30 April 2008

Rev. Wright: A Challenge for Christians

As news broadcasts edited down Senator Obama's remarks from yesterday damning Rev. Wright, one comment they emphasized was Obama's objection to Wright's equation of American wartime tactics with terrorism. Since Obama aspires to be Commander-in-Chief, and has indicated an interest in future humanitarian interventions, his attitude shouldn't surprise us. Patriotic Obama now contrasts himself with "anti-American" Wright. But is that the real difference between them?

Isn't it possible that Wright's opinion represents the more authentically Christian attitude toward warfare? From the perspective of Jesus, is there a moral distinction to be drawn between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the attacks of 11 September 2001 that damns only the latter while justifying the former? Some of you may want to talk about the Christian "just war" tradition, but how much of that doctrine can be traced back to Jesus himself? Is there anything in the Gospels in which Jesus justifies war? Do you want to say, "Render unto Caesar?" Before you do, consider that Jesus wouldn't even let his disciples fight to defend him from the minions of the Sanhedrin. What makes you think he would encourage people to fight for any other cause, or that giving your life to the state is equivalent to paying taxes? Even after Jesus left the scene, where do you find Christian self-defense forces in the Acts of the Apostles? I don't recall any.

Let's face it: any notion of war being a proper activity for Christians probably dates back no further than the co-option of the faith by the emperor Constantine. That gave religious leaders a stake in the state and a reason to send the faithful to fight for it. Roman Catholics may remain convinced by all the "just war" commentary that followed from this change, but neither Jeremiah Wright nor Barack Obama nor Hilary Clinton nor John McCain nor George W. Bush is a Catholic. Wright's position seems clear (though I wonder whether he'd accept that a slave had no right to kill his master), but all the others also proclaim themselves Christians. How do they rationalize their commitments to present or future wars. How do the rest of you Christians do so? It's one thing for Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to cry havoc against the Muslims; they're atheists. It's a similar thing for Zionists to join the charge; for good or ill, they have a warlike tradition to guide them. But Christians are not supposed to fight; you're supposed to turn the other cheek or accept passive, pacific martyrdom. Some of you have probably been tempted to think that Rev. Wright is not a good or a true Christian because he supposedly hates certain people and has spoken apparent untruths. But on the question of war, it strikes this objective observer that he's a better Christian than most of his fellow citizens. I welcome any attempt to prove me wrong.

29 April 2008

Voter ID For Free!

The Supreme Court has upheld Indiana's requirement that voters present a valid state ID before they can exercise their franchise. This resolved an issue that has become unreasonably partisan. For some reason, Republicans and only Republicans seem to be concerned about the danger of voter fraud; they drafted the Indiana law. Democrats and only Democrats seem concerned about the possibility of vote suppression; they opposed the law. There seems to be a subtext about the inability or reluctance of some Democratic constituencies to acquire ID, but I recall that many conservatives and libertarians like to live "off the grid" and would have their own aversion to having ID. Moreover, under the American Bipolarchy, it seems unlikely that Democrats would never try to suppress Republican votes, or that Republicans would never try to vote fraudulently. People who don't believe these possibilities have simply swallowed their own propaganda.

My one reservation about the ruling was only partially relieved when I learned that Indiana charges nothing for a non-driver's ID. Had it been otherwise, the Court would have issued an unconstitutional ruling, because they would have authorized a poll tax, which is forbidden according to the 24th Amendment. While the Court determined that the Indiana law doesn't unreasonably burden citizens, the ruling may unreasonably burden states, since any state that wants to adopt a similar rule is going to have to make a free ID option available. In New York, you have to pay for a non-driver's ID; that will have to change if the state ever wants to impose an ID law. For that matter, since most people are going to present their driver's licenses instead of getting a separate ID just for the purpose of voting, won't those licenses have to be free if they become a prerequisite for voting? I'm not a constitutional lawyer, but it seems to me that if a state tells you that you need to present some documentation that you had to pay for before you can vote, that payment becomes, for all intents and purposes, a poll tax. Don't be surprised if you see this case back in court before long, especially if Democrats feel as bad about it as they seem.

Rev. Wright: Obama's Last Word

The New York Times has a transcript of Sen. Obama's press conference, in which he throws Rev. Wright under the bus. He hit all the notes that any critic would want to hear, denouncing Wright's views on AIDS, for instance, as "ridiculous," -- as they most likely are. I'm disappointed, though, to hear Obama echo the general line that Wright is on an ego trip, and I'm also a little disturbed at the narcissism that surfaces in the Senator's complaint about Wright's remarks not helping him. As I wrote last night, if we dismiss every would-be prophet, even those who are right, as attention-seeking ego-trippers, we surrender our best chance of change happening through words and deliberation alone. If anyone thinks we can have a real debate about our nation's future without someone's feelings being hurt, or without false charges at least getting a hearing as part of the process, you're naively overconfident about the problems we face. Reconciliation can only come after the great decisions are made, because then people will have to reconcile themselves to losing, and there's likely to be a lot of bitterness and recrimination before then, not to mention a little bit afterwards. Rev. Wright, at least, will be around to assure that.

28 April 2008

Rev. Wright's Wrongs, Elaborated

Someone at the National Press Club today confronted Jeremiah Wright with the question he's needed to be asked since the controversy broke out:

MS. LEINWAND: In your sermon, you said the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. So I ask you: Do you honestly believe your statement and those words?

Wright responded this way:

REV. WRIGHT: Have you read Horowitz's book "Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola"? Whoever wrote that question, have you read "Medical Apartheid"? You've read it? ... I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven't read things, then you can't -- and based on the Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the -- one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non- question, because all we had to do was check the sales record. We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people.So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.

Let's see what we can learn about his sources. Emerging Viruses ... is written by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz (see also here) who apparently offers several theories at once regarding the origins of the titular plagues, ranging from accidental mutations during cancer research to deliberate population reduction strategies emanating from Henry Kissinger. Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington seems to be a more widely accepted work because it deals with history, not speculation -- specifically the history of experimentation on blacks, beginning in slavery times and culminating in the Tuskegee experiments Wright refers to.

It's worth noting that, while the talking heads are damning Wright for allegedly affirming today that the government propagated AIDS, the man himself only articulated the minimal position of conspiracy theory: that the powerful are capable of anything. Arguably, he's taken a step back from his original charge, choosing to hide behind his sources. Curiously, while Wright appears to be a learned person in his chosen field, he takes the autodidact's approach to the AIDS question, reading certain books that came to hand (randomly?) that happen to confirm a worldview ("our government is capable of doing anything") that he already held.

If it were just me listening to a sermon from some preacher, I could dismiss it all pretty easily. But as you may have figured out, something bugs me about this whole business. Let me give you a sample.

* * *

There's another guy in our office, whom I've not bothered to nickname, who often gets into loud, angry arguments with Mr. Right. Unlike others, like myself or Mr. Peepers, this guy is usually content with mocking Mr. Right or answering his arguments with nonsense catchphrases. Mr. Right, however, has nothing to do with this anecdote and was minding his business in the Sports department when the evening news showed an excerpt of Rev. Wright's talk.

Having heard the story, this guy's response to Wright was, "He sure seems to be enjoying the attention." For some reason, that irked me.

"What makes you think so?" I asked him.

"Just look at all the speeches he's making now," he explained.

"And you think he's doing it because he craves the attention?"

"Just look at him!"

"Well, what about Barack Obama? He makes a lot of speeches."

"Yeah, but he's running for President."

"So couldn't he be running because he craves attention?"

He seemed to dismiss the question, but I couldn't dismiss the complaint. The way it sounded to me was that Rev. Wright had some hard things to say to the country, some true, some false, but the nation was going to dismiss it all as the "self-absorbed" ravings of an attention seeker. My own opinion is that this country is going to have to learn to listen to hard words, and its citizens are going to have to get less self-absorbed themselves and learn to see themselves as others see them, even if the other is sometimes a fictional character like God. If our first impulse is to dismiss the hard words as those of a attention seeker or a crank, the words are only going to get harder, and we might be forced to hear them.

America = Corleone?

Check out this bizarre article from a foreign-policy analyst who offers the sons of the Corleone family from The Godfather as models representing different strategic options for the United States. Once you get past the unironic equation of the U.S. with a Mafia family, you'll notice that he overlooks Fredo. That's interesting, since we know that Fredo resents being overlooked, passed over. He insists that he has a right to have a part in running things, insists against all evidence that he's smart, and tries to sell out Michael because he resents his father passing him over in Michael's favor. Michael, Sonny and Tom Hagen may be made to represent different modes of strategic thinking available to future presidents, but Fredo, with his sense of entitlement and exaggerated estimate of his faculties, embodies an American attitude that is sure to complicate anyone else's calculations.

An American Conservative?

After fighting my way through Terror and Consent I was left with a stack of back issues of magazines, including a recent issue of The American Conservative in which Andrew J. Bacevich offers a six-party definition of his own conservative principles. Bacevich is a persistent critic of both the Iraq war and a larger trend, dating back to Clinton times, toward increased interventionism and a "new American militarism." His articles are published as often in The Nation as in the Conservative. His definition of conservatism should be interesting. Here it goes, in his own words.

1. "A commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint."

This is so unobjectionable as to be inadequate for defining conservatism except in opposition to anarchy. But for now let's emphasize the unobjectionability of it.

2. "A belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law."

Again, this is so broadly stated as to be insignificant, since the issue between conservatives and their opponents is how limited government shall be. If it's to be limited simply by the imperatives of fiscal responsibility and the rule of law, that still leaves plenty of room for debate. The proper scope of government is exactly where ideologies clash, and where citizens must reach consensus.

3. "Veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation."

Here Bacevich makes some room for environmentalism, which isn't welcome for many self-styled conservatives. Conservationism, to use an older term, shouldn't be inimical to conservatism, except that too many so-called U.S. conservatives are committed to the "creative destruction" of entrepreneurial capitalism to be comfortable with a principle that limits their freedom for no good reason that the Market can discover. As for cultural inheritances, where does one draw the line? Those who call our country a "Christian nation" make their position clear. Bacevich's position is less clear, perhaps intentionally so.

4. "A reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements."

Well, this wouldn't be conservatism without something like the above. To be fair, let's note that he says "reluctance," not "refusal."

5. "Respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market's corrosive impact on human values."

This gets right to the ambivalent heart of American conservatism, which wants to eat its cake and have it, too. Many seem to believe that "creative destruction" will only destroy the insufficiently creative or insufficiently competitive, but most will affirm that there's also a cultural competition in progress that their side might not win. However they define their own culture, which they tend to identify as the American culture, they know that it's vulnerable to competition. Some frankly want to abolish cultural competition and give the monopoly to tradition or theocracy, but they're just a fringe right now. Others are unwilling to do without the benefits of "creative destruction," but find themselves questioning the consequences. Maybe they could clear their heads if they thought of labor, not the market, as the generator of wealth.

6. "A deep suspicion of Utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history."

For people like Bacevich, Bush's ideology is not conservatism because it has a Utopian commitment to ending tyranny and imposing "freedom" everywhere. You don't have to believe in "original sin" to disparage such a scheme. Man is fallible, not "fallen." Maybe "the recalcitrance of history" is the secular version of "the sinfulness of man." On the other hand, it remains debatable what humanity can or can't accomplish, or what they should or shouldn't try. Disputes with conservatives often become bitter because their opponents, sometimes rightly, suspect that conservatism declares impossible some things that they simply don't want to do.

To sum up, Bacevich's conservatism still isn't anything I'd sign up for, but he seems, at first glance, like someone with whom it'd be more possible to have a civilized debate than it would be with many other self-styled conservatives.

27 April 2008

Lincoln and Douglas, Clinton and Obama

My hunch is that Senator Clinton already knew (for Senator Obama had already taped an interview with Fox) that her rival had refused further debates when she fired off her audacious challenge to a Lincoln-Douglas style debate sometime before the Indiana primary. She understood that this meant no moderators, which was supposed to make Obama happy, but did she understand the other rules? Is she actually prepared to speak extemporaneously for more than an hour? Does she realize that, for the Lincoln-Douglas format to be fair, there must be at least two debates, so that each candidate has a turn as the first speaker and gets to rebut the other's reply? Even given Obama's reputation as an orator, can you imagine either of them making it through a true L-D style debate without serious "gaffes" and misstatements? But as I said, I suspect these points are moot because Clinton didn't expect Obama to accept the challenge.

Obama has most likely demurred because, even without moderators of suspect loyalties, he knows that as long as his opponent remains the same any debate with her will be about "electability" rather than the issues of the day. The Illinois senator has made clear that he's sick and tired of these "distractions." I addressed the point already a few days ago, but to repeat: electability is a valid issue when a party chooses its candidate, but in a democratic party with primary elections voters have just as much right to consider who'd make the better President as they have an obligation to consider electability. If electability is the primary consideration (pun unintended but probably subconscious) for party leaders, they should never have let the nomination process out of the smoke-filled rooms. For his part, Obama has the right to assert that policies determine electability more than distractions, and Clinton has an equal right to argue otherwise. But I don't think any group of Democrats in Indiana wants to be in a room for three hours hearing that particular debate, and I know the candidates don't need to be in that room to debate the point further.

If Clinton really believes that the 1858 format has virtues, the first thing she should do if nominated is issue the same challenge to McCain. That should be even less of a risk than her current ploy, because the Republican would most likely have even less desire to pull such a stunt than Obama does, for fairly obvious reasons.

A Bad Idea for Atheists

Here's an article about atheists trying to bond with one another and form societies or, god help us, "churches" in order to affirm their commitment to something rather than their mere opposition to the idea of gods. In my opinion, such efforts defeat the purpose of atheism, which is (or ought to be) as much the overthrow of dogmatic systems in general as the outgrowing of belief in supernatural powers. Any moves in the direction described in the article only add ammo to the popular line of attack that atheism is itself a "religion" as defined by doctrines hardened into dogma.

Any atheist or anti-theist or merely aggressive agnostic who can't deal with merely being against something is in the wrong vocation. The whole point of the exercise is to be a dissident, a freethinker -- to be against groupthink or any other form of accepted wisdom. Merely saying "no" to what is wrong should not be disparaged. It's an essential activity in any democracy. When a bad policy is proposed, it should be opposed because it is wrong in itself, not just because you propose something else instead. It may trouble some folks to be told that they "believe in nothing," but I suggest turning that on your accusers. If they tell you that you believe in nothing, tell them that they do, too, if you get my meaning. Once those people become convinced, as many seem to be already, that atheists are actually proposing some sort of alternate "religion," they'll only harden their hearts that much more against your message.

By all means, atheists and other freethinkers should have support networks, committees of correspondence, chatrooms, etc. But each freethinker has an obligation to the integrity of his or her own intellectual development. My hope is that people reject the religions of Abraham and all similar societies not because they've read a popular book, or because atheism has become trendy, but because they've managed to figure things out for themselves based on the evidence readily available. To some extent, it may be a lonely intellectual journey, but maybe it should be.

26 April 2008

Rev. Wright's Wrongs, continued

Anyone interested in the subject should go to the PBS website and either watch the video or read the transcript of the Moyers interview with Jeremiah Wright. Having read the transcript, I can confirm that Moyers did not ask him point blank about his charges regarding AIDS or crack. That's regrettable because, as I wrote previously, those charges were among the most offensive details of his sermons to his many newly-minted critics. On the other hand, Wright goes a long way toward clarifying his "God damn America" comments, for all the good that will do with conservatives and other mindless patriots. Those elements would rather have a patriotic clergy, perhaps on the Chinese model, than endure the words of even a would-be prophet. But if we're going to have freedom of religion in the U.S., that means preachers should be able to hold the government to a different if not higher standard than politicians might like, even as secular citizens hold the clergy to a secular standard. I have no use for Rev. Wright as a religious leader, but his courage justifies the freedom of religion that we so often abused by the likes of Warren Jeffs and his polygamist cult. Another way of saying this is that Wright demonstrates the political utility of freedom of religion by using his pulpit to speak against power, while the FLDS, for instance, shows the danger of freedom of religion as an end in itself.

24 April 2008

Rev. Wright's Wrongs, Revisited

Jeremiah Wright has given an interview to Bill Moyers, who will broadcast it on PBS tomorrow night. Excerpts have been released to the news media, and ABC has one of the better collections of excerpts. As might be expected, the minister claims that the controversial sound bites have been taken out of context. In the interview, he attempts to re-establish the context.

"When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public," Wright says, "that's not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a 'wackadoodle.'
"It's to paint me as something: 'Something's wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with this country…for its policies. We're perfect. Our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them,'" Wright says. "That's not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate."
And what does Wright think "they" wanted to communicate?
"That I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ," Wright says. "And by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint? That's what they wanted to communicate."

This seems correct to me, but if that represents the whole of what he has to say on the subject, he'll leave a lot of people unsatisfied. For many critics, the issue is not his general characterization of American history, but specific charges which the critics consider delusional if not outright lies. It will be interesting to see if Moyers will raise the specific issues of AIDS and crack with Wright, and more interesting to see how the minister responds outside the safety zone of his pulpit.

Meanwhile, Senator McCain continues his (perhaps conveniently) futile struggle with rogue elements in his own party who wish to slander Senator Obama by association with Wright. McCain plays the good cop by condemning the advertising, but since he has no power whatsoever to stop this particular group from doing as they please, their campaign continues with added publicity thanks to McCain's condemnations. I think that on some level the Arizonan is trying to do the right thing, if perhaps only because he fears reciprocal attacks due to his ambivalent association with John Hagee. I'm also fairly certain that McCain recognizes that the risk involved in assuming the rhetorical high ground is minimal, so let's not give him too much credit this time.

By the way, check out the discussion thread at the bottom of the ABC site. It's a raw feed of the twisted political and cultural consciousness of a nation and will prove appalling or amusing, depending on your vantage point.
* * *
Update: 10:15 p.m. A sample of the prime-time talking head shows on cable news yields an early consensus that Wright is, intentionally or not, throwing Obama under the archetypical bus. What remains unclear is his presumed motive. Is he unconsciously undermining the senator by suggesting, in his comment that Obama responded "as a politician" to the controversy, that Obama was dissimulating in his Philadelphia speech and had concealed his true agreement with Wright's views? Or has he turned bitter at a perceived rejection by Obama the politician, and did he call the senator a mere politician to express his disappointment with the man? More answers, and perhaps more questions, await the full broadcast of the Moyers interview.

23 April 2008

Democrats: The Race Goes On

The race goes on past Pennsylvania, as it should. If the Democratic party claims to be democratic, then no one within it has any authority to order Clinton or Obama to quit. If Democrats wanted to put the good of the party before the will of its members, they shouldn't have adopted primary elections in the first place.

Superdelegates, of course, are entitled to consider the good of the party. They should do so regardless of the pressure from the Obama camp to respect the will of the majority of primary voters nationwide. If those voters don't like the result, maybe they'll learn a lesson about political parties. Nor should the superdelegates be swayed by the sophistry of Clintonites. They say that their candidate's victory in the "big states" means Obama can't win them in the general election. The idea is self-evidently absurd. It presumes that everyone who votes against Obama in a Democratic primary will vote Republican in the general election. The Clintonites are trying to force this argument, it seems, by telling exit-pollsters in disturbingly large numbers that they would vote for McCain against Obama in November. If not disingenuous, they certainly must be bitter, or else some of them, at least, are just plain bigots. How do you like those choices? But in any event, once the Democratic leadership rallies behind Obama, should he be nominated, and starts running "Roe v. Wade is in danger" commercials and similar stuff, I doubt the remaining Clintonites would want to take their chances with McCain.

Clinton has tried to make the primary endgame all about electability. All the guilt-by-association attacks on Obama and the orchestrated outrage over "bittergate" (I've actually heard this term!) are meant to demonstrate that the Illinois senator is more vulnerable to "swift-boating" in the fall. Electability is a proper consideration for the bosses in the smoke-filled rooms; it's a "good of the party" argument. Unfortunately for party leaders, primary voters probably think they're voting for whoever they think will be the best President, not merely the best candidate. Understandably, a lot of them take offense at the negative turn the campaign has taken. They should take offense at the idea that they should vote in these primaries as partisans first and citizens second.

22 April 2008

Terror and Consent, Part III

So how does a nation state become a market state? As far as I can tell from reading Philip Bobbitt's book, it just happens. He's a believer in large historical forces, one of which is globalization. My guess is that globalized economic competition is the major factor making it impossible, in Bobbitt's prediction, for nation states to remain welfare states in the good sense of that term. But who asked for this? That's probably a silly question when you're dealing in impersonal historical forces, but I can't help asking it because Bobbitt insists that the "Wars of the 21st Century," i.e. "the wars on Terror," will pit states of consent against states of terror. I've already asked twice over: if citizens of a nation state (or welfare state) have not consented to their country becoming a market state, how can that new market state call itself a state of consent? I have to keep asking because Bobbitt doesn't even describe a process through which people could consent to the change -- and he definitely doesn't allow that they could say no.

He does admit that many people won't be happy with the change. He writes: "From the perspective of nation states to which we are accustomed, market states seem a disavowal of much we have been taught to expect from the State. With regard to global governance, the preferences of market states for informal incentives, deregulation, and voluntary association may seem like a renunciation of the rule of law itself" (505-6).

But if so many people would presumably be hostile to the change, why can't they stop it or reverse it? Bobbitt may think that this is the sort of historical change that simply isn't subject to political will. That'd be consistent with his abstract level of thinking; after all, Terror and Consent recommends sweeping changes in military and intelligence strategy on the basis of a theory of history. At the same time, he clearly expects many if not more people to benefit from the market state order, as long as they enjoy the opportunities market states must provide. He envisions a more cosmopolitan world where individual identity trumps old claims to exclusive national loyalties.

The move to the primacy of persons as individuals and as members of self-chosen groups rather than only as nationals has several other implications for global governance. Foremost, considerations of history, culture and geography that were suppressed or highly structured by nation states will be more keenly felt (and expressed). As a corollary, it ought to be possible for individuals to be citizens of more than one state and for their states to be members of more than one regional group.(508)

Everyone will be free to join everything, Bobbitt imagines, but what happens to the sense of belonging, of membership that confers mutual obligations as well as individual benefits? What's to become of solidarity in this new constitutional order? People are going to miss these things unless they've been prepared for the change by generations of brainwashing, as has arguably been the case in the U.S. Inevitably, people are going to resist the transition from nation to market state when they see it happening in real time on their ground. My worry is that Bobbitt has painted these people and their governments into a conceptual corner, so that by resisting the transition to a market state, they become (in his mind) a state of terror.

On several occasions, Bobbitt writes that democracies won't necessarily qualify as states of consent as long as they lack a "rule of law" of the kind that would presumably be appropriate to a market state. Recall his assertion that market states of consent can't tolerate the existence of other forms of government. Consider that, while he accuses al Qaeda of an aggressive agenda to impose sharia on a Caliphate, he acknowledges that bin Laden and his pals have repeatedly asked only to be left alone to impose it on only one part of the world. Recall again that Bobbitt says that market states of consent cannot leave states of terror alone. What then, if any country (what the hell, let's call it Russia) tells the world, "we intend to remain a nation state and play by the old rules, and we have our people behind us, and we will resist the encroachments of market states by all means lawful to a nation state"? According to Bobbitt's framework, such a country is likely to be a terrorist threat to the extent that it attempts to limit opportunities for individuals outside its borders (see part II of my review) and will be increasingly desperate to preserve its old-fashioned opaque national sovereignty. How long would it take, then, before market states, under some fine-sounding rubric like a "league of democracies," wage "preclusive" or "anticipatory" war against the offending nation?

I don't mean to accuse Bobbitt of advocating such a policy, but he leaves himself open to speculation because he never acknowledges that the great transition on which all his premises are founded can ever be contested by the will of a people. As a result, the overall impression I get from Terror and Consent is that all of us are either with the program or against it, and that those of us who are against it are a threat.

Philip Bobbitt himself might ask me what I'm afraid of. Well, he paints a pretty harrowing portrait of the chaos in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he damns the Bush administration for its incompetence, but while he would argue that that's not how a proper market state would handle things (he has plenty of his own suggestions), my own hunch is to the contrary. He hopes that future administrations, by enacting and abiding by new systems of international law, intelligence gathering and military justice, will earn the people's trust for more effective security measures, without allowing that citizens will continue to disagree about the fundamental reasons for any military venture, especially if future interventions are founded on the Bobbitt doctrine that we can't leave nasty countries alone, and that dissidents in a "war on terror" environment legitimately worry that governments will interpret dissent from war aims as subversion or treason. I can readily accept that there are parts of the world where I wouldn't be welcome, and I'm not so all-encompassingly ambitious to think that my opportunities, much less my rights, are limited as a result. If I offer my viewpoint as a model for American foreign policy, will I have Bobbitt or other people call me an enemy of freedom?

I'll leave the topic with a paradox: Can a person speak out against freedom, and still be free? When writers like Bobbitt summon visions of armed freedom on the march, and politicians like John McCain (who has advocated a "league of democracies" similar to Bobbitt's idea) seem to be listening, we had better figure out the answer soon.

21 April 2008

What'd They Say?

Here's a quick survey of opinions I found in the papers over the past few days, starting with David Brooks, one of the house conservatives at the New York Times, in defense of the ABC debate:

Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos are taking a lot of heat for spending so much time asking about Jeremiah Wright and the 'bitter' comments. But the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry's windsurfing or John Edwards' haircut as clues about shared values.

If Brooks is right, then the country has become more democratic in a way that does no credit to democracy. Most voters of 200 years ago most likely neither shared nor expected to share the "life experiences" of aristocrats like Washington and Jefferson or learned men like the Adamses, but that didn't disqualify such people from political life in American eyes. I grant that American voters of 200 years ago were an "elite" unto themselves by today's standards, but the "anti-elitism" that today's conservatives want to foster didn't automatically follow from the country getting more democratic, as the popularity of FDR and JFK will prove. Something else is at work that Brooks wants to call "values" but is really "ideology." He wants to convince the working class that the corporate class shares with them "values" that those decadent godless pervert liberals oppose, and that it's the liberals, not the corporate guys, who dare tell the rest of us how to live. This tactic has seemed to work before; let's see if it will again.

Now here's George Will with an amazing proposal for corporate America:

If Congress cannot suppress its itch to 'do something' while markets are correcting the prices of housing and money, Congress could pass a law saying: No company benefiting from a substantial federal subvention ... may pay any executive more than the highest pay of a federal civil servant ($124,010). That would dampen Wall Street's enthusiasm for measures that socialize losses while keeping profits private.

This sounds like a good idea, but I fear that Will only proposes it sarcastically. He's a market idolator who argues that the Federal Reserve's "duty is not to avoid a recession at all costs" and fears that its efforts will only exacerbate the developing one. No business is "too big to fail" as far as Will's concerned, so he opposes any kind of bailout. I suspect that, once CEOs learn their lesson and agree to play purely by market rules, Will would be happy to see them paid as much as the mighty market will permit.

Let's move on to some theological speculation from Bill O'Reilly:

Are you telling me that Jesus would not have used TV, radio and the Net to spread his word? Come on. If Jesus were here right now, he'd definitely have a cable program or at least be doing commentary on '60 Minutes.' Clerics might think about that.

The Fox talker must have been watching South Park too often. Contrary to that show's suggestion, even public access cable would probably be beyond the capacity of the historical Jesus. Since believers and non-believers appear to agree that the man never wrote anything, it would appear that he didn't even avail himself of the most advanced communication technology of his own time. Why would he do differently now?

Finally, these are excerpts from a letter to the Albany Times Union written by Larry Roth of Ravena:

Sen. Barack Obama is being subjected to a lot of synthetic criticism for choosing to describe a certain class of Americans as bitter. Understandably so, too. Americans are supposed to be the most cheerful, optimistic people in the world. They have to be -- because if they weren't, they might be asking people like Sens. John McCain and Hilary Clinton some tough questions...
Apparently, someone who wants to be president is supposed to be some kind of national cheerleader, to make us feel good about ourselves. Well, that's exactly what we have now, a president who spent his college days as
a cheerleader. He's also the same man who lied us into an unending war, done his best to bankrupt the country while enriching his friends, and signed off on the job his top people did on deciding the best ways to
torture people while bending the law to make it 'legal.'
A majority of Americans think America is on the wrong track -- but that's OK as long as they're not bitter about it. That would be unthinkable -- and talking about it, unacceptable.

20 April 2008

Terror and Consent, Part II

Not having read Philip Bobbitt's previous book, The Shield of Achilles, it took a while for me to figure out exactly what a "market state" was supposed to be. It was apparent from the first references that it was going to be something less than a welfare state (or what Bobbitt calls a "nation state" but it didn't become clear immediately exactly what that would mean for the daily lives of working people. After 500 pages of Terror and Consent, he explains that market states might take three different forms: entrepreneurial states, presumably like the U.S., stress creating opportunities for their citizens through education, job training and retraining, etc.; mercantilist states, presumably like many Asian countries, emphasize industrial strategies to secure the largest market share for their exports; managerial states, exemplified for Bobbitt by Germany, come closest to the welfare-state model, sacrificing some efficiency and innovation in favor of stability and quality of life for their citizens. None of the above, however, will be capable or willing to make the same social guarantees to their citizens that welfare-nation states did.

The irritating thing about Bobbitt's grand thesis is his macro-historical assumption that the transformation of nation-states into market-states is inevitable and irreversible. Even more irritating is his equation of market states with "states of consent." While he acknowledges the possibility of "market states of terror," for which al Qaeda serves as a prototype, Bobbitt clearly thinks that the typical market state will be a state of consent. Indeed, the advent of the market state seems to make states of consent more hostile to "states of terror" than ever before.

Market states, however, require a common ethos in a way their predecessors did not....Market states must demonstrate the worth of global markets and the globalising principles -- including the rule of law -- that underlie such markets.
* * *
More importantly, a state that turns on its own citizens is state of terror no matter what its constitutional evolution, and as such it will always pose a challenge to states of consent, to their self-respect, and to their legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizens. Sudan does not threaten the E.U. or the U.S. any more than Serbia did when it conducted its massacres in Kosovo. But these states of terror do threaten the fundamental premise of the market state -- that it will maximize the opportunity of its people -- because they suggest that opportunity is bought at the price of allowing terror to triumph (if elsewhere), and once that bargain is struck it is a short step to the demand that a state of terror replace one's own state of consent when the going gets rough. (229-30)

Bobbitt predicts that market states of consent will be pressured more often by their own people to invade states of terror (allegedly) like Sudan because a globalized media will publicize that country's outrages and inflame public opinion in favor of humanitarian intervention, i.e. war. The concept of "none of our business" will be obsolete. Instead, as Bobbitt tellingly explains, states of consent "seek to maximize the opportunities of their citizens by empowering the citizens of other states." (487). Reduce that phrase to the actual policy Bobbitt idealizes and it means: market states maximize opportunities for their citizens by invading other countries. If that sounds self-interested rather than idealistic, that doesn't bother Bobbitt. Here he is discussing the decision to invade Iraq.

Iraq's oil wealth cannot have been irrelevant. Why would critics of the war demand that it be so? Why do we expect states never to have multiple, mixed motives when most of us wouldn't choose a university -- wouldn't even buy a car -- without a complicated calculus of many values, sometimes in conflict? This demand -- that a state's motives must be purely self-sacrificing if they are not to be judged discreditable -- reflects expectations about states that are so unrealistic as to be counterproductive to those very goals that human rights advocates wish to promote. Instead of concluding that states with geopolitical interests should be barred from interventions, we should instead be devising doctrines ... that clearly state how strategic interests, measured on a global scale, intersect with humanitarian interests in order to move states in the direction of protecting civilians. (493)

Bobbitt's purpose in Terror and Consent is to suggest doctrines that will justify interventions by market states of consent against states of terror. Once the proper doctrine is established, he expects, the intervening states won't be acting without justification or only out of self-interest. There has to be a doctrine because all these interventions have to happen according to a rule of law, or else the intervening states cannot be states of consent. Bobbitt's beef with the Bush administration is based on their apparent belief that international law can be dispensed with altogether, rather than rewritten, as the author urges, to legitimize American actions. He worries that moving further in Bush's direction could turn the U.S. into a state of terror, but he also worries that we could end up one if we don't pass the stronger surveillance and data-sharing laws he advocates, because our failure to have a legal system and government apparatus in place appropriate to the new threat of market-state terrorism could force us to turn to martial law in a crisis.

The foundation of Bobbitt's doctrine is that not all nations are equal anymore. The old international order, embodied in the UN and founded on the equal inviolable sovereignty of all nations, he declares obsolete. In short, states of terror have no sovereignty that states of consent are bound to recognize.

I offer this provocative proposed rule: a state of terror can never be sovereign.... Persons within a state of terror may prosecute armed struggles against the State and not be subject to lawful sanction or extradition; they are not terrorists unless they attack civilians with no connection to the state depredations they are resisting. Other states may lawfully intervene against such a state to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, genocide, or international terrorism, or to forestall mass catastrophes ignored by the regime -- all indicia of states of terror. To be assured of sovereignty, and of the protection of the international community, both domestically and among states, a state need only become transparently a state of consent. (481-2)

"Transparently" is a technical term for Bobbitt, who defines three degrees of state sovereignty. Opaque sovereignty is the old standard, which says one state's internal affairs are nobody else's business. Translucent sovereignty happens in entities like the European Union, in which the member states are accountable to each other and liable to sanctions when they violate agreed-upon rules. Transparent sovereignty is the American way, on the Jeffersonian/Federalist model, which is "founded on the notion that the People possess rights that can't be alienated by delegation to the government" (466).

At this point, Bobbitt makes a disingenuous leap. He claims that the concept of transparent sovereignty justifies humanitarian intervention against states of terror. Transparency "holds that a state's acts toward the state's own citizens, within its own territory can be judged by other states and serve as a predicate for armed intervention even in the absence of an endorsement by the appropriate international institutions" (469). The really disingenuous bit follows: "This fully fits the American concept of sovereignty, for when a state violates the compact of human rights it implicitly holds with its people, it forfeits or at least sharply compromises its sovereignty, because popular consent is the source of state sovereignty."

Did you catch the trickery? What Bobbitt just did was use the concept of government's accountability to its own citizens (the "American concept of sovereignty") to justify an invasion by another country or coalition of powers. You can deny that Bobbitt just pulled a fast one if you can show me any document in which Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison etc. theorized a right of foreign countries to invade the United States. I bet you can't.

Of course, catching Bobbitt in an error doesn't mean that his argument is wrong on its own merits, but it does make you suspect that something is wrong with his picture. That's why I keep coming back to the question of whether a welfare state transformed against the will of its citizens into a market state is really a state of consent after all. If it isn't, what are the implications for all of Bobbitt's self-described political philosophy? I hope to address that question in a third and final article.

17 April 2008

The ABC of Debates

I watched the ABC debate last night, and it's as bad as people say. The bad thing about it is not whether the moderators harassed Senator Obama more than they did Senator Clinton, or whether it was appropriate to ask a question suggested by Sean Hannity. The awful thing about the show (let's call it that and not a debate) was that the moderators thought it just as important to have the senators debate who'd make the better candidate as it was to debate who'd be the better President. It was as important to know how vulnerable either candidate would be to smears and guilt-by-association attacks from now to November as to learn what each proposes to do from January forward. That's the justification for "gotcha" journalism as practiced on the news networks, and it renders these shows decreasingly meaningful for anyone who wants to make a knowledgeable choice in the remaining primaries or in the fall. They've grown worse as the field has narrowed, which is an argument against candidates giving up as early as they did, and for bringing independent candidates into the fall debates. When it comes down to McCain vs. the Democrat, the Republican will take his lumps just as much as Obama did last night, and however one might gloat at his discomfiture, we should still regret the insult to his intelligence, his opponent's, and ours.

16 April 2008

Give Benedict a Break

For one thing, it's his birthday. For another, all the people who want to protest the Catholic policy of celibacy and bachelorhood for priests should consider the alternative. We can point them right to it, in the Texas compound of the FLDS. However mundane the actual reasons for imposing the policy, the Catholics may have made the right call, given how easily monotheist patriarchs succumb to the temptation to polygamy. It's a genuine point of credit to Jesus that, to our knowledge, he never claimed this typical patriarchal privilege, which we find among his Hebrew precursors and his Muslim and Mormon successors. Whatever his messianic claims, this is a remarkable and admirable bit of modesty on his part. I don't mean to say that polygamy or polyamory are intrinsic evils, but yoked to patriarchy and monotheism it's usually bad news for wives and children. Catholicism is innocent at least of that sin, though the absence of one may go unnoticed on such a long ledger ...

Terror and Consent: Part One

I just finished a formidable tome called Terror and Consent: The Wars of the Twenty-first Century, written by Phillip Bobbitt. The author is a Democrat who served as an advisor in some capacity to the Clinton Administration. He's best known for writing The Shield of Achilles, a history of strategy and how it relates to changing constitutional orders over time. In his new book, Bobbitt defends the concept of a "war on terror," a venture that will make it controversial in intellectual and political circles.

Bobbitt anticipates the criticism that "you can't wage war on a tactic" and tries to deflect it by defining terror as a condition, a state of being. A "state of terror" is one in which people are deterred by violence or the threat of violence from doing what they actually have a right to do. This, he asserts, is what terrorists wish to impose on the world. It's a new aspiration for terrorists that reflects the evolution of nations from "nation states" to "market states." Al Qaeda is only the first wave of "market state terrorists" or "market states of terror," all of which will want to terrorize the whole world in order to secure for themselves freedom of action in their own part of the world or universal compliance with some ideological or religious demand.

Because he thinks the form terrorism takes is a product of the prevailing world order, Bobbitt doesn't care to elaborate on root causes of Islamic terrorism or the history of the Middle East. This seems evasive because it allows Bobbitt to fit al Qaeda into a mold of his own making. In his view, bin Laden's movement is an aggressive force positively motivated by the desire to impose sharia rather than defensively motivated in response to actual or perceived aggression by the West. He acknowledges that al Qaeda basically wants to be left alone to build a sharia Caliphate somewhere, but for Bobbitt this is an unacceptable objective.

The advent of the "market state" (which apparently favors individual opportunity over social welfare and emphasizes physical security over economic security for its citizens) seems to have brought us to a "House Divided" moment in world history. In American history, Abraham Lincoln said "a house divided against itself cannot stand." He wasn't predicting that the house would fall, but that it would cease to be divided. In the American context, that meant the U.S. would either belong to slaveholders or to free labor. He wanted to ensure that slavery was in "the course of ultimate extinction," and that commitment put him on a collision course with the slaveholders. Bobbitt doesn't mention Lincoln in this context, but echoes him in asserting that the world can't be divided between "states of terror" and "states of consent" -- the latter being those nations dedicated to democracy and/or the rule of law in the name of individual liberty. To continue the analogy, "states of consent" must be satisfied that "states of terror" are on the course of ultimate extinction, which puts the two sets of states on a collision course that leads to the "wars on Terror."

To render it plainly, "states of consent" cannot tolerate the existence of any place on earth where their citizens wouldn't be perfectly welcome or wouldn't enjoy the same individual rights they have at home. They are somehow compelled to suppress "states of terror" on the theory that their own citizens aren't secure in their rights until everyone on earth is secure in the same rights. It so happens that those rights are the ones Jefferson defined in the Declaration of Independence. Bobbitt believes in universal, individual, "inalienable" rights, and that political sovereignty depends on the consent of the governed. While he often insists that not every "state of consent" will resemble the U.S., you can't help but assume that he wouldn't object if they did.

In any event, "states of terror" or, worse, "virtual market states of terror" (e.g. al Qaeda) recognize this fundamental antipathy and are impelled to spread terror to defend themselves. The problem, as far as Bobbitt is concerned, is that "states of terror" have no right to defend themselves. The new constitutional order cannot permit "states of terror" to have the same rights as "states of consent" because their recourse to terror in self-defense illegally terrorizes citizens of states of consent, who are entitled to seek the destruction of states of terror.

It sounds a little like circular reasoning to me. We have to wage war on states of terror because they want to terrorize us so we won't wage war on them. Bobbitt himself acknowledges this problem. The major part of Terror and Consent is his attempt to forge a system of international law that would legitimize the wars on Terror so that no given war will be seen as merely an attempt by some great power to oppress a weaker but hostile force. His big beef with the Bush administration is over their apparent contempt for international law, but he meets them halfway by insisting that international law must change to reflect the new constitutional order and the new challenges of "market state terrorism." Similarly, he considers the Bushies their own worst enemies because of their obsession with secrecy and executive power, but he insists that civil libertarians must moderate their objections to new intelligence strategies because liberties are threatened more by terrorism than by surveillance.

I've taken notes on the book that I've left at my office. In Part Two of my review, I'll let Bobbitt speak for himself on some of the topics already mentioned while articulating more of my own criticisms. I'll leave the subject for now with the warning that "states of consent" might not be the most accurate label for the "market states" Bobbitt describes.

Ahmadinejad: Idiot

While I concede people's right to question whether the 11 Sept. 2001 attacks were somehow "allowed" to happen (though not believing that myself) I think the skeptics should not be happy to have the Iranian president in their camp. I've cut him some slack in the past over his alleged Holocaust denial (because to my knowledge he has not denied that the Nazis killed Jews en masse), his latest comments on the New York attacks are singularly asinine in their ignorance. When he claims a debating point by asserting that the names of victims have never been printed, he only demonstrates how unlearned he is on the subject. Perhaps he goes beyond the passive-conspiracy theory and thinks the whole thing was a hoax, and that no one was killed. Maybe he thinks that all we saw was some combination of Jewish sorcery and Hollywood special effects -- or maybe he thinks those are one and the same. Please don't get me wrong: I'm as opposed to waging war on Iran as ever, but that doesn't mean I can't call a fool a fool. Otherwise I'd be engaged in an insurrection against my own government.

14 April 2008

Geoff? I thought that was JEFF Davis!

You may have heard by now that a Republican congressman from Kentucky actually called Senator Obama a "boy" over the weekend. Rep. Geoff Davis told his audience that the nation didn't need "that boy's" hand on the nuclear button. By today he was apologizing abjectly to Obama, but the damage has been done, not so much to the congressman, but to the Republican-conservative-Clintonian argument that we all need to just shut up about race.

People who don't want to be bothered by the likes of Rev. Wright want us all to focus on the progress that's been made over the last fifty years or so, which should convince blacks to get over their grievances. So let's consider this little token of progress. Rep. Davis sounds like quite the throwback, doesn't he? He must have been hanging out on the front porch sipping juleps with Strom Thurmond and such folk, right. Guess what: he's only 49 years old.

Who Wants to be an Elitist; or, What's the Matter With Clinton?

The most despicable thing about Senator Clinton's current crusade against Senator Obama's "bitter" remarks is that she's playing by the Republican rulebook. She's practicing the faux-populism perfected by the GOP over the past quarter-century and anticipated by the George Wallace campaigns of the 60s and 70s. Wallace pitted himself against "pointy-headed intellectuals" who dared pass judgement on the customs of the common folk, including segregation. Hoping to inherit Wallace's base, Republicans evolved the so-called "Southern Strategy," part of which was to rail against "elites" who were oppressing ordinary people. These "elites" were invariably intellectuals, Ivy Leaguers, people who were portrayed as looking down their noses contemptuously at blue-collar America, who dared tell other people "how to live." Somehow the GOP convinced large numbers of voters that this "elite" was the problem with America at the exact time when the economy began its long slide from postwar prosperity to the current crisis. And while the multinationals stripped away the country's manufacturing base and began to outsource our vaunted service sector, Republicans and their talk-radio mouthpieces continued warning folks against the pseudo-elite as if freethinking and alternative lifestyles lost us our jobs. The fact is, any talk about a "cultural elite" or "intellectual elite" oppressing ordinary Americans that identifies the alleged offenders as "elitists" serves only to confirm the fake worldview, the big lie that Republicans have been pushing for decades. The other fact is, that's what Senator Clinton is doing in all her robotic hypocrisy. It proves Obama right, of course; Hillary represents the politics of the past -- the Republican past.

13 April 2008


Thomas Jefferson was born on this day in 1743. For many years, Democrats held "Jefferson Day" celebrations to mark the occasion, but the man the party once credited as its founder is probably too problematic for the modern mosaic it now claims to be. It's questionable whether Jefferson would even sit down with "his" party's two presidential contenders. While noting few exceptions he questioned blacks' capacity in general for intellectual accomplishment, and his dealings with a politically-minded First Lady, Abigail Adams, were often unhappy.

Still, people of diverse and contradictory political views often cite Jefferson as an authority or guide for present thinking. Our local paper last week printed an op-ed that's been circulating through the press from a libertarian writer who quoted Jefferson thusly: To take from one because it is thought his own industry ... has acquired too much, in order to spare others who have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

Jefferson wrote this in the margin of a book on Political Economy, but the author didn't quote the note in full. In 1816, the ex-president wrote of "his own industry and that of his father's" compared to "others, who, or whose fathers have note exercised equal industry." That's an interesting omission: doesn't the op-ed writer endorse the idea of inheritance, or did she think bringing that up would obfuscate her point, which was to line up Jefferson on the side of "free enterprise" and against taxing the rich?

As Crhymethinc pointed out to me, and wrote himself to the paper, this is fine talk however you slice it from a man who lived off the labor of slaves. But you don't need to refer to Jefferson's deeds to find him contradicting himself; he did so in writing as well, or at least it seems so. We found another Jefferson quotation in a recent issue of The Nation. In this one, which I traced to the same year, 1816, this time in a letter to a man named George Logan, Jefferson wrote: I hope we shall ... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

But from the libertarian viewpoint, doesn't the letter contradict the marginalia. Isn't the corporate bigwig as much entitled to the fruits of his or his father's industry as anyone else? Or did Jefferson make a distinction that the libertarian refuses to acknowledge, between those who work with their hands, farmers and craftsmen, and those engaged in commerce or capitalism, which he distrusted. The University of Virginia, which he founded, provides lists of quotes from Jefferson on various topics; alongside the last bit about crushing aristocracy, we find him writing in 1809: The selfish spirit of commerce ... knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain. And from 1814: Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.

The same issue of The Nation ran a review of another book that appears to portray Jefferson as the original faux-populist, a la Senator Clinton this weekend. That is, he and his faction attempted to divert criticism away from big landholders and slaveholders like themselves by portraying merchants and speculators as the real elitists who threatened our national virtue. Some people say you can trace a straight line from Jefferson to today's demagogues who claim that the true elitist isn't the billionaire who disposes of thousands of jobs like so much clutter, but that pointy-headed intellectual who supposedly looks down his nose at the customs of a "bitter" populace.

Jefferson still has his rabid defenders, professors and politicians both, who don't want their hero judged by "presentist" standards. They argue that his hypocritical espousal of democracy was still preferable to the policies of his rivals, who allegedly despised democracy altogether. There's some sense to this defense. After all, it'd make no sense to say that: 1. Jefferson preached democracy; but 2. He proved himself a hypocrite by owning slaves; so 3. We ought to live under dictatorship. But we shouldn't forget that he was a hypocrite, if only because our standards have changed, and therefore he can't be a perfect or absolute guide to modern politics.

Thomas Jefferson understood that himself. In last week's New Yorker I came across yet another quote from the man. Having outlived many of his fellow Founders, he was already being asked what his colleagues would do or say if they could come back from the dead. He answered: This they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. ... Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

12 April 2008

The Olympic Games: A History

The modern Olympic Games were inaugurated in 1896. In 1900, the games of the Second Olympiad were held in Paris. At that time, France ruled an extensive colonial empire encompassing Indochina and much of Africa, without the consent of native populations. The games were neither boycotted nor protested.

In 1904 the Olympics were held in St. Louis, U.S.A. At the time, the U.S. was wrapping up its military campaign against a native insurrection in the Philippines, which this country had taken from Spain after the 1898 war. Historians estimate that American troops killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos during the insurrection. The games were not boycotted.

In 1908 the Games were held in London. This was during the time when the sun supposedly never set on the British Empire. Great Britain's was the largest of the European colonial empires. King Edward VII was also Emperor of India, without the consent of the Indian people. The games were not boycotted.

In 1920 the Games were held in Antwerp, Belgium. Even little Belgian had an Empire, ruling the "Belgian Congo" which had once been the personal property of the Belgian King and was proverbial for murderous exploitation. The games were not boycotted.

In 1924 the Summer Olympics were once again held in France, and once more not boycotted.

In 1928, the Olympics came to Amsterdam. At that time, the Netherlands ruled Indonesia and a number of smaller colonies, without the native peoples' consent. The games were not boycotted.

In 1932 the Summer games were held in Los Angeles. The U.S. still ruled the Philippines, and would do so, not counting the Japanese occupation during World War II, until 1946. The games were not boycotted.

In 1936, many people did object to the idea of Adolf Hitler hosting the Olympics in Berlin, but the games were not boycotted.

In 1948, the first Summer Olympics after World War II were held in London. While Great Britain had recently divested itself of India, it still ruled an increasingly restive empire extending from Malaya to Hong Kong to Kenya, and the games still were not boycotted.

It's nice to suppose that we are simply more enlightened than our insensitive ancestors, and that there's no double standard involved when people object to China hosting the Olympics, or when they objected to Moscow hosting them. The issue, however, isn't whether anyone has a double standard, because a great gulf of years separates the latest of these colonial-era Olympiads from the boycott era. The point of this history lesson is to have you ask: what's changed? I'd suggest that ideology has crept in here as it has in so many places, and that ideologues would find any excuse to deny the legitimacy allegedly conferred upon rival ideologies by hosting the Olympic Games. You'll probably see the same thing if a Muslim country gets to host the Games, presuming that such a country wants them. The Olympic ideal, of course, is a kind of ideology unto itself, and that, too, may be why Americans like to talk about boycotts so often.

Obama: The Elitism Test

Are you an elitist? Are you out of touch with your fellow Americans? Now there's an easy way to find out. Take the Clinton-McCain test to learn the answer in one simple step:

Q. Do you agree with the following statement, or do you find it offensive in some way?

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations

These are the words of Barack Obama from last Sunday, as quoted by the BBC and by the Senator's rivals. According to the Clinton campaign, these are "elitist" sentiments. According to the McCain campaign, they demonstrate in "breathtaking" fashion that Obama is "out of touch" with the American mainstream. According to Obama's own mea culpa, the comments were ill-phrased, but why exactly should he apologize? Is it "elitist" not to flatter the American people in every phrase? Are you "out of touch" if you describe facts without expressing complete and approving empathy with the people you describe? Some people are bound to think so, but they're the ones who confuse democracy with self-esteem. The American people need to hear hard truths this year, but given the response (from the other candidates, at least) to this truth that wasn't even particularly hard, our prospects aren't very promising.

* * *
Here's a bonus question: What's the subtext behind all this talk about Obama's "elitist" campaign. All I can figure at first glance is that Obama is the "post-racial" candidate who invites voters to rise above prejudice and preconception, so who is he to tell us how to think? ...

09 April 2008

No Such Thing as a Neocon?

Here's an article by someone sometimes accused of being a neocon himself questioning whether there's really something called "neoconservatism" that represents a radical departure from traditional American policies. As a historian, Dr. Kagan can gather plenty of evidence to support his argument, but I wonder whether he isn't simply fighting a straw man.

His complaint is that critics of the War on Terror have posited a conspiracy theory around the alleged influences of former Trotskyites and followers of the infamous Leo Strauss to explain policies that aren't really innovative in the context of U.S. history. He contends that we don't need to talk about Strauss or any ex-Trotskyites (or Zionists, heaven forbid) to explain American aggressiveness after 11 Sept 2001. The "neocons," he suggests, are only scapegoats to be blamed for ventures that haven't succeeded but had broad support at first.

Kagan fits the current trouble into a historic pattern:

The search for an extraneous explanation is an old tradition. The Spanish-American War was probably the most popular war in American history, uniting left and right, southerners with northerners, Theodore Roosevelt with William Jennings Bryan. But when the aftermath of the war left a sour taste in the mouths of many, a new account of the war emerged, according to which a very small number of people had managed to manipulate the levers of power and the
emotions of millions in order to pursue their imperialistic conspiracy. This account became the accepted version of events, so much so that to read many history textbooks today, you would imagine that the war was foisted upon an unsuspecting nation by a handful of cagey “imperialists”—Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan—rather than having been launched enthusiastically by a bipartisan majority in Congress that all but trampled McKinley in its rush to war. When Americans came to regret their equally enthusiastic rush into World War I, many chose to blame the nefarious
manipulations of bankers and munitions makers. Opponents of American entry into World War II, from Charles Beard to Robert A. Taft, insisted that Franklin Roosevelt “tricked” or “lied” the nation into war. Today it is the Iraq War, once approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate and by large majorities of Americans, that is now inexplicable except by reference to a neoconservative conspiracy.

I agree with the argument that nothing's really new about the Bush Doctrine, except maybe the justifications it offers, but shifts in attitude from aggression to realism, or however you call the opposite positions, don't just work like the tides. Opinions are pushed by people, and it's reasonable to ask why certain people advocate specific interventions in specific parts of the world. Interventionism may be a consistent American impulse, but since the United States has never waged indiscriminate war against tyranny, we can ask why we've fought only in specific places, and who has encouraged those wars. We can criticize the present effort as against actual American interests, but I concede Kagan's point that it isn't anti-American -- which is unfortunate for America.

Who Wants to be a Steelworker?

Earlier this week I found an odd invitation in my mailbox. It asked me to become a member of "Fight Back America," which proved to be an "Associate Member" program of the United Steelworkers union. Apparently on the strength of solicitations like this one, the USW is claimed to be "one of North America's fastest growing unions."

While I'd like to see the U.S. regain its primacy in steel production, this doesn't seem to be part of Fight Back America's agenda. Instead, by becoming a honorary steelworker I'd be participating in lobbying efforts for the Food & Product Responsibility Act "and other legislation to protect the lives and economic security of Americans from the consequences of unregulated global trade." I would join their "Protect Our Kids -- Stop Toxic Imports" campaign "to press elected leaders to end unregulated trade and empower Americans to protect their families."

In the cover letter, USW International President Leo W. Gerard explains, "I understand that we must reach out beyond our traditional union membership in order to defeat the multinational corporations and corrupt politicians who are undermining consumer safety, workers' rights and environmental protections." Gerard reaches with his palm out: it will cost me $40 to participate in this admirable-sounding movement., -- but that's a markdown from the normal $48 annual rate.

I suppose it's a good thing that an obsolescent union bureaucracy has found something new to do to justify its continued existence. But as usual, I have to say that there ought to be a better way of pursuing their political goals than forming a lobby and collecting money in order to pay for mailings like this one. If the USW is founded upon some original concentration of actual steelworkers in actual steeltowns, it might have considered forming a political party to take over city governments and elect to Washington congressmen who wouldn't need to be lobbied. You would think that unions were uniquely positioned to serve as the building blocks for alternative parties, just as you'd think the members would rather exercise some power of their own rather than merely influence those with the power. Instead, Fight Back America appears to be all talk (or print) and no real action. Any mass-based or working class-based organization that expends its resources on lobbying rather than party-building is wasting its own time -- and our money.

07 April 2008

Tibet vs. the Olympics, Part II

The Olympic torch has crossed from Britain to France, harassed along the way by sympathizers for Tibetan independence. These zealots have their hearts in the right place, because it'd be an occasion for cheering if the Tibetans were able to throw out the Chinese and keep them out. Moral suasion applied by foreigners against the Chinese government can only go so far. The next stage should rightly take an economic form. Let those who love Tibet boycott every product manufactured in China, and the Chinese might feel it. Instead, the friends of Tibet want to humiliate China by ruining the Olympic Games. Here the harm extends beyond China to the whole world, or at least that part of it dedicated to sport as a venue for peaceful competition between nations and individuals, free from ideology and other furies. Tibetophiles might find this observation frivolous. Who am I, they might ask, to value a sports event over the freedom of an entire people? That's a proper subject for debate, but here's another: what should we call it when any faction shuts down a public festival to make a political point -- when they demand attention to their cause before all else, and strive by all means at their disposal to force our attention their way? Dare I suggest that the word is terrorism?

06 April 2008

Charlton Heston (1924-2008)

As a public figure in the political realm, Heston was perplexing. Having once marched on Washington with Dr. King, he ended his career as the president of the National Rifle Association. He may not have seen a contradiction between the two positions, but now we can let that pass. What is true today has been no less true for the past few years: the essence of Charlton Heston is what he left on movie screens. In any event, now we ought to be able to get that gun away from him.
* * *
Most people will remember Heston for three films, in an order depending on taste. In chronological order, they are The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968). In this group you get the extremes of his screen persona: the stolid-seeming stalwartness of his epic roles and the sarcastic cynicism veering into self-righteous hysteria in Apes, which can also be seen in Soylent Green.
I'll recommend some perhaps less familiar performances. My favorite Heston film is Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961), which is probably the best film of the big-screen epic period that ran from the introduction of Cinemascope in 1953 to the revolution in moviemaking at the end of the 1960s. The title role is the part best suited to Heston's star qualities. The screenplay's emphasis on honor gives the film an epic force that survives for moder viewers. The fact that Heston and Sophia Loren hated one another makes you appreciate what fine romantic actors they both were in this picture. The director is still one of movie history's best-kept secrets among the laymen: a master of film-noir and gritty westerns, he presents the epic with almost no fakery, on an enormous scale matched by the intensity of the actors.
The other sleeper I'll suggest is Tom Gries's Will Penny (1968), in which Heston is probably his least Heston-like. This is a modest-scale Western in which Heston plays a very modest hero: an illiterate middle-aged cowboy just struggling to get by who ends up having to fight a gang of religious nuts led by Donald Pleasance. It's a realistic contrast to the excesses of many spaghetti westerns of the same period, and for all the virtues of some spaghettis, you want to have the other kind around as well.
Anyone with cable is likely to get a heavy dose of Heston over the next week, but keep an eye out for these two in particular if you want a fresh appreciation of the man in his true vocation.

04 April 2008

The Other MLK Day

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. To mark the occasion, Sens. Clinton and McCain visited the city. Clinton seemed ready to squirt a few again, as Bernie from Miller's Crossing might say, while McCain confessed error for having once opposed the celebration of King's birthday as a national holiday. Senator Obama was in Indiana, where he chose again to identify himself with the Kennedy legacy, for it was in that state on that day in 1968 that Robert Kennedy gave a famous speech informing the crowd that King was killed while calming then and thus, some say, preventing riots.

There's been some speculation lately over whether King, had he lived, might have turned into a Rev. Wright, or was already turning that way when he died. He had passed the peak of his popularity and risked exiting the mainstream, some thought, by extending his agenda to oppose the Vietnam War and demanding more thorough redistribution of wealth. I don't have my source at hand right now, but I've read one column quoting a King sermon in which he imagines God punishing, or at least threatening to punish the country for its arrogance. I can cite the sermon, at least. It's called "The Drum Major Instinct." Here's the pertinent part of it.

God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.
But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.

There might have been more along the same lines later, had he lived to be among us now, possibly still active at age 79, but I don't know enough about King to speculate intelligently on the subject. I do know that most people thought better of him once he was dead. Some people, like John McCain, were slow to catch on, and Ron Paul appears to have been even slower about it, but death is the great reconciler, and King in his grave could be imagined to have made his peace with America and white people, just as John Kennedy in his grave is honored for all the great works he might have accomplished or, like his murdered brother, for the promise he embodied. We often make the dead represent the best in us, because they can't disagree with us. Prophets have no honor in their own countries, and that includes the country of the living.

03 April 2008

Ashcroft at Skidmore: Epilogue

In the end, Ashcroft had what The Saratogian calls a "lively give-and-take" with the spillover crowd of students, which may have been larger than it would have been without the late publicity created by the swastika scandal. A local Republican leader complimented the student audience for its civility. Ashcroft himself leaves the area with this sentiment: "I think liberty is the single most important value in the universe. The purpose of law is not to have security, it's to enhance freedom." That sounds like Ashcroft was recollecting Ben Franklin's remark about the trade-off between security and liberty, and perhaps disputing it. I'm not sure I agree with either man. In some cases, security is the self-evident object of law. Security is one of the proper objectives of any civilized society and shouldn't be disparaged. Civilization aspires to secure its members from the depredations of the state of nature. Ideally, this should require no sacrifice of freedom other than that which comes with civilization itself. In civilization man trades the freedom of the state of nature to do as he pleases at all times for the freedom from constant competition for mere existence that defines civilization. Franklin's warning applies when governments ask us to surrender freedom of conscience for security's stake. In the past, John Ashcroft has disparaged those who see such a surrender in the "Patriot Act," but he's never succeeded in explaining why we shouldn't see it that way.I await a fuller record of his Skidmore talk to see if he has made any progress.

02 April 2008

"You'll Never Convince Me."

Baseball season is under way, and Mr. Right was trying to watch the Red Sox game in the Sports department. He is nearly as fanatical,maybe even more so, about the American League East as he is about politics. Mr. Peepers wanted to talk about Iraq. He does not know to leave well enough alone. All he needed to do was mention the recent PBS documentary on "Bush's War."

"Who calls it that?" Mr. Right demanded, "Why do they call it that? If a Democratic president had invaded Iraq, would they have called it Clinton's War, or Gore's War, or Kerry's War? But they call it Bush's War. It's not Bush's War. It's America's War. It's Our War."

But this movie showed that it is Bush's War, his and Cheney's," Mr. Peepers insisted, "They're the only ones who wanted it."

"It was the right thing to do," Mr. Right retorted, "There is nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise. You'll never convince me that it wasn't the right thing to do."

That left me wondering whether Mr. Right was certain of his evidence, or merely strong in his faith, but the discussion went no further. Mr. Peepers moved on to another task, and Mr. Right was immediately re-enthralled by the ballgame. That's one of his admirable qualities, and on the political front, it might be an argument to keep baseball season going all year round.

Ashcroft at Skidmore, Continued

From a more local paper comes a more detailed account of the Ashcroft controversy. Again, the Young Republicans express their anxiety that tonight's talk may be disrupted, but the newspaper presents rather little evidence of any attempt in the works. A single quote points that way, a Facebook poster saying, "Let's make sure that he gets an earful when he gets here." That may only mean heckling, which may appear disruptive according to the fastidious discourse etiquette of Republicans, but would fall far short of disruption, as I suggested to the YRA representative who posted last night, by the standards of other countries.

I should re-emphasize that there should be no slackening of vigilance against any actual attempt to stop Ashcroft from speaking, whether by protesters on the ground or by faculty behind the scenes. At the same time, I wonder whether the Skidmore Republicans might be inspired by their scary experience to "denounce and reject" their RPI counterparts for their role in driving the Virtual Jihadi exhibit off that campus. It would probably be even more interesting to read why they wouldn't.

McCain is Right

Every so often a politician says something with which no one can argue. Today is Senator McCain's turn. In Annapolis, he said:

"If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you are disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them,"

The problem, of course, is getting everyone to agree on the faults and mistakes, and how to better or correct them. Fortunately, democracy requires only that you get a majority to agree. You should try to convince everyone, but you don't have to. That means someone will probably disagree with your diagnosis, call it a mistake, and try to correct it. Your obligation to that dissident is to treat him as a fellow citizen and not an enemy. When you're the dissident, that obligation falls on the party in power. If McCain takes his own words seriously, and means his invitation sincerely, we should see the proof during the campaign to come.

01 April 2008

Ashcroft at Skidmore: Another Virtual Jihad?

The defacing of a John Ashcroft poster has got some Republicans at nearby Skidmore College worried that liberals are out to suppress their freedom of speech. The former Attorney General is scheduled to talk at the school and, predictably enough, you can find faculty who object to his presence. I wouldn't be surprised to see people demonstrate when he shows up. But as long as they don't try to prevent Ashcroft from speaking, they have just as much right to protest his appearance as Troy Republicans did when "Virtual Jihadi" opened at the Sanctuary for Independent Media. I don't think that merely defacing the poster is an attempt to suppress his speech. Ideologues and zealots are bound to deface each other's posters; it's part of the nature of their conflict, and in this case the organizers were able to white-out the offending symbol, so the only harm is whatever lingers in the minds of the offended.

To be clear: if anyone at Skidmore or in the neighborhood actually intends to prevent Ashcroft from speaking, I have to defend Ashcroft. If a campus group has a right to invite him, he has a right to talk -- and the talk might prove instructive for everyone. Ashcroft may be unapologetic about the War on Terror in general, but he's also given indications that he feels burned by the Bush administration for some occasions when they tried to treat him like little more than a rubber stamp. It's probably no accident that he didn't stick around until the bitter end, nor even for the start of the second term. If he intends to talk about that aspect of his career, he may well perform a public service worthy of everyone's attention. If he ends up dispensing nothing but Republican propaganda, then he deserves a good old heckling -- but only after he's had a hearing first.

Global Fools Announced

The United Nations has named the True Russian Orthodox Church, based in the Penza region of Russia, as its International April Fools for the year 2008. The church, founded by Pyotr Kuznetsov, aka Father Pyotr, was recognized for retreating into a cave in November 2007 in anticipation of the end of the world. Kuznetsov has predicted that the end will come sometime in May 2008. Members of the church recently relocated to a nearby prayer house after melting snows collapsed portions of the cave.

Representatives of Islamic organizations objected to the UN's recognition of Kuznetsov's church on the ground that the lunar-based Islamic calendar does not include a month of April and that, according to Islamic tradition, there can be no prophets after Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

"The atheist U.N. thinks it funny that a Russian dog calls himself a prophet, when instead there should be sanctions against this insult to religion," spokesman Pir al-Loof told reporters, "But God Himself is punishing the infidel, and it's okay for Him to laugh."