30 June 2008
Alito finds that the amendment violated the First Amendment because it discriminated against self-financing candidates. He cites the infamous Buckley v. Valeo case from 1976 which established that spending money on a political campaign was a form of "free speech," and argues that Congress has no business attempting to counterbalance any perceived unfair advantage wealthy candidates might enjoy. Wealth, Alito insists, is but one of several advantages candidates can have that can counterbalance one another, name recognition and incumbency being others. It is unfair, in Alito's view, not to let Davis take advantage of his wealth. Never mind the fact that, as Justice Stewart notes in dissent, no limit was actually imposed on Davis's fundraising. Any hint of bias against wealth, any notion that it had an influence that should be counteracted in the interest of fairness, was unfair as far as Alito was concerned.
It's probably never occurred to Justice Alito or the concurring justices, or to plutocratic pundits like George Will who celebrated this decision, that there might be a good political idea that might not draw money. Because such an idea is unfathomable to them, they see no harm in making money a measure of political commitment. At the same time, they blow off anyone who worries about money's influence by noting all the times when the richest candidate failed to win an election. For all I know, there may even be times when the poorest candidate won, but I bet it happened less frequently once television took the place of old-school campaigning. The plutocrats wouldn't dream of taking money out of politics because they want money to give people an advantage. George Will's standard scenario, expressed again in his latest column, makes the moneyed candidate the challenger against an entrenched incumbent. In this scenario, money is practically required to overcome the advantages incumbency confers upon the professional politician. There seems to be an underlying assumption that money can do the work that mere words can't. Why is that? Why do we need to make it easier for millionaires to win elections? Justice Alito doesn't really answer the question.
P.S. Will uses his column to take another swipe at Senator McCain, asking (and plausibly, too) why the Republican should keep his word as President to nominate more Supreme Court justices like those who are slowly dismantling his signature piece of legislation. Mr. Will sounds like someone looking for a new party this year, and there are probably lots like him.
The CNN program had one of the right-wing media on a panel to discuss the Horn case. Lars Larson is an Idiot of the Week candidate if anyone considers one necessary. He had nothing but praise for Horn and nothing but dismissal for the protests of his fellow panelists. Repeatedly he told them that "we don't have to take instructions from the government" in this country because this isn't a "nanny state." Another panelist tried to correct Larson; we do so have to take instructions, he said -- they happen to be called laws.
One thing I didn't learn from the Houston Chronicle article is whether the burglars were armed. They were, apparently, illegal immigrants, but I hope (in vain, probably) that fact won't prejudice anyone in favor of their deaths. If it does, please bear this in mind: the Supreme Court has recently ruled that to kill someone for any offense less grave than killing another person is a punishment excessive to the point of unconstitutional cruelty. Disagree with that ruling as you might, but it's the settled law of the land. Joe Horn backshot two fleeing men in an obvious fit of rage and killed them without anything resembling due process. Texans may think they still live in the days when you hanged men for stealing cattle, and reactionaries around the country may long for those days to return, but I don't really see how this free state is more secure with people like Joe Horn keeping and bearing arms. The word for his kind of law is anarchy.
But why is anyone acting like McCain was insulted by a mere statement of fact from Clark? Does anyone want to argue that having your plane shot down is, in fact, a qualification to be President of the United States? How does Clark's statement denigrate McCain's sacrifice for his country, as Obama seems to believe it did? And why does Obama bother bringing it up, even indirectly, without mentioning Clark by name? There's no distancing yourself from statements made by your supporters or "surrogates" this year. Anyone who criticizes Obama will be seen as a committed ally or outright agent of McCain, and vice versa. The only exception is for those who criticize both men; then you're ignored unless you're famous enough to be despised. Otherwise, to denounce one of the two leading candidates is interpreted as doing the other one's dirty work. Both McCain and Obama want to hover above the fray, eschewing "negative campaigning" or the "politics of personal destruction," but their positions on the twin poles of the American Bipolarchy make them the leaders of the rival factions, whatever the bureaucratic reality might be, and they'll be held accountable for everything accordingly. Denying this reality makes both men look foolish.
29 June 2008
Having said all that, I believe I can say with confidence that Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticutt is a fearmonger. He doesn't merely exploit the politics of fear; he embodies it. He told CBS today that the best reason to vote for Senator McCain for President is that the country is likely to be attacked in 2009. Liberman deduces this from the coincidence of terrorist attacks on New York City in 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton's term, and in 2001, the first year of George W. Bush's. From these examples, he concludes that terrorists try to "test" new Presidents early in their terms.
By all accounts, Lieberman remains a liberal on most domestic issues, so much so that McCain finds it impossible to do what he'd really like and nominate his pal as his running mate, because conservatives would abandon him once and for all if he did. Yet today Lieberman basically said that domestic issues are completely irrelevant to the 2008 campaign. By endorsing McCain for President in the first place, which he did while the Republican primaries were still being contested, Lieberman had said it already. The only purpose he can imagine for a President over the next four years is to fight Muslims. He prefers McCain over Senator Obama, with whom he's presumably in greater agreement on nearly every other issue, because he's more confident that McCain will answer more terror with more war. That makes Lieberman not only a fearmonger, but also a warmonger -- and one who is touted as a future Secretary of Defense in a McCain administration.
But maybe the rest of the warmongers will find that having a guy like this on their side is like wielding a double-edged sword. If Liberman is right about the timing and purpose of terrorist attacks, after all, he rather completely disproves the Republican argument that their vigilance and tough tactics have shielded the country from attack ever since 11 September 2001. Based on Lieberman's analysis, it would seem that Bush passed whatever test bin Laden had set up for him, so no further attacks were necessary. Therefore all of Bush's bold new security policies were pointless, and inconvenienced only law-abiding Americans. This isn't exactly what McCain is saying, so maybe Lieberman should whisper in his ear again.
As we should have expected, Nader also makes a strong case against the American Bipolarchy, and explains yet again why the Democratic party will always betray the progressive movement. In the clip, you'll hear that Katrina vanden Heuval from The Nation magazine would show up in the next segment. When her turn came, she made a tortuous argument that change always comes from below, from movements that pressure governments, her point being that the movements should not try to seize power and become the government themselves, but remain where she thinks them optimally placed to influence events: on the outside of power. In effect, she all but conceded Nader's charge that the two major parties "own the government," but would not concede that this was a bad thing.
The nice lady's remarks demonstrated an essential weakness of the existing progressive movement: too many people in that cohort would rather influence power than exercise power, or take power, or build power. Maybe they think that keeping that critical distance allows them to avoid the compromises that come with politics. More likely, they fear other kinds of compromises that might trouble their consciences, such as actually coercing people to do what's right through the power of government, or actually punishing wrongdoers so it would hurt them. They're probably the sort of people that harder-minded characters often refer to sarcastically as "beautiful souls," akin to the unconditional pacifists who seem more concerned with their own karma than with the well-being of their fellow human beings. The Democratic party has terrible flaws of its own, but probably not those kind. It won't be until a movement arises with people who aren't afraid of destroying the Democratic party, or won't feel guilty about ruining people's careers or putting them out of their livelihoods, that the Democrats will be surpassed or supplanted. But Ralph Nader can't do it by himself, and it's not even clear whether he should be the one to do it. We await the others.
Please note that you'll have to sit through a 30-second commercial before you see the Nader interview. You have my apologies.
26 June 2008
I've read a few books on the Second Amendment, and I've offered my own tentative interpretations of it in the past, but I'm not about to say I know more about the subject than any of the nine justices. Instead, I'm inclined to accept today's ruling as proof that constitutional arguments for gun control are a dead end. It was probably futile all along to hope that an 18th century charter could mandate meaningful gun control. What was needed all along, and is obviously needed now, is a thorough revision of the Second Amendment in light of the social realities of the 21st century. That will be hard work, with nothing certain but constant struggle with a determined and fanatic opposition. True gun control offends the primal instincts of American-style conservatism, which is, at or near its heart, all about the individual's desire to save himself before everything else. But those instincts have to be conquered if we're going to achieve a civilized society.
Think about this: some nut went postal in Kentucky yesterday and killed five people before offing himself. A gun-rights fanatic will tell you that, even if you took his gun away, he'd still have killed people. But would he have killed five people with a knife or a club? The difference between that man with his gun and him without is evidence for gun control, being necessary for the security of a civilized state.
25 June 2008
The New York Times website has the Obama campaign's response and Nader's rejoinder.
What cable emphasizes, more and more, is opinion, or even advocacy. Whether it's Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Lou Dobbs, that's what that particular platform or venue does. It's not what I do. What I do is different. I try very, very hard not to come up and say to people, 'This is what I believe,' or 'This is good,' or 'This is bad.' But, rather, 'This is what I'm learning in my reporting,' or 'This is what my analysis shows based on my reporting.' And as
long as I can do that, I'm very, very comfortable. And nobody has asked me to do anything but that.
In other words, Russert strove to uphold the 20th century ideal of journalistic objectivity. In repudiating the partisanship of the 19th century press, reporters attempted to present facts, and even analyze them, impartially. It seemed possible for a while, but throughout that era some leftists, and later many more conservatives, perceived and criticized institutional biases in news reporting. The left saw, and in some cases still sees, a "corporate" bias, based on business interests, while conservatives denounced a "liberal" bias, based on intellectual prejudices. Many people now question whether the objectivity Russert tried to exemplify is possible, or whether it was a big lie all along.
There probably was a time when most people felt that the world wouldn't end if the other party won an election. The American Bipolarchy doesn't need ideology to sustain itself, just a sense that the other party is the enemy, but enmity itself doesn't mean you think the other party will actually destroy the country. The 21st century has so far been an ideological age, so people tend to think the stakes are higher than they were 100 years ago. Ideology demands that people take sides, and is impatient with pretenses of objectivity. At the same time, objectivity has been too often confused with neutrality. For the media, to be objective was not to take sides with Republicans or Democrats. It might well be an objective truth, however, to state that on some issues, both sides are wrong, or that the system that sustains both sides as half of so-called whole is wrong. The Bipolarchy asserts that every issue is an either-or, win-lose, zero-sum debate between the only two sides that can possibly exist. That assertion inhibits journalists who aspire to neutrality, since challenging the party in power can't help but be seen as aiding and comforting the opposition party. Tim Russert was clearly inhibited during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, but not necessarily because he was a glad-handing toady, as Alexander Cockburn charges, but because he misunderstood his own mandate to inform the public. But that doesn't mean that he should be replaced by the often-hysterical and obviously biased Olbermann, or any counterpart of his on the other side. It does mean that we need journalists and analysts who are capable of thinking outside the two-party box and transcending partisanship, and thus are unafraid of offending anyone or everyone. I won't hold my breath waiting.
I'm no jurist, but my first-glance interpretation of the Constitution tells me that an unconstitutional punishment would have to be both unusual and cruel, and on first reflection I don't buy the interpretation that an unusual punishment is implicitly cruel. To make my own position clear, I'm philosophically opposed to capital punishment because, in ideal circumstances, no one has the right to tell anyone else that they don't deserve to live. At the same time, I concede that ideal conditions don't exist, and that establishing them may require revolutionary violence. Practically speaking, while no one deserves to die, some people may have to be killed under certain circumstances. That may be hair-splitting, but I'm sticking with it.
I take no position on the immediate issue of punishing rapists of children, because that's Louisiana's business under the federal system, as regulated by the "cruel and unusual" clause. The supreme question for this occasion is: who gets to define cruelty? You might automatically answer that it's up to the Supreme Court, but I'm not sure if the Founders anticipated a time when the definition of cruelty would be as disputed as it is now. My hunch is that they assumed a more self-evident and universally held notion of cruelty that would cover extreme punishments like drawing-and-quartering or burning at the stake, or non-capital punishments like flogging or mutilation. Most of them probably never anticipated having to debate whether killing a criminal at all was cruel. If that's the case, then strict construction would never have allowed the Court to strike down any death penalty merely for being one. But this is one issue where everyone seems to agree that the Court should interpret the Constitution in light of changing moral standards. I don't necessarily oppose that idea, but I don't know if that gives the Supreme Court the power to define cruelty and impose their definition on the states.
The Court itself claims to follow an already-established consensus, but it's a dubious looking consensus in this case. Probably nothing short of a national referendum, in which the people could vote to authorize the states to execute rapists of children (leaving the states the prerogative not to do so), would clarify things, but that sort of thing isn't done in this country. This is what you get when you opt for representative democracy over direct democracy, but this looks like the sort of question that only the people as a whole can decide, for good or ill.
Update: During the afternoon, Senators McCain and Obama both denounced the decision. McCain simply affirmed that raping children was heinous enough to merit death. Obama also emphasized the heinousness of the crime, and stressed that the majority's reasoning was insufficient, in his mind, to overrule the Louisiana legislature. He allowed, however, that a death penalty for such cases might be overturned if there was proof that it couldn't be administered justly or fairly. This has been a popular way to delegitimize capital punishments in general in several states, and seems to depend more on the Constitution's requirement of "equal protection" rather than on disputed standards of cruelty. In any event, it looks like this ruling won't become a political issue at the national level.
24 June 2008
The doctor takes equal offense at Obama's alleged suggestion that Christians ought to defend their political preferences in terms that everyone can understand. From this initial third-hand report, it looks like Obama was demanding nothing more than that Christians, or any other group of believers, be able to justify their policies in terms more substantial than, "God wills it!" To Dr. Dobson, this means taking the abortion debate, for instance, to the lowest common denominator. The "slippery slope" is a quick slide for his eminence; it's probably a straight drop, in his mind, from the Dobsonite reading of God's will to the LCD. Perhaps he thinks he'll actually persuade people to adopt his views by crediting them to the Creator, or by threatening those who somehow remain in principled disagreement with the wrath of God unless they bow in submission.
The really sad part of this story is the allegation of the MSNBC article that Obama was actually trying to curry favor with Dr. Dobson and had been trying to arrange a meeting with the man. Maybe the Senator thought it worth pursuing because the doctor has still refused to endorse Senator McCain. Clearly he never considered that the country might be better off had Dr. Dobson endorsed no one at all. I think that the doctor's endorsement is not worth having unless he passes the same "Elijah test" that we proposed for Osama bin Laden last week (see "How to Prevent Martyrdom"). Unfortunately, the latest polls of American credulity indicate that Obama is probably doing the smart thing in seeking the approval (or even the neutrality) of the likes of Dr. Dobson. Religion seems to be the tar baby that Obama can't get free from this year. He wants to make the best of it with happy talk about faith and good works, but Dr. Dobson is like the Mr. Hyde of public Christianity, as Rev. Wright is in his own way, that all Obama's wishful words cannot suppress.
23 June 2008
The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed. His character is irreproachable; yet he is neglected and despised. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation, he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is
only not seen. This total inattention is to him mortifying, painful, and cruel. He suffers a misery from this consideration, which is sharpened by the consciousness that others have no fellow-feeling with him in this distress.
If you follow these persons, however, into their scenes of life, you will find that there is a kind of figure which the meanest of them all endeavors to make; a kind of little grandeur and respect, which the most insignificant study and labor to procure in the small circle of their acquaintances. Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay, the common beggars in the streets; and not only those who may be all innocent, but even those who have abandoned themselves to common infamy, as pirates, highwaymen, and common thieves, court a set of admirers, and plume themselves upon that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others. There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species. But there is no risk in asserting, that there is no one who believes and will acknowledge himself to be the man.
To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. Instances of this are not uncommon. When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one, who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger, who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart; to
the history of human life and manners; and to the rise and fall of empires. To feel ourselves unheeded, chills the most pleasing hope, damps the most fond desire, checks the most agreeable wish, disappoints the most ardent expectations of human nature.
22 June 2008
Perhaps my American perspective makes it difficult for me to understand why dissident movements in other countries so often boycott elections. If you believe that the party in power will rig things in their favor, you might as well let them do it so you can point to the evidence instead of standing aside looking like a paranoid. If you fear for the safety of your supporters, shouldn't you let them decide whether or not to take the risk? Worse yet, once you've let safety become the paramount consideration, you've opted out of any effort to change the government. Dissidents like Tsvangirai seem to think that their abstention from elections delegitimizes them. I fear the contrary is the case. By withdrawing from the runoff and not calling for revolution or at least civil disobedience, the MDC has really capitulated to Mugabe, the man whose rule they consider intolerable. In effect, they've decided to sit on their hands and hope for the international community to deal with Mugabe. Tsvangirai, in fact, has called for intervention. In response, the international community ought to sit on their hands.
If the strongest dissident movement in a country determines that the election on which it stakes everything will not play out fairly, there would seem to be no choice left but revolution. If there won't be revolution, then the dissidents may as well bow before the party in power since their complaints against the leader have been proven pointless by their refusal to do anything meaningful about them. This is the point where people in the international community will say that Zimbabwean dissidents have been terrorized into submission, and some of those people may very well use that as a justification for foreign intervention. But shouldn't they simply dismiss the dissidents as cowards instead?
Imagine if, in the year 2000, the Democratic Party in the U.S. refused to campaign in the general election on the assumption that a vote close enough to be contested would be decided against them by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. You may suggest cynically that things wouldn't be much different, but the fact that the election was contested, and that the Court did decide it in what appears to have been a biased manner, has probably emboldened some people to speak out more consistently against George W. Bush, and especially against the Iraq War, than they might have done otherwise. If the Democrats had just given up and allowed Bush to win in a landslide, more Americans might well have been cowed by the appearance of a legitimate democratic verdict and kept silent through an administration that seemed to have a popular mandate. It just makes sense to let the enemy prove your point instead of assuming that your suspicions alone are proof enough. As things stand now in Zimbabwe, I pity the common people there, but my sympathy for the dissident leaders will dwindle fast unless they find fresh ways to express their dissidence.
20 June 2008
Friends of the administration and this bill have always dismissed objections by saying that only overseas communications with suspect foreigners will be monitored. I don't normally resort to slippery slope arguments, but I can't help but think that the search for suspects will inevitably lead away from known perpetrators and turn toward suspected sympathizers. Ultimately, anyone who's ever dissented from American Middle-East policy and has corresponded with foreigners will become ever more likely targets for taps and other tricks. The powers that be in this country, and Republicans in particular, have a 60-year track record of either failing or refusing to distinguish between dissent and subversion. Just as any Marxist was part of the International Communist Conspiracy in many minds, so anyone perceived as pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist, for instance, will be seen, or is already, as a friend of terrorists -- and if a friend, why not an ally? Democrats were hardly better than Republicans as far as freedom of conscience and national security were concerned in the 1940s, and they seem to be no better now. Thanks a lot.
At this point in a campaign, neither choice is good. Either one is a capitulation to the rule of money in politics. Obama must either beg for money in order to buy ads, or he can take an allowance from the government in order to buy ads. The real problem is with the need to buy ads. Both Obama and McCain, not to mention the "minor party" candidates, find themselves in the humiliating position of having to pay for the privilege of speaking to most of the American people. Television has imposed this requirement upon them. Before television, a candidate could go on the road and depend upon serious newspapers publishing substantial accounts of his speeches, at no cost to the candidate. Now the networks, apart from C-SPAN, only grudgingly show sound-bite excerpts from speeches. "Public financing" only perpetuates this system. If the government could offer candidates "public access," a free share of airtime provided by networks as a requirement of their franchises, that would be a different story. If either Obama or McCain wants to call himself a reformer, let him propose that idea.
18 June 2008
The easiest way to that end, presuming that bin Laden is taken alive, is not to put him to death. The next president would have to concede ahead of time that he'd have to maintain the man in some maximum-security facility for the rest of his days, and with that decision comes the danger of fresh waves of terrorism, most likely hostage-taking, intended to force the government to release bin Laden.
If the U.S. kills bin Laden after a trial, especially one in which he orates in his own defense like Hitler after the Beer Hall Putsch, or on the battlefield, he's a martyr pretty much by definition, unless either Obama or McCain was willing to try an approach neither has shown any interest in. Osama bin Laden or any of his comrades are or will be martyrs only for those who accept certain premises beforehand, most importantly the premise that God's will as revealed in the Qur'an makes jihad against America imperative and just. Some Americans are willing to challenge this premise only so far, arguing with questionable authority or plausibility that God's will does not make jihad imperative or just. Fewer would dare go further, to challenge bin Laden's credibility on the ground that there was no revelation, there is no God, and Islam is nothing but a 1,400 year old fraud on the public.
I'm occasionally intrigued by the idea of atheists challenging Jews, Christians or Muslims to the same test Elijah inflicted on the prophets of Baal in I Kings, Chapter 18. Let any of them lay a cut and dressed bullock on an unlit woodpile and call on their god to answer with fire. Have them do it exactly as Elijah did with his bullock; let God light the fire after they've dumped four barrels of water three times over on the pile, meat and wood alike -- and let them worry about what we'll do when the fire doesn't come. This is a test that "infallible" scripture records God passing, so a new test of "prophets" presumably as devout as Elijah, should have the same result. But when the time has expired, let them know that they won't be killed like the prophets of Baal, because we're not barbarians like Elijah's people. No one who goes through that experience, in which the intent is not to destroy but to humiliate the victim, will ever be considered a martyr. At the least, his lack of faith would be blamed for God's failure to perform, and his erstwhile followers would probably leave him to rot in prison.
But as I said, this is a spectacle that no American president would want to participate in. In the interest of national security, then, the Think 3 Institute advises Senator Obama, in the event of bin Laden's capture, to turn him over to us.
17 June 2008
I await the waves of outrage from the conservative media, based on their reaction the last time a Christian suggested that God might judge America unfavorably. It seems to me that Hampsmire (who represents the redundantly named organization, "Christians for God," also known as "Cry to God") is a worse offender than Rev. Wright, since "God damn America" is rather vague in comparison to Hampsmire's promise of destruction. Will conservatives agree that Hampsmire hates America, and not only homosexuals? Will they take his threats seriously and treat him as the agent of a hostile sect? Or does Hampsmire's apparent lack of powerful friends place him beneath the notice of the professionally indignant? This shouldn't be hard for folks to figure out for themselves.
[Jiang Rui] is an eighteen-year-old boy from Shenyang who has recently graduated from high school....He's dreamed all his life of visiting Beijing, and for him, Tiananmen Square is the highlight of that visit. A trip to Tiananmen Square is obligatory, and the Chairman's [Mao Zedong] embalmed corpse is one of the must-sees of any visit to the square.
Jiang Rui is just in front of us in the slow-moving crowd. Just before entering, he is persuaded by the flower vendor to buy a bouquet to place in front of the white marble statue of Mao that stands three meters high in the main hall. After about an hour's wait as the line snakes around and into the building, Jiang finally makes it to the main hall, where he leaves the line and places his bouquet at the foot of the statue of the Chairman. He bows twice in reverence, fixing a solemn gaze upon the enormous statue, and moves on, in tears. By now the crowd has moved slowly forward toward the next room, where Mao's crystal sarcophagus rests. As we move out of the main hall, the vendor who has just sold Jiang the flowers comes in and retrieves each of the bouquets strewn across the floor. As we pass by the vendor's stall on our way out, we find Jiang's flowers back in place, awaiting another patriotic soul who wants to leave some tribute to the Great Helmsman. When Jiang sees them, his face falls, tears well up, and he shakes his head in disbelief. "Hey, listen, everyone has to make a buck," explains the flower vendor, clearly uneasy about his own disrespectful actions. This could very well become the new slogan of postreform China. Yet the degree of unease, of sheer embarrassment and discomfort, shown by the vendor as he snatched the flowers away from the foot of Mao's statue is something that many in post-economic-reform China have also felt.
Beijing Time is an intriguing puzzle portrait of pieces of China, from an explication of how Communist construction disrupted the traditional flow of qi through the city to scenes from ragpickers' slums, karaoke bars, "ghost markets" where collectors search for authentic Maoist ephemera, former factories converted to avant-garde artists' spaces, and a good deal more in only 238 well-illustrated pages. Through it all, China emerges as something quite different from the totalitarian nightmare of some people's fears, something more like the European monarchies of the 19th century where arts, culture and independent thinking flourished alongside the activities of secret police -- not a free society in the American sense, necessarily, but one where plenty of people seem to be free just the same, and maybe more free, for the risks they might run, than Americans would give them credit for.It might have made a more balanced portrait had the authors sought out some political dissidents, but it isn't an idealized image, either, as the anecdote above should show.
Sharon Stone might have been better off reading this book before opining about the recent Chinese earthquake. She might not have been any less obnoxious, or even less stupid, but she might have made her point harder had she read the following:
In the traditional cosmology there was a metonymic link between natural disasters and rule on earth: a natural disaster was symptomatic of a loss of the mandate of heaven. Diasters showed that the gods had turned against the ruler; they were portents of a need for what we call today "regime change."
With that tradition in mind, the extensive coverage given the earthquake by the Chinese media, compared to the more lethal 1976 earthquake that preceded Mao's death (make of that coincidence what you will) is probably proof of real progress in the country.
16 June 2008
All this scheming to overthrow the American Bipolarchy left me disappointed, especially since all the experts acknowledge that the two-party system as a whole is failing the nation. The novelist Kevin Baker describes it, speaking of Republicans in particular, as "this weird inversion of Tammany [Hall, the archetypical big-city political machine]. They don't get you out of jail, they don't give you a turkey at Christmas, they don't do anything for you, and yet somehow they keep winning." But the only solutions proposed involve strengthening the Democratic party, getting more people to vote for it, getting it to adopt new policies or resume old ones. None of them seems to realize that it's the very existence of the Democratic party that keeps the Republican party going. They recognize that the G.O.P. is composed of increasingly incompatible elements, but none of them notes that the biggest thing holding them together is their hatred of "liberals" embodied in the Democratic party. As long as this fear and loathing persists, something like the present-day Republican party will exist in opposition to it. None of them seems willing to make the big gamble on the possibility of destroying the Republicans by destroying the Democrats first. Too many people, I suspect, fear that the G.O.P. would simply claim dictatorial power should the Democrats collapse. But if there are as many as three ideological factions within the Republican party, then there'd probably be as many as three parties in the first post-Democratic election. Similarly, you'd be more likely to see the National Women's Party that some hard-core Clintonites have proposed if the Republicans had already departed from the scene, since the feminist extremists would have nothing left to scare them into staying with the Democrats. The best-case scenario would be for one party to tear itself apart, and for the other to follow suit at the next election.
Let's believe that something like this could happen soon, especially if we help it along, or else we could face the worst-case scenario described by Scott McConnell:
If the next president orders the military to invade or bomb Iran or some other country, I would probably welcome it if some key generals said, "No Mr. President, not this time," and went over the head of the president for congressional and popular support. At that point I'd put as much trust in the judgment and patriotism of a high-ranking military officer as in that of a politician who has spent decades catering to the fabulously rich men who finance both major parties. That's one way the current stasis could be broken -- our version of a Gaullist coup.
To which Kevin Baker responds by recalling that, in the same magazine five years before, he had written, "In the end, we'll beg for the coup."
Mugabe assumes that the British want to get rid of him in part because he dares to take land away from the descendants of British settlers, but that's one thing I don't hold against him. If you work from an assumption that British colonial rule in that land was never legitimate, you can fairly ask whether the heirs of colonizers should be able to keep everything their ancestors seized by imperial force. You might want to find a better way to do it than Mugabe has, but it shouldn't be shunned as an absolutely forbidden thing or as inherently tyrannical.
The real problem with Mugabe is that, in his old age, he has come to see himself as an indispensable man. Nearly every revolutionary leader faces that temptation, since they see themselves as essential to the revolution in the first place and they tend to identify any dissent with counter-revolution. George Washington is rightly held up as the great exception, since he could have been President for life, or could have been a dictator or even a king without a constitution, but chose to retire after eight years in office. Of course, people can believe themselves indispensable yet still restrain themselves. Hugo Chavez, for instance, didn't put tanks in the streets of Caracas when his big referendum failed earlier this year. Or they can simply acknowledge reality, as Fidel Castro has in light of his failing health. Robert Mugabe's ego, amazing as it may sound, must be greater than those of any of these ambitious men, with far fewer accomplishments than any of them to justify it. We've had hints that the people of Zimbabwe are tired of his act, but if they really want to be rid of him, they'd better be prepared to do more than vote.
15 June 2008
There probably is an ideological element in my aesthetic sense, and I might be giving the game away by admitting that I'm a fan of the movies of the 1970s. I was a child in those years and didn't actually get out to movies much, and the movies I enjoyed on TV were usually older, but as I've grown older I've acquired a taste for 70s cinema that is only vicariously nostalgic, in the sense that I wasn't really living in the decade as it passed me by. I'm not nostalgic for the children's programming of the era, but for the stuff I wasn't old enough to see or appreciate.
I have exactly one grindhouse memory from those years. When I went to the movies, it was usually for children's matinees, animated features and other Disney product. One night, however, I believe in 1976, our babysitter took us to Proctor's Theater in downtown Troy for a double-bill of At the Earth's Core and The Conqueror Worm. I remember distinctly some details of the first film, but regret to report that I fell asleep through most of the renamed Witchfinder General. I woke up in time to see Vincent Price killed, and the Poe poem recited to justify American International's retitling of the picture.
Since then, while retaining my taste for fantastic or genre movies, I've developed an appreciation for more mundane product from the period. It's a retrospective appreciation in some ways, since there are some aspects of 70s cinema I could only appreciate after having later works to compare them with. The 70s, for instance, were the last golden age of stuntwork before special effects made things easier for everyone, and even the sillier car-chase and car-crash films of the time now inspire the same admiration I felt when younger for the daredevil comedians of silent film. Reality is a third dimension to most 70s films that renders most 90s and 2000s films two-dimensional (or less) by comparison. Even Star Wars, the film that allegedly ended the era by setting new standards of production, had a distinct superiority of effects for its time that gave it the same sort of individuality that Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation had, compared to the now generic CGI look of most genre films.
More importantly, 70s cinema had a different worldview, more realistic, hardheaded to the point of pessimism, and overall more mature (or more "adult") than later generations of movies. Unless you're looking at an actual youth comedy like Animal House, you feel certain that the characters in 70s films are grown-ups. The 70s were a decade of disillusionment in which, at the same time, anything seemed possible artistically. Writers, directors and actors seemed unbound by the old studio imperative of making everyone feel happy, and audiences seemed hungry for sterner stuff. Unhappy endings are an almost stereotypical feature of 70s cinema, but they strike me less as bitterness or cynicism than a clear-eyed view of a world in which Americans had discovered limits. In this sense, the nemesis of the 70s style isn't really George Lucas (who after all followed Star Wars with The Empire Strikes Back), but Sylvester Stallone. Rocky II is arguably the first film of the 80s, despite being made in 1979, because Stallone gives himself a do-over and lets himself win. Rambo: First Blood Part II makes his agenda explicit; he asks, "Do we get to win this time?" and answers with a resounding YES! -- or an inarticulate roar, depending on how you hear it. In between these milestones, Americans endorsed the ideological optimism of Ronald Reagan, and the 70s were dismissed as a decade of bad clothes (true), bad music (debatable) and bad everything, summed up in Jimmy Carter's discredited declaration of malaise, for which Reagan's optimism was the purported remedy, and which George W. Bush's decrepit optimism threatens to revive.
While movies from the 80s forward tended to propose easy answers to most dilemmas, render violence as weightless abstraction, and reduce personalities to archetypes with by-the-numbers "character arcs," 70s movies often eschewed easy answers, unless you consider the tendency to unhappy endings as a too-easy form of cynicism. To illustrate my point, I'll describe a movie I watched today.
The Deadly Trackers is a 1973 western starring Richard Harris. This was the period when Harris was sort of a western star following the success of A Man Called Horse. Here, he's a sheriff who's never killed a man, because he's perfected a system of rousing the town to stop criminals by force of numbers that compel them to surrender. When a gang of vicious hell-bastards including such 70s stalwarts as William Smith (as a hulking retard called Schoolboy) and Neville Brand (as a dude with an iron block for a hand), but led by Rod Taylor, rob a bank, the drill works to perfection, except that Taylor manages to get inside a school and take a kid hostage who happens to be Harris's son. The sheriff surrenders and lets the robbers leave town with their loot, but Taylor insists on taking the boy with them. As he rides out, Harris's wife runs out and tries to stop Taylor, so he shoots her in the face (the film is rated PG, by the way). Now the gang is in a hurry, so Taylor throws the boy to the street, and his gang tramples a rather obvious dummy. Harris's wife and boy are dead. So much for the pacifism; it's 70s vengeance time!
Harris crosses the border into Mexico on a one-man mission to destroy Taylor's gang. The Deadly Trackers is a film so tough that Al Lettieri, an iconic 70s thug (he was Solazzo in The Godfather and played bestial villains in The Getaway and Mr. Majestyk) is actually a good guy, in fact the moral core of the film. He's a Mexican lawman who tries mightily to dissuade Harris from his mission while affirming the rule of law, and suffers much for his trouble. Even getting plugged by Taylor and tumbling down a hillside (kudos to the stuntman) doesn't dent Lettieri's idealism. Harris shakes him off at several points, but near the end, when our hero has finally sunken to Taylor's level and taken Taylor's daughter hostage in a convent school to force the criminal into the open, he can't bring himself to go all the way. He brings Taylor to the Mexican town where Lettieri has promised him that a witness can get Taylor convicted of a crime in Mexico. It turns out that the witness has died, so Lettieri now has no case against Taylor. You'd think the concept of extradition to Texas might come up here, but this is far from a perfect film, so Lettieri orders Harris to set Taylor free. Harris does so, but moments later, as Taylor is cackling and inviting everyone to drinks on him, Harris blows him away. Lettieri tells Harris he's under arrest. Harris throws down his weapon, but turns his horse around and starts riding slowly out of town. Lettieri orders him to stop, but Harris keeps going. Lettieri shoots him in the back and Harris drops dead. The End.
Imagine The Deadly Trackers remade today. We'd probably miss the subplot with Taylor and one black gang member, on whom Taylor constantly heaps racist invective, which seems headed for a fatal resolution, but ends up with them parting ways amicably after the black guy pays Taylor $1,000 for Taylor's former girlfriend and becomes her pimp before Harris appears and kills him. The end is much more likely to change, in one of three ways. Either Lettieri would actually help Harris kill Taylor in a big action sequence, and let Harris go home; or Harris would turn Taylor over, Taylor would somehow get hold of a gun, and Lettieri would kill him, after which Harris would go home; or it would play out as before up to Taylor's death, after which Lettieri would let Harris go home. Whether modern screenwriters would give Harris a Mexican love interest to further his redemption is a side issue. Retaining the original ending is the most unlikely outcome, even if such 70s lovers as Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez were in charge. I'll concede that it might be more likely now than in the 80s or 90s, but that's because another malaise period seems to be settling in.
I'm not making any special claims for The Deadly Trackers as a work of art. It's an efficient, unpretentious film with nice location work that cheaps out on the soundtrack by borrowing just about everything from Jerry Fielding's score for The Wild Bunch. I submit it as a typical product of its era, an action film from the early 70s with ambivalence towards the vengeance and violence that are its reason for being. It may have been a better film if Samuel Fuller had made it, as he apparently was supposed to, it being derived from one of his stores, but I liked it better than some of the cartoonish spaghetti westerns and the ego-trip John Wayne epics of the time. There's something about that grim ending that appeals to me. I don't get it in many current movies (No Country For Old Men is an exception), but I get it a lot from 70s films. That's not to say I only like the gritty realistic pessimism. I like a lot of the cartoonish action stuff also. Whether its Dolemite or TNT Jackson or The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, there's something to the grindhouse aesthetic that Hollywood and Hong Kong and places in between (I can't speak for Bollywood, however) have lost, and I worry that it's something the culture has lost as well.
13 June 2008
Without intending to insult the bereaved, honesty requires me to say that I won't regret Russert's departure from public life. Review my posts from the early primary season and you'll see my frustration with the "gotcha" style of interviewing perfected by him. I wanted to see the candidates talk about their plans for the future of this country, not account for possibly embarrassing statements of the past or present peers' critical words. Now I see that Russert was admired for just this approach to interviewing, not necessarily on substance but because he dealt equally with both major parties. But for anyone as dissatisfied as I am with the American Bipolarchy, it's no excuse for Russert's style that he dealt fairly within the two-party system. As a reporter and analyst he was comparatively unobjectionable. While I elect to play the devil's advocate tonight, I don't mean to celebrate his death. First, Russert did nothing close to what would warrant such treatment. Second, there'd be little to celebrate, since whoever replaces him is likely to do things exactly the same way.
12 June 2008
I can only argue from hearsay, and I've seen too many stories about the dubious circumstances through which people have ended up in Guantanamo to trust the military's claim that everyone there has already been determined by prior tribunals to be terrorists or enemy aliens. Yet Scalia constantly refers to the plaintiffs and those they represent in exactly those terms. To him it's beyond dispute that they are indeed enemy aliens and terrorists; the very point in dispute he takes as already proven, and he essentially ascribes any disagreement with his view to bad faith or judicial arrogance. He demands deference to the military, especially to the Commander-in-Chief, and to Congress, at least when it enacts measures of which he as a conservative ideologue approves, such as the Military Commissions Act. Finally, he raves hysterically that the Court will live to regret this day, since Americans will certainly die because of this decision. This is called being a sore loser, and it retroactively helps justify the decision in my mind.
Let's face it: if, as Scalia reminds us, we are at war, and we catch terrorists red-handed on "the battlefield," loosely defined, we shouldn't trouble ourselves with dragging them into the Cuban oubliette. When people are brought there and called terrorists, they've probably been nabbed on something less than red-handed evidence, and we have a right to ask under what circumstances they've been captured. Lest anyone question our patriotism, ask them: if these prisoners are terrorists, why aren't they dead? If the answer has anything to do with the prisoners' rights, then we can wonder aloud what the fuss is about over the Court's ruling today.
11 June 2008
As for the oil companies, Mr. Right seems to think that their executives are being singled out because they're presumed to be Republicans or conservatives. He thinks that he scores some debating point by mentioning that the public figure with, to his knowledge, the biggest oil-based fortune -- Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia -- is in fact a liberal Democrat. I tried to assure him that, at least as far as average folk were concerned, party affiliation had nothing to do with their feelings toward the oil companies, and he himself acknowledged that Rockefeller has nothing to do with setting oil prices.
But why people complained still eluded him. "I don't understand why they want these people who make such an important contribution to the economy to just barely scrape by," he protested wearily, "The same goes for the pharmaceutical industry. Why do they want the people who are striving to cure diseases to only make the bare minimum profit?"
"It's really a very old idea," I tried to explain, as if appealing to age might impress him as a conservative, "Many people have an idea of a just price for any given product, usually based on their ability to pay, and they think the oil companies are charging an unjust price."
That struck Mr. Right, as so much does, as a form of class warfare. Thinking of Oprah again, I suggested to him that the problem might be that most people practiced a selective form of class warfare. He agreed to this, but I don't think he and I would agree on what exactly we had just agreed on.
That may be so, but if people over there believe that, because he's of a minority, or has darker skin and a friendly sounding name, that Obama will be more responsive to their concerns in crafting his foreign policy, I advise them to prepare for a disappointment. Apart from his opposition to the Iraq debacle, Obama shows every sign of a thoroughly conventional American attitude toward the Middle East. He's as quick as any politician to curry favor with the Zionist lobbies, and has gone so far as to declare Jerusalem the indivisible capital of Israel, a point that even Bush doesn't insist on. He's also hawkish on Pakistan to the point of being called rash by Republicans. He made a point during the debates of applauding a U.S. strike within Pakistan, and while you might agree that we should have a harder line on Pakistan, since that's where bin Laden might be hiding out, that's probably not what the "Arab street" and their brethren to the east are hoping to hear from a President Obama.
Friedman has probably talked to too many naive people. Obama may have his virtues, but they have nothing to do with his skin color or his heritage. Nor do his skin or his heritage automatically color his foreign policy. He didn't oppose the invasion of Iraq because he was a black man, nor would he withdraw the troops, if elected, because he is a black man. Obama has climbed up one of the pillars of the American Bipolarchy in a manner that would have been impossible, as Dennis Kucinich demonstrates, had he seriously challenged the consensus in favor of U.S. hegemony. No one watching this election from afar should jump to the conclusion that Barack Obama is really one of them; they'd be just as foolish as those Americans who'd like to agree with them.
10 June 2008
09 June 2008
Bolton's own comments on the experience were reported by a Conservative paper. He's popular with Bushite Republicans because of his audacious, pugnacious attitude, displayed here by his implicit characterization of Monbiot as a fascist. But there's nothing funny about his frankly sinister assertion that, once a legally elected government commits to war, and is convinced of its legality, no citizen of that nation has a legal right to challenge the war's legality in any legal venue. He's not going so far (I hope) as to say that no American has a right to speak out against the war, but he is saying quite clearly that no American, and apparently no foreigner has the right to sue, swear out a warrant or prosecute the government or its agents on the belief that the law was broken. Think what you like, he seems to say, but you have no right of appeal and no right to seek justice.
This attitude on the part of American politicians isn't likely to change soon. Whether it's Obama, McCain or any of their understudies, most aspiring presidents want the same prerogatives that Bush has claimed, no matter how differently they might do things. This was most apparent in Senator Clinton's case, for that was why she never renounced her vote to authorize the invasion. In her view, the President should have that power, but Bush used it wrongly. I don't know if Obama thinks differently, and I doubt that McCain does. In any event, the perverse comity that characterizes the American Bipolarchy also guarantees that no Democratic president would undertake or allow the prosecution of the Bushites, since they won't want Republicans to prosecute them in turn should Obama want to intervene anywhere (in Pakistan, for instance). For the same reason, a Democratic regime would probably block any attempt by a foreign government or international body to prosecute the Bushites, but they would call it a defense of American sovereignty in that case.
That leaves aggrieved Americans with two choices. We have the option Bolton offers us, which is simply to acquiesce to a war that he dares to equate with the will of the voters, or we must accept the revolutionary implications of our idea of international law. If we want to hold nations to account for waging wars, a power must exist that can arrest and detain political leaders as well as try and punish them. The United Nations lacks the power or will for this purpose, but it might serve as the embryo for something better, or at least stronger, just as the Articles of Confederation that loosely tied the United States together made possible the more perfect union of the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was authorized by Congress under the Articles. So might the United Nations authorize a global constitutional convention, even if, as in the American case, it doesn't authorize the results in advance. Even then, it will be up to citizens of the world to declare their allegiance to democracy and the rule of law -- the things they supposedly stand for already.
08 June 2008
The Pride parade had little of the entertainment value that anyone in Troy would expect. It had only one marching band, and little in the way of floats. There were flamboyantly dressed people, as you might expect, but there were also lots of nondescript people riding in cars and trucks and waving at spectators. There were politicians in cars and one truck from a radio station. At the tail end, there was a big Jagermeister truck, apparently inviting marchers and spectators alike to get hammered afterward. So by Troy Flag Day standards it was a poor excuse for a parade. Yet I think the Albany event was closer to the authentic spirit that originally animated street parades.
There used to be many more parades per year in both cities. The point of them wasn't to entertain spectators, but to show the strength in numbers of political parties, labor unions, fraternal organizations, and so on. Parades were demonstrations as much as any public protest is today. You might have a band with you, but the point wasn't to perform for an audience, but to impress them with your numbers, your organization and your discipline. That's why so many groups used to march in uniform and in formation. Today, in most cases, these details amount to pure meaningless performance. As I saw it, the Pride parade was more impressive because it was a real parade, a genuine demonstration, an affirmation of existence and a show of solidarity. I shouldn't overrate all this, since much of it involved people prancing about in stereotypical costumes or with their shirts off, but I think I've made my point.
Judged solely by aesthetic standards, the Pride parade wasn't pretty. The lesbians never live up to the pornographic ideal, while the men inevitably activated my "ick factor." Some people think that the "ick factor," or whatever you call that almost reflexive repugnance certain things trigger in some folks, is a fair guide to social policy. I'd like to think I know better. There are plenty of phenomena out there that I find disgusting, but I don't feel a need to ban any of them. Some people may have found today's parade repulsive, though I didn't notice any protesters, as I did last year. They should ask themselves: how does it harm you? They should ask the same question whenever any gay rights topic comes up. It may strike you as icky nasty, but that doesn't count as harm, much less as harm to the body politic. You may even be offended, but that's no harm, either. This is where arguments against gay rights fail; they cannot prove harm, so they substitute offense to themselves or, worse, to God. Leaving God's existence out of it for a moment, offense to God is no crime in this country, and God has no legal standing to seek redress. Reduced to essentials, the argument against gay rights is based on a primitive fear of God's wrath that is unworthy of the heirs of the Founders. With that in mind, which was the more patriotic parade, today?
05 June 2008
It turns out that Dad is Ronnie Naulls, "a church-going family man" with "two successful careers -- one as a computer consultant and another in real estate." He had a third career, however, that got him in trouble with the federal government. His offense was to operate a medical marijuana clinic in California. For that, he's been jailed and his property's been confiscated.
The MPP is the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation. It's "the largest organization in the U.S. that's solely dedicated to ending the government's war on marijuana users." They claim progress in the form of growing public support for medicinal marijuana and in the fact that "Congress and the 50 states are no longer enacting new laws to increase marijuana-related penalties." But at the same time, "all across the country, police, prosecutors, and other prohibitionists continue to wage a failed war on drugs that disproportionately targets marijuana users."
MPP proposes to stop this by "providing substantial financial support to pass a ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana in Massachusetts this November." That follows various victories won since the year 2000 in which MPP "has legalized or reduced the penalties for medical marijuana." That doesn't sound quite right, since state legislatures must have done the legalization and the reduction, while MPP's work, as you read on, boils down to "pressuring presidential candidates" and "searching for a lead sponsor" for a federal legalization bill. In short, it's a lobby, and since you as an individual can just as readily lobby your legsilator for whatever purpose you please, and you might make more of an impression as an individual in your own words, MPP is superfluous for any conscientious person.
On the other hand, membership in MPP brings a few perks. They're hoping for $25 memberships that will get you regular issues of the MPP newsletter, but give them $40 and you'll get one of four t-shirts with various quotes or slogans, or one of two DVDs. For more details, I refer you to www.MarijuanaPolicy.org, where you might see the shirt designs and you'll probably learn more about their lobbying work.
True to form, Pappas announces that "Hillary's supporters are sad and mad that the Democratic party did not stand up against sexism in the media. Hillary's supporters are sad and mad that a qualified, intelligent woman was denied the chance to lead the most powerful country in the world, and that she was denied the chance to send a message of hope and potential greatness to women everywhere."
Yeah, how dare voters do that? And especially those in a self-styled Democratic party? Pappas will tell you that 'The Democrats certainly did not live up to their name" in their failure to affirm Clinton's call to potential greatness. "This time the Democrats have shown their true colors," she fumes -- are they black, by any chance? Then, to mix metaphors, comes her call for a banzai charge straight out of Iwo Jima: "It's high time for a party that respects the needs and rights of over half the population. Maybe Senator Clinton should start a National Women's Party. She certainly has the base she would need to make it happen. At least that party will state its mission clearly through it's [sic] title."
To return to our German metaphor, Pappas reminds one of a general who actually believes that there are armies on the way to relieve Berlin. At this point, of course, it's a good Democrat's job to tell people like Pappas not to go crazy and sabotage the last best liberal hope in the general campaign. I'm not a good Democrat, of course, so my answer to Pappas's proposal is: I dare you. I think we would all learn something from the experiment, and enough so that it would never need to be repeated.
If anyone thinks such a stunt would doom the Obama campaign, let me remind you of 1948. In that year, the Democratic party was split in three. "Dixiecrats" bolted to protest Harry Truman's modest initiatives on civil rights. "Progressives" bolted to protest increased American belligerence toward the Soviet bloc. Truman, not a popular incumbent in the first place, was certainly doomed -- and yet he won. Figure that one out.