31 December 2008

2008 Cliffhangers

The Senatorial follies continue. In Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich has confounded his foes by going ahead and naming a successor to former-Senator Obama. Senator-designate Burris is a former rival of the governor whom Blagojevich presents as an unimpeachable character untainted by his own scandal. The point both men stress is that the state needs full representation in the U.S. Senate. The President-elect and the present Democratic senators disagree. They perhaps fear that anyone out of Illinois during Blagojevich's watch will carry such a taint that the seat is sure to be lost in 2010. But the governor has actually done a clever thing, because the other Democrats' adamant resistance to Burris makes me, at least, wonder about their resistance. Unless you assume automatically that Burris has cut a corrupt bargain with Blagojevich, you have to question why Illinois can't have the senator to which it's entitled. Until he's proven guilty, it remains the governor's right to appoint a senator. As I've been saying, if you oppose his role in the process, the principled course is to call for a special election -- as the opportunistic Republicans are doing. To my knowledge, Obama has not made such a call. All we know about Obama is that he doesn't want Blagojevich to pick his successor. But if not him, who? Could the ultimate object be for Obama to dictate that choice? Time will tell.

In New York, the tide seems to be turning against Caroline Kennedy following an embarrassing interview in which she uttered the phrase "you know" an unseemly number of times. There have been conflicting reports of Mayor Bloomberg's people distancing themselves from her, or vice versa, and she threatens to become a laughing stock. I'm sure there are still people who are star-struck by the notion of JFK's daughter following in his footsteps, but it looks like more people are turning skeptical. Of course, there's no objective or democratic way to monitor her standing compared to other possibilities. It's not like people have shifted loyalties from her to anyone else in particular. The fact that Senator Clinton won't resign until confirmed probably weighs on people, and I often hear people gossiping that she's not a shoo-in for Secretary of State, more so since the list of foreign donors to her husband's foundation became public. The mere rise of doubt about Clinton's prospects may be blunting Kennedy's momentum, which is fine by me. If the people of New York can't choose who'll fill Clinton's place, Clinton herself should be compelled to keep it, for good or ill.

In Gaza, Israel continues to pound Hamas from the air in probable preparation for a land assault, amid protests from around the world. Here in Albany, about a dozen people stomped around the state capitol yesterday to protest Israel's actions. This is all in defiance of common sense. I can understand people complaining that Israel is the big bully beating up on the little bully, but you really get the sense that these protesters would like to see Israel do nothing about being hit by rockets. Even if the Israelis chose to practice Crhymethinc's policy and restricted itself to assassinating Hamas leaders, some people would still complain. What do they expect? "You fired a rocket and hit a house with people in it, young man. It's time we had a heart to heart talk." Not likely. Hamas has no special right to fire rockets at Israel. You can believe that the Palestinians generally have a right to fight Israel and liberate Palestine, but this crap with the rockets is a pretty pathetic way to go about it. If that's the best Hamas can do, they deserve what they get, on top of deserving it for being a bunch of fanatic theocrats.

The year departs under paradoxic circumstances. The election marked a real epoch in American history and by itself would make the year memorable, but the general mood this week suggests that Americans are glad to be rid of 2008. History is one thing, but the year hit us hard where we live, in our wallets -- though I can't say I've suffered except from growing uncertainty about my workplace. Whatever good feeling Obama's election created (and then only for some people) quickly wore off as the economy continued its decline and the Blagojevich and Madoff scandals broke out. But the election remains cause for guarded optimism. If the nation as a whole can throw off the Republican incubus, maybe we can begin to think more clearly about the conditions we face and figure out for ourselves what to do about them without any advice from the radio peanut gallery. Whether our problems are amenable to leadership or will prove more enduring, time alone can tell. So let's let history do its work, with our best wishes for the coming year.

29 December 2008

The anti-Warren Alliance: Strange Bedfellows?

Christopher Hitchens is taking an eager part in the campaign to shame the President-elect into disinviting Rick Warren from participating in the inauguration ceremonies. Hitchens, of course, is one the nation's most popular atheists, so he probably dislikes the idea of prayer at the event automatically. He seems to have taken a special dislike for Warren, while realizing that labelling him a homophobe won't be enough to purge him from the program. So for the past two weeks Hitchens has gone on the attack from his perch on Slate. Last week he effectively called Warren an anti-semite because he takes the conventional Christian position that Jews won't make it into Heaven without accepting Jesus.This week he takes a new approach. Warren, he says, pals around with terrorists.

The specific terrorist is Bashar al-Asad, the ruler of Syria. Warren visited that country recently and had generally positive things to say. In this he echoes some dissident conservatives who see Syria as a likely ally for the U.S. in the Middle East. Warren wouldn't be the first to notice that Arab Christians seem to get a better deal under secular dictatorships like Syria (which is ruled by a branch of the Baath party, like Iraq used to be) than under purportedly more democratic regimes with Islamist tendencies. But dictators are abhorrent to Christopher Hitchens, who is in turn unlikely to be moved by the perils of religious minorities.

So Warren isn't exactly a neocon, though I can understand why even more moderate people might find the Syrian leader's company odious. Hitchens, meanwhile, is playing his typical game. He helped popularize the "islamofascist" tag for radical Muslims in a clear effort to recruit liberals for his secularist irregulars in the neocon crusade. Here he's apparently trying to recruit the neocons in his war against Warren. Some might even bite on the bait if they think that stirring up controversy will embarrass Obama. But I doubt whether Obama could care less about it all. If his goal is to make conservative Christians feel more friendly toward him, he could hardly do better than make Christopher Hitchens mad at him.

I tend to agree with Hitchens that Obama has been opportunistic if not cynical in his relations with organized religion. In fact, the more cynical I can imagine Obama being on this front, the better I like him. I suppose I'm cynical, too, if one reason why I don't want Obama to back down is my hope that spreading anger over his stubbornness will generate a popular and powerful anti-religious movement in this country. If some people will overlook their wounded feelings, they might understand that, while this is a battle they can't win, the mere fight puts them in better shape for the culture war that they, not Obama, must fight.

28 December 2008

Rick Warren: Obama's Trap for Gays?

There's been a surprising lack of outrage in this country, as far as I can tell, over Pope Benedict's remarks equating homosexuality with the various perils plaguing the environment. I assume that's because American activists are still raging over the President-elect's selection of Rick Warren to bless his inauguration. The outrage continues on the letters page of the Albany Times Union, where two angry missives appeared yesterday.

Jeffrey Hallenbeck doesn't buy the argument that Obama needs to reach out to conservative Christians like Warren. Homophobia is equal to racism in Hallenbeck's mind. Responding to the paper's explanation of Obama's action, he writes: "There are also many racists in this country; let's also give them a voice at the inauguration as long as we're 'reaching out to the other side.'"

Hallenbeck rejects the idea of reaching out. "You cannot change the minds of the Rick Warrens of the world," he argues, "Many have tried and failed because they labor under the delusion that God is on their side. This pathological belief has been the cornerstone of hate and repression for thousands of years."

This is all well said, but it's still a waste of effort if anyone thinks they can get Obama to retract his invitation. In any event, I doubt that Obama intended it as part of any attempt to change Warren's mind about homosexuality. He's hoping, as do many Democrats, to detach moral-conservative Christians from Republican economic conservatism. That might work because conservatism can easily change to populism. Unfortunately, populism is exclusionary by nature; it's definition of "us" always leaves room for a "them" on whom all the world's problems can be blamed.

Domingo Almonte is "extremely disappointed" by Obama's invitation to Warren, whom Almonte describes as "one of the most divisive anti-gay individuals." That's a big claim in the age of Fred Phelps, but Almonte feels justified in the claim by Warren's promotion of Proposition 8 in California, which supposedly renders homosexuals "third-class citizens." Inviting Warren, Almonte claims, is like inviting the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to the event. Almonte himself is a "person of color," so he feels entitled to make the comparison.

"What amazes me is that those who consider themselves supportive of our fight for civil rights think it is OK for gays to be thrown under the bus to appease the religious right," Almonte protests, "President Clinton tried to placate the religious right by signing [the Defense of Marriage Act] and to this day, the religious right demonizes him." Of course, people of religious morals have other reasons to despise Clinton, who also tried to pick a fight over homosexuality at the opening of his term. Obama is trying not to do this, but what else is he up to?

Barack Obama is not about to launch a secular or anticlerical crusade. Religion has proven meaningful and useful to him during his career. If he has to pick between people of faith who might put some of his programs over the top and a demographic group that has no place else to go according to the logic of the American Bipolarchy, who do you think he'll "throw under the bus?" And think about this: If Obama ever feels a need to do something like Bill Clinton did with Sister Souljah back in the 1990s to cement his "centrist" credentials, who do you think he'll pick a fight with? Who else would there be? For all we know, that's the actual purpose of inviting Warren to his show. Homosexual outrage distances Obama from the "gay agenda," after all. The controversy may give Obama the distance he wants or feels he needs. So while I urge gay-rights activists and their allies to keep on protesting, Obama is probably also wishing the same thing, and possibly laughing all the way to the White House.

27 December 2008

Gaza: Terror Works Both Ways

I stand by my condemnation of the Israeli party leaders who have reportedly promised to overthrow the legitimate Hamas government in Gaza, but I can do no more than regret the bombing raids against Gaza that have killed more than 200 Palestinians. You might consider it a disproportionate reprisal for the rocket attacks that have followed the end of the recent truce, but those attacks required some kind of retaliation. While the Hamas cretins may think of them as something like counting coup, the rocket attacks are, for all intents and purposes, acts of war, and Israel is entirely within its rights to go punitive on Gaza. Now all the Palestinians will whine about the cruelty of Israel and the deaths of innocents, but they ought to listen to a fellow Arab named Osama bin Laden. He rejects the idea that citizens of a democracy are innocent of their government's crimes, since they vote the government into office and sustain it with their taxes. As I have stressed in defense of Hamas, it is the democratically elected government in Gaza. If anyone in Palestine thinks that bin Laden is right about civilian responsibility, then they have a lot of nerve talking about innocent casualties when they suffer for their government's offenses.

Unfortunately, the bombings probably guarantee fresh terrorism against Israel, perpetuating the cycle of violence in lieu of the fight to the finish which is probably the only way, short of the emergence of a new Abrahamic revelation or an even more unlikely Communist revival, to resolve the Palestine question once and for all. I can see why few people want such an event, since neither side really deserves to win. I sympathize with the original dispossessed generation of Palestinians, but their heirs have too often inflated their grievances into a religious cause akin to Zionism itself. As it happens, God didn't promise that land to anybody, so Zionism is originally wrong and the Palestinian cause, as it declines from PLO secularism to Hamas and Hezbollah fanaticism, is almost equally wrong. All these clowns need someone like Klaatu -- the original one, mind you, -- to show up and tell them to make peace by a certain time or die together. Failing that, the international community should force some sort of settlement sooner rather than later, perhaps based on the determination that "Palestine," as defined by the mandate inherited by the UN from Great Britain, has been in a state of lawlessness for the past 60 years. For now, however, score one for Israel.

26 December 2008

S. J. Wurzelbacher: Man of the Year?

Time magazine was correct to name the President-elect as its Man of the Year. For once, it's consistent with the weekly's original criterion; Obama is the man who most influenced the news in 2008, for the same reason that most men who win the presidential election win this honor. But something in Patricial J. Williams's column in the newest issue of The Nation reminded me that the campaign also brought a sort of representative American to the fore in an unexpected way. She writes:

When Samuel Wurzelbacher, dba Joe the Plumber, availed himself of the opportunity to ask candidate Barack Obama about taxes, he premised his question on a scenario that had nothing to do with his actual life circumstances. He was supposedly a plumber -- although he was not licensed in any state as such. He was supposedly going to buy a business worth $250,000 -- although he had liens against him for back taxes and medical bills and earned $40,000. Joe the Plumber, an aspirational but entirely fictive reverie, was so powerful an American persona that vast swaths of the public, as well as Wurzelbacher himself, were able to dis-identify with the actual, living, breathing struggling man. "Joe" is a hard-working man of means; Sam is a hard-working person who is barely making it. The inability to reconcile the vision and the reality creates a split, a chasm in which dissatisfaction festers, leaks, then seeks a target, longs for a scapegoat.

"Joe" is Williams's textbook example of Americans' unwillingness to identify themselves as or with "the poor." Wurzelbacher seemed more interested in defending the interests of the class to which he aspired than those of the class to which he belonged. I suspect he'd reject such an analysis, since for me or Williams to write of class at all, to minds like his, is to wage "class warfare." Even the poor can be possessed by ideology. The poor in modern media-saturated America may be even more vulnerable than those who only have their own experiences and their own immediate environment for reference. They idealize the rich, or that specific sub-group called the entrepreneurs. It's not that they think the entrepreneurs are better than the rest of us, but that they appear to believe sincerely that the entrepreneur is the ideal if not the typical American, and that America was made for and ought to be governed in the interests of entrepreneurs above all. Thus, to these people and their self-appointed spokesmen, the claims of the poor always have less legitimacy and appear to be an unfair burden upon the "real" Americans, that class to which you, too, can belong, if only in your mind, if you only believe. The Obama years have potential apart from the potential of Obama himself in the likelihood that hard times may finally wake people like Wurzelbacher from their peculiarly American dreams so that they realize that they won't, and sometimes can't be what they dreamed, but are still Americans.

The Christmas Massacre

The news from Covina, California, raises deep questions about human nature and human motivations. The killer, who dressed up as Santa Claus, killed children and torched a family with a homemade device, is said to have had no criminal record and no history of violence. The trigger for his crime was reportedly a bitter divorce, his targets being his ex-wife and erstwhile in-laws. The response seems disproportionate to the offense. Does that make it an "evil" act? If so, should we assume that the man was latently evil all along, or shall we acknowledge that anyone is capable of evil? Need we speculate that there was anything the family could have done during the divorce that could have prevented this result, or did the killer's nature make the result inevitable once the final crisis began? We can imagine that many people might do something similar, if not exactly the same, if driven to a certain point, while others would never do such a thing under any circumstances. Is that the difference between "good" or "evil," or simply a difference in temperament? Some people might be pacific in temperament, or they might be so self-abnegating that they would simply never feel themselves entitled to do such a thing or take any kind of revenge on enemies. Is that "good," or is it 'weak?" The answer depends on the circumstances. There are times when society will want people who are capable of doing things like this, so long as they're directed at those whom society deems "the enemy." But society will also want such people to be governed completely by society's own priorities. It can't tolerate someone who declares war on his own enemies, as the man in California did. Society can't allow people to wage personal wars. That's a fundamental principle: "thou shalt not kill" understood as "thou shalt not murder," meaning "thou shalt not kill unless society (or the Lord) permits it." Society would like people with a killing impulse that has an on-off switch, but you have to wonder whether the killing impulse in most people works that way. Even if it did, some cultures wouldn't care for the idea; a society that could turn the killing impulse on or off as it pleases would be considered "totalitarian" in some places. In such places people still believe that each individual retains a primal right to save himself first. You can socialize such people to the point that they'll fight society's battles, too, but many such people probably imagine a time when they'll be at odds with society and will have to fend, or fight for themselves. However you construe it, acts like the Covina atrocity are founded on a sense of personal entitlement that isn't unrelated to our ideal of individual freedom. We won't be a truly civilized society until people stop feeling entitled to kill others. What that will take, we still have to figure out.

24 December 2008

Thoughts on Faith

Cal Thomas writes this week: "Faith cannot be taught (though teaching plays a role). No one is argued to faith, which is why it is fruitless to debate those who lack it. Better to demonstrate the faith one has than berate and belittle people who do not yet have it."

Considering the source, I suppose this is good, reasonable advice. It's also pretty telling about faith, since Thomas concedes that no one can be persuaded by reason that they ought to have faith in something like the existence of God. I infer that faith has to come from inside; you have to have a predisposition to it. Could that be genetic? I doubt that Thomas would agree, since he does believe that people can acquire faith -- though the way he describes the process somewhat begs the question.

"You don't have that kind of faith? You asked someone for a Christmas gift, didn't you? Ask God for the ultimate gift," is what Thomas recommends. This is a questionable analogy. Asking someone for a gift is to some extent an act of faith, but it's based on faith in the person's ability or willingness to deliver the goods, not on faith in the person's existence. Asking for "the ultimate gift" requires faith in both God's existence and his power, though the faithful would accuse me of redundancy.

Thomas acknowledges that there are different kinds of faith. There's children's faith in Santa Claus, which Thomas rather snidely equates with faith in the Bailout. There's also the "adult faith" in Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme. Then there's the reputed "messianic faith many have placed in Barack Obama, the faux messiah of our time." But the columnist never really spells out how faith in God differs from these, unless you take it on faith (or for granted) that faith in God has some more realistic basis than the other kinds.

All Thomas can give us is the old cliche from Hebrews 11: faith (in God) is "the substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen." To put it uncharitably, religious faith is a kind of confidence scheme. St. Paul seems to describe it as a sense of assurance, not unlike what you might have felt after a Madoff sales pitch or an Obama speech. Faith is a form of trust. Based on Thomas's column, it seems to depend on your own trustfulness or capacity for trust. God, Madoff and Obama make the same pitch to everyone (some might dispute that about Obama), so some people buy it and some don't according to their own inclinations. Some are more gullible than others, and others still are more willing, for individual reasons, to take a chance on what sounds like a good thing. But this is faith on the level of Pascal's Wager, in which you lose nothing by taking a chance on God, since you're dead anyway if you don't believe. Approached this way, some people appear to lack faith because the price of Pascal's Wager is still too high for them. The chance of eternal life and the dubious privilege of eternally praising God are not worth whatever compromise with oneself religion requires of some people.

For that group, Thomas has the usual puerile Psalm lyric: "The fool has said in his heart 'There is no God.'" For variety's sake, he has a less familiar line from I Corinthians 1:18 -- "The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." That one really impresses Thomas. He applies it to Bill Maher, who offended him by making a movie that mocks religion. "If Maher thinks the Christmas story is foolish," Thomas asks, "isn't that evidence he is perishing?" I have to answer this carefully. It happens to be a fact that Bill Maher is perishing. So am I, and so is Cal Thomas. We are all perishable, i.e., mortal. But disparaging a myth doesn't actually qualify as proof of that fact. It's just a superfluous detail. Of course, Thomas might wish to dispute his own mortality, but we'd have to take his counter-argument on faith, and I lack the predisposition to do so.

A certain level of faith in people is necessary for society, not to mention civilization, to function. Faith as trust and faith as loyalty are probably indispensable, but neither is based on the same sort of assurance that religious faith demands. In society, to some extent we have to believe in our fellow citizens despite the strong possibility that our faith in them isn't justified; otherwise we may as well all go back into the woods. Christians might think that a similar faith in God is just as necessary, but that may be a matter of predisposition like the inclination toward religious faith itself. There is a kind of faith that actually demands a guarantee, yet convinces itself that the mere imagining of an absolute being or eternal lawgiver is guarantee enough. I could understand that and let it go if people who thought like that didn't call me a "fool" for not thinking the same way. There are some times when you ought to take somebody's word on something, but when someone asserts that the universe is ruled by a "jealous" God who will torture me forever after death for not worshipping him, I shouldn't have to just take that person's word for it, or the word of an ancient book. That sounds more like an appeal to terror than an appeal to faith. It's inappropriate for the Christmas season, which is really all about faith in our fellow man and his capacity for good, however he discovers it, be he a grinch who steals the holiday or an Ebeneezer Scrooge. These tales don't teach us religion, but we learn the Christmas spirit just the same.

New York: The Plot Thickens

Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, has reportedly come out against Caroline Kennedy becoming the state's next U.S. Senator. Silver, a Democrat himself, seems to think that Kennedy, also a Democrat, is too close to Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who is a Republican as a matter of convenience but is virtually his own faction, and a rich one at that. Silver has openly questioned whether a Sen. Kennedy would represent the state's interests or Bloomberg's. Meanwhile, Governor Paterson, whose decision will be the final word, is said to be bristling at suggestions, including some from Bloomberg's camp, that Kennedy is the inevitable choice. Paterson has made it known that he's in no hurry to make an appointment, and he needn't be, since Sen. Clinton will not actually resign her seat until she's confirmed as Secretary of State. The governor seems to be saying: I haven't made up my mind yet, and no one should assume that I have. Naturally, he wants to keep his options open, although the best option, which would be to call a special election, is beyond his power.

Meanwhile, the new issue of The Nation features an item by John Nichols which follows up on this blog entry and answers the opposition to the special election idea. Why should special senatorial elections be objectionable due to their expense, Nichols suggests, when all vacancies in the House of Representatives are already filled that way? He also notes that only three states out of 50 provide for special elections for senatorial vacancies. It will be interesting to see how many others begin to take steps to change their laws during the next year. Unfortunately, none is a realistic guess so long as most people presume that senatorial scandals and scrambles are problems only in New York and Illinois.

23 December 2008

History's Pardon?

President Bush released another list of people he's condescended to pardon, and for the most part it's another unexceptionable bunch.One of the current group is a posthumous pardon, lobbied for by no less a person than Steven Spielberg. He petitioned for the rehabilitation of a man named Charles Winters, who was once upon a time convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating the Neutrality Act. He violated the law by flying a plane to Israel for use as a bomber during its first war against the Arabs in 1948 -- a conflict toward which the United States, at the time, was officially neutral. In applauding Bush's action, an attorney credits him with recognizing Winters' right to act according to what he considered a moral imperative.

Winters is actually the third such gunrunner, but the only one who ever served time, to be pardoned for violating the Neutrality Act in favor of Israel. It seems to be a way for American presidents to retroactively revoke our neutrality of 1948. But rather than start a fresh debate about Israel itself, let's question the precedent these pardons set. Is any American entitled to put his conscience or her moral sense at odds with the law? If acknowledging a "moral imperative" in foreign affairs means pardoning a lawbreaker, couldn't the same moral imperative serve as a legal defense in a criminal trial? Couldn't someone also invoke the "moral imperative" defense when accused of aiding an actual enemy of the United States? You'd imagine not, and by doing so, you'd acknowledge that moral imperatives have limited force under a rule of law. On some occasions, each citizen in a democratic republic has to subordinate "moral imperatives" to national interests as defined by law. The Neutrality Act would seem to be such a case. If you can't compromise your morals under the law, then you have the option of civil disobedience, which includes accepting whatever penalty the government imposes on you. To his credit, Winters, to my knowledge, never asked for a pardon while he lived. However, it ill becomes people like Spielberg to plead for a pardon that can't help but amount to a retroactive endorsement of lawbreaking. Why bother having a Neutrality Act if someone can violate it, at whatever present risk, with the thought that history will vindicate him?

If the U.S. intends to be neutral in any international conflict, that obliges every American to be neutral in conduct, whatever they think about the situation. If an American can't live under that constraint, let him do what his conscience dictates without the endorsement or protection of his government. If he can't abide by the foreign policy of his country, let him become a man without a country. Winters paid the price of his offense and returned to private life. America owed him nothing more. This is not a knock on Bush, since other Presidents pardoned the other offenders, but his action today did nothing for Winters, and was only for other people's benefit.

Clinton Power Grab Alert

When they get around to having confirmation hearings for Senator Clinton, her peers ought to ask her about this story from the New York Times in which she is said to want a greater role for the State Department, hence for herself, in economic policy. I suppose this shouldn't surprise us, since the Clintons are gung-ho globalizers, but this sounds like usurpation of power, since it means Hillary sticking her nose in the Treasury Department's business. Does anyone doubt after reading this that she intends to be "co-president" again? But now it'd be a political disaster for the President-elect to withdraw her nomination, even if he wanted to. It makes you wonder what she has on Obama? The "real" birth certificate? Footage of him attending the "God damn America" sermon? Or of him making a Muslim confession of faith? Or something we can't even imagine? I can't help speculating this way because including the Clintons in the new administration is a betrayal of the very meaning of the word "change." But it wouldn't surprise me if Bill thinks he coined that word himself back in 1992, and that Obama owes him and Hillary something for using it. Why Obama thinks he owes the Clintons anything is a mystery to me. My Christmas wish for him is a good book on Nixon's foreign policy, which was conducted without much input from his Secretary of State -- but I'd be happy to hear that he has one already.

22 December 2008

Senatorial Special Elections: Too Much of a Bother?

I must not be the only person suggesting a general adoption of special elections to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, because now I'm seeing writers attempting to explain why it's a bad idea. Joshua Spivack, for instance, decries the expense and bother of such a scheme. It costs money to have an election, he notes, and to do it right you'd have to have party primaries and all the other fixins. Add it up and New York or Illinois could go for months without its full Senatorial cohort.

Worse, Spivack suggests, the winner of a special election might get uppity and act as if he or she has a mandate from the people -- and might even run for a full term!

Over the past 50 years, around 40 percent of the senators selected by governors have won election to their own terms, compared with the 81 percent of incumbents who win re-election contests. It suggests that voters, and the other elected officials who mount primary challenges to these nonelected senators, do not automatically grant them the deference that accrues to incumbency. But voters may not have the same hesitation to give knee-jerk support to special election victors. Despite the fact that such senators generally arrive in office on the votes of a very small percentage of those eligible, they will still be the "incumbent," as in an official who has won the imprimatur of the voters. The result is likely to be a much greater, if undeserved, chance of victory in the next general election.

Spivack is unwilling to grant full legitimacy to special-election winners because they've historically won under conditions of low voter turnout compared to general elections. But whose fault is that? But if the "deference that accrues to incumbency" is based on the fact that incumbents have won elections, from which no voters have been excluded, why shouldn't a special-election winner enjoy more deference than a gubernatorial appointee, if there's to be deference at all? What is Spivack arguing for here, anyway? If deference (as expressed, presumably, by re-election) is objectionable, and accrues less to appointees than elected officials, would we all be less deferential toward our representatives if we never voted for them at all, but had them appointed by executives instead? Spivack actually suggests that letting governors appoint makes them more accountable in the public mind, and he actually cites the state of Alaska as proof, since Sarah Palin became governor by defeating an incumbent of her own party who had offended the people by appointing his own daughter to the Senate. I can understand what Spivack's trying to say here, but were there no better examples?

Complaints against expense are sure to dissuade some people from completely democratizing the Senate. For them, I propose an alternative that will involve no expense or extra effort at all. They can amend the Constitution to forbid Senators from accepting any appointment during their elected terms, leaving vacancies caused by death as the only problem for states to solve. Maybe they needn't be filled at all until the normal election time. This country used to get along quite well without a Vice President when one happened to die in office, and that officer is the president of the Senate. How much more dispensable is any given Senator? Individual states and the major political parties might protest, but maybe it would just be too bad for them. Let's at least give the matter some more creative thought than it's been getting so far.

Homosexuality = Global Warming?

That's the equation of Joseph Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI, who has told the Catholic faithful that it is as imperative to resist the spread of homosexuality as it is to save the rain forest or defend the environment. Here's his logic: both environmental catastrophe and more widespread homosexuality could lead to the extinction of the human race. You know, as if homosexuality was a virus that will spread indiscriminately through the entire human population if not checked by Catholic self-restraint. As if by attending Milk, for instance, I might get a taste for fellatio.

Yet for some reason it's the people who were against Catholics who were called Know-Nothings.

21 December 2008

New York: The Silent Auction

Kathleen Parker may be a Republican, but that doesn't disqualify her comments on the New York senatorial scenario, which she describes as a "silent auction" as opposed to the Illinois outrage. She also has sensible things to say about celebrity and Americans' inconsistent attitude toward dynastic politics. But perhaps because she's conservative in temperament, she doesn't suggest the obvious solution to these gubernatorial follies. The idea of filling all Senate vacancies by special elections as a federal rule, because it would be a form of democratization and a diminishment of states' rights, may not even have occurred to her. But it's still a good sign that national columnists are starting to notice the New York situation amid the sturm und drang from the Chicago area. I'd like to see Governor Paterson put on TV, preferably on one of the Sunday talk shows, so he can sweat more publicly over the choice -- and also correct the dubious impression created by his impersonator on Saturday Night Live. The tastefulness of that performance is a topic for another time.

Israel Legitimizes Terrorism?

The BBC reports that the two strongest candidates to become the next prime minister of Israel have both promised to overthrow the legitimately elected Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority. Naturally, they cite provocations from Palestine, and I don't doubt that the Palestinians do plenty to provoke Israel, but ultimately that's a chicken and egg game. But imagine if, during the next Palestinian election, the candidates all pledged to see the current regime in Israel removed, presumably by any means. The Israeli response, not to mention the American response, can be predicted, and the Israelis could be expected to appeal to the principle of anticipatory self-defense. Hamas would seem to be within its rights in adopting the "Bush doctrine" and taking steps to defend itself and Palestine by any means. If that means assassinating the next prime minister of Israel, it would seem that the Palestinians have a case to make at the United Nations. Meanwhile, the U.S. is in no position to judge either nation, as today's news has us urging African leaders to force the prime minister of Zimbabwe from office. In that case, it's hard to doubt that Zimbabweans would be better off without Robert Mugabe, but that's either exclusively for the country itself to decide, or else you must acknowledge the existence of an authority and a power that can judge the legitimacy of any government, not merely the "terror states" and "rogue regimes." And if there's an American who insists that his country answers to no one, then he shouldn't insist that any other country answer to him. That goes for any other self-styled democracy where they feel like passing judgments on their neighbors.

18 December 2008

Obama Sure Can Pick His Pastors

There's something to offend everyone, I guess, in the religious career of the President-elect, but I wonder whether anyone (apart from atheists) would condemn equally Rick Warren and Jeremiah Wright. That depends on whether there's any homophobia on Wright's record; if so, it hasn't been widely publicized. But now I suspect that some people who might have given Wright a pass are outraged over Obama's inclusion of Warren in the inaugural program. Obama defends his choice on "diversity" grounds, and in this context it should be noted that Warren, for his part, did not exactly reject the invitation, and definitely didn't use the occasion to denounce Obama for supporting the "gay agenda." So who are the extremists today?

I'd like to think I take second place to no one in my opposition to homophobia, but I guess I'd be wrong. My view on the immediate question is that gay-rights advocates have a right to be unhappy, but that they shouldn't expect Obama to bow to their objections. For starters, he's probably learned from the Clinton years that the worst thing a Democratic president can do is draw a line in the sand over gay rights right away. Clinton did that on the military question and got the worst of it. For another thing, Warren is one of many Christian "right" leaders who've supposedly called for churches to have a greater social and environmental consciousness. That could mean that there are many issues of more urgent importance to the nation on which people like Warren could be Obama's allies. Why risk alienating them by picking at a sore spot? Argue for principle if you like, but Obama is a politician; he must make alliances and compromises, and he must prioritize in order to accomplish anything. It's not in his interest to declare war on homophobia on day one.

But what's good for Barack Obama isn't necessarily good for every American. There is justice in the argument that an explicit homophobe like Warren should be regarded and treated the same way as an explicit racist or sexist. And for atheists and secular humanists, of course, there's reason to ask why Obama should bother with benedictions or other prayers at all. So if people want to protest the inauguration because Warren is there, more power to them. Let them make it happen, and let them be seen and heard. But be realistic. Don't waste energy trying to browbeat Obama into disinviting Warren. It won't happen. Don't expect the new President to represent your views exactly -- in a democracy or democratic republic, it's up to you to express yourselves.

17 December 2008

Madoff: "House Arrest" for $50,000,000,000 Crime

Bernard Madoff, the man accused of perpetrating a Ponzi scheme to the tune of fifty billion dollars, is under house arrest tonight in New York, after posting a $10,000,000 bond. Over the protests of prosecutors who consider him a flight risk, Madoff is allowed, indeed obliged to remain in his $7,000,000 apartment while the government contemplates its next move against him. This story has the basics, but I learn from other sources that "house arrest" really means a curfew; Madoff has to stay home only between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. If he dares flee, he forfeits two other residences, so consider him deterred!

Actually, I imagine Madoff is less a flight risk than a sudden death risk a la Kenneth Lay, who conveniently dropped dead before having to report to prison. In my more suspicious moments I suspect that Lay took General Rommel's way out of his reckoning with justice, and under the present circumstances I wouldn't rule out Madoff offing himself. In the past that would be the last honorable thing he could do. I'd almost say that's the best option, except that I'd like to see him face his accusers and account for his alleged offenses. Even more than that, I'd like to see a merciless investigation of the SEC. Recent reports suggest that clues to Madoff's doings were apparent as early as 1999, but were ignored by the commission. But was it ignorance or someone's notion of "benign neglect?" Were some people letting their pal Madoff get away with stuff. or were they honestly clueless about what he supposedly was up to? Somebody better find out.

The really appalling part of this story is that Ponzi schemes or pyramid schemes keep on happening, and people keep on falling for them. Laws are no deterrent here, apparently. Maybe there's something in the nature of "the market" that makes these schemes natural phenomena. Whether the activity is legal or illegal, the greedy smarts are always going to exploit the greedy stupids. One economist asserts that a market player could invest in a Ponzi scheme and still be acting "rationally," at least by market standards -- as long as he goes in with his eyes open and in the expectation that the government will bail him out. Meanwhile, reading through the list of Ponzi schemes since Charles Ponzi's own time is a demoralizing experience. It must be an irrepressible temptation to try it in the market environment. Some will say that the remedy is smarter investors, but if the market isn't going to institute an intelligence test, someone will have to impose another remedy on it, whether free enterprise likes it or not. The existing laws obvious aren't cutting it. Fortunately, the public is probably in the mood for new laws. Let's hope that feeling lasts.

16 December 2008

The Latest From Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens is one of the hardest working dead men in the literary business. Practically since he dropped 98 years ago, there has been a sporadic flow of manuscripts that still goes on. Tupac has nothing on Mark Twain. One of his plays had its New York debut just a couple of years ago. An entirely new collection of unpublished writing will be published next spring. It's become clear that Twain wrote a lot for posthumous publication, and an item that appears in this week's holiday issue of The New Yorker helps explain his motivation.

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We have charity for what the dead say. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves. If they should speak, what revelations there would be! For it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life; that out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends, he had long kept to himself certain views not suspected by his little world, and had carried them unuttered to the grave. And then the living would be brought by this to a poignant and reproachful realization of the fact that they, too, were tarred by that same brush. They would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be -- and never can be.

In Twain's case, the big revelation that had to wait after his death was that he was a kind of infidel, or at least far more irreverent toward God and Christianity than he thought his contemporaries could stand. He also nursed a misanthropic streak that would really have scandalized his original fans and still seems at odds with the friendly, folksy image he contrived for himself.

"The Privilege of the Grave," as this piece is called, isn't exactly a confession of cowardice. Clemens took brave public stands against American imperialism in the Philippines and other controversial issues. But despite his celebrity and the esteem in which he was held, he didn't think he could tell people what he really thought on some topics. And if he felt that way, he could imagine how others felt.

There are fewer than five thousand murders to one (unpopular) free utterance. There is justification for this reluctance to utter unpopular opinions; the cost of utterance is too heavy; it can ruin a man in his business, it can lose him his friends, it can subject him to public insult and abuse, it can ostracize his unoffending family, and make his house a despised and unvisited solitude. An unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinions he carries, and keeps to himself. There is not one individual -- including the reader and myself -- who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter.
Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth.

Are times really better now? To an extent I'd say they are. Isolated possessors of unpopular convictions have the internet to connect them to likeminded people among whom they can vent their feelings, but for many of them it's probably still too much of a risk to air them out before the larger public. There have arguably been better times between Twain's and today. H. L. Mencken could say much that Mark wanted to, and became a celebrity for doing it in the 1920s, but he didn't have to worry about contradicting a more pleasant and lucrative public image. I'm not sure that Mencken could become as popular now, or whether a living Mark Twain's popularity could today survive the appearance of such writings as have come out in the last one hundred years. But here they are anyway, and for many people they've only enhanced the great man's reputation. Might we think differently had he dared publish such stuff in his lifetime? Perhaps. But we shouldn't necessarily think worse of him for not doing so. As I said, on the current affairs of his time he spoke out in timely fashion. On deeper issues of religion and human nature the questions stay the same across the centuries, and his answers are no less relevant for coming out as late as they do. And if they disturb people that's only appropriate for the literary undead.

15 December 2008

Caroline Kennedy Wants It.

"It" is a U.S. Senate seat, if you believe Rev. Al Sharpton and others. New Yorkers now seem convinced that the Daughter of JFK actively covets the seat that Senator Clinton will surrender if she's confirmed as Secretary of State. This is her resume, or as much as the Times could throw together. Are you impressed? I am not. I have nothing against the woman as an individual, and I can't pass judgment on her political views -- but that's part of my main point. Mrs. Schlossberg should be reminded that this is not the Roman Republic, but a democratic one. There are no "senatorial" families in this country, and she has neither the obligation nor the guaranteed right to keep her family's name in the upper house of Congress. If it's now a matter of public record that she wants Governor Paterson to pick her, then the very least she owes to the people of New York is to step forward and explain to us why she thinks she's fit for the job. I said my piece last week about the need for a constitutional amendment that would take such decisions out of governors' hands. For all I know, a Kennedy could win an election in this state, so I don't demand this with the thought of keeping Caroline out of Washington. But the people should have a say in this matter. If they want Caroline, let them tell the governor. If they want someone else, let them name the person. If they want an election, let them say that. But simply bowing to an accidental governor's arbitrary will on this subject seems undemocratic, and the last time I looked New York was a blue state.

Progress in Iraq

Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush yesterday is being lauded as a hero throughout the Middle East while he remains under arrest. This is progress if Arabs are willing to make a hero out of someone who didn't kill anyone. Maybe this kind of slapstick humiliation will be the form of nonviolent protest that finally catches on in the Arab world. What would it look like, for instance, if Palestinian kids threw shoes instead of rocks at Israeli soldiers? Would anyone dare fire even a rubber bullet in retaliation for that? The intrepid reporter could well become a "model for emulation," to borrow from Shiite hierarchical terminology, not only in Arab lands but around the world, as I suggested yesterday.

I haven't heard any yet, but I'm sure there are bound to be killjoys who'll grumble that "he wouldn't have dared do that to Saddam," or "he's lucky that Bush has a sense of humor." We should probably take such people somewhat seriously if they want to argue that yesterday's scene was proof of progress for the American agenda in Iraq -- presuming that the reporter will get away reasonably unscathed. The only thing you might want to suggest if you hear anything along those lines is, that if it's a good thing that an Iraqi can throw a shoe at a leader and not get executed, then they shouldn't complain about their poor president having to duck the free expression of an Iraqi citizen.

Update: NBC has found some Iraqis to deplore the incident, and that shouldn't surprise us. From one point of view, al-Zeidi's act was "undignified," and liberal Iraqis are just as likely as Americans to insist on "dignity" and "respect" under all circumstances. Other Iraqi critics raise the point of hospitality to a guest, but I imagine that other Iraqis would dispute Bush's entitlement to "guest" status. Scroll down the link page and you'll see a sample of American opinion from the indignant to the amused. Speaking for myself, I don't think al-Zeidi needed to hit Bush to make his point. The point is to embarrass the man, not hurt him.

14 December 2008

He Speaks For Many

People who've been following the story since 2003 will recall that it's supposed to be an ultimate humiliation for an Iraqi to hit someone with a shoe; hence the motif of smacking statues of Saddam Hussein with sandals and such. So here's an Iraqi reporter at a press conference following President Bush's latest and probably last surprise appearance in the country. Various reports have him calling Bush a "dog" and saying "this is the end" as he fires away.

Americans will no doubt look down their noses at such an outburst. Perhaps because we take pride in ours being a representative government, and sometimes act as if ours is the only one, many of us insist on absolute respect for political discourse. Heckling, not to mention displays like today's, don't seem right to many Americans, but why, exactly, should politicians be exempt from humiliation? I can understand if people insist on civility, but sometimes their insistence borders on demanding acquiescence, as if our representatives are accountable to us only on Election Day. I can understand if they insist on dignity or "respect for the office," but sometimes it seems reasonable to state that a representative, even one who could be called "our leader," isn't entitled to dignity any more, has himself disrespected the office, and so shouldn't be able to hide behind it. George W. Bush will probably live out an unrepentant retirement under perpetual Secret Service protection. He may know that many people despise him, but it doesn't hurt to have his shell of complacency shattered every so often. It's going to take more than this, as you can tell from this clip, which includes his comments on the incident.

Maybe if more Americans are willing to sacrifice their spare footwear the point can be made more forcefully. On the other hand, we may end up adopting Muslim habits in this country, and we may have to go shoeless at the White House -- though it might be imprudent for the next President to propose this idea.

12 December 2008

How's That for Gratitude?

The American Civil Liberties Union has been instrumental in the release from prison of a religious crackpot who'd been jailed for threatening someone with curses from God. The ACLU considers the man to have been within his First Amendment rights in suggesting that God would "torture" a judge. One suspects that the civil libertarians were so ready to defend the man precisely because they did not take his threats seriously. Still, it's characteristic of the union to stand up for people who make provocative speeches. You would think that people of faith would appreciate this. But because the ACLU plays both sides of the street, and upholds the rights of those the Right despises, religious reactionaries hate the group's guts.

Consider this tidbit from the newest Harper's magazine. Back in October, an activist group called Focus on the Family Action published a prophetic "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America," portraying a dystopian future that could be thwarted if people voted for Senator McCain. Among other things, we learn that President Obama will cower in helpless fear as Russia reconquers Eastern Europe (for reasons unknown) and Iran nukes Tel Aviv (and somehow doesn't lose Tehran in reprisal), while provoking an exodus of homeschoolers to Australia and New Zealand because an Obama-packed Supreme Court has declared their educational practices unconstitutional. Here's the relevant portion of the prophecy:

In his first week in office, Obama fired all ninety-three U.S. attorneys, replacing them with his own appointments, recruiting the most active members of the American Civil Liberties Union. ...The next month, when Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens announced they would step down from the Supreme Court, President Obama nominated two far-left, ACLU-oriented judges.

Notice that the prophet doesn't dare name names, though Republicans must anticipate some of Obama's likely Court choices. The point, however, is that the ACLU-influenced judiciary will overturn all laws against same-sex marriage and ban any homeschooling that teaches "that homosexual conduct is wrong or that Jesus is the only way to God." Their reign of terror will also lead to the disbandment of the Boy Scouts of the America after the Court orders that organization to admit gay scoutmasters. Along with another paranoid prophecy, the reinstatement of the FCC "Fairness Doctrine," the end result, as our prophet sees it, is that, under the sway of the ACLU, "Our freedoms have been systematically taken away. We are no longer 'the land of the free and the home of the brave' because many of 'the brave' are in jail."

It makes you wonder why groups like the ACLU bother protecting religious fanatics. It's not good enough for them to have the same rights as anybody else. Their all-or-nothing stand on homophobia tells the true story; these monotheists won't feel free unless they are the rulers. If they're not the masters, they feel like slaves. It makes you wonder whether there's really a place for such people in the world the ACLU envisions. But I suspect that the union will keep up its thankless work, which probably makes them more like saints than the self-appointed kind.

But one thing about that prophecy interests me. If Obama or the courts could do something that would really provoke a peaceful hegira of fundamentalist homophobic homeschoolers from here to Oceania, would you do anything to stop them? Is the prophet letting us in on something? Is this mass emigration something the believer talk about in private circles. I'd be fascinated if they did, since I didn't think they'd let the country go without more of a fight. Most of the prophet's foreign policy predictions are too ludicrous to be taken seriously, but maybe we, as the citizens of a democratic republic, can take steps to make other parts of the prophecy come true. Think about that while you draft your New Year's resolutions.

11 December 2008

A Critique of Reason

The only religious publication I read on a regular basis or subscribe to is called Reason. The magazine's motto is "Free Minds and Free Markets," and the assumption that the two automatically go together is its declaration of faith. Reason is a libertarian publication, but it's also a magazine about the real world. Though its biases are annoying, it often has insights about how the world works that you can respect regardless of ideology. Its regular section of vignettes from the news often fairly points out the stupidity of politicians. Since denying that "the market" is always right doesn't mean I think that "government" is always right, I welcome these episodes as useful illustrations of how politicians can screw things up.

The new issue that came in the mail this week is the usual mixed bag. It includes an intriguing commentary of "justice porn," i.e. the genre of judge shows infesting daytime television. Greg Beato rightly sees an authoritarian tendency in these programs that exalt their judges as modern Solomons who can cut through the usual legal crap to make absolute moral decisions about people's petty problems. Beato also sees a contradiction: the TV judges often complain about litigants wasting their time on picayune matters, but the overall effect of the genre is to encourage litigiousness in viewers -- and why not, when you consider the money made by Judge Judy and her ilk? Also, book reviewer Damon W. Root makes a good point while reviewing a biography of Thomas Jefferson and his "concubine" Sally Hemmings. While modern critics often call Jefferson a hypocrite for writing the Declaration of Independence while holding slaves, Root points out that future slaveholders came to hate the Declaration while anti-slavery activists took heart from it -- so, hypocrisy or not, Jefferson must have been onto something right, and the nation is better off for it.

Overall, though, Reason sends a disturbing message in its first extended commentaries on the Bailout and the ongoing economic crisis. The Bailout itself comes in for rightful criticism, most eloquently when the final page shows a heavily redacted Treasury document that keeps secret the money paid out to banks and law firms that will handle details of the plan. There's also a fairly objective analysis of the housing bubble by Mike Flynn that shares out the blame among politicians and reckless financiers. More often, though, writers are satisfied to deprecate any effort by government to soften the blow of the economic downturn or shield "innocents" from consequences they didn't cause. On the plane of pure economics, the writers probably have a point; the economy well might recover more quickly if allowed to hit bottom faster. But there's a certain inhumanity to the underlying attitude, as if the needs of "the market" must have priority over the needs of human beings. Government, they argue, will be better off telling people to tighten their belts rather than offering palliatives that only perpetuate the crisis. There's nothing wrong with tightening belts or relearning frugality, except perhaps when our trading partners are concerned, but there's a disquieting subtext to Reason's objectivity. It all starts to sound like the expounding of a higher law: when the market requires you to suffer, you must suffer, and you have no right of appeal. You see this in Robert J. Samuelson's heroic account of how Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker beat "the Great Inflation" of the 1970s by orchestrating a devastating recession in the early 1980s, at great risk to Reagan's popularity. Samuelson's view is that allowing the recession to happen was the only way for the economy to rebound higher than before. Again, there may be academic truth to this, but with it comes an attitude that makes markets matter more than people. This is typical of the libertarian reverence for markets: since capitalism is all about "creative destruction," in order for markets to create, they must be allowed to destroy, or else the creative people are deprived of their just desserts. This may be "Reason" for libertarians, but I don't know if the underlying assumptions about human nature or how society should work would withstand genuine reasoned scrutiny.

Despite its blithely unexamined ideology, Reason fortunately lacks the contemptuous stridency of much libertarian literature. It's probably the most palatable dose of libertarianism you'll care to consume, with just enough of a strong viewpoint to arouse your critical sense. Since the writers have the journalistic sense to appeal to experience and facts more than to dogma, you'll find yourself challenged, but a free mind ought to be able to figure out that "free markets," at least as understood here, aren't the answer for every question.

10 December 2008

Media Bias? Here We Go Again

Mr. Right should quit when he's ahead. He had a debating point against Mr. Peepers in re the Blagojevich scandal when he reminded his antagonist that "You were saying a short time ago that all the political scandals involved Republicans," to which Mr. P. could only reply feebly that "Well, they did." But as usual Mr. R. had to overplay his hand to make a talking point. When past Republican governors of Illinois had been indicted for crimes, he asserted, the liberal media immediately and prominently identified them as Republicans. "But how far do you have to look before Blagojevich is identified as a Democrat?" he asked, "The twentieth paragraph?"

I decided to check. Here's the latest story from MSNBC, according to which the President-elect wants the governor to resign. As Mr. Owl says in the Tootsie Pop commercial, "A-one, a-two, a-three ...[CRUNCH] ...Three." That's all it takes for Blagojevich to be identified for what he is. And in the story I linked to yesterday, it took just slightly longer: five paragraphs. That just confirms my sense that no one is hiding anything about this Illinois idiot. So why does Mr. Right believe otherwise? The world may never know.

09 December 2008

Sit-Down Strike Update

The issue in the Republic sit-down strike involves three parties: the workers, the employer and the Bank of America. The Bank would not extend credit to the business, so it shut down, but not before the workers could occupy the plant and demand what they considered their due. So who are the bad guys: Republic or the Bank? Some blame the Bank because, freshly bailed out in the expectation that it would open up credit streams, it wouldn't bail out Republic. So now the Bank has come around and announced that it will extend credit to Republic. Reporters take this as a victory for the striking workers on the assumption that Republic will do the right thing. The workers themselves are more tentative. They say the strike goes on pending a vote. If I were one of them, I wouldn't leave until the check was in my hand, and I'd leave someone there until the check was cashed.

Senatorial Intrigue in New York

Another case for a constitutional amendment: the mystery surrounding Governor Paterson's impending choice of a Senatorial successor to Secretary of State-designate Clinton. Hillary herself has pragmatically decided not to resign until she's actually confirmed -- she may fear scandalous revelations or a constitutional challenge to her appointment. Nevertheless, powerful factions within the Democratic party anticipate her exit, and are intriguing to put pets in her place. It came out this week that Sen. Kennedy of Massachusetts is lobbying the governor to choose his niece, Caroline, who has never held political office before nor shown any prerequisite leadership skills except in her role in choosing Sen. Obama's running mate. Dying himself, Teddy plainly wants to keep the family in the Senate. He's said to have argued that the party can save on fundraising with a Kennedy prepared to run next time, while others in New York suggest that Caroline's glamour as the last survivor of JFK's family could make her unbeatable in future elections. But at the same time, the state's senior senator, Chuck Schumer, reportedly leans toward Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who just won a second term in the House in a recently Republican district. Schumer is said to favor Gillibrand because she's young, a mother, an upstate resident, and not a celebrity who would overshadow him in the upper house. If that last bit is true, then Schumer's motives are even more contemptible than Sen. Kennedy's.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peepers has interrupted me with almost uncanny timing to ask what I think of Fran "The Nanny" Drescher's announcement that she'd like to be considered for the seat.

"Do I have to think of it?" I asked.

"Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh," he answered, "Aaaaaaaahhhhhh."

"I see you find it funny," I said, "But I don't know if I do."

"That's how she laughs," he explained, "Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh, aaaaaaaahhhhhh." And on he went through the department, soliciting opinions as he passed people, punctuating his queries with "Aaaaaaaahhhhhh" every time.

This doesn't even rise to the level of tragedy repeated as farce. It's just another farce, and just another proof, if the Blagojevich scandal (see below) wasn't itself overwhelming proof, that it's past time that we changed the rules for replacing Senators. Some people might say it's past time to replace the Senate itself, since its organizing principle of state equality offends democracy for the sake of an obsolete principle, but I don't think I'd go that far. While Congress is checked by the Executive and Judicial branches, I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to maintain an internal check in the form of a bicameral legislature that recognizes regional interests. But instituting popular elections of Senators was supposed to end the kind of corruption and petty intriguing that we're seeing today. We'd be respecting the original intent of the men who drafted the amendment if we finished their work and put the Senate entirely in the people's hands.

The Blagojevich Scandal: Time for a Constitutional Amendment

The state of Illinois is in a state of disgrace. The governor, a Democrat, has been arrested amid revelations that hint that he was going to put the U.S. Senate seat abandoned by the President-elect for sale to benefit himself. In his mind, I suspect, he was planning no more than the typical quid-pro-quo that passes for politics in many places. As he puts it, the Senate seat simply wasn't something he could let go "for nothing," especially since he wanted to secure his family's finances for the future. News like this should disabuse anyone of the notion that Democrats are the "good guys" in American politics. Feel free to think that the Republicans are worse, and because of their beliefs you're probably right. But when the logic of the American Bipolarchy dictates that you have no choice but to support the other strongest or next-worst party, it guarantees corruption of the sort alleged in Illinois.

In a case like this, there's an obvious remedy to prevent repeats in the future. Someone should draft a constitutional amendment requiring all states to call elections to fill Senatorial vacancies. Ratification of such an amendment would immediately take some corrupting power from the hands of a Blagojevich, and it would save Gov. Paterson in my own state of New York from temptation as he decides how to replace Senator Clinton. If there's any reason not to do this, I'd like to hear it. The Senate has been supposed to be a popular assembly ever since the Constitution was amended to take elections out of the state legislatures and into the people's hands. Allowing governors to retain the power of replacement is a vestige of an obsolete system, and something not all governors can be trusted with. So if the people care, let them do something about it.

08 December 2008

Partisanship or Paranoia ? Challenging Obama's Citizenship

The Supreme Court has swatted down one of a likely series of challenges to the legitimacy of Barack Obama's election as President, this one being argued on the ground that the foreign citizenship of Obama's father put the son in a condition of "dual citizenship" that makes him ineligible for the White House. This was one of the saner challenges, since the professional poker player who launched it concedes a point that others won't: that Obama was born in the United States. Many of the others contend that the Hawaiian birth certificate on file in that state is a fraud.

To answer my own question, I think these challenges are off the partisan scale. We're dealing with a different degree of paranoia in these cases. The litigant in the case dismissed today was no partisan; he held that Senator McCain was also ineligible to become President. He may be a monomaniac caught up in the notion that he's discovered a constitutional truth that can change the course of history. Other challengers clearly abhor the idea of Obama becoming President, perhaps because they really do believe that he is the anti-American monster of the radio-activated imagination. He'll never be legitimate in some minds, just as George W. Bush has never been legitimate in the minds of many liberals. But most of the conservative media isn't going along with this obsession. On the Keith Olberman program I saw a quote from David Horowitz, as rabid a rightist as you can find, denouncing the challenges as the tantrums of sore losers. But as I said, I suspect that the challengers are driven by pathology more than partisanship, as if they personally, rather than the Republican party, have lost something this year, or could lose something terribly precious in the next four years. Like the 9-11 "truthers," they'll probably be with us a long time, and being Americans, we're stuck having to tolerate them.

07 December 2008

"Oogedy Boogedy": The Republican Crack-Up, Continued

While some Republicans content themselves with self-gratifying conspiracy theories in which the "liberal" media stole the presidential election by suppressing the damning information about Senator Obama that everyone knows about, others are battling to blame one another for Senator McCain's defeat. In the latest round, Kathleen Parker, one of the conservatives who dared speak out against Governor Palin, has claimed credit for a huge jump in Google search results for the phrase "oogedy boogedy" -- the term she uses to describe the off-putting quality of much of the "Religious Right" for non-ideological voters. She reports this weekend that the faithful have waxed wroth against her for suggesting that Republicans should downplay the faith element. She answers with an argument that Obama himself has used: conservatives should be able to argue their positions without appealing to divine authority. She cites an anti-abortion secular humanist as an example of what she's looking for. She also emphasizes that her problem isn't so much with religion as with its self-appointed representatives, who in her mind are still the televangelical ogres of the 1980s.

The odd thing about this is that I didn't think the religious right was that big a factor in the presidential campaign. However many of them may have liked Palin, I suspect that most of their passion was spent when Gov. Huckabee dropped out of the Republican race. More likely, much of it was diverted to the anti-homosexual initiatives that prevailed in several states, including some in which Obama won. It may be, however ironic this might seem, that the controversy over Rev. Wright may have earned Obama some respect and ultimate neutrality from believers who empathized with pastors coming in for criticism for their controversial beliefs and judgments.

Some Republicans point to the success of the anti-gay initiatives as proof that McCain should have done more to rally the Religious Right to his side. At the same time, those votes have alerted liberals to the persistent danger of the fundies. In California, the conflict drew bad blood which Republican scribe Jonah Goldberg describes as a bigoted attack on Mormons. The Saints, apparently, played a big role in support of the anti-gay proposition, and opponents of it made an explicitly anti-Mormon commercial during the campaign. Goldberg sees this as equivalent to anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Politically correct people would tolerate neither, he claims, so they ought to denounce an attack on Mormons. I see his point, but I don't think he gets the point of the commercial. Working from his description alone, I assume that Mormons are being condemned for homophobia, and if the Saints are doctrinally homophobic, then it's fair for others to say so. But here's the actual ad:

I think it's unfair to this extent: it singles Mormons out as if they were the prime movers of the agitation for Proposition 8. But I don't doubt that conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews did their part as well. A better commercial would have been more ecumenical. Keep a stock Mormon in his missionary uniform, but throw in an "oogedy boogedy" Christian, a bearded bin Laden-like Muslim, and a creepy rabbi, the point being that they'd all like to reduce our rights if they could get away with it. The more completely anticlerical a campaign gets, the more likely insecure Republicans will be to keep up their own divisive debates over religion in politics. How could that go wrong? If you think that the Religious Right should be driven out of politics, then the least you can do is keep up the pressure that's making Republicans crack.

Return of the Sit-Down Strike: Too Late?

Workers in a Chicago-area window-&-door plant have occupied the facility in hopes of forcing the company to pay what it owes them, despite it being denied credit by Bank of America. The President-elect has said that the workers should get what's coming to them. I can see why some people would disagree. If the company has failed, they might say, the workers shouldn't expect anything -- that's what failure is all about. But if the company has obligations to its employees, and the people who own or run the company have assets, the workers should have some means of getting something out of them. A sit-down might not be the most immediately effective way about this, but it has definitely called public attention to the situation. It may be naive of me to think that if more workers had been willing to employ such tactics years ago, some things in our economic history might have turned out differently. But the workers would have shown the right spirit sooner than they have. Some people out there are probably hoping that the recession will beat the last sensation of "entitlement" out of American workers, but I'd like to think that the crisis will actually revive a more fundamental sense of entitlement, the belief that civilization itself requires a minimum standard of living that may be more than the market might concede. People might actually learn that there's a difference between the market and civilization -- and that's when conservatives ought to worry.

04 December 2008

Canadians: To the Airports?

Of all places, Canada is now embroiled in a constitutional crisis. A beleaguered conservative prime minister, facing an imminent no-confidence vote, appealed to the nation's governor-general, a representative of the country's head of state -- Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain -- and secured permission to prorogue Parliament until January 26, 2009. He justified the action by his need to formulate an economic plan without partisan interference and his aversion to a parliamentary coalition against him that included the Bloc Quebecois, which he characterizes as a separatist movement and therefore an irresponsible partner in any government. No Canadian prime minister has ever evaded a no-confidence vote by shutting down Parliament before. It's unclear to me whether this means that Mr. Harper can rule by decree for the next few weeks, but it ought to be a scandal to anyone who believes in representative government. Harper has declared himself irreplaceable, at least temporarily, and in defiance of a presumptive parliamentary majority that represents a majority of the Canadian people. So what are the Canadians going to do about it? This guy seems like a more self-evident threat to democracy than the poor slob that just got sacked in Thailand. For that matter, how many Canadians ever thought that, during the 21st century, a representative of Great Britain has pre-empted Canadian self-government? If a bunch of Thais who don't really believe in democracy can work up some people power to get their point across, even if it proved to be superfluous, what are Canadians capable of? I'll be interested in finding out.

Detroit: The Bailout From Below

Under pressure from the U.S. auto industry and the realities of hard time, the United Auto Workers are likely to make concessions or "givebacks" to employers. These are expected to include accepting delays in industry payments into pension funds and a union "job bank" that paid compensation to laid-off members. Employers always acknowledge their dependence upon their employees when their survival appears to depend on employees tightening their belts. If they can't threaten the government with the failure of a major manufacturing sector, they certainly can threaten the workers with the loss of their jobs.

Objectively speaking, there probably are more savings to be had this way than through the surrenders of executive salaries suggested by some people. But it still looks like everyone has to pay the price for failure except the very people whose decisions led to failure. Everything seems to be arranged so that a certain clique of fat cats must retain their positions, or else the entire edifice must come crashing down. Arguments are made for bailouts on the ground of national necessity, but the people responsible for the crisis seem immune from accountability to the nation as a whole. But if the national interest requires bailouts, the nation seems entitled to regard the auto industry as a public trust, and those private individuals entrusted with it ought to be held more accountable and subject to more regulation than they might like.

Some people will say, or may have already said, that the unions are now learning a lesson they should have absorbed long ago. It will be said that they came unjustly to view their salaries and health plans and other perks as entitlements, and that they unwisely came to consider themselves entitled to perpetually improved conditions. But for decades and generations no one really discouraged them from thinking this way. A decline was inevitable once other countries became more competitive, but there's a tendency in some circles to suggest that the decline is somehow the workers' own fault because they became less competitive, more spoiled. Some people probably think that it's the workers' fault that American cars are, or are perceived to be, shoddy products, and that the burden of making Detroit more competitive rests on their shoulders. That may even be true, but with more responsibility should come more power if everything depends on them.

* * *
Here's a thought about entitlement. It's an attitude usually attributed by conservatives to liberals. The way conservatives see it, liberals have an entitlement mentality when they presume that they have a "right" to something, whether they're capable of earning it or not. From that point of view, entitlement is akin to asking for something for nothing. But there's more to entitlement than that, and it's a mistake to define entitlement so narrowly that only liberals seem to be guilty of it. The way I see it, any claim of a "right" is a claim to entitlement. It's just as much an entitlement mentality when someone says that "this is mine by right" as when they say "I have a right to this." In both cases, the entitlement mentality is an appeal against the state of nature and the rule of force. When a conservative says that something is his "by right," (whether he "earned" it or not) he's saying that no one has the right to take it from him, even though it can be taken by brute strength or strength of numbers. If he can't protect what he "earns," yet says it's his "by right," that's an entitlement mentality at work. Civilization itself, to the extent that it overrules the law of nature (which is might makes right) is nothing but a sense of entitlement. Conservatives should consider that before they go on blithely dismissing everyone else's supposed sense of entitlement. Theirs, arguably, is as great a sense of entitlement as anyone else's, and not necessarily any more justified.

03 December 2008

Thailand: Dissidents Against Democracy?

The more I read about the "People's Alliance for Democracy," the group that occupied Thai airports in an ultimately superfluous attempt to force the country's prime minister out of office, the more the name, at least as it's rendered in English, strikes me as Orwellian. This account seems to be representative of what they think, and they think that Thailand has too much democracy. They remind me of some American conservatives, only with the guts to demand what they really believe. The PAD thinks that some folks are just too dumb to vote. As usual when that sort of complaint is voiced, the proof is that the dumb people vote against the presumably smarter party. The rural dummies supported Thaksin Shinawatra, a communications mogul who ran and governed as a charismatic populist, and so was accused of being a "demagogue." I equated him with Silvio Berlusconi yesterday, but there's probably a little Hugo Chavez in him, too. People like that are always potentially (though not automatically) a threat to constitutional democracy, but that's true at all times and in all places, including here in the U.S. The remedy is never to roll back democracy itself, as the "people's alliance" proposes, and especially not to adopt some sort of caste-based voting system, as the PAD specifically proposes.

On the other hand, I do somewhat like the idea of the courts being able to disband political parties for election violations. That would seem to be a check on the entrenchment of anything resembling an American Bipolarchy, and if the decision that ended the airport crisis was typical, it seems fair to voters by eliminating the parties but not (in most cases) the politicians. It's expected that the remnants of Thaksin's movement will quickly form a new party, but apart from their personal expertise they'll presumably enjoy no advantages from entrenched power, and maybe they'll learn not to perpetrate election frauds. If an American court tried something like that it'd be a constitutional crisis, but the Thais will probably just move on to the next round of their geographic and class struggles. It remains a country worth watching.

02 December 2008

Thailand: What Color is Your Revolution?

A timely court decision has given Thai dissidents what they occupied airports to achieve. The prime minister has been found guilty of election fraud and ordered to resign. Moreover, his political party has been ordered to disband, though most of its elected officials will retain their posts as individuals. Here are more details.

Thailand presents an interesting scene for students of democracy. Political leaders are very accountable to the country's courts. The late prime minister only occupied the office because a court had deposed his predecessor. While he clearly had his own legal issues that resolved themselves today, the airport protesters seemed satisfied that he was an illegitimate ruler because of his family tie to another former leader (an ambitious media mogul in the Berlusconi mode) who had his own court problems and was ultimately removed by a coup d'etat. The military is an active, independent force in Thai politics. That's an appalling idea (I hope) to most Americans, but many Thais seemed to applaud or encourage the army's interventions because they hate the Thaksin faction so much. The airport protesters reportedly would have approved a coup had they been unable to compel the prime minister to quit, absent the court decision. It disturbed me to read that they seemed to prefer a coup to a new election that would have let the entire populace decide the fate of the leadership. We think of dissidents in scenarios like these as democracy personified, but in this case they were unwilling, if I understood the reports right, to let democracy take its course. Were they afraid their enemy would win? Were the dissidents, after all, a minority that might have overthrown a constitutionally legitimate regime had the court not done it first?

Apart from the novelty of the mob takeovers at the airports and the inconveniences imposed on tourists, the American media didn't make such a big deal about the Thai crisis. Maybe that's because there aren't the kind of clear cut good guys and bad guys that we prefer in our stories, or maybe we didn't have a dog in the fight. If none of the parties involved could be tagged as extremists, anti-American, or pawns of China or Russia, it probably didn't matter to most Americans. But it would have made for more entertaining news than most of what we've gotten this week.

What is Community Service?

The newest Nation magazine has an odd item by Kristina Rizga that offers three recommendations for young people who'd been active in the Obama campaign and might want to continue along a track of "community service." Her favored options are: "Be like Obama: become a community organizer;" "Join the national service;" and "Become a politician."

I don't think this list would have disturbed me a few months ago, but something seems wrong with it now. Don't take this the wrong way, but wouldn't the most effective form of community service at this time be to create jobs for people? Yet only one of Rizga's options, community organizing, encompasses any form of job creation -- "green jobs," of course. Politics may strike some Nation readers as the ideal way to create jobs, but I don't think I need to be a conservative or get labeled one for suggesting that the private sector might be a more immediate way to the same goal.

What bugs me about this, I think, is the assumption that the private sector is someone else, that other people, perhaps an entirely different class of people, can handle the entrepreneurial end of things, while the highest aspiration for young progressives should apparently be to regulate those people. Yet you could argue that entrepreneurship would be the most effective form of community organizing, especially if you practice a more progressive entrepreneurship through greater payroll equality or workplace democracy. It can't be disputed that Americans today need to make money by making things they and the rest of the world can use. But Rizga, and by extension The Nation, threaten to embody the reactionary stereotype of "progressives" who are more interested in more fairly dividing a shrinking pie than in baking new ones.

01 December 2008

Another Day Without Art

My home town of Albany takes pride in its public artworks. The city just planted a bunch of eccentric sculptures through the downtown area this summer. Riding through this morning, I saw many of them wrapped in white, and I remembered noticing the windows of a Lark Street gallery covered in similar fashion. Had Christo come to town? I thought not; he was supposed to be covering parts of a river with cloth. The truth was apparent as soon as I noticed red-ribbon logos on the wrappings.

Today is World AIDS Day, an occasion to bemoan all the lives lost to the illness and renew promises to achieve a cure. The scene in Albany was reminiscent of earlier commemorations of the day. From 1989 forward it was conceived as a "Day Without Art," and the spectacle I saw here was once a more common sight elsewhere. I suppose it was meant in part to mourn all the people in the various arts communities who died of AIDS, but there's also a hint of the principle attributed to the 20th century German critic Theodore Adorno. He said, in essence, "No poetry after Auschwitz," implying that in the face of some moral enormities or human catastrophes all art was inadequate, leaving silence the only appropriate response.

Adorno's was always a futile notion. "Art" is a genie that got out of its bottle long, long ago. We live in the age of John Cage, who set the tone for the time by composing a work of carefully-timed silence. Art has thus become as easy as self-assertion, so long as you have the proper credentials. With those, as long as you have a thesis or a theory, anything you make, or anything you as a critic can label becomes art, defined as whatever critics talk or write about. The futility of a "Day Without Art" should also be obvious. I wasn't quite honest in writing that I first mistook the Albany wrappings with the work of Christo, but the thought came to mind pretty fast. Whoever did the work, the wrappings themselves are a kind of spectacle with a self-evident conceptual purpose, represented by the logos and "World AIDS Day" legends, that only await an accredited critic to declare them art in their own right. Worse, you could say that the activists who arranged for the wrappings have replaced art with advertising, for today at least.

If some more profound sentiment was sought for the occasion, possibly only iconoclasm will do. What better way to declare a day without art than by smashing some or burning it in a bonfire of vanities? If the activists have a genuinely ascetic purpose, they might take notes from their iconoclastic (or iconophobic) Muslim neighbors, many of whom distrust representative art, at least, on a regular basis. If that's too dangerous an idea, they might still learn from the Shia branch of Islam and designate December 1 as a day of mourning through mortification, of achieving solidarity through some shared ordeal that might induce the desired empathy with those still suffering.

My suggestions are only partially satirical. I can't dismiss such a stunt as today's completely just because I don't really know what the object is. I'll agree with anyone who says that the world's resources would be better spent combating AIDS and other plagues than on combat, but is a day of artificial artlessness in the guise of a day without art the best way to say it? On the other hand, if this was just a pretentious way of saying, "We care," then there isn't much for me to do beside shrug and say, "message received."

30 November 2008

Un-American Activities Remembered

Today's paper carried an obituary, which also appears here, for the man whose sermon in a Washington D.C. church with Dwight D. Eisenhower in attendance was considered instrumental in the movement to insert the words "under god" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag. This was an addition to a pledge composed back in 1892 to instill patriotism in schools on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. The original author was himself a Baptist minister but saw no need to invoke the deity for his little ritual, intended originally as a onetime deal but adopted as a regular ceremony in schools. It became necessary during the McCarthy era, supposedly because it was necessary to contrast heretofore implicit American piety with godless Communism. The curious thing I learned from reading Rev. Docherty's obit is the extent to which his determination to have schoolchildren invoke God was based on his Scottish upbringing. The man was a foreigner, and from his own testimony, including God in the Pledge was essentially a foreign idea. More curiously, throughout this period there was a House Un-American Activities committee working alongside and prior to Sen. McCarthy's committee, but no member ever proposed investigating Docherty's demonstrably un-American activity. History, however, has the last laugh. Docherty was confident that God would let him see a hundred years. He was 97 when he died. I guess his faith wasn't strong enough.