25 November 2014

The Ferguson verdicts

The grand jury decided that there was no cause to try a Ferguson MO policeman on the suspicion that he had violated the law by shooting an unarmed man in the line of duty. The law, as the jurors understood it, permitted the cop to shoot the man under the circumstances as the jurors understood them, or else the law rightly shielded the cop from a kind of accountability that might have a negative, demoralizing effect on public safety. A number of citizens of Ferguson protested, some peacefully, some by burning and looting. If the only point of the protesters, violent or not, was to complain that a cop had gotten away with killing one of them, then I can't have much more sympathy for them than most people have shown. Would they have come out in such numbers, with such force, if the cop's victim had been white? If they answer that no white youth would be so victimized, they betray a narrow if not tribal viewpoint that guarantees a dead end to their marching or rioting. The issue for the nation in Ferguson is not the identity of the victim, however important that is for one segment of the population, but the procedure of policing. But this point is lost if protesters assume that the cop acted as he did primarily if not solely because his antagonist was black. If Ferguson is going to influence the future, we have to get past the question of Michael Brown and his conduct. We should be able to concede all the arguments against him, yet still insist that, being unarmed, he should not have been shot, and that there must be some form of accountability for police who shoot unarmed people. Body-cams and other suggestions for making a record of all such encounters are good ideas, but they don't substitute for changes in police procedure. If the police are public servants, then the people have every right to set down the standards they choose for police conduct. If the people demand that police should be able to subdue big guys who are pummeling or grappling them without having to use guns, so be it. The expectation may be unrealistic, but we shouldn't have to take the policemen's word for that. The Ferguson protests will be useful if they inspire movements to force changes in police procedure. Unfortunately, the violent protests will only encourage certain people to favor more draconian procedures, just as they reinforce the prejudice that Brown and the rioters are of a common type that simply needs to be put down. Few minds were changed by last night's spectacle. The challenge for those who saw injustice done -- by the cop and by the grand jury, that is -- is to steer outrage in a more radical if less violent direction, to take power. If you can make law, you don't have to change minds; it'll be someone else's turn to comply or else.

24 November 2014

'Anti-theists' and atheists who don't give a damn

Reza Aslan's fifteen-minute fame meter started when he lucked into an interview with an idiot reporter on Fox News. After the reporter repeatedly and cluelessly questioned Aslan's motives, and implicitly his right as a Muslim, to write a book about Jesus, that book became a best-seller. If the controversy over Zealot put Aslan in implicit antagonism with reactionary Christians, he's moved on now to take on another popular target: the so-called militant (or "New") atheists represented on the best-seller lists by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Aslan has arrived late to this fight, which pits the militants not just against the believers but also against some atheists who resent their zealotry. Writing for Salon, Aslan suggests alternate labels for two types of atheist. Reserving "atheist" itself for those folks who happen not to believe in gods and leave it at that, he does away with vague adjectives in favor of dubbing Dawkins and Harris "anti-theists," distinguished by an open hostility toward religion that some mere atheists may lack. This novelty aside, Aslan's argument against the anti-theists is familiar stuff: they're absolutist, intolerant, the mirror image of those fundamentalists they most despise, etc.  In Aslan's own words:

Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community [hyperlinks in original].

The writer dismisses the anti-theism he's just defined as "rooted in a naive and, dare I say, unscientific understanding of religion – one thoroughly disconnected from the history of religious thought," though he notes with liberal care in advance that there's nothing wrong with people feeling this way. Aslan prefers, obviously, those atheists who simply opt out of faith, presumably without casting aspersions on the remaining faithful. The crucial difference, it seems is that the mere atheist thinks that religion is wrong in a more-or-less value-free way, but doesn't consider his opinion binding on anyone else, while the anti-theist thinks that religion is bad. An atheist just happens not to eat meat, for the sake of analogy, while an anti-theist is a self-conscious vegan and PETA member and sometimes annoying in his advocacy. The one decides that meat (or religion) is not good for him; the other concludes that it is not good, period.

I wondered for a while whether we needed this new (or newish) label. Whatever happened to anticlericalism, after all? That was the past's word for open hostility toward religion, but after thinking it over I decided it doesn't quite fit our present-day antagonism. As the word implies, anticlericalism is above all hostility toward a priesthood, while Aslan's anti-theism really indicts all believers, the rabble perhaps more so than their leaders in our democratic age. Anticlericalism arguably resented the power or wealth rather than the beliefs of a priesthood, while anti-theists presumably recognize belief as the source of priestcraft's power and wealth and directs its attack accordingly. 

I don't consider myself a militant atheist but I find the atheism preferred by Aslan a rather milquetoast thing. For him, atheism should be no more than a consumer choice: if the preacher's pitch doesn't work for me, that doesn't mean it shouldn't work for anyone. Is it possible, however, to feel that way about religion? Can you reject the appeal of faith without feeling that it's a lie or a con? The answer is yes if only because I've read some high-profile intellectual atheists who take that stance. Longtime readers may recall John Gray's harsh criticisms of the New Militants, many of which are echoed by Aslan. Gray is an atheist himself but has argued that people -- most of them --  need myths of some sort in order to cope with an otherwise meaningless world. He counts the idea of progress itself as such a myth, and it may be true that in order to accomplish or even try some important things we have to believe in things, like our own success, that we can't prove. Faith in something is necessary to culture and society, arguably, but I don't know if religious faith is that kind of faith, and I'm less convinced than some are that religion has to be accepted as such a faith. I don't argue that religion must be destroyed, or at the least I don't assume that destroying it is any shortcut to a better world. But I like to believe that I rejected religion not just because it's wrong for me, but also because it's wrong in a way that others can and perhaps should recognize for their own sakes. Religion too often is a lie or con for us to agree for civility's sake not to mention the fact. If that makes an atheist uncivil or demotes him to the anti-theist ranks in Reza Aslan's eyes, then let's recall that many of us find religious proselytizing quite uncivil. If one must be tolerated, so must the other, and so must their mutual criticism. If I can tolerate preachers promising hellfire for the likes of me, then believers ought to be able to stand the rhetoric of atheists or anti-theists without whining the way Aslan does. His outraged tone is disproportionate to our moment in history. Call me, Mr. Aslan, when Richard Dawkins starts chopping off heads.

21 November 2014

The Prosecutor-in-Chief and executive discretion

As compromise between the two major parties seems increasingly impossible on a widening field of issues, presidents assert ever more sweeping discretionary powers that allow them theoretically to ignore or override the legislative branch. George W. Bush was much criticized for his various executive orders, by Senator Barack Obama among others. Since then, President Obama has found it convenient if not necessary to claim similar discretionary power in his executive capacity. While Bush asserted the President's right as Commander-in-Chief to use discretion in taking immediate action for national defense before consulting Congress, Obama claims similar discretionary authority in his capacity as chief enforcer of the nation's laws to "defer" the deportation of large numbers of undocumented immigrants. He depends on the concept of "prosecutorial discretion," based on the assumption that law enforcement inevitably must set priorities given inevitably limited resources. The current opposition claims that the sort of discretion the President elects to exercise effectively nullifies policies set by Congress and thus tips one of the balances upon which constitutional government depends. This isn't the first time the Obama administration has been criticized for selective enforcement of laws, but given his new position as a lame duck facing hostile majorities in both houses of Congress next year, his action (or inaction) on deportations strikes Republicans in particular as a provocative act if not a threat to the American political order. Each party in turn, as it gains strength in the legislature, fears that a President of the opposing party will hop on skis and race down the slippery slope to "authoritarian" rule if not outright dictatorship. Each party has been hypocritical when criticizing executive power as exercised by the other, and in defending controversial assertions of executive power by their own leaders. While the prosecutorial discretion principle assumes that discretion is necessary and inevitable, the public can still ask itself exactly how much discretion the President of the United States should have. As Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist, asks at an admirable distance from partisanship, how would Democrats like it if a future Republican president, acting on his or her discretion, chooses not to enforce the Affordable Care Act's rule requiring everyone to buy health insurance, or any number of "anti-business" environmental regulations? Prosecutorial discretion can justify such choices as easily as it justifies Obama's present course.  If discretion is inevitable, it needn't be the last word. If Republicans feel strongly enough about this, perhaps they can seek something like a writ of mandamus from a court that could compel a president to execute laws according to legislative discretion, respecting the letter and spirit of legislation. And of course, there are always elections, and while Barack Obama doesn't have to worry about those anymore, his party still does.

As for the merits of the President's particular course, he may be pandering to Hispanics but he wouldn't be the first chief executive (as his supporters note forcefully) to take pragmatic discretionary action in face of overwhelming numbers and humanitarian concerns. Ideally, there ought to be a way to debate policy without also having a debate on the desirability of greater Hispanic immigration, but that's entirely up to Republicans. Unfortunately, they seem incapable of making their case without implicitly questioning the fitness of Central Americans for small-r republican citizenship. For the GOP some things never change. While Abraham Lincoln in particular among the GOP founders criticized the "Know Nothing" nativism of his time, the Republican party effectively inherited the anti-immigrant vote the Know Nothings once claimed. Republicans have always accused Democrats of exploiting immigrants by making them clients of local party machines and expediting their naturalization in order to get their votes. For their part, Democrats have told each new wave of immigrants since 1854 that Republicans hate them, and the immigrants have seen little reason to dispute the claim. As more people question the very idea of "illegal" immigration the modern debate has grown more intense, while not as virulent as when most immigrants were Irish. Many people are cheering Obama's discretionary move as a means toward a desired end, while just as many seem ready to take him to court, but the end in this case may not entirely justify the means. The case itself shows us that partisan gridlock and presidential assertion go hand-in-hand. Presidents will feel less tempted to claim worrisome discretion if their parties actually could work with the opposition instead of each party playing an all-or-nothing game. If you fear the rise of an authoritarian executive, the paradoxical fact is that you have to smash the two-party system, but this becomes less paradoxical when it means creating not a one-party state but a true multi-party state or, perhaps even better, a no-party state. Then I could understand people wanting to come here.

19 November 2014

The Cosby Show Trial

A black celebrity is accused of date-raping a number of women, at least several of whom are white, and conservatives are rallying to his defense, while at least a few blacks are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude at his plight. The reason is simple: Bill Cosby has become best known in recent years for scolding black culture and condemning much of hip-hop culture in particular. This made him a hero for white conservatives who could let him make charges many of them wouldn't dare make. They see Cosby as an espouser of "personal responsibility," someone who won't just blame blacks' problems on whites. Hostility toward Cosby among black opinionators is based largely on how they think whites will exploit the comedian's criticisms. Americans in general seem to assume a zero-sum relationship between "personal responsibility" and "social justice." If Cosby and other high-profile contrarians (e.g. the basketball broadcaster Charles Barkley) argue for more personal responsibility, they're assumed to downplay the need for social justice. When Cosby denounces "knuckleheads" in the hood, he's accused of stereotyping (if not blaming the victim) and of enabling stereotyping attitudes among whites. Without ever seeking political office, Cosby has become a political figure, which may be why we haven't seen white conservatives dismiss him, in light of the new or revived charges against him, as just another [n-word]. He has individualized himself in opposition to the supposed black consensus or "herd mentality" in a way that O.J. Simpson, for instance, never did. As a result, we can see conservatives indulging in conspiracy theory, suggesting that the liberal media is out to destroy Cosby because he challenges political correctness or the hegemony of "social justice" thinking in the black community. On the other side, some black opinionators see the Cosby scandal as the humbling of a hypocrite who had no business passing judgment on anyone else, much less the disadvantaged of his own race. Add to the mix all those celebrity-worshippers who always presume the celebrity innocent when relative nobodies accuse him of such things, as well as the dead-end bigots who do now see Cosby as just another [n-word] and we have yet another case where people will find it difficult to judge the charges objectively. Because Cosby's fate may have an impact in a wider realm in which many hold a stake, people will be tempted to judge the case as a means to an end rather than on its own terms. But if Cosby has been defined increasingly by his own judgmental attitude -- his supporters might call it his moral courage -- I suppose the result will only be fair, even if it also proves very annoying.

17 November 2014

The worst are full of passionate intensity: an argument for getting out the vote

Carl Strock, once a columnist for the Schenectady Gazette and now a blogger for the Albany Times Union, is no fan of the Republican party, but when others blame low turnout for the GOP victories this month and wish more people had voted, Strock is skeptical. "I have never considered voting the civic virtue that public figures invariably consider it," he writes, "Maybe knowledgeable voting is a virtue, but voting just for the sake of voting, whether or not you have any idea of who the candidates are and what kind of horse thieves they might be, I’m not sure. It might be just as well that you stay at home if you haven’t made a minimal effort to inform yourself."

This is the sort of rhetoric I expect to hear or read from Republicans. Just as liberals believe that the more people vote, the better for them, Republicans believe the opposite. The GOP argument against maximizing voter turnout is pretty much the same as Strock's: the more people vote, the more ignorance will prevail. Strock is also willing to believe that non-voters have made a conscious if cynical choice, seeing no difference for them in who gets elected, but he still wishes that voting could be made conditional on some sort of intelligence test. Knowing how controversial this idea is, Strock proposes something minimalist and value-free: "Just, what state do you live in? Who is the governor? Which way is up?" But he knows even that would be attacked as implicitly discriminatory, while the more severe partisans would more likely propose more biased tests. Each of the major parties believes the other profoundly ignorant in certain major fields, Democrats presuming Republicans ignorant of science, Republicans presuming Democrats ignorant of economics. Each would love making tests in their own specialized fields of knowledge (or belief) the prerequisite for voting in pursuit of their respective utopias where there's no such thing as an uninformed vote.

Permit me to suggest, for today at least, that our present problem is not so much ignorance -- I presume most Americans were no more conversant with science or economics a century or more ago -- as it is ideological fanaticism. The U.S. is in a Yeatsian state in which, as the poet wrote almost a century ago, "the worst are full of passionate intensity" while most, if not the best, "lack all conviction." Acquiescing in apathy yields the field to the worst of the passionately intense. As for the apathetic, the real hidden majority of the country, however ignorant they may be we can assume that their cynicism will immunize them against the appeals of demagogues and void the oldest argument against maximizing voter turnout. If the hidden majority were compelled to vote -- if they actually have to choose a candidate rather than leave any column blank -- they may simply vote for the least obnoxious candidate, which hopefully would eliminate the most extreme or fanatical rivals. Another possibility is that, in a collective fit of "ignorant" pique, they might choose a third-party candidate to spite the Bipolarchy. If our future is threatened by voting blocs who care to excess, the answer may be simply to swamp them with a majority that doesn't care. But if this idea gives "ignorance" too much voice for your taste -- if you still dream of imposing the perfect test to sort the deserving from the undeserving -- your problem may be not so much with the American electorate or any hidden majority but with democracy itself. I don't mean that as a conversation stopper, since intellectual arguments against democracy can be made, but if those arguments are going to be made we should make clear what we stand for: government by, of and for the people, or something else.

14 November 2014

Kissinger and 'fresh' thinking on foreign policy

As he grows more insufferable as an opinionator on domestic politics, George Will still maintains a somewhat reasonable perspective on foreign affairs. In a recent column he calls attention to American politicians ("Republicans especially") who are "thinking afresh" about our country's stance toward other nations. Will goes on to suggest that these fresh thinkers could take notes from a nonagenarian, Henry Kissinger, who has published a new book diagnosing the country's problem. Here's Kissinger as quoted by Will:

The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate. [This] suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.

Kissinger is a foreigner by birth, after all, and is bound to notice things about us that we don't recognize -- or won't acknowledge. Kissinger and Will invite us to rethink this national bias, and doing so can only be a good thing. Ever erudite, Will repeats the now-familiar John Quincy Adams quote describing the U.S. as "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." He seems to propose a repudiation of liberal interventionism, the idea that the liberal democracies (the U.S. especially) have a moral responsibility and a right regardless of law to liberate individuals from tyrannical governments. For self-styled conservatives this should be an easy call, but American conservatism as it evolved in the 20th century is, to put it generously, paradoxical to a fault. Many "conservatives" in this country remain wedded to an idea of "natural rights," with corollary assumptions about their universality, that most conservatives throughout history would have laughed at. In this country, "natural rights" have evolved from a Jeffersonian justification for revolution to an existential argument against slavery to an ideological defense against communism and other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. By now I'm not so sure that American conservatives (Republicans especially) can dispense with this pretense. An appeal to natural rights is their ultimate veto against the perceived self-aggrandizement of the state and the perceived whims of the masses. Acting on the commonsense premise that the individual is prior to the state, the idea of natural rights asserts inherent limits to what the state, understood as the ruler and/or the people, can demand of or take from the individual. While alternate ideas like social-contract theory or the romanticism of fascism assert that the individual becomes something different and arguably superior by subjecting himself more completely to the body politic, natural-rights theory, at least as practiced here, assumes that such submission invariably diminishes the individual in an unacceptable way while empowering the state in inevitably more oppressive ways. But for this argument to be more than the preference of certain political philosophers or their wealthy patrons it has to be a universal principle, applicable everywhere on Earth. That makes it hard for some Americans not to judge other countries on the basis of something more, well, judgmental than the "contingent" basis Kissinger prefers.

For "bleeding heart" liberals the problem is even worse, and to the extent that they're "collectivist" rather than individualist they're only more likely to feel that no one on Earth should have to suffer as they imagine people suffer under tyranny.  While it should be easy to imagine a conservative saying it's each person's personal responsibility to liberate himself from tyranny, and not the job of other countries, liberals have a Good Samaritan (or busybody, depending on your perspective or interest) impulse, compounded by their philosophically hedonistic revulsion at the repressive measures taken in many countries, that tells them that whoever can should do something about repression, torture, etc., though most would flee from the inference that this means conquering the world. To the extent that modern American conservatives feel threatened by any (or every) foreign dictatorship, they've only been contaminated by liberal fear, most likely as a result of the mid-20th century Cold War consensus against Communism, while in the past, presumably, conservatives only abhorred tyrants if they refused to trade with us.

If you accept the argument that the military-industrial complex, and thus the American economy, requires a perpetually adversarial relationship between the U.S. and the world's authoritarians, you only acknowledge a further impediment to "thinking afresh." But the biggest obstacle may be one that Will, at least, won't acknowledge. The truth in the assertion that authoritarianism anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, or at least in the U.S., lies in our fear of an example. Recall how Americans assume that Vladimir Putin wants to crush the Maidan revolution in Ukraine because he fears the example it will set for Russians. Presuming that Putin is not a universalist of any sort, it's unlikely he has such a fear. He more likely believes that Russians are culturally immune to any example set by Ukraine, and that only Russia's economy and global prestige, and not his own power, are at stake in that country. If you are a universalist, however, an event anywhere might set an example everywhere. It's more likely that the U.S. fears the success of Putin, or the success of the Chinese, because these might set examples for Americans. Could Americans actually want a more "authoritarian" government? If you define it as a government that "gets things done" and has the power to push around billionaires grown too big for their britches, I could definitely see a constituency for it here, and I can also see that theory of Putin's motives as a form of projection. Some American conservatives may think that the only way to suppress an American desire for a stronger government is to demonize and plead defense against any authoritarian regime that might prove an attractive example. Conservatives should be able to refute the whole idea by saying that American liberty is our particular birthright by virtue of the Constitution while Russian authoritarianism, or any other form, is merely one country's unique cultural legacy. But another problem arises when you acknowledge your system of laws and rights as no more than the work of men, rather than something almost divinely inspired. If the U.S. wasn't founded on universal or unalterable principles, all our laws and rights ought to be subject to review at some point, unless you want to be really conservative and declare a taboo on questioning the ancestors' legacy. Despite all this, there should be some way for Americans to think about foreign policy without turning it into a debate on forms of government and human rights with our own liberties at stake. If old Republicans -- even those with tainted legacies like Kissinger -- can help us figure it out, then they may be useful after all.

12 November 2014

The world watches Ferguson

Some Americans are sure to be annoyed at the idea of a United Nations commission investigating the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson MO policeman last summer. Look at the comments thread for this report of Browns' parents testifying in Geneva and you'll see some troll calling them traitors. Others find it ridiculous if not offensive that the U.S. should be subject to scrutiny from an anti-torture committee when so many dictatorships elsewhere are self-evidently worse. They've forgotten a golden rule: judge not, lest ye be judged. There are lots of people in the world whose notion of individual rights may not be as expansive as Americans', yet are probably more sensitive to the ways discrimination or ethnic inequality belie any country's pretense of liberty. This should be old news to us. Ever since Americans declared independence with Jefferson's eloquent rhetoric, critics have questioned our rhetoric's credibility by citing our treatment of Africans and/or Native Americans. Even before the Declaration, Samuel Johnson asked of the Americans, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Communists in the 20th century would always bring up the blacks when challenged about their own oppressive policies, while many American politicians pragmatically endorsed the Civil Rights Movement in an attempt to deny the Commies this rhetorical point. To this day, one part of the appeal of "radical Islam" is its insistence that their religion doesn't countenance racial discrimination. Sure, Arabs enslaved Africans by the millions back in the day, but those were pagans so that was okay. Around the world, equality is a value that transcends ideologies. Whether a government is liberal, authoritarian or totalitarian, it matters that it treat people the same. Some may even prefer a regime that oppresses everyone equally, depending on how you define oppression, to a regime where liberty appears to be reserved for certain groups only. Of course, some will be hypocritical in criticizing the U.S. while discriminating against unfavored groups at home, and it can be argued that any regime's pretense of egalitarianism is hypocritical once you see the sordid reality behind the rhetoric. But we should avoid the ad hominem fallacy of assuming that if a dictator says we're wrong, we must be right. We should probably also resist the temptation to see the Ferguson case as symbolic. Michael Brown is almost certainly not as innocent as his grieving family and their friends claim, but the cop who shot him is almost as certainly not as innocent as police apologists insist. At the least, in the latter case, people have a right not to see him as an innocent -- not to accept the police or pro-police interpretation of the incident as the last word on the matter.

Ferguson is poised for more unrest as everyone awaits the determination of a grand jury, the authorities warning against violence if Brown's supporters don't get the justice they've demanded but also allowing for peaceful protest if it comes to that. One side wants the policeman prosecuted, while another abhors the idea. A compromise should be possible, one that stresses answerability more than accountability. It may not be necessary or appropriate to prosecute police in all such cases, but a "truth commission" in all such cases might be in order. If relatives of murder and manslaughter victims get to confront and denounce convicted perpetrators in court, it may be proper for police to face the same informal judgment in a public forum from the families of those they've killed, even if they face no legal penalty. If the police are at least answerable to the bereaved to some extent, that might relieve the sense of oppression, the feeling that the government has no interest in them other than to keep them quiet, that has driven the Browns to Geneva. But if you think that the Browns are doing this only for publicity, or with an eye on some future payday, or that they're dupes of some enemy of America, these considerations probably won't mean anything to you. You're probably hopeless, and you're definitely part of the problem, even if you don't see one here. The fact that others do see a problem here may be a problem for you someday. But if you think it's none of their business if they're not from here, please remember how you feel now when you feel like criticizing the ways other governments treat their people. In this case, equality is the only rule we can recognize. If we can criticize them, they can criticize us. If we can act on our criticisms, so can they on theirs. Judge not lest you be judged.