30 April 2009

Amoklauf on Wheels?

I don't trust my German enough to attempt to coin a word for today's vehicular mayhem in the Netherlands, and Dutch would be more appropriate, anyway. What we have here, from what I've heard, is the typical disgruntled guy who'd recently lost his job. Whether he was trying to do damage to the queen's tour bus or simply wanted to crash her party, I can't say. Don't be surprised, however, to hear sarcastic gun nuts say that this proves that we should ban cars.

Liberalism's Future

Liberals can be stereotyped as the people who can't help seeing both sides of every question, or those who are too easily impressed by other people's vehemence, but Alan Wolfe says they need more self-confidence and more pride in liberalism. Those are his parting words at the end of The Future of Liberalism, which is really more a statement of what liberalism is and has been than a program for the future. Because Wolfe identifies liberalism with a capacious openness, and as a proceduralist puts means before ends, it's kind of hard for him to have a program. The most he can do is offer suggestions on how to deal with the obvious issues of the future.

Openness comes into the picture when he discusses religion, immigration and globalization. Predictably enough, he comes down on the mean old atheists who can't see anything of value coming from religious faith. He knocks Hitchens, Dawkins et al for intolerant arrogance and makes much of the fact that some people are led to liberalism by religious conviction. Wolfe claims greater acquaintance with believers and from his experience argues that, in many cases, "their faith had made them far better people, bringing them out of lives of cynicism and loneliness into communion with others," adding, "A society without religious people of this sort would be far more illiberal than one with only a few of them." As for the other kind of religious folk, possibly the majority of them, Wolfe thinks they make good sparring partners. They "give liberals the opportunity to prove just how liberal they are, an opportunity that liberals would be foolish to sacrifice" (184-5).

As far as immigration is concerned, Wolfe at least acknowledges that openness should be mutual. Americans should be open to people from different cultures, but the newcomers should be open to their new host culture. "If the native-born refuse to reach out to newcomers, racism and xenophobia follow," he warns, "But if the newcomers do not reach out to the native-born, exclusion and isolation follow"(206). Wolfe disagrees with "multiculturalists" who believe in preserving the inviolate integrity of every different group, since everyone should be open to change. By extension, assimilation would also be a mutual process, with Americans learning something, one presumes, from Muslim cultures as Muslim immigrants Americanize themselves. In any event, Wolfe would refuse to dismiss any particular group as hopeless or worthless.

On a related point, Wolfe is more enthusiastic about globalization than some liberals. He believes it should be embraced (but regulated) because of the opportunities it creates for everyone. He seems to reject the idea that opportunity for foreigners is automatically a loss for Americans, but admits that globalization can be "as wrenching as it is liberating." Taking a utilitarian view, he suggests that more people on Earth are better off thanks to globalization than they were in the past, and that therefore globalization is good -- again, as long as it is wisely regulated with democratic input. Liberalism must be cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic, however, so denying opportunity to others to protect one's own would be taboo to Wolfe.

Alan Wolfe doesn't speak for an existing liberal establishment. He's tried to define what a true liberal movement should stand for, not what today's self-styled American liberals actually espouse. He sometimes sounds like what some would call a "neo-liberal," and takes positions most professed liberals would oppose, for instance favoring school choice for everyone as a matter of equality. Wolfe's book would be an admirable blueprint for a global liberal movement, but liberals in any given country must please their fellow citizens first in order to get political power. He makes a good case that liberals are almost automatically more competent rulers than Bushite republicans (Hurricane Katrina being exhibit A), but in the absence of a global parliament, liberals anywhere will have to compromise their cosmopolitan principles for the sake of national interests. A more realistic prediction of the future of liberalism would try to recommend the appropriate compromises, but Wolfe seems to prefer the ideal to the real when it comes to the present world. A book like this has its uses, but anyone who reads it must be prepared to argue with it -- and Wolfe, being a liberal, won't mind.

Idiocy Epidemic Hits Egypt

The Israeli public health bureaucracy is inadvertently getting its way as the World Health Organization has announced that it is going to stop using the "swine flu" name for the current virus. The organization reportedly made this decision in order to counter confusion over the public health risk presented by pigs. It's just as likely that the WHO has acted in order to minimize a public health risk to pigs. The announcement follows an order of the Egyptian government to slaughter the country's entire porcine population, even though there was no reason to believe that they carried the flu -- unless pigs have also been travelling to Mexico and back recently. I've also heard that many people are worried about contracting the swine flu by eating pork, as if it were "mad pig" disease.

The WHO has not taken up the Israeli suggestion of "Mexican flu" as a new name for the present epidemic. Instead, we'll all have to remember the dry, unevocative sobriquet of "H1N1 influenza A," which I suppose has the virtue of sounding less scary. Whether the public will embrace this tag is doubtful, but bureaucracies have etiquette to consider.

29 April 2009

Wisdom from Alan Wolfe

I'll have more to say later about the final chapters of The Future of Liberalism, but this quote from Alan Wolfe deserves to stand on its own. You'll find it on page 229.

"Government, in a nutshell, is a synonym for civilization. One can, if one
chooses, imagine a society without it -- this is the favorite pastime of
anarchism, the least important political philosophy of our time -- but the
moment one begins to picture a society in which human needs are met, there
one will find government."

A New "Brown Scare?"

Listen to some Republicans and other reactionaries, and you might believe that stories like this one from the current issue of Newsweek are part of the liberal establishment's attempt to demonize all opposition to the Obama administration. Ever since the appearance of a Homeland Security report this month discussing the possibility of veterans taking up with militia groups, right-wingers have sounded alarms against a new version of what some call a "Brown Scare." While the idea of a "Red Scare" is well known, a "Brown Scare" is less familiar, yet nearly as common, according to some historians. The original Brown Scare took place just before America's entry into World War II, and involved the demonization of anyone who opposed U.S. intervention in the European conflict. Such dissidents, best known now as "isolationists," were accused of being Nazi sympathizers, as some probably were. Other alleged instances of Brown Scares were during the Kennedy administration, when the media supposedly overhyped the menace of entities like the John Birch Society and still more radical groups, and during the Clinton years, when the threat of militias was supposedly blown out of proportion at the expense of more appropriate attention to Muslim groups. These episodes are called "Brown Scares" because they involve right-wing dissidents being equated with Nazis ("brown shirts.")

Sure enough, Newsweek puts white supremacists at the forefront of elements likely to be opposed to the Obama presidency. If anything, there's more emphasis on Klansmen and Nazis, or spinoffs of either, than on the militia bogeymen of the 1990s. You could argue that the article has too narrow a focus because of its concentration on racists, but the other groups will probably see it differently. Because Newsweek emphasizes white supremacists as the face of radical anti-Obamaism, others elements will complain that people will take them to be racists if they oppose Obama just as strongly on anti-liberal or anti-"New World Order" grounds. People like this probably expect to be demonized from the start and are perfectly capable of making any report fit into that scenario.

More conventional rightists have also complained about such reports, as if any attention to right-wing or racist extremism means taking the government's eye off the Islamic ball. A competent government ought to be capable of keeping track of more than one threat, however, and it must be remembered that the worst act of home-grown terrorism in this country's history was the work of a single extremist who was influenced by white supremacism and anti-statist beliefs. If some Americans want to make every Muslim an object of suspicion because the Qur'an supposedly mandates terrorism, then Timothy McVeigh is proof enough to justify close and constant scrutiny of the ideological milieu from which he came, especially at a time in American history when people like him might be most inclined to think that the country has gone to Hell. If right-wingers don't like this, then at least they know how left-wingers have felt for more than a century. If they want people to make more careful distinctions between ideas and violent intentions, they should practice what they now preach.

28 April 2009

Hard Times

I want to mention a strange sight I saw yesterday evening. I was on the bus to Albany when it passed by the stop at the corner of Congress and Third streets, in front of the ruins of a restaurant. On the sidewalk sat a relatively well-dressed man, who appeared to be at least middle-aged, maybe in his sixties. Spread before him on a blanket were wares that a sign declared were for sale. The odd part of it was what he was selling: a box of Corn Flakes; a jar of peanut butter; a bottle of Williams Lectric Shave; a couple of cake pans and a cake mixer. It didn't look like the loot of shoplifting. It was more likely whatever he could spare from his own supplies. How much could he have expected to raise from such sales? What did he need the money for? Was he that hard up for drink or drugs? Something about him made me think not, but I may be more trusting than I should be. Nevertheless, I simply couldn't imagine anyone buying anything from him. At the same time, I wondered whether I'd see more like him soon.

The Plague Spreads

A New York City education bureaucrat hit the panic button today, declaring that there are "hundreds" of kids in the public school system sick with the new strain of swine flu. The city government confirms that two more people have been hospitalized for symptoms consistent with the swine diagnosis. So far, no American has died from the influenza, while estimates of Mexican deaths are all over the place. The question isn't whether certain people have died, but whether they died of the swine flu. Someone really needs to nail this down so people can think straight about the situation.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories continue to proliferate. Here's an amusing top-ten list of theories that leaves out some that are already quite popular, particularly any implicating the current American government or the "New World Order." Conspiracy theories now seem to emerge to explain any unusual event. This is more than just the usual "who benefits?" reasoning, though there is a growing presumption that someone, in theory, could "benefit" from practically any phenomenon. I've seen some writers describe what we're seeing as "magical thinking," which can itself be described as the Occam's Razor of fools. The desire for the simplest explanation often leads people to deduce that there must be a conscious will behind harmful events, since for some people the easiest explanation for anything is that somebody wanted it to happen. I suppose it's a sign of progress that this thought doesn't instantly cause people to try and appease the mysterious power, but it's not too much progress if the knee-jerk response is now to fight the still-mysterious power. Unfortunately, globalization has created fertile ground for this particular plague to spread, since it's all too easy today for people to believe that their fates are decided by forces beyond their control. It'd be glib of me to suggest that the cure involves figuring things out for themselves, but plenty of people will tell you they've done just that -- and they're still infected.

A Specter is Haunting the GOP...

MSNBC has breaking news, just five minutes old as I write, that Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is going to switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic.The significance of this is that Specter's defection, once confirmed, combined with the eventual seating of Al Franken as Minnesota's second Senator will give the Democrats the sixty votes (including the independents Lieberman and Sanders) to block any Republican filibusters against liberal legislation.

Specter's move, if correctly reported, is a calculated risk. It's well known that Bushites and movement conservatives intended to mount a major primary challenge to his renomination next year. Specter may now expect Pennsylvania Democrats to repay him by not challenging him when he seeks that party's nomination. But it wouldn't surprise me that such grateful deference would provoke a third-party challenge from the left. That, too, could play into Specter's hands if, like Lieberman, he wants to position himself as an arch-centrist against extremism from both right and left.

The American Bipolarchy gives people at the top like Specter considerable freedom of action, as do the rules of Congress that make his apparent move so significant. His freedom and willingness to spite the GOP might further convince people that individuals matter more than parties, since Specter can claim to be following his conscience rather than any party's dictates, and that the Bipolarchy isn't really anything to worry about. But the Bipolarchy isn't about maintaining ideological consistency or even an illusion of eternal enmity that could be dispelled by Specter's defection. However individuals may feel, institutionally speaking neither party wants to destroy the other. Part of convincing the public that the two parties are the only real choices is maintaining the existence of two major parties for people to choose from. The Bipolarchy can tolerate incidents like Specter's reported switch because it's still happening within a bipolarchical framework. Specter isn't raising the standard of a new national party, after all, and neither did Sanders or Lieberman. He'll annoy current Republican leaders and infuriate simpleminded radio talkers, but he hasn't really challenged the system. He's trying to work the Bipolarchy to save his political career. Time will tell whether he can succeed.

Idiot of the Week: Epidemic Edition

Our first nominee is Yakov Litzman, an Israeli public health official who urges the world to rename the swine flu. That labelling of the potentially deadly virus, which has its origins in pigs, is offensive to both Jews and Muslims, the official notes generously, because both faiths regard the pig as an unclean animal. Well, the existence of swine flu might seem to confirm their ancient viewpoint, but I'm still baffled by the notion that naming it for swine somehow makes a virus more objectionable. You'll have problems enough if you catch it, but now you want to worry that it makes you unclean? That can't help but sound redundant to sensible people. But the topper that may clinch the award for this bureaucrat is his helpful suggestion that, in deference to the cultural sensitivities of Semites, the virus be renamed the Mexican flu. I imagine that those might be fighting words south of the border, or at least a good reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Tel Aviv, with plenty of sneezing.

27 April 2009

The Future of Liberalism?

My political reading of the moment is Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism, which seems daring by its mere assertion that liberalism has a future. It's actually a very lucid account of what liberalism stands for as opposed to both conservatism (philosophical and partisan) and radical leftism. Wolfe defines liberalism as the belief that people have to create the social conditions in which they can enjoy rights, and justifies the modern welfare state for that reason. While conservatives argue that mankind can't control its fate (and thus must accept "freedom" as the best option), Wolfe claims that liberals "have always insisted that it is because human beings live for purpose that they can establish and realize goals they themselves set. He elaborates:

We are not...prisoners of economic calculations and therefore unable to influence the moral character of the societies we inhabit. Instead, we are quite capable of deciding what moral purposes we want our societies to serve and then designing our economic arrangements accordingly. It is not a planned economy liberals seek -- that is a goal more properly identified with socialism -- but a society that can decide what it stands for and do its best to realize it. There is a common good. We can know what it is. And we can achieve it. (84)

Wolfe stresses, however, that identifying the common good is a collaborative project that requires compromises of interests. He doesn't disparage self-interested thinking, but demands that it be what used to be called enlightened self-interest, rational above all. He virtually concedes that some people will find liberalism boring because it requires people to be rational and calculate the possible consequences of actions. Wolfe prefers dispassionate rationalists like Jeremy Bentham to heroic Romantic types who are all too often tempted to go for broke in all-or-nothing attempts to achieve Utopia or rid the world of evil.

The strongest chapter I've read so far is "Mr. Schmitt Goes to Washington," which tends to define liberalism negatively as whatever hasn't been tainted by the influence of the German political scientist Carl Schmitt. A contemporary of Leo Strauss who stayed in Germany and served the Nazis while Strauss fled, Schmitt's influence derives from two dangerous ideas: that political sovereignty consists of the power to make exceptions to the rule of law, and that politics itself is based on an inevitable division of the state into friends and enemies. Schmitt's ideas, however indirectly transmitted, have strong appeal for both modern partisan conservatives and many leftists, Wolfe claims, because both groups are inclined to see those who disagree with them as the enemy. Liberals are defined by a refusal to do so. They prefer proceduralism and the rule of law to the heroic fantasy of the exception because, as a rule, they don't see politics as a struggle to defeat enemies, but as an attempt to reconcile different interest through appeals to reason.

Wolfe doesn't try to prove that Carl Schmitt influenced the Bush administration -- after all, it's very unlikely that George W. Bush has ever heard of the man. But Wolfe does invite you to notice the similarities between Schmitt's notion of the sovereign declaring exceptions to the rule of law and the American concept of the "unitary executive's" right to wage war unchecked by the other branches of government. He also finds it interesting that many leftists seem to admire the quasi-Nazi Schmitt, and explains that by assuming their desire to destroy ideological enemies. I might add that a revolution would also count as a "state of exception," and that some leftists I've read, particularly Slavoj Zizek, embrace the concept of the exception because they think revolutionary terror may be necessary for "the people" to assert their rightful sovereignty over the state.

Liberalism's opposition to these ideas is a make-or-break stand. Look at it one way and it makes sense if you assume that we all don't have to be enemies despite our disagreements. Wolfe carries that argument in a new direction in the chapter I'm currently reading on religion. But liberals are waging a lot on the assumption that all political or philosophical differences are either reconcilable or manageable through proceduralism, and that society can continue to advance without decisive resolutions of at least some of these differences. I don't know if Wolfe can prove those hypotheses, or whether he thinks it necessary to do so. But I still have about a third of the book to read. We'll see how it all turns out.

The New Plague

The new Mexican strain of swine flu is part of a globalist plot to depopulate the planet and place the whole world under martial law. Actually, it's a hoax, but it provides the New World Order with a pretext to put the world under martial law. But no: the right-wing conspiracy community itself is whipping up a hysteria to further its own agendas, say left-wing conspiracists. Conspiracy theory is a kind of virus in its own right. It mutates under aggressive treatment into more resistant strains. A few years ago SARS or bird flu was going to be the pretext for the Bush administration declaring martial law. Naturally, some people now see Obama poised to do the same thing. For some people it's just a partisan reflex, believing now what they denied then, or vice versa, while others are consistent in their anxieties, convinced that Bush and Obama answer to the same shadowy masters. Few irrational observers seem to consider that the news media might have their own mercenary if not malevolent reasons to inflate the threat of the new flu. Instead, there's a compulsion to see higher powers behind everything. The difference between now and two thousand years ago, when something like swine flu might have been blamed on Zeus or Jehovah, is that now people at least believe they can fight back against the malevolent powers -- even if they still are phantoms. Whether that's a healthy form of evolution is debatable.

24 April 2009

More Torturous Arguments

When I walked in this morning it was the loudest and angriest I'd ever heard it in the editorial department without Mr. Right being around. Two of our staff do a point-counterpoint style column every Friday, and today's subject was whether Americans who torture suspected terrorists should be prosecuted. The writers were carrying on their argument in the room. The man is a relatively mild conservative who defended the torturers on pragmatic grounds. The end justified the means, in his view, and he would not want future Americans deterred from taking similarly necessary measures, as he saw them, by the threat of prosecution by a subsequent unfriendly regime. The woman took the standard liberal argument: torture is something the U.S. or any civilized state should not do, and prosecutions may be necessary to send that message.

That's always seemed to be the essential point in dispute. Defenders of the Bush administration or "aggressive interrogation" in general presumably reject the premise that there is something un-American about doing whatever seems necessary to save American lives. The reasoning seems to be that the rules of self-preservation are different from the rules of everyday citizenship. The government of the United States is no more democratic, or no more republican, or no more liberal, because Americans must torture ruthless enemies during a desperate struggle. This is not a completely implausible argument.

The problem with most people who make the argument, however, is that they don't apply it consistently. They talk of an America menaced by "evil" regimes and "dictators" around the world. How do they know these regimes are evil? As a rule, they know nothing about the internal complexities of Iranian politics, for instance. What they do claim to know is how Iran treats dissidents, or how China treats them, or how Hugo Chavez seems to treat some of them. These practices define these states or leaders as "evil" for many Americans, but aren't those countries' actions also a form of national self-defense? Many governments feel threatened by counter-revolution and feel entitled to take "aggressive" measures to preserve revolutionary regimes. Those governments often go so far as to claim that "counterrevolutionaries" are actually agents of foreign governments -- usually ours. It can be argued that in treating such subversives "aggressively" they are acting in the same way, essentially, as Americans want their country to deal with alleged terrorists. Why, then, should they be judged as "evil" regimes, leaving aside how they treat neighboring countries, solely based on the way they defend themselves against enemies? There's probably a good answer to my question, but I wonder whether most American apologists for torture are clever enough to figure it out -- and I'm not about to help them. They'll have to use torture to get it out of me.

Murphy Defeats Tedisco

Assemblyman Tedisco has conceded defeat in his race for the open seat representing the 20th Congressional district of New York by calling and congratulating the winner, Scott Murphy. It has been nearly a month since citizens voted, but the margin remained so narrow throughout the process that officials waited as long as seemed realistic for the arrival of absentee ballots. A few weeks ago, the absentee factor seemed to be in Tedisco's favor, since more voters overall are registered as Republicans in this district. But just as the district voted in now-Senator Gillibrand regardless of registration statistics, so they've elected Murphy, albeit just barely.

Democratic leaders across the country are crowing that Murphy's victory represents an endorsement of President Obama's policies, but comparing Murphy's struggle to Gillibrand's landslide last fall might tell a different story. Too many local factors are involved, however, for this election to be seen as a simple referendum on Obama or anything else. Murphy actually rose steadily in polls after initially trailing the better known Tedisco by a big margin early in the game. Democrats could argue that for a "virtual unknown" to hold the seat against a well-known local pol proves that the district is going "blue." But what were people voting for when they pulled Murphy's lever. According to Tedisco's commercials, Murphy was a "Wall Street millionaire" guilty of endorsing undeserved bonuses and outsourcing jobs. Muphy's own ads portrayed him as a mere "businessman," in favorable contrast to "Albany politician" Tedisco. In other words, the campaign's negative ads added up to a role reversal, with the Democrat being characterized the way Republicans usually are -- and yet he won. That he only won by 399 votes (by the latest count) may illustrate voters' confusion rather than their resolution for or against anything in particular.

Tedisco is to be credited for not using Norm Coleman tactics and conceding as promptly as the protracted process allowed so that the district can be represented immediately. It won't surprise me, though, to hear local Republicans air the newly-popular conspiracy theory that explains every close vote lost by their party: ACORN stole it. But they may surprise me and take their cue from their candidate. Outside the district, however, the accusations are probably already in flight.

22 April 2009

Idiot of the Week? Cheney vs. Gingrich

The question: Who made the more stupid statement regarding the President's handshake with his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez? Both made fools of themselves complaining about the encounter. Their view is that the President of the United States should not sully himself by consenting to be touched by such a monster as Chavez, whom they pre-emptively deem a "dictator" and an enemy of the United States. He was an enemy of the previous President, and is perhaps an enemy of some American corporations, but these facts alone can't govern the present President's conduct toward a fellow head of government. What the Bush administration never could accept was that in the international community all nations are equal -- except in the UN Security Council, of course. The international community is ideally a democracy of nations, and no nation has a right to put on moral airs and snub another because its leader is often genuinely obnoxious and has a more expansive view of state power than many Americans. The sort of attitude that Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich would have Obama take is all the more childish when it remains unproven that Chavez is a dictator. He may be a bully and a blowhard, but the referendum repealing term limits did not make him president for life. In any event, he is the legitimate representative of Venezuela to the rest of the world, and the U.S. has no right to demand someone else. If there are issues between the two nations, it's foolish for either leader to act as if his company is a privilege that the other guy has to earn somehow.

But on to the competition. Our contestants' statements are included in this article. If these quotes accurately represent each man's views, then this is really an easy win for Gingrich. Cheney was not so asinine, at least, as to suggest that somehow Chavez was not the legitimate ruler of his country. His experience in the executive branch of government may have given Cheney a minimal measure of common sense that Gingrich has never acquired. This creature, who was dumb enough to quit Congress and the Speakership despite his party retaining a majority in the House simply because it lost some seats, supposedly still dreams of becoming President someday. Fortunately, even most Republicans find the idea laughable -- if only they felt the same way about the rest of their leaders.

Special bonus credit goes to Dana Perino, a former Bush mouthpiece, who actually called Chavez a dictator when the others only insinuated it. But there's not so much fun in crowning such a minor personage compared to the other two idiots.

21 April 2009

"Traditional Values Coalition" vs. "Fairness" Part 2: The Survey

Along with a self-damning cover letter that spells out exactly how much Rev. Lou Sheldon expects to profit from his latest begging campaign, his major mailing against the alleged attempt to revive the FCC "Fairness Doctrine" includes a survey for me to fill out and return to the Traditional Values Coalition, preferably with a donation of at least $15. Sheldon's stated object is to compile the results and present them to the President and Congress as proof that politicians will suffer at the polls if they attempt to "silence" reactionary radio.

The survey is pretty much the same sort that any activist group, left or right, might send you. It includes the kind of questions that have only one plausible answer, though the TVC survey actually leaves more room for diversity of opinion than, for instance, Amnesty International's do. Maybe that's why Sheldon advised respondents, "Please don't spend too much time thinking about each answer. Your answers are more valuable if you give your first instinctive response to each question."

There are 14 questions in the survey, almost all multiple choice. It starts simply enough: "What is your view of the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" as proposed by Liberal leaders in Washington?" I suppose "Liberal" is meant as a trigger word to provoke a hostile response. Your choices range from Strongly Support to Strongly Oppose, plus Undecided. I chose "Support" rather than "Strongly Support" because I partly accept the argument that today's diversity of information sources lessens the need for political diversity in every source. On the other hand, I'm not thrilled about people being able to schedule their viewing, listening or browsing to receive only those viewpoints they agree with. A fairness doctrine might expose people of all ideologies to contrasting viewpoints, so it could be a good thing.

Question 2 asks "How do you think broadcast stations will comply with this regulation?" You may predict that many will cancel reactionary talk rather than lose money by having to carry unpopular liberal shows, or that stations "will be happy to comply...even if Liberal programs lose money." Your other options are "Not Sure" and a fill-in-the-blank "Other" line. I checked off happy compliance because I deny the opposite premise.

Question 3 asks us to speculate: "What do you think is the real motive of the Liberals pushing so hard for this law?" You are allowed to suppose that Liberals "are honestly concerned with having balance on the airwaves" or that they've "found an ingenious strategy to weaken (and if possible end) Christian and conservative talk radio." I went with the first choice. We're talking about Liberals, after all.

Question 4 comes in two parts. First, we must decide whether the Fairness Doctrine is "a threat to free speech in America." If you answer Yes (I didn't), you must grade the threat as "Somewhat Serious" or "Very Serious."

Question 5 is an objective query: "How much do you listen to Rush Limbaugh?" It's either more or less than two hours, or not at all. Question 6 applies the same query to Sean Hannity.

Question 7 asks "Which of these TV news outlets do you watch the most?" Your choices are the three major broadcast networks and the three major cable news networks, but "None of these" is also available. I honestly checked MSNBC, but I'm not comfortable with admitting this, since that network's pro-Democrat talkers are increasingly obnoxious to me.

Question 8 asks "Do you think conservative talk radio...is helping or harming political debate in America?" I was tempted to say "Hurting America" based on The American Conservative's critique of the radio talkers, but because I ignore these shows rather than listen masochistically like too many liberals, I checked "Neutral."

Question 9 asks, "Regardless of your political viewpoint, do you think the government should be regulating the content of political talk shows?" I'd be surprised if anyone answered "Yes," but regulating content of individual shows is even further off the table than the Fairness Doctrine itself. To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested requiring Limbaugh to have a liberal or leftist co-host or regular correspondent.

Question 10 requires me to identify my own "political leanings." I have to choose from a spectrum of ideology ranging from "Very Conservative" to "Very Liberal," or else write something in under "Other." I wrote "Radical."

Question 11 straightforwardly asks how frequently I vote. For some reason there's an "Other" option here.

Question 12 is most clearly meant for the President's attention. It asks, "How would it affect your opinion of President Obama if he were to move forward on his own (which he has the power to do) and shut down Christian and conservative talk radio by reviving the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine?' I chose "Undecided" because I don't accept the premise that the Doctrine would shut down reactionary radio. If Obama moved in some way specifically to suppress the reactionaries, then I'd take more of a negative stand.

Question 13 dares you to trust the President: "President Obama's spokesperson claims that the Obama Administration has no plans for the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine.' But many Christian and conservative broadcasters remain unconvinced. What do you think?" You may "completely believe" Obama or "not believe" him at all, or remain "Not Sure." I checked "completely believe."

Finally, Question 14 asks if I'll add a contribution to help the TVC "STOP the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine' -- which we are calling the 'Silence Christian and Conservative Broadcasters Law?'" For a while I was actually tempted to send Sheldon 88 cents as exact compensation for the alleged expense involved in mailing me this survey. But the thought that any of that money would be wasted fighting a phantom, or would go into Sheldon's pockets, convinced me to answer "No."

There's one final cute detail. In his begging letter, Sheldon suggested $15 as a minimum donation. On the back of the survey he gives a selection of donation amounts to check off. The smallest of these is $20. On the other hand, there's a separate box which you can check to signify that you'll send a sub-minimum amount of $10. You also get to signify your understanding that Sheldon will use your money to buy newspaper and radio advertising and prepare mass e-mails. You can apparently pay by cash or check, or you can give the Traditional Values Coalition your credit card number. Somehow that does not seem like a good idea.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the results of the survey. I've never seen newspaper reports of the results of all those Amnesty International surveys, and I expect the media will threat this one the same way.

The Dying American Conservative?

The newest issue of The American Conservative reached my mailbox today, carrying an announcement that the next issue, dated May 7, will be the last unless the publishers receive major infusions of funds. At least one allegedly neocon blogger is gloating over the magazine's imminent demise. The Conservative offended the blogger by opposing an interventionist American foreign policy. In Mr. Radosh's view, the anti-war magazine combined the worst tendencies of the far left as well as the far right, especially a pronounced skepticism toward the moral claims of a certain Middle Eastern country. He characterizes the magazine as borderline anti-Semitic, which any actual reader of the publication (Radosh has apparently seen only the premier issue from 2002 and the latest) will tell you is a hysterically asinine characterization.

If the Conservative goes down, though, the worst thing won't be the victory neocons and interventionists will claim in the marketplace of ideas. Worse than that will be the victory sure to be claimed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his loyal listeners, who will want to declare that the same marketplace of ideas has proclaimed theirs to be the true, authentic American form of conservatism. The Conservative insulted Limbaugh by portraying him as a baby in a stroller a few months ago, although the cover story criticized his manner more than his matter. Overall, however, the Conservative has been positioning itself in evolving opposition to a distorted form of conservatism identified with Ronald Reagan that fetishizes freedom and optimism at the expense of a more philosophically conservative consciousness of inherent or necessary limits on ambition and consumption. While the magazine is often called "paleoconservative," as if it expressed an outdated ideology, at its best it represents intelligent conservatism engaged in self-criticism and receptive to ideas from outside the "movement."

I wonder whether the Conservative will be a victim of history rather than economics. Above all, its identity was anti-war and anti-Bush. I'm sure I'm not the only non-conservative who subscribed because the magazine offered incisive critiques of Bushism (or Dubyaismo, if you prefer) that couldn't be dismissed as knee-jerk liberalism or cynical partisanship. But George W. Bush has departed from the political stage, and Barack Obama is the President.The American Conservative inevitably opposes Obama. This has probably cost them subscribers from outside Republican circles. At the same time, there may have been Republicans who subscribed to the Conservative to show that they didn't agree with Bush, but now may see no reason for the magazine to exist as a distinct voice when all "conservative" mags oppose Obama. In recent months, the Conservative has been trying to retain a distinct position, which is why it has tried to define itself as not like Limbaugh. But without W. as a lightning rod, there may not be enough of a trans-partisan audience out there to sustain the magazine. That would be a shame, because it represents a flickering ember of an alternative force in American politics, one that might have been best positioned to take advantage of the TEA Party enthusiasm of recent weeks under different circumstances. I would never call myself an American conservative, but most of the writers for that magazine were members of that class whom I could somewhat respect. The magazine's demise would leave them isolated voices in an online wilderness. I wish them luck.

20 April 2009

"Traditional Values Coalition" vs. "Fairness"

It's been months since I received a really good fundraising letter in my mailbox, but the drought ended this morning with a masterpiece of the genre. I suspect I must blame my subscription to The American Conservative for putting me on a mailing list for the Traditional Values Coalition, which has sent me one of "A National Ballot of 1,000,000 Voters." This document invites me to protest against the reinstatement of the Federal Communication Commission's old "Fairness Doctrine."

You may recall that most other Republicans were fretting about such a prospect a few months ago, until the Obama administration made it known that it had no interest in pursuing that course. That quieted down most people, but not Rev. Lou Sheldon, the Founder-President of the TVC. "I don't believe it!" He writes, "Our sources say that Liberal lawyers in the Obama Administration and Congress are right now working on a version of the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine' that would be enforced locally, rather than nationally." A conspiracy theory follows:

The idea they are working on is this.
If local Left-wing activists groups (such as ACORN and Rev. Al Sharpton) oppose the renewal of the broadcast license for a radio station that carries mostly Christian or conservative talk radio, the broadcast license would be denied.
That will likely be the new version of the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine.'

And here are the stakes as Rev. Sheldon sees them.

How important is this issue?
Ask yourself these questions:
What's the first thing that happened when the Nazis or Communists took power?
What's the first thing that happens when any dictatorship takes power?
They silence all dissenting voices.
They silence the opposition.
Because people can't act if they don't have information.

I thought the first thing dictators did was take our guns away, but I guess it depends on who you talk to.

Sheldon wants you to believe that the Fairness Doctrine, if reimposed, would drive Republican and "Christian" talkers off the air. This is based on the assumption that liberal talk shows are money losers from an advertising standpoint. If stations are required to air liberal talk shows, Sheldon suspects that they'll cancel their conservative cash cows rather than take the loss in revenue from taking on liberals.This doesn't really make sense, since it presumes that a station manager will sacrifice his regular revenue due to the mere risk of losses. But the theory doesn't have to make sense from a business standpoint, because it's Sheldon's belief that the real motive behind the (still only alleged) movement to revive the Doctrine is to drive Rush Limbaugh and his ilk from the airwaves. His theory depends on station managers being cowards who would dump Rush "rather than have to deal all the time with Liberal bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission." Christian radio would also be endangered because Christian talkers "would no longer bring up political or policy issues related to keeping families strong" lest that lead to demands for equal time.

"The intent behind the 'Silence Christian and Conservative Broadcasters Law' is clear," Sheldon insists, "to remove Christian and conservative voices from the political and public policy debate completely -- and to lock-in Liberal power permanently."

Sheldon hopes that an avalanche of petitions he'll send to the White House will convince the President not to attempt such a coup against dissent. So how can I help? First, I can fill out the attached survey, one of 1,000,000 destined for Obama's desk. But you know there's got to be more to it than that. I've gotten too many surveys in the mail from organizations left and right to know that the other shoe has yet to drop.


"My hope is that you will also include a contribution when you mail me your survey," Sheldon pleads, "As you can imagine, it's costly for TRADITIONAL VALUES COALITION to conduct a survey like this of 1,000,000 registered voters."

What makes this begging letter particularly charming, or brazen, is that Sheldon tells you exactly how much his organization expects to profit from this little crusade. He tells you straight up that "it costs us about 50 cents to mail one of these surveys to one voter. So that means it will cost TRADITIONAL VALUES COALITION $500,000 to mail ONE MILLION of these surveys to registered voters."

Postage and printing costs will add $375,000 to Sheldon's tab -- most of it from postage since "a great Christian printer" will help him out with printing. My share of that tab is another 37.5 cents. Were I in a giving mood, I'd suppose that I owe Sheldon 88 cents. But the lowest amount he suggests for a donation is $15 -- and he'd rather have $25, and for that matter "If you can send $100 or $50, that would be wonderful. Better still, "If you are blessed to be able to send $1,000 -- what a boost that would be to our effort to stop the 'Silence Christian and Conservative Broadcasters Law.'"

"Please, I am counting on a 100% reply to this plea for your help," Sheldon adds. That rules out that he's accounting for some people failing to reply when he suggests $15 as the bare minimum donation. He expects to receive at least $15,000,000 in return for his estimated outlay of $875,000. In case you were wondering about this, he does mention that "In addition to this survey, we are undertaking a major advertising, letter writing, Internet, and media campaign designed to educate Christian and conservative voters about the dire threat to free speech contained in the 'Silence Christian and Conservative Broadcasters Law.'" You know, the law that hasn't actually been introduced in Congress, and has been disavowed by the government, the one that most conservatives gave up worrying about months ago. Sheldon needs at least $15,000,000 to fight that imminent threat, so he needs to make gullible people feel threatened. Unfortunately, my hunch is that American Conservative readers are the smarter conservatives, hence the ones least likely to fall for this con. Sheldon ought to have pitched this to the outright yokels of the Christian fringes, who I suspect are his normal constituency, and he ought to have promised them God-bestowed prosperity in return for their donations, just to be sure of results. He might have had a chance then.

I'm not done with Sheldon yet, however. Tomorrow I intend to go through the survey itself, with suggestions on how to answer should you happen to find one of these things. But I leave you for now with Rev. Sheldon's own advice on that subject: "Please don't spend too much time thinking about each answer. Your answers are more valuable if you give your first instinctive response to each question."

Soft Red Objects in Geneva

President Ahmadinejad of Iran was heckled, walked out on, and targeted with what this report describes as "soft red objects" hurled by rainbow-wigged protesters during his speech to the international anti-racism conference in Geneva. The walkouts were by delegates from nations offended by the Iranian's claim that Israel was the world's most racist regime, but I have a feeling that the soft red objects had less to do with his attitude toward Israel and the Holocaust than with his attitude toward homosexuals -- but perhaps I'm just stereotyping.

Now that I mention it, I wonder whether this conference intends to show as much concern for homosexual people as it does for religious believers who dislike defamation or "incitement" to hatred. Given the extent to which Muslim countries seem to be setting the agenda (hate Israel, don't insult us), I suspect not. That might be a reason to boycott the conference, or at least to throw soft pink objects at it. Better yet, it would be a reason to send delegates to tell all the other people who want to whine about how they're defamed that they're hypocrites if they don't give up their "religious" right to defame others. But I suppose it would be undiplomatic and not a government's business to do this. Three cheers for the hecklers, then, if I read their motives right.

18 April 2009

Obama Administration Snubs Anti-Racism Conference

That's an unexpected headline, but true just the same. Seems that the President likes the international attitude toward racism no better than his predecessor did, especially when it comes to any linkage of Zionism with racism. Obama and Secretary Clinton add a new wrinkle by deploring the conference's concern with so-called incitement to religious hatred. This is seen as an attempt by Muslims to curtail freedom of speech worldwide. You might think an international conference would be the place to make your case against such notions, but the Americans probably expect to be outvoted, so they'd rather not dignify the affair with their presence. This has irked the Congressional Black Caucus, which naturally wants this country in the middle of any global effort against racism. But the U.S. government has historically reserved the right to define racism as it pleases, regardless of any international consensus. American leaders were offended when the UN declared Zionism a form of racism in 1975, and to an extent you can understand the complaint. For many people Zionism is going to mean first and foremost the national aspirations of Jewish people. If that's racist, you might say, than so is Kurdish or Basque nationalism. The problem with any such equation, of course, is that those groups would not have to infiltrate any territory and displace a resident population to realize their national ambitions, while that was inevitably necessary for a dispersed people. There was no way Zionism was ever going to make everyone happy, and Arabs have a right to see racism in the idea that their interests have to take second place to other people's in a land that had been theirs for more than a thousand years. On the other hand, it is arguably racist, depending on the extent to which you define Judaism racially, to deny Jewish people the right to a national home, even though no one to my knowledge accuses the Spaniards of "racism" against the Basque people, nor the Iraqis or the Turks of "racism" against the Kurds. As you see, there's no easy resolution of the matter, which I suppose is why we have international conferences to talk it over. But because we won't get our way, we will ignore the event as if it isn't happening.

On the other matter I can understand American defensiveness. Christian lamentation notwithstanding, it is virtually a sacred American right to criticize religious beliefs and practices. We can't accept the premise that religion can be so deeply embedded in anyone's personal identity that criticism of it is an unendurable insult. Nor can we believe that criticizing religion is an "incitement" to any kind of bad behavior. Christians may feel persecuted sometimes, but there can't be many here who'd say that even "militant atheist" writings have led to violence or other repressive measures against them. Again, an international conference would seem to be the occasion to clarify the American position and attempt to persuade the rest of the world. But we probably fear a consensus of dictators and other authoritarians would outvote us on any question, so again we close our eyes, plug our ears and go "na na na" as the conference goes on.

I can't really endorse the American position because it seems undemocratic, on the level of nations, to refuse to accept a global consensus simply because it isn't in perfect agreement with our own beliefs, and it seems worse to refuse even to engage the rest of the world in defense of those beliefs. If there is to be a truly global civilization, it almost certainly will not be an enlarged reproduction of the United States. Americans may have to accommodate and compromise, just like every other nationality and culture. If Muslims want the rest of the world to renounce certain prerogatives, they had better do some renouncing of their own. Inevitably they will if the world survives. But if we expect them to learn to compromise, we should teach by example. Instead we're showing them how to sulk until everyone else capitulates. There has to be a better approach, but Obama and Clinton haven't figured it out yet.

17 April 2009

Obama's Torturous Reasoning

Perhaps leadership is the art of pleasing nobody. This seems to be the President's approach when it comes to reckoning with his predecessor's legacy of torture. Liberals and Bushites alike are unhappy with his decision to release more memoranda detailing the country's collusion with torturing regimes while absolving the people involved of any liability for perpetrating or collaborating with torture. The reactionaries complain that exposure will make other countries less cooperative with us in the future, while the liberals are angry that there won't be trials of the purported perps. By default, Obama is steering a middle course. Is it the correct one? That depends on your standard. If you apply a moral standard, Obama is a trimmer or a coward by refusing to do justice though the heavens fall. If you apply a "realist" standard, he has probably talked too much already about things people are better off not knowing about. The President himself is most likely trying to balance principle and pragmatism. He strives to make clear that he considers torture wrong, but admits implicitly that the issue is political or more correctly partisan dynamite. The divide of opinion on the question is a partisan one, with Bushites on one side and everyone else (Democrats, liberals, libertarians, many conservatives) on the other. But Bushites remain a major force within the Republican party and are bound to say that any indictment of the Bush administration is partisan in nature. The point Obama has to consider isn't whether they're wrong, but whether any attempt to "criminalize politics" by prosecuting Bushite policymakers or perpetrators will tear the country apart along partisan lines.

Under the American Bipolarchy, partisanship distorts all political questions. It's easy for people without responsibilities to say "so what?" especially if they expect prosecutions to damage the Republican Party. But many people will believe the primary motive of any prosecution to be partisan because partisanship shapes their perceptions, and they'll never accept any verdict against their side as just. They'll see it as the other side abusing its power to oppress the opposition the way dubious leaders do around the world. If we didn't live under a Bipolarchy things would probably be different, because any leader then would represent only himself or at most a small personal faction whose complaints wouldn't matter as much as those of a great party that commands nearly half the electorate. But while the Bipolarchy prevails any attempt by one administration to prosecute its predecessor only invites the predecessor's party to plan a tit-for-tat prosecution on some pretext when they have power again. That thought probably deters Obama from doing what many would think is the right thing. In this environment the best we can do is hope for is a day when some force stands ready to prosecute people of both parties equally for offenses against the Constitution or statutory law without seeming to take a "side." Our goal should be a democratic republic whose representatives embody the nation as a whole rather than any faction or clique, and whose correction of any of their own will be seen as dispassionate, disinterested and objectively just. Until we have that, prosecuting the Bushites is likely to create at least as many problems as it solves.

15 April 2009

Images from the Albany TEA Party

As I write, thirteen video posts from the Albany TEA Party at the Corning Preserve are available on YouTube. Some are just picked up from local news, but this one is raw footage.

You may think you saw someone familiar in fleeting moments, but that gentleman in the star-spangled suit is an impostor. I work for a living.

This next bit opens with an explanation of the serpentine symbolism of the "Don't Tread On Me" flag, which was prominent at TEA parties across the country.

I suppose this knucklehead imagines himself an equivalent of the Founding Fathers for his promised defiance of authority. He also seems a little short on ambition if the most he can imagine marching on Washington are 100,000 people. I'd think the "Million Man March" would be a benchmark that any activist would want to match. But perhaps a million sounds too much like a mob for this person.

In this clip, another speaker invokes John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and while those men would have found much to despise in today's government, I think excessive spending would be but one of many outrages they'd perceive. This fellow also expresses the ruling fallacy of the occasion: that the people who actually govern are somehow not "the people." If they aren't, where they come from, and how did they convince us to vote for them?

At least it looks like the speakers maintained a fairly narrow focus on spending and budget issues. But this speaker drags the Federal Reserve into it. On the other hand, he has a healthy distrust of corporations and the Bipolarchy. Then he ruins it for me by coming out against universal health care and public education and "so-called human-caused global warming."

People like this seem honest in their fears about corporate power, but they don't trust the state power that exists in part to check it. Some of them probably think that corporate power is somehow a by-product of state power, so that if they had their way and the state were minimized, corporations would not run riot over the country. Good luck with that. He continues an increasingly reactionary diatribe with the usual paeans to "personal responsibility," i.e. every man for himself as the highest virtue, and a misplaced invocation of the Deity as the author of human rights. As I said, the occasion may not have been partisan, but it was ideological.

Here's one more clip. The soundtrack should give you an idea of the content. The song is followed by diatribes against the Federal Reserve and government in general.

Would any of these people admit to being anarchists? Well, anarchists are those who say "government is the problem," so perhaps the TEA partiers should investigate anarchism further. After all, libertarianism is going nowhere, and anarchism might attract more young people.

In all seriousness, though, I honor the form if not the content of the occasion. It could be a feeble first step toward the awakening of real "people power" in this country, though the purpose of such power is still open to debate.

Albany Tea Party Report

One of the local papers estimates the attendance at the Albany "TEA Party" at the Corning Preserve at about 2,000 people. That's fairly impressive for the area as far as pure numbers go. As expected, speakers at the rally declared themselves non-partisan. I think they're sincere about this, but they can't help but be perceived as partisan because one of the major parties is identified, fairly or not, with the regulatory state and the taxes required to sustain it. To oppose any perceived excess of taxation will be perceived as an attack on the Democratic Party. This reporter made an effort to note points on which protesters deviated from the Republican party line, emphasizing that several speakers spoke out against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That means libertarians and Ron Paul fans were in the house. I wonder, however, whether anyone at the Preserve spoke up for "liberalism" in any of its manifestations. Perhaps more reports, hopefully including video footage, will fill in the blanks. I will update this story as I learn more.

TEA Parties: Selective Outrage or Misrepresented?

Here's a sentence from an MSNBC web site account of today's TEA ("Taxed Enough Already") Parties commemorating the tax filing deadline.

Organizers say they’re steamed at government spending since President Barack Obama’s administration took over.

There are two ways of looking at this sentence. The knee-jerk reaction might be to accuse the "organizers" of selective outrage, since government spending (not to mention deficit spending) had gone through the roof under a Republican president before Obama took over. But suppress the impulse long enough to note that no "organizer" is actually quoted as saying this. It is MSNBC's characterization of the organizers' attitude. As I've noted elsewhere, there is a media tendency to label the TEA Parties as partisan events, on the logic that to oppose taxes is to oppose Obama and support the Republican party. There are participants, at least, who challenge this interpretation: libertarians and other independents who indict the Bipolarchy as a whole for excessive spending and taxation. But before I go too far in exculpating the "organizers," I should note that there was every reason to hold a "tea party" at this time last year, or any year since 2001, but I know of none taking place. The timing seems to be telling. "Organizers" might argue that some things have changed dramatically since last April 15, or that they were galvanized by the Bailout controversies of last year into protesting now. But if they want to declare themselves genuinely non-partisan, they have to do more to ensure that the Republican party doesn't benefit from these demonstrations.

The most important thing is to remember recent history. Too often Americans express their displeasure at one party by choosing the other, forgetting that they had only recently thrown that party out. There is too much inclination to trust individuals to behave differently from the parties they serve, as if you couldn't predict just about every time how a Republican or a Democrat would behave. If Republicans descend upon the TEA Parties asking that everyone forget Reaganite and Bushite deficit spending and other outrages -- don't.

14 April 2009

Tedisco vs. Murphy Endgame

The special election to fill the seat for the 20th Congressional District in New York should have been over by now, but most observers now believe that a resolution is still weeks away. That's because the margin separating Scott Murphy and Jim Tedisco is so narrow that there's reason for each man to demand that every single absentee ballot be counted -- except the ones they're challenging, of course. It looks like military ballots may decide the election, but there's a problem with those. From what I've read, most election authorities recommend that ballots be sent to the military within 45 days of the deadline for counting absentee ballots for a given election. New York State law seems to allow only a 30 day window.

Tedisco has asked for an extension to allow the anticipated last few military ballots to come in. His supporters and Republican talkers and bloggers nationwide seem to think that the New York law is designed to minimize military votes and undermine Republican candidates, the perhaps-outdated assumption being that military voters lean Republican. Also, it doesn't hurt Tedisco to make this demand, because it'll allow his people to accuse the Democrats of trying to suppress the votes of the troops if Murphy's lawyers resist.

Objectively speaking, in light of the consensus of recommendations, it seems unfair that NY soldiers have comparatively limited time to return absentee ballots. But as far as I can tell, none of those recommendations have the force of law, while the state's election rules do. The election authorities would be within their rights to turn Tedisco down. But it also ought to be possible to determine whether he could realistically expect more military ballots to come in, based on the number of district natives in the military, their voting patterns, and the number of ballots already received. At the very least, if it appears that the state law imposed an unreasonable hardship on military voters, and that hardship made a difference in the outcome of the election, New Yorkers ought to consider changing the law.

Tea Party Minus One

Albany is one of the cities across the country where allegedly non-political "tea parties" are being held tomorrow to protest high taxes and government spending. The organizers are at pains to deny that they are acting at the dictation of a political party, but their concerns seem to match one half of the Bipolarchy pretty closely. The Albany organizers claim that their idea began with a local radio talker and self-style "everyman" who then hooked up with the national organizers. They make their case here.

The partygoers may claim not to be partisan, but they are clearly ideological. Look at their complaints and you would have no idea that private business practices had anything to do with the current state of the American economy. Government, in their view, is the source of all our woe. The appeal seems designed to attract libertarians as well as Republicans, and in casting as wide a net as possible the organizers strike a hysterical note. They equate themselves with the 1773 Boston Tea Party, which was less a protest against taxation as such than it was a demonstration against British mercantilist policy, but is portrayed by the 2009 organizers as an early uprising against mounting tyranny. They see tyranny on the march today, in this country. They cite the increase of government generally as well as legislators' unresponsiveness to popular disapproval of various bailout plans. They also accuse the Democratic regime of striving to diminish personal freedom. This is the sort of talk that has provoked some people to link the Tea Party movement to the anti-government Pittsburgh cop killer, but the Tea Parties are probably as much a symptom of a broader reactionary mentality as the shooter was, rather than a cause of his violence.

We ought to restrain our assumptions about what these people want until they have a chance to speak tomorrow, but I don't expect to be surprised by what we hear. I would be surprised to see a lot of people at these events, since the people most sympathetic to their concerns are the ones most likely to dislike "mob" scenes and to prefer being "left alone." If the crowds are large, I'll consider it a pleasant surprise, even if it's in a dubious cause, because crowds would show that those people are learning, despite their own instincts or inhibitions, to act collectively in a public way.

Thailand: Blood on the Streets

Two "Red Shirts" were reported killed on Monday in the streets of Bangkok as the conflict between the government and the champions of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra escalated. According to what I read earlier in the day, the killing started when police forced demonstrators into a hostile neighborhood where the residents joined in the fight against the Red Shirts. Here's some of the day's most dramatic footage. with warnings that things could get worse.

13 April 2009

Idiots of the Week? Somali Pirates

It's only fair to include the Somali pirates themselves in this competition, alongside someone who imagines them to be chimerical performers in a drama stage-managed from Washington. The pirates earn their spot for their petulant response to the rescue of the American captain yesterday. Implicit in their outraged threats of retaliation is some wounded sense of justice, as if the Navy SEALS weren't playing by the rules when they shot down the sea-borne criminals. Their statements could be boiled down to: "No fair! We'll get you!" Perhaps this attitude is understandable coming from a culture where raiding may be considered an acceptable way of making a living, like hostage taking is in Yemen, or from people who think they have no other alternative given the state of their country. But understanding it doesn't mean we have to tolerate it.

According to some alarmed reports, we've already seen their first attempt at reprisal in the form of mortar rounds fired at a plane carrying a U.S. Congressman as it departed from Mogadishu this afternoon. If that's what it was, then the pirates' landlubber brethren should be glad that they missed. Two can play at the retaliation game, after all, and one can only imagine the consequences if those clowns had actually killed a Congressman. Well, beside a bunch of American yahoos cheering, as if the burden of government had been materially lightened, the majority of us, I expect, would want the U.S. to clean up this Somali mess once and for all. There would probably be more support for cleaning house there than there is now for staying the course in Afghanistan. That wouldn't make it right for the U.S. to invade Somalia, but my point is to show what trouble the pirates could get their country into by raising the stakes in this game.

Mr. Right: "Capitalism Isn't Fair"

Mr. Peepers came in today declaring his astonishment at a survey published last week that reported that little more than a bare majority of Americans polled preferred capitalism over socialism as an economic system. Mr. Right seemed less surprised by these results.

"It's partly because they don't teach world history in the schools anymore," he explained, "so kids don't learn that socialism has failed everywhere it's been tried. But it's also because of this obsession with fairness, when capitalism just isn't fair. It's kind of like life that way."

"I'm surprised to hear you say that," I said, "I imagine some conservatives would disagree with you."

He shrugged.

"I know I've heard or read Republicans who would say that capitalism is the only fair system there is," I continued, "or the only fair system there can be."

"The real issue is how society defines fairness," he replied. I have to agree with him on that, if not on the actual definition. It seemed to bother him, though, that the President of the United States seemed to share his viewpoint, at least superficially. "Obama has avowed on numerous occasions that capitalism is an unfair system," he said. But he said it in a way that indicated that he did not agree with Obama.

What's the difference? I suppose it's a matter of whether or not you define unfairness as a bad thing, but that only forces us back to the original question of defining fairness. It's up to each society to do so, but Mr. Right's idea of fairness would seem to be self-negating. He seems to have a problem with the idea of fairness. He's not the only one; John F. Kennedy famously said that life isn't fair, and that was before he got proof to the head. But some of us think that it's civilization's task to make life more fair, based on a reasoned consensus on what fairness should be. Others despise the whole idea, perhaps because they take it on faith that fairness can't be achieved in "this world" without treating some people "unfairly." Of course, given the way the world works, that easily becomes a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating prophecy. In any event, Mr. Right deserves credit for his candor.

Idiot of the Week: Early Nomination

As you'll recall, I predicted immediately after the Pittsburgh shootings that internet lunatics would claim that it was some sort of government-generated incident (a la September 2001 as far as some are concerned) designed to further an anti-gun agenda. Little did I suspect, however, that someone would say the Maersk Alabama incident and its happy resolution were a put on. But I underestimated some people's obsessive fear of President Obama, as illustrated by this posting from the Albany Craig's List site.

The poster is not a Republican, but a conspiracy theorist. He replied to a critical comment on his original post by affirming his belief that Obama is just as much a creature of the New World Order as George W. Bush was. Anyone with power would be, from that perspective, since "power" itself is virtually a conscious entity to such people, the purpose of which is to exclude them from having power of their own. Whoever has power must be part of the conspiracy to deny power to the conspiracy theorists. I'm not saying that conspiracy theorists lust for political power, but that they crave some feeling of mastery (even if it boils down to pure autonomy), the absence of which must be the result of some malignant will. They see manifestations of that evil will everywhere, especially on the news, and any event that seems to benefit that evil will must be its own creation and part of an intricate plot to consolidate the "enslavement" of everybody else. It's probably unfair to label such insanity as idiocy, but when such people make public statements, the public has to assign them some objective value, and idiocy sounds just about right.

12 April 2009

More People Power in Thailand?

The latest news from Thailand as I came home from my Easter visits was that the beleaguered government was finally taking steps to crack down on the "Red Shirt" protesters after a turbulent weekend best illustrated by this clip from an English-language al-Jazeera report.

Scenes like this leave me ambivalent. I don't think politics should come down to this kind of mob tactics as a rule, but when I see people on the streets like this, I feel more certain that those people care about the fate of their country, and that they feel some personally responsibility for the political future, than I do about most Americans. Perhaps this is unfair to my own people, and I should give more credit to individual deliberations than collective demonstrations, but my hunch is that a healthy political order has room for both and requires different emphases depending on different circumstances. There may well be times when the people have to get together, physically as well as intellectually, and make a public statement that can't be mistaken. I don't know if this is such a time in Thailand -- in fact, I have my doubts. But I'm not ready to say there can never be such a moment, either there or here. So let's keep watching and figure it out for ourselves.

Barack Obama is Badass!

Just the other day, Crhymethinc was asking me, "Why doesn't the U.S. just use snipers to take out the pirates surrounding the American hostage?" I thought the idea was implausible and I told him the Americans would probably be afraid of shooting the hostage or getting him killed if they didn't get all the pirates in the first volley. But today I learn that the President took advantage of intelligence of a moment of opportunity and danger and gave the order to take out the pirates. Three were killed, the fourth captured, and the American hostage was rescued unhurt. Were this the action of a Republican president, the "conservative" media would be singing that leader's praises as proof that the U.S. won't take shit from the world's rabble. It's still too soon for them to have commented on the conclusion of this little drama, so let's keep eyes and ears out for what they have to say over the next day or so.

10 April 2009

People Power in Thailand?

It wasn't that long ago that mobs seized an airport in Bangkok demanding that the country's president resign because, if I remember right, he was considered too close to the hated media mogul and former ruler Thaksin Shinawatra. Now it's the Red Shirts' turn to make a noise. Back in the 1920s and 1930s any group named for the color of their shirts was likely to be fascist. But the Red Shirts don't have the same kind of militaristic look. They're supporters of Thaksin who want the country's current government to step down. They've been protesting for a few days so far, and while they've been reported to be peaceful, they've created enough of an annoyance to force the cancellation of an Asian summit conference that was to be held in Thailand. What follows from this is anybody's guess, but here's another episode of people around the world getting out into the street to make a difference.

Pittsburgh: No ONE is to Blame

While I've amused myself over the past week watching to see if conspiracy theorists would respond to the report that the Pittsburgh shooter from last weekend was himself a conspiracy theorist by portraying him as an agent provocateur, my point has never been to blame Alex Jones or Infowars or Prison Planet specifically for the incident. I feel that I ought to emphasize this now that I've seen efforts in the Democratic media to blame the crime specifically on conservative commentators. In particular, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin have been singled out, as if Beck's vague calls for an uprising or Malkin's promotion of the anti-Obama "Tea Party" movement were sufficient to pull the trigger in the shooter's mind.

I only know what these two people say indirectly, but I know that Keith Olbermann at MSNBC has been tiresome in his persecution of Beck for daring to dissociate himself from what happened in Pittsburgh. Olbermann is my link to that Democratic liberal mediaverse that seems capable of defining itself only in hateful opposition to the Republican "conservative" bloc. These are the people who inflate the right-wing talkers' ratings by tuning in so they can get mad, and Olbermann in particular boosts his own ratings by featuring Beck, O'Reilly, Limbaugh et al prominently in variations of Orwell's ten-minutes hate sessions.

This obsession with the talkers distorts the political landscape, allowing too many liberals to convince themselves that Victory will be the day that the radio blowhards shut up once and for all. If anything, the obsession seems to have gotten worse since Obama's election, as it seems that the Demophiles (pardon me for trying out neologisms today) can't stand the thought of anyone speaking ill of the new President, unless they do so themselves for any perceived "selling out" of the "progressive" agenda. The Pittsburgh shooter has become a convenient club for the GOP-phobes to beat the talkers with -- and they aren't necessarily wrong in general. The problem arises when you ascribe any one politician, talker or blogger with sufficient influence to transform a mere nut into a killer.

It would probably be more accurate, instead of saying that the Pittsburgh gunman is the product of Jones, or Beck, or Malkin, or whomever you abhor, to say that he is one of them. While all of the accused would be able to argue that the Pittsburgh suspect is too anti-Semitic for their tastes, the main point isn't whether he swears fealty to some particular ideological mentor, but that all of these people, and many more besides, espouse a reactionary, illiberal worldview that needs to be refuted, whatever the differences in nuance may be among individuals. Jones, for instance, no doubt thinks that the likes of Beck and Malkin are no less minions of the international bankers than Obama himself, while Beck and Malkin would most likely see Jones, a "9-11 truther," as a malicious crank. But they stand together in opposition to an ideal of civilization that requires government as regulators of social relations for everyone's sake while demanding more from civilization than the reactionaries' atavistic obsession with self-reliance and their every-man-for-himself ethos. There needs to be an intellectual war of ideas in this country, not more feuds among talking heads. Too many "Democraps" (to borrow a useful pejorative from Crhymethinc) seem to think that bad ideas will vanish if they can discredit the most prominent spokesmen for those ideas. I'd like to hope that the real solution goes the other way around. If we can skip the ad hominem attacks on certain talkers, and in fact immediately reduce their celebrity by ignoring them, and concentrate on changing ordinary people's minds, finding the right arguments that will break the spell of widespread anarcho-Reaganism, we might someday discover that all the blowhards are gone without anyone having raised a hand or a pitchfork against them. And we might find ourselves hearing less about mass shootings in the bargain.

09 April 2009

A Presidential Hunger Strike

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, has thought up an unorthodox strategy for overriding his country's constitutional system of checks and balances. He does not control a majority in the Bolivian Senate. The opposition is thus able to block legislation that creates new political entities within existing provinces or states in areas where indigenous people form a majority of the population. Opponents predictably claim that the bill is a move by Morales, indigenous himself and allegedly impatient with a federal system that allows some parts of the country to defy him, to change the balance of power in his favor. Lacking the votes to push the bill through, Morales has decided to apply satyagraha, Mohandas Gandhi's strategy of non-violent moral intimidation. He has put himself on a hunger strike and has vowed to maintain it until the senate capitulates and empowers the indigenous people.

I have never heard of a ruler going on a hunger strike before. Usually the idea never occurs to ruling classes, but Morales rose from the bottom of Bolivian society, and is able to think outside the conventional box. Of course, I have to wonder whether he'd really put his life on the line for this bill. I'm sure the opposition will demand some independent monitoring of his condition to prevent any fakery. In any event, my hunch is that Morales hopes that the idea of his possible sacrifice will galvanize his own followers to put fresh and increased pressure on the opposition . What form that pressure might take is a mystery to me, but if that isn't the case, and Morales actually thinks that he can sway an entrenched "neoliberal" opposition by risking his health, then the naivete of simple origins is showing itself. If the opposition are the sort of oligarchs or entrepreneurs who end up opposing populist leaders like Morales, I expect that they'd be perfectly happy to watch him starve. The real question is whether the Bolivian majority will let it happen. I'll keep you posted.

08 April 2009

Against Humanitarian Intervention

Saviors and Survivors is a new book by Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani that argues against a rush to judgment on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. He places himself at odds with a "Save Darfur" lobby based in the United States that has portrayed the conflict in Darfur as a genocidal war waged by the Sudanese government and its "janjaweed" auxiliaries against a group allegedly perceived as inferior "Africans" by the so-called "Arab" aggressors. Mamdani claims that the lobby has ignored both a decline in violence in Darfur over the past five years and the realities of ethnicity in Sudan that make the genocide charge a spurious one. He goes through the history of Sudan and its precursor states, noting that tribal animosities have their root, as seems often to be the case in Africa, in the colonial power's divide-and-rule strategy of favoring certain tribes or ethnicities over others and suppressing the development of a truly national consciousness. The Belgians did the same thing in Rwanda, with awful consequences in the 1990s. The Darfur conflict is a clash over land and dwindling resources rather than a race war; the desertification of grazing land is forcing horse and camel nomads onto farmlands where they aren't welcome. The apparent aggression of the nomads (including the janjaweed) is a reaction to a denial of rights to groups that had been denied the same tribal privileges as farmers. The conflict grew extremely violent because the region had become militarized during the Cold War, when Darfur was a staging area for factions struggling for control of neighboring Chad, including proxies of the U.S. and Libya.

Mamdani seems to be offering an objective account of the story. He takes no sides, as far as I can tell, and that might immediately offend people who automatically see the "Africans" of Darfur as the good guys. But Mamdani doesn't believe in the sort of good guy-bad guy dichotomies that enthrall Americans. That's part of the reason why he opposes any armed "humanitarian intervention" by foreigners in Sudan. As far as he's concerned, all sides have legitimate interests and grievances that need to be hashed out in a deliberate reconciliation process. He prefers the South African concept of "truth and reconciliation" to the "victors' justice" exemplified by the Nuremberg trials. His refusal to moralize the Darfur issue will probably lead some to say he's an apologist for Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator whom the lobby blames (incorrectly, Mamdani says) for the conflict. This is a clash of sensibilities. For Mamdani politics is a perpetual negotiation process of permanent interest groups, the ideal object being that no one should lose. For others, including Americans, politics is more like a zero-sum game involving factions (parties) rather than interests, usually in the form of elections, where the winner takes all and the losers are marginalized as much as possible. From that perspective, Sudan's problems won't look like they're solved until Bashir is gone and the janjaweed are crushed. But Mamdani insists vehemently that African independence depends on the other perspective prevailing.

Mamdani isn't the first writer I've seen criticize the humanitarian intervention principle. His criticism resembles that of Slavoj Zizek and other intellectuals. Their view is that the West's declaration of rights for people in other countries, and its self-appointment as guarantor of foreigners' rights, actually strips people in other countries of responsibility for their own governments and reduces them to a quasi-colonial dependence on the old colonial powers (plus the U.S.).When the developed world decides, however benevolently, what the rights are of people elsewhere, those people implicitly lose the right to decide for themselves what their rights are. The insistence on war-crimes tribunals on the Nuremberg principle, enshrined however hypocritically in the International Criminal Court, turns what should be a political process conducted by the people themselves in any given country into a legal process imposed from outside. Mamdani describes this as the transformation of people into "consumers" of rights instead of sovereign citizens. Such a viewpoint begs the question of whether the people of any country are better off sovereign when that means a sovereign is crushing them underfoot, but that question doesn't fully answer Mamdani's point. If he means to say that it's up to the people of each country to put their own house in order, and that it's wrong in some way to deny them that responsibility even if leaving it with them means years of bloodshed and suffering, I have to agree -- to an extent. My agreement ends once anyone assumes that national sovereignty puts a limit on global progress for all time. It's more likely that a time will come when we all have to interfere in one another's affairs -- as long as everyone and every nation has an equal opportunity to make a difference, and the object is everyone's well-being. Nations will probably fall by the wayside some day -- only not right away, most likely. For now, Mamdani's book is a cautionary tale that policy makers should read with care.

Idiot of the Week? Conspiracy Edition

It takes a few days for some of the more paranoid conspiracy theorists to get their brain cells working on fresh information, but their responses to the Binghamton and Pittsburgh shootings are starting to come out of the woodwork. Here is an anonymous poster to the Albany Craig's List site from yesterday. His subject head is exactly the sort of comment I've been expecting, but he never really pushes that assertion in the body of his post. Instead, you get a pretty sweeping account of the current preoccupations of some of the pathological individualists in this country. You know you're dealing with a special case when the writer accuses the National Rifle Association of being in bed with the allegedly gun-hating government. I doubt any further comments from me could do it justice, since I'm not a psychologist. I feel pretty certain, however, that the statements expressed should be seen as symptoms, not opinions.

Piracy: This is a Test

As I write, the breaking news on the MSNBC web site is that Pentagon sources are claiming that the American crew of the cargo ship seized by Somali pirates may have reclaimed control of the Kenya-bound vessel. If this proves true, it will preempt the point of this post, which is that this might prove to be the first real foreign-policy test for the Obama administration. If the pirates continue to hold the ship, we should expect to hear American commentators pressure the President into taking decisive action to rescue the Americans and punish the pirates. Because these are supposedly Somali pirates, from the land of "Black Hawk Down," Obama's critics will scrutinize his every move in this matter for signs of "weakness" that could "embolden" anti-American elements in the same way that President Clinton's withdrawal from Somalia following the Mogadishu battle supposedly emboldened Osama bin Laden. The same critics are likely to blame Obama for the recent wave of anti-Shiite bombings in Baghdad, if they haven't started already, on the premise that "the terrorists" are emboldened by the President's reaffirmed commitment to quitting Iraq. That kind of criticism, however, presumes that Iraqis don't do anything without making some rational calculation about what the U.S. might or might not do about it. As for Somalia and its oceanic neighborhood, I had better wait for more current news before speculating further.

Update: the latest as of 2:00 p.m. is that the crew has control of the ship, but that the pirates have the ship's captain as a hostage in a lifeboat. Details remain sketchy but the USA Today blog page promises constant updates on the situation.

07 April 2009

People Power in Moldova?

The Communist Party won an apparent slim majority over the past weekend in elections held in Moldova, reputedly the poorest country in Europe. Inevitably, a lot of people are pissed. Perhaps just as inevitably, a lot of those people think the election was rigged. Election observers apparently report otherwise, but a hard core of "anti-comunist youth" doesn't buy it. Today they staged the first act of what they probably envision as their own version of one of the "color" revolutions of purported people power that have driven Communist or pro-Communist regimes on the run elsewhere. Here is raw footage from the scene.

Do they have a case? Are they sore losers? Do they hope they'll get American attention and an automatic benefit of the doubt because they oppose Communism? It depends. I only learned about these extraordinary scenes when I got home from work -- in a newspaper office. So I think this is all happening under the American radar so far. But I'm going to keep an eye on it just the same.