30 January 2009

Michael Steele: the Anti-Obama?

After pressuring the incumbent Bushite to withdraw his candidacy for re-election, the Republican National Committee has elected Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, as its chairman. It is probably no coincidence that this moment of history sees the Party of Lincoln select its first-ever black chair. While The American Conservative saw nothing to distinguish Steele from the other Reagan idolaters, the Grand Olds clearly intend to send a message by selecting him as their leader: Look how far we've come as a country, so that even a black man now embraces our every-man-for-himself philosophy!

Oh, I forgot. They call it "personal responsibility." But between you and me, that's what we call a euphemism, which is a fancy way of blaming workers when their jobs go away and poor suckers when the economy crashes. It's a talent that Mr. Steele will find more useful than licking Reagan's marble toes, but I'll admit that that'll probably come in handy, too. May he reign in interesting times.

Global Hot Spot.

Residents of Madagascar are worried by violent rioting that followed the government's closure of an opposition TV station. Protesters retaliated by attacking a government station and other facilities, according to the Associated Press. Forty-three people have been killed during the rioting, which the government hopes to calm with promises of reopening the dissident station, which is owned by the mayor of the nation's capital, Antananarivo.
The rioting follows a powerful cyclone that has reportedly displaced thousands of people and put the population as a whole on edge. Conditions have exacerbated the power struggle between the president and the media mogul, who offended the leader by broadcasting an interview with an exiled former leader. The president, Mark Ravalomanana, took power in what looks like a "color" revolution after he claimed victory in a 2001 vote despite election officials ordering a runoff. Ravalomanana has since been re-elected and has survived a coup attempt. The mogul, Andy Rajoelina, has strong support in his city but is supposedly being undermined by his state government. A pro-Rajoelina Wikipedia entry claims that the government's pretext for closing his station was flimsy, since other channels showed footage of the same controversial interview with the man Ravalomanana defeated for the presidency.
I honestly find this interesting, and I think more people ought to notice political crises in foreign lands, and not just when the U.S. has interests involved. I credit the local paper with running even a short item on the conflict. But to be just as honest, I thought it might be funny to run the story along with the cartoon picture. I've never seen the movies, so I always wondered what the characters were scared of -- and now I know.

The Senate: New York Gets It.

The Associated Press reports the results of a poll conducted by Siena College in which 65 percent of responding voters said they want New York State law changed so that U.S. Senate vacancies are filled by special elections rather than appointments by the governor. It's unlikely that anyone asked people the same question before the Blagojevich-Burris and Paterson-Kennedy-Gillibrand comedies, but it would be interesting to see how many people have only recently embraced the special election idea. It wouldn't surprise me if most people were only just learning that governors had this power in most states.

Critics of special elections complain about the cost. They are best answered by Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, a Republican who is now favored to win Senator Gillibrand's former congressional seat and who, on this issue at least, is the opposite of a conservative. Asked about estimates that special elections would cost up to $20,000,000, Tedisco told the AP that "it's ludicrous to allow cost to deter politicians from pushing elections over appointments." Mocking the logic of the critics, he suggests: "Let's eliminate all the elections and we'll save a ton of money. In fact, let's take our voting machines and sell them on eBay to a state that has real democracy."

Should he be elected, I hope Tedisco will support the Constitutional amendment that Senator Feingold intends to introduce. That would take the matter out of state hands, but since it's basically the same idea I don't see why anyone would object to it on states-rights grounds. Some may object on I-trust-my-governor grounds, or for the penny-pinching reasons mentioned above, but that would just be dumb.

29 January 2009

Blagojevich: You're All Guilty!

I'm still waiting for a complete transcript of the Illinois governor's closing statement to be posted somewhere. For now, I have to make do with stories like this one with selected quotes. Blagojevich's main argument remains that he has done nothing wrong -- never actually negotiated a "sale" of the U.S. Senate seat and neither solicited nor accepted any bribe or gift in return for it. The secondary argument with which he hopes to shame the legislators into acquitting him is his assertion that his statements amount to no more than the horse-trading that everyone else does as part of normal political business. They are things that "all of us in politics do in order to run campaigns and win elections." He is probably not wrong about this, except maybe for the "all of us" part, but his breach of decorum in being so blatant about it is probably impeachable, or at least censurable, in its own right. His is ultimately an offense against etiquette (or honor, if you choose), which may explain why he has so few defenders when otherwise his party might rally around him. Is such an offense enough to cost him his job? Practically speaking, the answer is probably yes, since I doubt he could appeal to the people to get it back if he loses it now. A certain reputation has been stamped on him that won't wash off easily. Is it fair? Perhaps not, but if fairness requires Illinois to keep him in office after all because others have gotten away with like deeds, then fairness is a poor guide to justice.

28 January 2009

Russ Feingold is the man!

Finally, after the debacles in Illinois and New York, a U.S. Senator has stood up to say that it's time for a change. Senator Feingold, who just happens to chair the Judiciary Sub-Committee on the Constitution, has announced that he will introduce a constitutional amendment to take the power of senatorial replacement out of the hands of governors. He explains it pretty succinctly himself. I'm also listening to him explain it to Rachel Maddow as I write. Let's let him live up to his promise and put it in writing, and then lean on our Senators to vote for the thing. Between this and voting against Secretary Geithner, Feingold gets much respect here. Give him some yourselves.

What is Snark?

The public sphere suffers from a plague of snarkiness, according to the diagnosis of David Denby, a movie critic for The New Yorker who has written a slim but learned denunciation of this alleged tendency of our culture. After approximately 120 pages, it becomes apparent that Denby, for all his erudition, does not know snark, but does know what he doesn't like.

In Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation, Denby traces the antecedents of snark back to the drinking poets of ancient Greece, the first authors (to our knowledge) to make an art out of insult, and to Juvenal, the satirist of classical Rome. The geneaology runs through Alexander Pope's Dunciad and the 20th century satirical magazines Private Eye and Spy before reaching the present day, when snark runs rampant at every level of culture, from the New York Times to gossipy websites like JuicyCampus. The word snark itself is a nonsense syllable coined by Lewis Carroll for his mock-epic poem, The Hunting of the Snark. It seems to have acquired its modern meaning of a certain snideness without much reference to Carroll, though Denby tries to equate the Carroll snark's ability to annihilate hunters with the reputed desire of some snarky writers that the targets of their spleen disappear from the face of the earth.

So what distinguishes snark? Midway through the book Denby proclaims nine principles of snark, which I paraphrase here: 1. Attack without reason; 2. Appeal to common, hackneyed prejudices; 3. Use media references and old jokes to attack; 4. Assume all negative info to be true; 5.Take no responsibility for accuracy; 6. Caricature everyone; 7. Put celebrities through a cycle of adoration followed by loathing; 8. Attack anything old; 9.Attack overpriced restaurants.

I'm not sure if all these cohere into in a systematic style, but part of Denby's complaint is that snark lacks style. It is lazy in practice, going consistently for the lowest common denominator of invective. Certain writers are not snarky, no matter how vicious they are in their criticism, because style redeems them. H.L. Mencken is an example of a writer whose style elevates him above snark, while Maureen Dowd is identified as the definitive practitioner of snark. Denby's rap against Dowd is that she seems to believe in nothing and assumes that no one else does. He makes her a scapegoat for Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential election, an occasion when Gore was definitely victimized by an attitude that could be called snarky. Gore and Hilary Clinton are the primary victims of snark in Denby's account, and I got the sense that Denby's objections to snark are linked to a higher regard for Secretary Clinton than many other people have. But he describes something real when denouncing the tendency to dismiss idealism as a disguise for power grabbing. As for Dowd, her recent bootlicking on behalf of Caroline Kennedy, which I've discussed recently, throws into question Denby's characterization of her as some glib nihilist. If she later insults Caroline, however, Denby's thesis might be partially proved.

Denby gives us enough information to speculate for ourselves on the existence and essence of snark. For me, the most telling passage appears on page 84: "American life is a viciously competitive race, in which every ego has to fight for a limited amount of oxygen. In that atmosphere, then, adoration of another is experienced as a loss, a wound. Reduced in some way, we want to hit back." He's talking about the particular phenomena of snarkiness toward celebrities, but I think he's on to something bigger. Snark, as he describes it, flourishes on the internet, where to his somewhat unjustified chagrin it's all too easy to post anonymous comments on practically anything. The internet, along with cable TV, is creating the global village of some futurists' wildest dreams. For some people, the world is being transformed to one big schoolyard or water cooler spot in the office. Everyone and everything is a subject for gossip, and for some people, everyone is a potential competitor. Just as the bully asserts himself by putting down his classmates or his neighbor, so the snarky modern asserts himself by putting down celebrities, politicians, and random people in chatrooms and newsgroups. But snark can just as easily be the defensive scorn of the outsider, the nerd or the goth whose impulsive reaction to any hint of superiority is "You're not all that!"

Denby makes a big deal out of the implicit cliquishness of snark. One way he defines it is as a kind of in-joke addressed to an implicit in-group that assumes a posture of superiority to the target of snark. Compared to a mere cynic who might say to someone, "You're not better than anybody else," the practitioner of snark, Denby suggests, says, "You're not better than anybody else -- but I am, because I have you figured out!" But defined that way, snark is not so new, except in the global sweep of it noted above.

Likewise, Denby seems more troubled by reactionary snark aimed at liberals like Gore, Mrs. Clinton, or President Obama than by snark aimed the other way. He makes a few token nods at snark targeting Governor Palin or Senator McCain, but the examples he cites seem feeble in comparison to reactionary snark. He actually suggests, in his comments on Maureen Dowd, that George W. Bush was effectively immune to snark, at least as practiced by Dowd. For all its purported corrosive effect, snark fails as "an adequate critique of power." It seems to work only when used to suppress idealists who strive for reform. If so, is the problem "snark" or is it really a reactionary mentality expressed with snark? Is snark essentially reactionary? Denby doesn't want to say it outright, but that's where everything points. Snark seems to be hostile toward anyone who seems, let alone claims to be superior, and equally hostile toward any suggestion that things can be better or that we, including the snarky skeptic, can do better. A prevalence of snark is certainly no aid to progress.

Let me suggest, in closing, that what Denby calls snark is a fad rather than a style -- a phenomenon of a period when people are only beginning to learn how to communicate with one another in the virtual global village. It could be a reaction characteristic of this moment, and one that will pass with it. If so, we might worry less about correcting snark itself than in going on about the work of cultural evolution, ignoring snark as best we can, until it ends up on the proverbial ash-heap of history. And if we want to be snarky about it, we might remind our antagonists of where they'll end up.

The Republican Conclave: Twilight of the Idol?

The Republican National Committee was supposed to elect a chairman today, according to the new issue of The American Conservative that arrived in my mail today. I learn that the vote will actually happen on Friday -- are they waiting for instructions from Davos? In all seriousness, or all that I can muster, the Conservative isn't optimistic about the party's prospects. The incumbent chairman is a Bush loyalist who's earned lots of hostility for his uncritical attitude toward the departed President, but he so far has a plurality of declared delegates in his favor. There are five insurgents, none of whom seem to have impressed the writer of the Conservative's "Fourteen Days" column.

"The race for the chairmanship...has been like a long night of karaoke, as the contenders belt out the camp standards of decades past," the writer sniffs. The writer watched a debate among the aspirants on Jan. 5 -- "Only it's not much of a debate when the action consists of six middle-aged men vying to see who can get the syllables 'Ronald Reagan' out of his mouth the fastest."

The writer, at least, seems to have arrived at the opinion that Reagan doesn't have all the answers for the new millennium. "The only thing more fatuous than the Reaganolalia were the candidates' bright ideas about harnessing the electoral muscle of Twitter and Facebook, thanks to which Ron Paul won the Republican presidential nomination last year," the scribe recalls sarcastically, noting that none of the candidates seem to have real answers for the new era, either.

"Pity the poor GOP," the writer concludes, "its leaders haven't realized that people only love karaoke when they're drunk."

This outburst appears in the same issue as a review of the late William F. Buckley's memoir of his friendship with Reagan.The review by Daniel McCarthy reflects rising revisionism about Reagan, including the realization based on his private writings that he wasn't as dogged a Cold Warrior as conservatives believed or hoped back in the day. McCarthy isn't as troubled about Reagan as some Republicans might be. He finds in Reagan's apparent true attitude (he was reportedly unwilling to order either a first or a retaliatory strike, just like Mikhail Gorbachev) proof that, not so long ago, there was room for diversity in Republican or conservative foreign policy. He cites Reagan and Buckley's disagreement over the Panama Canal; Buckley favored giving it to Panama, while Reagan wanted to keep it. While they disagreed sharply, they remained friends, whereas today, McCarthy suggests, Buckley's position would "get him branded as an unpatriotic conservative" by the GOP establishment. Buckley renounced the neocons before he died, while Reagan's approach, McCarthy claims, is obsolete because anti-Communism no longer exists as the glue to hold divergent factions together.

"In a world like this, there will never be another Reagan or Buckley," McCarthy concludes, "But that is no cause for mourning. Reagan's conservatism had its day, and Buckley believed that he had won his own wars....The challenge for the Right today is not to attempt to relive the glories of the past but to rethink them, as Buckley rethought Reagan." It looks like Republicans haven't yet accepted that challenge. On one hand, I want to say good because that means they'll probably keep losing elections. On the other, decadent Reaganism is bound to be an anchor holding back progress for years yet unless Republicans do the rethinking urged by these writers.Philosophical conservatives have a useful role to play in any national debate, but only if they wake up to the real issues facing all of us instead of re-enacting Cold War morality plays. We all have a stake in the future of conservatism, but they have to figure this out for themselves.

27 January 2009

You Can Sure Trust the Private Sector...

Why am I so amused when I see or hear conservatives and Republicans repeat their refrain that the private sector is always more effective or efficient or trustworthy than the public sector? It's because they can keep saying such stuff while at the same time these things are happening. But my point isn't the simplistic opposite of the simplistic conservative position. I'm not going to say that everyone in the private sector is trying to rip people off like Bernie Madoff and his peers are alleged to have done. But I will insist on their cases as proof against the conservative claim that the private sector carries some aura of virtue around it that's absent in government circles. Some people take it on faith that privatizing any public service will make that service better and cheaper. In some cases that may be true, but it is also true that every such case is also an opportunity for someone to make a profit by squeezing the public and shorting them on actual service. What actually happens depends on the individuals involved. It isn't automatically good because it's private. Nor is it automatically good if it's public. But it's just as absurd to assume, based on ideology, that the public sector will always screw something up as it is to assume that the private sector will always get it right. People don't automatically become incompetent or corrupt when they become bureaucrats any more than they automatically become greedy or dishonest when they become entrepreneurs. This may all sound obvious, but it needs to be said at this time because there's one group of people in the United States who are determined to put their dogmas before the national interest, who are rejecting proposed solutions on reflex and mistaking their convulsive reactions for expressions of principle. I'm not saying this to get people to accept the Obama administration's proposals without question or on faith. But I do insist that everyone apply the same critical thinking to their own preconceptions that they apply to Obama's plans. Anyone who reacts with a pout and a huff that "markets always work out for the best" or "the private sector always does things better" is not just an ideologue but a fool, and should be known as such to all.

Obama Talks to the Arabs

The President has given an interview with al-Arabiya, one of the popular satellite TV networks in the Middle East, and the White House has issued its own transcript of the chat. I wonder whether Obama's skin color keeps Arab viewers from experiencing some sense of deja vu. Eight years ago, many people in the Middle East applauded the ascent of George W. Bush. Believing him to be his father's son, and remembering that the elder Bush was relatively evenhanded (by modern U.S. standards) in his Middle East dealings, Arabs expected a better deal from W. than they were getting from Clinton. They probably would have been disappointed even if al-Qaeda hadn't attacked New York, since W's "freedom" obsession was bound to bias him in favor of "the only democracy in the Middle East." Now they hope that Obama will be a change for the better from Bush.

But what was different, an Arab viewer might wonder, in what Obama says today compared with what W was saying around this time in 2001? The President is always going to tell you that he believes in peace and a fair shake for all sides. He'd be foolish not to say, as Obama has, that he hopes Arabs will be better off under his watch. But what assurance can Obama give his Arab audience that he won't turn into another W. if something goes wrong or if Osama pulls off another stunt? The only signal they might interpret hopefully is Obama's remark that he is specifically concerned with destroying the al-Qaeda organization and is less interested in a broader war against some vaguely or conveniently labeled "Islamic extremism" or "islamofascism." He seemed to be telling the interviewer that he would not regard every single "Islamist" in the region as an enemy of America, so long as Islamists did not do terrorism.

I may be an interloper in this conversation as part of an American audience, but the bit that made me snort was the President's promise that the U.S. would do more listening and less dictating in the Middle East. That's not because I scoff at "listening" as a rule, but because the Middle East does need to be dictated to, albeit preferably by the U.N. rather than the U.S. The problem is not dictation as such, but that American dictation tends to go all in one direction. It's not that the world should listen rather than dictate to the Arabs, but that we should dictate to the Israelis as well as to the Arabs. If their squabbles threaten global stability, then the international community ought to be able to dictate to both or all sides that they should settle their troubles or have them settled from without. "Listening" sounds nice, but it's a fallacy to assume that if we listen enough, any conflict can be resolved without coercion. How long, after all, have we listened to Israelis and Palestinians? How likely is it that George Mitchell, acting as Obama's ears, will hear something new over there? But he should go through the motions at least once, if only so the President can say at some point that we have listened enough.

But have the Arabs listened enough to Obama? They've seen him on TV now, and those with resources can research what he said on the campaign trail last year. The smart ones should be able to figure it out for themselves, but what are they to do with such knowledge? There isn't going to be the sort of diplomatic revolution that could happen in 18th century Europe when the whims of one king replaced those of another. Democracy imposes greater consistency on American foreign policy. If Arabs keep expecting a great change in their favor from each new administration, then they're no better than Americans who perpetuate the Bipolarchy and expect real change. The Arab people had better adjust themselves to this reality or seek new arrangements. Maybe they can interest another superpower to wage war on Zionism in return for resources. Good luck with that.

26 January 2009

Geithner: Let Those Without Sin...

The Senate has confirmed Timothy Geithner as President Obama's Secretary of the Treasury by a 60-34 vote. You can tell the difference when a troubled nominee hasn't been a Senator himself, since more people were willing to stand against Geithner and his honest mistakes about taxes. Susan Collins of Maine, who is usually regarded as a relatively liberal Republican, is being portrayed as the leader of the opposition to Geithner. In which case, credit where it's due -- and perhaps some little girl might be inspired by this some day. Kirsten Gillibrand can at least say that she hasn't been sworn in yet. Honor is also due to Senators Byrd, Feingold and Harkin -- Democrats all -- who applied common sense to Geithner and found him wanting. Senator Sanders lived up to his independent label by also voting nay. Harkin says the tax trouble actually had little to do with his vote. Rather, he says, "I want a Treasury secretary who's going to start banging some heads." That ought to be somebody's quote of the day.

The Mystery of Caroline

Count another columnist, Susan Estrich, among those disappointed -- heartbroken, it seems, -- over Caroline Kennedy's failure to become a U.S. Senator. A column she published last Friday, apparently prior to the Gillibrand announcement, since the new Senator isn't mentioned by name, appeared in one of the local papers yesterday. Estrich's enthusiasm for Caroline is even more mysterious than Maureen Dowd's, since Estrich attributes to Mrs. Schlossberg a power of inspiration that no other female politician possesses.

"I believe she would have been a wonderful senator -- committed, compassionate and inspirational," Estrich writes. I suppose she has a right to believe this, though already we have the word "inspirational" begging the obvious question. "I believe we desperately need women like her, women of stature, women who command attention, who could do and be anything in the world, but choose public service." Estrich imagines a Sen. Kennedy who would "inspire a generation of women -- girls today -- to walk in her footsteps."

The columnist returns to this theme toward the end of her article. Wishing Caroline well, she laments that "when a little girl walks into the gallery of the U.S. Senate, she will have a hard time recognizing anyone who looks like her as she looks down on the assembled senators. There are strong and smart women there, but none who would inspire in that little girl the same dream Caroline Kennedy could inspire, none who will make her feel, as Obama today makes countless young African-Americans feel, that they can do anything, and that nothing they could do matters more than serving their fellow Americans."

Why should Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg be so much more inspiring to little girls than any actual female Senator? There are two possible answers. One is implicit in the last quote, that there'd be something special about a celebrity like Caroline Kennedy condescending to serve in the Senate alongside all those grinds and career politicians.This effect might be the sort that would have resulted had Oprah Winfrey accepted the offer that Gov. Blagojevich has said he was considering of an Illinois seat in the Senate. The logic would seem to be that a wealthy celebrity entering the legislature would elevate the prestige of that body among the masses.

The other explanation comes from Estrich herself. "I wanted her to serve because her very presence on that floor, the presence of a woman who has throughout my life been larger than life, might inspire so many other girls to dream the sort of dream that our country's future depends upon." That's emphasis added, by the way. Women like Estrich and Maureen Dowd have more or less grown up with Caroline Kennedy, so that JFK's daughter could be "larger than life" for them while she was still a little girl. And while most people's mental image of Caroline, until last summer, was probably that of a little girl, an eternal child in a storybook White House, women of a certain age and certain career choices may see Caroline's coming of age as a public figure as the fulfillment of a storybook destiny that is theirs as a generation as well as hers. It's a more modest ambition than that of the infamous "PUMAs" of last summer who raged at Clinton's defeat in the Democratic primaries as the failure of their chance to see a female President in their lifetime, but it's just as much a mass delusion indicative of disorder in the public mind. The Caroline mania is worse, in a way, because the Clinton fanatics might be convinced that another woman might soon claim the greatest prize, but people like these columnists look like they'll never be satisfied unless Caroline herself fulfills the destiny that they'd impose on her and writes the happy ending to the national fantasy that she herself temporarily believed.

Against Sen. Gillibrand: Geography Trumps Party?

After hearing innumerable advertisements denouncing Kirsten Gillibrand as a typical liberal, it's stunning to see the new U.S. Senator denounced from downstate as a reactionary gun nut. Especially venomous is Maureen Dowd's latest column, in which she claims that Gillibrand is hated by her own colleagues in the state's Democratic delegation to the House of Representatives. Dowd reports that her colleagues nicknamed her "Tracy Flick" after Reese Witherspoon's character in the 1999 comedy Election, allegedly for being pushy and opportunistic. She condemns Gillibrand for opposing the Bailout, which Dowd, displaying her local bias, insists should be thought of as the "New York bailout" rather than the "Wall Street bailout." The columnist still can't get over Governor Paterson's refusal to annoint Caroline Kennedy, for whom Dowd has only fulsome praise ("a smart, policy-oriented, civic-minded woman"), as if Gillibrand's two elections in a traditionally Republican district count for nothing compared to the rejected one's "magic capital" and her purported friendship with President Obama. For this tragedy, Dowd blames the "vindictive" Clinton family. I don't often defend the Clintons, but on this occasion I'll go as far to question the objectivity of their accuser, given her sycophantic attitude toward the Kennedys.

Of course, it becomes increasingly clear that people like Dowd think that a traditionally Republican district is not worth winning if it means that the Democrats who win don't meet the metropolitan standard of liberalism. There is an obvious degree of sectional snobbishness in downstate's repudiation of Gillibrand. How good can she be, they must be asking down there, if we haven't heard of her? How good can she be, they imply, if she's from up there? The way some people have commented, you would think that Gillibrand is the second coming of Sarah Palin. That comes across most strongly on the subject of guns. Gillibrand's most likely primary opponent next year has called her an "NRA poster child" and anti-gun organizations are, if you'll excuse my language, already training their sights on her. Frankly, I don't have a strong opinion on Gillibrand's position on guns, but I presume that she's probably more pro-gun than I am. However, I object to that being made a make-or-break issue, and I object to the insinuation that New York City's attitude toward guns is somehow automatically more legitimate than the prevailing opinion in Gillibrand's old district. Ideally, a large city and a comparatively rural district ought to be able to have different rules, but I'm not going to base a vote for the U.S. Senate on that issue.

The whole episode demonstrates that even ideological labels are relative and subject to self-interested manipulation. As far as Republicans hereabouts are concerned, Gillibrand is indisputably liberal, but to downstate Democrats, it seems, she's nothing of the kind. Does that make her a centrist? I don't know if there is such a thing, because I question whether there's a "center" of consistently moderate positions on issues that can somehow always be correct. A pragmatist, then? That's for her former constituents to say, for now, and for the rest of us to learn from now on. Democrats throughout the state will have their say on Gillibrand next year, and the rest of us, perhaps, in November 2010. This final act of the senatorial farce should teach us not to jump to conclusions based on labels. People are going to label Gillibrand to serve their own purposes, and she'll do the same to serve herself. What we ought to do during her year in the big league is judge her not by labels, be they ideological or geographic, but by what she does and how she votes. That might be more time-consuming, but that's what we're supposed to do.

23 January 2009

Idiot of the Week

"Dec. 9 to my family, to us, to me, is what Pearl Harbor Day was to the United States. It was a complete surprise, completely unexpected. And just like the United States prevailed in that, we'll prevail in this."

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, 22 Jan. 2009

Obama: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

What do you know? One of the new President's own appointments violates his newly promulgated executive order against lobbyists in the administration. And what happens? A "waiver" is arranged so that Obama can have the man he wanted. Is it me, or is there something McCain-like about this (McCain himself was quick to criticize the action), as if Obama were setting rules for general conduct, for other people and other presidents, perhaps, while his own decisions are to be held above reproach, even when he contradicts his own stated rules? At best, this is sloppy thinking.At worst, ...?

The Case Against Senator Gillibrand

Wayne Barrett sums up the "progressive" arguments against New York's new U.S. Senator on the Village Voice website. I note with interest Gillibrand's relatively few degrees of separation from Joe Bruno, the ex-majority leader of the state senate who is expected to be indicted on corruption charges today. Check out the reader comments for more tidbits, including a bit about contributions from Gillibrand's former law firm to Paterson's campaign fund. Their comments on issues are rather less interesting. I guess a primary is inevitable before the 2010 special election, which I believe itself will only cover the remaining two years of the term to which Sec. Clinton was elected in 2006. I also imagine that Gillibrand, and probably by extension her patrons, Schumer and Paterson, would welcome a challenge from the left in order to prove their own "centrist" credentials during an election year for all of them.

Once again, dissatisfaction is desirable so long as people act on it, not next year, but now -- by demanding a new law or constitutional amendment stripping the governor of the right to replace Senators by appointment. If no one does this, I must conclude that they don't object to the governor's power to choose, but only to the choice made. But anyone who's watched this silly process objectively should be convinced that real change, not just a change in personnel, is necessary.

22 January 2009

New York Senatorial Endgame II

Governor Paterson is scheduled to name Senator Clinton's replacement at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow. Fox News has jumped the gun by claiming that Paterson has chosen Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, from the congressional district neighboring mine. Gillibrand has been mentioned fairly constantly since the saga began, reportedly as a favorite of Sen. Schumer. Others have recommended her as an upstater, and it should be noted, given expectations of Caroline Kennedy's fundraising potential, that Gillibrand beat back a self-made millionaire last fall in what was estimated, at one point, as the second-most expensive House race in the nation. She has moved to the forefront following Caroline's withdrawal amid gossip that the Kennedys would find it unacceptable for Paterson to name Attorney General Cuomo, a former in-law. Why their opinion should matter in New York State is a fair question, but fundraising, again, is an important concern for the governor.

One obvious reservation about taking Gillibrand out of the House is the likelihood that her district will fall back into Republican hands. She is the first Democrat to represent the area in a long time, and got the seat because the incumbent Republican was scandal-ridden. Since there is no alternative to a special election in such a case, nothing stops the millionaire, Sandy Treadwell, from trying again, with no obvious talent to stop him this time.

Further reservations are reportedly expressed by downstate Democrats who wanted one of their own chosen, and by more liberal Democrats who regard Gillibrand as something of a "blue dog." On one hand, too bad. On the other, these are perfect arguments for primaries as well as special elections in cases like these. I hope people are unhappy with Gillibrand, though I hope they are less displeased as she (again, hopefully) proves herself in the office she seems poised to fill. People up here seem to think highly enough of her that they'd like her chances in a real election, which presumably will come in 2010. But a special election would have been the right way to go all along, and the silly intrigues surrounding the succession should prove the necessity of reform.

Thumbs Down

Our paper has a daily "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down" feature on its editorial pages. One of our editors was thinking aloud of what to do for tomorrow. She was probably not unaware that Mr. Right was in the room when she suggested giving the Thumbs Down to Rush Limbaugh for wishing that President Obama would "fail."

"He wished that Obama's policies would fail," Mr. Right corrected.

"Wow, big difference," the editor scoffed.

"Lots of socialistic policies in there," Mr. Right insisted, "and socialism never works."

"Oh look, here's his website," the editor went on, apparently quoting from it, "'I hope Obama fails.'"

I have no interest in confirming this. I was content to point out to Mr. Right that "nothing really seems to be working right now."

"Cut corporate taxes fifteen percent," was his answer, "Ours are the second highest in the world. Cutting them could only help."

I was in the middle of my own project, so I couldn't come up with more than that one little comment. Mr. Right's idolatry, of course, didn't surprise me. He clings to free-market dogma, but being a believer, he doesn't see it as dogma but more likely as a matter of natural law. Certain things always work according to this worldview, which is exactly the kind that the new President urged Americans to put aside. But the mere suggestion was probably enough to reinforce Mr. Right's impression that Obama himself is the ideologue, the heretic who refuses to accept the inerrant, unchanging law of the marketplace. It also didn't surprise me to hear Mr. Right advocate remedies that catered to the corporate sector first. He is a supply-sider, convinced that his approach always works. Tell him that there's something unseemly about the idea of government catering to the wealthy first during a crisis and he'll call you envious, or a socialist, as if the former weren't a slander and the latter was always an insult. To him, the just society is one in which each individual accumulates as much as he "deserves." He is incapable of imagining an alternative that wouldn't strike him as tyrannical. If he complains now, imagine if real "change" came. Then, it would almost be our duty not to listen to him.

21 January 2009

New York Senatorial Endgame

Senator Clinton was confirmed for the post of Secretary of State by her peers in the upper house, with only two Republicans presenting. This makes it imperative on Governor Paterson to name Clinton's replacement. Confusion reigns tonight, at least in media circles. The New York Times reported that Caroline Kennedy had called the Governor to withdraw her name from consideration, citing concerns over her uncle's declining health. But MSNBC reports at this hour that Kennedy family sources have told them that the Times is mistaken. The Kennedy camp claims that Caroline did indeed inform the Governor that her uncle's health was her "top priority," but denies that she has set aside all other priorities for Teddy's sake. Whatever the truth is, it could be the final coffin in her "candidacy" anyway, since the confusion, fairly or not, adds indecisiveness to Mrs. Schlossberg's accumulating demerits at a time when the Governor has admitted thinking hard about Attorney General Cuomo. I'd like to think that Katha Pollitt's mocking column in this week's Nation, in which she declares herself as well qualified as CKS and demolishes Caroline's quasi-feminist apologists, and names numerous better-qualified women, signalled a definitive turning of the opinion tide against her, but conditions are volatile as I write (which is why I'm not linking to anything that might be obsolete shortly), and the farce may not be over yet, though it must be over soon.

Executive Orders

The White House website hasn't yet posted the new regime's first executive orders, so for the moment I have to take MSNBC's word for their contents. My first impressions are good. The President has apparently taken steps to increase the distance between lobbyists and his administration. He could have done more, however. Instead of the two-year ban on ex-officials lobbying the administration, he ought to have banned them for the duration of the administration that hired them. Ideally, such people should be banned from becoming lobbyists altogether, but that probably wouldn't be constitutional. The pay freeze on White House staffers is fine, but a pay cut may have made a better example. I'm most impressed by Obama's intention to facilitate the Freedom of Information Act.

He said he was directing agencies that vet requests for information to err on the side of making information public — not to look for reasons to legally withhold it — an alteration to the traditional standard of evaluation. Just because a government agency has the legal power to keep information private does not mean that it should, Obama said.

This is an immediate shift in tone from the Bush administration, and a welcome one so long as bureaucrats obey orders. Transparency is a necessity for small-r republican government, and Cheney-esque appeals to the necessary confidentiality of "frank exchanges" should have no force. It's one thing, of course, for Obama to proclaim these new principles, but it'll be up to the people to enforce them by making bureaucrats provide the information to which citizens are entitled and making a stink if they don't. It's still up to us to figure things out for ourselves.

Geithner: "I forgot my taxes, but let me run the economy anyway."

Timothy Geithner, the Secretary-designate of the Treasury, was reportedly very apologetic during his appearance before the Senate committee today. Luckily for him, the committee appears to be very forgiving. Maybe when you're in the upper echelons of society, such slips as a failure to pay Social Security taxes and such to the tune of thousands of dollars are "understandable mistakes," but Mr. Geithner probably should not expect such forgiveness from the lower ranks, where the amounts he "forgot" are equivalent to or greater than someone's annual income. This is not an issue of envy, which is what Republicans might say if Geithner had been their man, but a matter of attention to detail. This man wants to be Secretary of the Treasury during an economic crisis. In the public mind, he's applying to become the national C.P.A. Do the people really want a man for that job who "forgets" tax payments every so often? The point isn't whether we presume that Geithner's corrupt, but whether we can believe that he's competent. Since he's been closely involved in the Bush administration's efforts to cope with the crisis, we may well wonder about his competence. But deference is the order of the day, since the new President has deemed him fit for office, and who are U.S. Senators to question his will? Geithner, I fear, is proof that whatever change has taken place in government is only skin-deep.

20 January 2009

Oath and Address

Chief Justice Roberts apparently edited the Oath of Office for grammar in his head, exhorting the President-elect to "execute ... faithfully" rather than "faithfully execute" his duties. This created an inauspicious moment of confusion, but the deed was done all the same. And so, after all the fanfares and Rick Warren's evocation of the Day of Judgment and Aretha Franklin's caterwauling, the United States had its 44th President, who promptly made a historical error. He stated that 44 men had taken the great oath, when in fact 43 have to date, Grover Cleveland having done so as the 22nd and 24th President. I doubt whether many other people will call him out on this, and that's fair.

The Address established the state of crisis under which President Obama takes office. Eschewing scapegoats, he denounced a "collective failure to make hard choices" that has resulted in "a sapping of confidence" and "a nagging fear." He then announced what I take to be the main theme of the speech: a repudiation of ideology. Liberal and conservative dogmas are among the "childish things" Obama urged Americans to set aside.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

* * *

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them— that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

* * *

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

I think Obama means this to an extent, but it also works to throw the burden of flexibility on the opposition. The pressure will be on Republicans to prove that they aren't opposing programs out of rigid ideological dogmatism. It won't do, the President suggests, for them to answer problems with catch-phrases and rhetoric along their usual lines of "private sector always beats public sector" and so forth. Meanwhile, Obama invites us to presume that all his proposals embody purely pragmatic reasoning rather than "liberal" dogma. Republicans may disagree, but their mere disagreement will end up looking dogmatic. The President's goal, I imagine, is to make any cry of "liberal" suspect. Would a liberal, at least as they've been defined in recent generations, say something like this?

Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

That sounds like an endorsement of entrepreneurship to me, but in context it's a reminder that entrepreneurship is properly aimed toward the public good. All of the above, Obama said, did things for the benefit of future generations -- "for us," as he refrained. Approaching the close, he sounded quite like a conservative.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

But from that followed: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." Arguably, this is not so much liberalism, though some will see it as such, but a call for a return of civic virtue as the Founders understood it before anyone heard of laissez-faire. Obama's challenge is to call people to save the country, and thus save themselves, rather than save themselves first.

These were the most interesting parts of the speech. The sections addressing foreign policy were predictable enough, but the nation's own crisis will define the Obama presidency. He has made a promise today, and it's our responsibility, if we approve, to hold him to it.

You Had Your Chance

With President Obama inaugurated, I have retired my list of 2008 presidential candidates. Readers will recall that there were a few dozen of them, even after I skipped some that I considered excessively frivolous. Many were isolated, self-appointed claimants with no constituencies nor credible leadership credentials. Others represented parties with long records of attention to the issues of our time. Under the American Bipolarchy, however, voters prefer to give or entrust power only to those parties that have had power already. So for the next four years, we're stuck and may as well make the best of it. The next four years may make more Americans receptive to alternatives in 2012, but I'm not going to hold my breath that long.

19 January 2009

Hitchens Still Loves Bush

For most people, the headline above would describe a healthy appetite, but Christopher Hitchens is telling the world one last time how great he thinks the departing president is. He tells us that he voted (having become an American citizen) for Barack Obama, and has no regrets yet for that, but also that he remains glad that Bush has been president for the past eight years instead of Al Gore or Senator Kerry. How one can endorse Bush yet vote for Obama is a mystery to me, unless Hitchens has something very specific to hate Senator McCain over. In any event, Hitchens stands by his man because Bush did what Democrats might not have dared. He toppled the terrible tyrant of Iraq, and Hitchens believes that history will vindicate him for that. History will have to forget the thousands who have died since the invasion who almost certainly would not have, not being the sort who stick their necks out, had Saddam survived, before it can confirm Hitchens's verdict. He also argues for some strategic necessity, based on a hysterical overestimate of Saddam's potential for mischief in the Persian Gulf. But Hitchens is hysterical when it comes to dictators. He's the sort who doesn't feel safe, apparently, as long as there are dictators anywhere. That suggests to me that Hitchens is as much a megalomaniac as any of the tyrants he denounces, since he cannot seem to stand the idea that there might be a part of the world where he wouldn't be welcome to do as he pleases. He's willing to pay any price in other people's lives to feel safe. He might even be willing to say that those who've died from acts of terror that Saddam would not have permitted are even better off dead, so long as they died free -- free according to a piece of paper or the will of President Bush. The Bush-Hitchens notion of freedom and how it's achieved is an obscene parody of the real freedom struggles carried out by people like Martin Luther King, so it's probably appropriate to have this garbage available today for comparison.

Dr. King's Lesson

The "rule of law" is no guarantor of liberty. Americans boast of their Constitution, but it did little to secure the rights of citizenship to black Americans for many years. In some places, for blacks to claim their rights was to put their lives at risk. Hate can make hypocrisy of law. When law becomes a dead letter, or a lie, all we have left is our own courage. We ask how people can be free in places like China or Cuba, and we assume that they can't because there is no "rule of law" in such places. More correctly, there is a "rule of law" on paper, but it's a promise that isn't worth the paper it's written on. So the Constitution must have seemed to African-Americans. To them, and to all Americans, Martin Luther King presented the model of a free man. He understood that the only reliable guarantor of his freedom was his own courage. If he had the courage and thus the freedom to defy power, he was no less free in the most essential sense when they put him in jail. Nor are brave folk in China or Cuba less free because they go to jail. Freedom is not a matter of worrying about consequences. It does not depend on the kind of guarantees promised by the "rule of law." King did what he thought right, fully expecting to go to jail, and probably all along fully expecting to be killed. If you're not willing to do the same and risk the consequences when confronted with wrong, you can have all the rights in the list, but you will not be free, except in the same way a coward is. For teaching that lesson, King is as worthy of a holiday as Washington, if only people will learn it.

"Coronation" Minus One

"You all ready for the coronation tomorrow?" Mr. Duff asked snidely from his desk in the sports department, "All hail King Obama!"

I didn't vote for Obama, but there's something I don't like about Duff's attitude. I have a hard time telling sometimes whether he means some of the extreme things he says or if he's putting people on like a troll to get a rise out of them. But something sounds like sincere bitterness in his voice today.

"They're treating him like he's greater than Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and he hasn't done anything! He hasn't done a single thing!"

"I don't know," was my answer, "It looks like he's been doing a lot of Bush's job for the past few weeks."

"And what's the first thing he's going to do? Let gays back in the military? That's important? And then he's going to make it easier for the terrorists to attack us. This is an evil guy who's not going to protect us."

Mr. Peepers popped in at this point. His instinct is always to provoke people, so he started humming "We Shall Overcome" in Duff's direction. That's a King song, not an Obama one, but Duff reacted as if Peepers were doing his "Ba-rack O-ba-ma" song.

"They didn't do any of this when Bush became President," Duff protested. Now he was getting historically tone-deaf.

"Why would they?" I asked.

"At least he protected us," Duff huffed.

Maybe I missed an early round of ranting, but I was surprised when it was over that Duff hadn't trotted out his usual claim that Obama was a "Moose-lim." So maybe he's softening after all. But I guess I'm not. As I said, I didn't vote for Obama and I don't share many people's faith in him, but I can't abide George W. Bush being compared favorably to anyone.

"So why don't you go down to Texas Wednesday and kiss his ass?" I suggested. But Mr. Duff is hard to perturb. He lacks Mr. Right's self-righteous defensiveness. As long as he makes his point he doesn't feel a need to answer every comment aimed at him. While Mr. Right needs to prove he's right, Duff probably doesn't give a damn what anyone else thinks. That's sort of admirable, or at least pragmatic. Nevertheless, I hope he's not in the office tomorrow afternoon. I want to maintain my critical distance from Obama, and that gets more difficult when anti-Obama ranting reaches a level that makes you want to bash someone's head in. Meanwhile, the countdown continues....

18 January 2009

"I Don't Believe in Atheists"

The title of Chris Hedges's book is, at first glance, an absurdity. There are obviously people out there who don't believe in God or the supernatural, and Hedges himself promptly acknowledges the fact. He seems to mean something else, perhaps along the line of "I have no faith in atheists." Whoever designed the book jacket had an additional idea. Certain words are shaded so that, from a distance, the title might read as an imperative: Don't Believe Atheists. You're definitely supposed to come away from a reading convinced that atheists are wrong about something.

Hedges's book, however, isn't one of the volumes of apologias that have appeared following the success of such best-sellers as The End of Faith, God Is Not Great, and The God Delusion. Hedges is a journalist, not a theologian, though we learn that he was once a seminarian. He isn't out to prove the existence of the God of Abraham or the divinity of Jesus. Those issues don't really interest him. His relationship with Christianity is ambivalent at best. His last book was a critique of Christian fundamentalists called American Fascists. This book intends to demonstrate that the "fascists" and certain atheists (namely the popular ones) have a lot in common.

One thing that annoys Hedges is the literalism of both groups. Fundamentalists insist on the literal truth of scripture, while some atheists act as if they can refute religion itself by disproving the literal truth of myths. To Hedges, this is a simplistic, almost illiterate attitude toward religion. He joins John Gray, the British philosopher and author of the anti-atheist critique Black Mass, in defending myths as symbolic coping mechanisms that allow people to make sense of a world that, in their view, cannot be explained fully by scientific measurement or rational deduction. People who take myths literally, whether to defend their truth or debunk their meaning, are missing the main point, according to Hedges. Myth, he writes, "is not a primitive scientific theory that can be discredited in an industrialized age"(p.16).

Hedges has a particular problem with the Christian myth, inherited from Zoroastrianism and refined by Islam, of an end of history. Christians are often credited with introducing a progressive view of history in which conditions develop toward a pre-determined end point. According to believers, that end is the final triumph of God and the renewal of paradise. According to Hedges, the "new atheists," the militant best-sellers, have a similar viewpoint. He calls them Utopian and ascribes to them an almost religious faith in science as the means to human perfection. "The language of science and reason is now used by many atheists to express the ancient longings for human perfectibility. According to them, reason and science, rather than religion, will regulate human conflicts and bring about a paradise" (16).

John Gray had already noted an apparent similarity between the alleged Utopian ambition of atheists and the eschatological faith of Christians. His argument in Black Mass is that atheists could not imagine the purging of religion as the final perfection of man without the precedent of Christians' faith in the final defeat of the devil. His point was more ironic than Hedges's. Our present author despises all Utopianism, discerning in it the seed of totalitarianism. Utopianism assumes human omnipotence but is intolerant toward human difference. This explains the "new" atheists' bloodthirsty attitude toward Islam, which borders on the genocidal in some statements of Sam Harris.

Hedges has made a clever comparison to be outraged over, but he has actually made a straw man to attack. He presents precious little proof that atheists (other than old-school Marxist-Leninsts, who'd reject the label) are Utopians. He has very little evidence to back up his main charge: that atheists believe that religion is the only obstacle to human perfection. Some of the best-sellers have perhaps been irrationally exuberant over the potential of stem-cell research, if only to indict believers for opposing it, but that doesn't prove that they think science can perfect humanity or society. He has one quote from Richard Dawkins in which that author writes that "we have the power to turn against our creators," meaning our genes, but that doesn't prove that Dawkins imagines science to have an unlimited scope. He has less evidence yet to pin this charge on Christopher Hitchens, so he has to find Hitchens guilty by association. Hitchens used to be a Trotskyist, so Hedges digs up a Trotsky quote about infinite human potential under socialism (57-8) and represents it as Hitchens's viewpoint. But if anything, Hitchens has sided with George W. Bush in the war on terror because he is a completely disillusioned ex-Trotskyist, ex-leftist, ex-Utopian. Hitchens is less a Utopian than a libertarian. He opposes "Islamofascists" and all tyrants, not to mention laws against smoking in restaurants, because he's become convinced that no one has a right to tell him what to do.

Here's Hedges on science: "Science, when set up as a model for our moral and social existence, implicitly banishes compromise and tolerance ... But human relationships and social organizations interact and function effectively when they are not rigid, when they accept moral ambiguity, and when they take into account the irrational (54)....Science, like the religious impulse, opens us up to a world where we face mystery. There are forces in the universe that will always lie beyond the capacity of the human mind(63-4)....It is impossible to formulate a moral code out of reason and science....Neither science nor reason calls on us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, or to sacrifice for the weak, the infirm and the poor (88-9)."

Morality, Hedges implies, depends on some sense of the sacred. He stresses that this does not have to be a belief in God, but it does have to involve an admission that there is something beyond human power. He worries that atheists, in their wholesale rejection of religion, would jettison this essential sense of the sacred. Worse, and more provocatively, he condemns atheists for abandoning any sense of sin.

Hedges has a peculiar definition of sin. It is not a crime or a curse, but a fact, a state of being, specifically a state of limitation. Sin, for Hedges, is our inability to be perfect, our inability to master everything around us, our inability to be 100% rational.

Sin reminds us that all human beings are flawed -- though not equally flawed. Sin is the acceptance that there will never be a final victory over evil, that the struggle for morality is a battle that will always have to be fought....[It] prevents us from believing in our own perfectibility or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in the species.(13-14).

Atheists may be excused for asking why Hedges must use the word sin. Most believers don't use the term the same way Hedges does. To the majority, I suspect, sin is a curse. Better, sin is a curse that can be lifted. The New Testament tells Christians how. Sin is not a permanent, intractable state. It's not just end-times obsessed fundamentalists who think that sin will cease to be someday. Hedges thinks he can use the word without endorsing the more popular definition, and blames atheists for rejecting that definition as if they were rejecting Hedges's more pessimistic worldview.

This confusion throws into question how well Hedges represents religion in general. He wants to defend it as a necessary coping mechanism, but as with sin, we can ask whether most believers actually apply religion to their lives that way. I don't think that they do. For most people, I think, religion is a quest for power. I don't mean that they're ambitious or greedy, but that they seek a power to which or to whom they can appeal or bargain for the lifting of the curse of sin, or exemption from the mortal state, or for other goods. Religion presumes the existence of a responsive power that may or may not have a "personal relationship" with each of us but could do what people ask if asked the right way. Religion is the collective effort to figure out the right way. But none of this interests Hedges.

Hedges is convinced that a mentality which he describes as religious is the only thing that reminds people that they are not gods, that they are not omnipotent or immortal. This so-called religious sensibility is the only thing that can reliably enforce what Hedges considers an essential modesty in people. Only so long as you believe in something outside yourself, something you cannot control but which in some way controls you (if maybe only by making your existence possible) will you not trample over other people or treat them as means to your ends.

On the other hand, if you really, honestly believe in nothing, that's okay. Hedges acknowledges the existence of what might be called good atheists as opposed to the nasty "new" atheists who write such awful books.

An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature...who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings...is intellectually honest. Those atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honest place in a pluralistic and diverse human community....The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation (24-5).

Despair seems to be Hedges's preferred mental state. Despairing people don't try to impose their will on others. It's Hedges's clear hope that despairing people are capable of the compassion toward one another that depends on a sense of the sacred and the limits its existence imposes on the self. But woe betide the atheist if he acts on his realization that God is irreconcilable with human suffering or other aspects of humanity. Once you cross that line from not believing in God anymore to believing that God is a lie, you only make more trouble as far as Hedges is concerned.

This is where most apologists blame atheism for the crimes of the Bolsheviks, or even the crimes of Hitler. Hedges doesn't go so far in that direction as some writers, since he blames all of that more on a general Utopianism in which atheists take part than on the rejection of God itself. Actually, what really gets Hedges's dander up when it comes to the "new" atheists, and Sam Harris in particular, is their attitude toward Muslims. In my video posts from last week you can see Hedges and Harris go at it, and the book gives Hedges a chance to take more shots at his antagonist. He equates Harris and Hitchens, the biggest atheist cheerleaders for the war on terror, with the Nietzschean "last men" who "ignore and disdain all that went before [them]" and "confuse cynicism with knowledge." They are "tiresome epicures" who "express the dreams and desires of a morally stunted middle class" (84-6). They espouse atheism in order to "avoid confronting the core and most important issues taken up by religious thought"(100-1).

Context matters. If one thing unites American Fascists and I Don't Believe in Atheists beside their common author, it's the fact that both sets of Hedges's enemies, Christian rightists and militant atheists, seem to want to kill Muslims. Hedges's answer is simple: Muslims are people, too. Moreover, he's pretty much right about the political roots of most "religious" violence. But the fact that the conflict is political rather than religious doesn't mean there's not a conflict. It doesn't mean that there'll be more conflict if there's less religion, but it also doesn't mean that there'll be less conflict if more people adopt Hedges-style religion.

In any event, as the videos show, Hedges is strongly affected by his time dwelling among ordinary Muslims. It's from them, obviously, that he gets the notion that not so many believers are the literal-minded morons of the atheist imagination, but I don't think his personal impressions give him the right to argue that religious dogma has little to do with the manner or intensity of certain political conflicts. It's hard to argue that religion hasn't exacerbated the Arab-Israeli conflict or the war on terror. It's harder yet to argue that irreligion has exacerbated the latter conflict, as if Americans enter battle waving Harris's or Hitchens's books or yelling that there is no God. But that, in effect, is what Hedges has written. To account for a handful of atheists supporting the war, he has to construct a straw man that matches the description of no atheist I know of. He then has the gall to accuse atheists of building a straw-man religion without really proving that his account is more accurate.

Hedges has many interesting things to say, especially toward the end of the book when he rips on modern pop culture and what he sees as an incipient new age of idolatry based on images rather than texts. He probably wouldn't approve of the indigo-children mythology after all, despite what I may have suggested a few days ago. But in the end his book may be too bleak. He really seems to think he can make the world better by telling people that there is no hope. He appears to have rejected any notion that people can make (indeed, have made) their lives better in anything more than a superficial, materialist way. At the same time, he'll hold up Martin Luther King as a model of conscientious religion in the service of justice, defending him against Hitchens's so-called slander that King was a Christian in name only, as if justice isn't something that people can only progress toward, or not an ideal that people must believe they can fully realize. Hitchens tries to adopt King as a secular humanist by noting that King never threatened segregationists with hellfire. Hedges is insulted by such rhetoric, but he never really explains exactly how King's belief in justice and his nonviolent strategies follow necessarily from the divinity of Jesus or other essentials of Christian doctrine. Hedges insists that people of faith are inspired to seek justice, but since his own faith seems to be based on the irredeemable misery of existence, I don't see how his religion would have a positive impact anywhere.

Consider this: Hedges's hero is the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who influenced King and many more liberal believers to the present day. Niebuhr's big idea was that our "fallen" nature should limit any Utopian ambition, whether it be Communism or pacifism or American exceptionalism. Hedges attributes to Niebuhr the remark that "religion...is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people"(4). Hedges seems to be okay with this, but that's not what religion promises. Any religion worth its salt promises to turn bad people into good people. If Hedges's religion isn't even going to make that promise, then what good is it?

15 January 2009

Bush: The Last Quack of a Quack

The President regaled us with a Farewell Address tonight. This has become a prerogative of any President who makes it through two terms. Clinton did the same thing in emulation of the mighty examples set by Washington and Eisenhower, and now Bush emulates Clinton. As usual, he spits on facts to burnish his legacy. Here, he sums up the War on Terror.

Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school. Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.

Of course, the Taliban is still discouraging girls from going to school, with squirt guns filled with acid and other disenticements, while the number of Iraqi people who consider themselves friends of the United States is open to question. The superficial facts remain: neither country is ruled by an avowed enemy of this country, so Bush can say he's won. He can claim that Afghanistan and Iraq have moved from the dark side to the side that believes that "freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God." And without any apparent irony, he can add, "When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror."

Regrets? He has a few, but then again, too few to mention:

Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.

He appears to offer the President-elect a vote of confidence, saying, "together, with determination and hard work, we will restore our economy to the path of growth. We will show the world once again the resilience of America's free enterprise system." In foreign affairs, however, he warns against complacency, against isolationism and protectionism, and against losing our "moral clarity."

I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This Nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth.

Is Mr. Bush shameless or merely clueless. He has just been telling us that "security and prosperity at home depend on the expansion of liberty abroad." Combined with his enduring conviction about the universal craving for U.S. style, "God given" liberty, that sounds like ideology to me -- and he has waged war to advance it, with collateral damage for all to see.

From there, he closes out with the usual Reaganesque personal anecdotes of inspiring individuals before sputtering to the typical finish. His last words are as unmemorable as Clinton's, except to the extent that they remind us of his inadequacies. No one will take historic phrases like "entangling alliances" or "military-industrial complex" from this filler. The words will be forgotten within hours, but the personality they purport to express will haunt us for some time longer....

Senator Burris

Resistance was futile. Republicans are having a good laugh at how the Democratic Senators capitulated in voting to seat the man appointed by the impeached Governor Blagojevich. They seem to see it as a triumph of identity politics, as if Sen. Reid et al could not bring themselves to vote against a black man. Of course, they knew from the beginning that Burris was black and announced their intent to spurn him. They even did so at first. Through all this, the only voices raising the subject of racial politics, apart from Rep. Rush at Blagojevich's initial announcement of the appointment, were Republicans themselves, who transparently yearned to drive a wedge between Democrats and blacks. I really don't think that race had anything to do with it. Once it became clear that the Illinois secretary of state's signature was not mandatory in order for Burris's credentials to be accepted, and that no one was prepared to accuse Burris himself of entering into a corrupt bargain for the job, the Democrats realized that they had no legal legs to stand on in Burris's way. It was quite likely that Burris could have gone to court and compelled the secretary to certify the appointment, while his suing the Senate would have been a national embarrassment whether race was involved or not. Ultimately, Blagojevich's power of appointment was unassailable so long as he remained innocent until proven guilty of corrupt bargaining. There was nothing to do, and there is nothing more, unless evidence emerges to incriminate Burris, except to call yet again for a constitutional amendment to require special elections for Senate vacancies in all states under all circumstances. Only then would this whole sordid episode be of value to anyone.

The Indigo Children: My Confession of Cultural Illiteracy

Do you ever have a moment when you're watching the news or reading a magazine and a reporter mentions something in passing that leaves you saying, "Huh?" I had one today when the new issue of Harper's arrived in the mail. This month's "Notebook" lead article is a piece by Mark Slouka on Americans' increasing willingness to equate belief with knowledge and reject expertise in favor of gut feelings. It's Slouka's way of warning us that we can't expect much change from the Obama years if Americans don't change their own attitudes. About a third of the way in, he offers a litany of U.S. credulity that was pretty familiar to me, up to a point.

One out of every four of us believes we've been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number -- not coincidentally, perhaps -- are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo 'vibrational aura' that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.

Huh? I'd never heard of such a thing. I thought I'd kept pretty good track of crackpottery, but this one swooped under my culture radar. What on earth is an indigo vibrational aura? One Google search led to another, this time for "indigo children." That revealed a notion dating back to an alleged discovery by a purported psychic back in the 1980s, which was elaborated upon by Lee Carroll during the 1990s. Carroll claims to have gotten the straight dope on the indigo kids from the great and powerful Kyron. In Wikipedia's words, Kyron is "a disembodied entity of a different order than human, who has "been with the Earth since the beginning."

This ties into the "bored and disruptive in class" bit this way: Indigo kids, according to believers (again, as reported by Wikipedia) are "strong-willed, independent thinkers who prefer to be self-guided rather than directed by others." Perhaps coincidentally, "Indigo children are often labelled with the psychiatric diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Dyslexia, and also Autism, and that they become unsociable when not around like-minded people. They are also believed to be prone to depression and sleep disorders such as insomnia and persistent nightmares."

Wikipedia also reports that debunkers are on the case. I get a kick out of this critique: "Others have advised that many of the traits of Indigo children could be more prosaically interpreted as simple arrogance and selfish individualism, which parents with certain New Age beliefs may misperceive." To the extent that these kids express the wisdom attributed to them, critics hint strongly that the brats are just coughing up concepts they've caught from anime programs and other media fantasies.

Belief in indigo children seems to be the kind of coping device that a growing number of anti-atheist writers identify as a positive, necessary function of religious thought. A bunch of parents need to tell themselves or have told to them a myth about their kids in order to deal with the problems the kids are enduring or enacting in school. I wonder whether Chris Hedges (whom I'll deal with at length shortly) would endorse the indigo mythos or condemn it as perhaps too literal for his taste. Mark Slouka's point, however, is that American is too tolerant of such stuff. He blames the usual subjects, from incompetent educators to populist anti-elitism to postmodernist questioners of objective knowledge. I think he missed one, however -- possibly the most important one. That would be the generations of propaganda that define "freedom" understood as "individual liberty" as an end unto itself. Why wouldn't people assume that, just as they can do as they please with their property without taking others into account, they ought to be able to think as they please without answering to anyone? Isn't that what separates us from the commies or the Islamofascists or the [fill in the blank]? All too often, I fear, the only people who'd challenge that viewpoint are the ones who'd say that we're answerable to God, Kyron or some other imagined power, which makes them no help at all. When you're confronted with a phenomenon like the indigo children, you want to stand up and say that there are some things that no one has a right to believe. That's precisely what Chris Hedges tells us in I Don't Believe in Atheists that we shouldn't say. So consider this little essay another preface or rolling up of sleeves prior to my dealing with him.

14 January 2009

The Senatorial Follies: People and Parties

The Minority Leader of the New York State Assembly has issued a fresh call for a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat expected to be vacated by Hillary Clinton after her confirmation as Secretary of State. Assemblyman Tedisco told an Associated Press reporter, "We need an election -- not a coronation -- to ensure our next U.S. senator represents the will of the people."

On one level, the Republican's demand is obviously opportunistic, since an election would mean that his party would have a chance to take the seat. Recognizing this, Prof. Gerald Benjamin of SUNY-New Paltz told the AP that moving for a special election now would be a "bad idea." According to the reporter, the professor "sees perhaps some merit in the idea longterm, but says the current proposals seem partisan."

But what if it is? Opportunistic as Tedisco is, what does it mean for people to reject his idea as "partisan?" As things currently stand, a Democratic governor will have the sole right to choose a successor to a Democratic Senator. While it can be taken for granted that the governor will appoint a Democrat to succeed Sen. Clinton, there's a further underlying assumption at work when we dismiss the Republicans' appeal. That assumption is that the seat won by Clinton belongs to the Democratic party for the next six years. You can see why Democrats might think so, but New Yorkers in 2000 and 2006 voted for a specific person, Hillary Clinton, and for the Democratic party only by coincidence. Her right to the seat is not the party's right. It could be argued that people vote for parties as much as persons, but no one has a legal basis for acting on that belief. In any event, it could just as well be argued that the party's right to the seat expires with the premature termination of its candidate's term. To argue against a special election because the opposition party might benefit is to say that the governor's right of replacement exists only as a guarantee of majority-party ownership of what should be an elected individual's place in Washington.

All you can blame Tedisco for is hypocrisy. It's easy to argue that if we were back in Gov. Pataki's time, and Sen. D'Amato suddenly died or found a better job offer somewhere, Tedisco would never question Pataki's right to appoint any Republican to the post, even one as unqualified as he claims Caroline Kennedy to be. But there's a difference between Tedisco's position and the principle others can infer from it. Say what you will about the man, but the principle is still valid, and the likelihood that Tedisco is a partisan hypocrite is only a stronger argument for changing the system so that Senate seats are no longer party property. Tedisco is right in spite of himself. Shoot the messenger if you must, but don't ignore the message.

13 January 2009

Way to Vet, Obama: Continued

This one's funny. the President-elect's nominee for Secretary of the Treasury has reportedly failed to pay personal taxes in the past. Better yet: there may be another "nannygate" style scandal in Mr. Geithner's closet, for those suffering from Clinton nostalgia. This is breaking news, so there's not much on the link, but keep your eyes open for another embarrassment for Obama. It looks like more proof that cronyism comes before vetting with the new regime, just as it has for all the others in the recent past. The more things "change," the more they stay the same.

Clinton's Case and the Case Against Clinton

Senator Clinton presented herself before a committee of her peers this morning to make her case for confirmation as Secretary of State. A mistress of the obvious, she declared herself in favor of "smart power" with no one making objections in favor of "stupid power." As reported, her opening remarks emphasized most specifically the Middle East situation. She hopes for mutual satisfaction of Israel's security interests and Palestinians' rights without acknowledging that no effective compromise can give Palestinians all the rights they claim or make Israelis feel as secure as they'd like. She claims to speak for the President-elect in deeming an Iranian nuclear weapon "unacceptable," which it is by simple virtue of the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- as are the nukes of some other countries. Expect no diplomatic revolutions from the Obama administration if Clinton is confirmed. Her promises are basically the same ones every incoming administration makes: we won't make the last one's mistakes, but we share the same goals.

The early report noted tough questioning only from Senator Lugar, who advised Clinton to have her husband stop accepting foreign donations to his famous foundation. Of course, if we accept that donations taint the recipient and invite conflicts of interests, then the damage has already been done by Bill's years of raking in the cash. Meanwhile, no one to my knowledge has yet raised the Constitutional objection that has been somehow confined to the fringes of discussion of Clinton's appointment. It's a small matter of Article 1, Section 6, which reads:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time.

The objection has been raised most forcefully by the Judicial Watch organization, and is probably dismissed by many for that reason. The organization was anti-Clinton during the 1990s, but frequently opposed Bush on issues of executive power and surveillance in this decade. The group itself points out that Presidents since Nixon (and including Bill Clinton) have gotten around the letter of the law by arranging for legislators to revoke raises. The Congress did the same thing for Clinton's benefit last month. Judicial Watch contends, however, that these reversals don't negate the fact that "emoluments" had been increased; they don't erase history. No one has felt strongly enough, or felt sure enough of their legal standing, to force the Supreme Court to rule on the question.

Many people probably consider it a petty objection, and partisanship certainly plays a role in some people's complacency, on the assumption that certain people wouldn't beef if this were John McCain nominating Senator Lieberman for the post. That's probably true, but on the other hand, some who are not objecting now would probably object in the alternate case. The main point should be that the Constitution is nothing to be shrugged at, especially by a President-elect who stressed his credentials as a constitutional scholar to contrast himself with his usurping predecessor. His choice of Clinton for the State Department, a blatant quo to replay some nebulous quid, throws into question his promises to govern according to a constrained sense of executive power. At the very least, Obama himself should be made to explain why he thinks he has not violated the Constitution by appointing Clinton. The committee currently examining her should summon him to the table as soon as possible.

Update: Crhymethinc has updated his own blog with a comment on this issue that accuses Clinton of violating her own Senatorial oath, on top of everything else. There's a lot of complacency to be overcome, however, since many people seem to accept that the "fix" erases the fact of her original vote for the raise. This is a matter for the experts to decide, but someone has to make them decide it.

Update 2: Christopher Hitchens weighs in here with a pretty decisive argument. Unfortunately, I know he'll be dismissed as a "Clinton hater" because he wrote a book against Bill way back when. Still, ask yourself the questions he asks at the start of his article and see if you can come up with different answers than his implicit ones. You don't even have to read the Constitution to figure this one out.

12 January 2009

Gaza: What Was That, A PLASTIC Fist?

In an odd bit of rodomontade, the Israelis are warning Hamas that they just now "face an iron fist," like they'd only been getting the light treatment for the past week or so, if they don't capitulate to Israel's ceasefire terms. To their credit (at least as far as courage goes), Hamas isn't having any of it. They have good reason to be adamant, since there's little for Israel to do except try their luck (how about it, tough guys?) going house-to-house in Gaza City or risk an even bigger black eye from global public opinion by bombing the place. As things are now, I think the statement reported today will give even some Israeli supporters pause, since it pretty has pretty much looked like an iron fist hitting Gaza since this trouble started, and this promises worse. Meanwhile, negotiations continue in Egypt and elsewhere, presumably focusing on getting Hamas to renounce their rocket hobby. It may be pleasurable to insist on a moral right to throw things at the Zionist enemy, but Hamas, as the government of Gaza, is a sovereign entity and ought to exercise sovereign discipline. If they want to build an army and show some real ambition, I have no problem. But their recent ventures seem reminiscent of the strategies of Grand Fenwick. The fictional nation, however, sought economic aid rather than mere sympathy as goal, and luck was on its side, since its fate, unlike that of Hamas, really was in the hands of a higher power.

Bush: One Last Limping Waddle toward History

The departing President held his "final" news conference today, and once more the press pressed him to admit errors, as if it matters more if he confesses them than if they report them.He dredged up some memories, some of which he's acknowledged as mistakes in the past: the "Mission Accomplished" banner, the "Bring It On" challenge to Iraqi insurgents, etc. But while he admits that failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a "significant disappointment" (and why, Republican readers, does your leader never repeat the "they smuggled the WMD to Syria" line that I still hear so often from your ranks?), he refuses to characterize the invasion of Iraq as a mistake. He seems to regard establishing democracy of some sort in a tyrant's place as an end in itself that continues to justify the mission, but that wasn't why he told us the invasion was necessary six years ago. Should he publish a memoir, he'll want to rewrite history further to give the invasion a motive that won't make the outcome a mistake, but too many people know the truth for that to work. The U.S. and the "coalition of the willing" invaded Iraq on the public pretext that Saddam Hussein's regime presented an imminent threat to global security. If it did not, it doesn't matter how awful his reign was. If he was not an imminent threat, the invasion was a mistake. It can only not be a mistake if Bush or his buddies are willing to admit a different motive and confess themselves to be liars circa 2003. Someone smarter than Bush might be able to work up an argument explaining why long-term considerations justified telling a "noble lie" in 2003, but that would still require our imaginary memoirist to admit telling a lie. Bush persists in insisting that he thought he was right about the weapons, and asks to be judged by his sincere beliefs and intentions at the time of the invasion. But from the beginning there's been reason to doubt that suspicion of WMD was the first cause of the invasion. That's why people continue to accuse Bush of lying despite Republican howls of outrage. He hasn't yet given them cause to stop.

11 January 2009

"I Don't Believe in Atheists:" A Preview

Back in May 2007, the former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, who had just published an attack on the American Christian Right that called them American Fascists, debated Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith. It was a scarring experience for Hedges, who has gone on to publish an attack on Harris and his peers in the so-called "militant atheist" movement. The latter part of the video segment below is transcribed in Hedges's new book, I Don't Believe in Atheists, in which Harris's preference for polls over personal experience is presented to demonstrate his alleged willful ignorance of how Muslims think, and his anti-Muslim bigotry.

Hedges ends the excerpt here, but for the sake of argument, I'll continue the conversation through the end of the debate.

Hedges wrote a peculiar book with one of the most peculiar notions of religion that I've ever encountered. I'm going to discuss the book and my criticisms of it at length this coming week, but I wanted to see a head-to-head encounter between Hedges and one of his atheist antagonists as a preview of some of the concerns that fuel his attack on them. You may be able to draw some conclusions before I write, but I hope you'll stay tuned.