27 February 2009

"Fairness" is Forbidden: The Rush Limbaugh Protection Act of 2009

Conservative radio talkers can sleep at night. The U.S. Senate, a Democratic Party-dominated body, voted 87-11 in favor of a Republican bill that forbids the Federal Communications Commission from ever reviving the "Fairness Doctrine," the old rule that required radio and TV stations to air opposing points of view on controversial subjects. I remember seeing it in action when I was a kid, back when local stations would occasionally do on-air editorials. On many occasions these were followed by replies from people who disagreed with the station's stance. Now the issue is whether a station that airs a talk or call-in show of one partisan or ideological viewpoint should be obliged to air another of the opposite view. The problem seems to be that stations have adopted ideological identities as a marketing strategy, so that an obligation to political diversity would undermine their identity and hurt their bottom lines. The conservative talkers spread a notion that restoring the Fairness Doctrine would mean that the likes of Rush Limbaugh, no matter how popular they are, would be driven off the air. This was absurd as the belief that Democrats really wanted to reinstate the doctrine. It was a typical case of reactionary ego-driven paranoia on the part of people who need to believe that they are being persecuted. That need won't go away now that the Fairness Doctrine has been banished. I already hear talk about how the Democrats will destroy conservative talk radio by pressing the FCC to enforce more "localism," i.e. require stations to air more home-grown content. While this sounds like a good thing from an objective point of view, and would not exclude the hiring of local conservative talkers, it is again portrayed as a conspiracy by the hateful liberals to take the big dogs like Rush off the air. At some point, conservatives ought to realize that Limbaugh and his ilk, the Wal*Marts of talk radio, are less interested in defending conservative opinion as such than in preserving their own privileged positions in the broadcasting hierarchy. If conservatism has any popularity, it will continue to thrive on radio long after Limbaugh is gone. Why defend Limbaugh, then, unless these poor fools actually believe that Rush is a leader of their movement? Are they conservatives or "Limbaughts," or maybe "Rushans?" Is it fair to ask that question, or will Congress stop me in turn?

26 February 2009

Profits From Paranoia

President Obama has already had an indisputable stimulative effect on the American economy. His election continues to spur increased gun sales and booming profits for gun manufacturers. This article speculates that the boom could continue even if wacko fears of Obamian "big government" subside if people grow more fearful of a societal meltdown reducing the country to a "Mad Max" state of affairs. That attitude is really no less crazy than fears of an Obama dictatorship, but there's always the possibility that it could be a self-fulfilling fear. Since many Americans already have an "every man for himself" mentality, it's probably easy for them to imagine that principle becoming a concrete law of physical survival on short notice. I just wonder if it was like this when Franklin Roosevelt took office. I suspect not, though that may have less to do with any difference between FDR and Obama than with the way that American culture has changed from then to now. It's a subject worth further study if the stats are available.

Does the NAACP Protest Too Much?

After driving Rupert Murdoch to apologize personally for last week's cartoon identifying the late violent chimp from Connecticut as the author of the stimulus plan, the NAACP is attempting to force further concessions from Murdoch's News Corp organization. The association is supposed to be holding protests at Fox network affiliates all over the country today in order to demand further repudiation of the cartoon, which has been seen as a racist insult to the President. At the New York Post, where the cartoon first appeared, protesters still demand the firing of the cartoonist. While my own view has been that it ill becomes people to condemn inferred comparisons of Obama and apes, no matter what the historical complications are, when they readily portrayed the previous President, justifiably, as a chimp, I see no reason why people shouldn't protest if they do feel offended. However, I think the NAACP presses its advantage too far when it raises the old demand for increased diversity in News Corp offices. The argument is that a more diverse newsroom (i.e. more minorities) would have anticipated how the chimp cartoon would have been interpreted and stopped it from running. That argument makes sense, but when a genuinely outraged protest into yet another demand that some business hire more black people, the association opens itself to the old charge that civil-rights leaders are really engaged in shakedown operations. The object of what I take to be a moral protest against an offensive cartoon shouldn't be to have anyone benefit materially from the protest. That makes it look self-interested and allows those inclined to think the worst of civil-rights organizations to confirm their assumption that people like Rev. Al Sharpton were only looking for an excuse to resume a self-interested vendetta against a political opponent. I can understand if this doesn't really bother people who just want to see Murdoch and News Corp humbled, and I certainly don't oppose more diverse newsrooms, but the way this campaign is developing just sits wrong with me.

25 February 2009

The American Conservative vs Rush Limbaugh

Ever since the presidential election I've expected the idiosyncratic American Conservative magazine to blend back into the Republican mainstream as part of a united opposition to the Obama administration. The "paleo" journal certainly does oppose Obama and the stimulus, but the latest issue shows the editors' determination to retain their own defiant identity. The cover caricatures Rush Limbaugh, along with a less recognizable Sean Hannity, as babies in a stroller below the headline: "How Radio Wrecks the Right." Since Limbaugh remains a de facto spokesman for the Republicans, the Conservative is clearly spoiling for a fight. Since Limbaugh is also seen as a spokesman for conservatism itself, the cover story becomes even more provocative.

The author is John Derbyshire, a contributing editor of National Review, the greybeard of the conservative journals. Writers and editors of that journal have often used the Conservative to go off the rez in order to attack the Bush administration. Derbyshire is no fan of the former President either, and that explains his beef with Limbaugh and other radio talkers.

Taking the conservative project as a whole -- limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad -- has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, [Michael] Savages and [Laura] Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?

They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to 'build democracy' in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a 'massive success' and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy 'phenomenal.'

Derbyshire's beef is a matter of style as well as substance. He blames the radio talkers for "lowbrow conservatism," which, while it is often "exciting and fun," creates an impression among neutral listeners that "conservatism is always lowbrow." What makes Limbaugh and his ilk lowbrow? Ad hominem arguments, for one thing, but also what Derbyshire calls "Happy Meal conservatism."

"Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right," Derbyshire mourns. He acknowledges, however, that more "genteel" conservatism is often boring. That doesn't absolve conservatives from finding some way to make their arguments more appealing to the unconverted. "We don't know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly -- indeed, conservatively -- wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions," he writes. Limbaugh scares such people away, or simply repels them. Derbyshire would like to see (hear, rather) a conservative equivalent of National Public Radio: ideas presented without hysteria.

Toward the end, however, it becomes obvious that Derbyshire's critique of Republicanism runs deeper yet.

But for all the bullying bluster of conservative talk-show hosts, their essential attitude is one of apology and submission -- the dreary old conservative cringe. Their underlying metaphysic is the same as the liberals': infinite human potential -- Yes, we can! -- if only we get society right....[T]o the Right, [that] means banging on about responsibility, God and tax cuts while deficits balloon....That human beings have limitations and that wise social policy ought to accept that fact -- some problems insoluble, some Children Left Behind -- is as unsayable on 'Hannity' as it is on 'All Things Considered.'

But where does Sean Hannity get that idea? How, if that attitude isn't really conservative, as Derbyshire suggests, did it come to be identified with conservatism? The answer is a name he can't bring himself to put in writing in this article: Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who identified conservatism with an irrepressible "I think I can" optimism designed to convince us that "freedom" made all things possible. Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest are Reagan conservatives, while the Republican party worships more devoutly than ever at Reagan's altar. Reagan's confidence game is an essential part of mainstream "conservative" Republican doctrine, but Derbyshire, this week at least, isn't quite ready to challenge Reagan's legacy head on.

He closes by repeating that "There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism," since "Ideas must be marketed." He warns, however, that "if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity and company." Finally, he asks, "Why have we allowed carny barkers to run away with the Right?"

On this evidence, the battle is still on between the "philosophical" Conservative and "ideological" conservatives on radio and in the Republican party. They can agree on a lot of things, especially when it comes to opposing Obama, but while philosophical conservatives argue that certain things simply can't be done, the ideologues insist that they shouldn't be done. The latter is the more intractable group, while the former might be persuaded by pragmatic considerations to compromise some principles for the common good -- something they seem to believe in more than the ideologues do. They shouldn't be written off just yet, especially when they're so willing to make mischief in Republican circles. I can't imagine that Limbaugh liked that cover, and that's reason enough to applaud the American Conservative this week.

24 February 2009

Failure Is Necessary

Cal Thomas the conservative columnist is outraged that the Obama administration seems disinclined to see Americans suffer from the current recession. "Each generation must renew the principles delivered by the preceding one," he writes in his latest column, "I fear this generation may be dropping the baton, seduced by the flattering words of politicians who promise not to let us fail, or suffer, or even feel bad."

This is typical Republican exaggeration, but why shouldn't a government aspire to prevent suffering among the people, particularly when the government comes from the people and the suffering comes from forces most people can't control? Thomas's answer would be that doing so will make us weaklings. "It is through failure (or the threat of it) and suffering that we grow stronger as individuals and become more self-reliant," he asserts.

There's a difference between the suffering that someone imposes on himself as part of a chosen strengthening process and the kind that comes with unsought, preventable adversity. But Thomas despises prevention. Each of us should welcome whatever suffering the market dispenses so that we'll become more self-reliant. Never mind that civilized social animals in a democratic republic should not need self-reliance as urgently as uncivilized wilderness creatures. Civilization exists in part as a relief from self-reliance, but reactionaries like Thomas don't see things that way.

"Once, we honored and encouraged hard work, individual responsibility, integrity and achievement," Thomas recites, "Today, we discourage such things by rewarding failure, mediocrity, incompetence and envy." There's little point in a point-by-point refutation of this statement. Just note the word "rewarding." As Cal Thomas sees it, there are people in this country getting things they don't deserve, while those who do "succeed using the old values" are penalized, as he puts it, to "subsidize those who won't embrace the virtues that built and sustained the nation through truly hard times."

Thomas is convinced that certain Americans deserve to suffer if they don't embrace his virtues. If they don't, then what good are his virtues? What good were his choices, his sacrifices, if they weren't necessary, if they weren't the only way to live? I don't mean to knock his virtues, but I do wonder why it is that so many reactionaries like him need to see fellow citizens suffer. It often looks like there's no better reason than that other people's suffering validates their own worldview and life choices. Thomas would most likely instantly deny such a charge. He'd say he's only invoking irrevocable laws of nature and warning people to obey them. But he's already acknowledged that there's more than one alternative. There's "rewarding failure" and there's "every man for himself," at the least, and Thomas has already made his choice, and that's a choice he's responsible for.

How to Annoy Republicans

How many times have you heard this basic argument? "Democrats and liberals don't want to end poverty because they want to keep poor people dependent on government programs so that they'll keep voting Democrats into power."

And how many times have you heard the claim that "Republicans and conservatives [or religious people] give more to charity than liberals or Democrats [or non-believers]?"

Be ready when the time comes! If you find yourself debating a Republican who uses one or both of these talking points during the course of your discussion, try this snappy comeback on him: "It sounds to me as if you Republicans want to keep people poor so you can have the ego gratification of giving them charity, so that they'll feel dependent on you and keep voting the way you want."

You can phrase it however you like as long as it hits the right notes. Then, when your Republican antagonist splutters that "that's not why we do it!" tell him that the logic of your argument makes just as much sense as the Republican argument against social programs.

This might not shut your for up completely, but at least you'll have taken some arguments from his rhetorical arsenal that he'll never use again.

23 February 2009

Gaza: Why are We Doing This?

Secretary Clinton has announced that the U.S. is going to spend $900,000,000 in Gaza to repair the damage done by Israel during its recent punitive expedition against the region's Hamas government. The State Department is quick to emphasize that the duly elected local government -- Hamas -- will have no role in spending this largesse. It will presumably all be done through the more friendly Palestinian Authority. This would seem to violate the federalist, state-rights principles Republicans hold dear, but I doubt that we'll hear any member of the GOP complain about the Obama-Clinton policy, except perhaps to carp about the amount spent. Not that there'd be anything wrong with their carping. Two questions occur to me. First, since the U.S. will probably have to borrow this money, why not get the likely lenders to just hand the money directly to Gaza? Perhaps because they couldn't be trusted to keep it out of Hamas' hands. Second, since Israel did the damage, why aren't they made to pay what would, in effect, be reparations for their disproportionate outburst against the rocket launchers? Why do I, as an American, feel like a parent who has to pay to fix the neighbor's window that my kid just broke? Why should I feel that way when it's a rotten analogy and Israel is a grown-up among nations? By doing this, aren't we acknowledging that Israel is some sort of dependency or client state of ours, when we should strive the other way, to dissociate ourselves, if not from Israel itself, then from responsibility for their pranks? Shouldn't the last thing we want to tell an angry Arab world be: "We take responsibility for Israel's actions?" But that seems to be the exact message of this generous offering from Washington. I suppose this donation is "change" of a kind, but it's not the sort that many Americans voted for.

The Senate: How About LESS Democracy?

The recent senatorial appointment follies in Illinois and New York have convinced many people, most prominently Senator Feingold of Wisconsin, that it's time to amend the Constitution to require elections to fill all Senate vacancies rather than leave replacement appointments in the capricious hands of governors. Feingold's proposal of anything rings alarm bells for Republican columnist George Will, who views the McCain-Feingold bill as the greatest crime against civil liberties since the Alien and Sedition Acts. If Feingold proposes greater democratization of the Senate, Will is almost obliged to go in the opposite direction. His solution, presented in his latest column, is to repeal the 17th Amendment, the measure that mandated popular election of Senators in the first place.

In Will's view, that amendment has only done mischief. He argues that it ended the Senate's status as a bulwark of states' rights against encroaching centralization and expanding federal power. In his view, it also betrays the Founders' intention that the upper house be a more "deliberative" than "responsive" body, compared to the House of Representatives. According to Will's history, the 17th Amendment was foisted upon the nation by Washington-based lobbyists " who preferred one-stop shopping in Washington to currying favors in all the state capitals." These lobbyists share blame with "urban political machines, which were then organizing an uninformed electorate swollen by immigrants." They all had intellectual backing from the "Progressive" movement (accursed among conservatives for its eagerness to tell people how to live), which held, Will claims sarcastically, that "more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful." To get liberals' attention, he notes that popular election of Senators gave the nation Joe McCarthy, as opposed to all the master statesmen of the early 19th century who failed to prevent the Civil War. That blade cuts both ways.

I'm sort of a student of early 20th century politics, enough of one to say that Will isn't telling the whole story of the period. The movement for popular election of Senators was part of a more general movement (call it "Progressive" if you like) that also involved the establishment of direct primaries in which rank-and-file party members could choose their candidates for offices rather than have the nominations dictated by party bosses. Taking senatorial elections out of state legislatures was another blow against party bosses, of whom there were more than the urban kind that Will mentions. There were legislative party bosses who dictated the nominations of local party organizations as well as the selection of U.S. Senators. Will implicitly idealizes the situation so that the Senators of this period represented their states rather than the states' ruling parties. Instead, they too often represented their parties first, and their bosses specifically. Progressives within both major parties supported the 17th Amendment because they wanted to take the original constitutional power out of the hands of the bosses who had usurped it. For them, the alternatives were democratization or oligarchy.

I don't doubt that Will understands this, but I'm also pretty sure that he'd accept the re-establishment of senatorial selection by party bosses if it has the results he expects. The Senate in those days was more solicitous toward states' rights, and was more conscious of its status as an independent branch of government. Even well after the amendment, Senators retained this attitude. As late as the 1960s, they could tell Lyndon Johnson that his former status as Majority Leader counted for nothing once he became Vice President, and he could not expect to tell them what to do. If that has changed more recently, the subservience of Senators toward Presidents of their own party, best illustrated by Republicans' deference toward Vice President Cheney, has different origins than the 17th Amendment. It's not impossible that a centralization of party power and an increased subservience of Senators took time, as Will might suggest, and it's not impossible that a reversion of senatorial election to state legislatures might re-establish some sense of independence from Washington on the part of state parties. It's tantalizing to think that one way of disrupting the American Bipolarchy might be simply to decentralize the two major parties -- but I don't think that outcome is likely. The national fundraising apparatus is so great, and local organization so dependent upon it, that the national party leaders would most likely still bend Senators to the President's will. Nor is this moment in history necessarily the time to reinforce state sovereignty when states are increasingly likely to start a "race to the bottom" to make themselves more attractive to business at workers' expense. Anyone who looks to an isolated past for solutions to America's predicament in a globalized world has his head screwed on wrong. States' rights should not be our top priority at this hour, and for that reason we should dismiss George Will's whimsy.

19 February 2009

The Illinois Farce: Burris's Final Act?

Senator Burris of Illinois now finds himself in the same boat as his patron, former governor Blagojevich. Just as "Blago" could claim that he never actually demanded a quid-pro-quo or "pay to play" deal for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the President-elect, Burris can argue that he did not attempt any fundraising for Blago in return for the seat. Chronologically speaking, that appears to be true. Burris did what he says he did before Obama was elected President. The point, of course, is that he didn't tell us about these activities when he was first nominated and begging for admission to the Senate, when people would have drawn unfavorable conclusions. The conclusions are still unfavorable, and add to those initial conclusions the fact that Burris didn't tell us the whole story the first time around. Whether it's realistic of them or not, the American people (those who care, at least) want Illinois to send a Senator to Washington who can not be said to have done anything, ever, for Rob Blagojevich. That's a hard demand when Blagojevich was the governor of the state for several years. Is there any Democrat who could pass this test? Is there anyone from the private sector who could vote reliably Democratic and never gave or raised funds for Blago? The only way to avoid the Blagojevich taint might be to recruit Burris's successor, since his resignation seems increasingly likely, from another party. On the other hand, if a special election was held, some Democrat would at least have the chance to earn the support of Illinois voters. If the Burris disaster hasn't finally convinced more people of the necessity of a constitutional amendment to abolish the arbitrary gubernatorial power of replacement, I don't know what it would take to wake up the rest of you.

18 February 2009

Primates in the White House?

Look at the New York Post cartoon reproduced in this story about the controversy it has caused. Rev. Al Sharpton isn't the only one to find something disturbing about it, but the Post, a conservative tabloid, predictably uses his objections as an excuse to dismiss any others. I can understand the outrage felt by many readers, but taking the cartoon in its historic context, I have to give the Post a pass. I do so for the simple reason that many people over the past eight years equated the President of the United States with a chimpanzee. It may be argued that President Obama's predecessor bears a closer resemblance to the animal than Obama himself does, and that the implicit comparison in the cartoon is less justifiable, but on the principle that turnabout is fair play, I find it hard to argue that, the precedent having been established, you cannot equate the President with a chimp simply because he's black. The Post may deny that the cartoon has done that, and the cartoonist may claim that identifying the mad chimp as the author of the stimulus bill is an attack on the bill rather than the President, and they'd have justice on their side insofar as Obama did not write the bill. But when we're dealing with a political cartoon superficial impressions matter, and I doubt that anyone looking at it would automatically equate the chimp with Senator Reid, Speaker Pelosi, or anyone other than the President. So the Post shouldn't weasel around the issue. Instead, they ought to run a page full of Bush-as-Chimp cartoons and play the usual "double standard" card -- because this time, they'd be right.

Minding Our Own Business

Oh, no! The Venezuelans voted to abolish term limits. That means Hugo Chavez can be president for life! Oh, no! Pakistan is going to let a large piece of the country be governed according to Islamic law. The poor women! The poor gays! What's the world coming to? Why, for that matter, do so many Americans seem so ready to man the barricades whenever they hear stories like these from foreign countries? Why do they act as if they're in danger? Is their empathy really so strong and so sweeping in scope, and is it true, as they seem to think, that no man is an island, and that every man's death, or loss of freedom, diminishes me?

These are times that separate the real, respectable conservatives from the posing ideologues. The latter take alarm at all reports of "freedom" in retreat around the world. The former are often damned as "isolationists" for thinking that none of it is really their business. But what does it mean to believe that? Does it mean that you don't give a damn for the people who might be oppressed elsewhere? Not necessarily. You have every right to regret what's happening in Pakistan, or to worry about what might happen in Venezuela. But read this carefully: "Mind your own business." Does that mean, "Who cares about foreigners?" You might infer that, but in literal terms it's a reminder, perhaps only a suggestion, that you have some business of your own to mind before you worry about other people's or other countries' problems. A corollary principle could be expressed this way: "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." Is your home really so brittle or transparent? Perhaps not, but shouldn't you make sure of that before you criticize someone else's architecture or housekeeping? Is our house really so well ordered that we can spare time to pass judgment publicly on every other place? The posers, the so-called conservatives who are really irrational ideologues, may say yes, we are a free country and we can judge the unfree. They may even say and even believe such things as: "a tyrant anywhere is a threat to liberty everywhere." Or: "no one is free as long as one person isn't free." These are debatable notions and the debates might be interesting, but let's also debate the notion that, so long as a nation is "free" in the sense that any idiot can gripe against the government without penalty, there's nothing more that could be done to make it a better, more just place. If there's still work to do in that direction at home, shouldn't that take priority over worrying about every little outrage far away? I would bet that some of those so-called conservatives would tell you that those issues you're hinting at are none of their business. But if the material well-being of their fellow citizens is none of their business, ....well, then!

17 February 2009

The Case of Muzzammil Hassan: Why Should You Care?

On the local branch of Craigslist today, where my colleague Chrymethinc discovers fresh evidence of bigotry and pure idiocy every day, someone posted a query: why wasn't the media giving more coverage to a murder case in the Buffalo area, where Muzzammil Hassan, an entrepreneur dedicated to combating stereotypical images of Muslims, allegedly cut his wife's head off with a sword when she presented him with divorce papers? The automatic assumption by some people was that the "liberal media" was attempting to suppress the story out of some sense of political correctness, lest it incite more hatred of Muslims. The attitude of some of the Craigslist posters seems to be that further publicity would spread the "truth" about Muslims, for whom further hate would be justified. Meanwhile, the head of the New York branch of the National Organization for Women, a notorious blowhard who last year called Senator Kennedy a "traitor" for not endorsing Senator Clinton for the Presidency, has also decried what she considers inadequate attention to the crime, which she characterizes as an "honor killing."

I can see where these different people are coming from, but let's ask some questions. First, unless the defendant intends to plead some kind of religious right as a mitigating circumstance, or challenges the jurisdiction of the local court, who cares whether it was an "honor killing" or not? A crime is a crime, and Hassan's alleged offense should be no more shocking than the last time some Christian parent killed his or her child because the devil seemed to be in it. Second, why should I care about a murder at the other end of the state at all? The complaint on Craigslist has been, in part, that this crime has received less attention in the national media than other murder cases. But why are any of these stories worthy of national attention? How does someone's violent death in California or Florida effect my life in New York or someone else's in Texas? Too many people take for granted the media's emphasis on sensationalism and cheap "human interest" when they should ask how media resources could be used to better inform the public on issues that really matter to the nation. Instead, they speed up the downward spiral by asking why this or that crime isn't covered or insisting for vague political reasons on intensive coverage of what may prove to be nothing but a culturally-accented crime of passion. Third: would there even be as much fuss as we've seen so far if the murder weapon was a gun instead of a sword? Guns don't signify religious identity the way swords seem to. Nobody calls it a Christian thing if some raging Baptist violates a restraining order and blasts his wife to kingdom come. What would he have to do before someone thought so -- crucify her? To assume, then, that there is something essentially Islamic about what Hassan allegedly did is itself a form of bias. I'm not asking anyone to think that Islam is innocent or nice. I'm just suggesting that this story is just another murder, and unworthy of anyone's attention outside the victim's family or the town the crime took place in. I apologize for the paradox, but I wanted to bring this story to your attention so you can ignore it in the future.

16 February 2009

"Fascism" in the Classroom?

A California college student is suing his professor for calling him a "fascist" and denying him a grade during a public-speaking class last November. The student's "fascism" consisted of giving a speech against gay rights that apparently included an appeal to Biblical authority. The professor allegedly forbade him from finishing the speech, and gave him a blank grade with a snarky note advising the student to ask God what his grade was. The professor is backed by some other students who regarded the plaintiff's talk as "hate speech," but academic authorities are rightly concerned about a breach of academic freedom. I want to find out more about what the plaintiff said and whether it took him into Fred Phelps territory, but my first reaction to this news was to assume that the instructor had overstepped his bounds. Anyone teaching a public-speaking class, which presumably has something to do with applying rhetoric to controversial subjects, should have a thicker skin than this professor has allegedly shown. The form of his students' speeches are of more proper concern to him than their content. He ought to be able to appraise their eloquence or logic (even if it involves appeals to authorities that the instructor may personally deny) without passing subjective judgments on the intrinsic merits of anyone's argument. The plaintiff may be a homophobic theocrat, or even a fascist of some sort, but if he can articulate his position with at least a semblance of reason, it's owed a reasonable hearing -- especially by a teacher. Outside of the classroom, the kid is on his own if people want to get in his face, but a college classroom is exactly where we ought to air out ideas and shoot down the bad ones without anyone actually getting hurt. If a teacher's own feelings are too tender for the job, he's probably on the wrong tenure track. But all my conclusions are tentative, pending further information. If it's permissible under current legal circumstances, the student, Jonathan Lopez, should make his class speech public so we can judge it for ourselves.

Happy Presidents' Day, Part 2

The Obama inaugural and the Lincoln bicentennial have inspired the latest historians' ranking of Presidents, the first such survey since 2000. Predictably, and probably correctly, Lincoln tops the list. Just as correctly, James Buchanan occupies the basement. There simply can't be a worse president than one under whom the Union dissolved. Andrew Johnson, who botched the post Civil War reconstruction, is ranked second-worst, and I'd agree with that, too. George W. Bush debuts at 36th on the 42-man list, and in more specialized rankings was rated at the bottom in international relations. Meanwhile, JFK's reputation is on another upswing. Historians rank him the sixth-greatest president, an improvement from eighth place in 2000, for no good reason I can think of. Intangibles of some sort must count. Also rising in the consensus estimate are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, while Jimmy Carter has slipped back a few notches. It's hard to see a bias in all this, unless disapproval of the last president is automatic proof of it, but it's nearly as hard to see a coherent standard applied. It may be that the broadest and most decisive judgments in such surveys, the top and bottom, end up being the most objective once you winnow out the cranks who might have named JFK or Reagan or Calvin Coolidge or whomever on top. Once you get past naming the greatest and the worst, more subjective notions of greatness or badness probably come in. In the end, there's little more point to a full-scale list like this than there is to some cable TV list of the twenty greatest 1980s sitcoms. But it is a judgment of history, and if it gets today's politicians thinking about posterity, I suppose it's a good thing.

Happy Presidents' Day

Here's a little food for thought. Americans have patted themselves on the back for electing a black man as their President because of the progress from slavery days that his triumph represents. Yet as I look at all the t-shirts, fake commemorative coins, and other paraphernalia available everywhere, I want to ask an ironic question: has any President been so thoroughly made into a commodity as Barack Obama? Think about it.

15 February 2009

Theories of Conspiracy

Kathryn S. Olmstead's Real Enemies is a new history of modern American political conspiracy theories, dating back nearly 100 years to this country's entry into World War I. Olmstead is interested in a particular type of conspiracy theory that she seems to define as distinctively American. While past conspiracy theories focused on alleged subversive entities like the Bavarian Illuminati, Americans have become obsessed with the notion of conspiracies within the government, or with conspiracies by governments to extend their control over the people. As Olmstead points out, these ideas developed in response to a real expansion in the power and scope of the U.S. government in the early 20th century, and have flourished ever since in part because our government has conducted conspiracies and cover-ups.

World War I was an unprecedented foreign entanglement for the United States, and one which far from everybody welcomed. Many Americans, particularly those from ethnicities hostile toward Great Britain, saw no reason why this country should take Britain's side against Germany. Along with pacifists and socialists, they were shocked when Woodrow Wilson, who had just been re-elected on the boast that he had kept the country out of the war, pulled us right in. This abrupt change had to be accounted for, especially once Wilson answered opposition with repression, closing newspapers and jailing dissidents. Some blamed dubious counselors like Col. Edward House, while others accused a wider clique of British sympathizers. After the war, attention turned to parties presumed to benefit from a war policy: bankers and munitions manufacturers. Congress actually held hearings to find out whether these groups exerted undue influence on Wilson, but Olmstead reports that the investigators never found a "smoking gun" that would prove any party guilty. Instead, she blames Wilson himself for lying to the American people about his intentions during the 1916 election.

The congressional hearings indicated widespread second thoughts about the war experience that made many Americans reluctant to approach war with Germany a second time. Many of the same people who opposed American entry into the first war resisted the second. There was also a generational continuity: Charles Lindbergh, the hero aviator and a leader of the America First movement, was the son of a Congressman who saw an anti-war book destroyed by the government in 1918. The "isolationists" shared some of the earlier generation's Anglophobia, with some leaders injecting an extra element of anti-Semitism. All seemed to share a fear of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a belief that FDR was stoking a war fever in order to consolidate his own power and become a de facto if not an outright dictator. The New Deal meant another expansion of government power, and those who resisted the trend saw FDR's provocations of Germany and Japan as part of a self-aggrandizing personal agenda. Their fears became conspiracy theories after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Conspiracy theories derived in part from a racist reluctance to admit that the Japanese were capable of pulling off such a coup, as well as from pre-existing resistance to entering the war and dislike of FDR.

In this case, Olmstead explains that there was a cover-up that partly accounts for Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had broken Japan's diplomatic codes, and knew that an attack against American forces was planned for the end of 1941. According to Olmstead, who bases her account on extensive secondary literature, at no point before December 7 did the U.S. government or military know that Japan had chosen Pearl as its target. But because the military did not want to give Japan any cause to suspect that their codes had been broken, the top brass gave only vague information to personnel at Pacific bases, and nothing that would have given the commanders at Pearl cause to prepare for an imminent attack. Whether this can be interpreted as FDR being willing to let an attack happen remains open to speculation, but Olmstead concludes that the charge that the President "knew" about the Pearl Harbor attack is false.

Absence of "smoking gun" evidence didn't stop FDR-haters from seeing a conspiracy at work in his administration. It didn't help that some extreme isolationists got nearly the same treatment as World War I dissidents, though the repression wasn't as widespread the second time around. Any repression only furthered the impression among conspiracy theorists that the government itself was a conspirator against individual liberty. Worse yet, because war meant an alliance with the Soviet Union, anti-communism became a major element of reactionary conspiracy theories. From this point, Olmstead describes an ironic dialectic. Up to this point, an anti-statist ideology pervaded conspiracy theorydom. But once some of the anti-FDR and anti-communist conspiracy theorists got into power through the Republican party after the war, they showed no scruples about using state power to go after the enemies they accused of conspiring against liberty. The one constant from the beginning was the role of J. Edgar Hoover, who worked for Wilson as a young man, for FDR as head of the FBI, and for the Republicans as the nation's leading Red-hunter. But as anti-communism came to be identified with Joe McCarthy's tendency to bend the truth and the often irrational persecution of mere leftists, a left-wing conspiracy theory arose, according to which reactionary forces were conspiring to take control of the government in order to suppress dissent against Cold War adventurism. As Olmstead argues, left-wing conspiracy theories prepared the ground for an epidemic of conspiracy mongering following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Leftists were ready to believe that reactionary elements persisted in the government, and were capable of killing a potential threat in the form of JFK. Olmstead's own view is that there was a conspiracy following the assassination, or at least a cover-up. She follows Gus Russo and other writers in attributing the cover-up to Lyndon Johnson's twofold fear that revelations about Kennedy's efforts to have Fidel Castro killed would embarrass the government, and that the possible discovery of Cuban ties to Lee Harvey Oswald would have led to an irresistible public clamor for a war that would probably have gone nuclear. But independent researchers in the 1960s could not know Johnson's motives. Any evidence of a cover-up only seemed to point to the government's guilt in the murder. Subsequent revelations about Kennedy-era plots and would-be conspiracies like the infamous Operation Northwoods were evidence enough to convince assassination buffs that the government was capable of anything.

Olmstead finds noteworthy the democratization of conspiracy theory in the JFK era. Previously, she suggests, conspiracy theorists were a clique already possessed of some power and influence. But given events that mostly played out live before millions of pairs of Americans' eyes, individual citizens appointed themselves investigators and assumed themselves qualified to question the government account of events. The seeds of distrust sown by generations of official secrecy and deception bore fruit in the widespread assumption that governments always deceive and politicians always have ulterior motives. The return of Richard Nixon did nothing to refute those assumptions. Nixon himself assumed that a liberal establishment was conspiring to destroy him, and acted in kind, creating secret organizations to spy on and harass his alleged enemies. The Watergate scandal only confirmed conspiracists' assumptions about government, as did the Church Committee investigations of covert CIA exploits. The synthesis of nearly a century of dialectic conspiracy theorizing is the "9/11 Truth" movement, which assumes that the government either allowed the 2001 terrorist attacks to happen or perpetrated them itself.

From the 1970s forward, conspiracy theories grew more outlandish as the Roswell legend made aliens a plausible factor in some formulae and George H.W. Bush's declaration of a "New World Order" alarmed all kinds of anti-statists. Olmstead closes her book by arguing that the best defense against irrational conspiracy theories is greater openness on the part of government and a greater insistence on facts to back up any theory propounded by government or individuals. This sounds like too easy an answer that fails to take into account the irrationality that favors conspiracy theories independent of available evidence. Olmstead declares herself reluctant to psychoanalyze conspiracy theory, but there is something about the demand for easy answers and scapegoats, the essential elements of all conspiracy theory, that history alone can't account for. I don't want to say that every conspiracy theorist is crazy, but in many cases the defensiveness that underlies conspiracy theories has something that strikes me as a pathological aspect, an overinsistence on the threat to one's personal freedom or even one's identity that doesn't seem justified by the source of the perceived threat. I also wonder whether there's something peculiarly American about the country's conspiracy theories based on our strong cultural emphasis on individualism and the Cold War fetishization of "freedom" as an end unto itself. Taking that into consideration, it's odd to find that much of the 9/11 conspiracy theory was first popularized in France, while the fact that Muslim countries have 9/11 theories of their own is well known.

Olmstead's book isn't a discussion of conspiracy theory as a concept unto itself. She's not interested in describing patterns or other commonalities of conspiracy theories, since she's mainly interested in describing several specific 20th century American phenomena. That leaves me to say something about conspiracy theories. Theorists will often argue that existing evidence supports their viewpoint, or they will challenge skeptics to produce evidence to disprove the conspiracy. This talk of evidence leaves a question begging: what is a conspiracy? There are some obvious dictionary answers, but I'm not sure if they apply when someone theorizes that a nation or the entire world is ruled by a secret clique. To be a theory, conspiracy theory must be falsifiable in some way. It must be expressed in a way that allows it to be tested and verified -- or proved false. For a conspiracy theory to be meaningful, it must describe an anomalous state of affairs. This automatically excludes those leftists or anarchists who believe that "power" always acts a certain way. A true conspiracy theorist should be able to describe how the nation would be governed, how the world would work, or how recent events would have turned out differently in the absence of the conspiracy. They should be able to do so in more specific terms than "justice would prevail" or "the people would rule." They need a prior understanding on how human affairs or society as a whole might be governed normally, or correctly, in order to indicate where and how a conspiracy has distorted the process. Working from that understanding, they ought to be able to describe how a conspiracy can effectively be dismantled or overthrown -- in more detail than "getting the information out there." If they cannot do this, conspiracy theorists really aren't doing anything more than expressing frustration at their own powerlessness in a complex world. Conspiracy theory may not go away until citizens are not only better informed about their government, but better empowered to play their proper role in it.

Rather than judge Olmstead's book for not being what she didn't mean it to be, I want to recommend it as a reasonably concise yet detailed introduction to some of the major conspiracy theories of American history. It's an interesting narrative in its own right, and might serve as a jumping-off point for people who remain determined to figure out some of the lingering controversies of the past for themselves.

13 February 2009

Moral Education

Mr. Right was taking on all comers yesterday, determined to deflect blame from corporate greed for the economic crisis while accusing his antagonists of denying "the greed of government." It was a rare admission from him that there was such a thing as greed, and after things subsided a bit, he challenged me: "If you're so concerned about greed, would you object to teaching morality and character formation in the schools?"

"It all depends on what they teach about the origins of morality," I answered, knowing his views on the matter, "Because if you're going to have them say something's moral because God says so, I can't go along with it."

"Why, where do you think morality comes from?"

"From people reasoning together, I hope. Otherwise, if it's just whatever God says, it's pretty arbitrary."

"Well, that's a matter of faith or lack of faith, don't you think? When you see it in faith, it isn't arbitrary."

I understood his point: God, as his worshippers understand him, is the organizing principle of the universe. Nothing about him can be "arbitrary," no matter what you make of his antics in the early books of the Old Testament. God's moral pronouncements can be no more arbitrary than the scientific laws that are also his handiwork. That's how faith sees it. But can you make people who lack faith admit it? Must they be told in the public school classroom that right and wrong are dictated by an omnipotent being with the power to torture people after death?

As far as Mr. Right was concerned, it was a moot point. The dreaded teachers' unions, he complained, block every attempt to teach morality in schools. At the very least, they teach no morality that he acknowledges, so long as they don't credit it to God. Yet somehow, one presumes, the majority of public school students turn out moral, or at least don't come out criminals. Apparently they don't need the fear of Hell to steer them the right way. But what about those who believe?...

"Movement Conservatism" (1955?-2008?)

Every time the Republican party loses an election, someone comes along to declare either the party or the conservative movement dead. The latest coroner is Sam Tanehaus, a sometime historian of the movement, who writes his obituary for the latest New Republic. He's really writing about a phenomenon that dates from the 1950s which he and other critics (including writers for The American Conservative) call "movement conservatism." The movement's birth is usually linked with the appearance of National Review magazine and identified with the influence of founding publisher William F. Buckley Jr. Dating it only back to 1955 also serves to dissociate the movement with Joe McCarthy, who had lost his influence by then. Tanehaus argues that this form of conservatism lost its real conservative nature once it became an ideological "revanchist" movement dedicated to destroying rather than reforming the existing political order.

Conservatism as we understand the term, as something fundamentally anti-revolutionary, dates back to Edmund Burke at the end of the 18th century. Burke didn't think a complete, radical ("from the root") revolution could every amount to anything if it purposefully abandoned the wisdom of previous generations. He had a notion that societies evolved organically through successive reforms, and that revolutionaries who in a sense wanted to start all over again were misguided. Burke wasn't a pure reactionary. According to Tanehaus, he believed that "governments were obligated to use their powers to ameliorate intolerable conditions." While a member of Parliament he supported the American Revolution because he agreed with the argument that the colonists only sought the "rights of Englishmen." He opposed the French Revolution because it set out to abolish the monarchy and replace traditional institutions with rationalistic innovations. Tanehaus suggests that Burke would reject any call for a complete counter-revolution dedicated to overthrowing reforms of the recent past. Taking Burke as the standard of conservatism, Tanehaus argues that the American movement failed to be conservative whenever it set about trying to eliminate institutions of the New Deal, most recently in George W. Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security. True conservatives, Tanehaus claims, accommodate themselves to the existing order as they find it while upholding consistent principles, and don't believe in rolling back progress. That doesn't mean endorsing everything the New Deal stood for, but it does oblige you to consider whether killing it would do more damage than you think it's already done.

Tanehaus also argues that American conservatives jumped the shark in their extreme hostility to social programs. He points out that the 19th century conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli believed in social reforms as a pragmatic way to forestall social unrest. Otto von Bismarck in Germany did much the same thing once the Second Reich was established in 1871. American conservatives of the late 20th century were for some reason less willing to compromise their sink-or-swim individualism. Tanehaus speculates that this may be because the U.S. lacks the aristocratic tradition of noblesse oblige, and it's worth noting that "movement conservatism" has always seemed to be more a movement of rising entrepreneurs, people convinced that they deserve everything they have and that those with less must deserve less, than of established wealth. I don't think Tanehaus acknowledges this enough, though. Any history of modern American conservatism has to account for its strident obsession with "freedom" and the conspiracies against it, and no one calling for a new conservatism can do so without suggesting something to be done about that obsession, which is itself profoundly unconservative in any philosophical sense.

The New Republic cover story comes shortly after The American Conservative published an article by William F. Buckley's brother complaining that conservative thought has become "Dull. Derivative. Predictable. Lacking in zip and sting and mordancy." He thinks that American conservatives need an infusion of fresh ideas, including greater environmental consciousness and a more adversarial attitude toward the business as well as the political establishment. But the further you go in the article, the more Reid Buckley seems to be calling for a different version of the revanchism Tanehaus deplores. He wants conservatives to get behind the reestablishment of prayer in schools and for a constitutional amendment identifying the U.S. as a Christian nation "born and bred.," as well as, yet again, the end of Social Security. He complains that Republicans have too often compromised with the liberal state ever since the 1950s. It's an odd article to see in the Conservative, a magazine that usually recognizes and criticizes ideologies disguising themselves as conservatism. But it's one thing to see the mote in a neocon's eye, I suppose, and another to acknowledge the old beam of traditional moralism in your own. Buckley has nothing to offer a forward-looking movement.

All obituaries of conservatism are exaggerated. Conservatism will always be a force in social or political life as long as someone says that one thing can't be done or that another thing shouldn't be done. In its most basic form, it's a philosophical attitude rather than an entity advocating for some particular interest group. There are conservatives in Communists regimes and Islamic republics, though American conservatives won't recognize them as brothers. Conservatism has always been a dubious label because it begs the question of what will be conserved. There may well have been a historical phenomenon that lasted from the 1950s to nearly today that can be described in an death notice like the one Tanehaus has written, but we won't really know what we're talking about until we give it a different name.

12 February 2009

Ten Score Years Ago...

Here's a tip of my striped hat to our two bicentennial men: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, born on what some might deem for that reason one of the most auspicious days in human history. Darwin's contributions ought to be indisputable, but so long as people insist on living according to myths, the debate will go on. Lincoln is also despised by a remnant of fanatics, but he ought to be a role model for the rest of us. Let it be remembered that, as a Representative, Lincoln supported the troops during the Mexican War while challenging President Polk's pretext for war, daring the commander-in-chief to prove who had fired the first shot in that conflict. That example should be remembered perpetually. Lincoln also leaves another lesson that requires some study. He said that as he would not be a slave, so he would not be a master. Before and since, too many Americans have thought that, if they would not be slaves, they must be masters. They don't mean the kind of masters Lincoln meant, but neither do they mean the type of slavery Lincoln feared. But some of them curse Lincoln anyway, because they feel that, if they can't be masters, they are slaves. Lincoln's legacy is always at odds with those who put the rights of property before the rights of people. It was most blatant in his own time, when the right to own people as property was in dispute. But the conflict continues to this day, whenever property becomes privilege and politicians make government the protector of privilege rather than the servant of the people. Then you hear people confusing privilege with freedom, and equality with slavery. Lincoln heard the same thing, and he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He was talking about states and slavery, of course, but does that end the lesson? Or was slavery only a symptom of privilege, and state lines only one kind of dividing line? Read Lincoln and figure it out for yourselves, just as you would if you were reading Darwin. Happy birthday to both.

11 February 2009

Idiot of the Week.

Rep. Steven Austria of Ohio: the Rep can be for "Republican" as well as "Representative." He's a freshman, and from my own experience I can tell you that freshmen are sometimes uninformed about basic American history. Austria would definitely flunk my class after this outburst against the stimulus plan. Such an approach, Austria said, had failed in the past:

When Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression. He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That's just history.

I can't blame the Republican Party for this. The party line is that FDR exacerbated the Depression and needlessly prolonged it, and while that point is highly debatable, most conservatives acknowledge that the Depression started under Herbert Hoover. Many blame Hoover, a fellow Republican though not necessarily what would be recognized as a conservative today, for making bad calls in his own right, from tax increases to tariffs, though those are just as often blamed on "government" in general in GOP circles. The right thing to have done, today's Republicans apparently believe, was to let the crash run its course and trust the market to put things back together in its usual miraculous fashion. Rep. Austria must have had some muddled version of this in his mind when he attempted to teach Congress some history. When a man is dumber than the Republican party, that deserves some recognition.

10 February 2009

Conservatism Needs a Stimulus

Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist who appears to at least partially apprehend reality, but seems to see it through a fog of dogma. Attempting to account for the present economic crisis, he writes in his newest column, "Part of this is our problem. We have believed the marketers who have convinced us that more is better and still more buys happiness." I'm not sure if he appreciates the implications of what he writes, since consumerism is the fuel of the capitalism he still seems to love. But I'm also not sure if he knows what capitalism is. He defines it this week as a "system that exalts the individual." There's probably some truth in that, since exalting individualism empowers more people to buy things for themselves. But I don't like the implication that any "system" that deviates from capitalism to the same extent fails to "exalt the individual."

Come to think of it, I'm not sure how Thomas defines the "individual." He seems to see citizenship, for instance, as at odds with individualism. He grumbles that the Obama administration has failed to say "anything about the power of people to overcome the recession and restore the economy to health." You'll be excused for thinking that Cal hasn't been paying attention. But I think he has -- only he doesn't understand it the same way we might. He doesn't see "people" in government programs, or in government, period. Democratic government, in the partisan sense of the phrase, seems to him to be "hurtling toward a collectivism in which individuality will be subsumed to the will of the state." The proposed stimulus "will add to the growing number of people dependent on government and, thus politicians." And there you have it. A genuine democrat might presume that dependence on government only means mutual dependence, which might be a proper state of affairs in a democracy. But to conservatives like Thomas, government is populated exclusively by alien beings called "politicians," parasites who come from who knows where and seek to make ordinary folk "dependent" on them. Politicians "will never show them the way out of poverty," he warns, "but give them only enough money to sustain themselves in poverty and then tell them if they don't vote for Democrats, those nasty Republicans will take their checks away."

Thomas laments that Democrats offer "no call for us to help ourselves first [as opposed to whom?],with the aid of family and neighbors, and to employ vision, persistence and risk in climbing out of the recessionary hole." This is further proof of his tone-deafness, because we have been called to help ourselves -- employing the conveniently available tool of a democratically elected government. But people working together democratically is tantamount to socialism, which for Thomas means "the end of prosperity [but hasn't it already ended?], individual initiative [why?], personal dreams [huh?] and a complete transformation of America as we have known it." The last bit probably comes the closest to being true, but if the other bits are only figments of a hysterical imagination, it might not be as bad as he fears. That's Thomas's problem: he still governs himself according to an irrational fear of "government" that threatens his psyche with a loss of not only freedom, but even personal identity. He's of an age that makes it likely that he saw too much anti-"totalitarian" propaganda as a youth, with scarring consequences. He seems to retain a small core of common sense; there's nothing wrong, after all, with people living within their means. But unless he can face the current situation without succumbing to reflexive fear of his fellow citizens, he really has no business commenting on politics today.

Beerocracy, Continued.

This tidbit from the latest issue of The New Republic is intriguing in the context of the thesis that beer drinking correlates with "individualism." Barron YoungSmith is describing a cocktail party at the home of David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who has started a new moderate-conservative website following his resignation from National Review magazine over his disapproval of Governor Palin's nomination for the vice-presidency.

In the kitchen, ideologically themed drinks were arrayed on a table: Obama enthusiasts -- both right-wing apostates and Frum's liberal guests -- could drink Blue Hawaiians; Palinphobes could drink cosmopolitans; and, for supporters of the Alaska governor, there was (of course) beer.

Of course, beer? And of course, like the San Antonio survey, the reporter fails to tell us what beer Palinphiles drink -- or what Frum supposes they drink. My suspicion remains that it does make a difference. We do learn what Frum thinks of Palin, however. In the reporter's words, Frum saw her as "a troubling sign of the right's continued preference for fire-breathing hacks." In Frum's own words, Palin "inspires very little confidence in her ability to run a modern government" but "embodies and epitomizes not just conservative values but a conservative style." Is beer part of that style? I suppose it is if it (the style, that is) is meant to appeal to someone who thinks of himself as "Joe Six-pack."

Here's another bit of data: the magazine follows this report with a story about the new "lefty hot spot" for Obama fans in Washington D.C. It's a "restaurant cum left-wing bookstore" called Busboys and Poets. Alcohol is served there --"is there any other establishment in America that slings Moet champagne-pear cocktails and also sells the Weather Underground DVD?" asks reporter Eve Fairbanks -- but the owner (an Iraqi-American) threw out a delegation of Bacardi Girls, "scantily clad women who go around bars offering people promotional rum shooters." But the title of the article is "Viva Chai!" What message are the editors trying to send? And what will the scientists of San Antonio make of it?

09 February 2009

Better Shoes than Bullets

The Chinese premier's appeal for clemency for the Cambridge University student who threw a shoe at him earlier this month gives me a belated opportunity to comment on the incident. Martin Jahnke is, to my knowledge, the first person to emulate the brave Iraqi who similarly treated our former President. As a German studying in Britain, Jahnke can't claim any injury at the hands of China or Wen Jiabao personally, but reports state that Jahnke regarded Wen as a bloodstained dictator unworthy of being the university's guest. That people perceive the People's Republic as a tyranny is understandable, but I doubt, at the country's current stage of development, that Wen can be seen as a dictator on the model of Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, the country still represses many forms of dissent (though not as many, I suspect, as Western critics claim) and oppresses Tibet. Many people are going to see a Chinese leader as a villain and probably a worse one than George W. Bush, at least if how you treat your own people counts for more than how you treat other countries. It was Jahnke's prerogative to throw the shoe, and it was brave of him, since he could have no idea beforehand how either the college or the Chinese would react. As it turns out, Wen has gotten over his early irritation and now emulates Bush by playing the good sport about the whole thing. The statement issued by the Chinese government hints that this show of magnanimity (which may well influence the school authorities who'll actually decide Jahnke's future) will lead the lad to rethink his opinion of China. That may be asking too much, but since I expected the Chinese to demand that Jahnke be jailed, it's a PR point in China's favor. It shows that they're learning that dissent isn't always a threat. They might learn by extension that many acts of dissent by their own people are really just as harmless as Jahnke's shoe -- or that the easiest way to render them harmless is to treat them as such. The real test would come if a Chinese person tried the same stunt -- or for that matter, if a Briton tossed a pair at Prime Minister Brown, or a German did it to Angela Merkle. We encourage further experimentation.

What is a Stimulus?

As the President might say, "Look--." There's bound to be a lot to gripe about in whatever stimulus package Obama eventually signs. There will be pork-barrel spending. There will be expansion of government. But both cases would still mean putting people to work and paying them so they can spend money. This most likely will mean borrowing more money and making the deficit bigger. But what, really, are the alternatives? Some might prefer to stand down and let the market run its course. Only after a necessary bloodletting, they suggest, will resources be in the right hands to be invested properly for real economic growth. Before the rising tide can lift all boats again, some survivors of the recent shipwreck must be beaten off the lifeboats to appease the sea god. Others propose a kind of passive stimulus in the form of more tax cuts. They assume that entrepreneurship only suffers from unfair impediments; remove these, relieve our best people from their paralyzing taxophobia, and they'll create jobs like flivvers off the assembly line. All we'd have to do is wait for these geniuses to think up the next fad and hope that people can afford it. I've even seen some people propose giving everyone another tax-rebate check so that they can spend without becoming (the horror!) dependent on their own democratically elected government. But we saw how well that worked last year. The real choice is between a general policy that has worked in the past -- the old Keynesian notion of pump-priming -- and an ideological dependence on an unadulterated entrepreneurship which, had it been what people crack it up to be, would have left us immune to crises and looking for another subject to blog about. The resistance to the present stimulus proposal is ideological and is more concerned about restoring a supposed ideal state of economic affairs than in solving the real problems of the moment. Naturally the resisters accuse the proponents of being unprincipled, opportunistic and so forth, and there's probably some truth to the second charge, at least. But when it comes down to a choice between programs that plausibly promise some concrete results and dogmas that depend ultimately on appeals to faith -- praying for the market and its priests to save us, our natural preference, if we believe in a national interest, ought to be for action.

08 February 2009

Biden: "No sphere of influence"

The Vice-President has promised a moderation of American foreign policy under President Obama, specifically inviting Russia to go back to the drawing board as far as the two countries' relations are concerned. He seems to have received a positive response despite signals of residual American intransigence. Biden made a point of saying that "We will not — will not — recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. " This was by way of explaining why the U.S. continues to deny recognition to the Russian client states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Doing so, apparently, would concede that territory theoretically belonging to the Republic of Georgia fell into a Russian sphere of influence. Americans aren't alone in this attitude. Few countries, to my knowledge, have recognized the sovereignty or independence of either region. Rejecting spheres of influence is also a noble idea. "It will remain our view," Biden said, "that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances."

If Biden and Obama believe this, however, it behooves them to show their good faith by once and for all renouncing the Monroe Doctrine. American exceptionalists might argue that the Doctrine doesn't define a sphere of influence because it only forbids foreign control of western hemisphere countries. But in practice, the Doctrine has been invoked whenever any neighbor of ours wanted to get too chummy with the Soviet Union. Just like Russia, we don't want enemies or potential enemies to have friendly countries that could provide bases too close to home. But if Russia's neighbors have a right to make alliances with the United States, then countries like Venezuela, for instance, have as much right to ally with Russia or China, no matter how much that might disrupt American strategic calculations. Fair is fair.

Of course, the apparent fact that no one objected to Biden's forbidding of spheres of influence may indicate that no one, including Biden himself, really takes the statement seriously. I doubt that any power in this day and age would blatantly assert that it has a sphere of influence. They will talk about strategic interests in neighboring countries that require the establishment of spheres of influence in all but name, but as long as no one is really crass about it, no one else might object. Part of diplomacy is recognizing that leaders have to say certain things for domestic consumption. Wise diplomats won't begrudge Biden his comments, at least until they figure out how the practice under Obama, Biden and Clinton will differ from the theory.

06 February 2009

You're Not the King (of Beers) of Me!

The new issue of Reason, the moderate libertarian monthly, reached my mailbox today. One of the first items that caught my eye was a brief summary of findings recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research that purported to correlate individualism and national levels of beer consumption. The beer statistics are available to anyone, but national degrees of individualism were determined by "a scale developed by the Dutch marketing researcher Geert Hofstede." There are more details of the survey in this newspaper article from the Texas city where the research was done.

“Previous research on this had shown a correlation between individualism and impulsive buying,” according to the professor in charge of the university marketing department, “The definition of an individualist is that we act on our attitudes, we be ourselves, whereas in collectivist societies that's more frowned upon, and you want to make sure you reflect on the good of the group.” The argument appears to be that collectivist cultures are less likely to drink beer, and that within the individualist U.S., comparative degrees of individualism in states correlate with beer consumption. On a tangent, the professor noted that, despite the state's image, Texas is ranked 11th out of 50 states in collectivist mentality. The prof. blames this on influxes of Latino and East European immigrants.

Where does Geert Hofstede come in? The professor has his own website that includes a "Cultural Dimensions" chart that allows international travelers to compare their own countries with those they visit according to five factors, including "masculinity" (i.e., "gender differentiation") and "uncertainty avoidance" along with individualism. The U.S. scores 91 out of 100 on individualism, 61 out of 100 on masculinity, 46 out of 100 on uncertainty avoidance. The web site describes American individualism thusly: "The high Individualism (IDV) ranking for the United States indicates a society with a more individualistic attitude and relatively loose bonds with others. The populace is more self-reliant and looks out for themselves and their close family members."

Can we deduce that self-reliance and concern for family correlate with high beer consumption? That sounds almost counterfactual, and I must note that Hofstede, for what he's worth, has nothing that I know of to do with the beer survey. That thesis begs all kinds of questions? Are other alcoholic beverages (vodka, perhaps?) conducive to collectivism? Can individualism and collective consciousness be identified and compared among drunks in the first place. Most importantly, does the kind of beer you drink make a difference? Are microbrew imbibers more individualistic than Bud swillers, or Guiness fans more so than Coors enthusiasts? There's room for much more research in this important field. Any volunteers?

04 February 2009

It's Not Free Trade If You Can't Say No

A showdown looms between the President and Democratic Senators over a provision in the Senate version of the stimulus bill. Spearheaded by Senator Dorgan of North Dakota, the Democrats are pushing a "Buy American" amendment that would require all projects authorized by the stimulus to use American-made products rather than imports. The President joins numerous Republicans and free-trade think tanks in arguing that such a provision would violate international trade agreements, despite Dorgan's denials. MSNBC cites one such think tank's argument that any job creation resulting from the amendment would be outweighed by jobs lost due to likely retaliation from countries that import U.S. products.

There is nothing new about such a debate. Some of the earliest political disputes in our history were over trade and tariffs. There have always been people who benefit from protectionism and others who benefit from free trade. After the Civil War, Republicans defined themselves as the protectionist party while Democrats defended free trade. Trade was probably the most important issue in party politics in the last part of the 19th century. It arises as an issue in countries with developing economies, and those with declining economies.

We've reached a point in global history, however, when no country can have such a debate in isolation. No modern economy, it seems, can sustain itself entirely through selling to a domestic market. Businesses must export to flourish, or even survive. Economists disparage the concept of autarky or economic self-sufficiency as a primitive or insane idea, something you might see in North Korea but not in a free nation. Historians warn about resorting to protectionism during recessions. They invoke the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 as the death blow following the crash of 1929 that cinched the Great Depression's grip on this country. Already by then, apparently, the world had grown so interdependent that no nation could act to protect its own workers without the result looking like a Jenga game with the wrong piece removed.

Intellectuals defend this order of things by appealing to the rights of consumers over the rights of workers. A citizen has the right to buy the best or cheapest product rather than the local product, they argue. The consumer has no duty to keep his neighbor employed. Patriotism or solidarity must yield to the dictates of each person's pocketbook or his freedom of choice. Consumerism perpetuates the competitive world order; the consumer has no choice without competition, after all. Yet consumer freedom has its limits. The consumer can't opt out of international trade for patriotic reasons. He can't choose to limit his choices. That would be against international law.

But people must work to live. That's still true everywhere, and everyone acknowledges that people who aren't workers first soon cease to be consumers. China trembles at each new unemployment report from Washington, and so does every other export-driven economy. Even countries that are net importers must have jobs. The international community can't let any country lose the competition for trade so completely that everyone else loses that country as a market. That's interdependence, and international trade law should reflect it. During a recession, the necessity of creating jobs for people so they can afford to live should override any ideal of competition that requires losers to suffer. If the rest of the world objects to one country promoting domestic manufactures and excluding imports for the sake of job creation, then other countries should agree to receive exports from that country so its people can make the money they need to purchase imports from the rest of the world. The global marketplace should not be a site of competition for existence itself. Every nation is "too big to fail" if it comes to that. Nations should be willing to compromise their economic interests to acknowledge that fact. If that means accommodating America's need to rebuild its manufacturing sector, it should at least be considered. If it also means Americans' compromising some of their principles to conform with global standards, so be it as well. If the debate in this country doesn't go beyond the usual shibboleths of "free trade" and "protectionism," neither the country nor the world will get anywhere.

03 February 2009

More Senatorial Follies: The Republican Seat From New Hampshire

A review of the Wikipedia biography of Senator Gregg of New Hampshire leaves the President's nomination of him to be the next Secretary of Commerce pretty much a mystery. The only pertinent details I saw were his ranking as a "free trader" by a libertarian group and his patronage of environmental technology research in his home state via earmarks. Perhaps Obama looks to Gregg to help implement some of his "green job" schemes. More likely it's another pointless attempt at "bipartisanship" when "non-partisanship" should be the idea. There is a difference, which is demonstrated plainly enough by Gregg's reported insistence that the Democratic governor of New Hampshire appoint a Republican to replace him when he enters the Cabinet. A non-partisan would not care who followed him.

If anyone needed more proof of the necessity of the Constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Feingold, which would force special elections to fill all U.S. Senate vacancies, here it is. The voters of New Hampshire chose a man named Judd Gregg as their Senator. They did not choose the Republican party. We can assume safely that some people would not have voted the Republican line had a different person been the candidate, while others might have who didn't want to vote for Gregg. Despite all the rule-mongering of party lines on ballots, citizens vote for people, not parties. Whatever Gregg or his fellow Republicans want to believe, Gregg's seat does not belong to the party. As things stand, it's the governor's prerogative to appoint whom he pleases. The executive is answerable to no one. The only leverage Gregg has against the governor is the threat not to accept Obama's invitation to serve in the Cabinet. Since I don't think that Obama is scheming to put in an extra Democrat and get the filibuster-proof majority, he would most likely lean on the governor to accept Gregg's terms. So now even a bad law is effectively overruled by the intrigues of the American Bipolarchy. Under current conditions, the Bipolarchy won't be harmed by a special election, though Republicans in New Hampshire might resist it on the assumption that they'd lose, so there's really no good reason for the political establishment to oppose the Feingold amendment when it comes. You may hear reasons, but they won't be good ones.

The Power of the Press?

Tom Daschle has capitulated to public pressure and renounced his nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services. The former majority leader of the U.S. Senate says that the New York Times editorial mentioned in one of my posts from earlier today convinced him that his scandals would prove too much of a distraction to the President's health-care-reform agenda. Is one newspaper in this audiovisual age so powerful that it can undo a popular president's will? The Times is important because it represents an important Obama constituency of intellectual liberals, and its editorial reflects a loss of confidence in Daschle. But it also gives both Obama and Daschle some cover. It's obviously more pleasant for them to say that the Times tipped the balance against the nomination than giving credit to Rush Limbaugh or any number of conservative talkers who've been railing against Daschle. I don't mean to suggest that the conservatives deserve the credit, but I do wonder whether one newspaper's opinion counted for more than a popular outcry that actually crossed partisan and ideological lines. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives and independents ought to be able to agree that they want neither corruption nor incompetence in the Obama cabinet. We might comfort ourselves by claiming that the Times only reflected that public outcry, and we can certainly conclude objectively that the outcry influenced the editorial. But while I'd like to say that an aroused populace drove Daschle out of the Cabinet, I don't know if the evidence would back me. We may learn more about the making of the Times editorial down the line, but we won't necessarily like what we see. But Daschle is gone, and that's probably a good thing, so let's leave it at that for now.

Epilogue: In a damage-control interview with NBC, the President says: "I’ve got to own up to my mistake. Ultimately, it’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes." It would have been mean, but the interviewer ought to have asked him, "When did you find this out?"


The American and British military establishments have reacted with alarm to news that Iran has launched a satellite into orbit over the earth.With dismal predictability, the Atlantic powers fret that the delivery system or the satellite technology, or both, could be used by President Ahmadinejad for malevolent military purposes. But I suspect that sometimes a communications satellite is just a communications satellite. I can understand the concern over Iran's alleged nuclear weapon program, hypocritical as such concern may be in some quarters, because that technology isn't supposed to proliferate. But to begrudge the country a satellite is pathetic. Americans often decry the Islamic Republic and accuse its rulers of wanting to take their people back or keep them in the Middle Ages. On occasions like this one, it sounds like we want to keep the Iranians backward and primitive. And we wonder why they hate us....

I take that back. Few Americans wonder or care about the reasons. If foreigners do hate us, that's their problem as far as most of us are concerned, and they can go to Hell -- they can go to Hell and they can die for having such an attitude. It only shows that they hate freedom, right? So naturally, if they build a rocket and launch a satellite, it must be part of a plot to kill us and take away our freedom, or to hurt our poor little pioneer pals in Injun country -- er, I mean Israel. The thought that Iranians might have perfectly practical, purely domestic reasons to launch satellites simply won't occur to some people, since for them Iranians exist only to hate and threaten us."And hey, what do they need a satellite for if all they do is ride camels in the desert, huh?" I hope that the President knows better, but I don't think I can take that for granted.

Way to Vet...

An Obama nominee apparently can survive a tax scandal, but if it involves a nanny -- that's fatal. It was the same way during the early days of Clinton, and now we see the new President's nominee for the new post of "chief performance officer" withdrawing because she once had a tax lien put on her home for failing to pay unemployment taxes for a nanny. As an extra point of interest, the nominee still employed a nanny while her children were teenagers. Had she stayed on, the nominee's job would have been "to work with economic officials to increase efficiencies and eliminate waste in government spending."

This loser, Nancy Killefer, is a veteran of the Clinton administration. I don't know if that means the Clintons foisted her on Obama, or that he elected to rely exclusively on Democratic expertise for this job. Either way, the media knew about her problems from the moment she was nominated, yet it took nearly a month for her to decide to quit. Perhaps Obama believes that if he can throw someone like this under the bus, the Senate will go easier on Tom Daschle. This writer, however, believes that the new scandal will make things worse for the would-be HHS head, since it may create a zero-tolerance atmosphere in which Daschle's offenses appear far worse than Killefer's. Things are getting worse for Daschle already, as the New York Times has come out against him.

"Mr. Daschle is one oversight case too many." a Times editorial asserts, " The American tax system depends heavily on voluntary compliance. It would send a terrible message to the public if we ignore the failure of yet another high-level nominee to comply with the tax laws." Daschle also has too many ties to lobbyists for the newspaper's comfort, making him a questionable champion for health care reform.

Maybe if Caroline Kennedy had been vetting Cabinet picks the way she helped vet potential vice-presidential candidates last summer, some of this might have been avoided. She has to be good at something, after all....

02 February 2009

Caroline's Comedy Hour: An Oral History.

Last week's New Yorker has a summing-up of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg's "campaign" for the U.S. Senate seat for New York opened up by Senator Clinton's promotion to the State Department. Larissa MacFarquhar's article is a collection of impressions from the "candidate's" friends, acquaintances and would-be allies. The author sought an interview with her subject, but was turned down. The result reminds me of the fable of the blind men and the elephant, but that thought is answered instantly by Gertrude Stein's comment about the city of Oakland: "There's no there there." An elephant is possibly too substantial a metaphor for Caroline Kennedy the fledgling politician. But here are some subjective impressions to grope toward:

She’s not glib, in the way that predictable politicians can be glib. She is thoughtful, articulate, fundamentally decent, and if you discussed any number of complicated issues with her currently part of the political dialogue she would be both informed and deeply thoughtful.
-Richard Plepler, HBO co-president.

This is the part that I have found most absurd in the press coverage: a childish level of analysis of what’s involved in campaigning in New York State, how many hands do you have to shake in state fairs and what kind of smile do you have to have, as though it’s something extraordinarily difficult to master. The politics of campaigning are so simple: I’m going to beat you and leave you dead in a snowbank in New Hampshire and never look back. But in the Senate you can be trying to prevail over another senator on Tuesday afternoon whose vote you know you’re going to need on Wednesday afternoon for something else. The ordinary work of the Senate never involves fighting. Virtually all the people who run for Senate seats lie and say they’re going to fight, but what they’re actually going to do—which they may not know when they go to Washington for the first time—is beg. And beg people like me, whom they’ve never heard of, the staff director of this or that committee, before they ever get to meet the chairman. So the personal qualities necessary for Senate work are politeness and charm and graciousness and generosity, which New York tabloids have no comprehension of. Why should they? The press is never allowed in the rooms where governance actually takes place.
-- Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC.

As the weeks went by, people who were not her friends questioned whether she had the fluency or the toughness to fight for the Senate seat, as she’d have to in 2010. Could she handle the hot dogs and the fried dough? Was she ready for Utica? This sort of questioning drove the friends insane. It was so irrelevant. After all, she didn’t have to campaign in the same way that an unknown person has to. People already knew who she was, she already had their attention.
-- MacFarquhar.

You always get a sense of entitlement or a sense of royalty, whether it’s the Rockefellers or the Kennedys, and she never came off like that at all. It was never like she felt like you were honored to meet her. She came off very studious, very sober, very serious. And I had that impression of her way before she ever thought about politics.
-- Rev. Al Sharpton.

I somehow can’t see her as being corrupt. It’s not her legacy. I kind of like the idea, maybe because I’m old.
-- Marie Owen, flautist.
This is a person who has the blessing of using her remarkable position to advance larger issues, and, because she has never taken advantage of that, that is something that speaks to the integrity and, not to be too corny, but, the nobility of what she’s doing now.
-- Plepler.

This generation salutes her and Ted for what they did for Obama. I’ll give you an example. When she got out of the car in front of Sylvia’s, people in the streets were screaming ‘Caroline!’ ‘Caroline!’ ‘Senator!’ I was amazed. Young people. And when we walked in, the people in the restaurant stood up and started clapping. And let me tell you why I thought that was interesting: they didn’t react that way to Obama when I brought him there. When I brought Obama there, people were shaking his hand, but they weren’t standing up and applauding. I was like, Wow, what is this? I talked to them, and people said, ‘No, man, she risked a lot for us.’ And, see, when you did something for people that nobody does something for, and you didn’t have to do it, it hits an emotional thing with us.
-- Sharpton.

One of the things that we have to observe is that DNA in this business can take you just so far. You know, Rembrandt was a great artist. His brother Murray, on the other hand—Murray Rembrandt wouldn’t paint a house.
-- Rep. Gary Ackerman.

There are very few people who walk into the Senate and know they’ll be heard immediately. What have two-thirds of the Senate done before they got there? Served in the state legislature? You think that is a better qualification than her intellect, her breadth of experience, her ability to get things done for the state? I don’t think so.
-- Plepler.

She’s the only person that New York can send to the Senate who is immediately valuable to other senators. Because there are really only three people in the Democratic Party who you can say is coming to your fund-raiser and sell tickets from that, and they are Barack and Michelle Obama and Caroline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton had that, too, and that enabled her to have a value to other senators right off the bat that she could then translate into what she could get for New York
-- O'Donnell.

Jackie and Caroline had similar personalities. They tended to bury their emotions. They were like icebergs. They revealed only a small portion of themselves—everything else was deeply submerged.
--Andy Warhol.

Caroline tended to see the foibles in people, whereas John looked for more positive traits. Caroline could cut people down with a few trenchant words; John built them up. She had a dark sense of humor, a rapier wit; his was effervescent. She trusted nobody, he trusted everyone.
-- George Plimpton.

Katie Couric: Do you ever feel any pressure, I know you’re very shy —
Caroline: Are you going to ask me if I’m going to run for office, by any chance? Is that where you’re going with this question?
Couric: What do you think?
Caroline: Well, you know, it’s incredible, you’re just so creative.
Couric: Well, no, but I think people do. Maybe if you have any renewed interest in going into political office, I mean, you already are in public service, but because of Teddy’s illness and because of the era sort of coming to a close, I’m just wondering if you feel any kind of responsibility at all or if you feel completely comfortable with the path you’ve taken.
Caroline: Well, I don’t make a lot of long-range plans.

In the case of the Profiles in Courage awards, she’s made it clear in recent years that she doesn’t always want us to recognize people who are political losers. She wants the award to be given to people who succeed. That was reflected last year in two women she championed who are still in office. And that was quite an interesting philosophical discussion, because I think almost all the cases that her father described were cases of people who paid a huge political price for their actions. She felt that there was more than room for courage in politics among those who are successful.
John Shattuck, John F. Kennedy presidential library.

While she was in the White House—when she was three, four years old—the public was obsessed with her to the point of madness. Strangers sent her letters. Someone came out with a Caroline Kennedy doll. Press interest in her was insatiable—and while her mother hated the idea of her being in the newspapers, her father tended to encourage it, because it helped him.
-- MacFarquhar.

To put yourself through that seems like a lot for her, but I take my hat off to her, because changing your life up and trying things at—you know, she’s not twenty-five—takes a certain amount of guts. She’s not stupid, she knew that the life she knew would come to an end whether she got the appointment or not, and that’s a tough thing for anyone, giving away the life you’ve had.
-- An anonymous friend.

But in the end, it seems, she could not give away the life she had. Despite all the work that her friends and supporters put into her bid, despite all the behind-the-scenes campaigning, despite all the fuss and the coverage and the lunches and the phone calls and the public-relations consultants, she decided that she would prefer not to. Her friends could support her and spin for her and be excited for her, but they couldn’t make her want it. There would be three more days of bad press, and then everyone would forget about it and leave her alone.
-- MacFarquhar.

Whether it be the disclosure of intimate details about a person’s life or interference with private decisions there is a growing sense that all of us, well known and unknown, are losing control.
-- Caroline Kennedy, The Right to Privacy,
co-authored with Ellen Alderman.
Figure the rest out for yourselves, but I don't guarantee that you can.