17 September 2014

Kerry meets his critics, in front and behind him

This afternoon's Senate hearing of Secretary Kerry was a spectacle displaying American government at something like its best, in character if not in wisdom or efficiency. The thing you noticed immediately were the silent protesters holding antiwar signs behind the Secretary of State, who had come before the committee to advocate for war against the self-styled Islamic State, throughout the hearing. Remarkably, they were not removed and Kerry, long ago an anti-war protester himself, went to the trouble of addressing them. His address was unlikely to convince them -- predictably, he emphasized the IS's systemic misogyny to refute arguments against war from Code Pink, a female-directed protest group. Certainly Kerry must recall that in his youth the warmongers of the time warned of the atrocities to be committed on all freedom-loving people by Communists, and as a soldier in Vietnam he no doubt saw Communist atrocities close up. Yet he turned against the Vietnam War and appeared  before the Senate not merely as a protester or heckler but as a witness to make the case that the war then being waged was not the answer to whatever threat the Viet Cong represented. Does he think the women of Code Pink are ignorant of Islamist misogyny, of reports of rape and enslavement? They are not so clueless, surely, yet as Kerry believed about Vietnam more than forty years ago, they believe now that an air war against ISIS won't solve the problems it feeds upon. That someone must stop the IS as a matter of humane principle no one disputes; how it is to be done, and by whom, are questions that should be asked without presumptions of naivete or cowardice from those being questioned.

With Code Pink waving signs behind him, Kerry was literally in the middle when questioned by Senator McCain, who used an American ambassador to Syria as a kind of human shield while he spouted his characteristic insanity. He relayed (in fact, previewed) the ambassador's report from the Free Syrian Army, i.e. the "good" rebels in that country, that they considered their government, the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, a greater threat than ISIS. McCain then questioned the priorities of Kerry and President Obama; why adopt an "ISIL first" strategy when the real priority, at least as far as McCain is concerned, is to put the Free Syrian Army in power, or at least to replace the Assad government? The Arizonan wants the Obama administration to order airstrikes against Assad in order to prevent the dictator from bombing the "good" rebels, while Kerry struggled to nudge McCain toward a more "confidential" discussion of the nation's Syria strategy. McCain represents those Americans who want no power in Syria except one that'll be friendly toward the U.S., if not also toward America's friends. If anything, it appeared more important to him to topple Assad than to destroy the IS. Fortunately, his position isn't even necessarily representative of Republicans. Sen. Paul noted during his turn with Kerry that had we bombed Assad last year, ISIS might well have taken all Syria by now. On the other hand, many avowed liberals share this dangerous impulse to destroy all dictators. This sort of fanaticism needlessly complicates the crafting of a true international coalition against the IS. There really does seem to be a consensus that ISIS needs to be destroyed; there obviously isn't a consensus that Assad must go. The Iranians, Russians and others will not accept that outcome. We can call them all a bunch of authoritarian poopyheads, or we can make a grown-up decision to do one thing or another -- the thing nearly everyone agrees with or the thing many refuse. Even then, it's one thing to agree with the world about destroying ISIS, and another, just as important, to consult with the Senate and the American people -- with Congress and Code Pink -- before committing resources to that mission. No one wants the IS to win on any front, as far as I know, but we still need to decide what it's worth to us, and to the rest of the world, to stop them.

11 September 2014

A disagreement among Christians

One reason Republicans have gotten especially worked up over the rise of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is the understanding that the Sunni takfiris are persecuting local Christians along with other non-Sunni groups. I'm sure many Americans feel that this country, as a "Christian nation" has a special responsibility to protect Christians around the world. Senator Cruz of Texas apparently felt that way when he addressed the "In Defense of Christians" group last night. That organization is dedicated to the defense in particular of Christians in the Middle East from attacks by Muslim extremists. Cruz apparently went in thinking that "Christian" trumped "Middle Eastern" as far as these people were concerned. He may also have assumed that the enemy of their enemy must or should be their friend. In any event, he went on the podium before these Middle Eastern Christians and told them that "Christians have no greater ally than Israel." As reported on this Christian news site (with video) he was practically booed off the stage, but not before chastising his audience. It was un-Christian to hate Israel or the Jews, he said, forgetting or at least regretting centuries of history that testifies otherwise. He hoped to impress upon his hearers that all the groups persecuted or hated by the IS should stand together. They weren't buying it, and in a climax that was actually impressive in a way, Cruz basically told them to drop dead. If you won't stand with Israel, he said, I won't stand with you. I don't think this means he'll no longer protest the persecution of Christians by the Islamic State. More likely he'll simply prefer to deal with the Middle Eastern Christians of his conservative Republican imagination, much as most American politicians support the Syrian rebels of their imagination while ignoring the real ones.

It's interesting that most of the people posting comments on the Christian news site, seeing evidence that could be interpreted to show that Cruz cares more about Israelis than Christians, support Cruz's stand, seeing him of a man of principle. So do Republican Christians in the U.S. care more for Israelis than Christians in the Middle East when forced to choose? I suspect so, for a variety of reasons, ranging from an apocalyptic belief in Israel's role in prophecy to a suspicion that believers in Syria and Iraq aren't "real" Christians by some doctrinal or denominational standard. Most likely, I suspect, right-wing Christians are likely to see their beleaguered fellow believers, met face to face, as Arabs (if not dirty Arabs) first, and Christians second at best. Meanwhile, it should be remembered that Christians had it relatively good under the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria. At the very least, neither Saddam Hussein nor the Assads ever forced Christians in their countries to convert or die. A lingering loyalty to Baathism, if not a sense of "Arab" identity, may explain their persistent hostility toward Israel. But it may also have been simple resentment that Cruz saw fit to bring up Israel on an occasion intended to spotlight the persecution of Christians. Cruz and his supporters go away feeling that their Middle Eastern co-religionists are un-Christian in some important respect, and the feeling may be mutual. Get two or more Christians in a room together -- outside of a church, that is -- and that's likely to happen.

10 September 2014

Picking winners in Syria

While making his case for further American military action against the self-styled Islamic State tonight, the President is expected to call for further American support for "vetted" or "moderate" rebels against the Syrian government. Neither Obama nor the Republicans seem reconciled to the idea that Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship may be Syria's best defense against an IS takeover. In fact, you're likely to read or hear that Assad is somehow to blame for ISIS's ascendancy in his own country -- that's "Islamic State in Syria," after all, if only through his refusal to capitulate and abdicate. You also hear from Republicans (and some hawkish Democrats) that Obama is to blame for the spread of ISIS because he hasn't heretofore given adequate support to the moderates who are somehow to defeat both ISIS and Assad. If they were capable they'd be winning -- but this argument won't work with those idealists who feel that there has to be a moderate force, a Syrian constituency for liberal, pluralist democracy. Such a force would automatically deserve to win and therefore should be supported with all available resources. If they don't win, if Syria remains a Baathist dictatorship (if not an Alawite monarchy) or becomes part of a jihadist caliphate, it has to be Obama's fault in particular and the U.S.'s fault in general because liberal pluralist democrats have to win everywhere, and liberal pluralist democrats everywhere have to support their comrades in Syria.

There's been an uprising in Syria because the country is a dictatorship and quite a few Syrians can't stand it. Bashar al-Assad may as well be King Bashar; his dynastic succession is as much an insult to the modernist ideals of the Baath party as Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un's reigns have been to Marxism and Leninism. Plenty of Syrians presumably have plenty of reasons to be rid of Assad and the Baathists, if not of the Alawite clique over which Bashar presides. But what do these disgruntled Syrians want in Assad's place? Americans suppose that they know what the Syrians should want, but it doesn't follow that that's what the people who actually first took up arms against Assad wanted. The sad fact is that there seems to be no consensus among the Syrian rebels themselves, who seem to fight amongst themselves as often as they fight the government. There are relative liberals among the rebels, but all accounts portray them as weak -- that may come with the liberalism -- and there's no reason to believe that American money and material support will make them any more formidable than the Iraqi army has been in the face of the IS assault. There's no evidence I know of to indicate that a majority of rebel supporters, much less a majority of Syrians, seek the sort of liberal pluralist democracy we think they should want. Perhaps the best proof against any Assad complaint that the entire uprising is an American plot is the fact that our favorites aren't in command right now. But a sudden ascendancy of liberal pluralist fighters, without a proportionate expansion of their popular base, would allow Assad to say that the U.S. has co-opted the uprising as much as the jihadis have. Leaving that aside, doesn't it simply seem unfair for us, who didn't start this rebellion, to dictate how it should turn out, or to say this particular group should win regardless of their share of fighting or organization? Offensive as it may be to our liberal sensibilities, the best option may be to let Assad win, if he can, if not to help him win. But Assad is too friendly with Iran and Russia, and too unfriendly with Israel, for most Americans to support him even for the sake of regional stability. Yet he may be the Stalin we must work with, clothespins on noses if necessary, to defeat the caliphists we deem the Hitlers of our time. But I fear that too many of today's Americans, transplanted to World War II, would root for moderates to win the battle of Stalingrad.

09 September 2014

Corruption in an Ideological Age

Today is Primary Day in New York State. Governor Andrew Cuomo is being challenged for the Democratic and Working Families party lines by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who has just published a book on Corruption in America through Harvard University Press. Teachout's challenge to Cuomo, amid claims that the governor behaved corruptly by constraining a committee he created to investigate legislative corruption, has drawn considerable attention to her book. Her main argument appears to be that the Supreme Court today fails to take seriously the corrupting potential of money in politics by defining corruption too narrowly. The Roberts Court has ruled that large campaign donations do not by themselves corrupt recipients, on the understanding that "corruption" means an explicit quid-pro-quo exchange of money for policy. In other words, the Roberts majority will recognize corruption only if a politician can be proved to have solicited money, or had been promised money, in return for a specific vote on legislation.

As Teachout acknowledges, it is easier to presume corruption than to prove it, and much easier to make the charge during a campaign than to make it stick in court. But she remains convinced that corruption is a fact traceable to the role of money in politics and the inequality of influence that inevitably results as campaigns grow ever more dependent on money in our multimedia age.

So what is corruption in relation to campaign donations? Our first impression, almost certainly, is that money in politics corrupts a politician if it changes his or her mind. We would have no problem presuming corruption, even if a quid-pro-quo couldn't be proven, if a Democratic legislator with a "progressive" reputation started voting to abolish regulations on industry after receiving donations from the Koch brothers. Yet the Kochs are understood to reserve their donations primarily for Republicans, and Republicans, for the most part, are presumed to have an ideological affinity with the brothers already. Can the Kochs actually corrupt Republican conservatives or libertarians? You would need very specific proof even for suspicion, something like a pet project of interest or concern only to the brothers, as opposed to an overall ideological agenda with which ideological politicians are presumed already to agree -- some legislation with no apparent purpose but to make the Kochs money. Absent that, the Kochs' donations only sponsor candidates who already agree with them on principle and need the money to get elected, not persuaded.

The ideological polarization (or bipolar ideologization) of American politics arguably renders traditional concepts of political corruption obsolete, if ideologues are understood to be incapable of changing their minds on policy or principle. Could the Kochs possibly change Elizabeth Warren's (or Zephyr Teachout's) mind about anything? Or for the sake of balance, could George Soros (or whomever right-wingers see as the leftist moneyman of the moment) change Ted Cruz's mind? If anything, the hardening of ideology has only encouraged investments in politics by the wealthy, not because money changes more minds but because ideological politicians are safer investments than pragmatists or politicians with any pretense of objectivity.

Suppose a corrupting influence of money over politics could be proved. What would that mean? Presumably it would mean not just that a politician votes a certain way because he receives money from someone -- that's the influence -- but also that he votes in a way inconsistent with an objective or pragmatic understanding, whenever either is possible, of the national interest or the public good -- that's the corruption. The only reason to care about corruption is if corruption means that politicians will vote the wrong way. If you don't presume that some policy questions have right or wrong answers, or good or bad consequences, then anyone should be able to influence his representative with all the arguments or enticements at his disposal. Corruption is bad -- is corrupt -- if it closes a politician's mind, if it blinds him to the right thing to do or inspires him to knowingly reject it. Ever since the Founders rejected the idea that constituents could explicitly and bindingly instruct representatives how to vote, American politics presumes that representatives will legislate with open, objective minds. If ideology is the opposite of an open or objective mind, while it is also possible to know the "right thing to do" without reference to ideology, then ideology itself is the real corrupting element in politics, and money in politics is only gravy. Of course, it's even more impossible to ban ideology than it would be to ban corruption. You can only hope that ordinary Americans will recognize ideology as corrupt -- or, more likely, "crazy," -- and rise up against them like people rose up against Communist ideologues in Europe a generation ago. But despite persistent and increasing disgruntlement in the electorate that result seems no more likely than ever -- and if that lamentable state of affairs can be traced to money in politics, if money can be blamed for Americans thinking they can only ever choose between two lousy options, maybe that's where the real corruption is.

08 September 2014

The NBA and 'freedom of speech' in civil society

Once again an owner of a National Basketball Association franchise is pressured to sell because of allegedly racist comments made in a less-than-private environment. In this case the owner of the Atlanta Hawks is being shamed out of the league for opining that efforts should have been made to attract more white fans to home games, the implication being that the existing crowd, from the players to the cheerleaders to the people already in the seats, were too black for some people's comfort. For some observers this is further proof that the U.S. is going down the chute of political correctness, but such observers need a gentle reminder that it is not the United States government pushing the poor man out, however much some would like to see President Obama behind this in some way. Instead, the NBA is part of what pundits and political scientists call "civil society," the conglomeration of private, voluntary associations that provide what many consider a necessary buffer between the individual and the state. A healthy civil society is deemed essential to liberal democracy by those who note its absence wherever liberal democracy fails to take root. Where there is civil society, it is presumed, the people are more free, in part because civil society relieves them of dependence on government for mere existence, or for information about the world. Taking the long view, these sweeping claims for civil society may be true. But in a pluralist society it is accepted that common standards of, for want of a better word, civility, will not and can not prevail among all the institutions that form civil society. Civil society must accommodate, to some extent, religions that require adherents to be less "free" than the liberal ideal. So too, it seems, it must accommodate entities like the NBA that have decided not to tolerate the least hint of racism among franchise owners, however much their policies appear to violate liberal principles of privacy and free speech. That's how it has to be, I suppose, if civil society is necessary to a civil nation, not to mention civilization -- and if civil society isn't just someone's synonym for free enterprise or laissez-faire.

05 September 2014

The sklavenmoral of the master class

David Brooks has described Russia's interventions in Ukraine and the rise of the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq as "revolts of the weak." That sounds paradoxical since both ISIS and Vladimir Putin are perceived to advance their interests through raw application of force. To call them "weak" is almost to say that strength, or at least brute force, is weakness. However, Brooks isn't talking about physical strength or the kind that finds expression in warfare. Instead, Russians, Muslims and others are "weak" if they "can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization." By appealing to pure force, "they are conspiring to blow up the rule book."

When is strength not strength but weakness? When a transvaluation of values is underway. Brooks's column put me back into the Nietzschean frame of mind I've worked within on and off for a while recently. It had struck me that in modern times we had seen an ultimate transvaluation, an upending of Nietzsche's own genealogy of morals. As I remember it, he theorized that morality, as we know it, arose from a revolt of the "weak." Previously, when the strong, or strength, ruled without question, people thought only in terms of good and bad. Strength was good, the lack of it bad. Morality introduced the idea that the opposite of good was "wrong" or "evil." The strong should not claim power simply because they are strong; to thus rule over the weak was morally wrong, if not evil. Nietzsche proposed that the weak conquered the strong, on one level at least, once concepts of morality prevailed at every class level.

Nietzsche imagined morality as the revolt of have-nots against haves, and so called it a sklavenmoral or "slave morality," but in the 21st century morality both sides appeal to its principles. Isn't it a sklavenmoral, a repudiation of strength, when the haves tell the have-nots that they may not take what they need to survive (or simply what they want) even though they can, presumably, through strength of numbers -- either in raw physical terms or through the vehicle of democratic government?  Here's an important difference: the sklavenmoral of the have-nots targets the haves' conscience by calling them evil and warning them of divine retribution or other bad consequences of their abuse of power, while the sklavenmoral of the haves targets the conscience or, rather, the low self-esteem of the have-nots by calling them weak and arguing that they don't deserve the things they want or need.

Sklavenmorals are probably inevitable in any competitive environment. In less philosophical terms, this sort of morality is rooted in the feeling that your more successful competitor has cheated in some way. That feeling presumes that your own way of doing something is sufficient if not exclusively correct, and shields you from the more painful conclusions that someone else's way is better or that you're inherently limited no matter what way you do things. When competition is a given, any rules proposed are inevitably self-serving. The rich have gotten wealthy the right way, for instance, and it's wrong for others simply to take wealth from them by force or other means the wealthy don't respect. Force is proof of bad character and an essential weakness of those who can't play by the rules. True competition, however, has no rules, and the only true rule is that which ends competition -- or at least competition for survival. By Nietzschean standards that itself is slave morality, and by my own it still is, I suppose, since I'm proposing a competition against a natural order of competition with the rules changed in my favor. This anti-competitive morality has one special virtue, I suggest: it'll never be hypocritical, as nearly all other moralizing is, whether philosophical or political.

03 September 2014

'Convert them or kill them'

Who said it? If you've looked at any entertainment news today, you know that it was Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, addressing the problem of the Islamic State while promoting his new book on Sean Hannity's TV show. Robertson says his preference would be to engage ISIS in bible study and teach them about Jesus, but if the other option is a war of religion he's "prepared for either one."

Put this quote in the bank and save it for the next time someone says Christians aren't like that, or haven't been for centuries. As for those already coming to Robertson's defense by saying that ISIS and other Islamic extremists "started it," the fact is that Christians have been saying that Muslims started it ever since they first heard of Muhammad. Muslims "started it," as far as Christians are concerned, by denying the divinity of Jesus and daring to claim that God gave humanity yet another revelation. I don't mean to say that Muslims are innocent over the course of global history, but that they ceased to be innocent in the eyes of Christians well before they started converting people by the sword. Meanwhile, I'm sure the folks at ISIS feel that the rest of the world has been given adequate opportunity to recognize the truth of Islam, and that the gun becomes necessary in the face of what they see as violent resistance, if not outright oppression by infidels. Both Christians and Muslims crow about all the peaceful appeals they've made before they've had to reach for the sword or the gun. But how peaceful are such appeals when the sword or gun is always there, in plain sight of everybody? Maybe the earliest Christians, the ones who let themselves get martyred in Rome, actually proselytized without any threat of violence, but most of history tells a different story. For Muslims, there was probably an even smaller window of time when the invitation to convert wasn't implicitly backed by the threat of the sword.

The most contemptible thing about Robertson's latest rant is the idea that ISIS can be neutralized, short of death, only by their acceptance of Jesus. Again, let history judge the peacefulness of Christians. If I'm right about ISIS in my belief that religion only rationalizes their deeper need for political power, their conversion would really only give them wealthier, more powerful sponsors for their violence. But many Christians persist in a belief that there are political and social implications to the divinity of Jesus, so that people like Robertson credit Christianity for the relative freedom and prosperity of "Christian" nations while blaming poverty in Muslim countries on Islam. They haven't convinced me yet. Instead of getting the ISIS idiots to trade one version of God for another, mightn't we make more progress if we could somehow convince them that there was no God to justify their lust for power and violence? They might well still kill a lot of people in pursuit of power, but at least they wouldn't go out of their way to kill them for not converting, as Phil Robertson proposes doing.

And for those keeping score: he talks a good game about being ready for a gunfight and about sitting down for bible study with ISIS, but as long as talk is all he does about it when his talk can influence others -- he's a coward, too.