20 October 2014

Unfit to keep and bear arms in New York State

A local paper reports that not only gun-rights advocates but mental-health advocates are protesting the designation by the state of New York of "some 34,500 persons" as mentally unfit to have firearms. Most of these people apparently self-diagnosed themselves, since it turns out that less than 300 people will have to give up their guns after these findings. Nevertheless, a Queens doctor, representing other mental-health advocates, worries that "too many people are being deemed dangerous." This doctor worries that some genuinely troubled people will be discouraged from seeking help because it might mean losing or being denied guns. He doesn't like that he has to report "any kind of dangerousness," which begs the question whether he believes in acceptable levels of "dangerousness" in mental patients. By comparison, the NRA looks almost reasonable in asking that decisions on mental fitness not be made "capriciously or maliciously," though their measures of caprice and malice may differ from other peoples'. Amid these concerns, it seems only fair that someone ask whether the number is actually too low. I concede, however, that other measures of fitness may be too subjective or controversial for psychiatrists to address scientifically -- even if those others may be the ones that count most.

17 October 2014

What ails America?

You don't have to be irrational about the prospects of the Ebola virus spreading across the U.S. to be appalled at the poor handling of the initial outbreak. Two people may not make an outbreak -- not counting the Liberian who brought his infection here and died earlier this month -- but compared to the efficiency shown in treating American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Africa, the performance of that Texas hospital and the CDC are troubling. The two infected nurses may be the end of the chain, but Americans need to think about alternate scenarios, yet may have a hard time doing so. As Charles Krauthammer notes, "In the face of a uniquely dangerous threat, we Americans have trouble recalibrating our traditional (and laudable) devotion to individual rights and civil liberties. That is the fundamental reason we’ve been so slow in getting serious about Ebola." Nothing taken to excess is laudable, however, and in facing the prospect of pandemics that American devotion may prove a handicap sometimes. Back during the George W. Bush presidency people worried that a pandemic might be used as a pretext for martial law; the advent of Barack Obama only changed the identities of some of the worriers. But you may not need to be paranoid to take an "I don't have to do that" attitude toward recommended precautions or protocols. Krauthammer writes that "choosing between security and liberty ... is the eternal dilemma of every free society," yet our entire culture, it sometimes seems, conditions us to prefer liberty every time. It certainly seems to discourage us from recognizing inherent obligations to our fellow citizens, yet our obligations only grow more obvious as a virus grows more virulent. Ebola has raged through Africa because of inadequate infrastructure and bad cultural habits, we're told. American habits may prove nearly as harmful in the absence of an ethical infrastructure suited to the challenge. This alarmist tone may prove premature insofar as this outbreak may peter out after a handful of cases. But if a wider outbreak, now or in the future, can be blamed on people failing or refusing, from a desire to stay "free," to do the right things, more Americans may finally question whether "freedom" really should be any culture's supreme value.

15 October 2014

The Iraq WMD Bush didn't want you to know about

The big twist in the New York Times story about chemical weapons found in Iraq during the 2003 American invasion is that the George W. Bush administration never took advantage of the discoveries to vindicate the President's decision to invade. Given how some Republicans today are pouncing on the news as proof that Bush was right all along, you wonder why W. or his handlers doubted the benefits of an announcement -- and you get a chilling suspicion that however dumb Dubya may have been, he was smarter than his base. The problem with the WMD the Americans found is that they were old: 1980s-vintage stuff left over from the Iran-Iraq war. In calling for the 2003 invasion, Bush argued that Saddam Hussein's government was making new, more dangerous chemical weapons, and nothing of that sort has yet been found. Worse for the Americans, their own people played roles in the production of some of the weapons found during the invasion and occupation. Reminders of our past relations with Iraq could only further fuel criticisms of U.S. Middle East policies guaranteed to generate "blowback." The Bush cover-up may also have been motivated partly by a desire to avoid responsibility for American soldiers sickened by handling the captured weapons. But considering how ready Republicans still are to believe the pre-invasion narrative about Saddam's threat, we might feel justified in concluding that Bush never bothered publicizing these finds because, in the end, he never really cared whether or not Saddam had old or new WMD. For him and his cronies, more likely, the invasion was a means to a more ambitious strategic goal -- the "democratization" of the region -- rather than an essential act of national defense.

But if the Times piece was intended to further damn Bush or revive skepticism toward meddling in the Middle East, the article undercuts itself with an alarmist note about the possibility of remaining stockpiles falling into the hands of fighters for the self-styled Islamic State. The report claims that the weapons as found were no threat to the U.S., but that components could be repurposed -- and were during the occupation -- for small-scale use in guerrilla warfare. It would be grimly ironic if the same stuff that comes closest to evidence against Saddam Hussein were used again as evidence justifying an escalation of U.S. opposition to the IS. But at a time when even Democratic pundits question the effectiveness of bombing against a mobile enemy, nothing so ironic would surprise me.

14 October 2014

Religion as a last resort

The soldiers of the self-styled Islamic State are unapologetic about the atrocities they commit. They provoked a fresh wave of outrage this week, not with any new beheadings, but with the publication of the latest issue of their English-language magazine, Dabiq, in which IS writers reaffirm their right to slaughter alleged idolaters and enslave the women they capture. Browsing through the issue myself, I was struck by how these guys argue that it's better to take slaves -- for sex! -- than to commit adultery. But if it all adds up to an appalling system of values, it's still a system of values; the IS justifies it all by saying this is what God allows or orders them to do. That's why I think Thomas Friedman is wrong to characterize the IS as a force of disorder, or to say, quoting from a Batman movie, that the IS fighters just want to watch the world burn. They want to create order in their little caliphate, but on the basis of such authoritarian violence that many liberals simply refuse to recognize it as order. The desire for order is at least as much a factor in the appeal of the IS as the desire for violence. That desire for order is why so many people turn to religion in bad times. For a while during the 20th century it looked like people might look to themselves, or at least to Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Mao, to create order in the world, but Communism as collectively authored by the last three was "the god that failed." In the underdeveloped world especially, young people whose parents or grandparents vested their hopes in socialism or communism now turn to Islam, Pentecostalism, a more assertive and chauvinistic Hinduism, and so on. Why this seeming relapse? Is it because people still hope a god will provide for them when the man-gods of Marxism-Leninism failed? That's probably true to some extent -- it'd be the extent to which the desire for a god reflects people's feeling that they should be provided for, and that the power to provide for them must be out there somewhere. But there's more to religion's enduring appeal than that. It may be that, compared to the Market, the Party or even the State, a religion is something that can always use more people. The Market doesn't need all of us; it tells us to make ourselves useful or rot. States and parties too often sacrifice people's livelihoods, if not their lives, to austerity or competitiveness. Religions are no better, inherently, at providing for people than markets or states, but they promise everyone a place in an eternal order on what look like relatively easy terms -- especially, in the case of the IS, if you're a man. Those who worship the Market as a different sort of god make no such promises because they think it would encourage freeloading. Religions know better because, as I wrote, they can always use more people. Their promises lost their appeal not so long ago, but while the failures of the recent past loom large people around the world forget the lessons of the more distant past and assume that the old gods never failed. As some have suggested for some time now, it may take something like a Thirty Years War in the Middle East -- something that seems ever more likely lately -- to break the spell of Islamism, while we probably won't need anything so drastic to break the spell of Pentecostalism in the Third World. But where will the poor and all the people who feel that they have no place in the world look then? Somebody better have an answer.

13 October 2014

Columbus Day is the real Festivus

That second Monday in October is here again, and Americans, in some cases, will find time during the holiday to debate the legacy of Christopher Columbus. By now no one buys the idea that Columbus "discovered America," but his voyages clearly mark the beginning of an epoch of exploration and exploitation to which the U.S. owes its existence. Back in 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first voyage was a tremendous patriotic occasion from which came our present Pledge of Allegiance, if not all its controversy. Italian-Americans subsequently adopted the day as their own, their answer to St. Patrick's Day, albeit with less beer. In modern times, as his legacy of conquest if not genocide grew unbearable for many Americans, the idea of celebrating Columbus with a holiday grew more offensive. In some places "Indigenous Peoples' Day" or something like it is celebrated, while U.S. traditionalists protest that trend as a further advance of "political correctness." By this point no one, as far as I can tell, is calling for Columbus to be celebrated uncritically as a hero, but many argue that we should recognize that something important happened on or around the second Monday in October, 1492, and some feel that to repudiate the event entirely, as others seem to want, is somehow to repudiate our own national existence. So there may be parades in some places, but for the most part, when the occasion is noted it becomes the subject of argument and the airing of grievances from across the cultural spectrum. If the alternatives are unthinking patriotism and activist education about indigenous peoples, a holiday defined by debate looks just right.  If we trace our nation back to Columbus, it's only appropriate that his day be noted with griping from all sides.

10 October 2014

When Republicans defended voting rights, and Democrats cried fraud

Recent court decisions have pushed the question of identification requirements for voters back to the forefront of U.S. politics, just in time for an election season. By now the storyline is familiar: Republicans want to require voters to show photo i.d. at polling places in order to prevent fraudulent voting; Democrats protest, while dismissing all suspicions of fraud, that Republicans simply want to make it more difficult for certain populations who are less likely to have an ID card, or the documents necessary to get one, to vote Democrat. But it wasn't always so. In the course of my research for another project, I saw that one hundred years ago this month, New York State struck down a law that had been passed by a Democratic legislature over protests from Republicans that the measure's only purpose was to keep certain people from voting. Given where Republicans and Democrats stood 100 years ago, you might expect that black votes were at stake, but in fact the Democrats were out to make life more difficult for rural voters in general. The controversial law required residents in rural communities to register in person with the local election board when they moved from one municipality to another. Democrats argued that in-person registration was necessary to prevent fraud by election workers, who in theory could add names to voting lists arbitrarily otherwise, while Republican complained that requiring registration in person imposed a hardship on farm people who would have to travel long distances to take care of the paperwork at a time when transportation options were still quite limited. It was hard enough, presumably, to take the long trip just to vote; to require an extra, earlier trip simply to register would only discourage country people from voting. I don't know on what basis the court struck down the law, but in any event it was ruled unconstitutional, and Republicans immediately calculated how many more votes they'd get in that November's elections.

At that time, in the South, Democrats found every means possible to keep black people from voting. It took a change in black voting habits for Democrats to turn from opponents to defenders of black voting rights, while Republicans seem to have learned indifference to cries of hardship when it appears necessary to suppress "fraud" at the polls. We know they're not entirely indifferent, however, given how they accused Democrats of trying to ignore votes from overseas military personnel in recent elections. It still comes down to who you want to vote. If the groups adversely impacted by photo-ID requirements didn't vote consistently Democrat, Democrats would most likely not oppose those requirements so much, but it's also true that Republicans might not press for them so much. The question isn't whether one party or another is more inclined to commit fraud. Both major parties jockey for advantage constantly, and have done so throughout their 150+ year struggle for the American electorate. Republicans have just about always accused Democrats of driving immigrants to the polls regardless of their actual entitlement to vote, while Democrats until relatively recently strove to thwart black voting, not so much because Democrats were racist (though many were) but because blacks voted Republican. If a future demographic shift in voting habits threatens to tilt the balance of power, one party will seek ways to facilitate it, and the other will seek to thwart it. Each party really is more interested in maximizing the turnout of the most loyal populations than maximizing the vote of the entire American people -- but both could probably be defeated if Americans didn't do such a good job of suppressing their own votes through ignorance, complacency, or lack of imagination. That apathy toward alternatives to the two-party system is a greater threat to democracy than any of the tricks the two parties play on each other.

09 October 2014

Capitalism is history

The "interchange" of scholars on the history of capitalism in the new issue of the Journal of American History has an inescapable "blind men and the elephant" quality to it. I mean no offense to the scholars, all experts in their fields facing the challenge to teach about capitalism in history classes. The definition of capitalism still seems open to dispute. How do you define it? At first glance, capitalism is an "ism" or ideology, but in terms of economic or social history capitalism is no more an ideology than "feudalism" was. But capitalism isn't merely a phenomenon of economic history, not simply a set of practices adopted at some point or destined to be abandoned at another point. Back when I was in grad school historians were debating when the U.S. became capitalist. They focused on perceived transitions to a "market" economy from more traditional "moral" economies, or looked for turning points when people began producing primarily for markets rather than to achieve subsistence or "sufficiency" for themselves. A debate continues over whether slavery was a capitalist phenomenon. Some historians rule it out because they consider "free labor" a defining component of capitalism, or assume that since "reinvestment" is another defining component, capitalist slaveholders would have invested more in keeping their slaves fit to work at their most efficient. Another group of historians rejects stark separations of slave and capitalist economies, noting that much of the money many pioneer capitalists had to invest in things came from the slave trade in one way or another. Simpler broad-stroke definitions simply won't do, either, since historians can show readily that profit motives and acquisitive impulses have existed throughout history.

Capitalism might best be described as an event, but is hard to describe because the event isn't over yet. We can begin to describe it because it has had to define itself in reaction to challenges from socialism, the labor movement, the regulatory state, etc. At a certain point in history, capitalism is simply progress. Once it becomes a reactionary force -- and even if you dispute whether what it resists is really "progress" or an inevitable change -- we can begin to define it by negation, by what it can not or will not become. The beginnings are not so obvious, in part because there's no such thing as the "Capitalist Manifesto." Unlike with socialists, no author I know of offered a package of ideas called "capitalism" as the next necessary step in human progress back when kings and nobles still reigned and economies were governed by guilds, "just price" customs and other traditions. If socialism always has an element of conspiracy to it, if only because socialists knew what they wanted, capitalism developed more spontaneously and with much less sense of destiny. In broadest terms, the opportunities created by technological innovation and the Age of Exploration enticed people into challenging old rules and customs that appeared to impede the enrichment of ambitious individuals, of nations, and to some extent societies as a whole. If capitalism as an event comes to an end eventually, it most likely won't be ended by the sort of working-class revolution Marx expected. It does not appear to follow as logically as he thought that workers will want to take over the means of production. As long as they are satisfied with life after hours, the working classes in developed countries can reconcile themselves to whatever alienation or exploitation they endure at work. It seems more likely now, in an era of diminishing resources, that the state, defined not as the vehicle of the proletariat that will wither away but as the thing that keeps us alive and always must, will set the terms for the end of capitalism. Nothing except dogma says that states can't function as capitalist investors themselves -- China belies the claim -- but the crises of the future may compel states to become the sort of "command economies" that are seen as anathema to capitalism.  In simpler terms, capitalism has been fueled by generations of new ideas about what can be done, but the future seems likely be governed by a greater overriding sense of what must be done. If capitalism is ultimately irreconcilable with such necessities, future generations may be able to define it more precisely as a thing of the past, though what follows -- global democracy, global totalitarianism, global religion, or perhaps a new dark age -- may remain a mystery to future historians for some time afterward.