23 April 2014

Spheres of influence, then and now

One hundred years ago this week, American troops occupied Vera Cruz, Mexico. The government of Mexico had changed the year before in a process described by Americans, and by most of the world, as a coup d'etat. Mexico's powerful northern neighbor refused to recognize the new regime. The administration of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, reserved its right to intervene militarily in Mexico to protect Americans and American interests. On April 9, 1914, the junta arrested a group of American sailors by mistake but quickly released them. The Americans demanded a formal apology and the firing by the Mexicans of a 21-gun salute to the American vessel. The junta apologized but refused the salute. That refusal gave Wilson a pretext for the attack on Vera Cruz on April 21. The Americans occupied the city until November. By that time the coup leader Victoriano Huerta had fallen from power, the occupation having denied him an important supply line for his fight against Pancho Villa and other rebels. In 1916 Huerta died in an American military prison, accused of plotting with Germany to regain power and possibly wage war on the U.S. Meanwhile, American troops entered Mexico again to fight Villa. Ultimately, German appeals to anti-American sentiment in Mexico formed part of the pretext for the American declaration of war on Germany in 1917. This is what big countries have always done with small, or strong with weak. If it's wrong now it's always been wrong. Would the Obama administration like to apologize to Mexico after 100 years? If they won't, that itself won't legitimize anything happening now. But history lessons help remind us that no nation, or at least no great power, comes to these crises with clean hands. Least of all can the United States claim that no other country can claim a sphere of influence implicitly subjugating its neighbors. It may be wrong for Russia to claim Ukraine for its sphere of influence, but in the absence of a truly global tribunal capable of enforcing a single standard for international relations everywhere, opposition to Russian influence in Ukraine can only be seen as other countries claiming Ukraine for their sphere, with no more justice. The day when no nation is subservient to another will be the day when all nations are subservient to world government, and smart enough not to resent it.

22 April 2014

Allegiance to what?

There are two kinds of atheists, generally speaking. Let's call them unbelievers and anticlericals. The first group simply don't believe, and for the most part they don't care if others do believe as long as they're left alone. Anticlericals are actively hostile to religion and want to reduce its influence if not its presence in society and culture. The two groups have dramatically different ideas of what it means to be left alone. The mere unbelievers generally feel unthreatened by public displays of piety; they're not going to bark at a shop clerk who wishes them a Merry Christmas, for instance. The anticlericals tend to see any public piety as a form of proselytizing and are highly sensitive to perceived pressures to worship. You may be one kind of atheist or another based on ideology, personal experience or other factors. My family wasn't aggressively religious when I was growing up, so I haven't become a "militant" anticlerical, but you need not have a personal grievance, as I assume few Marxists have, to consider religion in general something best outgrown, or better yet thrown out, by humanity. My kind of unbeliever is tempted to roll his eyes when reading news of yet another lawsuit against mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. The plaintiffs in the latest case don't object to pledging allegiance to the flag or to the republic for which it stands. As you'd expect, they object to the two words, "under god" added to Francis Bellamy's 1892 text in 1954. These render the Pledge a discriminatory text in the plaintiffs' view; to invoke God is to "publicly disparage" unbelievers. Their children will be stigmatized if they refuse to participate, while their patriotism will be questioned so long as the Pledge ties it to worship of a deity. I suspect that the kids in question would only refuse to participate because their parents would insist upon it; since the plaintiffs are anonymous, presumably for their own protection, I don't know how young the kids are and how committed they may be to unbelief. But I'd bet that while the parents may be anticlericals, the kids are probably no more than unbelievers.

I want to roll my eyes at such news because these stunts only ask for a backlash. Inevitably, if unfairly, the atheists and their representatives at the American Humanist Association will be accused of trying to deny the other kids their right to acknowledge God. In the absence of formal school prayers, the Pledge has become the de facto act of worship for religious families, many of whom might have found something sinister about the Pledge, a form of state worship, had Bellamy's secular text -- recall, too, that he was a minister, albeit a self-described Christian socialist -- not been amended to underscore American rejection of Marxist-Leninist atheism. But"under god" is an independent clause that doesn't change the Pledge's function as an act of homage to the state. Perhaps if it were made more clear that the Pledge constitutes state worship, regardless of its McCarthy-vintage two-word sugar coating -- enthusiasm for it in any form would diminish.  The obligation to pledge allegiance in school, and not the wording of the pledge, is what we should finally question. If education itself makes patriots, as the Founders hoped, than a pledge of allegiance is superfluous, while composing a text for it is fraught with mischief. All I know is that all through public school I pledged allegiance every day, and yet there is no god.

21 April 2014

Campaign contributions and political accountability

"OF course money is corrupting," Charles Krauthammer writes in his latest column, "Money distorts. There is no denying the unfairness of big contributors buying access unavailable to the everyday citizen." On the other hand, Krauthammer remains convinced that "of course money is speech." Without proof, he claims that "the most disdainful dismissers of this argument are editorialists and incumbent politicians who -- surprise! -- already enjoy access to vast audiences." Had Krauthammer consulted more working-class Americans, or did he not recognize Republicans only as working Americans, he might find more widespread rejection of the Buckley v. Valeo principle. However, let's concentrate on his concession about the corrupting effect of money, which positions Krauthammer somewhat to the left of Buckley-era jurisprudence, according to which only explicit quid-pro-quo arrangements fall to the level of corruption. The columnist writes this week that he thought he had a formula that reconciled the money-is-speech principle with appropriate concerns about corruption: full disclosure of donors and donations. "Let transparency be the safeguard against corruption," he writes, "As long as you know who is giving what to whom, you can look for, find and, if necessary, prosecute corrupt connections between donor and receiver."

In theory, then, Krauthammer has no problem with the idea that politicians can be held accountable, either at the polls or elsewhere if necessary, for the donations they receive. If you learn that your representative, or his challenger, is getting money from the Koch brothers -- or, from the opposite perspective, from George Soros -- you act accordingly.  Full disclosure has been a progressive principle for at least the last century, but now Krauthammer can no longer endorse it. It turns out to be one thing to hold politicians accountable for the people who give them money, and another, far worse in Krauthammer's view, to hold the donors accountable for the causes they fund. He's predictably outraged over the recent debacle at Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox search engine, whose CEO designate had to step down when it was learned that he had donated money in support of Proposition 8, the California anti-gay marriage referendum. Picking up on his "liberal totalitarianism" thread from last week, Krauthammer accuses gay-rights activists of drawing up a blacklist of Prop 8 supporters, others of whom have been "hounded" from their posts of honor or responsibility. For Krauthammer this is wrong because there is no possibility of corruption in financial support for a referendum, since you're not electing anybody. Prop 8 supporters are being blacklisted solely for their opinions, in his view. But people who donate to candidates are also being targeted unfairly, at least according to Krauthammer's interpretation of the scandal over IRS auditing of tax-exemption claims.

"Blacklist" is a dynamite word, of course. While Krauthammer doesn't go all the way and accuse gay-rights activists of McCarthyite tactics, he does attempt to remind readers that it was once people on the left who needed safeguards against reprisals. It was once urgently reasonable, he notes, to allow the NAACP to keep its membership lists secret. In such a case, and at the present time, individual immunity from unjust reprisal trumps any public right to know. In his words, " If revealing your views opens you to the politics of personal destruction, then transparency, however valuable, must give way to the ultimate core political good, free expression."

Again, Krauthammer writes like a true liberal -- who else believes that free expression is the "ultimate core political good?" And it's hard to say he's wrong on principle without surrendering your right to criticize the anti-communist blacklists of the McCarthy era. If it was wrong to deny people jobs because of their beliefs in the 1950s, it must be so in the 2010s.  At the same time, leaving behind the Mozilla controversy to survey the wider world of political contributions, does it follow that accountability is a one-way street, that politicians can be held accountable for taking money but no one should be held accountable for giving it? It depends on the degree of accountability, I suppose. The simplest form of accountability for a candidate in an election is to deny him your vote if you don't like where he gets his money from. You deny him your vote because you assume that, if elected, he'll do the bidding of his hateful donors. From the classical liberal perspective, the donor is simply expressing his opinion -- and Buckley v. Valeo requires courts, at least, to see campaign donations that way.  In American politics the presumption is that the donor promotes those who already share his opinions, and doesn't use his money to change the minds of candidates, though commercials obviously are meant to change the minds of voters. Yet we have the recent spectacle of Republicans currying favor with Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas. Ideally, I suppose, each potential candidate merely intends to prove to Adelson objectively that he already best reflects Adelson's views and is most deserving of Adelson's money. But isn't it just a little naive to assume that no potential candidate would consider changing his views if it improved his chances of getting money from Adelson -- or from whoever his counterpart may be as a Democratic sugar daddy? To deny absolutely any principle of accountability for donors is to assume that such a scenario can't happen -- that a preponderant display of wealth can't change the course of political debate. But what if it does? It's still just Adelson's opinion, right? If we hold him accountable for his opinions we're no better than McCarthy, right? That's where liberals seem to be stuck, so long as their arguments against the equation of money, speech and opinion remain unpersuasive to the courts. Liberals, and to an extent their conservative cousins, like to talk about rights, but the question of campaign contributions may prove ultimately a question of right and wrong for which liberals have no answer. That will depend on what each of us, and all of us together, decide the "ultimate core political good" to be.

18 April 2014

Snowden's side of the Putin story

All the criticism of his appearance yesterday on President Putin's call-in show got under Edward Snowden's skin. He felt it necessary to write an op-ed for the Guardian, a friendly venue, clarifying what he thought he was doing when he put his question about Russian surveillance techniques to Putin. He strikes a necessary cynical note, assuring his readers and fans that he never thought Putin would answer his question truthfully. In Snowden's knowing opinion, the sort of question he asked "cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program." While it might have been more interesting had he said that to Putin, his intent, he now suggests, was to catch Putin in what might be proved a lie down the line -- though it will be up to Russian investigators and whistle-blowers to prove the truth. Citing the opinion of one Russian journalist, Snowden believes that he's started a conversation in Russia about that country's surveillance programs that could prove uncomfortable for its president. Snowden is explicitly critical here toward what he describes as Putin's "evasive" response to the big question. Given all this, he is shocked, and possibly even surprised, to see himself characterized as everything from a naive dupe to a conscious mouthpiece for the Putin government.

I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticise the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive. I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin's evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.

Snowden's PR problem of the moment actually has less to do with speculation about his motives than with speculation about Putin's motives for allowing Snowden to ask his question. The simple assumption is that Putin doesn't arrange for Snowden to appear -- that his appearance was pre-arranged and no surprise to the president is taken for granted -- unless Putin benefits from the moment. Regardless of the repercussions Snowden may hope for in the long term -- he wants to see Russians ask Putin tougher questions about surveillance at next year's call-in -- Putin benefits now by saying Russia's surveillance program is smaller, better regulated and less intrusive than its U.S. counterpart, even if Putin himself admitted that Russia simply lacks the technology and finances to run a program on the American scale. Putin's enemies around the world, from rival powers to those common people for whom he's become the new international bogeyman, can't let any propaganda point for Putin go uncontested. Such people would rather that Snowden had gone outside his realm of expertise to ask Putin the questions they want asked about murdered journalists, alleged sham trials of political opponents, etc. Some would not have been satisfied unless Snowden used his airtime to call Putin a dictator, or maybe a poopyhead for extra measure. But since yesterday's show is assumed to be a propaganda victory for Putin, even if no one seems to believe what he said, Snowden is presumed guilty of aiding and comforting tyranny -- and of epic hypocrisy given his concern for civil liberties.

As a celebrity and political figure, Snowden is a slow learner in the art of spin. His spin control comes a day late and any number of dollars, rubles or pounds short, depending on your perspective. In his own mind -- and I have no reason to question his sincerity about this -- he's playing a long game with Putin, with a payoff expected over time. In his game, it doesn't matter whether Putin appeared to score a propaganda victory yesterday, but to many others it does. Snowden's game seems to require Putin to score first, or at least to make the first move. " [I]f we are to test the truth of officials' claims," he writes, "we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims." In other words, while many westerners assume Putin to be a liar, Snowden wants to prove it, if he can. It may be too cool an approach when Putin makes so many people's blood boil, and it may still prove naive if no Russian whistleblower takes up Snowden's implicit challenge. But Snowden has already proven that he plays his own games by his own rules. To assume, as so many do, that he's simply playing Putin's game, or is being played by Putin, is probably premature.

17 April 2014

The Putin-Snowden Show

Even those Americans most sympathetic toward Edward Snowden may regret his participation in President Putin's call-in show today. If so, it's all about Putin rather than Snowden. For those who haven't heard: Putin held a live call-in program today and Snowden was one of the callers. The American exile asked if Putin had a surveillance program similar to the one Snowden exposed in the U.S. Probably before Putin opened his mouth, most western observers will probably have rolled their eyes. Could Snowden be so naive as to think Putin would give him an honest answer? Assuming not, many immediately leap to the conclusion that Snowden's participation was pre-arranged and that the American was the willing tool of Russian propaganda. All these assumptions depend on the premise that anything Putin might have said short of "Of course we have such a spy program, only bigger and more intrusive!" would be a lie. (As for what he did say, this article includes some attempted corrections) Because he is an "authoritarian" if not a dictator, and perhaps also because he's Russian, and definitely because he was KGB back in the day, Putin is presumed to lie whenever it suits him. The west thinks it knows Putin, or knows his type: essentially a gangster, ultimately interested only in his own power, ruthless and lawless at heart. This isn't necessarily wrong, but it's also possible that many in the west, whether they call themselves liberals or conservatives, simply can no longer fathom the attitude someone like Putin may have toward his nation and its state. so that a difference in political philosophy becomes a moral failing. Many of us can't help seeing Putin as evil, especially since some people, Russians or not, have a vested interest in portraying him that way. Thus every time an opposition politician gets arrested, whatever the alleged offense, it's a fraud instigated by Putin. Every time a Russian journalist is killed or attacked, Putin is ultimately to blame. At the worst extreme, every time a terrorist attack takes place in Russia, some Russian (or Russophobic) "truther" will call it a false-flag incident designed to justify a new war or another Putin power grab. Again, my point is not to presume Putin innocent, since power has resented dissent throughout history, but to warn against a knee-jerk presumption of his constant guilt based on a culturally-biased perception of what he is and what he stands for. As for Snowden, I suspect that he actually doesn't give a damn about Putin. The show gave him a chance to repeat his basic charges against the U.S., and that may have been all that mattered to him. To go further, Snowden may be so convinced of the paramount threat posed by American surveillance and American power to both peace on earth and individual liberty in his home country that he may not care where a countervailing force comes from, or what it stands for, as long as it checks or balances the U.S, or at least protects him from his former employers. Apart from sticking it to the U.S. and the Obama administration, Snowden and Putin probably have no common interests, but as human beings we can't help linking things together to make Snowden a tool of or collaborator with Putin in some evil scheme. Before drawing such conclusions, ask yourselves why Snowden is in Russia today. Is that his fault, or ours?

16 April 2014

Krauthammer vs. the "totalitarian" American left

Charles Krauthammer feels threatened. His home paper, the Washington Post, recently received a petition organized by an organization called Forecast the Facts and signed by 110,000 people, demanding that the paper not run any of Krauthammer's columns that could be construed to deny global warming. While the Los Angeles Times has implemented such a policy, at least as far as letters to the editor are concerned, the Post did not comply. As a result, the petition ends up grist for Krauthammer's mill, proof in his eyes that the left is " no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition." This is a multifront operation, the left seeking to eliminate all opposition to the acceptance of gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act's mandated contraception coverage, etc. But as Krauthammer goes on, his argument becomes less precise. Name calling, it turns out, is part of this massive "totalitarian" campaign to silence the opposition. To be called a bigot or a sexist for opposing certain measures becomes morally equivalent to petitioning the Post's editors to suppress a columnist. Merely to characterize one's opposition in terms less generous than the opponent himself would use is to try to silence the opponent. In short, Krauthammer is going PC on the left. It's long been a staple of "political correctness" that bigoted or sexist language in discourse has an intimidating effect and is used consciously to silence minorities. In effect, Krauthammer argues now that invective aimed at Republicans is an implicit threat to silence them.

Krauthammer's beef with the climate activists stems from his reluctance to acknowledge that anthropocentric global warming is a "settled" fact to such an extent that debate is no longer necessary on the subject. A sense of urgency on the subject is understandable on both sides, I suppose, one side feeling a threat to human life on earth, the other a threat to individual liberty, free enterprise, etc. Unanimity on the question of warming may be impossible, but Forecast the Facts argues for an overwhelming consensus, with 97% of climate scientists accepting the anthropocentric premise. I suppose they could be all wrong, and that the climate crisis is no more than mass hysteria, but it's also possible that the 3% are cynical corporate hirelings or ideologically blinkered. Since much of the controversy focuses on models predicting future warming and its consequences for global climate, it's impossible to say that any model is absolutely right until more time passes. Nevertheless, the consensus should seem compelling for policy makers -- but should it have any coercive effect on dissidents? Unless it can be proven that climate dissidents are lying about anything, it's hard to argue that they should be silenced by their employers, much less by any other authority, even if dissent on the op-ed pages is vastly disproportionate to dissent in the science departments due to corporate control of the media, the power of lobbyists, etc. In any event, a recognized ideologue like Krauthammer isn't really changing minds one way or the other on this issue. Readers know him as a conservative and won't pay attention if they're liberals. The irony of it is that in his refusal to acknowledge that this debate can end, his insistence that it continue indefinitely as long as some fail (or refuse) to be convinced -- Krauthammer is arguing exactly like a liberal.

15 April 2014

Democracy in Nevada?

Republicans are making a cause celebre out of a Nevada rancher's dispute with the federal government. The rancher refuses to pay the government a grazing fee imposed back in the 1980s for the protection of tortoises on the grazing land, claiming that the state rather than the feds have rightful jurisdiction there. Supporters gathered recently in an attempt to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from seizing the rancher's cattle. For right-wingers this was another dangerous encroachment on our rights by an overreaching, intrusive federal government -- and some suggest that the family of Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, has some financial interest in keeping cattle off that land.

In a USA Today op-ed, Eli Federman, identified as "an executive at an e-commerce company, sees the episode as democracy in action.

The lesson here has nothing to do with endangered tortoises, or contract rights predating the formation of the BLM, grazing fees, states right or even whether the government is acting heavy-handedly by using armed men to seize cattle. Rather the lesson is about caring citizens standing up for a cause, while openly criticizing and scrutinizing the government. That is the activity democracies are made of. Whether the cause of Cliven Bundy is legitimate is beside the point. We have citizens peaceably forming a protest against what they believe is government overreaching. That alone has drawn scrutiny over the governments actions. Such scrutiny and oversight are instrumental in a democracy.

Whatever Federman's politics may be, his remarks read like classic liberalism. The line that jumped out at me was, "Whether the cause ... is legitimate is beside the point." The real point, it seems to me, is that liberalism, if not democracy itself, is a double-edged sword. I've written many times that citizen vigilance (i.e. "scrutiny and oversight") is essential to democracy. While I don't believe that any state really can guarantee dissidents the sort of immunity that liberalism demands, and that Americans assume exists here, I do expect citizens in a democracy to take whatever risks may be necessary to expose errors or outright wrongdoing by their leaders. Does it follow from all that that "whether the cause is legitimate is beside the point?" It would follow from that that all protests are qualitatively equal, that all suspicions are equal, that the paranoid and the liar, at least at first, have just as much right to protest (or obstruct?) as the genuine truth-seekers and the actually injured. Must liberalism blind itself to such distinctions, assuming them to be prejudiced? Can there never be a case when a claim of "government overreaching" can be dismissed preemptively as self-evidently false? Or must every single accusation be indulged, lest people assume a habit of unthinking deference to leaders? The answer has to be found somewhere between the extremes. People's prerogative to protest outside institutional channels may be vital to democracy, but just as vital, if not as glamorous, is a principle of submission. That principle is the difference between democracy and anarchy. Someday, liberals may have to decide which they prefer.