28 February 2008


What's more pathetic? The idea that conservatives and Clintonites think that Barack Obama's middle name will prejudice people against him, or the fact that liberals and Democrats are afraid that they're right?

Clearly an effort is under way either to make Senator Obama look ridiculous or to make Americans suspect that he's some sort of alien in our midst. Hence the emphasis on the foreign name, the photograph of the African costume, the attempt to prove him guilty by passive association with Louis Farrakhan. My suggestion to Obama's supporters, if they think it's all unfair, is to get unfair themselves. And what could be more unfair than to pick on someone who's no longer in the campaign?

If people want to insinuate that Obama is some kind of crypto-Muslim or worse, crypto-Nation of Islam, let the Obamites remind the public that the Republican party came close to nominating a MORMON to the highest office in the land, and let them remind us of the outlandish history of Mormon belief, past and present, and of the fact that Mormons only allowed blacks into posts of authority within Mitt Romney's lifetime. Let them emphasize that while Barack Obama is not what some people say he is, Romney is in fact an actual Mormon! And when people howl in protest, ask them why it's OK to question one group's outlandish beliefs but not another's. Is there a statute of limitations that the Nation and Scientology haven't gotten past yet, but Mormonism has? Who set that statute in stone?

If some people want to believe there's something inherently un-American about Obama because of who he is, what he's called, and what he occasionally wears, we should observe that there's a lot of un-American elements deep within the so-called American mainstream, the pre-American baggage that's held this country back in many ways. We can move on and examine all of that baggage, or as I guess most people would prefer, we could go back to the ordinary sort of lies about politicians.

William F. Buckley

I'm tardy in posting my remembrance of Buckley because I was watching a movie last night. History will remember him for shaping modern American conservatism, and for seeing it evolve beyond his control. One of his major achievements was to enforce a distinction between a mainstream anti-communist movement and the John Birch Society and other extreme conspiracy theorists. In other words, he made conservatism respectable at a low point in its history. Whether this was a good thing remains debatable. We could argue that nutjobs like the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist stooge, represent a reductio ad absurdam of conservatism that reveals its pure paranoid essence. Whatever we argue, Buckley was a philosophical conservative, more concerned with limits than with "freedom" as an end in itself. Late in life, he expressed reservations about the neocon agenda, at least as it was being executed in Iraq. He was different in kind from the talkers who've inherited the movement -- though perhaps not entirely. There's this tidbit, after all, from the ABC coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention. To set it up, Buckley and Gore Vidal were commenting on the anti-war demonstrations in Chicago, including one group that had raised a North Vietnamese flag. Buckley equated doing so with waving a Nazi flag during World War II.

In Buckley's defense, Vidal had a way of bringing this out in people. Norman Mailer head-butted Vidal once backstage on the Dick Cavett show, on a program where Vidal accused Mailer of being a precursor of Charles Manson. Mailer and Buckley had their debates as well, but were reportedly more civil with one another. Now they belong to the ages.

26 February 2008

Democrats: Don't Make Me Mad.

Today was the Albany Times Union's turn to play the "Nader is ruining his legacy" tune. Here is an arrogant editorial that tries to have things both ways, acknowledging his common American right to run for President but saying that he really shouldn't. Why not? Because he'd hurt the Democratic candidate. But who said the Democrats should be immune from hurt?

Why does the liberal media automatically assume that Ralph Nader owes the Democratic party his loyalty while the party owes him nothing for his legacy of consumer and citizen advocacy that everyone's so concerned about now? Has anyone considered that, in a fair world, Nader's announcement of an intention to run should have persuaded any other ambitious Democrat to bow out in deference to his legacy? Yet somehow this hero whose legacy is only tainted now that he defies the Democrats was never approached by the party so solicitous toward that legacy to lead them in an election campaign. That fact may tell us more about the Democratic party than about Nader. Is it possible that he, the man accused of holding "impossibly rigid ideological standards" by the Albany paper, failed somehow to meet a more rigid set of standards imposed by the Democratic leadership? That possibility doesn't get discussed as often as it should.

I only single out the Times Union because it's my home town paper, but its sentiments are echoed all over the country, and its own sentiments are only an echo of all-too conventional wisdom. The American Bipolarchy has so stunted people's ability to imagine alternate political possibilities that they treat Nader's campaign like a pedophile priest moving into the neighborhood. I have not renounced my ambivalence toward Nader of a few days ago, but the more I read knee-jerk partisanship like this particular piece, the less ambivalent I may become.

Recommended Reading: The Quiet American

Graham Greene's 1955 novel is a work of prophecy. It's probably the British author's best-known work, having been filmed twice, most recently starring Brendan Frazier in the title role and Michael Caine as the actual protagonist. It's set in Vietnam during the last years of French rule. Alden Pyle is the "quiet American," later the "very quiet American," an idealistic young lunk doing humanitarian work with plastics. As the novel develops, we learn that Pyle is providing those "plastics" to a dubious guerrilla army that he portrays as a "third force" tainted by neither communism nor colonialism. Pyle got the idea for a "third force" from his favorite political-science author, and his whole attitude toward Vietnam seems to be based on books. He believes he can base the third force around the idea of "liberty." In other words, this fictional character is, arguably, the original neocon.

Greene's protagonist, Thomas Fowler, is an opium-smoking English journalist with a wife at home and a Vietnamese girlfriend whom Pyle falls for. The novel juxtaposes the two men's rivalry for the girl with the Americans beginning to impose their agenda on the country while the French are still fighting. Some of the discussions between Fowler and Pyle could be repeated word for word more than fifty years later, only substituting "Iraq" or "the Middle East" for "Vietnam," and "Communism" for "terrorism" or "Islamofascism." Here's a sample: Fowler and Pyle are stuck overnight in a guard tower, anticipating a Viet Minh attack, with two native soldiers.

[Pyle asks] "So you think we've lost?"
"That's not the point,"
[Fowler] said, "I've no particular desire to see you win. I'd like those two poor buggers there to be happy -- that's all. I wish they didn't have to sit in the dark at night, scared."
"You have to fight for liberty."
"I haven't seen any Americans fighting around her. And as for liberty, I don't know what it means. Ask them." I called across the floor in French to them. "La liberte -- qu'est-ce que c'est la liberte?" They sucked in the rice and stared back and said nothing.
Pyle said, "Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould? You're arguing for the sake of arguing. You're an intellectual. You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do."
"Why have we only just discovered it?" I said, "Forty years ago no one talked that way."
"It wasn't threatened then."
"Ours wasn't threatened, oh no, but who cared about the individuality of the man in the paddy field -- and who does now? The only man to treat him as a man is the political commissar. He'll sit in his hut and ask his name and listen to his complaints; he'll give up an hour a day to teaching him -- it doesn't matter what, he's being treated like a man, like someone of value. Don't go on in the East with that parrot cry about a threat to the individual soul. Here you'd find yourself on the wrong side -- it's they who stand for the individual and we just stand for Private 23987, unit in the global strategy."

Don't mistake this for a dry novel of ideas, though, and don't mistake Fowler for a heroic figure. He's very much a flawed protagonist, and his self-loathing leaves you questioning how reliable a narrator he is, particularly in the way he regards the Vietnamese. In any event, he comes across convincingly as a real person, more so than Pyle may have seen to the original readers. But I assure you, he'll seem very familiar now.

In addition, even though people may have seen one of the movies, and even though Greene lets you know how the story ends in the first chapter, he succeeds in creating an atmosphere of moral suspense as Fowler tries to put a stop to Pyle. Greene is known for writing literate thrillers with intense characterizations. The Quiet American is the first of his novels that I have read, and so far he comes as advertised.

25 February 2008

These Too Are Human

Three middle-aged men share the apartment upstairs from mine. One of them has been living there for over thirty years. He takes in extra people to make ends meet, but he's a poor judge of character. His roomates tend to be drunks who have a hard time holding down jobs. He spends a lot of time shrieking at them to pull their own weight and leave his stuff alone. Worse, his roommates feel entitled to invite their own friends over. Sometimes these are literally people off the street.

One of the roomates had a woman over last night. She's well known to everyone who lives in the building. She's a crazy drunk who gets paranoid and violent. Last night she got started accusing her boyfriend of stealing her wallet. It got so bad that he called the cops, and I had to let them in. They calmed things down but didn't get rid of the woman.

Later she started up again and the boyfriend, if I dare call him that, threw her out. He didn't throw her out of the building, but left her in the hallway at the top of the stairs, outside his door. She started pounding away, shrieking louder than the regulars do: "Don't do this to me, you son of a bitch! Let me in! LET ME IN! GIVE ME BACK MY CIGARETTES! GIVE ME BACK MY GODDAMN CIGARETTES! LET ME IN!!! You dirty skeletor! You skinny son of a bitch! Give me back my cigarettes! GIVE ME BACK MY SHOES! DON'T LEAVE ME OUT HERE! GIVE ME BACK MY GODDAMN SHOES!"

"I put them in the hallway!" the roomate mutters from behind the door.

"There's only one! Where's my other shoe? Give me back my other shoe! GIVE ME BACK MY OTHER SHOE!! You son of a bitch, you're going down! You hit me, you skeletor son of a bitch! I'll call a cop! YOU'RE! GOING! DOWN! GIVE ME BACK MY SHOE!!!"

Now, no response.

"Can I talk to you for two minutes? Will you open the door and let me talk to you for two minutes? . . . Open this door! Open the goddamn door and give me back my shoe! YOU SON OF A BITCH! OPEN THIS GODDAMN DOOR, NOW!!! Please! Please let me talk to you for two minutes! YOU GODDAMN SON OF A BITCH! AAAAAA!!!!..."

Eventually the hall grew quiet. As I learned in the morning, he had let her back in. I found that out because, while I was getting ready to go to work, they were fighting again. Later on, someone else in the building called the cops, and apparently they finally got rid of her for a while. Then the older roomate came home and started shrieking at the other fellow for the mess the woman made.

* * *

I offer this as a cautionary tale for the hopeful, the visionaries, the utopians and revolutionaries. When you try to change the world, people like these come with the package.

The Academy Honors ...

While I don't agree that No Country For Old Men was the best English-language movie of 2007 -- that was Zodiac -- I consider it a commendable choice for the Oscar as Best Picture of the year. I would also have applauded a victory for There Will Be Blood, but I can't speak for the other three films that were nominated, since I haven't seen them.

No Country puts the Coen Brothers in a position similar to Martin Scorsese's last year. He finally won the Best Director Oscar for The Departed, which also won Best Picture. That film was far from Scorsese's best work. No Country is a better film than The Departed and is a better film within the Coens' filmography than Scorsese's winner is within his, but I felt the same sensation both times: the feeling that the director(s) should have been rewarded long ago for their very best work.

Because last night was the 80th Academy Awards ceremony, the TV show included a montage of all the past Best Picture winners. This was a sobering reminder that No Country had not exactly entered elite company. Considering myself a film buff, I tried to recall how many times the Academy had gotten it right -- how many of their Best Pictures were really the best films of their respective years, by my standards, or even by the consensus of posterity. I could not think of many.

To be brief, I think the Academy got it right in 1930 (All Quiet on the Western Front), 1934 (It Happened One Night), 1962 (Lawrence of Arabia), 1970 (Patton), 1972 (The Godfather), 1974 (The Godfather Part II), 1986 (Platoon) and 1992 (Unforgiven). That's eight times in eighty years, a .100 batting average, and I may yet reconsider some of the films I named here. If the mood strikes me, I may march through the years and tell you which films I thought most deserving, but that would have to be a slow news day.

Thought for the Day

Here's Ronald Grigor Suny, a historian specializing in 20th century Russia, reviewing some recent studies in last week's Nation magazine:

Philosophers and politicians will question whether and under what circumstances violence and terror might be justified. How could it be justified? By its ends, it seems, for nothing but ends justify means. But if the means make it impossible to reach the ends or so taint the ends that they cease to be worthy or desired, then those means cannot be justified by the ends.

Eggs and omelets have been repeatedly used metaphorically to justify violence and terror. In real-world politics we break eggs because we want omelets. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once retorted that he had seen the broken eggs, but no one he knew had ever tasted the omelet. There are those who believe that it was a waste of eggs to make such an impossible, utopian omelet, and others who believe in the omelet but not the breaking of eggs. But if one concludes that there are some omelets that are worth broken eggs, one should at the start make sure that all the ingredients are available and, as anyone who has made breakfast knows, remember that eggs must be broken delicately, not smashed so that yokes, whites and shells all get cooked together.

Clothes Make the Man?

What's this I hear about Senator Obama wearing a native costume during a trip to Kenya? Are people actually saying this could hurt his candidacy by raising questions about his ethnic or national affiliation? If so, this is my answer:

24 February 2008

Nader vs. the Bipolarchy, Round 3

A friend and I were watching Meet the Press when Ralph Nader announced that he was going to run for President again. He said to me, "I don't deny him his right to run, but if it results in McCain getting elected, someone has to go out and kill Nader."

"If you feel that way about it," I replied, "Why don't you kill McCain?"

"Too well protected," was his honest answer.

* * *

I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004. The first time, I agreed with his critique that Republicans and Democrats were more alike in their subservience to corporations than they were significantly different. Personally, I felt that George W. Bush could not ruin the country in four years. He did a good job trying to prove me wrong, but I don't regret the vote. I really don't think things would have been that much different with Gore in the White House. I annoy people when I suggest that Gore would have also invaded Iraq. It's easy for him to say he wouldn't as an opposition leader, or in hindsight, but there were too many influential forces demanding war, and Gore himself was chummy with the neocons, so much that he was once dubbed "the candidate of the Likud" [the right-wing Israeli party] for his foreign policy stands. And despite W's best efforts to prove me wrong, I voted for Nader again out of disgust with John Kerry's weakling campaign. Again, I'm not as certain as some are that Kerry would have gotten us out of Iraq by now. He seemed to lack the will to crush Republican resistance to any plan he might have. A Democratic president then would probably have had to wage a scorched-earth campaign against the Republican congress and their conservative talker friends, and Kerry's impotent response to the Swift-Boaters gave me no confidence in him.

This year, Nader shouldn't take my vote for granted. Once again, he'll present himself as the protest candidate, but this time a protest movement already exists and is coalescing around Senator Obama. I expressed my interest in and reservations about this movement a few days ago. For some readers, Nader will be the alternate candidate I suggested with a more specific agenda to realize the changes hoped for by the Obama crusade. But Nader will now find himself in the position he criticizes Democrats for taking. He will have to tell the protest movement that they owe him their votes, just as the Democratic party tells liberals and progressives that they all owe it their votes, because he's the real protest candidate. He can probably make a strong argument to back up his claim. The problem this time is that the Obama crusade is likely to look upon Nader as another personification of "the politics of the past." Obama himself has already accused Nader of being an egomaniac who believes that he alone is right on the crucial issues. Obama's followers are likely to see some resemblance between Nader's sense of entitlement and Senator Clinton's. Many of them have probably long been cursing Nader for his alleged role in W's ascendancy. In their minds, most likely, he'll have to go in the generational clean sweep that brushes Clinton and McCain onto the ash-heap of history.

The Obama crusade continues to put me in a difficult position. As noted, here is a massive protest movement that has formed around a person more than it has rallied around a party. Obama personally is no threat to the American Bipolarchy, and is fairly likely to prove less than meets the eyes of many followers today. But despite Nader's criticisms of the Senator, I still see an authentic movement which itself is bigger, arguably, than the Democratic party. The way things are going, we probably won't see a test of whether they'd follow a defeated Obama out of the Democratic ranks, but that doesn't mean that the Obama movement is just another Democratic campaign. Nader will attempt to prove that it is, and he'll be useful if he can present evidence from Obama's career to back his point. For that reason, without committing to vote for him, I welcome Nader's entry into the race. I will say that I am much more likely to vote for Nader if Clinton wins the nomination.

In fact, Nader may end up hurting Senator McCain more than he hurts Obama or Clinton. Nader is determined to run as the anti-war candidate, and will attack the Democratic candidate for the party's failure to end the occupation of Iraq. This will play into McCain's hands, or so it will seem, because he wants to run as the pro-war candidate, the champion of the Surge. He still works under the assumption that the Surge and his support of it have brought him to the brink of the Republican nomination, even while conservative analysts point out that the Surge was, at most, one of many nearly random factors that worked in his favor, and that the war is not really a unifying issue for conservatives this time around. If I were a Democratic strategist, I would eagerly invite Nader to the fall debates so that he and McCain can fight about the war, leaving my own candidate the moderate by default. Maybe moderation isn't a good thing this time around, but remember, I'm pretending to be a Democratic strategist.

Finally, the Democrats can still do a lot to darken my mood toward them. To the extent that they attempt to suppress Nader, they stand to lose my good will. To the extent that they try to ignore the issues he raises and dismisses him by saying a Nader vote is a vote for McCain, there goes more good will. And I don't have a lot of good will for the Democrats in the first place. Ideally, Nader's entry should force Clinton and Obama to authenticate their "progressive" credentials. Should either senator instead merely strike a pose on the assumption that the Democratic party is entitled to anybody's vote by virtue of its age and power alone, that would only prove the necessity of smashing the American Bipolarchy as soon as possible.

22 February 2008

Sometimes You Have to Laugh

As a rule, I'm not a fan of the "Darwin Awards" genre of comedy. To be honest, it's a guilty pleasure sometimes, with the emphasis on guilty. The guilt comes from my conviction that a truly civilized society will not concede that some people are too stupid to live, or would not argue that, for whatever reason, someone doesn't deserve to live. But sometimes I have to make an exception, if only because I can't control my own amusement. One of those moments came yesterday when I read a report that one of the drunks who stormed the American embassy in Belgrade and set it afire had managed to go up in flames himself.

I assure you that my reaction would have been the same no matter whose embassy was lit up and no matter who lit it. I simply had to laugh. I was impulsively amused by the thought of a drunken firebug setting himself on fire and dying, without even knowing whether that was what happened or not. It's nothing personal against the guy. It's just something about human futility, a sense of recognition that probably everybody shares, except that lots of people are quicker to laugh than I am. On the other hand, I laughed at the ending of There Will Be Blood, while others will not. Who, then, is more moral or culturally correct?

Actually, it was maybe a little personal, or as personal as it can get when you don't even know the poor fool's name. All I know is that he was a pissed off Serb, and he was pissed off because the U.S. was going to give diplomatic recognition to Kosovo. I stand by my sentiments on the secession question from a few days ago, but you have to ask Serbs who exactly they think they are that they have some special right to lord it over another people. I'm sure they'd say it's really all about the land because the Serbs are one of those nutty nations that revere the sites of their greatest defeats, but you can't have the land without the people, so claiming the land means you're claiming a right of one people to rule over another. If it comes to shooting between the Serbs and the Kosovars, I'm more likely to root for the latter, though they've been far from angels in the troubles of the last decade. It's not my business what happens there, but I can certainly express a preference, and I guess that by laughing at a Serbian idiot accidentally emulating a Vietnamese monk circa 1963, I have done so.

20 February 2008

The McCain Hysteria: Prologue

You may as well read the New York Times article about McCain and the lady lobbyist before you let others tell you what it said. All I'll tell you is that the article absolutely does not accuse the Senator of having an affair, so don't let anyone tell you that it did.

Having said that, one wonders about the timing of the story. It seems too early for it to be a Democratic hatchet job. The hot rumor is that the Times rushed it into print to beat a New Republic article that would question why the paper had been sitting on the story. If you want to think conspiratorily, you should ask who directed the former McCain aides to the Times or vice versa, and you shouldn't rule out the involvement of the Limbaugh-Coulter faction of rightists. Might not their hatred of Senator McCain be so great that they would desperately seek a way to drive him from the campaign even at the brink of victory? If he had to quit, and his delegates were freed to vote as they pleased, might it not still be possible for a candidate favored by the talkers to carry the convention? If you want to play the "who benefits" game, the winners would have to be the talkers and whoever they convinced to seize the nomination. BUT since the article does not accuse McCain of having an affair, and therefore doesn't have the potential to drive him from the race, you should speculate for amusement purposes only.

The Clinton Cult and the Obama Crusade

or the past several months, Mr. Peepers, the old hand at my office, has acquired the obnoxious habit of lapsing into what I call "the Barack Obama song." It's a very simple tune: he saunters through a room and sings, "Ba-rack O-ba-ma, da dee dee-dee, dee-dee." He does the same thing with radio show jingles and random songs he hears. For a while he could be heard singing, "suicidal, suicidal," derived from who knows what. Or he might do, "Radio-oh, Glen Beck show-oh."

Mr. Peepers listens to the right-wing talkers, as I suspect many liberals do, because they enjoy being annoyed. Conservatives don't have a similar compulsion, despite some appearances, so liberal talk radio hasn't really flourished. In any event, I knew that his singing a song didn't mean he endorsed its sentiments. Despite that knowledge, I'd convinced myself that he had been caught up in the Obama wave.

He surprised me this afternoon when he asked if I had read today's "Sound Off" column in our paper. He called my attention to one comment that a reader had phoned in:

This is to all the Election Day pollsters. I'm telling you right now, don't waste your time calling my house asking me how I'm going to vote, because if Hillary Clinton doesn't get the Democratic nomination for president, I am not voting for anybody.

The surprise came when Mr. Peepers said, "That's my opinion, too."

"I thought you were an Obama fan," I protested.

"No, he's just words, words," Peepers muttered, "He's never done anything. Words don't put food on my table."

So he was a Clinton supporter, right down to parroting the party line. I had to ask him, "What has Clinton done for you? What makes you think she's qualified to be President?"

"She's destined," he answered, "It was decided a year and a half ago."

Mr. Peepers appears to believe that Senator Clinton was sure to win ever since Michael Savage, a radio talker, predicted her victory in a typical fit of pique. Peepers is impressed by right-wing pessimism. Whenver one of them laments that their worst nightmare, a second Clinton presidency, looks likely to happen, he grows more certain of her inevitability.

In that respect, Mr. P. differs from the typical Clinton cultist, but it's probably no great exaggeration to note that most Clinton supporters believe the Senator to be "destined." The Clintonites are united by a blinding sense of entitlement, a conviction that 2008 is the Senator's turn, or her reward for standing by her man. There is as great an irrational element, and arguably more irrationality, in the Clinton movement than there is in the Obama camp.

Clintonites make much of embarrassing moments when unqualified people end up on television to be grilled about Senator Obama's legislative accomplishments. I saw a Fox News focus group of Democrats draw a blank on the subject, one of them opining that being the only black Senator was achievement enough. Last night I saw a clueless Texan, chosen for the purpose who knows how, left speechless by Chris Matthews's query on Obama's record, while a Clintonite gloated about her candidate's "accomplidgements." But for some reason Matthews didn't see fit to ask the woman to list Clinton's senatorial accomplishments. Clintonites take it on faith that, by virtue of her four extra years of service, she has to have done more than Obama. I don't know if they can prove it.

It irks me to hear Clintonites say all through the campaign that Hillary was the most qualified candidate. It seems obvious to me that nearly every candidate who has dropped out since the new year was more qualified than she is; about Biden and Dodd I feel pretty certain. I refuse to recognize First Lady time as a qualification for the Presidency. I struggle not to laugh every time Clinton cites that pathetic speech she gave in China as proof of her foreign policy expertise.

It also irks me to hear Mr. Right sneer that the Democratic campaign is all about "identity politics," as if Clinton vs. Obama boiled down to the women vs. the blacks. Unfortunately for the country, however, he is half right. The Clinton campaign is all about identity politics. No sensible person would say that Senator Clinton was the most qualified candidate if the Senator were a man. But Clinton is privileged in her acolytes' minds because of her feminist credentials and her personal history. This is a cult of personality driven not only by the desire to elect the first female President but also by some almost religious reverence toward Hillary Rodham Clinton as an individual that remains inexplicable to me.

But isn't the Obama campaign the cult of personality? Isn't it all about words and no substance? Well, what if it is? I've had my own reservations about Obama. When he was being touted throughout 2007, I worried that he was some sort of Stepford candidate, an innocuous mannequin if not a puppet of hidden powers. I remain concerned that he may ultimately prove an empty vessel. But at this moment in history I see the American people filling that empty vessel with their own long-simmering frustration with twenty years of Bushes and Clintons and talk-radio meanness and increasingly pointless partisanship. At this time Barack Obama is a protest candidate whether he wants to be or not. He has become more than the possible first black President. In the maddening absence of a viable third or fourth party, voters are poised to draft him for a real campaign to end a contemptible generation of politics that has embarrassed this nation.

It's increasingly apparent to me that for most Democrats, and many independents, and perhaps eventually the majority of all voters, a vote for Obama is a vote against an entire era that is past due for consignment to the musty basement of history. Under those circumstances, Obama's qualifications are virtually irrelevant. What matters more is the people's right to cast that negative vote and cast out twenty years of demons, and if they can do that only by voting for Obama, who are we to deny them?

* * *
But if you demand specifics, and you can find a candidate who will do specifically what you think necessary, who am I to deny you? I add this as a reminder that the above was not an endorsement of Barack Obama for the presidency by myself or the Think 3 Institute. If anything, I'm more inclined to endorse what I see as a spontaneous mass movement in which Obama is to some extent an unwitting running mate. I'd like to see that movement attach itself to a more substantial candidate, but at the same time I don't want it to go away if it can't find such a person.

19 February 2008

Take the Cuba Quiz!

This is a simple multiple choice challenge. Match the statement issued today on Fidel Castro's resignation with the U.S. presidential candidate who uttered it:

1. "I think this provides a great opportunity for the people of Cuba. I'm hoping that the new leadership will take steps to move Cuba toward democracy, release political prisoners, lift a lot of the oppressive burdens that have prevented the Cuban people from really having the kind of future that they deserve to have.
“Certainly the people of the United States would meet a new government to talk about what needs to happen, if that new government takes some action that demonstrates they're willing to change. And so we're hoping that we'll see some evidence of that. But it is a very stark reminder that even if you've been in power for 50 years you cannot hold onto power forever and people of Cuba deserve to have leadership that respects their human rights and gives them the opportunity to fulfill their own destiny. We need a president who will work with countries around the world, in Europe and the Western hemisphere to push Cuba now to join the community of nations and to become a democracy and I will certainly do that as president."

2. "Today should mark the end of a dark era in Cuba's history. Fidel Castro's stepping down is an essential first step, but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba. Cuba's future should be determined by the Cuban people and not by an anti-democratic successor regime. The prompt release of all prisoners of conscience wrongly jailed for standing up for the basic freedoms too long denied to the Cuban people would mark an important break with the past. It's time for these heroes to be released.
"If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades. The freedom of the Cuban people is a cause that should bring the Americans together."

3. "Today's resignation of Fidel Castro is nearly half a century overdue. For decades, Castro oversaw an apparatus of repression that denied liberty to the people who suffered under his dictatorship. Yet freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand, and the Castro brothers clearly intend to maintain their grip on power. That is why we must press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections. Cuba's transition to democracy is inevitable; it is a matter of when -- not if. With the resignation of Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have an opportunity to move forward and continue pushing for the moment that they will truly be free. America can and should help hasten the sparking of freedom in Cuba. The Cuban people have waited long enough."

4."The Cuban people deserve nothing less than free and fair elections which would provide the only hope for a prosperous and democratic Cuba. Until Fidel Castro is dead there can be no significant movement towards reform in Cuba. Raul Castro has proven that he's as much a tyrant and dictator as his brother Fidel. Simply providing more power to another dictator does nothing to promote freedom and democracy to the Cuban people."

A. Sen. Hillary Clinton

B. Gov. Mike Huckabee

C. Sen. John McCain

D. Sen. Barack Obama

It doesn't look like there's much difference, apart from No. 4's admirable brevity. On some issues, apparently, partisanship is irrelevant. In this country, dictatorship is one of those issues, especially at election time, and especially if you're a presidential candidate hoping for Florida's vote. If you must know who's who, you can figure it out here.

Overlooked in the rush to condemn Castro is the unusual fact of his resignation. To my knowledge, he is, to say the least, very rare among first-generation Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leaders in giving up supreme power while still alive. More typically, thinking of Stalin, Mao, Tito, Kim Il Sung, etc., you have to pry power from these people's cold, dead hands. Maybe Castro is different in having a brother he can trust rather than dubious underlings. But maybe he's different in not having absolute power as the be-all-end-all of his existence, or in thinking that he has better things to do in the time remaining for him than governing a country.

But how can that be if he's a dictator? Doesn't that make him by definition a power-mad bloodthirsty megalomaniac? The answer depends on whether you define dictatorship as a political form or a personality type, and whether you believe that a rational, humane person could come to believe that dictatorship is necessary, and that necessity requires him to be a dictator.

Before you dismiss that possibility, consider that the line separating dictatorship from revolution is very lightly drawn. Even if Gandhi is your model, any revolution is an act of coercion. It might be moral coercion through shaming your oppressor, but more often it requires physical coercion as well, because revolution presupposes resistance -- otherwise mere reform should suffice. Americans forget themselves if they think you can, or they did, have a revolution without coercion -- not just military force against Britain, but coercion against Tories, many of whom ended up fleeing the country. I doubt if any objective person would say that Tories were treated fairly during the American Revolution. But if you're convinced that Independence is necessary, will you really allow one group's objections to obstruct you until you can someday convince them that you're right?

For all that the word revolution evokes the turning of a wheel, revolutionaries act on the assumption that there is no turning back or returning to your starting point. If anyone proposed returning the U.S. to British rule, he'd be considered a traitor. If someone proposes turning back from a communist revolution, a Leninist regards him as a counter-revolutionary, in effect the same thing as a traitor. The Leninist errs in thinking he has to arrest every counter-revolutionary, or at least enough to intimidate the rest. But he has as much right to insist that there be no turning back as an American has to insist that there's no going back to Britain. If you say otherwise, you're really saying that revolutions have no right to exist, or that revolutions lose legitimacy if even one person objects and suffers for it.

None of this is a judgment on the Cuban revolution. I don't know enough about it, and I'm ashamed to admit that my image of the Batista regime is largely molded by The Godfather Part II, but I tend to be biased in favor of free speech, and I've never been a Castro fan. I don't think revolutionaries have to arrest dissidents or suppress free speech, though they have a right to defend themselves from actual coup attempts, but I don't necessarily think that suppressing dissent automatically disqualifies a revolution from legitimacy. I'm willing to believe that there are times when individual rights are not the sole or supreme value. If you believe that a nation is something more than an accidental collection of individuals, or a police force protecting the haves from the have-nots, you should be willing to at least consider the point.

18 February 2008

Secession, Independence and the Rights of Nations

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia over the weekend. Russia objected. The U.S. applauded, and the government has said that we will extend diplomatic recognition to Kosovo. Russia's objections are dismissed as further proof of the country's meanness. Inevitably the other shoe will drop and a Russian and a Serb will ask what became of the Confederate States of America?

Whether you consider America hypocritical depends on the details. Kosovo looks at first glance like a different case from the Confederacy. The Kosovars are a separte ethnicity from the Serbs, Albanians rather than Slavs, more Muslim than Christian. They look more like a subject people ruled by an alien power. You can't fit the Confederacy into this analogy unless you count "slaveholders" as a culture. In my own judgment, the Confederacy was a conspiracy of disgruntled politicians and plantation owners who were angry because they'd lost an election. They were also a threat to the entire Western Hemisphere due to their desire for new territory for plantations.

On that point, actually, there's room for an analogy to be drawn. In all likelihood, a major Russian objection to Kosovo's independence is a suspicion that the country might become another American base in the middle of what Russia regards as its sphere of influence. You might question Russia's right to have a sphere of influence, but they're entitled to geopolitical objections. They're as entitled to object as the Turks, Iraqis, Iranians, etc. are to their objections to an independent Kurdistan. To the extent that Americans don't recognize that their objections to secession were also influenced by geopolitical factors, their attitude toward Russia today would be hypocritical.

Recognizing another country's right to object is one thing, but allowing that country to veto another nationality's aspirations is another. But that being said, I remind myself that I've said in the past that world peace depends on universal respect for the sovereignty of nations. Does that mean that we have to give existing nations the benefit of the doubt in their disputes with secessionist elements? Those nations will always say that the disputes are internal matters, just as we did during the Civil War when we warned the European powers against intervening. Are nations obliged by a principle of comity to concede their fellow nations' perepetual sovereignty over all disgruntled minorities? Must Kosovo be condemned to the fate of the Basques, the Chechens, the Kurds, etc? My answer would be: not if they can free themselves. If they can defend their independence in a fair fight with Serbia, and if Serbia gives up the fight, then there's no reason not to recognize Kosovo. But what if it isn't a fair fight? What if Russia were to send troops to help Serbia suppress the Kosovars? Do we grant them a right to intervene because it's their sphere of influence? Or should other countries intervene against Russia to uphold the general principle of non-interference. Does world peace depend on acceptance of spheres of influence as well as the sovereignty of tyrants? And is it peace when a sovereign slaughters its subjects?

Try asking some of those questions the next time you see a presidential candidate. The answers ought to prove interesting.

JFK: Believe It or Not

The report of the release of a "transcript" of a dialogue between Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby in a "trove" of JFK assassination memorabilia has me hoping against hope that people will not suddenly take this as new proof of a conspiracy. This report has the most extensive excerpt from the transcript, so you can judge its likelihood for yourself.

What we have seems to be only a fragment, either of an acutal conversation or of a movie script. The quality of the dialogue (bad) along with my resistance to conspiracy theory on this particular subject, leads me to believe that we're looking at a page of script. Maybe its author realized how bad it sounded and stopped right there. Were it a transcript of an authentic conversation, we might expect to find more documentation attached, e.g., when the talk took place, where Ruby and Oswald were at the time, etc. We might also want to know how such a transcript, if it were real, was acquired. I expect we would know by now if either Oswald or Ruby were wiretapped. It is plausible in either case, since Ruby had mob ties and Oswald was a vocal, public supporter of Fidel Castro. But in either case, the record would probably have come to light years ago.

Nevertheless, people still want to believe that shadowy powers dictated the death of Kennedy. Oliver Stone inadvertently made their reasoning plain in his conspiracy movie; the believers can't stand the thought that an "angry little nut" actually changed the course of history. Oswald's own death makes his responsibility doubly unacceptable, since it violates the believers' logic of "who benefits." In any event, they take a larger view. They presume that someone benefited from the decisions taken by Lyndon Johnson regarding Vietnam, and perhaps other matters, or that someone benefited from Bobby Kennedy leaving the government, and that therefore one of these someones had to have willed the assassination, or had more will in the matter than Oswald did.

I'm slowly working my way through Vincent Bugliosi's massive tome on the assassination, which promises a complete demolition of all conspiracy theories, but to be frank, I've always been satisfied with Stanley Kubrick's account of the event. In Full Metal Jacket, the drill sergeant cites both Oswald and Charles Whitman (the prototypical modern mass murderer, to keep on topic) as examples of what a motivated Marine can do with his rifle. I've also seen enough demonstrations or recreations of the assassination to believe that the shooting was within Oswald's competence. And if we've learned anything since then (and we're still learning this very month, as recent posts will remind you), Americans do a pretty good job of motivating themselves to kill without help from conspiracies.

17 February 2008

The Other Side of the Mirror

To prove my point about efficacy, a suicide bomber in Kandahar has killed as many as 80 men, depending on reports, in one stroke. The government blames the Taliban but that organization has not claimed responsibility as I write. They are blamed because, well, who else would do this? Also, the killer struck at a dog fight, and the Taliban had banned that pastime during their time in power.

So what was going through this person's mind before he exploded himself? Did he act on his own intiative, or at the command of some emir or mullah? Was it personal for him, or had he been convinced that it was his duty to sacrifice himself on this mission of pure terror? Was he off his meds, or was he on some to make himself more calm or compliant? To sum up, was he a murderer or a soldier? And is that distinction worth making?

I think the distinction is worth making, only to this extent: the American mass murderer's sense of autonomy, his ability to make a personal determination that other people should die, may not be shared by the Muslim suicide bomber. How many of those have acted alone in the same way that school shooters do? More often, or most often, they are recruited and trained to be suicidal killers. There's a passive element to their missions that's completely absent among the school shooters. Suicide bombers, as a rule, are tools -- weapons for someone else to use. School shooters are loose cannons, unguided missiles, and just as well hidden, indeed better and more widely hidden among us than terrorists might be. The suicidal terrorist might do more damage at any given time, but who is really the greater, more immediate and more persistent threat to the people of the United States?

Did you answer, "the school shooter?" If so, let's move on to the next round and ask why the government hasn't declared a war on school shootings and committed itself to eliminating the threat of school shootings by all necessary means. I'll give you some time to figure that out for yourselves, and we can return to the subject later.

15 February 2008

Still Speaking of ...

Now we know about the research interests and gun-purchasing habits of the NIU shooter. We've seen a genuine human reaction in his father's demand that reporters leave him alone. We have bafflement at the killer's failure to fit the current stereotype of willful alienation, and a revival of an old theme -- he was quiet, we learn. We know now that he was off his meds -- which specifically is still unknown. We get the impression of an intelligent, talented scholar uncertain of his career direction: an abortive enlistment, a short-lived correctional job. Nothing yet says why he killed five people in a lecture hall where he once taught classes.

So we have to speculate. Did he kill becaue he was off the meds, or would he never have killed had he never been on them in the first place? These meds presumably didn't exist before a few decades ago, and we didn't have mass shootings of the kind we know today, as far as I know, before Charles Whitman in 1966. Speaking of history, people (including me) invoke this country's Wild West heritage when discussing mass shooters, yet when and where was there ever a shooting like the sort we see now back then?

There were massacres in those days, of course, but history only tells us about the massacres conducted by the Army against the Indians, or those of the Indians against settlers (terrorism, anyone?). These involve one group of people massacring another group. I can't think at this moment of an instance during the 19th century when one man killed many. Does that mean it never happened? Mightn't there be cases in which an angry settler with a score to settle, or a plain hater, went into an Indian village and simply opened fire? For that matter, were there cases of suicide-by-Indian? In any event, massacre was in the air back then, and maybe it settled in the American blood. However it was done back then, maybe it came down into our collective consciousness as an individual prerogative, at least as a national instinct telling us that some people are eligible for massacre, that the only good ____ is a dead _____, and that it's each person's right in this land of pathological freedom to fill in the blanks as he or she pleases.

Even if you buy any of that, you still have to ask why the modern massacre is a relatively recent development, if we've always had a gun culture and always had a sort of Wild West mentality. What was going on in the '60s that got the ball rolling, and why did it only really pick up steam in the '80s? Conservatives have a narrative to explain some of this: these are the years when the government took prayer out of the schools and Marxists took over the colleges. Some liberals might suggest a counter-explanation: a reactionary lashing-out at a culture changing beyond old ways of control, fueled by anxieties about loss of rank or stature. Something was certainly in the air, but I don't know if ideology can explain it. I don't know if there's an explanation that allows for reverse-engineering to reverse the process, or a diagnosis that points to a cure beyond nature working out its course. This is something that probably can't be dealt with on its own. We'll more likely have to take a larger view of the problem before we see results on an individual level.

14 February 2008

Speaking of School Shootings ...

Here's a local account of the killings in DeKalb, IL, on the Northern Illinois University campus. As I write, we're learning details about the killer, but investigators are withholding his name. I presume that's because they want to contact his family before the media does. It's too early to learn anything about his motive; it'll probably be predictable enough.

This appears to be a busy shooting season so far. The BBC says this is the fourth school shooting (counting one-on-one attacks) in the past week, and counting the assassinations in Missouri last weekend, it's the second mass killing in a week. It makes you wonder whether the presidential candidates will talk about the trend. The Republicans could be depended upon to wish that more students had been armed in the classroom, and maybe Huckabee in particular would say this all had something to do with people turning from God. I would expect the Democrats to say nothing at all about it, since any opinion is bound to offend someone who can vote.

Understandably, the news takes me back to my ruminations from earlier this week. It reminds me of one distinctive feature that distinguishes the school shooter from the terrorist. In the terrorist's case, the target is an enemy clearly defined along some demographic lines. To the Palestinian Muslim, the enemy is obviously the Israelis. To the Wahhabi Sunni, the enemy is the Shia. To the school shooter, and to many mass murderers, the enemy is anyone in his path. To put it another way, his enemy is everybody. The only selectivity emerges when he chooses the site of his last stand. In his mind, at the ultimate moment, it is literally him against the world. That strikes me as a distinctively American way of thinking, and our capability for thinking that way may further explain our peculiar national form of murder.

13 February 2008

American Stress Disorder

The disturbing thing about Kathy Dobie's article on Marine Corps neglect of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Feb. 18 Nation magazine is that it isn't the first such expose of the American military's willingness to ignore the mental and emotional casualties of the current war. The Marine Corps' apparent reluctance to deal with PTSD, as reported here, seems like a throwback to the days of General Patton, who reportedly assumed that "shellshocked" soldiers were shamming cowards. Remembering the movie Patton made me wonder whether what we now call PTSD has gotten worse over time, and whether that reflects on our country in any way.

In Iraq, repeated and extended tours of duty in a persistently hostile environment are exacerbating factors in stress disorder. The phenomenon itself isn't unique to Iraq, of course. Shellshocked veterans were known to exist following World War I, and the archetype of the crazy Vietnam veteran is well known to this day. On the other hand, my first retrospective impression is that, the Patton incident aside, shellshock or PTSD weren't considered major issues during or immediately after World War II. There's a hint of it in the portrayals of maladjusted veterans in some 1940s films noirs, but the motif doesn't really continue into the 50s or 60s, until Vietnam gave it new vitality.

WWII, of course, is the "Good War," with just about unanimous public support. The First World War never had the same level of support, despite massive government propaganda, because large ethnic groups (Germans, Irish) objected to our siding with Great Britain. After the war, more people were willing to believe that it had been a waste of lives for no good reason -- a fact that made WWII a harder sell in this country before Pearl Harbor. Vietnam and Iraq have been even more divisive. If I'm right about World War II, would the popularity of the war and the solidarity of the home front be a deterrent to stress disorder?

Is it possible, on the other hand, that war is getting worse, that the ordeal of Iraq is harder on today's grunt than the battles of WWII? That seems doubtful, given the lack of large-scale pitched battle in Iraq, but then, what if we, Americans as a culture, are becoming less fitted for war? Are our soldiers more susceptible to PTSD and similar disorders than their grandfathers because they've become "soft," from one point of view, or more civilized, from another? If we are becoming less warlike, that'd be a positive development except for the fact that we're still fighting wars.
It'd be easy to say that the next step is to end war, but before anyone leaps to that conclusion, we ought to look carefully at the world and ask whether we, the people of the world, can get out of our current predicament entirely by peaceful means. If your answer is no, if you see intransigence at the top or across the border that will only respond to force, then you might not necessarily think it a good thing that fewer people seem capable of facing the requirements of war. Of course, it's up to scholars and statisticians to give us the facts about stress and modern war, but until the results are in, you'll excuse my speculation.

11 February 2008

Bad Timing?

The new American Conservative magazine, which landed in my mailbox this weekend, endorses Rep. Ron Paul for the Republican nomination just as the media reports the libertarian to be on the verge of quitting the race in order to save his Texas congressional seat. The magazine didn't really make a big deal about it, the endorsement being overshadowed on the cover by a cartoon of an evil-looking John McCain grasping a globe, with the motto: "Invade the World, Invite the World."

In the McCain article, author Justin Raimondo digs back to 1983 to discover a freshman Representative questioning American intervention in Lebanon. In 1990, McCain questions the Gulf War, saying, "We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood." But later in the 90s, McCain supported Clinton's bombing campaign against Serbia in defense of Kosovo, chiding him for timidity while criticising Republican opponents of the campaign as isolationists. McCain's positions since then are well known. What happened to him? Raimondo finds in Kosovo the first instance of McCain playing the maverick and dissident against his own party in order to get media attention. He regards McCain as a dangerous narcissist suffering from a "psycho-political pathology" that metastisized into "a full-blown delusional system." This isn't a satisfactory explanation. We should at least see a process of rationalization, a paper trail documenting McCain's evolution or devolution; instead, Raimondo seems to suggest that McCain is plain crazy.

Meanwhile, Ron Paul is endorsed in half a page, and with full consciousness that he hasn't a chance of winning. The editors say that Paul "alone understands that the ever expanding federal government is a far greater threat to American liberty than some tinpot dictator in the Caucusus." They applaud his opposition to free-trade in defiance of libertarian orthodoxy and his consistent anti-abortion stance. They recommend a vote for him as "a signal to both parties that a significant number of Americans value their country's great Constitution." The problem, of course, is that many Americans value the Constitution as it's been amended over time, a process the legitimacy of which Paul doesn't really seem to accept. This is where conservatism hurts the American Conservative. The magazine is often a stimulating read because the writers often approach issues from unpredictable angles, producing unexpected and challenging insights. But by endorsing Dr. Paul in a year when many Americans want to look ahead, the Conservative, sadly living up to its name, asks us to look as far backwards as possible, to an inescapable dead end.

09 February 2008

An American Terrorist?

In everything I've read about the Kirkwood massacre in the past two days I've noticed a consistent omission. We have a man storming City Hall, wounding the mayor and killing other members of the local government, before he was shot down, and the media treats the story as if it were from the same genre as most school shootings. I do not see Cookie Thornton called an "assassin" or a "terrorist." Why is that?

I can make up an explanation of my own: Thornton didn't have a really "political" agenda. His grievance appears to be based on parking tickets. There was clearly no cause larger than himself involved. Since he apparently left a note signifying that his attack was meant to be suicide-by-cop, the incident can't be considered a means to a further end. For that reason it would probably be inaccurate to call him a terrorist. But he committed political murder. So why isn't he an assassin? Again, I think it's because people think of an assassin as having an cause larger than himself. Thorton's grievance doesn't seem to rise to the level of the political in many minds, I guess.

In any event, the Kirkwood incident raised anew a question I've been asking myself recently about the mentality of American mass murderers vs. the mentality of Muslim terrorists. I've often wondered why Americans don't emulate terrorist methods. Since so many expect to die anyway, and seek to maximize their victims, why have none yet thought to put on a suicide belt and stroll into the school cafeteria or the office lunch room or the middle of the mall? Mightn't Thornton have come closer to his presumed goal if he had been able to set off a nail bomb in his final act? Instead, he came in with gun blazing, like so many of his American peers.

The preference for the gun over the bomb, and for suicide-by-cop over suicide-bombing, points to a cultural difference between Americans and Muslims and/or Arabs. The suicide bomber seems to be satisfied with the thought that he will have done damage without having to see it. The archetypical school shooter, or someone like Thornton, appears to need the satisfaction of seeing people go down before he does. For all that he supposedly hates his enemies, the Muslim "martyr" doesn't need to see his victims suffer. That may be one reason why they can convince themselves that they're performing a selfless act, and that it's martyrdom first, murder second. If he hates the American or Zionist occupier or the local sectarian enemy, it's a different kind of hate from what the American mass murderer feels. More likely, the Muslim simply views his victims as "the enemy," the way any soldier does, while the American killer is usually acting out some more personal, more virulent grudge.

There are similarities between the two types as well. The most noteworthy one is the quest for notoriety. Someone like Seung-hui Cho, who videotaped a last testament during his killing spree, clearly wants to be remembered, while the typical Muslim terrorist organization has its own publicity apparatus to issue farewell videos from the latest martyrs and otherwise memorialize the alleged heroes. In each country, however, a different fame is aimed at. The suicide-bomber wants to be the hero of the masses, and to be thought of as some sort of saint, while the school shooter appeals to posterity in the form of a sub- or counter-culture, either indifferent or welcoming toward the notion that mainstream society will remember him as a monster.

A question I can't try to answer is whether the suicide bomber is ultimately motivated to kill for reasons like those that drive the mass murderer. I have no idea whether the Muslim reaches a point where he "can't stands no more," as Popeye might say, and as the American presumably does, or whether martyrdom is so socialized or organized that the martyr doesn't even choose the time or means of his end himself. Even if the latter is true, you have to wonder what inspires someone to make him or herself available for martyrdom, whether it's a breaking-point moment when he decides that his circumstances are unendurable or it's actually some sort of ethical decision to sacrifice his life for a cause.

Ask yourself a question if you like: leaving aside semantics and labels like "murderer," "terrorist," or "assassin," who is really more evil, presuming that term means anything to you? Is it the person who slaughters innocents along with himself, in the expectation that he will go to heaven, or someone who slaughters innocents while waiting to die, maybe while holding out hope of escape, but more likely not really caring what happens to anyone afterward? Leaving numbers aside, who was worse, Mohammed Atta or Seung-hui Cho? The 9/11 hijackers as a group or the Columbine killers? If your answer surprises you, try asking yourself some more questions, if you can figure those out for youselves.

07 February 2008

Poor Mitt

In a way, it's admirable that Romney decided to put his kids' future before his own ambitions. Of course it was an easier decision to make once he realized that he didn't have a chance anymore, but it does arguably indicate something genuinely conservative in his character. Of course, he did go on to say he'd run again someday, but maybe he'll invest prudently in the meantime so he'll have fresh resources next time, whenever that might be. For now, good riddance to him.

So now it's up to Huckabee to maneuver for influence at the convention. He can argue that, the more delegates he gets, the more he can hope to push the McCain platform to the right, or at least toward his idea of the right. Both men might like the idea of a series of friendly debates, just so they can stay in the public eye while Clinton and Obama settle down for a long war. It might also be wise to remind primary voters that the upcoming contests still matter. After all, what if they hold a primary, and the McCain and Huckabee people stay home, assuming that the race is over. That leaves Ron Paul's people. The libertarian is now the only "real" opposition to McCain. He hasn't the clout or credibility to demand mano-a-mano debates with McCain, should Huckabee withdraw, but his supporters may have fresh opportunities for mischief if the GOP establishment lets its guard down.

Finally, let's laugh once more at all the conservative talkers who are now desperately spinning their failure to stop McCain into proof that the liberal media was wrong about their reputed brainwashing skills. I heard one on the Dan Abrams show say that he never tried to tell listeners how to vote; his sole purpose was to provide information that audiences could interpret for themselves. But there's no getting around the fact that conservative hosts told conservative listeners that McCain and Huckabee were not conservatives, and the listeners either didn't listen or didn't care. That sounds like the end of an era to me.

06 February 2008

Conservatives: Patriotism without Solidarity

The latest luminary to cast a cold eye on Senator McCain is Dr. James Dobson, the Focus on the Family mogul, who accuses the Arizonan of thumbing the collective conservative eye to often to deserve the pious vote. McCain is unworthy because he will not use the U.S. Constitution to condemn gay marriage and toleartes embryonic stem-cell research. Republicans and self-styled "conservatives" must make what they will of all this, but an objective observer remains appalled by the fratricidal spectacle.

Every time some talker tells McCain he's not a conservative, the Senator will say he is. As far as I can tell, McCain hasn't tried to say his critics aren't conservatives, so give him that much credit. There's no reason why McCain's friends and enemies alike can't both be conservative, since conservatism is essentially a philosophical stance and more specifically depends for definition on whatever you want to conserve. The problem with conservative Republicans at this time is that their conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude. The talkers don't share McCain's attitude, so to them he isn't conservative.

So what is that attitude? Let's call it patriotism without solidarity. Patriotism is loyalty to country, or to whatever you think it stands for, while solidarity is loyalty to your fellow citizens. The talkers want to defend their country and their "freedom," but seem far less interested in the material well being of other Americans. They expect you to die for them and their freedom, and assuming them to be sincere for the sake of argument, they're willing to die for your freedom, but they feel no obligation as citizens to help the poor, protect American jobs, etc. They may be quite charitable in private life, but they seem to think that their good intentions matter more than the needs of those they help; it's supposedly morally superior for them to volunteer their charity rather than give as a national duty.

McCain (and Huckabee) offend this sensibility because they exhibit signs of solidarity. They dare, in their differently limited ways, to criticize wealth and corporate power for offenses against the national interest. This is unacceptable to the patriotism-without-solidarity crowd because to them there is no contradiction between "freedom" and the national interest. "Freedom" defined as the right to maximize profits is the national interest for these folks, and matters more than any individual's well-being. After all, the individual can be expected to sacrifice his life for freedom, so why should he expect to benefit materially from it. From this perspective, for anyone to complain against the social order because he's poor is an affront to the country and an offense against freedom. It's even worse if people begin to complain on each other's behalf -- that's solidarity at work, or "populism" in this particular conservative lexicon. Whatever they call it, it's so intolerable to them that when people like McCain and Huckabee exhibit it even to a degree that "liberals" might deem negligible or contemptible, the talkers react as if they've seen sacrilege. Their instinct is to excommunicate the heretics, or to revert to their own "come-outer" roots and sulk in their tents.

Patriotism without solidarity isn't just an accident of ommission. Solidarity isn't something that these conservatives just happened to forget. The doctrine requires acolytes to renounce solidarity positively. Once you understand this, the hostility to McCain makes sense. The talkers believe that you can't be conservative until you renounce solidarity, populism, "class warfare," or whatever you call it. McCain and Huckabee may consider themselves conservatives, but having never taken this extra step (whatever Democrats assume to the contrary) they've failed a crucial litmus test in the eyes of this fanatic faction that happens to think it knows what conservatism really is. Well, you can't tell them that they don't know their own minds. They certainly have a coherent ideology, but I'm not sure that they're right to call it "conservatism." Some would say that having an ideology of any kind violates conservatism, but we don't want to get into yet another issue here.

So here we have "patriotism without solidarity." A few days ago I used "solidarity without conformity" to describe my own position. We may be able to work with these three elements -- patriotism, solidarity, conformity -- to attempt a more detailed survey of the political spectrum. Populism, for instance, may be said to include all three elements, while some strains of libertarianism may include none of them. We may have more opportunities to develop this scheme in the future. It would prove useful if it gave more people a sense of where they really belonged politically and the will to actually build something on their actual intellectual turf.

05 February 2008

Tuesday Stupor

No one should assume that my comments about Senator McCain's conservative enemies amount to a defense of McCain. To clarify matters, I should emphasize that McCain's conduct in recent days has been pretty disturbing, from his "canine" performance (in Chris Matthews's word) at the last debate to his jaw-dropping stand-up routine in Massachusetts yesterday to his berserk overreaction to Romney's remarks on Bob Dole. I've only read McCain's most recent comments, but people who saw him talk say he was apoplectic and his plain hatred of Romney was unmistakable. He looks like he's losing it at times. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder even as he closes on victory. Given that he's a consistent warmongerer, his attitude is extremely worrisome. I'd like to feel certain that he'll lose the general election, but the American mind is hard to read this year.

In any event, his march to victory goes on, hand in hand with Huckabee. After what happened in West Virginia, there's no more room for doubt that Huckabee and McCain are in cahoots to destroy Romney. The Arkansan seems to be enjoying a surge tonight. It should have been predictable, because its his turn to benefit from revulsion at the fratricidal spectacle of Romney vs. McCain. I doubt that it worries McCain. Look at Huckabee's numbers outside the South and you wouldn't worry, either. He is not a national candidate, but he's made a stronger case than ever for becoming McCain's running mate. A McCain-Huckabee ticket would have broad appeal, apart from the talk-radio airwaves, and would represent the Republicans' best chance against Clinton, Obama or Clinton-Obama. If McCain were not to tap Huckabee for the second spot, it would be a surprise as much as a blunder, but the front-runner may feel that he needs someone acceptable to radio. My own view is that he'd win the independent vote if he told all the talkers to go to hell.

I'm stalling for a moment, waiting for California to close. I don't know if the networks will project right away, but I hope to have something to close with. While I wait, let me note again the vehemence of Senator Clinton's defenders, their outrage at the alleged upstart who dares dispute her destiny. Romney's comments on Bob Dole seem equally applicable to Clinton. Far more so than McCain, her campaign is driven by a feeling that, just as 1996 was Dole's turn, 2008 is Hillary's. This sense of entitlement exaggerates her achievements in the minds of her supporters so that her experience somehow looms larger than Senator Obama's. Of course, the Clintonites still count the First Lady years as proof that Clinton knows how the White House works, as I read somewhere. Something still seems profoundly un-American about that, and that sensibility inclines me toward Obama, if only for the sake of arguments.

The argument goes on. California is too close to call as I sign off.

04 February 2008

McCain Mania: Another Opinion

Here's the conservative columnist of a local paper:

Independents and liberal Republicans provided John McCain with the majority he needed [in Florida]. Any Republican with whom so many Democrats have no problem, I'm weary of, thank you. Our problems with Senator McCain are much more concrete, though.

He thinks Mrs. Clinton 'would make a fine president' as he's stated on at least two occasions ... McCain firmly believes that waterboarding is torture, couldn't care less that the majority of Americans don't agree and shouts obscenities at members of Congress who don't agree. McCain believes that enemy combatants should be given rights under both the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Convention, neither of which they're entitled ... McCain believes that the McCain-Feingold Act does not infringe upon the First Amendment. Most Republicans disagree, most Democrats don't care, but that legislation put far more soft money into campaigns.

The columnist goes on about McCain's treasonous role in forming the "Gang of 14," which has allegedly blocked the appointment of "several outstanding nominees to federal benches." He indicts McCain's temperament, apparently because it's mostly directed at Republican Senators, condemns him for saying that the Bush tax cuts "favor the rich," and so on. Then he compliments McCain for opposing "radical Islam and its goal to kill Americans" and "the greatest abomination in mankind's history" -- wait for it -- "legal abortion."

McCain is "widely applauded for both" stands, but "on the aforementioned issues, though, conservatives simply disagree." The writer is defensive on this point.

And I'm tired of people I support being accused of 'hating' John McCain. We don't hate him, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or anyone else. We only wish to see conservatism retained. It succeeds every time it's tried.

We'll leave the last point to be debated at another time. As for the hate question, this particular writer has a very narrow definition of what it means to hate somebody. Basically you can only be said to hate somebody if you wish them dead. The writer is perfectly comfortable making the blanket charge that liberals "hate" Bush, but cannot bear to apply the h-word where it so obviously applies. But the author clearly idolizes Limbaugh, and even finds a silver lining in the talker's failure to sway voters against McCain. In his mind, that fact only refutes the charge that Limbaugh's listeners are "mostly mind-numbed robots who'll do whatever he says." In other words, he defends Limbaugh by defending Limbaugh's listeners for not being mind-numbed robots because they defied Limbaugh, then goes on to say Limbaugh is right anyway. That is, to be a conservative, you must believe that waterboarding is not torture, you must never limit rich people's ability to donate money to politicians, you must never compromise with liberals on judicial appointments, and you mustn't yell at your own party. These are the supreme litmus tests of 21st century American conservatism. Fall short on any of them and conservatism is not retained -- believe it, or not.

This particular writer, at least, stops at the brink of the precipice. He has never stated, unlike "people I support," that he would not vote for McCain in the general election, or that he would actively support a Democrat just to spite McCain. For the moment, however, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that, from any sane Republican perspective, Limbaugh, Coulter and others have gone too far in their obvious ambition to be the cardinals and kingmakers of conservatism. If he thinks that his heroes have no self-interest, no desire for power within the movement, staked in this struggle, he's naive, to say the least. Why I should care I don't exactly know; maybe I have an unexpected sense of pity at the sight of madmen roaring and running about with shards of glass aimed at their throats. These people would throw away their last best hope of staying in power, if only they could, for some of the pettiest of reasons. There's something nearly tragic about this spectacle that makes it hard for me to gloat over it as some will do. Maybe I don't really hate anybody, either...

My Limits as an Activist

I had a lot on my mind last Saturday and was quite content to be alone with my thoughts at the bus stop as a man approached me to announce that he was just back from the Obama rally. Supporters of the Illinois senator had held a demonstration on the Townsend Park pedestrian island in Albany. Three hundred people make a good showing in that limited space. I hadn't even been aware that a rally was going to happen. I also wasn't interested in chatting with a stranger about it, because I was preoccupied. Furthermore, this guy wasn't entirely a stranger. I had seen him before, usually in the Troy post office. He was the sort who made a point of saying hello and how are you doing to everyone who crossed his path. In his mind he was obviously just being friendly, but it struck me that he had a compulsion to talk that I didn't share. I muttered an acknowledgment of his comment. He went on to emphasize that he was going to vote for Obama on Tuesday. Good for you, I grumbled. He abruptly changed the subject to newspaper delivery. He let me know that he had cancelled his subscription to a local paper because they had failed to make regular deliveries, but the problem now was that they had not yet cancelled the subscription, and were now continuing to bring him newspapers. Now I was certain that this was someone desperate for communication, who needed to talk to people no matter what the subject. I left him for another bus stop up the street.

Of course I was reproaching myself within moments. Wouldn't it have been useful material for this blog if I could talk to a genuine Obama supporter? Would it not have been informative to learn why this individual felt inspired to attend the rally, wear stickers on his coat, and spread the word? Would it also not have been simple humanity to engage a person in a conversation rather than hide inside my own head? I concede every point, but as I said, I was preoccupied. I am preoccupied much of the time. It comes with being introverted, and it doesn't exactly help my efforts to be politically engaged. But that's my identity, and that helps shape my priorities. I'm sure it's the source of my concern for achieving solidarity without conformity. I wonder sometimes whether I should reconsider my priorities, and whether I should look forward to a world without introverts -- and then I wonder whether that's possible or desirable. But even to ruminate like this is to indulge my introversion, and those of you who've come to read a political blog are probably tiring of it. But then again, you might have agreed with my first impression that that guy was sort of a loon. You probably had to be there.

01 February 2008

More Conservative Madness

Don't take my word for this. Here is none other than Ann Coulter on Fox News taking her stand with Limbaugh on the lunatic fringe of conservatism. She makes Sean Hannity look like a voice of reason, at least within the conservative madhouse. You might also notice that she tells telling truths about Senator Clinton as well.

Coulter makes one point worth noting for future reference. McCain seems to be under the impression that the Surge is winning him the Republican nomination, and that national security is going to be the main issue of the general campaign. Coulter says that national security simply isn't enough to establish conservative credentials, so if McCain does run a national-security campaign, those who actually follow the likes of Coulter and Limbaugh may well stay home. I'll add that McCain misunderstands his success. I think it has very little to do with the war or the Surge. More likely, just as G.W. Bush benefitted from a form of "Clinton fatigue" in 2000, McCain now benefits from what we can call "Bush regret." For Republicans, voting for McCain now is like a do-over of the 2000 primaries. It is no reward for McCain's policies since then. Furthermore, he really began to rise when voters started to tire of the negative campaigning between Romney and Huckabee. This can't be because people suddenly decided just last month that the Surge was working. So if McCain thinks he can march to the White House as the national security candidate, he could very well walk himself into a trap. So please, everyone: don't tell him!