paid. In olden times politicians often described elected service as a sacrifice of their personal interests for the public interest. It shouldn't be that drastic a sacrifice -- in fact, there should be honor in and from service -- but we don't want people to aspire to elected office out of any expectation of a big payday. The notion that politicians won't be tempted toward corruption if they're paid enough up front is naive. If what he's paid is a factor at all in his ambition, we can expect that he'll look for any opportunity he can to make more money while in office. But Schneiderman may expect higher salaries to draw a different and ideally better class of people into politics by making it more worth their while. If so, what he really should do probably is outside the purview of anti-corruption legislation, since it would involve reducing the cost of waging a political campaign.

Like everyone of like mind, Schneiderman attacks the supply side by proposing limits on what people can contribute. That's fine, but something else has to be done on the demand side to reduce costs or level the playing field. Campaign advertising must be made affordable to any credible candidate -- perhaps as determined by petitions -- or else it must be banned in the name of fairness lest the rich drown out the poor. But if such an idea is too tough a sell for some civil libertarians, perhaps a change in attitudes across the board would be easier to achieve. For starters, could we once and for all give up the idea that people who "know how to run a business" automatically make good legislators or executives, or that governments should be run "like a business?" I ask because I suspect that people who don't know how to run a business, or to run a government like one, would never think of the corrupt schemes we keep hearing about. It simply would not occur to many people to seek profit from elected office, because the profit motive isn't the primary thing in their lives. To others that may seem irresponsible, but maybe there's a sort of modesty in that attitude, as well as a possibly superior sense of responsibility, that we could use in government. Such people, most of whom can't afford political ambitions, may be less prone to corruption in office, but anti-corruption measures alone will not empower them. Radical reforms that would empower such people might actually make the sort of anti-corruption measures Schneiderman proposes unnecessary. So, Mr. Attorney General, what more have you got?

26 May 2015

A post-ideological foreign policy?

It's remarkable to see in the pages of Time magazine, a mainstream media outlet if ever there was one, such a strong critique of American foreign policy from the magazine's own foreign-affairs correspondent, Ian Bremmer, who summarizes the arguments of his new book, Superpower: Three Choices for Amercia's Role in the World in the current issue. He summarizes three likely approaches advocated by different factions today, including good old "Indispensable America," but Bremmer clearly endorses the option he calls "Independent America." He calls it that because it would be a declaration of independence from the U.S's self-assigned "responsibility to fix the world." Bremmer believes that the 21st century has already taught younger Americans that "no nation, not even the sole superpower, can consistently get what it wants in a world where so many other governments have enough power to resist U.S. pressure," and that, as Vietnam should already have shown, "No matter how powerful you are, it's hard to defeat an enemy that cares much more about the outcome than you do." Bremmer finds this relevant not only in the Middle East but in Ukraine, which "will always matter much more to Moscow than to Washington." For him, though, the choice facing the country is about more than an acknowledgment of limits. "It's not simply that America can no longer police the world," he writes, "It's that it has no right to force those who disagree with us to see things our way." From there he moves to a critique of our global "freedom" agenda: "Americans like to believe that democracy is so undeniably attractive, and our commitment to it so obvious that others should simply trust us to create it for them within their borders. That's just not the case."

Bremmer still believes that democracy, by which he means liberal constitutional democracy, is a good everyone should want. On that assumption, he advises the U.S. to lead by example: "the best way to persuade the citizens of other countries to demand democracy is to make it work more effectively at home. Don't just tell the world that democracy is best. Show it, and build an America that others believe is too important to fail."

Implicitly acknowledging democratic dysfunction in America, Bremmer leaves unclear in this preview article what exactly the dysfunction may be and what exactly foreigners might find either attractive or inadequate about democracy as we practice it. The key word in the last quote, I think, is "effectively." Like many observers, Bremmer expects democracy to get things done. But our compromised democracy is often exploited by people who don't want things done if they come at any cost to wealth or "freedom." Our admirable desire to protect the principled dissident or the misunderstood minority also empowers potentially unprincipled or very well understood vested interests with a veto, or at least a check, on the common good. Countries where a more urgent need to get things done is felt are likely to be impatient with our system. For good or ill they want someone to have the power to get things done without being checked by the vested interests who often are the cause of their problems. They may not want to silence dissidents, but they may expect minorities, and those defined politically especially, to acquiesce eventually in the majority will as interpreted by the elected regime. Liberalism has gone wrong if it can no longer convince the dissident that to lose is not to be oppressed or enslaved, and liberal democracy has clearly gone wrong in the U.S. When every defeat is perceived as a shove down a slipper slope to totalitarianism or theocracy or socialism or oligarchy, the sort of compromises James Madison depended on for his system to work effectively become less likely, and the more outsiders blame American ineffectiveness on the power of vested interests and dogmatic ideologies grown indifferent to a common good, the less tolerant they may be toward both vested interests and principled dissidents in their own midst. Observing the rest of the world, Americans will need to recognize that not every dissident is principled, and that sometimes, as in our own history, vested interests need to go, quietly or not, if nations are to advance.

Bremmer recognizes this much when he critiques the "Indispensable" option, which presumes that "Americans can be secure only in a world where democracy, rule of law, access to information, freedom of speech and human rights are universally recognized." He reserves his strongest criticism for politicians who "continue to tell us that U.S. troops are 'defending our freedom' in places overseas where American freedom is not at risk." He blasts Jeb Bush for saying, "If we withdraw from the defense of liberty anywhere, the battle eventually comes to us." That's perhaps the most extreme expression -- from a candidate who still seems unclear about whether his brother's war policies were wise or not -- of a still-widespread belief that dictatorship anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere, and especially to freedom here. Refuting this intellectually is one thing; it'll be another to overcome the humanitarian impulse that sees the suffering of people under tyranny as our business. That impulse might be channeled toward building stronger global authorities that hold all countries equally accountable for acts against humanity, but global authorities, if truly representative, may have different priorities for human or national development than we do; a global consensus may well not hold the individual as sacrosanct as we demand, even if it acknowledged more individual rights than many do now. But while many liberals and self-styled humanitarians may be captivated by such negotiations, as long as we remain a world of sovereign nations the main priority is to respect the sovereignty of other nations until they violate other nations' sovereignty, and to get Americans over the idea that we're only safe if we dominate the world. When other countries are torn by strife amongst rule-or-ruin factions, each believing that it can flourish, or at least survive, only when it rules, we call that tribalism. The U.S. has practiced a tribalist foreign policy for too long, and if Bremmer's "Independent America" option ends that he'll have done the nation and the world a service.

Here's a link to a quiz Bremmer has created for you to determine which of his options is closest to your own beliefs. My only beef with it is that a few of the questions really have "all of the above" answers but you're not allowed to choose them.

21 May 2015

Oh Mighty ISIS!

Reports of the decline of the self-styled Islamic State have unsurprisingly proved exaggerated. Instead, the jihadi army has made gains against both Iraq and Syria this week, leaving some global observers more concerned for the classical ruins in the city of Palmyra, likely candidates for iconoclastic demolition as they are, than for the lives of the army's still more likely human victims. Whether we like it or not, the Daesh is always going to have an advantage in moral over the soldiers of a sectarian and corrupt government, on one hand, and a blatant tyranny on the other. Maybe the Shiite militias reportedly coming to the rescue of Ramadi are sufficiently fanatical to stand up to the takfiri host, but the hirelings of the regular Iraqi and Syrian armies must rightly ask whether resistance is worth the risk. To those of us watching from the outside the imperative to resist and repel the IS is self-evident. To us, the fight against the Daesh is a fight for freedom, but for people who arguably have never been free as we understand the idea, life under a new master may be preferable to death for any idea. As for the jihadis themselves, I suppose I'm not the one to question whether the war really counts as a religious experience for them. But whether it does or not, they seem to have a more realistic hope for power and plunder than their opponents ever can under their current leaders. More than fanaticism, I suspect, the feeling that power is the only key to prosperity drives them. That may not sound religious depending on how you define religion, but as I understand it Islam has never taken an "our kingdom is not of this world" attitude. Part of why Islam as a whole seems more political, if not totalitarian, than the other Abrahamic faiths may be that Muslims are more likely to feel that this world is theirs to take and rule. Christians have often felt likewise, of course, but that impulse may be inhibited sometimes by a sense that it contradicts Jesus's message, while jihadi conquest does not necessarily contradict Muhammad's message. Another way to look at it is that jihad is the prosperity gospel for Muslims, with the difference that the jihadi is more convinced that his prosperity depends on coercive power over other people. Neither the Iraqi government nor even the Syrian tyranny can plausibly promise that kind of power, which may prove that, like it or not, the IS is more egalitarian, at least within its own ranks, than its opponents. That's how rotten the Middle East is today, and if no one other than the IS can realistically promise to make people's lives better, and not merely to create "opportunity" for them, it isn't going to get any better -- at least in our eyes.

20 May 2015

Holding their feet to a fire made of money

I got a begging letter from the President the other day. It was the first from him in a while and it surprised me since, as he writes, "I have no more campaigns to run." He boasts that "the GOP's grand predictions of doom and gloom haven't come true," and advises Republicans that if they hope to re-brand themselves as the party of the middle class, "They must walk the walk when it comes to addressing the issues most important to growing the middle class ... like raising the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for women [ellipsis in original]." They must stop "ignoring the will of the people," though I suppose each Republican believes himself or herself to be obeying the will of their people. Such confusions help explain why Obama "can't force them to act on critical issues," but he suggests that the American people can. At least they can "hold [Republicans'] feet to the fire....They need to feel the heat from you and others across the country." That sounds like a call for a letter-writing, phone-calling and e-mailing campaign to swamp congressmen's inboxes with righteous demands for "policies that make life better for all." The President advises that we make clear to Republicans that we'll "hold them accountable at the ballot box if they don't" straighten out. So that's what we should tell them in our letters, calls, e-mails and tweets, right? Maybe, but what Obama really has in mind is that you donate money to the Democratic National Committee in sums beginning with the cute, timely figure of $20.16. This support "is critical to holding the Republicans' feet to the fire and demanding action to make the lives of all Americans better." Apparently this money is not going entirely into 2016 campaign funds but will be used, at least in part, to "rally Americans to demand action for all from the Republican-controlled Congress." I would have thought that the letter, presuming it reaches as many homes as I suspect, would have sufficed for that purpose, especially augmented by some Obama orations. This roundabout way of rallying opinion seems wasteful. The President is saying, in effect: I want you to hold Republicans' feet to the fire, so give us money so we can tell you to hold Republicans' feet to the fire. Moreover, I don't think it'll have the effect Obama hopes for. He may hope to build a bonfire of money to threaten the GOP, but those guys are firewalkers when it comes to this sort of thing. Hell, they'll walk through fire just to get money, so I doubt this late tough talk will intimidate them at all. But I suppose that if you're a full-time politician in our time this would make sense. What better way to have your constituents intimidate your foes than by having them give you money? Possibly we might think of something, but I doubt that Obama or his Republican begging counterparts want to hear it.

18 May 2015

On the road to Hell with Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky

Sam Harris, one of our best-selling New Atheists, disagrees with anti-imperialist Noam Chomsky on the need to confront militant Islam around the world. He recently invited Chomsky to hold a public discussion on related subjects, and while it looks now like no such conversation will happen Harris, with Chomsky's permission, has published their exchange of e-mails at his website. It isn't really flattering to either man. Chomsky comes across as almost imperious in his contempt for Harris, while Harris stated desire to strive for common ground seems slightly insincere given his obvious intent to challenge Chomsky on a point already raised in one of Harris's books. In short, Harris believes that ends redeem means if they don't justify them. He believes that ultimate judgments on political violence must take the intentions of actors into account. He is irked by Chomsky's seeming refusal to take intentions into account. He is particularly irked by Chomsky's rhetorical linkage of the 2001 terror attacks on the United States with the U.S. bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998. Chomsky appears to believe that on some level the attack on Sudan was a worse crime because of its longterm humanitarian consequences for a poor nation, while Harris believes that we can't judge either event without taking the perpetrators' very different intentions into account. The two intellectuals disagree most starkly over the intentions of President Clinton. Harris believes that it matters that Clinton acted because he thought the plant had something to do with chemical weapons for terrorist use -- that the President acted to prevent terrorism and save lives. Chomsky is reluctant to credit Clinton with any good intentions, arguing first that the bombing was intended most likely as pure reprisal for recent terror attacks against American interests, and then that even if Clinton ordered the bombing on preventive grounds, his indifference to the likely humanitarian consequences marks him as depraved if not also racist. And knowing Harris's reputation for New Atheist vigilance against theocracy and religiously-motivated violence, Chomsky reminds him repeatedly that George W. Bush claimed a divine mandate for the invasion of Iraq. Having insulted Harris well before the exchange began by calling him a worshipper of a cult of the State, Chomsky basically blew him off by saying a conversation with someone so morally blind wasn't worth having. Harris, of course, still believes it's Chomsky who's morally blind.

The odd thing about the exchange is the rhetorical emphasis on "intentions" when what's really being discussed is one of the oldest and most controversial premises: that the end justifies the means. Harris's position is clear: much, if not all, is justified to stop the spread of militant Islam, if not the spread of theocracy in general. If Clinton bombed the pharmaceutical plant to strike at Islamist terrorism, then the collateral damage can be forgiven to a great extent if not entirely excused or endorsed. I don't know whether Chomsky believes that ends never justify means, but when he perceives the end to be nothing more than American global hegemony he can forgive nothing about the means. The 1998 bombing is more about American imperial arrogance than it is about any terrorist threat, and in his ever-infuriating fashion he feels obliged as an American citizen to focus his critical attention on those acts for which he feels responsible, and for which he holds Harris responsible. Chomsky judges acts by their humanitarian consequences, and this orientation really distinguishes him from Harris, who is more concerned with a theoretical future upon which our intentions appear to have meaningful influence. When Harris writes or speaks about intentions, it's more accurate to say that for him ends are more likely to disqualify than justify means. The point he wants Chomsky and others to acknowledge isn't that the Sudan bombing is good because of Clinton's intentions. It's that the 2001 terror attacks were worse because they were carried out in the interest of Islamist jihad. Harris is less interested in what people do than in what they want; that's what really threatens him. There are lots of people out there who want jihad or want a caliphate. Harris does not want these things, and some of his writings suggest that there is no limit to what may be done to prevent them. Why his negative intentions should count more than those of other people -- Islamists also see themselves on the defensive, preventing the spread of secularism, imperialism, Zionism, etc. -- is unclear, though Harris believes he can prove the priority his fears should have over theirs. But that's a discussion Chomsky doesn't want or need to have. All along, my impression has been that he doesn't want to see people killed, and any cause that requires slaughter is as bad as any other in his eyes. In turn, that leaves him with few options if he really wants to reform the world in the face of widespread intransigence, but I doubt that Harris meant to bring that point up. In the end, the Harris-Chomsky exchange may prove more useful than a public conversation would have been. At the very least it describes the limits of two limited worldviews, each of which includes much with which I sympathize. If they couldn't have a civil conversation, that may only prove that in the long run neither man has much to contribute toward solving the problems of our time.

17 May 2015

Wild West 2015

In Waco TX at least nine people are dead and twice that number hospitalized in the latest outbreak of mass gun violence in America. This time, however, things were a little different from the norm. It wasn't one angry little nut and a bunch of innocent victims this time. It was three rival biker gangs opening fire on one another outside a restaurant. That may be why we're not getting continuous live coverage of the atrocity -- although the fact that today is Sunday may also have something to do with it, given the news networks' relatively limited resources and schedules of pre-recorded programs. Going into the week, it'll be interesting to see if this story grows legs. Will it be another rallying point for the gun-control movement, or are they so entranced by the angry-nut paradigm that this crossfire battle will seem to matter less? Since it's most likely that we're not dealing with black perpetrators this time -- to my knowledge the casualties haven't been identified yet -- will we have a separate round of national soul-searching to ask what's wrong with whoever these people prove to be? Yet if these prove to be the archetypal white bikers -- for some it may suffice that they're archetypal Texans -- won't this violence reflect as badly on their communities and their ethnic culture as black violence supposedly reflects on those perpetrators' communities and ethnic culture? Right now it's too soon to tell, but what we hear and don't hear about this incident may tell us a lot about how the media, the opinionators, and the people in general really think about violence in America. Stay tuned.

15 May 2015

Why defend religion? Let Jeb explain

Liberty University is part of the pilgrimage trail for Republican presidential aspirants. Ted Cruz opened his campaign there a little while ago, in a way some of the students resented. Last weekend Jeb Bush went there to burnish his Christianist credentials. More so even than Cruz, the former Florida governor of the royal line presented himself as a defender of the faith. He specifically defended Christianity against an alleged attack campaign by progressives, backed by the power of the Obama administration. He described a kind of persecution of the humble folks who defy government mandates or dictates as a matter of conscience. These people, Bush said, have been misrepresented by their oppressors.

How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force.  Outside [Liberty University], it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated.  We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.

The former governor went on to defend Christianists' right of conscience without ever mentioning that recently guaranteed right of theirs, the exercise of which angers progressives the most.  Bush was happy to portray Christians as compassionate, charitable, and pacific, and even willing to endorse openly their opposition to abortion ("Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love."), but not once in the transcript submitted to the news media in advance does he affirm, as his audience might expect of him, that homosexuality is sin. Instead, he spoke vaguely against "secular dogmas" including "restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution." He denounces Obama's "aggressive stance against" religious freedom, and says sarcastically that "Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith." No, I guess not. It couldn't be the superstitious homophobes who only have "tradition" and "revelation" to justify themselves who are small-minded and intolerant. It has to be those who tell others not to be small-minded and intolerant.

Leaving that topic aside, Bush's speech is further proof that Christians, like every other group, define themselves idealistically and selectively. For every person for whom the essence of Christianity is "Thou Shalt Not" or "Burn in Hell," there's at least one who echoes Bush's alternate definition of its essence. For him, Christianity's message is that "God’s favor is upon the gentle, the kind, and the poor in spirit, and that, as Jesus said, "“Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the merciful … Blessed are the peacemakers.” Unsurprisingly, he repeats the claim that individual human life had no value before Jesus. He imagines a world without Christianity and describes, "power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace." It actually sounds pretty familiar, except that it reminds me of a world where Christianity does exist. With blinkers on, Bush presses on, predictably quoting Martin Luther King: "No law in the world could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism." For what it's worth, King said this while making a distinction between "love," to which the quote refers, and justice. "A higher law is needed to produce love," he wrote, while "Man made laws are needed to ensure justice." While King may have felt that justice itself depended on some form of "love," he still made a distinction that may be lost on Bush and his audience. King meant that no man-made law can make you love someone, not (at least on this occasion) that Christianity made the rule of law and liberal civilization possible. But Christians love to think that the whole edifice of civilization would collapse if we forgot Jesus or, perhaps more importantly, the taboos of his time. Take God out of public life and we'll be back to human sacrifice in a heartbeat, because that's happening in all the non-Christian countries out there.

Some subtleties are inevitably lost on a layman like Bush, but I wonder whether his Liberty audience was capable of finding one line of the speech as unintentionally hilarious as I did. As part of his apologia the former governor said, "Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last." It isn't funny that he finds this subversive; it's funny that he doesn't find it subversive of his own party's ideology. "The last shall be first, and the first last," doesn't seem compatible with tax breaks for the wealthy or resistance to any form of wealth redistribution -- but I forgot: the last shall be first and so on in the kingdom of heaven. Down here you had better be grateful for all that loving Christian charity. Bush is all for charity, of course, on the age-old assumption that a good deed is more good when it's voluntary, results counting for less with God, apparently, than the charitable frame of mind. At least I assume that's what his answer would be if we asked: if it's right, why shouldn't it be a duty? Bush said himself that he trusts "the Little Sisters" more than he does "Big Brother," after all.

But why wouldn't Bush put the best face on his faith? All faithful do it. Even some Islamic State savage will tell you that his is a religion of peace. It's always something else, something exterior to the essence of religion, that forces the faithful to fight, kill and conquer. Once the infidels are dead or have submitted, all will be well. Of course, those outside circumstances often determine how we see not just our own religion but other peoples'. In his Nation magazine takedown of Karen Armstrong,  David Nirenberg made this point by citing a 1957 U.S. intelligence document that deemed Islam an asset in the global Cold War. Back then, the beliefs shared by Christians and Muslims were more important than their differences, since they made the faiths natural allies against atheistic, materialistic Communism. Now the differences between the two are foregrounded so sharply that many Americans assume that Islam is antithetical to their secular and spiritual values. Bush said nothing about Islam in his Liberty speech, except implicitly in his comments about the persecution of Christians around the world, but just as his definition of Christianity is shaped by the perceived antagonism of secular progressivism, the perceived challenge of Islam no doubt also drives him to emphasize the meekness and peacefulness of Christians. Muslims, too, may have agreed sixty years ago that similarities outweighed differences in the face of the godless threat, but today they define themselves defensively in the face of aggression they insist on identifying with Christianity. Maybe Jeb Bush should tell them that those godless progressives are the source of all the trouble -- but maybe he isn't that dumb.