31 March 2009

Dalai Lama meets Evil Cult?

The Dalai Lama, spiritual heir to the former rulers of Tibet, visits the State University of New York Albany campus in April. The visit is gradually becoming controversial because of the involvement of the Ethical Humanitarian Foundation. This organization is bankrolled by the Bronfman sisters, heirs to the Seagrams fortune, but was masterminded by Keith Raniere, once an alleged pyramid scheme operator and now accused of being a kind of cult leader. From one perspective, I suppose, these are not such strange bedfellows. But since the Dalai is beloved worldwide as a personification of selfless benevolence, even this indirect association with a man who supposedly likes to be called "Vanguard" will probably raise questions among some fans in these parts. SUNY-Albany only agreed to host the event after two other local colleges turned the opportunity down, reportedly because of worries over Raniere's involvement. Beyond that, I can only imagine what the Chinese government would make of their longtime foe's apparent alliance with a group that some people around here regard the same way the Chinese themselves regard the Falun Gong movement. More on this as it develops next month.

Mr. Sociology

"Why is it that the black crime rate fifty years ago, when you could honestly say that black people were oppressed, was much lower than it is today?" Mr. Right asked the room rhetorically. A rhetorical question, in this case, means that he rather than we would provide the answer.

That didn't stop me from asking what the black crime rate was fifty years ago. I honestly didn't know, but I wanted to know whether he had facts behind him or was just making an assumption.

He didn't have specific statistics to give me, but the question inspired a litany of categories, from employment rate to graduation rate, in which he claimed that blacks performed better fifty or more years ago. Then he repeated the question: why are blacks worse off now?

The answer: "White liberals." White liberals in the schools and the media, he claimed, had relentlessly demoralized black youth by telling them that they could not succeed on their own because of the pervasive racism in society. As a result, he presumed, blacks too often opt for welfare dependency or crime.

"Can you cite specific white liberals?" I asked, "Do you have any direct quote where a white liberal says outright that black people can't succeed on their own?"

He said he did, but I'm compelled to notice that he's been in no hurry to produce them.

Mr. Right was in a defensive mood because it had been insinuated that the President's race had something to do with Mr. Right's opposition to him. To an extent that charge is unfair, but as a matter of probability Mr. Right is likely to oppose most black politicians because most of them are liberals or further to the left. I'm satisfied that he doesn't believe in black inferiority, but to the extent that the black political class has an affinity for "progressive" policies, Mr. Right will again find himself opposing most black politicians. He has argued that there's no reason that blacks should automatically be liberals. He's tried to argue from history that blacks should support Republicans because the GOP had been their friend from the time of Lincoln through the early 1960s, while the Democrats had opposed him from the days of Confederate sympathies to the resistance of white southerners to the civil rights bills -- neglecting the fact that the parties switched sides more than 40 years ago. He also points out that Obama's supposed political mentors (Bill Ayers, etc.) are almost all white, so that the President's alleged extremism has nothing to do with his race. But the fact remains that, so long as the overwhelming majority of black voters lean to the left, to oppose liberalism or the Democratic party is to oppose black people, and Mr. Right should not be surprised if some people see it that way. He can be offended, but not surprised. But if he's going to say that blacks lean left because they've been brainwashed by wicked white folks, then we can be offended.

30 March 2009

Should Mrs. Obama Get Paid?

I suppose it is unfair from one standpoint. A year ago, Vice President Michelle Obama made nearly twice as much money at her job at the University of Chicago as her husband did as a United States Senator. But now Mr. Obama is the breadwinner of the family, while the Mrs. makes nothing. That fact is bound to annoy a feminist, so as Dana Goldstein reports in the April issue of The American Prospect, there is talk about giving the First Lady her own salary.

Goldstein quotes a feminist blogger on the subject: "We view [Obama's] election as a labor contract between not just Barack Obama and the country, but also between Michelle Obama and the country....Yet she is not getting paid, because she is really viewed as part and parcel of him."

A historian writing in the San Francisco Chronicle offers a dissenting viewpoint."Living 'only' on the president's $400,000 salary, however, [the Obamas] make eight times as much as the average American household....It's hard to see why they need a second income."

Goldstein leans toward the feminist viewpoint. Need has nothing to do with it, she suggests. The main point, as far as she's concerned, is that being First Lady is a job. "The job of first lady is so crucial that our one bachelor president, James Buchanan, appointed his niece to carry out the traditional duties," she notes. But somehow I have a feeling that Buchanan would not have thought of the traditional hostess duties as "crucial." I do not recall him putting his niece in charge of any special task force or sending her as his representative to foreign countries or secessionist states -- though she most likely could not have done worse as a "co-president" than Buchanan did all by himself.

But consider Mrs. Obama's work, Goldstein insists. She has already "embarked upon an unprecedented tour of federal agencies. She addressed tens of thousands of bureaucrats, thanking them for their service and discussing how her husband's economic-stimulus package would improve each department's work."

Goldstein is convinced that Mrs. Obama deserves something for all that arduous effort, but she also sees the opposing point about Mr. O's salary being quite enough for the whole family. Her solomonic solution, pitched to please feminists and budget hawks alike, is to pay the First Lady out of her husband's pocket. "The salary for the first lady should be garnished from her husband's wages," she proposes, "Since we expect our presidents to be just one half of a 24/7 public-relations team, why not pay the president less -- say $300,000 -- and make out the remainder of the check to his wife?"

I admit that I was tempted strongly to appoint Dana Goldstein as an Idiot of the Week. I spared her because it might be awkward to give that honor to someone whose article appeared in a monthly magazine. Instead, I'll create a special category and name Goldstein an April Fool. In doing so, I deny her premises every step of the way. We do not expect our presidents to be half of any team apart from the party ticket on Election Day. I, for one, do not view any President's election as a "labor contract" with his wife. And when Goldstein asks, "Considering the various social and political services the first lady ... renders to the United States, don't taxpayers owe her a salary?" I respond, "Who authorized her to render those services? What right has she to perform any political service? Where are her powers enumerated in the Constitution?" As conceived on the alleged model of the sainted Eleanor Roosevelt and the actual precedent of Hillary Clinton, the vestment of any kind of political power in the President's wife is nothing more than a royal prerogative, and that's un-American. The President's election entitles the President's spouse to nothing except shelter in the White House. Nor does it entitle the President to delegate any of his power or responsibility to the spouse.

But having stated my opinion, I approach Goldstein in the same spirit of compromise with which she proposed splitting the President's salary. I'll agree to pay the First Lady if I get to vote for her. The "two for the price of one" principle that prevailed in the Clinton years is against the spirit of the Constitution. It's bad enough that you have to vote for President and Vice-President together, but at least the running mate's name appears on the ballot, while the conjugal mate's does not. If people wish to make First Lady a responsible political office, that should change. And since we oppose the Bipolarchy practice of tying the President and Vice-President together on a party line, let's set an educational precedent by splitting the First Family ticket. There are, after all, people of conservative mind who might have embraced Mr. Obama more readily, as they might have Mr. Clinton, had they not thought that their wives wanted more power than their due. Why not give such people the chance to vote for the best man and the best woman, even if they're not man and wife? If we aren't to think of the First Lady as merely the President's wife anymore, why should that important post go automatically to the President's wife? Why not instead elect the most worthy woman (presuming the President to be a man and a heterosexual -- or must we?) who is not running for the top job herself? Since there are no term limits currently in writing for the First Lady, why not retain good old Laura Bush as a modest national hostess, or why not recruit Governor Palin to enact the politico-sexual fantasies of Hustler magazine? I don't think I've yet exhausted the possibilities. Sometimes when you've got a toboggan the slippery slope is fun. On to the Constitutional convention!...or else you can all shut up about such silliness as paying the President's wife.

29 March 2009

Amoklauf in Carthage

As I write, the only clue we have to the possible motive of the man who shot up a nursing home in Carthage NC, killing eight people before he was wounded and captured, comes from his ex-wife. She says that he'd been diagnosed with cancer and had been telling people that he was "getting ready to go," or words to that effect. For what it's worth, she claims that the suspect had a history of violence during their marriage. Meanwhile, investigators say that the gunman had never worked at the nursing home and had no relatives treated there. That doesn't rule out any relationship to any of the employees, but we don't know enough to speculate further. All we know is that people are dead and the man had a gun. Did he buy a gun in order to go on a rampage some day? Probably not. How many who do, did? Probably the younger ones, the high schoolers here and abroad, but the older ones most likely had theirs at first for hunting or for "protection." How many rampages could have been predicted on the day the eventual killer bought his gun? Your only clue would be the fact that anyone who buys a gun for protection is claiming a right to kill, even if only in self-defense. But how can we predict when someone's going to go on the offensive? Too many people don't bother trying. They simply arm themselves for protection against the day, and so the cycle goes on.

Thanks, Gov. Paterson!

The governor of New York is very unpopular now throughout the state, but in the 20th Congressional District he ought to be a hero. His decision to elevate Rep. Gillibrand to Senatorial honors created a vacancy that must be filled through a closely and expensively contested special election. Money flows freely throughout the district, much of it to local TV stations, and if it makes watching the local news monotonous (a typical half-hour has dozens of ads for Murphy and Tedisco), I suppose it's worth it to see some of the economy stimulated. Now if the politicians and their committees would only go back to traditional practices and bribe a few voters on Tuesday, the election would have an even more stimulative effect, and turnout would increase. That's my modest proposal for this week, but I think it's a constructive one.

The Latest From Europe

The "G-20" are holding a summit in London next week, and yesterday thousands of activists hit the streets to announce their own agenda in advance of the meeting.

While the main action was in London, demonstrations took place in other European capitals. Here's a report from Berlin, with clips from Frankfurt.

Paris and other cities also saw protests. From what I've seen and read, these demonstrations were catch-all gatherings of all manner of grudges and demands -- the usual litany of grievances that come up on every occasion. These were anti-war, anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist marches, along with being anti-capitalist. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I wonder whether there was a chance of getting more people behind the economic and social agenda of the protests if they weren't burdened with the foreign-policy issues. There have to be people who don't give a damn about Afghanistan or Iraq or Israel or Palestine but have strong opinions on the economic crisis that perhaps shouldn't be linked to any international political agenda. I'm sure some of the protesters could argue how everything is tied together, but they might think about using economic issues to bring people into a movement and waiting until later to attempt to educate them about the rest. On the other hand, they may have everybody who's worked up enough about economic issues to march, and they had to bring in the internationalists and anti-imperialists to swell the ranks. I'd like to think that wasn't the case. In any event, I intend to keep an eye on what's up in Europe this week to see if the continent can offer any lessons to the disgruntled of America. Watch this space for more updates.

27 March 2009

Strange Bedfellows in the 20th District

A Glens Falls paper reports that angry Libertarian congressional candidate Eric Sundwall has endorsed his Democratic opponent, Scott Murphy for the 31 March special election in New York's 20th Congressional District. Sundwall admits that there's little affinity between his views and Murphy's, but he declared the Democrat a "man of honor," implicitly denying the same distinction to Jim Tedisco, the Republican candidate. Tedisco has denied any role in the challenges filed by two "private citizens" that led to Sundwall's removal from the ballot, but the Libertarian clearly doesn't believe him.

Despite the district turning "blue" when now-Senator Gillibrand defeated a scandal-ridden incumbent in 2006, Tedisco initially held a wide lead over Murphy, simply because, as an Assemblyman, he was much better known than the comparatively apolitical businessman. Since the campaign began, Murphy has steadily improved in the polls as Democrats from Gillibrand to the President have declared their support. Some reports have the race as a "statistical dead heat" going into the final weekend. Under such circumstances it is possible that Sundwall's endorsement, not to mention distaste at the seemingly unfair way he was treated, may tip the balance decisively against Tedisco. But as I wrote earlier this week, this has been a weird campaign in which the candidates have undergone unwilling role reversals while dodging party labels. I wouldn't dare predict the result.

Look For the Union Libel

Is the decline in union membership among American private sector workers since the mid-20th century the intended result of a reactionary conspiracy or the product of more impersonal historic trends? Those who believe the former think that corporate-influenced governments have imposed unfair obstacles on union organization. They propose the legalization of the "card check" process as a remedy. Congress will consider an "Employee Free Choice Act" that allows for the unionization of a workplace when 50% of the workforce sign cards signifying their desire to unionize. Union supporters consider this a better alternative to current law, which makes unionization dependent on the outcome of a secret-ballot vote.

Predictably, many Republicans oppose the "card check" plan. Jonah Goldberg is a typical spokesman for this view. He considers the scheme undemocratic because it can do away with the secret-ballot elections. According to Goldberg, union organizers intend to use card check disingenuously, encouraging workers to sign as part of an effort to force a secret-ballot vote when the law would make unionization a fait accompli if a majority signs the cards.Goldberg's own argument is slightly disingenuous, since I doubt whether many workers will sign the cards only to force an election if they know that enough signatures mean they get a union automatically. Nevertheless, Goldberg insists that unions will use card check to "shanghai" workers into their organizations.

Are unions afraid of the secret ballot, as Goldberg claims? The answer seems to be yes. In my neighborhood, Goldberg's column appears in the Saratogian. Directly below today's column is a letter from a union supporter. Cliff Ammon of Saratoga Springs notes that would-be Representative Jim Tedisco opposes the "card check" bill because he favors the secret ballot. "I discovered why Mr. Tedisco raved so about 'secret ballot elections,' Ammon writes, "Under current [National Labor Relations Board] rules, management totally controls 'secret ballot elections.'"

The pro-union argument is that the run-up to a secret-ballot election only gives management time to carry out an intimidation campaign against union supporters. "Intimidation" is probably defined broadly here, since it usually consists less of physical bulling of organizer than of propaganda warning or layoffs or outsourcing or closing if the union wins. Whatever the facts behind the complaint, it's pretty ironic to hear the secret ballot denounced as a tool of intimidation by employers. Back in the 19th century, the secret ballot was demanded by working-class voters as a safeguard against such intimidation. Before the secret ballot was a commonplace, it was feared, often with reason, that employers would have observers at the polling place to watch how employees voted, and that workers could lose jobs if they voted the "wrong" way. The secret ballot, it was thought, would keep employers' eyes off the voting booth, freeing workers to vote their consciences fearlessly. But this little narrative was all about political elections. Workplace elections are a different story. Workers normally have no reason to fear that employers would take it out on everybody if the boss's candidate for Congress lost. But the bosses themselves have given workers reason to fear that they'd take it out on everybody if a union won an election.

If you think about it, however, there's nothing workers can do to deter bosses from "intimidating" them so long as current social relations remain in force. There's nothing stopping bosses, once they know that a card check process is under way, from making it known that everyone will suffer if too many people sign their cards. And to be fair about it, employers do share in the general freedom of speech. They do have a right to make a case against unionization, and I doubt a law can be written against the kind of warnings that union people interpret as intimidation. I can understand if Republicans see the card check plan as a scheme to deny employers their right to argue against unionization, though it's naive to think, as such talk would imply, that bosses would be helpless against a card check campaign.

Goldberg seems to think that blaming union decline on intimidation or obstructive laws is a conspiracist libel.

Organized labor is not dead in America, nor should it be. But it's simply not as important as it once was, because the government has an alphabet soup of agencies dedicated to protecting the rights of workers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, OSHA and the Family and Medical Leave Act make the need for unions far less acute. This is good news for workers, especially liberals, but it's bad news for unions because they need grievances to grow (and the Democrats need unions).

Ammon tells a different story:

The collective bargaining laws and NLRB created in the 1930s have been emasculated since the Reagan administration. Over the past 30 years, union membership has declined through union busting, off-shoring, downsizing and part-timers. Although worker productivity has dramatically increased, they've seen their wages stay flat, lost health care benefits, and seen pensions disappear

The truth most likely lies somewhere between Ammon's conspiracy theory (which has a good deal of fact behind it) and Goldberg's account of almost accidental obsolescence (which seems to ignore some worker needs (wages, perhaps?) that unions might meet best). Unfortunately in our ideological age, people will choose the history that most closely conforms to their subjective worldviews, and those prejudices will decide where they stand on the card check question.

26 March 2009

Another Win for the Bipolarchy

The Twentieth Congressional District of New York is the one neighboring mine to the north. It was Kirsten Gillibrand's district, so it came open when Governor Paterson promoted her to the U.S. Senate. Her seat will be filled by a special election to be held on May 31. The main contestants are Jim Tedisco, a former member of the State Assembly, and Scott Murphy, a businessman.

It has been a strange campaign. Tedisco, the Republican candidate, has been backed by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, whose commercials identify Murphy, the Democratic candidate, as a Wall Street millionaire, an outsourcer of jobs, an enabler of unworthy bonuses, and in general a poster boy for the practices that have forced the government to take drastic measures. Murphy in turn is backed by the equivalent Democratic committee, which tars Tedisco as "another Albany politician" who's used his office to benefit himself at public expense. Albany is as Democratic a city as you may find, but for the purpose of advertising "Albany" refers to the despised state legislature -- where Democrats also prevail.Only when the committees identify themselves at the end of the ads do you hear the words "Democrat" and "Republican" mentioned in either set of ads.

There is at least one other candidate. He is Eric Sundwall, the nominee of the Libertarian party. This week, however, he was knocked off the ballot after many of the petitions necessary to earn his spot were challenged and found faulty for various picayune reasons. It's assumed that the elimination of a Libertarian candidate should benefit the Republican candidate, but Tedisco denies any involvement in the challenge. It just so happens that in New York State private citizens can challenge a candidate's spot on the ballot. Two such citizens challenged Sundwall, one being a registered Republican, the other belonging to the Conservative party.

On one level, the loss of a Libertarian is no great loss. That party has even less to contribute than normal during a time of major economic dislocation. But on principle we ought to deplore the maneuvering that took Sundwall down. Our electoral system is designed to encourage party-line voting, and the laws exist to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to challenge the reigning Bipolarchy of Republicans and Democrats. Our legislators may as well be Iranian mullahs, given their power to exclude independents from the sacred ballot. Lip service is paid to the principle of write-in voting, but the ballot certifies certain candidates as the "real" ones while implicitly relegating the rest to second class or worse. But if we really want to honor the principle, and if ballot space is so limited that there have to be laws to limit access, the fair thing to do is level the playing field and eliminate ballots altogether. Let's have every name written in, or spoken in if technology permits, and let's have each voter name whomever he pleases for any office, without any prompting from parties. I won't dare promise that outcomes would differ, but at least we wouldn't see any more repeat performances of the sort of legal farce that renders our elections less democratic and less republican.

25 March 2009

No Confidence in the Global Economy?

If sell-offs in the stock market are some form of judgment on the government's economic policies, what should we make of the reversal suffered today? The Dow Jones index surged following yesterday's decline, advancing by more than 100 points, but plummeted into the red for the day on the news that IBM was going to outsource more jobs to India. Should we conclude that stockholders and brokers disapprove of the company's action? Most market observers would probably say no, but people seem to be interpreting the IBM news as an indicator of the continuing weakness of the economy as a whole; otherwise, why sell? What does this particular story tell us apart from the fact that the IBM management are unpatriotic bottom (line) dwellers?

As it happens, the current issue of The New Republic features an editorial by Jonathan Chait demolishing the Republican argument that market declines reflect dissatisfaction with the Obama Administration's policies. He points out that it's absurd to attribute any single day's performance to fears of Obama policies that were already well known beforehand. Why blame a 300+ point decline on Inauguration Day on Obama when the market already had a good idea months earlier of what the new President meant to do? He also notes that stock prices are falling all over the world. If American markets are really disturbed by Obama's policies, the U.S. Dow should be falling "further and faster" than its global counterparts, but Chait says it isn't.

He also notes:

The larger fallacy here is to assume that the stock market is a proxy for the entire economy. Many people realize that the stock market is an imperfect gauge. But it's not just an imperfect gauge of the economy -- it doesn't even attempt to measure the economy. Stock prices represent the market's guess at the profitability of corporations. While that's related to the health of the economy, it's not the same thing.

TV encourages the wrong kind of thinking, Chait claims.

The stock market has become the media's real-time economic report card. Economic statistics that actually measure broader material well-being come out once a month, some once a year, others once a decade. The stock market updates instantly, making it irresistible. Cable channels, especially CNBC, have come to represent the stock-centric view of the world.

As I wrote earlier this week, the real danger could arise if people on the market actually come to believe that their decisions to sell or buy are political, or that they could somehow influence government policy by buying or selling. I get the feeling that some Republicans would actually like things to work this way, with Wall Street acting as a check on Washington. If that day comes, it'll be as much a revolution (or if you prefer, a coup) as if a mob invaded the Capitol with pitchforks and torches. And it would be very odd to hear self-styled "conservatives" cheering on the process.

24 March 2009

"Inverted Totalitarianism"

I've been reading Sheldon S. Wolin's Democracy Inc. Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism over the past two weeks. Wolin is an octogenarian political scientist, and maybe it's because he's old that I find this 2008 title almost instantly obsolete. But the real reason is that the whole book seems to be a labored effort to come up with new jargon to explain why the Bush Administration was evil. I'm not about to say it wasn't, but the fact that Wolin identifies the nature of what he calls "inverted totalitarianism" almost completely with the Republican Party circa 2000 gives his project a certain datedness. Worse, it makes the book appear more partisan than it needs to be, even though Wolin has no illusions about the usefulness of the Democratic Party.

So what is "inverted totalitarianism?" According to Wolin, it's what we were living under during the Bush regime, or may be living under soon if Republicans regain power. It's an "inverted" form of totalitarianism as the term is commonly understood in two major ways. First, the commonly recognized totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin (Wolin persistently credits the bad elements of the Soviet Union to Stalin rather than Lenin) were built from the ground up by self-made men, dictators consciously revolutionizing the existing order. But inverted totalitarianism is generated by the existing order itself. Taking George W. Bush as his exemplar, Wolin explains that Bush didn't create a totalitarian order, but was in some sense created (or decided) by it. This actually resembles the old Marxist explanation for fascism, which described it as an emanation of capitalism in its death throes. The second major difference is that old-school totalitarianism was all about mobilizing the populace into an obedient mass through propaganda that exhorted people to serve the state, while inverted totalitarianism strives to demobilize the populace, coveting a passive rather than strictly obedient population. What makes it totalitarian despite the inversion, Wolin claims, is the common desire for unlimited power for the leadership and a powerless citizenry below. While most people identify totalitarianism with the imposition of some kind of collective consciousness on individuals, inverted totalitarianism wants nothing of the kind. But the inversion is only another means to the same totalitarian end of unobstructed power.

I have a hard time buying Wolin's thesis. I think he correctly describes a lot of phenomena out there, but the concept of totalitarianism, if you take it seriously and don't just dismiss it as a scare-word, is too closely tied to the idea of a regimented collective consciousness for Wolin's description of the U.S. to fit. I'm afraid that his use of the term simply reflects his hysterical attitude toward Bush (who is often referred to mockingly as "George II" in a way that suits a blog but not a treatise). The more that he takes a broader view of things, the more Wolin makes sense, but too often he seems to be making a special case against the just-departed administration. That leads him to strain to account for details that perplex him, like the support of much of the "religious right" for the party of capitalist "creative destruction," and vice versa. He tries to hard to explain a single eight-year period, but his more general discussion seems more relevant than his specific complaints.

Ironically, for all his attempts to coin new phrases, Wolin is at his best when he makes very old arguments. His basic thesis about the U.S. is that the country's economic forces quickly evolved beyond the constitutional government's ability to regulate them effectively, to the point where they came to dominate the government and bend it to the interests of business. The key component of inverted totalitarianism is convincing citizens that they have no power and no right to regulate the economy. Earlier writers would see this as proof of the advent of plutocracy or oligarchy, and some of the Founders warned against just such an outcome. But the promotion of a laissez-faire or "every man for himself" worldview left the field open for wealth to master the state.

The consecration of economy means that in the trinity of 'freedom, democracy and free enterprise' the three elements are not of equal standing. Freedom and democracy are clearly subservient to free enterprise, a relationship that, by providing 'cover' for the political incorporation of the corporation, assumes great significance in light of the fact that the economic structures defining free enterprise are inherently autocratic, hierarchical, and primed for expansion. When the claims and needs of the economy trump the political, and bring in their wake strikingly unequal rewards and huge disparities in wealth and power, inequality trumps democratic egalitarianism.(91-2)

Wolin seems to be saying that, in real democracy, there really won't be, or shouldn't be, such a thing as "free enterprise" as we know it. In his view, democracy governs all social interactions, including the economic, or it isn't democracy. This puts him on one side of a very old dispute, one that goes back at least as far as ancient Athens. If there has been a sort of two-party system throughout "Western" history, it has pitted those who believe that the object of politics is the best interest of all against those who think the best system maximizes rewards for the best people. Wolin is with the democrats, while those he criticizes are elitists, no matter how much those people rail against "elitists" themselves. But this is a two-front conflict. Elitists often argue pragmatically that power in society should go to those most qualified to use it, while democrats aspire to a condition where everyone is equally competent to perform any public task, but have to construct a state to make that a reality. Wolin sides with the democrats here as well, however utopian that vision might be. In most basic terms, history reveals a conflict between those who use politics to secure rights they believe they already have ("natural rights") and those who understand that politics is the only basis of rights in a civilized society. As a historian of political science, Wolin stands on the shoulders of giants, and to get a clearer picture of what's been going on all along, and how today's troubles fit the bigger picture, we should probably consult those giants first. But if you're looking for some philosophically sound talking points to use against Republicans today, Wolin could come in handy.

23 March 2009

As Voltaire Said...

Citizens United is a band of reactionary hypocrites. It's a documentary production company that makes films espousing the Republican viewpoint and criticizing liberal leaders. Back in 2004 they tried unsuccessfully to block TV advertising for Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 because they deemed it a form of electioneering activity regulated by the McCain-Feingold law. Last year the group made a critical documentary about Hillary Clinton and tried to get theaters to exhibit it. They got it in all of eight theaters, but when they tried to buy TV time to advertise the film, they were blocked by the Federal Elections Commission on the same McCain-Feingold principles that Citizens United tried to invoke against Michael Moore. The commission ruled in favor of Moore in 2004 because they took him at his word that he'd run no commercials for it during the general election season. Citizens United intended to run and advertise Hillary: The Movie during last year's Democratic primary season. After a lower court turned down the group's appeal, the case goes to the Supreme Court this week.

Something bugs me about equating a critical documentary movie, or an ad for the same, with a paid political advertisement. Cynics might say that if money equals speech, then any political commentary is a form of advertising, but since, in spite of the Supreme Court, I deny the former premise, I can't go along with the argument that a movie is a commercial, or that a commercial for a movie is the same as a commercial for or against a political candidate.

On the other hand, the regulations imposed by McCain-Feingold don't seem that awful. If the ads for Hillary are defined as "electioneering," all that means is that Citizens United must identify the financial backers of the commercials if they run during a campaign in which Clinton is a candidate. The group claims that such exposure might leave their sponsors vulnerable to retaliation, but that's a topic for another time -- after the court has ruled. So long as there's room to say the ads are not electioneering, Citizens United has no special obligation to tell who paid for them. The same goes for the movie itself. It's asserted that if the group made Hillary available for pay-per-view or on-demand viewing, it should also be treated as electioneering, and Citizens United would have to identify whoever financed the film -- again, only if it aired while Clinton were running for office. This doesn't sound right. People should be able to make films criticizing prominent politicians or other public figures without a presumption that they have shadowy backers who must be dragged into the sunlight. Nor does the nature of such a film essentially change if the subject happens to be running for office. To think otherwise is Bipolarchy logic, to assume that an attack on The One necessarily and automatically benefits The Other. I should be able to say someone is a menace without being presumed to be an agent of anyone but myself. The fact that Citizens United probably is an agent of the Republican party, in practice if not in writing, doesn't change that principle.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, apparently a legitimately non-partisan group, has filed an amicus brief supporting Citizens United. They warn that the courts could make it harder for journalists to publish critical commentary on politicians, since their work might get treated as advertising as well. Theirs seems to be the right position. If adhering to it requires some revision of the McCain-Feingold rules, then let it happen.

The head of Citizens United now says that "Michael Moore forced me to recognize the power of documentary film," according to the Associated Press. It isn't clear whether he's ever considered apologizing to Moore for trying to impede the promotion of Fahrenheit 9/11, but that uncertainty shouldn't stop us from concluding that just as the suit against Moore failed, so should the suit against his onetime persecutors.

New York State: Worst in "Personal Freedom?"

The Albany Times Union has renamed New York "the Nanny State" following a report from the Mercatus Institute, a libertarian think tank, that ranks the erstwhile Empire State as last in the nation on its "personal freedom index." What does this mean? Are freedom of speech and religion at an end here? Are there morals police enforcing modest dress codes? Has political correctness silenced libertarian cranks? Of course not, but New York has just too many regulations for Mercatus's comfort. What put the state over the top, so to speak, were its allegedly onerous education and insurance regulations. The think tank objects to the burdens placed on home schoolers, for instance, and complains that parents can't easily place kids in superior schools outside their districts.

It may be no accident that the "personal freedom index" ranks New Hampshire as the best state in the Union. One of the co-authors of the survey is a man named Jason Sores, whom the Albany paper identifies as the founder of the "Free State" campaign to encourage libertarian immigration to New Hampshire in order to transform it into as much of a libertarian paradise as the Constitution would permit. Sores admits that the "Free State" campaign has been progressing very slowly, and it wouldn't surprise me if progress is slower than ever these days.

Why the Times Union takes this story seriously is a mystery. Libertarians have a fantastically utopian vision of the ideal polity that could never be realized without the weak and the needy voluntarily ceasing to exist. That vision can be summed up as anarchy plus property rights, with all the contradictions you can imagine thrown in. These are people who've never realized, or at least never acknowledged, that civilization itself is an "entitlement" claim that requires a regulatory state as the instrument of the people's will to move beyond the every-man-for-himself state of nature. They are not the ones to pass judgment on how free a civilized society might be, since their idea will always be close to the wilderness. Some editor in Albany may have thought it would amuse readers to see the state scolded this way, but the only thing funny about the story is Mercatus's assumption that it should be taken seriously.

22 March 2009

The Worst Dictators

Parade magazine, that little Sunday supplement that you find inside some newspapers, has published its annual list of the world's worst dictators. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe tops the list, taking a big jump from sixth place last year, while the 2008 champion, Kim Jong Il, slips to third place due to rumors of failing health. Parade ranks dictators by repression of civil liberties, extent of the ruler's absolute power, and the misery suffered by his people. Mugabe has certainly run his country's economy into the ground, but it seems late to dub him the worst dictator after he's just agreed to share power with the major opposition leader. You might not trust Mugabe's word, but any sharing of power should knock him down a few pegs on the list, unless you interpret "worst dictator" in a different but equally valid way as the one least successful at consolidating or retaining absolute power. Likewise, something seemed wrong about putting Hu Jintao of China in sixth place on the current list. The People's Republic is certainly still a repressive regime, but as I understand it no one person in the current government is a dictator in the way Chairman Mao was.

For some reason the list puts me in an irreverent mood. I couldn't help wondering whether the criteria that identify the worst dictators can also tell us which ones are the world's best. More seriously, I think the American obsession with dictators obscures the real problems many countries have. Our mindset encourages a belief that any nation's (Iraq's, for example) problems might be solved simply by removing the evil ruler, as if there are all sorts of creative forces in any country that are just held back by artificial obstacles like tyrants or (as some would say in America) taxes. But if history were so simple we should never see dictators. Individual evil alone can't explain their recurrence through history. Making lists like the magazine's is no more constructive than this week's list of hottest hotties. What are Parade's readers going to do about it all, after all? Write to the President and ask for war? Probably not this year -- so Mr. Mugabe can breathe easy on that front, at least.

20 March 2009

Voting With Money?

The stock market closed down by about 127 points today. Does that result reflect disapproval by Wall Street of the "bonus tax" voted by the House of Representatives yesterday? Does it reflect anxiety on the part of investors over the uncertainty of their winnings should Congress resume its taxing ways? These are questionable questions to ask, but I sometimes hear or read people saying that a given day's poor performance on the stock exchange, or a bear market tendency over days or weeks, is the market's vote of no-confidence in the President's economic policies.That would be an absurd idea if I didn't have a guilty suspicion that it might be true.

Under normal circumstances the price of stock in any given company should, in an ideal stock market, reflect the market's considered judgment of the company's value. It should be based on the company's performance and its sales prospects, and nothing else. But people in America, and especially those inclined to speculate in stocks, have grown accustomed to the idea that spending money is a form of political speech. In the marketplace of political ideas, the Supreme Court has said that donating money to a candidate is the same, as far as the First Amendment is concerned, as making a speech for him. The market mentality may encourage the belief that any kind of spending might be a political statement. Republicans have embraced this idea by insinuating that each day's trading is a fresh vote of confidence in the Obama administration. How hard is it to believe that some of the traders might take this talk seriously? Couldn't some of them believe that they might influence the administration to adopt policies more favorable to Wall Street by demonstrating, through selling stock and driving the market down, that only be doing so can Obama restore market confidence? Would they dare play chicken with the stock market to get their way? It sounds irrational, but aren't we in the middle of what used to be called a "panic?"

Given the possibility, if not the plausibility of such a strategy, let's remind ourselves that Wall Street is not a branch of the American government. The government is no more accountable to the stock market as an entity than it is to individual traders in their capacity as citizens on Election Day. The market's panicky fits should be ignored as often as other irrational outbursts from the people in general. Unfortunately, the news media conditions us to treat the Dow Jones numbers as accurate measurements of the nation's economic health, as if they measured something as objective as pulse rate or blood pressure. But there's nothing objective about the stock market at work, and the notion that the government must strive to please Wall Street is as loathsome as any demand that it serve a "special interest." The brokers may not be the best judges of the economy. After all, they're the ones who valued stocks so high so short a time ago. For politicians interested in the well being of all Americans, it may be an obligation to ignore the stock market, unless they can figure out for themselves what the market is really saying.

19 March 2009

Reason and Religion the Ratzinger Way

During his African visit Pope Benedict has found a fortunate country, Cameroon, where Christians, Muslims and animists manage to coexist. No one group is a majority, though Christians (combining Catholics and a growing Protestant population) are the largest cohort by a good margin. The sight moved him to this commentary:

My friends, I believe a particularly urgent task of religion today is to unveil the vast potential of human reason, which is itself God’s gift and which is elevated by revelation and faith. Belief in the one God, far from stunting our capacity to understand ourselves and the world, broadens it. Far from setting us against the world, it commits us to it.

We are called to help others see the subtle traces and mysterious presence of God in the world which he has marvellously created and continually sustains with his ineffable and all-embracing love. Although his infinite glory can never be directly grasped by our finite minds in this life, we nonetheless catch glimpses of it in the beauty that surrounds us. When men and women allow the magnificent order of the world and the splendour of human dignity to illumine their minds, they discover that what is "reasonable" extends far beyond what mathematics can calculate, logic can deduce and scientific experimentation can demonstrate; it includes the goodness and innate attractiveness of upright and ethical living made known to us in the very language of creation.

This insight prompts us to seek all that is right and just, to step outside the restricted sphere of our own self-interest and act for the good of others. Genuine religion thus widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentically human culture. It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith, but also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason’s full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.

A lot of this depends on what the Pope means by religion. Of course, he said "genuine religion," which leaves him the usual opening of the ideologue. You know how this works. The Marxist-Leninist looks upon the disasters of the Soviet Union and says it wasn't "real" Marxism. Libertarians dodge the carnage of every business cycle and tell us that depressions are proof that "real" capitalism hasn't been in effect. So Benedict would probably tell you, and mean it, that the Crusades didn't represent "real" religion. That might even apply to the Inquisition. Apologists for Islam adopt the same strategy.

As for his last claim, it depends on what Ratzinger means by "reason's full potential," and he hinted at that earlier in the excerpt. In his view, reason needs to get beyond math, logic and science, and must do so for the sake of "upright and ethical living," which in his view requires taking something on faith. I suppose that faith in man in general is a precondition of civilization, but Benedict, being a Catholic, has to bring revelation into it. It's one thing to have faith in people, another to accept on their word alone that some scripture is the indisputable dictate of the ruler of the universe. So it sounds like the Pope believes that reason achieves its full potential by contradicting itself. Or maybe his remarks were mistranslated, but I doubt this.

18 March 2009

Overheard on the Bus: 18 March

Driver: Don't talk about that AIG on my bus. That topic just makes me angry and I don't want to be angry.
Passenger 1: What's AIG?
Passenger 2: That's her insurance.
Driver: And our 401K and everything else.
Passenger 2: Ten years ago they was saying your money's safe with us.
Passenger 1: What happened to their money?
Passenger 2: Probably in Sweden. One of those Swiss banks.
Passenger 1: I heard they were going after those banks, too.
Passenger 2: That's right, they can't hide their money in those banks no more. The government's going after those Swedish banks. Obama told them, you don't give back 100% of those bonuses, we're going after you.
Passenger 1: Why are they getting money anyway?
Passenger 2: Because of President Bush. That was in his stimulus plan. But we need to have everybody in the country go down to Washington.
Passenger 1: Why?
Passenger 2: Not to the White House, but to AIG.
Driver: They'll just say they don't have the money. Even Donald Trump says he's bankrupt.
Passenger 1: Donald Trump?
Driver: I didn't say Ivana Trump.
Passenger 1: But isn't he like, the billionaire?
Driver: He ain't bankrupt.
Passenger 1: He's got those casinos, hotels.
Passenger 2: That TV show.
Passenger 1: If he's bankrupt it must be really bad.
Driver. He's got that money tied up. He's got that money so tied up he looks like a pretzel.
Passenger 1: Really?
Driver: His money's so tied up he looks like a pretzel....

17 March 2009

Are Americans THAT Stupid?

I was just reading Jedediah Purdy's new book A Tolerable Anarchy, which is an interesting essay on Americans' evolving notions of "freedom." It's a relatively small book that's chock-full of ideas that I may address later, but something Purdy mentioned nearly made my eyes bug out. He cited an opinion poll taken in October 2000 in which 19% of the people surveyed believed that they were in the top 1% income bracket. Combined, he writes, 40% of the people polled believe they're in the richest 1% or soon will be.

Following my current practice, I tried to track down the original poll data online. I haven't found it yet, but I found this blog article from 2004 that describes the poll finding as an "urban legend." The basis of the writer's debunking effort is the apparent fact that the poll didn't ask participants directly if they were among the richest 1%. Instead, the pollsters asked if participants thought that a tax cut proposed by presidential candidate George W. Bush, and described as benefiting the richest 1%, would benefit them. To that question, 19% said yes. The blogger acknowledges that there's room to interpret the result the way many people have, but also notes that the response reflects respondents' aspirations. Some may have said the tax cut would benefit them if they expected to join the richest 1%. The blogger, however, doesn't address the larger number later cited by Purdy, which includes those who expect to join the richest 1% as a separate category.Despite that, I'd probably agree that, if you asked these people directly whether they were in the richest 1%, probably less than 19% would have said yes.

Nevertheless, the poll reflects some mass failure to grasp exactly how rich the richest are in this country. Since we should presume that the respondents had some realistic sense of their own income, their responses can only mean that they didn't understand just how unequal American society has become through the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years. Ego and greed probably also factor into the response.
* * *
Ernest Hemingway attributed the phrase "the rich are different" to F. Scott Fitzgerald in a fictional anecdote in the original version of the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." The story sets Fitzgerald up for a punch line when the person he's speaking with responds, "Yes, they have more money." Hemingway's point is to debunk the idea that rich folk have some special qualities of character that either explain or result from their wealth. But isn't it possible, in a way that a best-selling literary lion like Hemingway would have a hard time understanding, that "the rich" could at some point have so much more money than the rest of us that they do become essentially "different?" Many Americans don't yet think so, or didn't back in 2000. But there are signs, particularly the outbreaks of outrage at every new announcement of bonuses paid to bailed-out executives, that people are beginning to understand the difference.

Idiot of the Week Nominee: Joseph Ratzinger

Ratzinger is the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church under the name Benedict XVI. Although he is also officially the Bishop of Rome, he is a German and the successor of a Pole. Elderly but active, he's currently visiting Africa, where he told reporters that distributing condoms would not alleviate the continent's AIDS epidemic. Condoms, he suggested, would actually make conditions worse.

The Vatican's position is that the only foolproof way to avoid sexually-transmitted AIDS is to abstain from sex. While this may be true, it is also intellectually convenient for "Benedict" and other traditionalist Christians who oppose non-procreative sex regardless of its public-health consequences. From their mouths, the argument sounds more self-serving than practical. The Pope's bias against casual sex also explains his otherwise inexplicable protest against condoms. Africans already have a hard enough time getting men to use condoms, from the reports I've read, without this interloper sticking his mitre into their intimate affairs.

Ratzinger has made some clueless calls lately, like revoking the excommunication of an unrepentatnt Holocaust denier, but he denies that his age or his office isolate him from the realities of the world outside the Vatican. Still, his is a presumptuous job based on a mythical assertion of authority, conferring upon him powers whose reality depends on faith. Sometimes the thoughts that emanate from that office coincide with common sense, as when Benedict and his predecessor have spoken out against the Iraq war and the excesses of modern capitalism. But most of the time a Pope making sense is probably a matter of pure luck -- a miracle, one might say. It didn't happen this time.

16 March 2009

"Reimagining Socialism," Within Limits

Since some people are quick to say that Socialism is upon us with the advent of President Obama, The Nation magazine decided to round up some real socialists to see what they thought of the current prospects for their movement. The discussion is led by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr., who take a pessimistic view of general conditions.

What is most galling, from a socialist perspective, is the dawning notion that capitalism may be leaving us with less than it found on the planet, about 400 years ago, when the capitalist mode of production began to take off. Marx imagined that industrial capitalism had potentially solved the age-old problem of scarcity and that there was plenty to go around if only it was equitably distributed. But industrial capitalism -- with some help from industrial communism -- has brought about a level of environmental destruction that threatens our species along with countless others.

In political terms, Ehrenreich and Fletcher take this to mean that socialists can't simply promise "more" to the working class. But if they can't promise material benefits, socialists can at least promise to make a real effort to solve the world's problems. That is, they can promise a planned economy, a taboo concept for free-marketers. But look what their purposeful lack of planning has gotten us, the authors note. "The absence of a plan, or at least some sort of deliberative process for figuring out what to do, is no longer an option," they write.

Ehrenreich and Fletcher promptly add that they, as individuals, don't have a plan, either for solving the current crisis or for creating a system for formulating a plan. The best they can offer is some enlarged form of participatory democracy. "Any system for mass democratic planning will be messy," they predict. "It will stumble; it will be wrong sometimes; and there will be a lot of running back to the drawing board." But they depend on some renewed and global sense of solidarity to hold the project together through all the bumps and potholes.

The magazine printed four responses to the original article. Immanuel Wallerstein, a historian of "world systems," predicts a competition between socialists and post-capitalists to establish a new system. Capitalism as we know it is played out, he writes, "not because it can't guarantee welfare for the vast majority (it could never do that) but because it can no longer ensure that capitalists will have the endless accumulation of capital that is their raison d'etre." He closes with vague exhortations:

Promote intellectual clarity about the fundamental choice. Then organize at a thousand levels and in a thousand ways to push things in the right direction. The primary things to do is to encourage the decommodification of as much as we can decommodify. The second [priority] is to experiment with all kinds of new structures that make better sense in terms of global justice and ecological sanity. And the third thing we must do is to encourage sober optimism. Victory is far from certain. But it is possible.

Bill McKibben restates the ecological pessimism of Ehrenreich and Fletcher. He questions his own socialism, since that "faith," in his word, was "rooted in an earlier moment ... a moment when the problem was growth and how best to make it happen and share its fruits." Marxism, he claims, runs on fossil fuels as much as capitalism does, and with oil and other resources declining, life "is necessarily going to be tougher." He proposes a de-globalization of the economy, "reducing the inherent vulnerabilities that go with a heavily globalized economy." He'd have governments encourage more people to take up farming while cultivating solidarity after decades of "hyper-individualism."

Rebecca Solnit chides some of the previous authors for failing to notice that "there was and is a revolution, just not one that looks the way socialists and a lot of '60s radicals imagined it." The right kind of revolution, she suggests, is one that doesn't bother trying to take over existing states, but circumvents them instead "to go straight to becoming other people doing other things without state permission." She points to ongoing experiments in "guerrilla agriculture" in inner cities and elsewhere as commendable exercises in local self-sufficiency and solidarity building. Her ideal sounds like de-globalization as well, with an emphasis on "direct democracy." She admits that state power may be the only force that can "drag us back out of what the corporations and international markets dragged us into," but once the immediate crisis is past, she'd like to see socialists think small, since "big beyond accountability or comprehension got crazy as well as ugly."

Pakistani socialist Tariq Ali (an enlightening guide to politics in that country) warns comrades not to underestimate capitalism's resiliency. Capitalism has a capacity to deal with crises, he contends, since crises "are part of the deadly logic of an economy based on a state-buttressed market system." Capitalism has been counted out before, but has gotten up more often than Rocky Balboa. That's my analogy, not Ali's, but it expresses his point.

Capitalism won't be finished "until the emergence of a viable sociopolitical and economic alternative, perceived by a majority as such," Ali writes. Given that socialism has supposedly been that alternative for more than 150 years, that's bad news for socialists. But like several other writers, Ali looks to South America for inspiration, from the Porto Allegre based World Social Forums to the populist movements in Bolivia and Venezuela, where governments "represented a new form of radical social democracy that seeks to combine state, socialized, cooperative, small-scale private and individual enterprises. He hopes that Hispanics in the U.S. will be inspired by South America's examples to press for reforms here, but he admits that this depends on enough being inspired to counter all the emigres who come here to denounce those countries as dictatorships.

There are four more responses online, but there's little different in them apart from a prediction that labor unrest should hit the U.S. by the end of Obama's first term, on an analogy with labor's delayed reaction to the Great Depression. The overall tone is perhaps too modest, since these socialists don't feel capable of offering people more than "fairness" or "equality" while most likely demanding from them self-sacrifice, renunciation of wants, and scaling down of ambitions. Would it really be enough to sell all this to tell people that "we're all in this together?" Or do socialists have to risk embarrassment by actually promising people "more" -- not just better lives than now, but better than before the crisis? Maybe not materially better in every way, but better in some way that would justify promising socialism as a positively life-transforming experience? But here's where my modesty kicks in: I'm not sure what they could propose, or how they should propose it. But unless the only viable alternative is a return to the Dark Ages -- which would still appeal to some people -- I don't see Americans rushing to embrace what these socialists offer. But all that means is that they've got to keep trying.

Overheard on the Bus

The girl got on at State Street. I didn't notice her until she was seated behind me. Then she started sobbing. She was sitting next to somebody, and when he got up to get off, she told him that someone had stolen her ID at the parole office. He got off without responding. In a moment she was snuffling and sobbing again. Then she calmed herself to ask a passenger across the aisle if he had a stick of chewing gum. Her mouth was dry. He gave her some gum.

By the time we got to Watervliet a woman a few seats ahead of me recognized the girl.
"Hey, how are you doing?"
"Pretty bad. I didn't do anything, but I feel terrible."
"Where are you getting off in Troy?"
"I'm not."
"You getting off here in Watervliet?"
"No, I've got to go to Albany. That's why I'm here."

She got on the bus in Albany, and it was going to Troy.

"Do you need someplace to stay? I got my own apartment in Cohoes. It was me and my boyfriend but he's gonna be in jail a while."
"Oh, how long?"
"Well, they made him do the detox so it'll probably be around a year. So you're welcome to stay with me if you need a place to stay. I like having a friend around."
"Do you still have those Xanax for two dollars?"
"I have to get them from the woman. Call me. Make sure you call me....What was your name again?"

The bus had reached the girl's stop and she got off. As we pulled away, another passenger said, "She looking for more drugs and she messed up already."

11 March 2009

Post-Amoklauf Idiocy

Reason magazine has a rapid response to this week's mass shootings, the editors no doubt realizing that something had to be said quickly against gun control. So what they said, in effect, was that if the kid in Wessenden could grab his parents' guns and run amok under Germany's existing strong gun-control laws, then they must do little good, and stronger laws would do little good here. Of course, the writer has only the Washington Post's word that Germany's laws are "strict." Perhaps they're not strict enough, but Reason is easily satisfied if the words appear to prove their point.Also check out the comments, including the predictable tripe from the cowboy wannabes who imagine themselves capable of stopping a determined killer. How many of them have ever faced such a person? Unless any of these blowhards have been in Iraq or Afghanistan recently, I suggest that they watch what they say. You never know if your actions will live up to your words.

Way to Vet, Obama (Resumed)

Amid the gunfire and stock market hysteria people may not have noticed the fall of another Obama administration appointee. This was Charles W. Freeman, who had been named to chair the National Intelligence Council. That appointment caused alarm in pro-Israeli circles, as Freeman has long been a critic of Israel, as well as a patron of Israeli Lobby authors Mearshimer and Walt. Some people may stop here and fulminate against said lobby or their neocon allies for driving Freeman from a deserved post, but the more one learns about Freeman the more dubious a choice he seems to have been.

He was Nixon's interpreter during the president's famous 1972 trip to China, and George HW Bush's ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, and seems more than naturally inclined to take the Saudi view of things. Some have also accused him of being too sympathetic toward China, but there's not as much evidence of Chinese patronage of Freeman's various organizations as there appears to be in the Saudi case. In any event, there's no point in crying over the influence of an Israeli lobby, as Freeman has himself, if the only alternative offered so far is an anti-Israel or a pro-Saudi lobby. Obama's goal should not be to replace pro-Israeli views with pro-Arab ones, but to adopt an objective (rather than moralistic) view of United States interests in the Middle East, as well as a willingness to damn all sides if necessary. How such a consistent Republican came into Obama's orbit is mysterious, though the first President Bush's reputation as a Middle East "realist" may have made one of his men attractive to the new regime. Obama's National Intelligence Director seems to have had primary responsibility for choosing Freeman, but the President is responsible for his man's decisions. Freeman was probably not as much a bonehead call as some of Obama's other aborted appointees, but this is another case where it's hard to see the "change" we were all promised last year.


That's what the Germans call it when someone goes on an American-style shooting rampage -- he "runs amok." As if in a mad echo of last night's news from Geneva County, Alabama, where a man killed nine people and himself, a German kid shot up his high school in Wissenden this morning. He chose not to make his stand there, but fled the scene. The polizei caught up with him, and he apparently died in a shootout after taking out two more victims.

The German crime more closely fits the pattern we're used to. The Alabaman doesn't seem to have been interested in making his last stand in some great public space like a school, but went from place to place settling scores or indulging impulses, killing both relatives and random people. Rather than emulate some deviant pattern, he more likely went singularly mad. As for the German, I fear he embodies the globalization of the American pathology, like the Finnish kid (if I remember his nationality correctly) from some months ago who openly admired the Columbine killers. The odd detail about the German story is that the kid, in making his getaway, hijacked a car, but left the driver and passengers in the road unhurt. Perhaps he was replaying the scene where the Terminator merely throws a driver out the door of a truck, saying only "Get out" and not bothering to shoot him. Or maybe his killing frenzy was spent, to be resparked only when the cops closed in.

As it happens, I have in my hand today the Library of America's True Crime anthology of nonfiction writing. The book includes an account of Howard Unruh, whom the editors identify as the first modern "mass murderer." He was a World War II veteran who collected weapons and nursed grudges against his neighbors in Camden, New Jersey. Nearly sixty years ago, on September 6, 1949, Unruh strolled about the neighborhood, going into shops and shooting people. He killed twelve people before running out of ammo and surrendering in a cloud of tear gas. He told police that he had grown tired of neighbors "making derogatory remarks about my character." He has lived to a ripe old age in a mental hospital. Unruh reminds me of the late Alabaman in his combination of targeted and random killings, but we can only go so far in forcing these killers into some theoretical pattern. How do you explain a man going berserk in 1949, long before all the decadent trends in society and culture that people like to blame for modern mass murders? How can you attempt generalized explanations when Unruh alone, in his generation of trained killers, did something on this scale?

All we can note is that none of these people would have done as much damage as they did if they didn't have guns. And for those who suggest that guns are the answer to the problems guns raise, here's a detail from the Unruh story. Frank Engel, a tavern keeper, saw what was going on, grabbed his pistol and went to his apartment window

He saw Unruh pause for a moment in a narrow alley between the cobbler's shop and a little two-story house. He aimed and fired. Unruh stopped for just a second. The bullet had hit, but he did not seem to mind, after the initial brief shock. He headed toward the corner drug store, and Engel did not fire again.

"I wish I had," he said later, "I could have killed him then. I could have put a half-dozen shots into him. I don't know why I didn't do it."

Unruh killed six more people after Engel's intervention. A lot of modern gun enthusiasts offer a lot of big talk about what they'd do if they found themselves in scenes like this, but I suspect most of them would act like Engel -- though I wonder how many would even get one shot off before freezing. As the gun nuts say, "guns don't kill people, people do," and killing people takes a certain mentality, one suspects, that doesn't come naturally to most of us. That's why we try to retroactively psychoanalyze those who do kill. Gun ownership is no guarantee that random people will have either the skill or the courage to intervene effectively when someone runs amok. But if some people can kill more readily than Frank Engel, how close are such folks to turning into Howard Unruhs, killing when they feel like it? Society's imperative should always be to limit the damage such people might do. Encouraging more people to own and carry guns is like telling them to fight fires with gasoline.

10 March 2009

The "Fun Tax"

New Yorkers are alarmed at the prospect of a new amusement tax that would be imposed on everything from movie tickets to bowling games. Opponents are calling the proposed levy a "fun tax" to make it sound more awful, but if it's a fun tax, it isn't even anything new. How do things stand now? People are screaming about a tax on movie tickets, but the same people take home DVDs that they paid sales tax on. They scream about a tax on bowling, but how many have game boxes of some sort at home, that they paid tax on, and play games on them that they paid tax on? So by all means protest. There's room for debate over an amusement tax. But don't bamboozle people by acting as if there's never been a tax on "fun" before.

09 March 2009

Americans Without Religion.

The Associated Press, and by extension many newspapers, has made a big deal out of the results of the American Religious Identification Survey for 2008, which reports that a higher-than-ever number of Americans claim to have "no religion." While this is true based on the survey's findings, there's been little comment on the apparent fact that the growth of "no religion" has slowed since the 1990s. Previous surveys noted a big jump from 8.2% of the sample avowing "no religion" in 1990 to 14.2% saying the same in 2000. The figure for 2008 is only 15%, an increase of less than 1% over eight years compared to a 6% jump during the previous decade.

These findings suggest that the best-selling so-called militant atheists have had little real success in persuading the public. People did quite well on their own in shucking off religion during the 1990s. It may be, however, that Christopher Hitchens and his friends may deserve credit for there being any increase in "no religion" at all in this decade. As Brian Williams has just said as I write, "people turn to faith in tough times," and in many ways the decade of George W. Bush and the War on Terror has been a tougher time than the decade of Bill Clinton and the Internet Boom. It shouldn't surprise us if fewer people have found the confidence to do without the solace of religion since 2001 than during the past decade. Nor should it surprise us if "no religion" actually declines during the current economic troubles.

"No religion" begs a question, of course. All the phrase really means is that the respondent doesn't consider himself a member of an organized church. Delving deeper into the 2008 survey reveals that only 2.3% of respondents were willing to say that "There is no such thing" as God. Presuming that all these respondents fit into the "no religion" category, that leaves 12.7% who have "no religion" but aren't necessarily irreligious. As it happens, 12.1% of respondents say that "There is a higher power, but no personal God." All that means for certain is that they're not Jews or Christians -- Muslims being questionable about whether Allah is "personal." An additional 6.1% of those asked refused to answer the question. One wonders why.

Looking here, we see that the number of respondents who explicitly identify themselves as "atheist" has grown from 0.4% of the survey in 2000 to 0.75 in 2008. That's a near doubling, and perhaps the best-sellers can take credit for this, but notice that the numbers don't match the number who say there's no such thing as God. The discrepancy is probably explained by the atheist equivalent of "no religion:" an unwillingness to be identified with established atheist organizations. It may make some people feel better to learn that, according to this survey, there are more atheists than Muslims in the U.S., and that atheist numbers are growing faster than those of the notoriously prolific Muslim populations.

Probably the safest conclusion to take from the survey is that a certain libertarian attitude is creeping into American spirituality as more Americans deny anyone else's authority to dictate their metaphysical musings. In a way, we have more people trying to figure things out for themselves, without necessarily considering that sometimes there's nothing to figure out.

The Workplace: All Against All

The government reports a record number of workplace bias claims as employees scramble to save themselves from waves of layoffs. More people claim that they are being cast off without justification. The numbers are up in all categories of bias claim, including race and sex, but the biggest growth has been in complaints against age discrimination and "retaliation," which presumably means people getting laid off because others have grudges against them. That last category probably includes a lot of young, healthy white males, the group otherwise least likely to have cause for complaint. Discontent is inevitable, since the only absolutely fair way of reducing a workforce, by lot, goes against the business imperative to maintain efficiency. Those who have the power to lay off others have to do so pragmatically, but an employer's standard of pragmatism will differ from that of an employee, who has his own survival to consider rather than the company's. This is probably a time when Republicans would be right to say that we can't legislate fairness. As long as companies must lay off people, people are going to get laid off who don't think they should. Government's business is what should be done with the surplus manpower, and its solution is stimulus hiring. Republicans complain about this, as if they think the unemployed should tighten their belts indefinitely until some entrepreneurial genius, sufficiently inspired by tax cuts, comes up with a brilliant idea -- and ideally until they learn better than to make uppity claims about wages, health care, etc. Meanwhile, bias claims hint at a workforce at each other's throats, fighting to cling to the lifeboats, without considering whether the system might really be biased against the working class as a whole.

08 March 2009

The Future of Newspapers: Information as Private Property?

Amid the death knells sounded recently for the newspaper business, here's a comment from a business-oriented magazine that endorses the conventional wisdom that the medium's only future is online, but with the caveat that publishers must find a way to establish property rights to the information they gather in order to survive. The author suggests that making news free on web sites is undermining newspapers' only hope, but notes that "monetizing" information will certainly meet resistance from Internet users who insist that "information wants to be known." Publishers and editors are already arguing asserting a kind of labor theory of value, pointing out that "information" only comes into being through arduous research and reporting, and that the people who do the investigation are entitled to property rights and proper compensation for their trouble. The article ends with a harsh warning that the demise of newspapers would create a vacuum most likely to be filled by a state-run news service -- something to be abhorred. That sounds like scaremongering, since TV would still be out there, but the author clearly wants to shock online readers out of their complacency.

Many newspapers have already tried pay-for-access online, and most retreated back to free access before the latest steep drops in advertising revenue forced them to reconsider. Charging a fee makes sense if only because you have to pay for the print version of the paper already. The problem the first time was that publishers never made pay-for-access a universal policy. I don't know if there's any governing body that could do so, though I suppose it would go a long way if the Associated Press and other wire services insisted on the policy. Newsgathering has always depended upon the patronage of paying readers, so the idea that the Internet could become a news medium that could match newspapers' resources simply on the basis of ad revenues is really a myth.

Even if publishers succeed in monetizing news, the online marketplace differs dramatically from any locality where print editions are sold. In a typical town a local paper competes with papers covering the same general area, along with major regional papers (those from New York City in my case) and the national papers (USA Today and the Wall Street Journal). By comparison, the Internet is a free-for-all, with every paper in the country and many around the world competing for readers' loyalty. If a user must choose whom to pay, he may decide based on his interest in purely local news, or if his interests are broader, he'll more likely decide based on political affinity, subscribing to a "liberal" or "conservative" publication. The result could be a further polarization of public opinion, with the emergence of national online "papers" with indelible ideological stamps on them, and more people ignoring opposite points of view if they prefer exclusively partisan content to the print medium's customary mix of viewpoints. That would be unfortunate, but it might be the only way that publishers survive. If so, the burden will be on someone to come up with better ideologies, and better ways to sell them.

05 March 2009

Catholics vs. Creationists?

The Darwin bicentennial year reveals strange alliances. The Vatican is hosting a scholarly conference to commemorate Darwin, and apparently advocates of creationism and "intelligent design" are not welcome. As this story relates, the organizers want the conference to have a scientific orientation, and don't think that creationists or intelligent-design advocates have the scientific credentials to participate. The Vatican's current position is that evolution need not contradict God's primary role in creation, and one cardinal apparently went out of his way to scoff at American fundamentalists who cling to such superstitions as a six-day Creation. A Muslim creationist tried to ask a provocative question at the conference, but was shown the door.

The odd thing about this story is the excluded parties' belief that they were shut out of the conference at the instigation of the Templeton Foundation, which partly bankrolled the event. The Templeton Foundation is a think-tank dedicated to reconciling science with religion. The funny thing to me about their alleged role in this story is that, while the intelligent-design faction thinks the Templetons are excluding them out of some scientific dogmatism, the so-called militant atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins, accuse the Templetons of using their money to co-opt scientists into endorsing religion.

This coincidence might make some people think that the Templetons must be doing something good if both "extremes" dislike them, but I want to resist that conclusion. The "middle of the road" may be an appealing image or concept for some people, but men, like chickens, are supposed to cross roads, to get from one side to another. Science and religion, in the broadest sense of either word, may not be irreconcilable, but if they are, insisting on perpetual compromise for the sake of moderation may be just like playing in traffic. Saving a showdown for another time, however, we may as well applaud the Templetons and the Roman Catholic Church for not being as stupid or crazy as they could be, or as some are.

04 March 2009

Idiots of the Week

It's a tie! On one side, the Florida woman who reportedly called for 911 assistance because her local McDonald's ran out of Chicken McNuggets and the counter person dared suggest an alternate meal. On the other, people across America who saw this stupid story as one more excuse to generalize about an entire race of people. Yes, Latreasa Goodwin happens to be black. This led to the following deductions from some of the anonymous analysts of the "Rants and Raves" page of the Albany Craigslist site.

I know! They just love to embarass themselves, don't they? McNuggetts? Oh, sorry, we're all out. Better call 911 this be an emergency! Fuckin' "Mac-Donalds" don't care 'bout no black folk. Yeah, that's acceptable behavior. And you wonder why people feel the way they do. I'll have the Tawana Brawley Happy Meal please.

Yeah, I saw the thing about the McNigger on TMZ.com. Funniest part is that she only ordered a 4 piece. Not even a 10 piece! It says they offered her a McDouble (dollar menu) so obviously she only ordered the 4 piece. Fucking pathetic, dialing 911 over a dollar. They really are fucking animals.

At least this was what was left when I checked the page at 9:00 p.m. On Craigslist a quorum of people can flag any post they find offensive and make it vanish. It makes you wonder what it would take to get a post flagged if these are still standing. But the "Rants and Raves" page is one of those places where, ideally, people should express themselves unconstrained by normal rules of decorum. In practice, this means an indulgence in hate, even if it's only a rude rebellion against perceived obligations to respect people who haven't earned it in the eyes of geniuses like the two writers quoted above. The page is also a haven for trolls, and these posts may have been offered in the trollish spirit, just to see if they make anyone mad. But the comments are too self-evidently stupid to inspire indignation. They are either funny in an unintended way, or sad. You can probably find similar stuff in your own neighborhoods. Figure it out for yourselves.

03 March 2009

Michael Steele's Master

The chairman of the Republican National Committee has apologized to Rush Limbaugh for describing him as an "entertainer." This seems fair to me, since I don't find Limbaugh very entertaining, but the abjectness of the apology is pretty disgusting, since it comes as further acknowledgment that the radio bloviator is the de facto leader of the political opposition in the United States. Democrats are glad to acknowledge this. They think it helps them to make Limbaugh, who is probably one of the most hated men in the country (and probably one of the most popular as well), the public face of the Republican party and the conservative movement. He has just the sort of porcine face and chortling manner that makes liberals' blood boil. He's the sort whom people can easily imagine laughing at other people's suffering, -- and I've long thought that the idea of rich, powerful people laughing at them (look at a lot of left-wing editorial cartoons) fuels a lot of liberal anger -- if the term "liberal anger" isn't an oxymoron. Many liberals, I suspect, have a masochistic relationship with Limbaugh. I've always assumed that his huge ratings reflect the fact that lots of liberals listen to his show in order to get mad at him. Liberal radio shows have never come close to Limbaugh's popularity, most likely because Republicans and conservatives don't have that same impulse to check out what the other side is saying, even if only to get angry at it. If I'm right, liberals have themselves to blame, in part, for Limbaugh's power and influence -- so I suppose it's only fair if they exploit it toward their ends.

In Praise of Wal-Mart?

So what if Wal-Mart crushes local businesses, exploits foreign sweatshop labor and treats workers like crap? It's stock is still strong! That's the attitude of one MSNBC market analyst, who notes that the chain's low prices and retail monopoly in many places make it as sure a thing to invest in as you can find in these tough times. Such rosy commentary reminds me of a dystopian vision I once had in which workers everywhere would be paid in Wal-Mart scrip rather than coin of the realm, consolidating the chain's status as the national if not global "company store." Is that scenario more or less likely now?

For everyone with qualms about Wal-Mart's dominance, it seems, there's a free-market fanatic to say, "Well, if you don't like 'em, shop somewhere else." I don't know if that's an option everywhere you find a "Wally World" store, and if it isn't, our theoretical fanatic will probably say that the market or the consumers have spoken. You can see some of that attitude in the reader comments on Charley Blaine's article. That's the poison of consumerism at work; it convinces you that you don't have to take anything into consideration other than the costs and benefits to yourself as a shopper. Speak against that mentality and you're accused of opposing free-market competition -- but if the competition between a local store, or even a relatively local chain, and an entity with resources like Wal-Mart isn't fair by any measure, how free is it? But never mind that, our fanatic says: think of the lower prices! It makes you wonder how much Americans will endure in return for lower prices. I wouldn't want to venture a guess.

02 March 2009

Does the Press Hurt Democracy?

The latest issue of The New Republic features several alarmist items about the decline of the newspaper industry and its possible consequences for the nation. Predictions run from the further dumbing-down or polarization of the American public to the spread of political corruption in the absence of the one effective journalistic watchdog. The editors are particularly disturbed about a Pew Research Center survey taken in 2007, in which 36% of respondents believed that the press "hurt democracy." I decided to take a closer look.

The survey shows that overall distrust of the news media has fluctuated between 1985, when 23% of those polled said the press "hurt democracy," to 2007. The peak of distrust, by this measure, actually came in 1999, when 38% of participants agreed with the premise. That year showed distrust by Democrats and Independents at its peak, most likely due to anger over coverage of President Clinton's scandals. Democratic anger subsided afterward from a peak of 36%, but has picked up since 2004, probably due to frustration over George W. Bush's reelection and an increased conviction that the "Mainstream Media" was biased in favor of corporate and reactionary interests. Independent distrust ebbed at 22% in 2002, but has gone up past 30% since then. That's probably due to independents believing that the media have grown polarized by partisanship.

Even when Democratic and Independent anger at the media was at its peak, Republicans hated it more. Their 1999 figure was 39%, in this case most likely due to anger at Clinton escaping removal from office. The GOP mood cooled to a low of 31% in 2003, while W. was still popular, but shot up past 40% in 2005, and reached 48% in 2007. Here I'd guess the Republicans were blaming the media for the public turning against their President. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are also by far most likely to believe that the press is "often inaccurate," "politically biased in their reporting," and "too critical of America." Democrats have the low scores in all these categories. Pew also found that Republicans who considered Fox News as their main information source were much more likely to answer yes to all the above questions than Republicans who consulted other sources.

So while indifference to traditional news media like daily papers is a widespread phenomenon that probably crosses partisan and ideological lines, the outright hostility that so distresses The New Republic, itself a centrist journal bordering on neoliberalism, seems to be fueled mostly by reactionary anger at any entity that dares question the decisions or principles of the Republican party. The question probably should have been whether the press hurts the GOP rather than whether it hurts democracy. For that matter, whether democracy hurts the Republican party, or vice versa, might be interesting subjects for discussion. Still, distrust does seem to be growing everywhere. Whether that's inspiring people to turn to other news sources, or whether people distrust the established media more because they're already consulting alternative sources, is a question for another time.

The Homeless: A Republican Myth Debunked

Back at the turn of the millennium, as George W. Bush was about to take office, I recall Mr. Right and other Republicans commenting that now we would start to hear about the homeless again in a way we hadn't during the Clinton years. They were perpetuating an idea that dated back to the Reagan years, which was that the "liberal media" made more of the plight of the homeless when Republicans ran the country than when Democrats did. The implicit argument was that homelessness actually had little to do with Presidential policies, but that liberals publicized homelessness excessively during GOP administrations in order to make times look worse than they actually were, and to blame Republicans for homelessness in general.

A Democrat is President now, so according to Republican logic we shouldn't be seeing stories like this one in the media. Based on how Republicans interpret these stories, they must presume that Barack Obama has put these people out on the street. But I suspect we'll hear a different interpretation this time, something along the lines of the liberal media hyping homelessness in order to promote more "big government" stimulus spending over the principled objections of Republicans. Since Republicans need to believe that some powerful "elite" establishment is always conspiring against them, it should be no surprise if they contradict themselves while always trying to prove the same point.

As for the news itself, which suggests that bouts of homelessness will handicap children in school, the obvious answer is to create jobs and put parents to work so they can secure stable housing for their families. Some people are content to wait for the private sector to come up with brilliant ideas (inspired somehow by tax cuts)that might employ these people, but the nation isn't in a position to wait for entrepreneurial genius to strike like lightning. It's up to the public sector to create "shovel ready" jobs that will restore the nation's infrastructure. Critics complain that these wouldn't be career jobs and thus offer no long-term solutions, but the private sector hasn't been that great at creating career jobs itself in recent times, so what's the point? But as for the kids, there was a time when we could trust at least some of them to seek knowledge on their own. People like Abraham Lincoln were largely self-educated, for instance. But the nation has an interest in developing the maximum talent pool of intelligent youth, so anything that can be done to keep kids advancing through public schools with skills for modern times should be top priority today.