30 November 2008

Un-American Activities Remembered

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

28 November 2008

Black Friday

It has come to this. But who's really to blame? I know many people who don't fall for the "Black Friday" hype. Some people abhor crowds and have their holiday shopping done already. Personally, I don't mind the bustle of the normal holiday season and won't start shopping for some weeks yet. But some people can't resist the compulsion to be present at an obscene hour for an arbitrarily declared beginning of the season. The stores exacerbate the condition with promises of the best prices for the earliest customers. The term "Black Friday" comes from their expectation that sales after Thanksgiving will put them in the black for the year. For sales staffs it's probably had a different meaning for some time, as the day must be one of the year's worst for them. Now the term probably approaches the meaning the Universal studio intended when they made it the title of a 1940 horror film. The day after Thanksgiving has been a kind of spectacle for some time, now, a manufactured false event, a means of exploiting people's tendency to take a four-day weekend when there's a Thursday holiday. There's no easy fix for the situation. You can only hope that people decide that the event isn't worth the danger, but that might not sink in until a shopper dies.

26 November 2008

Culture War by Any Other Name ...

The Obama victory edition of The American Prospect, a liberal monthly, arrived with my mail today. It's not that celebratory, since the Prospect is a fairly dry, wonkish journal, but Ann Friedman's column still stood out for contrarian grumpiness. She's disappointed at several setbacks for gay rights: bans on same-sex marriage in three states and a ban on adoption by same-sex couples in a fourth. These results belie hopeful talk about the end of the "culture wars," Friedman claims. Rather, they reveal the need for a new offensive, only with a twist. Friedman wants progressives to keep fighting the "culture war," but not to call it that anymore.

We'll continue to lose (Friedman writes) until we can successfully relabel LGBT rights a civil-rights issue situated firmly within the context of other civil-rights struggles, not an issue mired in the culture-war swamp of moral controversy...."Culture" implies we are comfortable with different parts of our country and different groups of people seeing the issue differently. It implies that there is no absolute right or wrong -- just two sparring factions -- and that we'll simply have to wait for the rest of the country to come around.

"I'm sorry," she adds, "but that's just not good enough." Unfortunately, her proposed approach won't be good enough if it means denying that there is, in fact, a cultural war going on. If she means that advocating equal rights for homosexuals should not be seen as a "cultural" thing, I can accept that. The problem is that denying equal rights for homosexuals is a cultural thing. The most vocal homophobes believe that homophobia is part of their cultural birthright. What does someone like Maggie Gallagher say nearly every week? That being compelled by the state to tolerate same-sex marriage would be a violation of her cultural rights, her right as a believer and her right of conscience to say that homosexuality is wrong.

Friedman thinks it would be effective to equate same-sex marriage with interracial marriage. It almost seems as if she thinks no one has ever suggested this before. Yet homophobes themselves frequently invoke that argument in order to express their outrage at the equation. Giving at least some homophobes the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they're not racists, their view seems to be that there is no moral basis for objecting to interracial marriage, while their religion requires them to make moral objections to same-sex marriage. Culture enables and empowers their homophobia. Friedman is kidding herself and her readers if she thinks she can run around that obstacle instead of confronting the culture of homophobia. No matter what she says or what flag she wants to fly under, the other side knows it's waging a culture war, and it fights with the desperate fanaticism of those who feel that everything they know is at stake. They think that, if they lose, their culture goes. Their opponents should not necessarily disagree.

While criticizing Friedman's strategy, I can't deny her conclusion: "The harsh reality is that, just as the country wasn't rabidly conservative when it elected and re-elected George W. Bush, today's America is no progressive wonderland." Nor does it need to be one for Friedman's cause to prevail. The culture war itself is fought on a different plane from partisan politics. Libertarians are among her most likely allies, but they think "progressive" is a dirty word. The key to securing same-sex rights may be to decouple the cause from the bipolar partisanship typical of this country, find more allies outside one's preferred party, and surround the cultural enemy in a constantly shrinking space. They've been forced to retreat before and can be made to do so again. But that's not likely to happen if you don't acknowledge your enemy for what it is and act accordingly. If this be culture war, as a postmodern Patrick Henry might say, make the most of it.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

The news from Mumbai probably lends unearned credibility to the alert from New York City warning of terrorist aspirations to attack the city's subway system. Almost as soon as word got out, officials rushed in to minimize the gravity of the threat. We are to understand that some terrorists suggested such an attack while brainstorming one summer day -- as if they don't think about such stunts all the time. Even though the magic name of al Qaeda is invoked, the impression is that the present conspiracy is no more developed, and maybe even less so, than that of the two morons who proposed to don white tuxedos and assassinate Senator Obama.

There's a hint of conflicting imperatives in all these reports. It's as if some people felt that it was necessary to mention the new possibility of terrorism even while they realized that the most likely consequence will be to further depress business in New York during the holiday season. So we see spokesmen scrambling to minimize the threat that they publicized. It's as if they needed to say something about the possibility of attack, such as it is, so that, should something actually happen, they can say: we did so anticipate this; we were not ignoring the warnings! In other words, there's a whiff of covering one's ass about the story as it's developing that seems irresponsible. I was inclined to say it should have been kept secret until I learned how the information was disseminated. In general, though, I tend to wonder when schemes like this are publicized whether the only practical result is to alert terrorists to which of their communication channels are insecure. That apparently isn't the case in this instance, but it might be some other time. I can imagine al Qaeda floating false rumors just to discover which ones are picked up by the Americans and who shouldn't be trusted in their networks.

A country like India appears terribly vulnerable to terrorism, but India also seems to be a country where corruption can sometimes trump security, not to mention a place where Muslims get it in the face far more often and far more viciously than they do in the U.S. Today's terrorism in Mumbai reminds us of what terrorists can do, but it doesn't prove that they can do it anywhere or everywhere. But the coincidence of the real attack and the rumors about New York will probably leave Americans feeling more anxious than they probably should -- at least until they get back to worrying about the economy.

24 November 2008

"The Most Despicable Philosopher in the West"

When I found the latest New Republic in my mailbox, I noticed a blurb in the bottom left corner of the cover advertising an article about "The Most Despicable Philosopher in the West." I didn't even need to open the magazine to the table of contents to know that Adam Kirsch was writing about Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian critic best known for his practice of illustrating nuances of Lacanian psychology or political science with examples from popular movies or TV shows. That practice alone might mark him as a twit for some people, but Zizek asks for stronger condemnation because he dares to call for revolutionary violence -- revolutionary terror, in fact -- toward the overthrow of liberal democracy.

You can read the review here, but I needn't discuss it in detail. Kirsch appears to be a classic liberal, and from his perspective Zizek can only be an abomination. But as long as Kirsch is content to portray Zizek as someone with mass murder on his mind, why can't we characterize liberals like Kirsch as creatures of infinite complacency, the sort who can tolerate unlimited suffering by countless people so long as they don't have to kill someone. Perhaps he's the kind that can stand it when a system or a society kills people, but can't when another man does, for whatever motive. Maybe he's a pacifist, someone who believes that all the world's problems can be solved through the tactics of Gandhi and King, or that all the world's problems have been solved by those tactics. And maybe he thinks that, if or when those tactics fail, there's nothing left to do but suffer gracefully -- better that than to coerce someone!

I've been playing the devil's advocate here, but that's part of what I've learned from reading some of Zizek's books. He's the sort of thinker who, when someone declares certain acts or notions intolerable, will wonder what that person does or will tolerate. I'm not ready to march under his banner -- his idea of radical human emancipation remains nebulous to me -- but I find him useful and invigorating because he challenges readers to look at seemingly straightforward positions from different angles. It's his view that conventional liberal morality overlooks or acquiesces in quite a bit of immorality or injustice, and it's no answer to his argument to call him a totalitarian -- which is pretty much all that Kirsch does. I take that back. This being The New Republic, it's probably no surprise that he also calls Zizek an anti-Semite.

Zizek outrages many liberals because he dares speak out in the name of Humanity or "the People." He really seems to believe in an imperative for people to become "the People," however totalitarian that prospect might sound to some folks. He suggests that "the People" (and these are my quotation marks, not his) will find itself through revolutionary commitment, which can take the form of "divine violence" and terror in the revolutionary sense of the world -- an effort to force people to become "the People." Zizek has read and seen too much history to assume that all this is inevitable, or to think that success is assured. He infuriates right-minded writers like Kirsch, however, by daring to assert that, despite past failures, revolution the way the French did it, the way Lenin did it, is worth trying again, and should be tried again in order to succeed where the French and the Bolsheviks failed. He does not assume that we'll succeed next time, or ever; he concedes sometimes that there will always be conflict in human society. But he insists that people can attain their highest state of moral commitment by trying just the same for the goal of radical emancipation. If you're going to argue against that, you have to come up with something better than "thousands of people could die" because, as I said, thousands of people die preventable deaths due to poverty every day. You also have to do better than vowing not to kill people as means to an end, because the logical end of that train of thought is one selfish person sitting on the track and blocking everybody else's path, forever. When is it wrong to force him out of the way? When is it right? And when is it right to run him over? If you declare such questions off limits, you're in some way limiting human progress. I'm sure Adam Kirsch doesn't see himself that way, but that's why he should read Zizek more carefully instead of just picking out passages to condemn.

But again, you can't rule out the possibility that Zizek himself is just nuts. Try this sample on for size. There's plenty more like it out there.

23 November 2008

Brothers in Arms: The Latest JFK Conspiracy

John F. Kennedy died 45 years ago yesterday, and many people still aren't certain how that happened. Despite the gigantic effort of Vincent Bugliosi two years ago to refute every possible conspiracy theory, many remain unsatisfied with Lee Harvey Oswald's ability to pull off the crime unassisted and on his own initiative. While it may be facetious to cite Sgt. Hartman from the movie Full Metal Jacket, who describes the assassination as an example of what a motivated Marine can do with his rifle, that does pretty much sum up my view. I remain intrigued by conspiracy theory and theorists, however, because the shifting tides of belief might tell us something about our own changing times as JFK's generation grows old and generations with no memory of the living man come to the fore.

Brothers in Arms is a collaboration of crime journalist Gus Russo and novelist/screenwriter Stephen Molton. Russo earns an occasional favorable mention in Bugliosi's massive tome, but probably won't win any kudos for this effort. While he concedes readily that Oswald acted alone and pretty much on his own initiative, he believes that the Cuban government had the opportunity and the motive to abet the assassin. Russo speculates that the Castro regime, or its spymasters in Mexico City, gave Oswald financial assistance on different occasions, and may have promised, once aware of his intentions, to help him escape from Dallas. Russo's own view is that Oswald would have been a sucker to believe this, as his suspicion is that the Cubans would have killed him to keep their ties to him secret.

Russo and Molton's most impressive achievement is portraying a milieu in Mexico City that makes their story look plausible. They emphasize the high-stakes spy game that the U.S. and Cuba were playing, with the USSR and the Mexicans kibitzing, the Russians often helping the Cubans and the Mexicans sometimes helping both. They strive to demonstrate that the Cubans were capable of assassination as a tactic, pointing out various alleged terror plots against the U.S. and assassinations of others around the world. Both sides were looking for every advantage, constantly attempting to turn people, so it does seem plausible that Oswald would be noticed in nearby New Orleans and during at least one trip to Mexico.

Oswald's own motive was fame as a revolutionary hero, the authors assert. While the title announces that the book is mostly about the blood feud between the Kennedy and Castro brothers, Russo and Molton follow Oswald's career in the footsteps of Norman Mailer and other researchers. They do a good job suggesting that Oswald's aspiring ruthlessness fits right in with his time, though it's more dubious of them to claim that he was a kind of vanguard figure of the drop-out rebels from later in the 1960s. I give Molton credit for making the cross-cut narrative of Kennedy plots, Castro counter-plots and Oswald's adventures freshly dramatic for a reader very familiar with the material.

While plausible, however, their thesis isn't really convincing. To get beyond conjecture, they must depend on unnamed Cuban sources and on "Nikolai," whom they credit with copying out super-secret documents from the KGB archives that prove greater Cuban knowledge of Oswald than the Castro regime cares to admit. The nature of the JFK conspiracy racket brings many fabricators into it, and Russo's vouching for Nikolai, who had assisted a German researcher for a film about the Cuban theory, simply isn't good enough.

Other sources for Cuban conspiracy theories have been dismissed by Bugliosi, but on reviewing his chapter on Cuba, he seems to accept too readily the premise that Fidel Castro was too rational to risk war with the U.S. by having any association with Oswald. Russo and Molton take Castro's struggle with the U.S. from the beginning, with special attention to the Missile Crisis to show that Castro had grown extremely reckless and seemed to insist on a world war. They state that Castro went so far during the crisis as to seize one of the missile sites from the Russians by force rather than have Moscow limit his options. This helps them make their case that Castro was capable of anything, but it doesn't prove that he actually endorsed Oswald in any way.

Russo and Molton also throw Bugliosi's rationalization into question by emphasizing the reasons Lyndon Johnson had for suspecting Cuba from the moment of the assassination, as well as LBJ's reluctance to do anything about it. The way Bugliosi tells it, Castro wouldn't attempt a decapitation strike because, were his role detected, an invasion would have followed automatically. But in Russo's account, Johnson is immediately conscious that, despite growing tension between Cuba and the USSR from the Missile Crisis forward, war with Cuba would mean war with Russia -- a nuclear holocaust. In this version, Johnson orders a cover-up in order to eliminate any risk of a war, while Bobby Kennedy is pursuing the same means to avoid exposing his brother's efforts to have Castro killed. This part of the story depends on what looks more plausible to you: Johnson's reticence as described by Russo, or a knee-jerk drive for war as assumed by Bugliosi.

Johnson's role raises an abstract question that we've addressed in the past. If Russo and Molton are right, then Fidel Castro, however indirectly, practiced the policy of assassination as an alternative to war. History seems more certain that, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John Kennedy was doing the same. My colleague Crhymethinc has suggested that making this a common practice would make full-scale wars less likely. My skepticism toward the idea follows from an assumption that the public, at least in a democratic republic, would demand war if they learned that an enemy power had done the deed. In Russo's account, Johnson is determined to keep the public from learning about the Cuban connection, fearing that they, goaded by the Republican party, would indeed drive him toward war. But if Russo is right, then Cuba at least gave LBJ room to cover things up and keep their ties from Oswald from public awareness. True or not, that suggests how assassination as an alternative to war would have to work. It could never be a blatant attack by an explicit agent. It would have to be orchestrated in secret through disgruntled citizens of the targeted leader's own country, arranged so that the public would have the least chance of seeing foreign fingerprints on the crime. The leader's successor may figure out what actually happened, but the point of the exercise would have been to deter him from pursuing the policies that got his predecessor killed.

Speculating that way raises a further question. Assuming for argument's sake that Russo and Molton are right and that Johnson had good reason and some evidence to suspect Cuban involvement in the assassination, was his cover-up the act of a coward? Is the assassination of a leader, especially one who was elected democratically, an act which, if attributable to a foreign power, requires war in response as a matter of national honor or duty? Or was Johnson right to weigh costs against benefits? In this book, LBJ is somewhat aware of the Kennedy plots against Castro and doesn't really approve -- just as, ironically in retrospect, he advised JFK against deeper involvement in Vietnam. If Johnson decided that Kennedy had reaped what he had sown, how should that have altered the balance of calculations? If he learned the lesson Crhymethinc would say he should have learned -- and Russo suggests that he did -- might his refusal to go to war for Kennedy's sake have actually been the act of a statesman?

Because Russo and Molton can't really seal the deal until their sources are more forthcoming, any speculation about Johnson's response to the assassination is really for amusement purposes only. But the fact that they get you thinking about such things is one of the virtues of their book. With some details necessarily blurred, they paint a compelling picture of a dangerous period in American history. They lay on the schmaltz at the end with their portrayal of Bobby Kennedy attempting to atone for his role in the feud, and a hint at the very end that Raul Castro may do the same, but otherwise it's an often powerful and evocative book. It's probably unusual among conspiracy books that you can probably read it and not agree and still not feel like your intelligence has been insulted.

21 November 2008

"Live within our means"

These days, I hear a lot of people saying that "we need to live within our means," as if doing that now or in the future will get us out of the current crisis. Not that it isn't sound advice on general principles, but people need to understand that it was once people started living more strictly within their means that the bottom dropped out of the economy. Capitalism depends on consumption. Capitalism on the scale we know needs perpetual consumption. If capitalists need us to buy their products, they'll have us all go into debt if necessary. They don't want to bankrupt us. More likely, they imagine that credit-fueled demand will result in more production, more prosperity all around, and everyone paying their bills. For that to work, they need to create a perpetual-motion machine of borrowing and buying, but once people retrench, stop borrowing, and live within their means, the machine stops. Living within your means may be a virtue in a more traditional or a simpler society, but you can't get there from here just by deciding to live within your means or exhorting others to do so. It's going to have to be part of a more thorough transformation of society and culture, and I don't know if people are willing to go all that way.

19 November 2008

Piracy in the 21st Century

In today's piracy news -- what kind of world are we living in that we need that intro? -- India seems to be stepping up to deal with the Somali pirates. The Indians sank what is described as a "mother ship" for the Somali speedboats, and news accounts report other actions against the raiders in what is, after all, the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. But raids continue and reports of them are reaching epidemic proportions.

It leaves me wondering why the United Nations can't assemble a fleet to wipe out the pirates. What superpower would veto such a plan? The Russians are already aggrieved at the pirates, and I can't imagine the Chinese imagining that they'd benefit from rampant piracy. Britain and France? Not likely. But guess what I read in this article? The good old U.S.A. is urging shippers to hire private security, and none other than our old friends at Blackwater are declaring themselves available -- on the premise, presumably, that it takes pirates to beat pirates. But shouldn't the lesson of the present news be that we want less privatized naval power on the world's oceans? The article says that no country wants to be the policeman of the Gulf of Aden, but that's all the more reason to develop a U.N. navy. Suppressing piracy and protecting international commerce is one of the reasons why there ought to be something like the U.N. in the first place.

Of course, it'd also help if Somalia could put its own house in order, but there, too, one gets the sense that there are powers restraining the process. Considering that the group that came closest to pacifying the place most recently were labeled "Islamists," one can guess that the U.S. isn't exactly helping things along. Some people believe that the U.S. would rather see chaos than strong government in some places, for strategic or ideological reasons. While we oughtn't overrate American ability to straighten things out even if we wanted to, the current chaos leaves me wondering about what might be and what might not be allowed.

Al-Qaeda vs "House Negro"

Ayman al-Zawahiri's cultural literacy doesn't go so far, apparently, as to suggest the term "Uncle Tom" to describe the President-Elect. Instead, in his latest video offering the reputed second-in-command of al-Qaeda borrows from Malcolm X to characterize Barack Obama as a "house negro" or "house slave" and indict him as a traitor to his race. Well, Arabs know from slaves. They were enslaving African kaffirs long before Europeans got in on the racket, so it amuses me to see the Egyptian doctor posing as if his kind were the historic friends of the Negro. It just goes to show that haters and maniacs see things through the prism of their subjective obsessions. Zawahiri sees Obama as the pet of a "white" establishment, and he won't be the only one to think so, but others see the complete opposite, and are probably equally far from the truth. I'm reminded of the fable of the blind men and the elephant, except that Obama is a Democrat, so the symbolism's wrong.

18 November 2008

Is Fairness Unfair?

"You can't legislate fairness," Mr. Right said to me once upon a time. He was waxing philosophical then, at least by his standards, but it came as no surprise that he opposed the notion of reviving the Federal Communication Commission's "Fairness Doctrine," a rule that prevailed for broadcast media from 1949-87 that required broadcasters to provide time for contrasting viewpoints on political controversies. Mr. Right's position is the standard one for his kind: reviving the Doctrine is a plot by liberals to destroy conservative talk radio. How that would be accomplished is unclear, since the Doctrine wouldn't require any conservative host to be taken off the air. The objectionable aspect of its revival would more likely be the extinction of conservative talk stations as exclusive bastions of one-sided opinion. Stations would be required to diversify their programming to a minimal extent. That would be in keeping with the older idea of media that prevailed when the Doctrine was enacted. Then, radio and TV stations were considered public trusts and owners of frequencies were expected to make the airwaves available to a wide range of views. By the time the Doctrine was repealed, the proliferation of new media was already underway, and has accelerated since then. It could be argued that a growing multitude of media made access to one particular source less imperative. But the more important motive, I suspect, was the desire to privatize the perception of the media so that it was seen not as a public trust, but just as someone's personal property to dispose of as you pleased, like a newspaper or magazine. That'd be ironic if, as I guess, the Fairness Doctrine was instituted in order to prevent radio and TV from becoming equivalent to the news chains that served as little more than propaganda instruments for press magnates like Hearst and his rivals.

Mr. Right thinks that liberals want to revive the Doctrine because they're envious of the popularity of conservative radio and bitter over the poor fortunes of the Air America network. His view seems to be that liberal opinion has failed in the radio marketplace, and doesn't deserve any space on the dial if it can't earn any in the ratings. That's the wrong way to look at the matter. Conservatives, recall, started their talk radio movement because they felt excluded from the TV news media by institutional biases. It would border on hypocrisy to contend that any force, even the dread and holy marketplace, should have the power to exclude other points of view. So unless it can be proven that large numbers of conservative talkers would lose their jobs -- and I rather suspect that some of them would turn up as liberal talkers under new names -- I see no reason not to revive the Fairness Doctrine for radio and television. A similar doctrine already prevails here.

Lieberman Lives!

Democratic U.S. Senators have apparently decided to satisfy their anger at Sen. Lieberman with a slap on the wrist, stripping him of the chairmanship of a relatively minor subcommittee while allowing him to retain the post he really covets, the chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Leaving aside my opinion of Lieberman as a politician, this strikes me as fair treatment. As a dissident within the American Bipolarchy I abhor partisanship. Lieberman is an independent by virtue of his re-election following defeat in a Democratic primary, but continues to caucus with the Democratic senators. If he wants to continue doing so, as he's given every indication of doing to my knowledge, it would be stupid of Sen. Reid or his colleagues to punish a non-Democrat for supporting another non-Democrat, Sen. McCain, in the presidential election. Would they treat the other alleged independent, Sen. Sanders, the same way if he had shown true independence and endorsed Nader or another left-leaning candidate? Perhaps they would, since partisanship dulls the brain, but it would be unwise in both cases. Why throw away votes when you'll need every one you can get, including some from the other side of the aisle, to win cloture votes?

If Democrats want to convince us that their party is just some convenient tool for advancing liberal or progressive policies, and not some self-conscious, self-interested and self-perpetuating institution that exists for its own ends alone, they should avoid the habits of partisanship in other lands and resist the temptation to purge impure elements like Lieberman. I abhor his foreign policy, but if his state wants him in spite of the party, the Senate might as well accommodate him if he wants to be accommodating. As far as I know, he remains a liberal on most domestic issues, and so long as the Homeland Security chair can be checked by President Obama and grants Lieberman no authority over foreign policy, there's little harm in giving him his way. Further, protecting Lieberman may help Reid and Obama secure the good will of McCain, Sen. Graham and any other Republicans who might want to play ball with the new regime. If there's to be a "team of rivals" from January forward, Lieberman may as well be part of it.

17 November 2008

Obama's "Team of Rivals?"

The logic behind the President-elect's supposed interest in recruiting Senator Clinton into his Cabinet is allegedly to be found in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the best-selling account of Abraham Lincoln's Civil War Cabinet. Lincoln recruited numerous GOP power-brokers into his orbit, including defeated rivals for the 1860 nomination, and Goodwin will tell you (I haven't read the book) that it all went well.

If anything, it would be less risky for Obama to assemble such a cabinet than it was for Lincoln. In Abe's time, there was nothing to stop Cabinet members from scheming to succeed or even to overthrow the President in the next election. Lincoln was in fact giving people like William Seward and Salmon P. Chase stronger positions to challenge him from, had they chosen that course. During our "early national period," a Cabinet post was the strongest credential for a potential President. Once Thomas Jefferson's party took over in 1801, in fact, the Secretary of State, rather than the Vice President, was the heir apparent to supreme power. James Madison was Jefferson's Sec. of State and succeeded him, and Madison's Sec., James Monroe, succeeded him. The pattern repeated itself once more with John Quincy Adams, but Monroe's Cabinet was probably the most formidable "Team of Rivals" ever. Along with Adams at State, it included two other men who would vie with Adams for the presidency in 1824: Treasury Secretary William Crawford and War Secretary John C. Calhoun. None would defer to another, and Crawford actually won the party nomination via a congressional caucus. Adams ran regardless, while Calhoun hedged his bets by serving as running mate to both Adams and Andrew Jackson. The consequence of Monroe packing his Cabinet with such ambitious talent was that the country went from the "Era of Good Feeling" and a de facto one-party system to the disintegration of Jefferson's party in just eight years.

Some observers understandably worry that Senator Clinton might act as if she were in the Monroe Cabinet rather than Lincoln's, but I think that the parties, not to mention the public, expect more deference to the President from his department heads. Clinton could not hope to hold the job, if she gets it, if she appeared to use it to build a campaign organization, even if it wasn't meant to go operational until 2016. Furthermore, it's been one hundred years since a candidate went directly from the Cabinet to the Presidency; the last man was Secretary of War William Howard Taft in 1909, and standards were so different back then that no one really cared that the Presidency was Taft's first elected office. Following this logic, bringing Clinton into the White House would be a way of "keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. But calculations of that kind shouldn't outweigh Clinton's unsuitability for the office.

As for Senator McCain, his meeting with Obama today provoked speculation that the Republican might be made part of the team. But even if Obama can work something out with McCain, the Arizonan would probably be of more use to him right where he is, as a potential filibuster-buster in the Senate. And with that, speculation about a "team of rivals" should end, since no other Democrat can be taken seriously as a rival who needs to be incorporated into the Cabinet. The only other gambit I can imagine would be for Obama to recruit Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, his most likely Republican rivals four years from now, and neither man would have any reason to accept such invitations were they offered. By process of elimination, the only motive for appointing Clinton, absent the emergence of a real team of rivals, would be to neutralize her as an intra-party threat, and that would be an irresponsible motive for a potentially disastrous decision.

14 November 2008

Fiscal Conservatives, Social Liberals?

In the aftermath of defeat, Republicans and conservatives are debating the future direction of the party and the movement. While some argue that the GOP, at least, must reach out to new voting blocs, and therefore must moderate some of its recent positions, columnist Jonah Goldberg warns against alienating the core constituencies. Goldberg also denies an evolving thesis of conventional wisdom: that there's a growing schism separating people who are fiscally conservative but socially "liberal" from social conservatives.

In Republican circles, some people must be arguing that the first group must be their target for future success, but Goldberg questions whether the category even exists. "The idea that social liberalism and economic conservatism can coexist easily is not well supported by the evidence," he writes, "It turns out that people who buy into the logic of social liberalism, not just on abortion but racial and other issues as well, usually find themselves ill-equipped ideologically to say no to additional spending on causes they care about."

Goldberg may be missing the main point. He defines economic conservatism (allowing for a hair-splitting distinction between "economic" and "fiscal" conservatives) entirely within the context of government spending. To be a conservative, as he sees it, is primarily to be against "big government." This isn't untrue, but the terms of the debate are changing as we speak. The financial crisis and the Bailout are forcing the free market upon us as a fresh debate subject. The question is becoming less about how big government should be, and more about how free the market should be. Government's role becomes less a question of spending and more one of regulation. In this changing context, it doesn't necessarily follow that social conservatives will remain economic conservatives. They may opt for an older form of economic conservatism dating back to 19th century Britain, when Tories upheld state regulation of the economy while Liberals advocated laissez-faire. At the same time, libertarians will continue their commitment to limited government with free markets and (at least) cultural liberalism.

It's Goldberg's right to desire a Republican party dedicated before all else to limited government. But his argument that social, cultural or religious conservatives are the most dependable friends of limited government looks like wishful thinking. He acknowledges that "it's also difficult to be fiscally conservative and socially conservative if you've jettisoned the conservative dogma of limited government," making his faith in the Religious Right's commitment to limited government even more dubious. Again, Goldberg himself writes that "The religious right is much more likely to stop being 'right' than stop being religious." That coming near the close of his column makes reading it seem even more like a waste of time.

13 November 2008

Secretary of State Clinton: No Way!

The Washington Post has got to be kidding me. The idea that Senator Clinton might be considered for Secretary of State in the Obama administration must be a joke, right? Why? Well, let's search our memories a bit. What was a significant point of difference between Clinton and Obama during the primaries? That was a long time ago, but if I recall right, one big difference was Obama's willingness to meet with "anti-American" leaders and Clinton's criticism of such willingness as naive and irresponsible. And now Clinton would implement Obama's foreign policy? Or make it?

Worse, if this happens (and right now we're only speculating wildly on small evidence) it would stink of political calculation at the expense of diplomatic competence. I recall myself sneering at Clinton's boasts of her foreign-policy credentials, which seemed to consist of acting as hostess for visiting leaders and giving an ineffectual yet insulting speech in China. Putting her in charge at State might be a Clintonian plan to burnish her resume for 2016, or an Obamite plan to reduce the likelihood of a 2012 primary challenge -- or even a scheme by New York Democrats to kick her upstairs so that Gov. Paterson can fill her seat with some ambitious character like Andrew Cuomo, and thus eliminate a challenge to himself come 2010. Whatever the ulterior motives, such a move to place Clinton so close to power would be the opposite of change, perhaps even the opposite of hope.

Ukraine Legislators vs. Jerusalem Monks: Who Would Win?

A friend asked me if I'd seen the brawl in the Ukrainian parliament on the news today. I hadn't.

"How does it compare with the monks in Jerusalem?" I asked.

"There's some pretty good action. Why don't you see if you can find it online?"

So I did.

Frankly, I was not impressed. One guy looks like he has some wrestling skills, but for the most part it's just slapping and shoving. These Ukrainians look old and out of shape compared to the Fists of Orthodoxy. Their technique is no good. I think that if you tell either group of monks that the other group is inside, and they'd clean the chamber out in short order. If we're talking about the red monks, that whole building would be Chicken Kiev before long. Then the only hope for Ukraine would be to beam a distress call to Chernobyl and summon the Toxic Avenger.

American Catholics under Interdict?

A Catholic priest in South Carolina has warned parishioners that they'll take communion at their own risk if they voted for President-elect Obama last week because of his support for abortion rights. There's nothing really novel to this, since priests elsewhere, and higher authorities, deemed the sacrament inappropriate for people who voted for Senator Kerry four years ago.

Back in the day, of course, priests could deny the sacraments to entire communities and entire nations if their rulers went against the Pope's will or denied his temporal power. The priest in the present instance denies any partisan intent, and I can accept that insofar as he's made his statement now rather than, say, two weeks ago. But the real issue isn't partisanship; it's political intimidation. This is the sort of stunt that gave Catholics a bad name 150 years ago. The presumption that priests could use such tactics to force Catholics to vote according to dictation, for whichever party or for whatever reason, is why many Protestants wanted to deny the vote to Catholics or force them into a longer naturalization period than other immigrants. History calls the old nativists "Know Nothings," but when someone like this fellow in South Carolina pulls a stunt like this, it makes you wonder whether the Know Nothings were on to something after all. Fortunately, Catholics throughout American history have proven worthy of the franchise, but you wonder sometimes about certain individuals.

Markets, Freedom and Failure

The President remains adamant in telling all who still listen to him that the present financial panic is not "a failure of the free market system." I would say he's kidding himself, or is trapped in a self-delusion, but his concept of a "free market" is probably so vague that he may be right at some level. Free enterprise, as such, didn't bring us to the present point. However, the "free market" as it exists in the United States and allied countries is so susceptible to abuse and so incapable of restraint that some form of systemic failure is obvious and was inevitable. To hint that government interference is to blame is only to repeat the scapegoating of poor debtors that went over so well during the late elections. No government compelled the "masters of the universe" to gamble as recklessly as they did, and it was not government but the market itself that urged people to borrow so that they could consume and contribute to global economic growth. Bush may be right to note that countries with stronger government regulation of markets are also suffering, but that only shows the risks of globalization once every country's economy is tied to one big one -- ours -- regardless of each country's laws. Our lame-duck-in-chief is in no position to lecture his people or anyone else on what not to do to clean the mess he helped make but won't help fix. His ideological fixation on "freedom" at the expense of all other virtues already has a hint of obsolescence to it, and the poor man still has two months of public irrelevance to go.

11 November 2008

Honor to Veterans

Americans who've served in the military, especially in wartime, are worthy of honor. They should be praised for noble acts, for sacrifice and risk. These things are worthy of honor. I insist on that word instead of the preferred term of our time, which is gratitude. Honor is what's due to brave people in a democratic republic. If we owe them anything, which is the implication of gratitude, it's for serving in our places -- for being braver than the rest of us.Too often, however, propagandists and self-styled superpatriots claim that we owe the soldiers everything, but especially our freedom. This is the pretext of militarism as an ideology. Militarists would convince us that civilians are in a permanent state of indebtedness or obligation to the military. The object is to promote deference toward the military, although in practice this means deference toward the commander-in-chief. Militarists don't want us to question political decisions in favor of military force or the ethics of any given military action. To do either, they insinuate, is to show ingratitude to the one power that sustains our freedom. But each person's courage is the real power that sustains individual freedom. Military power guarantees only territorial security, and that alone, history shows, is no guarantee of freedom. So let's not overstate our debts to veterans. Instead, let's acknowledge the most obvious ones. If these people were willing to risk their lives or sacrifice their health in our places, then the least we can do is guarantee the survivors as secure an existence as the nation's resources can provide.That is how we honor heroes in democracies; not by making them our masters, but by giving them their due.

"A Civilian National Security Force"

A Democrat has won the presidential election, so now it's Republicans' turn to sound alarms of dictatorship. One who got attention doing so this week is Rep. Paul Brown of Georgia, fresh from his own re-election. He bases his suspicions in part on a speech Senator Obama gave in Colorado Springs last July 2. This talk has gotten a lot of attention in the libertarian-conservative blogosphere, who find it telling that a crucial passage has been edited from some transcripts of the speech, even though video clips clearly show Obama saying the same words. This is what he said, according to the Chicago Tribune:

We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded.

It is a curious phrase, and very much open to interpretation. In context, Obama seemed to mean that civilians undertaking civilian activities both at home and abroad could make an equal contribution to national security --broadly defined as restoring good will toward the U.S. in foreign countries and protecting Americans from natural disasters and the like as well as guarding against terrorism. But it's also an incautious phrase, as tone deaf to the sensibilities of many Americans as the first President Bush's invocation of a "New World Order" at the time of the Gulf War. While the full phrase "civilian national security force" should dispel the fears expressed by people like Rep. Brown about Obama's alleged intent to create a Gestapo-like organization, the "national security force" bit was bound to raise alarms. Critics have speculated that Obama had in mind something like the organizations fostered by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, which are accused of spying on and otherwise harassing dissidents, and the senator's seeming insistence that this entity be "just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded" as the military was bound to have some people wondering why.

Since this blog doesn't play by American Bipolarchy rules, I can note that the exact same words out of Senator McCain's mouth would have sparked similar alarms in the liberal-left blogosphere. McCain and Obama both, in fact, are strong advocates of "national service." That aspect of McCain partly explains why more libertarian Republicans preferred George W. Bush during the 2000 primaries. McCain made proposals similar in detail to what Obama advocated in Colorado, but to my knowledge never used the exact phrase that has spooked some people. The similarity of their ideas, nevertheless, may explain why Obama's remarks weren't much exploited by Republicans during the late campaign.

It may just have been a misconceived bit of rhetoric that was repudiated once its liability sunk in, but some people have a habit of interpreting all political rhetoric indiscriminately or unconditionally. As opposed to cynics who assume that rhetoric = lies, these others assume that each speech is a naked confession of a candidate's genuine intentions, especially if those inferred intentions confirm their own pre-existing fears. For someone to expunge the offending passage, from this perspective, could only be an admission of guilt, not a realization that the words didn't sound right. But someone may simply have realized that the phrase created a wrong impression that impressionable people would assume was the right one.

The easiest way around this would be for a reporter to ask the President-elect what he meant in Colorado Springs. He may have been asked already, since I'm only catching up with this story, and any new answer might not satisfy anyone, but for the sake of argument the question is worth asking.

10 November 2008

The Fist of the Holy Cross

The Shaolin temple has nothing on the fighting monks of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox congregations of Jerusalem. In fact, the Chinese kung fu is very weak compared to the wrath of Orthodoxy. As a witness explains, the Greeks (or does the guy say "Freaks") were trying to "put their monk into the tomb" during an Armenian celebration of what sounds like "the Fist of the Holy Cross." It's hard to keep track of the sides in the melee, but keep an eye on the monks in red. I think their style is stronger. I wonder whether the guy who throws the sucker punch is a ringer, though. He appears to be a lefty, and in pugilism that's the "un-Orthodox" style.

Religion of peace, indeed!

09 November 2008

Let's Go to the Movies

I've finally started my long-threatened move blog. I call it MONDO 70 and it's enigmatic that way on purpose. My tastes in film run from arthouse elite to grindhouse sleaze, and I like anything that expands my range of aesthetic awareness. Good and bad movies alike have done that for me, and you'll see plenty of both kinds there. I hope you find it entertaining.

Realignment? Don't Hold Your Breath

The question you hear this week is whether Senator Obama's victory demonstrates a large-scale political realignment in process. Ive been asked this myself, and the obvious answer is: it's too soon to tell. It's fair to ask how soon we can tell, so let me give you a ballpark figure. If the Democratic party can win three presidential elections in a row, then you can call it a realignment. If voters aren't ready after four or eight years of President Obama to run back to the other pole, but will put in his handpicked (or not) successor -- someone certain not to be the by-then elderly VP Biden -- then I'd concede that there's been a significant shift in the electorate.

Three straight presidential wins is a fair benchmark. Back in the 19th century, the Republicans locked themselves in charge with six straight wins from 1860 through 1880. A Democrat won in 1884, but while Grover Cleveland won twice, he lost in 1888 only to come back in 1892. Then the GOP won another four in a row from 1896 through 1908. While many historians consider 1896 a "critical election," you can argue that there was no Democratic dominance to overturn. Woodrow Wilson won for the Democrats in 1912 and 1916, but Republicans got back in for another three elections from 1920 through 1928. It's not until FDR blasts through with four straight wins on his own from 1932 through 1944 that you can say there was a decisive shift in the Democrats' favor. Harry Truman made it five in a row in 1948, and the fact that the Republicans could only manage two in a row on the strength of Dwight Eisenhower's popularity in the 1950s shows that it was still the "New Deal" Era. This primarily Democratic epoch wasn't truly defunct until the GOP got its three straight in the 1980s thanks to Reagan and the elder Bush. That Bill Clinton couldn't transmit his success to Gore shows that Reaganism was still dominant, as it may still be despite present appearances. We should know for certain in 2016. As I said, don't hold your breath.

2008 does still seem like the end of an era, however. Along with what I wrote Tuesday about the neat Chicago-to-Chicago continuity from 1968 to now and the appearance of closure, it's also been pointed out to me that we may also have ended what might be called the post-Vietnam era. Three times in a row, you'll note, a Vietnam veteran has been defeated in a presidential election. To date, no Vietnam vet has become President. Maybe that's a consequence of the 'Nam vet stereotype, and maybe it reflects the still-disputed legacy of the war, since both Senator Kerry and Senator McCain have had their heroism questioned. If Obama serves two terms, any Vietnam vet who aspires to succeed him will most likely be McCain's age now, or only slightly younger. It's probably significant, too, that now the public image of the Vietnam vet is not the crazy man of exploitation cinema, nor Rambo, but a white-haired, rather doughy looking old man. We may have a generation for whom Vietnam and its attendant domestic conflicts are irrelevant, which would explain the apparent mass disinterest in William Ayers' potential influence on Obama.

The American Bipolarchy may operate according to a predictable cycle, or it may have identifiable rules that would allow you to verify a "realignment," but those aren't the only rules for determining whether the nation has changed. Rather than wait for more elections, we ought to look around us and listen if we want proof of change, both that which Obama promises, and that over which he has no power. In that latter realm, people needn't wait for change, but can go ahead and try to do it themselves.

08 November 2008

Voting With Guns, Resumed

Senator Obama appears to have stimulated one sector of the economy merely by getting elected. The trend reported prior to last Tuesday continues apace, if it hasn't accelerated, as gun stores report strong sales from people who fear that the next President will make it harder for them to get weapons once he's in. At least I hope that convenience is the main motive for the late-year rush. I stand by my recent prediction that "militia" movements will return to public consciousness during the Obama years. Let me add my speculation that any such surge in activity will make these "patriots" the ideal collaborators with organizations like al-Qaeda for whom the country, rather than any particular regime or race, is the enemy. If Osama bin Laden wants to create major mischief for America, he should be using all means at his disposal to make contact with white people who want to kill Obama. An assassination wouldn't necessarily start a race war, but bin Laden might think the chance worth the effort.

07 November 2008

"Marx Suits Obama"

Will I have to eat crow? Is this the infallible proof of the worst paranoid suspicions about the President-Elect? Of course not. It's only a line from a clever headline writer at the Albany Times Union to top their version of an utterly innocuous wire-service story about Senator Obama's preferences in clothes that you can see here among other places (the Albany paper itself has taken it down for some reason). I bet more people read it in the Union, for what it's worth. They have someone at that paper who knows how to draw you to a story, even if it isn't worth the effort. Maybe some of that magic will rub off on my humble blog.

06 November 2008

The Center Holds

I was talking to a friend last night about the election when I mentioned how badly the independent candidates did. He said I should have expected it, and of course I did, but it frustrated me all the same. He said I should prepare to stay frustrated as long as independents kept doing the same things every time.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Like nominating cranky old men like Nader and Bob Barr who don't really offer any positive ideas for the country. I know you're going to tell me about all the positive things in their platforms, but when you see them they just seem angry and negative. You're not going to get anywhere until there's a third party with younger, more charismatic leadership who can tell voters what they're for instead of what they're against."

"Well, most independents are insurgent in nature. They're running in the first place because they think something's wrong with the system."

"But it sounds like all they ever talk about is what's wrong. I never get a sense from any of them that they actually have different ideas of how to do things. It always sounds like they just want to tear things down -- and listen to yourself. I personally get suspicious whenever people talk about the system--"

"The two-party system," I clarified.

"I understand that, but the first words out of your mouth were the system. When people talk like that, it sounds like conspiracy theory to me, and it probably sounds the same way to most people. It doesn't do anything to win over all the people in the center."

"Well, how do you think they should try to win over the center?"

"They have to concentrate less on complaining about how bad the other two parties are and more on showing how they can do things better. If they have new or different ideas, they should just come forward and explain how they think they would work."

"But do you think anyone will listen to these ideas if the candidates don't have a D or an R after their names? Don't you think people have tried?"

"Look, people aren't as obsessed with parties as you think. They're interested in personalities. There's no reason why a third-party candidate can't be someone like Barack Obama: young, charismatic, with a positive message that gets attention. He didn't start out famous, but people listened to him and liked what they heard. No one two years ago would have thought that he'd beat Hillary in the primaries, but he did it because of his personality and his ideas."

"But someone like Obama starts at the bottom of the Democratic party. Don't you think that makes a difference? Do you think Obama could have gotten where he is today outside the party?"

"Yes, if he gets the attention of the right people."

"But why would someone like Obama become an independent instead of a Democrat? Wouldn't he have to be dissatisfied with the two-party system in the first place, and wouldn't that have to be part of his message. Wouldn't he have to explain why he's an independent?"

"Yes, but the reason should be something like, 'Here's what the Democrats say, here's what the Republicans say, and here's what I would do differently, and this is why I think my ideas would work better.' That's the only way he's going to reach the center."

"Yeah, but the center is where the two parties already are. Most independents want to move the country in one direction or the other. They identify the center with complacency and stagnation."

"And that's their problem. Most people don't want to go too far in either direction, and any extreme is just a bad idea. They don't want to hear about an ideology or some conspiracy theory. They want practical solutions. You're only going to attract the mass of people if you claim the center and show that the other two parties are the extremists whose partisanship is harming the national interest."

"You realize that a lot of independents think the two parties are basically on the same side. They're either both on the right, if you're a leftist, or both on the left, if you're a right-winger, or else they sit in the middle and prevent any meaningful debate between the real right and the real left."

"Okay, you can believe that if you like, but I'm telling you you're never going to reach a majority of Americans with that message, and if you really think that's how the system works you might as well start planning a violent revolution because that's the only way you're ever going to change it."

"Come on, don't you think there's something wrong with the fact that these same two parties have controlled the country for the past 150 years? Don't you think it's foolish to punish one party when they screw up by voting for the other one, just to go right back to them four years or eight years later when they screw up?"

"They don't stay the same, though. They adapt. Their messages change. And personalities matter. Not all Democrats are the same. Obama is different from Clinton. Most Americans are voting for people, not parties. That's why they keep going back and forth -- and that's also why they would respond to an independent who had the same qualities as Obama."

"But that brings us back to why someone like that isn't a Democrat or a Republican. Wouldn't the party have to have rejected their ideas?"

"Maybe, but then you don't act disgruntled and complain about the system, but you go to the people, if you really believe your ideas are better, and talk about the ideas instead of all your grievances. That may not be what you really want to do, but that's the only approach that'll work"

This could have gone on all night, but we knew we weren't going to convince each other that a positive message or a charismatic candidate could overcome all obstacles, on one hand, or that there was a system that suppressed certain ideas and had to be combated as such, on the other -- and in any event, the election was over, so we changed the subject and moved on.

05 November 2008

Feel Free to Comment

Crhymethinc alerted me to something awry in the way I had reconfigured comments that prevented him from posting for a couple of days. I reverted to the older format and he and Hobbyfan have since been able to post comments successfully. If anyone else had anything to say on Monday or Tuesday, I apologize for the problem and invite them to throw their two cents in now.

No Declaration of Independence

The Boston Globe here breaks down the Popular Vote state by state. You'll notice that no independent candidate got more than 1% of the vote anywhere -- except for Ron Paul's 2% in Montana, which was self-evidently a protest vote. The paper doesn't have a national total, but at first glance it looks like Ralph Nader did best of the lot, followed by Barr (whose performance must be especially disappointing to the Libertarians) and Baldwin. In just one state, North Carolina, can any independent even claim to be a spoiler. Barr's vote there is approximately equivalent to the tiny margin separating Obama and McCain, but the point is moot. That state hasn't yet declared a winner but the speeches have already been made.

It's obvious that the novelty of Obama overshadowed the novelty of independent parties. One of the beauties of the American Bipolarchy is the illusion it creates of a choice between persons rather than between parties. Some of us tear our hair out over the way voters will repudiate one party, then return it to power four or eight years later. They somehow convince themselves that the man not being the same is more important than the party being very much the same. Brand-name consciousness doesn't work both ways like it does in the actual commercial world. No matter how many times a Democrat or a Republican screws things up for the country, hardly anyone concludes that they'll never vote for that party again -- or if they do decide that, they forget their decision within four or eight years. Neither party ever becomes the "Yugo" of parties, indelibly identified with failure. That may be because the party primaries serve in effect as an opening round of the general election, so that whoever emerges as the nominee is a "proven leader" with an automatic degree of credibility and legitimacy that an independent candidate almost never matches. The Bipolarchy endures because people don't really hold the parties responsible for their candidates the way they'd hold a brand responsible for shoddy product. The constant turnover of personalities masks the persistence of institutional hegemony at the state and national levels. It's as if people really do believe that the Democratic and Republican parties are branches of the government, official and public rather than private entities. For such people, voting for another party might seem like amending the Constitution, or overthrowing it -- a revolutionary act. It may not be until more people are in a genuinely revolutionary mood that independent parties will have any success in this country, but you have to wonder what it would take to get people in that mood, and whether the experiment would be worth it.

04 November 2008

End Of An Era?

Riding the bus back and forth to work, my reading today was Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. I'm into the middle of the book, a harrowing description of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where the rage of rising expectations met the backlash of aggrieved authority. Tonight, Chicago is the scene of Senator Obama's victory celebration, and the coincidental symmetry made me wonder whether tonight's news signals the end of an era of backlash that has lasted forty years. There remain many who didn't want it to end, those who remember William Ayers bitterly when many younger people wondered who he was exactly. But that attempt to wave the bloody shirt fell short. This makes me think -- I suppose I should say hope -- that the battles begun in the 60s are finally over.

I don't know if the new era will differ that much from the old one. Frankly, I don't expect much, but I do suspect that there will be a new era, now that things that couldn't be have come to be. Everybody ought to look at politics a little differently after this night and after this year. A great battle of the "culture war" is over. As a result, some armies may disband, and new armies may form. As John Dryden wrote, 'Tis well an old age is out/And time to begin anew.

My Choice

It was seasonably overcast but mild and unthreatening when I set out for the two-block walk to my local polling place this morning. I vote in a senior-citizens center, and as a rule I go early enough (but not too early) to avoid standing in line. At 8:45 a.m. I had three people ahead of me in the line for the booth, where we were fortunate enough to have the same good old voting machines that have sufficed here for a century. In my district I was the 38th person to vote; there were four districts voting there, and mine supposedly had the lowest turnout so far.

It's nearly ten hours later now, and it looks like a long night at the office. Mr. Right, pessimistic by nature, is already griping about the outcome he expects. "It'll be a long four years," he laments, "and even longer to undo the damage." He tells us that Senator McCain would have won (if he isn't winning anyway) if the election had been two weeks later. He's still convinced that Senator Obama could have been exposed for the loathsome leftist Mr. Right knows him to be. Mr. Peepers is around to goad him, so, as I said, it's bound to be a long night no matter what the results are.

Luckily, I'll be heading home soon, but before I get there, and before there are real results on the record, I wanted to tell you how I voted. I was impressed a few weeks ago to read the John Stuart Mill, the great liberal political theorist of 19th century England, opposed the idea of a secret ballot. He did so because he considered voting to be a public trust rather than a right, and he believed that people should be accountable for their votes. That is, they should be able to explain why they voted the way they did. In that spirit, here's the choice I made.

In the end, my choice was between Obama and Ralph Nader. I was strongly tempted to vote for the Democrat in order to say that I participated in making history. I also liked the idea as a rebuke to the racism that Republicans want to deny but is all too real and still all too common in this country. Take a look at any Craigs List "rants and raves" page, or particularly the Albany page where Crhymethinc regularly debates the troglodytes of the Right, and it'll be right in your face. These are the people who despise blacks, who complain about all the blacks who are lazy, live off welfare, even walk slowly across the street, but probably couldn't name a single one of them. They're the people who seem to think that blacks have to prove themselves to them before they should be respected as equal citizens. Obama's election would only enrage these people, and that would be useful if only to expose the barbaric tribalism that still prevails among so many self-styled civilized people. These people need to learn that it's not up to them whether black people are their equals, but a larger problem with most so-called conservatives is their blatant pathological need to feel superior to someone. That, I suspect, is the hidden truth behind their hostility to alleged "elitists." It's not that they reject the idea of elites, or believe that all men are equal -- their attitude toward blacks disproves that idea. It's that they think that they are better than the elitists, and they resent anyone who dares suggest that they are the best people, the salt of the earth, the "real" Americans, etc.

But if their comeuppance is coming, it'll come whether I voted for Obama or not. I live in a deep blue state, though parts of it are red, and Obama's victory is certain here. That frees me to cast a protest vote against the American Bipolarchy, but I don't do so this time without some ambivalence. I criticized Nader for having almost nothing new to say when I reviewed his campaign website for my survey of candidates, but he came to life with the Bailout crisis and reclaimed much of his intellectual and moral stature. On the other hand, his choice of a running mate strikes me as even more frivolous than my vote for Nader might be. Senator McCain may not be even the second-best choice for President, but it's frankly indisputable that Governor Palin, for all her faults, is the second-best choice for Vice-President. That fact is a damning judgment on all the independent parties for their recruitment of nonentities to sit a heartbeat away from the White House. Nader was no better than the others in making some desperate play for a youth vote, as if young people would be impressed by a relatively young person whom virtually no one outside "activist" circles had heard of. His choice of Matt Gonzalez would probably be enough to disqualify Nader from consideration if he had a real rather than only theoretical chance to win the election.

Am I wasting my vote by casting it for a candidate who can't win and whom I wouldn't really want to win if he had half a chance? Practically speaking, no, since part of my objective would be to earn the Populist Party (Nader's line in New York) a guaranteed spot on the state ballot next time. That would be a victory for independent politics, and it's worth a vote. Also, someone has to cast a veto against the American Bipolarchy, and in the long run, the struggle against two-party hegemony is more important than electing a black man President. That, if it happens, will be worthy of celebration in its own right, but to the extent that Obama has endorsed the Bailout and has not renounced the country's interventionist posture in spite of his own conclusions about Iraq, putting a multicultural face on the Bipolarchy is little different from, to share a metaphor with the man himself, putting lipstick on a pig.

Still, if McCain pulls off the upset, I'll be upset. Obama is plainly preferable to the Republican, and since realism dictates that one of the two will be President, I can only hope, in spite of my own vote, that Obama does win. We'll know, I hope, in just a few hours' time.

Actual Presidential Votes (?), Part II

Here are the latest numbers based on a Google search for everyone who posted that "I voted for" one of the six leading candidates over the past week. The caveats noted in the previous post (see below) still apply, but the longer-term search should identify people who've taken advantage of early-voting privileges in certain states.

Baldwin 99
Barr 175
McCain 12,755
McKinney 25
Nader 261
Obama 29,002

Senator McCain can take solace in the likely fact that the majority of his supporters are the people least likely to make any statements online due to old age, low education or rural isolation from internet access. But if those groups form a silent majority that elects McCain tonight, it won't exactly reflect well on the country.

ACTUAL PRESIDENTIAL VOTES: The Least Scientific Poll Ever

How's the 2008 presidential election going so far? We won't know the full story for a while. It's just past 1:00 p.m. where I am and the polls are hours from closing. The news networks will probably be reticent about their exit polls unless they see signs of a landslide. Personally, I'd like to see live running tallies while the polls are open. I think the technology exists, and if anything, keeping score like that would tend to increase turnout, since the parties would see what they need to catch up or take the lead and most likely act accordingly. Since no such system exists today, the best I can do is offer you a very informal Google exit poll.

All I did was to type in the exact phrase "I voted for" followed by the names of the six viable candidates (those with a theoretical chance of winning the electoral vote) and set the search to get postings from the past 24 hours. This leaves out people who voted early and leaves in a number of commercial posts selling "I Voted For So-&-So" merchandise. The latter detail especially inflates the numbers for Senators McCain and Obama. With those caveats in mind, here are the numbers as of 1:00 p.m.

Baldwin: 22 votes
Barr: 77
McCain 1,104
McKinney 10
Nader 117
Obama 2,518

Nader's numbers, I fear, are inflated by people who write that "I voted for Nader" in 2000 or 2004. Similarly, McCain and Obama's totals may be inflated by people who write that "I voted for" them in the primaries or in previous elections. As well, repetition is likely if any prominent person posts and is quoted using the magic phrase in someone else's post.

Here's an odd detail: more third-party voters are on a first-name basis with their candidates. That is, you get more results if you type in "I voted for Bob Barr" than "I voted for Barr." The same applies to Baldwin and McKinney. For McCain, Nader and Obama the reverse is true. The numbers above combine the results for last-name and full-name searches.

Taking all my cautions into account, there's a significant gap separating Obama and McCain that may be explained only in part by a greater likelihood of Democrats and liberals to blog. If anything, I would have expected better numbers for Barr, since people online supposedly have a libertarian bent. On the other hand, many "small-L" libertarians see Barr as a phony, and may be voting accordingly.

I may repeat this experiment later to see if trends emerge peculiar to the day. If I do, I'll also extend the search back a week or so to catch early voters. Consider it my public service to dead-end election junkies who can't wait for more substantial information.

03 November 2008

My Dysendorsement for 2008

Rather than tell you who to vote for, I'll play the negative game by asking you not to vote for a particular candidate. That's the point of the "dysendorsement," a coinage of the moment inspired by "dystopian" fiction -- the opposite of utopian -- that can be called a "dis" for short. The inaugural Think 3 Presidential Dysendorsement goes to Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican candidate for President.

The only reason to vote for John McCain is to endorse the invasion of Iraq and to ensure more war along the same lines. Of the candidates who have a theoretical chance of winning the popular vote, McCain is the only one who approves of the invasion and the only one who would perpetuate the neocon foreign policy that produced it. On that score, he's pretty rare even in the long list of candidates on this blog. If anything, McCain means to make things worse by creating a "League of Democracies" for the self-evident purpose of waging war without answering to the United Nations and the vetoes of Russia and China. He will continue the fanatical moralization of global politics, refusing to recognize conflicts of interests in their true form and preferring to denounce every obstacle to American hegemony as "evil." The hypocrisy of his approach was obvious in his quick condemnation of Russia's intervention in Georgia, which was no more than the mirror image of NATO's adventures in Yugoslavia. A vote for McCain is a vote for war; not an immediate authorization of force, necessarily, but a concession of its greater likelihood over the next four years.

Domestically, McCain is admittedly ignorant of economics. What he does claim to know of the subject is pure ideology: the supply-side dogma, still founded on the now-naive premise that money saved by corporations thanks to tax cuts will be invested in job-creating ventures rather than gambled like casino chips in the stock market and other high-stakes venues. On energy issues McCain has proven too eager as an electioneer to embrace short-term solutions like "Drill, Baby, Drill," rather than mandate changes that would require discipline and sacrifice for the national good from the industrial sector. Even at the end of the campaign, he prefers to score cheap points in battleground states by fearmongering and pandering in the coal regions of Pennsylvania. McCain's puerile taxophobia and his cynical disparagement of "government" only encourage Americans' alienation from the state that is rightly theirs. By mocking the notion that the people can use their government to better their condition, he would have them leave government to those who would use it in their own private interests -- the same elements whose influence in government McCain pretends to deplore.

Senator McCain is inadequate on both the domestic and international fronts, and is undeserving of a single vote. I grant that he isn't the ogre of Democratic propaganda, and I allow the possibility that he would govern as a true "maverick" in defiance of both Republican partisans and conservative dogma. But he has made promises and commitments this year that undermine any confidence in his ability to be anything but a GOP tool.

This dysendorsement is specific in its mandate. It is a recommendation against voting for John McCain, which isn't exactly the same thing as recommending a vote against McCain. To clarify, I'm not telling you to "Stop McCain." That argument would almost automatically force me to endorse Senator Obama. That's how things normally work in the American Bipolarchy. The perverse symbiosis of Democrats and Republicans depends on one being the threat that justifies the other's existence. If McCain is so terrible, mustn't we vote for Obama to stop him taking over? The answer is no. All we need to do to stop McCain is not vote for him. There are other people beside him and Obama to vote for, as I have labored to show. As I wrote above, the only reason to vote for McCain is to endorse the war. If you're a conservative who dreads the advent of Obama, there are conservative alternatives in Bob Barr and Chuck Baldwin. If you fear McCain but find Obama inadequate, you have Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney and others to the left. There may be a worst candidate, but his existence should not prevent anyone from voting for whomever you consider to be the best candidate. If more people voted for what they actually believed in, rather than for what they considered necessary to prevent the worst outcome, we would probably come closer to the best outcome more often in these experiments.

I won't presume to tell you who the best candidate is, but I will tell you tomorrow whom I voted for, and why. Stay tuned.

Conservatives for Obama

The magazine I was anticipating the most before Election Day was the endorsement issue of The American Conservative. The unorthodox "paleo-conservative" journal entertains a fairly wide range of opinion in its pages and isn't out to enforce a particular party line. In 2004, it published four separate endorsements, representing four clashing editorial viewpoints: one apiece for Bush, Kerry, Nader and the Constitution party candidate. This year, the editors threw it open and solicited opinions from eighteen different writers, including the lead editorial staff. Instead of one big endorsement, we get the least scientific of polls with the least representative of samples, but not with the least interesting result. Here's the final score.

1. Barack Obama (5 votes). The Democrat's supporters include repentant neocon Francis Fukuyama, Reagan biographer John Patrick Diggins, and the magazine's editor-at-large, Scott McConnell. As you might expect, none of these is an especially enthusiastic endorsement, Obama mostly appealing to them as the least of evils. Diggins writes that "in foreign affairs, the choice between Senator McCain and Obama is the choice between the frying pan and the fire," but "I prefer the professor to the warrior." Fukuyama will vote for Obama because "it would be a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale" as the Bush administration has achieved. McConnell credits Obama with a "disciplined and intelligent" campaign, noting that "Circumstance and ambition have pushed him to the center." For him, Obama is the only way to stop the neocons from consolidating their power and starting another war. The most enthusiastic Obama booster is Robert A. Pape, a terrorism expert who cites the Democrat's "clear-eyed judgment" on Iraq and his commitment to "approaching global threats with global solutions, encouraging multilateralism and dialogue where possible." Diggins and Fukuyama also cite Gov. Palin as a reason not to vote for McCain.

2. Not Voting (4 votes). Some paleos cannot swallow a "liberal" no matter how bad they think the Republicans have become. They're to be credited for rejecting the Bipolarchy logic of the "next-worst" choice, but the four abstainers have in common a surprising disregard for independent candidates. Self-styled "crunchy con" Rod Dreher (they're pro-environment and in retreat from corporate consumerism) can't take Obama because he's "a pro-abortion zealot and wrong on all the issues that matter to social conservatives," but he won't endorse McCain because "As both a conservative and a Republican, I confess that we deserve to lose this year." Llewellyn H. "Lew" Rockwell Jr. argues that "Nonparticipation sends a message that we no longer believe in the racket [the politicians] have cooked up for us, and we want no part of it." He fancies that by somehow denying politicians the mandate they'll claim anyway, "It makes them, just on the margin, a bit more fearful that they are ruling us without our consent." But if they haven't felt that way throughout the modern era of low turnout, what makes this libertarian think they'll start now that he's not voting? Gerald J. Russello rejects the idea that voting is a civic duty. "If you believe that none of the candidates presents an attractive option, why vote at all?" he asks. He'd be more persuasive if, like Declan McCullagh, he acknowledged and criticized at least one independent. McCullagh reflects that "the Libertarians could have been fun this year," but he's one who believes they sold out in nominating Bob Barr, "who has spent his entire adult life agitating against small-L libertarian traditions."

3. John McCain (3 votes). The Republican's most prominent supporter is executive editor Kara Hopkins, for whom McCain, not Obama, is the least of evils. She quotes a "better writer" unknown to me to compare watching McCain to "smoking an unlit cigar, walking a dead dog, swimming in an empty pool, or listening to the radio when it is off." I googled all the relevant terms and didn't find the source for this. In any event, while McCain is that bad, Obama is "the Senate's most leftist member," and electing him alongside a Democratic Congress is to "invite radical mischief." Hopkins would rather have gridlock. Meanwhile, making up for William F. Buckley's son endorsing Obama elsewhere, the late publisher's brother Reid intends to vote for McCain while expecting the Democrat to win. For him, Obama's "doctrinaire Democratic left-wing socialism [is] too depressing for words." Similarly, Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars envisions a "vast institutionalization of the radical Left" if Obama wins, and states bluntly that "McCain's attractions for me lie almost entirely in his being the only viable alternative to Obama." The best he can say for the Arizonan is that "he does genuinely love America," a quality "utterly absent from Obama." The common quality of these three writers seems to be that they've had the radios on too long.

4. Bob Barr (2.5 votes). The half-vote comes from a Baldwin supporter who recommends Barr where Baldwin isn't on the ballot. The others are Leonard Liggio, who hopes Barr will restore the gold standard, and John Schwenkler, who regards Barr as "the consistently conservative option" and "a striking contrast to the inability of the major-party candidates ever to talk about liberty."

5. Chuck Baldwin (1.5 votes). The Constitution Party candidate gets props from anti-immigration webmaster Peter Brimelow, who sees Baldwin as the best anti-immigration candidate. He's also endorsed by Joseph Sobran, who describes him as "a godly, reasonable, wise and intelligent man" who "knows what the Tenth Amendment means" and "knows what the Holy Scriptures mean when they speak of a woman being 'with child.'" You can guess what issue matters most with Sobran.

6. Write-Ins. The magazine's movie critic Steve Sailer wants to make a statement by voting for Ward Connerly, the black anti-affirmative action activist, while senior editor Daniel McCarthy, unable to give up the dreams of winter and spring, will write in Ron Paul's name.

There you have it. These are conservatives outside of the "movement." As such they may or may not represent the majority of people who call themselves "conservatives." Do such people really think for themselves, or do they let the radio or Fox News do the thinking for them. If the former, and if their thinking goes in the directions suggested here, tomorrow's outcome may not be as close as it looks.

02 November 2008

Baldwin vs. Barr vs. Nader

Kudos to the City Club of Cleveland for herding three of the major independent candidates for President into the same room for an hour last Thursday. Ralph Nader barely arrived on time but held his own with Chuck Baldwin and Bob Barr in an encounter noteworthy for how little Barr and Nader, in particular, differed on major issues. It wasn't until late in the debate, when the subject turned toward taxation and the responsibilities of government, that Nader and the Libertarian really differentiated themselves, Nader (in my view) scoring better by noting how the bankrupted European nations after World War II somehow managed to establish national health care and other benefits while the allegedly richest country on earth couldn't manage it, presumably because of the ideological scruples of people like Barr. Otherwise, however, the two men were very much on the same page. Nor did Baldwin exactly dissent much. His was a difference in emphasis that isolated him as more of a fringe candidate. He clearly meant to define himself as the anti-immigration candidate, going so far as to challenge Barr and Nader to account for illegal immigration as a factor in the financial crisis. Barr answered by calling for more "robust" but legal immigration, while Nader suggested withdrawing American support from corrupt regimes and unfair treaties that drove people across the border for jobs. All three oppose the Bailout, NAFTA and all related treaties, and the war. But they insist on their differences, Baldwin especially flaunting his "traditional" values, when challenged from the audience to pool their resources behind a single candidate. Barr said that would be fine if he were the candidate, while Nader perhaps betrayed his ego by saying he preferred a debate among many parties. Baldwin at least said that if Ron Paul had continued his campaign rather than cling to his seat in Congress, he would gladly have supported him. Overall it was interesting, especially to see Barr, the Libertarian, insisting on corporate accountability to the point of Congressional hearings and prosecutions for fraud, and Nader, of all people, expounding the fundamental rules of capitalism and how current practices culminating in the Bailout violated them. All three men, however, ought to think about overcoming ego and achieving common ground in 2012, and they probably ought to bring Cynthia McKinney into the discussion as well.

Here's a clip from the debate from YouTube. Unfortunately, Barr is cut off in mid-comment at the end of this approximately five-minute clip. If someone has something that lets him speak more completely, I'll add it later. Also, if you get sound but no picture, pause the clip and restart it and you should see what they're saying.

Here's a link to the video of the full debate.

McCain-Fey 2008?

Senator McCain's performance on Saturday Night Live last night was extraordinary for a number of reasons. It wasn't his first appearance there, since he had hosted an entire show back in 2002. But there was something fundamentally strange about the real McCain interacting with Tina Fey as if she really was Gov. Palin, even for the purpose of a sketch. It struck me as an insult to his running-mate, and for all I know, it was meant that way.

The skit also demonstrates that, at his best, McCain is a good sport who has always been willing to poke fun at himself. He has an irreverent quality which has often endeared him to reporters, even if it hasn't been apparent during the current campaign. It's a side of him that sometimes seems at war with his self-righteousness and reported readiness to vilify anyone who opposes him. But that isn't necessarily inconsistent with a self-deprecatory attitude. McCain is a complex person from all that I can tell, and some people are probably rooting for him to win simply because they think he's a more interesting person than Senator Obama. That may well be true, but just as the Chinese wish "interesting times" on someone as a curse, I think we can do without the admittedly interesting aspects of a McCain presidency.

NBC has let the Associated Press post some clips from McCain's appearance with Fey on YouTube, so here he is: