30 September 2007

McCain: Dumbest Presidential Candidate?

John McCain gave an interview to BeliefNet, a web site that deals with church-state issues, and earned some unhappy headlines by asserting that the United States was founded upon the Christian religion. This is ground I've already gone over, but apparently the main points can't be repeated often enough for people like Senator McCain. He tries to weasel his words almost immediately, noting that ours is a Christian nation "in the broadest sense," but no sense of the phrase can be so broad as to encompass nothingness, and there is no mention of God as creator or bestower of rights anywhere in the Constitution. As I wrote before, the only reference of any kind to God is in the dating of the document to "the year of our Lord" 1787. Perhaps McCain presumes that the Founding principles derive from Christian principles, but that needs to be proved rather than asserted. Unless someone is willing to make a learned argument, any assertion such as McCain made is self-evidently wrong. But if he seems singularly stupid, that's because he was dumb enough to go on the record where it would be reported to the wider world. Does anyone doubt that other, or all Republican candidates believe the same thing?
We were probably wrong all along in believing McCain to be an enemy of the Religious Right. His famous comments from 2000 now appear to be petty whining over the fact that the pastors had chosen another man, the usual complaint against sour grapes in a political form. Now still hopeful of their endorsement for 2008, the fool curries favor in spite of every statement of distrust from the Bible-belters toward the man who insulted them back then. Even if McCain was sincere in his criticism seven years ago, he's clearly sold out now. If that's so, that's another reason to deplore the American Bipolarchy. In an ideal nation, presuming the McCain of 2000 was a sincere man, he might have tried to build a new movement that more definitely expressed his own views, some of which continue to go against conservative orthodoxy, e.g. on campaign financing. For that matter, he might have gone third party that year and changed history whether he won or not. Instead, like all his peers, he would rather take power than make power. He wants the brand name and fundraising apparatus of the Republican party, so he must kowtow to all the powerful factions that comprise the "base." He compromises his own character, such as it may be, to conform to brand-name expectations. Rather than, for instance, meeting with blacks or other minorities to discuss how his ideas could help them (see below), he'd rather shout hallelujah like the French King who decided, against his own beliefs, that Paris was worth a mass.
Some people will tell you that it's a good thing that the Bipolarchy compels people to compromise their principles and moderate their demands, since we would not want radical ideas discussed in our legislature or, heaven forfend, taken to the streets. Be warned: when you hear such stuff, it's a pod person talking, like the one called John McCain.

28 September 2007

A Black Day for the GOP

It should have surprised nobody that the four leading Republican contenders for their party's Presidential nomination found themselves unable to attend a debate dedicated to minority issues. It is perhaps more surprising that several candidates actually did show up, as I had heard rumors of a complete boycott. Ultimately, the opportunity to get some news time to denounce the front-runners proved an irresistible temptation, so Brownback, Huckabee, Hunter, Paul, Tancredo and new candidate Alan Keyes participated in the event. The sad aspect of the story is that most reports seem to focus on the participants' diatribes against the non-participants, rather than on their answers to questions on minority issues. That only furthers the impression that Republicans have nothing to say to blacks and other minorities. It's more true to say, with no offense intended, that blacks have nothing to say to Republicans. The GOP, after all, does have something to say, but it's the standard conservative message, which most blacks long ago determined was of little use or meaning to them. Still, the fault lies with the front runners -- Giuliani, McCain, Romney and Fred Thompson -- for not even making an effort.
The preferred excuse seems to be that they had "scheduling conflicts," i.e. more important things to do, e.g. fundraising. If so, that's a sad commentary on Republican priorities. Worse would be if the front runners have caught the Bush disease, the most obvious symptom of which is an aversion to any situation in which someone might heckle you. Republicans have trained themselves to believe that demonstrations of merited public disapproval are nothing more than proofs of irrational hatred. Conservatives have long had a hard time distinguishing disapproval from hatred. Believing themselves to be embodiments of lawful freedom, they must interpret any criticism as envious slander. Communists? Motivated by hate. Islamists? Motivated by hate. Liberal Democrats? Motivated by hate. Once you convince yourself that any disagreement with your views is based only on character flaws, you probably see very little reason to expose yourself to the enemies' howls of hatred, and you begin convincing yourself that they can never be converted to your views, and that they can only be made to acquiesce by any means necessary. A Republican reader might say that I exaggerate the situation. I allow the possibility, but the best way to prove me wrong would have been for the front runners to go to yesterday's debate and take their medicine.

27 September 2007

Democrats vs. Democracy?

One disappointing detail of last night's Dartmouth debate was the unanimous endorsement of the concept of "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants. All the aspirants for the Democratic nomination at once put themselves at odds with what seems to be the majority opinion in this country. I'm willing to concede that they take their position as a matter of principle. Many people do believe that the poor of the world have an inalienable right to go wherever they need to in order to make a living for themselves and provide for their families. It is a bias of modern "liberal" or "progressive" thinking that the poor are always right. As President of the United States, however, your constituency is not the wretched of the earth or its huddled masses. Your job is to execute faithfully the laws of the United States, which in theory represent the will of the people who made you President. Nothing stops you from going through the proper channels to change the law if you think it unjust. But the President cannot actively resist or encourage resistance to federal laws. Whenever we get even a whiff of George W. Bush doing something similar, a bunch of us cry impeachment. How would you like to have Tom Tancredo or some other anti-immigrant hardliner introduce an impeachment resolution if President Democrat fails to crack down on the sanctuary cities? It's the same general principle.

Leaving the virtues of immigration aside, the Democrats are missing an opportunity to exploit a growing national consensus. We know that a lot of people oppose both the Iraq War and anything resembling "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. A lot of liberals find it hard to conceive that anyone could hold those two thoughts simultaneously, but the evidence is out there. Liberals may disagree about immigration, but they need to appreciate a larger truth if they want any chance of victory next year. They need to understand that Americans are sick of seeing people get away with stuff. They see it happening at the highest and lowest levels of society. They see it in the Bush Administration. They see it on the border. They see it all around them. They see themselves as law-abiding, players by the rules, and they feel certain that they would not be allowed to get away with much of anything. The anger they feel is an emotion that conservatives contemptuously call "envy," but liberals and Democrats can't even come up with a word for it. Some call it "populism," but that term has too many contradictory connotations to be useful. The person who can give this feeling a proper name, and thus name a movement, might go a long way toward empowering multitudes in this country. An institution known as the Democratic Party might seem to have an advantage in any contest to reach these people, but the self-styled Democrats of 2007 seem handicapped instead. Whether ideology or the pathologies of the American Bipolarchy are to blame is a question for another time.

On an individual note, I must emphasize that I don't share widespread fears about unassimilable immigrant hordes, and am willing to see quotas for legal entry increased for Mexicans and other Central Americans to reflect realities of immigration trends. For me, this is a rule of law issue that puts the sovereignty of the American people at stake. We cease to be a sovereign nation if we cannot set conditions for the entry of newcomers. It sounds very pious and progressive to say "No One is Illegal," but as long as we are not all one world and one government, the people of each nation have the right to stigmatize newcomers as illegal aliens. That doesn't mean we can't strive to create one world and one government, but we can't live and act as if we're there already when we're not. In another context, that would be called unilateral disarmament.

Blackwater Update

Here's the latest from the L.A. Times. Anyone who reads this should be able to generate their own outrage. Let me just say that there should be absolutely nothing classified about the government's dealings with a "civilian" contractor. If Blackwater has copies of these communications, Rep. Waxman should think about finding a way to confiscate them.

26 September 2007

Subject to Debate

I made an effort to watch the Democratic debate on MSNBC tonight. It's hard to pick winners of these contests, which is why I put up a poll on DailyKos for people to vote on who lost. More specifically, I asked which candidate respondents would eliminate from the field based on tonight's performance. Here's a whimsical notion: instead of the current primary-convention system, which leaves a growing number of states fighting to be first or at least early, why couldn't we follow the example of some "reality TV" shows and use the debates as a process of elimination, gradually winnowing out the field until we have a championship showdown. Especially if the party committee cut a deal with one network, the inherent drama involved in each make-or-break round could turn the selection process into a ratings phenomenon. People really seem to dig the decisiveness of people being voted off the archetypical island. It's as if they're having a race memory of the ostracism process that was part of old-school Athenian democracy. My modest proposal would tap into that feeling, and might just strike oil in the form of a newly engaged, energized electorate.

As for the debate itself, I was least impressed by Senator Obama, who seemed listless and uninvolved -- not a good impression to make on the day he skipped the vote on the odious Lieberman-Kyl bill, which ex-Gov. Gravel characterized as an "authorization of force" against Iran. Senator Clinton voted for this bill and defended that vote tonight, which on principle should make her the loser. Also, on a day when people had a good laugh at the President over his "childrens do learn" remark, Clinton offered, "Every one of us are ..." Gravel, however, had the line of the night, unintentionally. Answering a question about whether, as President, he would tolerate "sanctuary cities" that defy federal crackdowns on illegal immigrants, the old Alaskan asserted that the entire country should be a "sanctuary for the war." He corrected himself immediately, but fairness requires zero tolerance for poor public speaking. He gets points anyway for pinning Clinton to the wall over Lieberman-Kyl, while Senators Biden and Dodd get major points for voting No. Edwards, Richardson and Kucinich had their moments, and Kucinich really cannot tell the story of his battle with the utilities as mayor of Cleveland often enough. Overall, though, I think people are probably starting to feel frustrated that they still can't vote yet to get rid of some of these people.

25 September 2007

Conservatives and Ideologues

"Name me a great centrist," Mr. Right challenged Mr. Peepers in the office this evening.

Mr. Peepers seemed perplexed, which may be understandable in retrospect, since Mr. Right believes that there is no such thing as a "great centrist."

Nevertheless, Mr. Right offered analogical suggestions. "Ted Kennedy is a great liberal, from the liberal perspective," he said with a hint of contempt, "Ronald Reagan was a great conservative." But Peepers had still not come up with a great centrist. This seemed to confirm Mr. Right's opinion.

Centrists, he opined, are nothing but fence straddlers who are unwilling to be honest about what they believe. Mr. Right himself believes that ideological correctness is essential to national well-being. Democrats and liberals must be defeated, he affirmed, because "their ideology is totally wrong for this country."

Mr. Right has no problem identifying himself with a conservative ideology. This struck me as strange, because I've read self-described conservative writers who've gladly defined their conservatism as an absence of ideology. Jeffrey Hart, an editor of National Review who has called George W. Bush the worst president in American history, says, "Ideology is always wrong because it edits reality and paralyzes thought." Many writers for The American Conservative magazine second this viewpoint. These conservatives claim to be guided by experience and the wisdom of the past. They define ideology as abstract, ahistorical, a demand that the world must be a certain way because we wish it so. They label neocons as "radicals" rather than "conservatives" because the neos self-consciously seek to instigate "revolutionary" change around the world. Mr. Right would deny that he is a neocon or a Bushie. He might dispute the definition of "ideology" offered here, but I didn't have time to test the idea, since my workday was done and I had a bus to catch.

24 September 2007

Hail Columbia!

Last Friday Mr. Right was full of contempt for Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, who had dared invite President Ahmadinejad of Iran to speak on his campus. He insinuated that Bollinger had left his former post at the University of Michigan under a cloud, and seemed convinced that the invitation to Ahmadinejad was simple proof of Bollinger's anti-Americanism. Mr. Right's complaints are echoed in depth by this comment from the Wall Street Journal, published before Bollinger tore up the Iranian in his introductory remarks.
Mr. Right was unimpressed when I rehearsed the argument I posted here last week. His dismissal of the notion that a trip to Ground Zero under American supervision could prove instructive to Ahmadinejad, or that it would make this country look good, tended to confirm my suspicion that belligerents like Mr. Right aren't really interested in winning "enemy" hearts and minds. His own opinion that people like Ahmadinejad cannot be persuaded would seem to leave no options beside submission or death. President Bollinger's remarks, and the critical questions of the Columbia students, don't prove that people like Ahmadinejad can be persuaded by reason, but it does prove my other point about the usefulness of engagement. Bollinger was able to denounce the Iranian to his face in language that President Bush would envy, while the students goaded Ahmadinejad into making an ass of himself on the issue of homosexuality.
Bulletin: Jay Leno has just made further mockery of Ahmadinejad by dubbing in Larry Craig's "I'm not gay" disclaimer over footage of the Iranian at Columbia. It's crude, but Ahmadinejad had it coming.
The only thing I would dispute about Bollinger's comments is his characterization of Ahmadinejad as a "dictator." Petty and cruel he seems to be, but so long as Ayatollah Khamenei is the "supreme leader," and so long as the president needs friendly legislators to get things done domestically and has fewer of them than when he started, Ahmadinejad is pretty far from dictatorship. I can't resist saying this -- it's even debatable whether he's more of a dictator than the American "commander in chief," at least in the latter's dreams. In Bollinger's defense, he did say that Ahmadinejad only "showed the tendencies" of a dictator, but an academic ought to be more precise in his language. Overall, he gave an exemplary performance. He didn't threaten the Iranian's sovereignty, but he expressed his opinion and his principles honestly and publicly, and Ahmadinejad had to take it. Bollinger deserves the respect of every American, if only for today.

23 September 2007

The American Bipolarchy: A Sketch.

The main reason why something seems fishy about the persistence of the current two-party system is that it has persisted much longer than its predecessors. While there has never been a three-or-more-party system in American history, there have been periods when different parties struggled for power.

Party politics began with the emergence of an opposition to George Washington's administration. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that Alexander Hamilton was using his power as Treasury Secretary to favor banks and financial speculators. After Washington won two terms without opposition, the first contested election was in 1796. Under the original constitutional rules, Jefferson became John Adams's vice president by finishing second to Adams in the Electoral College, even though Adams was a Federalist, one of Hamilton's party. Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 and the Federalists never won another presidential election. They were discredited by their opposition to the War of 1812 and ceased to exist as a national party by 1820. In that year James Monroe ran unopposed. His reelection marked the "Era of Good Feeling" that ended four years later.

Jefferson's party chose its presidential candidates through a Congressional caucus. In 1824 the rank and file resisted the caucus's choice. Four different candidates received electoral votes that year. None got a majority in the Electoral College, forcing the House of Representatives to choose the President. While Andrew Jackson got the most popular votes, the House chose John Quincy Adams. Jackson got his revenge on Adams in 1828. During Jackson's two terms, an opposition began to coalesce, first calling themselves National Republicans, later labeling themselves Whigs. They won the Presidency in 1840 and 1848. Jackson's party became the Democratic Party that exists today.

By 1856 the Whig Party had disintegrated. The Democrats were immediately challenged by the anti-Catholic American (aka Know-Nothing) Party and the free-soil Republicans. After finishing second in 1856, the Republicans took the White House in 1860 after a four-party race. From that point on, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have finished worse than second, with the exception of 1912, when ex-President and ex-Republican Teddy Roosevelt ran as an independent, relegating Republican incumbent William Howard Taft to third place.

To sum up, the first party period (Jeffersonians vs. Federalists) lasted roughly from 1796 to 1816, while the second (Democrats vs. Whigs) lasted roughly from 1832 to 1856. That's less than a quarter-century apiece. The current period (Democrats vs. Republicans) has lasted since 1864 -- 143 years and counting.

There were moments when the current system could have failed. The Democratic Party could well have been discredited for being the party of Southern secessionists and "copperhead" defeatists during the Civil War. The Democrats in fact went 24 years, from 1860 until 1884, without winning the Presidency, but the party survived. The Republicans might have collapsed after their humiliation in 1912, and barely survived their identification with Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression. Instead, it kept coming back, even after Barry Goldwater was crushed in 1964, even as the Democrats bounced back from similar landslide losses in 1972 and 1984. These were all worse defeats than the Whigs ever suffered, yet the two parties survive today. For some reason, people keep coming back to one or the other.

Have voters lost imagination, or courage, or even a sense of risk, since 1824 or 1856? Or have the two parties proved so accommodating that there's never been a reason to abandon either of them? Some people might say the adaptability of the two parties is a good thing, but what should we make of the fact that each party now affirms policies nearly the opposite of those it espoused 100 years ago? Once upon a time the Democrats were the party of fiscal conservatism and white supremacy, and the Republicans championed civil rights and protectionism. Is it a good thing that these institutions, rich from perpetual fundraising and certainly self-interested, can change positions to keep in power? Or does that show that both parties are "democratic" entities, responsive to the will of the grass roots, mere instruments to be used by mass movements as they arise? That only begs the question: why didn't any of these mass movements form their own parties? Why did they prefer to take over the existing parties, when by comparison no one thought to take over the Whig Party? Why are the two parties seen as prizes to be captured rather than relics to be buried?

These are rhetorical questions, some of which readers should be able to answer themselves, but in future installments I want to look into what actually happened to give these two parties their unnatural strength. Money will be a factor, as anyone can guess, but I think the growing power of the Presidency is another, since the one obvious reason to have a national party is to elect the one official who claims to represent the entire nation. Whatever we find, let's not take the existence of the two-party system for granted as the best of all possible worlds, or in Churchill's phrase, the worst form of government except for all the others. Look at American politics today and you should know better automatically.

21 September 2007

What a surprise!

Blackwater is back in business in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has basically admitted that they don't have the power to force the company out of their country. Now there's talk of resolving the matter of the little massacre last weekend by offering compensation to the bereaved. Who do you suppose will be paying that blood money? Blackwater or the American taxpayers?

According to the Guardian, a UK daily, some mercenaries think Iraq has been drying up as a market for their distinctive services already. The scary thought you have to have about businesses like Blackwater, Aegis, etc., is that, like any other business, they'll want to create new markets when old ones are exhausted. It's the same thought you have to have about Halliburton. That company's apologists always like to argue that nobody else can do what Halliburton does. For me, that begs the question: why does it exist? In the aftermath of World War I people around the world understood that it was a bad thing for businesses to have a stake in war. But for some Americans today, "war profiteering" is a dirty word, a libel. I hope, however, that with sufficient repetition on TV or in the halls of Congress we'll get accustomed to the term again.

Credit where it's due: this item comes from the New York Post, of all places, and from an author who is still gung-ho for the war overall. Maybe he's just old school.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Scahill, the man who wrote the book on Blackwater, testified them in front of a Congressional committee today. The Nation has a transcript and a YouTube clip of Scahill.

20 September 2007

NYC: City of A**holes

Back in 1945, we made Germans visit the death camps. American troops would herd whole towns through liberated prisons while bodies were still piled high. It's reasonable to assume that we wanted to teach the civilians a lesson. You might think that you could teach an Islamist fanatic a similar lesson by taking him to Ground Zero, the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. It's not as stark a site as it was a few years ago, but the message should still sink in when the government-appointed tour guide tells our imaginary Islamist, "This is what your hate accomplished."

In 2007, the American people, or at least the opinion makers of New York City, aren't interested in teaching any lessons. They've decided that President Ahmadinejad of Iran is unworthy to look upon the sacred ground. He must repent first, renouncing terrorism (one assumes) before he might be allowed to go, whereas the object of marching Germans through Dachau was to induce repentance. This article sums up the situation while letting you look at the asinine cover of today's Daily News -- and remember, the News is the city's liberal tabloid.

Too many people seem to share the attitude expressed by Senator Clinton, that even getting to visit the U.S. is some sort of reward for good behavior. The Iranian must surrender, in effect, before we negotiate with him, not to mention let him tour New York. Many people are probably also afraid that Ahmadinejad would somehow turn a trip to Ground Zero into some sort of propaganda coup. Such fears suggest that Americans aren't really interested in a real contest in the global marketplace of ideas. Recall how often the Bush Administration urges the media not to publish full texts of bin Laden's lectures. Our establishment doesn't want a debate or a real negotiation on the basis of realistic interests. They simply demand universal acknowledgment of American moral superiority, much as the Islamists insist that everyone recognize theirs as the best of religions.

Sometimes I wonder if our leaders are even interested in persuading people like Ahmadinejad to change their ways. If they were, they would gladly escort him to a stage-managed presentation at Trade Center site where he would have little choice but to hear all about the innocents who died for no good reason, only to slake some men's petty thirst for revenge. But it would be beneath them to persuade people, because their truths, after all, are so "self-evident" that only a depraved or primitive mind could deny them. For a long time, their preference has been for unconditional surrender, and nothing requiring compromise on their part. This is the "arrogance" that Iranians complain about so often, and it has gotten a lot of Americans killed, and may end up getting a lot more Iranians killed. As an Islamist, Ahmadinejad has his own share of arrogance, but New York City had a chance to show him something different, even if it was only a hole in the ground. I should have known better than to expect anything other than what we saw.

19 September 2007

Who Controls Congress?

Way, way back in November 2006, the Democrats boasted that they had captured control of Congress. They had won majorities in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, and they gave the impression that they intended to undo many bad things that the Bush Administration had done. We should have known better from the first. It was apparent immediately that the Democrats had veto-proof majorities in neither house. Worse, Bush wouldn't have to bother vetoing most of the legislation he most feared because it wouldn't get past the Senate. In the upper house, the cloture rule applies, dating back no further than 1917 and last modified in the 1970s. Under this rule, anyone who wants to pass a bill needs the support of 60 Senators to end debate. In a partisan age, if no one party has the 60 votes, a state of gridlock exists in effect.
I intend to knock the Democrats pretty often in this space, but in today's case of the thwarted bill to extend leave time for servicemen returning from combat, all blame belongs to the Republicans. It doesn't belong to all of them, since six voted for the bill, but blind partisan loyalty to Bush and the war limited the total vote to 56, and anything short of 60 might as well be zero under existing rules.
Cloture is a rule the Senate set for itself. Senators have also set the rules for changing the rule, even though they disagree about it today. It was long believed that a two-thirds majority was needed to change or eliminate cloture, but Republicans recently said it would take only a simple majority, which they threatened to use if Democrats objected too strongly to Bush's Supreme Court nominees. Some may say that imposing a supermajority requirement is a good thing because it prevents one political party from forcing its will at will upon the other. Since I'd like people to imagine an age without political parties in the current oppressive sense, I think we should eventually arrange things, preferably via constitutional amendment, so that any coalition of 51 Senators can get something accomplished. They'd still need a two-thirds majority to override a Presidential veto, but there's no reason for the Senate to be able to veto itself in mockery of majority rule.

18 September 2007

Deeper into Blackwater

The BBC has an update on the Blackwater story. Note the last paragraph especially. There's a test of wills on the horizon, and with many U.S. politicians already calling for al-Maliki's removal, he may feel plenty of pressure to back down. He should press on with his review of all the mercenary outfits operating in his country, and the American people ought to support him. The idea that the United States would ever depend on mercenaries to accomplish any military purpose should make the Founding Fathers burst from their graves, muskets in hand. Mercenaries were probably the only thing they considered worse than an actual standing army, and that, too, should clue you in on how far gone this country is.

17 September 2007

One Cheer for Iraq.

I rarely have cause to applaud the Iraqi government, but readily endorse their decision, reported here, to expel the Blackwater corporation from the country following an overzealous shootout over the weekend. All the mercs have to go except the ones involved in the shooting, who get to stand trial in an Iraqi court because mercenaries aren't protected by international law. I only have two questions. First, what took them so long? Second, what exactly were Mr. al-Maliki and Secretary Rice talking about with regard to Blackwater? If it has anything to do with getting the Iraqis to take Blackwater back, al-Maliki should answer with one of the wise sayings of Dick Cheney. I'll let you guess which one.

Muslims? No Problem!

Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time and Newsweek, has a story about how well Muslims are doing in the U.S., immigrants included. I recommend it because it sends a different message than you get from some people in this country. The Germans have a less happy perspective to judge from, given their history with Turkish immigrants. The writer is clearly impressed by the absence of Muslim ghettos in the U.S., and that is something the country can be proud of. But the portrait seems a little too rosy in light of recent polls that show growing support among young American Muslims for suicide bombing under certain circumstances. In turn, we should perhaps be no more alarmed by that than a survey showing that Irish Americans thought bombings were okay in certain places, e.g. Ulster. The difference, of course, is that under some circumstances Muslims might be bombing us.

15 September 2007

The American Bipolarchy, Part I.

I just made that word up -- what do you think? I don't mean to suggest that manic-depressives rule America, but if you take it to mean that the two-party system is crazy, then good for you.
Like many bloggers, I'll go off on tangents on topics like religion, but every so often I need to remind myself and my few readers that my main purpose here is to make a case against the American two-party system. With that in mind, I introduce James Madison (1751-1836), the "Father of the Constitution." Here's something he said at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. My source is Ralph Ketcham, ed., The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Consitutional Convention Debates (New York: Mentor, 1986), p.52. You can also find his entire speech here.

What has been the source of those unjust laws complained of amongst ourselves? Had it not been the real or supposed interest of the major number? Debtors have defaulted their creditors. The landed interest has borne hard on the mercantile interest. The Holders of one species of property have thrown a disproportion of taxes on the holders of another species. The lesson we are to draw from the whole is that where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure. In a republican government the Majority if united have always an opportunity. The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at that moment to have an common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be apt to unite in pursuit of it. It was incumbent on us then to try this remedy, and with that view to frame a republican system on such a scale and in such a form as will control all the evils that have been experienced.

Madison took the existence of "special" interests for granted, but expected Congress to have so many that they would either cancel each other out or compromise their interests in order to pass any legislation. He neither expected nor wanted one interest group to be able to rule the country. It should be obvious how the development of a two-party system, for which Madison himself is partly responsible, skews his plan. You may argue that each party depends on the compromise of numerous interests, but to the extent that all the interests involved in one party conflict with those in the other party, a two-party contest inevitably gives one coalition of interests abusive majority power over the minority party. Worse, in modern times the two parties have come to embody ideologies rather than collections of interests. Ideology and institutional self-interest make the two parties "interests" in their own right, turning elections more than ever into winner-take-all, loser-be-damned competitions. Unfortunately, Madison and his fellow Framers failed to program the Constitution with safeguards to prevent the rise of party government. Soon enough, he found himself at the head of a party in opposition to the President, a circumstance he seems not to have anticipated in 1787. In his defense, his idea of party and its purposes differs drastically from the perepetual electioneering machines that rule us today. In future installments of this series, I intend to make the difference more clear.

It's Not Just Monotheism.

Here's some disquieting news out of India, courtesy of the BBC. I sometimes tell myself that monotheism, because of its exclusivity, rather than religiosity itself, is the cause of many of the world's current woes, but here are the polytheistic Hindus to remind me that I'm wrong. The problem in India seems to be a faction that equates Hinduism (itself a debatable mix of cults) with Indian national identity and demands reverence as a matter of national solidarity. They've expressed themselves noisily in the past, from protesting Richard Gere's smooch with a Bollywood actress a few months ago to complaining about an allegedly disrespectful portrayal of Hindu gods on the Xena, Warrior Princess TV show. It's all in keeping with the unfortunate trend in Islamic lands that would suppress irreverence in the name of respect. It's something some groups in America, particularly the Catholic League, would like to get away with, and it helps explain why secularist or atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens seem more militant in their irreverence these days -- and why more people are reading them.

14 September 2007

Moving On.

The New York Times is getting grief because it charged MoveOn.org a discounted rate for its notorious "General Betray-Us" full-page ad. Rudy Giuliani demanded the same rate for a similarly sized ad supporting Gen. Petraeus, and the Times now states that any "advocacy" group will pay the same price. If the paper made an exception to MoveOn in the first place, then it deserves the criticism, because that would be proof of bias. If they've offered the lower rate for "advocacy" all along, they also deserve criticism. At the newspaper office where I work, we charge political advertisers more than the normal rate. Even with that being the case, MoveOn would find it far less expensive to place a full page with us than with the Times, even at the drastic discount. On the other hand, my employers give a discount to not-for-profits and charity groups. Maybe the Times blurs the distinction between advocacy and charity, as some people very well might.

Enemies of Religious Freedom

The BBC has a report on the U.S. State Department's new survey of freedom of religion, or its absence, around the world. See this link. The only thing worth noting here is that, with one exception, the oppressors of religious freedom are not those mean old "militant atheists" we hear about lately, but people of faith themselves. The exception is in China, and the object of their oppression is Falun Gong, which Americans might be more willing to categorize as an "evil cult" if they were all over their country. I say that not to indict Falun Gong, but as a reminder that the U.S. has had regrettable encounters with cults in the recent past. In any event, even in China the oppression of religion isn't general, even though Catholics have a beef with that country's attitude toward the Vatican. I propose that people of all faiths might feel safer under a government that was avowedly atheist, because such a state would have no interest in whose doctrine is best suited for national salvation. They might not be happy with people openly debunking their dogmas, but who's more likely to persecute you? Someone who thinks you're a heretic, or someone who thinks you're a fool?

12 September 2007

An American Myth

USA Today reports at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-09-11-amendment_N.htm that a majority of all Americans surveyed believe that the Constitution establishes the United States as a "Christian nation." The balance is tipped by preponderant majorities of self-described Republicans and Evangelicals affirming the idea. What this tells me is that these people read the Constitution about as closely as they read their Bibles.

In secular circles, it is well known that the word "God" never appears in the Constitution, apart from the date of the "year of our lord" 1787. Check this for yourself http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/constitution_transcript.html The First Amendment, by stating that Congress shall make no law respecting religion, makes it impossible to establish Christianity or any other creed as the national faith. During George Washington's presidency, within a decade of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, the State Department states flatly that the U.S. is in no sense founded on the Christian religion. The proof is right here: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/barbary/bar1796t.htm.

Against these facts, believers offer mythology and confusion. Many who responded to the poll probably confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence, and may have taken the latter document's attribution of inalienable rights to a creator as some sort of acknowledgment of divine sanction for the Founding. Others who actively mislead the public blow out of proportion little stories like Benjamin Franklin's call for prayer during the Constitutional Convention (see http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=98), or simply make stuff up out of faith that the Founders could only be godly men. They dismiss the "wall of separation" as a phrase that Thomas Jefferson made up but fail to admit that he was describing the First Amendment as he understood it, as shown at http://www.usconstitution.net/jeffwall.html. They assume a lot about this country, and you know what happens when you assume? You make an ass of yourself and everyone else in this country.

11 September 2007

Not of This World?

Bin Laden released another video to mark the 11 Sept. anniversary, featuring the last will of one of the hijackers. Here's a story about it(http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,296372,00.html) that includes an unexpected comment from the terrorist. He says: we are not contending with you for this world. That seems to go against what I understood about Islam, which was that Muslims reject the Christian deferral of ultimate justice to the next life. While Christians take the statement, "My Kingdom is not of this world" to mean they should not expect or try to impose an earthly paradise in this life, or before Jesus returns, Muslims supposedly believe that they can establish a perfect state on earth based on the Sharia. But here's a presumably devout Muslim appearing to disclaim interest in this world, calling it insignificant in Allah's eyes. His attitude probably follows from al Qaeda's obsession with martyrdom, their avowed love of death, and their faith in an ultimate reward in the next life. But wherever he gets the idea, his statement begs the question: if you're not contending with us for this world, then why on earth are you trying to kill people? Perhaps Osama can answer that one at the same time that he explains why martyrdom is glorious for everyone but him.

10 September 2007

The Day That Divided the World

Tuesday is the 6th anniversary of the terrorist hijackings and attacks on New York and Washington. To this day, the way people think about how the U.S. should have responded has been shaped by the initial context in which they perceived the attacks. For some of us, 11 September was always about the Middle East and its problems. In this view, the issues raised by the attacks could not be resolved without also resolving the underlying issues in the Middle East. Not to address those underlying issues while warring on terror meant, in effect, to endorse the nation's complacent, biased policy toward the region. Because I could not do that, I couldn't support the invasion of Iraq -- and there were plenty more good reasons to oppose that venture. But other people saw 11 Sept. in a more narrow context. They're the people who think al Qaeda is waging a war of aggression against the West. They think like the state GOP chairman I heard recently say, straight-faced, that the U.S. was "minding its own business" before the attacks. All they know and want to know is that this country was attacked. They're not so much interested in vindicating American foreign policy as in maintaining their right not to think about it. In any event, they don't think we have to address larger issues, which is why many of them have grown frustrated with the Bushies' incompetent attempt at nation-building. They may have wearied of the Iraq war, but they haven't come around to a new view of the Middle East. They may even feel reconfirmed in their original circa-2001 impulse to see the whole region nuked. To them, the Middle East is an annoyance that simply needs to keep quiet.

So 11 September divided the nation into conscientious contextualizers and the self-righteously ignorant. It also left us divided between prudence and moralism. Prudence, in this context, is a form of modesty. Modesty, in this context, means avoiding provocation. In this context, if our country's policies provoke people into attacking us, we should reconsider those policies. That doesn't mean automatically reversing them or "giving in to terrorists," but it does mean calculating whether the benefits of those policies outweigh the potential costs. The moralizing viewpoint scorns such calculations. Rejecting the concept of provocation, the moralists are satisfied that the terrorists' own evil natures are the necessary and sufficient causes of terrorist acts. Acting on the assumption that terrorists bear all moral responsibility for refraining from terrorism, the moralists deny any obligation on our part to reconsider provocative policies. In short, they say we don't have to change our ways at all in order to prevent terrorism. In effect, their war on terror can only be a vindication of our foreign policy, because they refuse as a matter of defiance to consider a change.

These divisions persist and will persist as long as we let ideology and cheap moralizing obscure our true interests in the rest of the world. Until we learn to think clearly about our interests and their limits, without the sophistry of right and rights, we will be at war with ourselves as well as large parts of the planet, at a time when the world can least sustain such conflict. Other people will tell you to remember the dead and think of vengeance, so this is something else to think about. Figure it out for yourselves.

Suggestion for Bin Laden

Osama wants Americans to embrace Islam. His is a missionary faith that has aggressively sought converts (choose your sense of the word aggressive) from the beginning. We know that the Saudi Wahhabis have spent much money to promote their religion. All this leaves me wondering why we don't see commercials for Islam along the lines of the ads made by the Mormons. The LDS airs utterly innocuous spots that make Mormons look like utterly ordinary folks who nevertheless have some secret key to happiness. Why can't Muslims do the same? Can't you see it already?

Whitebread couple, with kids, smiling in suburbia: "We were looking for answers and looking to Jesus for guidance, when we found a book that reveals Jesus's real message for mankind. This book finally tells the whole truth about Jesus and the whole truth about God. It's a guide to every aspect of life, straight from the source. It changed our lives for the better, and it can change yours as well."

If Muslims want us to take seriously their insistence that they don't just convert by the sword, then they'd use some of that oil money for commercials on U.S. TV. If they really want to convert the majority of Americans, they have to do something to counter the impression that Islam is just a religion that says No to everything and makes people miserable. I suspect, however, that bin Laden's Muslims aren't really interested in persuading Americans to convert. My guess is that they'd rather have Americans stay Christian, for the most part, so in their caliphic dreams they'd have the satisfaction of keeping Americans as second-class subjects. If Muslims don't want people to have such suspicions, they need to try harder to win hearts and minds, even if they'll never win mine.

09 September 2007

Guilt by Association

This link (http://timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=620534&category=NATIONAL&newsdate=9/9/2007) merely confirms our worst suspicions about the Bush Administration's surveillance of "suspicious" persons. Because their actual intelligence gathering skills are crap, they have to resort to fishing like this, which brings us closer to the criminalization of dissent against American foreign policy. To those who sneer that we only complain because it's a Republican regime, we won't bother denying it because you won't listen. In fact, we'll say that we are more suspicious of Republicans because they have a 60-year history (if not longer) of mistaking dissent for subversion, dating to Joe McCarthy's time and before. I doubt, however, whether Democrats will really shun such tools, even though the FBI claims to have put this one aside. Once you assume the existence of an internal enemy, a republic is on its way down the chute.

Would you believe? . . .

Look at this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6985808.stm.

Maybe all those critics were on to something, or maybe the Law of Return isn't restrictive enough. Of course, Bobby Fischer the chess champion is part Jewish and one of the nastiest Jew-haters around. These guys are said to go after observant Jews so I don't know if they hate Jewishness as an ethnicity or if they're just some of those "militant atheists" we hear about these days. However you figure it out for yourself, it's just insane, and pretty sad.

07 September 2007

Extremist Makeover

Take a moment and read Osama bin Laden's statement in transcript at http://counterterrorismblog.org/2007/09/obl_transcript.php. I plan to address the subject in more depth next week on the 11 Sept. anniversary, but I want to make a few quick observations here.

First, bin Laden has an odd sense of history. He seems to hold Donald Rumsfeld responsible for killing 2,000,000 people during the Vietnam War, and may have meant to imply that Rummy was involved in the Kennedy assassination. He espouses an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory that implicates the Establishment in JFK's demise. If the military does find bin Laden, they can skip the bunker busters and drop Vincent Bugliosi's book on him. At 1,600 pages in hardback, it should go through several layers of defensive shielding, and if Osama survives he might learn something.

Second, the U.S. media spin on bin Laden's makeover annoys me slightly. Yes, we can all make fun of Osama for having the vanity to dye his beard, but Americans are acting as if this is some exotic Arab custom to color greying hair. It only seems exotic because in bin Laden's case it's a beard. When Americans find grey hairs in their beards, they're more likely to shave them off.

Third, I hope he didn't think he would encourage Congress to end the war by griping about their failure to date to do so. The last thing Democrats want to hear is Republicans telling them, "You're doing exactly what Osama wants!" I suppose that's why some people were hoping that bin Laden would apply some reverse psychology and say something like, "Yes, keep your troops in Iraq so I can have a constant rallying point for the jihad." I don't think he thinks that way. He really, really wants Americans to get out of the Middle East. If they disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn't say, "Dang! So much for my recruiting drive!" He'd be praising Allah for joy. For our part, not one American should give a damn what bin Laden thinks about anything. If a Bushie wants to use that tactic I mentioned on any anti-war activist, the correct response is: so what? A policy is right or wrong regardless of what Osama bin Laden thinks of it. If leaving Iraq is the right thing to do, but also "rewards terrorists," that's the fault of the fools who sent Americans there in the first place.

06 September 2007

The "Illegal" Majority?

Mr. Right was admiring Tim Johnson's return to the Senate the other day after his serious illness. He thought it remarkable that Johnson could bounce back so soon, but his admiration for the man's recuperative powers quickly turned into another dig at the Democrats.

"Of course," he snorted, "His fellow Democrats were more concerned about whether they'd keep their majority in the Senate than in whether Johnson would live." From there he observed that the Democratic majority was illegal, anyway.

"How so?" I asked. He cited the New Jersey election of 2002. Robert Torricelli withdrew from the race and was replaced on the Democratic line with Frank Lautenberg, who won the election. Mr. Right asserted that state law forbade the Democrats from changing their candidate after a certain deadline which had passed after Torricelli withdrew.

"If that's so, why doesn't anyone challenge the election? Why don't they take Lautenberg to court?" I pressed. Mr. Right huffed and hemmed and hawed and finally muttered something about a court decision. It turns out that the New Jersey Republicans had challenged the replacement at the time, and that the state's supreme court had allowed the Democrats to make the switch. That seemed final, since it was a state court ruling on state election law, but that hadn't stopped the Republicans in Florida in 2000. Maybe they felt they couldn't win this one, or maybe they had a collective Al Gore moment like the former Vice President had when he stood counting Electoral Votes, in a position to speak for millions who disputed the Florida decision, but did nothing because he feared a constitutional crisis. Or maybe they just didn't care that much.

In an ideal polity there would be no deadline for anyone to be qualified to receive votes. If people wanted Frank Lautenberg to be their Senator, no one should have the right to tell them it's too late for them to choose him. For that matter, he should have been free to run, and voters should have been free to vote for him, even if Torricelli remained in the race. Our choices only seem to be restrained by the physical limits of the ballot, but once upon a time people voted without ballots, and in theory could name anyone they wanted. In the digital age, we should think about overcoming the limitations imposed by ballots. An election isn't a restaurant menu, after all; if you like something you don't see, you should still be able to order it.

04 September 2007

Congratulations to Michigan

Michigan has joined Florida in defying rules imposed by the major political parties and scheduling its primary elections for January 2008.
(See http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-GOP-Primaries.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)
There is no good reason why Iowa and New Hampshire should have privileged positions in the choice of party nominees. Some say it's a good test of "retail" campaign skills for candidates to hustle for the votes of a small state. The Founders wouldn't have been impressed by that argument, since they thought it unseemly for anyone to electioneer for himself. They actually expected communities to take the initiative themselves and nominate worthy persons without prompting by a party caucus. Even then, of course, ambitious men manipulated people into nominating them while they retained the appearance of disinterest and self-sacrifice for the common good. Nevertheless, they believed in a grass-roots process, and we should do likewise. For that matter, why should any community in Michigan or Florida or elsewhere wait for the word of their governor before stating a preference? Why not have town meetings to select a candidate or draft a platform and invite a candidate to accept it. Those communities could seek out like-minded communities, establish committees of correspondence and through strength of numbers increase the incentive for a candidate to swear allegiance to a grass-roots platform. If people wanted to start that process now, there'd be nothing wrong with it, no matter what people in Iowa or New Hampshire think. Nothing stops them from doing likewise, and if the major parties say no, that would be as good a signal as any for the insurrection that finally ends the two-party usurpation of the American Republic.

03 September 2007

Bangladesh: A Precedent for the President?

The government of Bangladesh has arrested the country's former leader on corruption charges. Predictably, the leader's supporters cry foul, claiming that the arrest was politically motivated. More information is available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6976614.stm. Just such a response can be expected if anyone in the U.S. attempts legal action against George W. Bush after he leaves the White House. If so, those who sincerely believe that he abused his powers should take courage from the Bangladeshi example. The BBC article describes the current regime as dominated by the military, so they're probably no angels, but maybe more inclined to take action against a despised political class. In any event, for some people in this country the main argument against prosecuting any former President for war crimes or other offenses is that taking such action will have the appearance of partisanship. Others would also warn that arresting Bush would set a precedent for tit-for-tat prosecutions so long as we have a party system. These considerations are worth noting, but the most important consideration in any circumstance is to do the right thing. Let the consequences be what they may.