31 May 2009

American Terrorism?

It's important to reserve judgment until we know more about the suspect reportedly in custody, but it's not unreasonable to presume that the killing in a church lobby of a Kansas doctor who performed abortions was a politically-related crime, done with the intent to prevent him from performing further abortions and possibly to deter others from continuing to perform them. If so, that is terrorism. It's not a matter of body count or method, or even about religion. It's all about motive, and unless it emerges that the suspect had a purely personal grudge, it is fit and proper to call him a terrorist. That might make things less clear to some people on other fronts, but maybe it'll clarify matters for others.

29 May 2009

Speaking of Sotomayor

The White House is doing an almost desperate job of putting words in the mouth of Justice-designate Sotomayor today. The President's spokesman told the press that the judge admitted to making a poor word choice in her 2001 speech, excerpts from which I posted yesterday. The spokesman had only second-hand knowledge of her reflections, however, since he had only spoken to friends who claimed to have heard her latest views on the subject. I doubt such an apology, if authentic, will placate critics of her or her speech, since the controversial sentence about the "wise Latina woman" is not exactly at odds with the rest of the text.

The President himself conveyed the judge's reputed regrets while appearing to endorse her position that life experience enhances constitutional jurisprudence. That's even more unlikely to appease those people who take such talk as heresy against the justice-is-blind principle. But if this is going to be controversial we ought to discuss it as a question of fact as well as principle. Idealists can debate whether life experience should inform jurisprudence, but whether it has or not is less debatable. Let's ask why Dred Scott v. Sandford or Plessy v. Ferguson were decided wrong. Was it only because the justices of the age were imbeciles? Or did it have at least something to do with who they were (or who they weren't) and how that influenced their perceptions on subjects of citizenship and equality? Admitting the possibility is little comfort to those who take Sotomayor's view, however, since these cases demonstrate that life experience is a two way street. It can lead one to decide questions of justice wrongly sometimes. That has to be true for everybody. If particular experience gives the wise Latina superior understanding of certain issues, it may cloud her understanding of others, perhaps inevitably. A clever Senator might concede the argument of the judge's speech, yet ask her if she can envision a case in which the white man has superior insight by virtue of life experience. Should she say no, then we should worry about her.

28 May 2009

A "Wise Latina Woman"

The charge that Justice-designate Sotomayor is a racist or bigot of some sort, as aired by such accusers as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, has been based largely on a speech she made to a Hispanic law students' group at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001. The New York Times has put the entire text online for us to examine. I want to highlight some of the significant parts.

Judge [Miriam] Cedarbaum expresses concern with any analysis of women and presumably again people of color on the bench, which begins and presumably ends with the conclusion that women or minorities are different from men generally. She sees danger in presuming that judging should be gender or anything else based. She rightly points out that the perception of the differences between men and women is what led to many paternalistic laws and to the denial to women of the right to vote because we were described then "as not capable of reasoning or thinking logically" but instead of "acting intuitively."

While recognizing the potential effect of individual experiences on perception, Judge Cedarbaum nevertheless believes that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law. Although I agree with and attempt to work toward Judge Cedarbaum's aspiration, I wonder whether achieving
that goal is possible in all or even in most cases. And I wonder whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society. Whatever the reasons why we may have different perspectives, either as some theorists suggest because of our cultural experiences or as others postulate because we have basic differences in logic and reasoning, are
in many respects a small part of a larger practical question we as women and minority judges in society in general must address....

[B]ecause I accept the proposition that, as Judge [Judith] Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that--it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. Not all women or people of color, in all or some circumstances or indeed in any particular case or circumstance but enough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging....

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life....

The last sentence is the one most commonly quoted, though some people have ended the quote with the words "white male" without finishing the sentence. Frankly, I worry more about the sentence that comes before. If "there can never be a universal definition of wise," I'm not sure if constitutional government based upon a rule of law is possible. Would it mean that no common understanding of what the Constitution means is possible? If so, then how is anyone to know which is the "better conclusion" between that of the "wise Latina woman" and the allegedly inexperienced white male? Merely saying it depends on the case and the context doesn't suffice. This would be an interesting line of inquiry at the judge's confirmation hearing.

But for those who infer from the speech that Sotomayor has prejudged certain cases as a matter of identity politics, here's one more quote as a caution.

I, like Professor [Stephen L.] Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many
issues including Brown[ v.Board of Education].However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the
bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

I might add that the deliberative process of jurisprudence goes both ways, and that Sotomayor should be as open to the perspective of others with different experiences as she would hope they will be to her perspective. I hope she'll clarify her beliefs on these points at the hearings, but that would require Senators smart enough to ask the right questions without deferring to her as a matter of party discipline. Let's see who steps up to the plate.

Globalization of Poor Sportsmanship

If I understand the news reports correctly, a Nigerian man whose favorite team is Manchester United from Great Britain got enraged when he saw fellow Nigerians in his town celebrating yesterday's victory over his team by their favorite team, Barcelona, in the European Champions League final, and drove his vehicle into the crowd, killing at least four people. I want to ask, "what's wrong with this picture?" but there are so many answers I could offer that I don't know where to begin. I'll trust you to figure it out for yourselves.

27 May 2009

Americans and Arabs: Do We Hate Their Freedom?

Varieties of Muslim Experience: Encounters With Arab Political and Cultural Life is a modestly provocative book by Lawrence Rosen, a Princeton anthropologist with extensive experience in the Arab world, particularly in Morocco. It's his attempt to explain Arab (or Muslim) beliefs, practices and attitudes that often seen alienating or distressing to American observers. What has intrigued me so far is Rosen's persistent contrast between Arab and American political attitudes. He emphasizes that Arabs, based on his experience of them, don't necessarily feel unfree under a kind of government that Americans would see as a tyranny. According to Rosen, that's because freedom, for Arabs, consists of the ability to form "webs of dependence," each person defining his place in society by establishing dependent yet reciprocal relationships with others in what Rosen regularly calls "the game." If a dictator of king puts no impediments in the way of this process, Rosen implies, the typical Arab doesn't consider himself oppressed. Rather, Arabs may prefer dictatorship to any more chaotic condition that makes it difficult for them to network and establish themselves and their relationships.

Rosen contends that Arabs define themselves by their relationships, including their dependence on others, rather than idealize an autonomous self as Americans do. The archetypal America aspires to a state in which he depends on nobody and owes nothing to anyone. But to Arabs, if I understand Rosen right, the person who has complete freedom of action because he owes no one anything, or thinks that he doesn't, is the epitome of injustice because he denies any concept of reciprocity and thus denies others their proper standing in society.

Without meaning to, Rosen also suggests an answer to the great question of "what went wrong" with the Arab world while Europe and America forged ahead. Arab culture seems to have a problem with the concept of a "rule of law" to the extent that it treats people in the abstract as citizens with equal rights and obligations. By contrast, Rosen portrays Arabs as individualists (or "personalists") to a fault. Any political office, any position of responsibility, is inseparable from the specific person who holds it. Rosen's Arabs are skeptical toward claims of objectivity; they presume that officials make decisions based on their personal interests. "What appears to some as an Arab penchant for conspiracy theories may perhaps be better understood as a constant quest for causes that can be traced back to some person," Rosen writes (p.27). But that reads more like euphemism than clarification, since conspiracy theory is founded on the same sort of "who benefits" questioning and belief in will as the cause of all things that Rosen finds typical of Arabs. In any event, if you believe that the establishment of a "rule of law" favoring abstract rights over personal privileges is a prerequisite for socio-economic advancement, an Arab aversion to the idea, if real, may at least partly explain their apparent backwardness. At the same time, Rosen's account of Arab society might appeal to the more hyper-individualistic Americans for exactly the reasons that may have handicapped it.

I can't help wanting a second opinion about Arabs, but Rosen makes a plausible case against the neocon notion that all people everywhere on Earth aspire to "freedom" as it is understood in the United States. He shows that Arabs can scoff at or simply not comprehend the American ideal, yet still consider themselves free. They may not be free in the American sense of the word, but the more you read about the world, the more you realize that the American sense of that word is just that: one culture's attitude among many cultures. The American may look at other cultures and say they aren't free, but that has no more automatic validity than a Christian's assertion that other religions worship Satan. If we want a global definition of freedom, then we'll need a global culture to define it. Until then, books like Rosen's should knock some sense into people.

26 May 2009

Limbaugh vs. Olbermann: Battle of the Bloviators

Rush Limbaugh believes that the liberal talkers on the MSNBC channel are exploiting him to boost their ratings. He is correct. Keith Olbermann's Countdown show in particular is aimed at the audience that buys books with titles like Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot or I Hate (Republican talker of choice). Liberals, I suspect, watch the Olbermann show for the same reason that many of them listen to Limbaugh: to experience a thrill of hatred and a vicarious right to respond. Countdown is essentially a reactionary program, as are all commentary shows. If anything, liberals get more personal about this than reactionaries and Republicans. I can't quantify it myself, but I bet that Limbaugh and his peers are mentioned more often on MSNBC than Olbermann and his colleagues are on the right-wing shows. Limbaugh is well within his rights to point this out.

Limbaugh is way out of bounds, however, when he challenges Olbermann and the rest of MSNBC, however frivolously, not to talk about him for thirty days. I get his supposed point, which is that Countdown can't succeed by preaching the positive message of liberalism and therefore must stoke hatred of the Right. But Limbaugh can't get around the fact that he is a public figure and a newsmaker, and thus an appropriate subject for commentary at any time. Olbermann, in turn, is well within his rights to interpret the challenge as Limbaugh's "surrender," an admission that he can't take what Olbermann claims to be accurate and damning criticism. That said, my own opinion is that Countdown has grown just as tiresome as I imagine the Limbaugh, Hannity and O'Reilly programs to be. It seems to have no purpose other than to lambaste a coterie of "conservative" talkers and politicians. Yet it seems to me that on any given day no mere radio or TV talker can be the "worst person in the world," and that, no matter how influential Limbaugh is within the Republican party, true progressives should have bigger fish to fry. But liberals and Democrats have made the talkers the scapegoats for all their troubles since the days of Clinton, as if they think the Republican party might truly collapse if the talkers' hot air didn't keep it afloat.

People like Olbermann may not think that their side has won until the talkers are silenced. I don't mean that they'd like to see the talkers banned from the airwaves, but I do think they have an unrealistic goal of shaming their enemies into submission. At the same time, I wonder whether Olbermann hasn't been driven by some desire to have his antagonists acknowledge his existence or recognize him as an equal foe. My impression had been that they had scrupulously ignored him or avoided uttering his name for the most part until recently. Limbaugh's challenge may indeed be proof of a crucial weakening of the reactionary talkers' position. If so, it would be high time for Olbermann's side to adopt the practices of the position of strength. After all, there's probably no more foolproof way of silencing one's enemies than not listening to them. You'll know the tide has turned when people decide that Limbaugh's opinions are not worth responding to, but Olbermann will probably be behind the curve when that time comes.

Enter Sotomayor

The President has nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill the vacancy created by Justice Souter's retirement from the Supreme Court. His choice has the expected combination of multicultural idealism and cynical political calculation. If confirmed, Sotomayor will be the first Hispanic person on the high court, and that prospect may deter Republicans from any major effort to block her confirmation. They might also note that she has the George H. W. Bush stamp of approval, since he appointed her to her first federal judgeship about 20 years ago.

Sotomayor is reputed to be a centrist, and has been criticized from at least one quarter for being a mediocre intellectual. At first glance, it looks like reactionaries will fight her on the ground of affirmative action rather than abortion rights. She ruled against white firemen who claimed reverse discrimination back in the 1990s, while deferring to the first President Bush on blocking foreign aid to family planning programs that included abortion.

I'm unimpressed by the President's insistence that "compassion" is required to "interpret the Constitution wisely." The document exists as a check on all passions, and we should expect any judge to appreciate that. The Constitution is an artifact of a less "compassionate" time, and compassion is probably better applied to amending it than to interpreting what's already written. I don't say this to disqualify Sotomayor, but to suggest that the better alternative to reading anachronistic values into the language of the Framers is to affirm explicitly that our fundamental values have changed since 1789. If we continue to argue over what the Framers meant the reactionaries will always have an edge. But if we do what the Framers permitted, reactionary adherence to a skewed notion of the Framers' original intent will become increasingly irrelevant. It isn't up to the Supreme Court to lead any revolution. Its job is to enforce the revolutions enacted by the people. Once we face up to this truth, judicial confirmations should become as uncontroversial as they used to be.

25 May 2009

An Outlaw Nation?

North Korea is a former signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but withdrew from it in 2003. The dictatorship was breaking no agreement when it conducted its latest nuclear tests this past weekend, but is considered and is likely to be treated as a rogue state. "Rogue state" is no legal category that I know of, but if you are known as one, you apparently lose the right to defend yourself. So long as Kim Jong Il perceives himself as the target of another country's "regime change" policy, he'll consider himself within his inherent rights as a sovereign to defend himself by creating a deterrent. It will surprise no one if he assumes that a superpower like the United States only understands force or the threat of force. But the U.S. would have the rest of the world treat North Korea's nuclear aspirations as if they were acts of aggression. The Obama administration seems to show no change from its predecessor in this regard. But what is anyone going to do about it? Does anyone propose to go to war against the "hermit kingdom." They dare not, so long as Kim is assumed to hold South Korea hostage to attack by conventional forces which themselves could devastate a major world economic power. The possibility of Kim lashing out against the south in reprisal for any punitive policy pretty much means that nothing will be done, except to pursue a containment policy to keep Kim from sharing the deadly technology with other powers. Reality won't stop Republicans in this country from insinuating that the President could have done something to dissuade Kim from doing his thing. GOP propagandists will call the latest tests proof of Obama's weakness, probably without recalling that Bush's bluster never really deterred Kim. Anyone who makes such a comment (I'm thinking Charles Krauthammer) should be asked what they propose to do about North Korea. Should we seek a declaration of war? Impose a starvation blockade? Commission a hit squad to kill Kim? Or should the right response be, "So what?" For most of our existence we've had to co-exist with tyrants and despotisms of all kinds. Why has this become intolerable to some people today? Why do they feel so threatened by the existence of undemocratic or illiberal forms of government when our forefathers, who were far weaker than we, never trembled at the thought of the armed dynasties of Imperial Europe? Have other countries become so much more powerful and dangerous -- is this really all because of nuclear weapons -- or have Americans in their obsessive defense of individual freedom become more paranoid? The answer is probably a big bit of both.

21 May 2009

The Obama-Cheney Debate

In a way, today showed the country at its best. The President went before the nation via television to explain his views on a controversial policy, and a representative of the opposition replied. Leaving the content aside, this sort of exchange should be the ideal for every country.

For once, the two sides in the dispute over the treatment of terror-war detainees weren't talking past each other. The President returned to "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a moral question and a challenge to national character. Waterboarding is repugnant to mankind, and our resort to it besmirches the country's image abroad, undermining American claims to role-model status. He seemed to conceded that the rule of law couldn't accommodate every prisoner of the terror war. Noting that "people who have received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans" may have to be detained indefinitely, he still thinks that something like a rule of law could be established to deal with such people.

Obama emphasized how we defined ourselves over the past century as the country that didn't torture or otherwise mistreat prisoners or dissidents, the one to whom enemies would rather surrender (compared to, say, the USSR during World War II). If someone hopes to change the President's mind on this point, that individual must argue persuasively that waterboarding and other enhanced techniques do not compromise the country's essential character.

The former Vice-President summed up these moral objections as " feigned outrage based on a false narrative." He notes that only three terror suspects have ever been waterboarded and suggests, not implausibly, that many people have Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib mixed up in their minds, so that they imagine the antics in the Iraqi prison being perpetrated on our Cuban base. "[P]eople who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about 'values,'" Cheney grumbled. He usually defends interrogation practices on grounds of efficiency; if they produced information that thwarted terrorist plots, that's all the justification they need. Today, he dismissed the argument that our publicized interrogation techniques have been a "recruiting tool" for terrorists. They would turn no one against the United States, he said, who didn't already despise the country's core values. He was back to the standard neocon "they hate our freedom" argument. For the most part, he seemed not to realize that critics like the President are concerned with how our conduct appears to third parties, the rest of the world, rather than how terrorists perceive them. He did offer such critics this tidbit.

Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.

Cheney didn't attempt to refute the argument that his policies were inconsistent with the country's conduct toward enemies for most of its history. Some people have suggested that going back to the record would vindicate the pro-torture camp, but that will be a project for another time. Perhaps showing a Republican bias, he characterized objections to torture as solicitude toward the rights of the detainees when it is actually, again, grounded in a notion that Americans shouldn't do certain things. Cheney speaks for those Americans who find such a notion absurd.

A distinction emerges between those we can call "liberals" and those who aren't. The liberals believe in establishing a consistent rule of law through institutions that can function effectively at all times, including crises. The other side finds the liberals' regulatory institutions constrictive of both their ordinary individual freedom to get ahead and their assumed natural right to save themselves by any means in emergencies. History may yet prove the liberals naive in their principled refusal to employ certain means for certain ends, or it may prove most liberal individuals hypocrites during more severe emergencies than the present conflict. But their ideal is something people ought to believe in, even if it only ever amounts to a Utopia. Meanwhile, the other side's position isn't hypocritical as much as it's paradoxical. It's increasingly apparent to me, at least, that their ordinary reactionary defense of "freedom" and their readiness to resort to quasi-dictatorship in wartime are two sides of a single coin. These people remain fundamentally alienated from an ideal of social order that seems totalitarian to them to the extent that it seems to limit their assumed natural right to save themselves first. In peacetime, they assert that right by refusing politically-imposed limits on how much anyone can acquire in money or property. In wartime they have no more objection to ruthlessness in national self-defense than they do to killing someone to defend their own property. From this perspective, unbounded executive leadership is simply yet another expression of freedom. It's a freedom that also thinks of itself as civilization, but some people who also see themselves as civilized may beg to differ.

20 May 2009

The Party of Herbert Hoover

I'm finishing off William E. Leuchtenburg's biography of Herbert Hoover from the American Presidents series. In part I was interested in Hoover because of the controversy over whether both his and FDR's policies exacerbated the Great Depression, but Leuchtenburg's book is as much a character study as a summary of Hoover's policies. The character revealed is very reminiscent of modern-day Republicans.

The thing that jumps out at you about Hoover is the contradiction between his attitude about the state and his belief in personal power. The Depression seemed only to harden his hostility to the idea of a regulatory welfare state. To the extent that a man of his time could have an ideology, he was an anti-statist, but while many people fear the state because they fear its power, Hoover never seemed to have a problem with power itself. He made his name in public life for genuinely heroic action in organizing food relief for the people of occupied Belgium during World War I. He imposed his will on two warring nations to get his way, browbeating Britain into lifting a blockade of Europe and getting Germany to let him go pretty much as he pleased in occupied territory. When America joined the war, Hoover may have become the first American to be called a policy "czar" when President Wilson made him "food czar." He acquired unprecedented power over food production, distribution and consumption in order to feed the country's allies. Leuchtenburg quotes him saying that a democracy at war "requires a dictatorship of some kind or another," and that "a democracy must submerge itself temporarily in the hands of an able man or an able group of men."

But if he could not persuade businessmen and bankers to do what he thought appropriate to reverse the Depression, Hoover preferred to deny that times were bad enough to require radical action. He created a lot of special commissions to investigate conditions, but balked at systematic reform. He stated his own position most clearly in 1936: "Either we shall have a society based upon ordered liberty and the initiative of the individual, or we shall have a planned society and that means dictation." In the 21st century, many people think that "ordered liberty" means a regulatory state, but to Hoover the regulatory state meant a "planned society." In his mind, apparently, ordered liberty depended on the initiative of the individual. Based on his past, you can infer that ordered liberty left room for individual initiative in an emergency in the form of policy "czars" or the virtual dictatorship of "an able man or an able group of men." Hoover's idea of freedom accommodated the occasional need for extraordinary leadership that should seem inconsistent with any idea of ordered liberty. If any of this reminds you of George W. Bush and his acolytes, it's probably no accident.

I'm reminded of the concept of the "state of exception" concept of sovereignty in a modern tradition that dates back to the quasi-Nazi Carl Schmitt. According to this concept, the sovereign is the power capable of declaring a state of exception to the rule of law that depends upon it. In other word, the power to make the law is the power to break the law, but, perhaps paradoxically, the sovereign's power to break the law is also the power that sustains the law. I wonder whether Republicans approach the problem of freedom in the same way. They pay lip service to the rule of law, but when "freedom" as they understand it seems imperiled, they seem to prefer strong leadership bordering on dictatorship to a defense of freedom according to a rule of law. It's as if the right to become a dictator as a matter of self-defense is implicit in their understanding of individual liberty. If so, then limiting the implicit power of leadership through a strong rule of law or a regulatory state would be seen as an attack on individual liberty itself. At least that's my attempt at figuring Hoover out, and you may find it useful in understanding the way certain Republicans talk and act.

Guantanamo and the NIMBY principle

Hysteria over the prospect of alleged terrorists being transferred from the Guantanamo Bay facility to American prisons has climaxed in a Senate vote this morning blocking such a transfer. The FBI has also spoken out against the idea. To some observers, these fears seem absurd, but I guess that's because we've thought that the fraidy-cats were simply afraid that it might be easier for the suspects to escape from American prisons. Now we learn that authorities fear that the alleged terrorists will radicalize fellow prisoners and form networks on the gang model that would facilitate domestic terrorism. Frankly, this seems just as unlikely to me, but the current hysteria reminds us of the absurdity of the entire "war on terror." The "war" approach is always contrasted with a "crime fighting" approach, but we end up treating "prisoners of war" like we would captive gangsters -- as information resources. If we really mean to be at war with terrorists, and the issue of their confinement after capture raises so many annoying questions, then why don't we simply kill anyone we identify as a terrorist on sight? In war the enemy is to be killed. If the primary objective in the "war on terror" isn't to kill terrorists but to extract information in order to identify and defeat a larger network, then the "war" is for all intents and purposes a criminal investigation, and should be conducted accordingly. The Bush Administration, of course, wanted to have it both ways and maintain "war on terror" as a special category the rules of which the President could make up as he goes along. If the Obama Administration intends to do things differently, it had better explain itself better to its own alleged supporters in Congress.

Here's the roll call. New Yorkers, please note that both of the state's Democratic senators voted for this ridiculous amendment, which was introduced by a Democrat (Sen. Inouye of Hawaii) as well. Were I a senator, I'd introduce an amendment demanding the summary execution of all Guantanamo detainees, just to see how many votes it'd get.

19 May 2009

Idiot of the Week Nominee: Senator Tom Coburn

The Senate has just passed a bill reforming credit card billing practices to ease pressures on consumers. Credit card issuers are to be constrained from arbitrarily raising interest rates on existing balances and must give advance notice of over-the-limit penalties in order to give card holders a kind of grace period. Despite opposition from the credit card industry, which insists on high interest rates and penalties to compensate for the risk involved in issuing credit cards, the upper house passed the bill by a 90-5 vote, with four senators ill or absent. House approval and a presidential signature are expected, but there's a complication. Senator Coburn, a Republican, introduced an amendment ( scroll down to S.Amd7. 1067) that was added to the credit card measure by a 67-29 vote. How does the Coburn amendment change the bill's impact on card holders or issuers? In no way whatsoever. Instead, the amendment forbids the government from prohibiting people from carrying firearms in national parks.

You might think that no one should have to think of self-defense in a national park, but Sen. Coburn thinks differently. Invoking the Second Amendment, his intervention mandates that the right to "keep and bear arms" shall not be infringed in parks unless specific individuals are already prohibited from carrying guns. All of this is debatable in its own right, but what has it to do with credit card interest rates? Apparently it doesn't have to have anything to do with the legislation it amends. There's no test of relevancy for such things apart from that each senator conducts in his or her head before voting on an amendment. So Coburn can polish his gun-nut credentials by piggy-backing his bill on more popular legislation. Interesting, three of the five senators who opposed the amended bill voted for the amendment. That looks pointless unless you're tabulating the National Rifle Association's ratings for legislators.

The House of Representatives has the right to decouple the Coburn amendment from the credit card bill, and is expected to vote on the two measures separately. That, however, would require some form of reconciliation between the amended Senate bill and an unamended House version. I expect the amendment will fall by the wayside at that point, since the gun nuts will have already put themselves on the record. In any event, it should.

Conservative Barbarism?

As I mentioned yesterday, The American Conservative will become a monthly this summer, each issue somewhat larger than the old fortnightlies, in order to keep publishing. I'm glad that the magazine is still going. While I don't consider myself a conservative, I find many of the writers the kinds of conservatives with whom reasonable deliberation might be possible. They aren't the entrepreneurial ideologues you think of when you visualize Reaganite Republicanism. Their conservatism involves a degree of self-criticism that seems alien to the dogmatic optimists I sometimes call the "Confidence Party."

A case in point is Rod Dreher, the self-styled "crunchy con." He represents a conservative element that embraces environmentalism and the small-is-beautiful ethic. His conservatism isn't concerned solely with making the world safe for entrepreneurs.In "Becoming Barbarians," Dreher critiques a conservative tendency to build defenses against theoretical "barbarians at the gates" while ignoring a decline into barbarism within their gates in which they're complicit.

"Do I need to believe in the imminent arrival of the barbarians to avoid the hard, tedious and not especially rewarding work of trying to come up with a livable conservatism in the present uncongenial age?" Dreher asks. He had believed that conservatives ought to adopt what he called the "Benedict Option," after St. Benedict of Nursia: dropping out of mainstream society and forming enclaves to preserve traditional culture. He now questions this approach because it presumes that "the barbarians" are always on the outside, or can be kept on the outside. It may be no more that "Romantic escapism masquerading as monastic-tinged cultural survivalism." That doesn't mean that there isn't "an astonishing and astonishingly rapid cultural collapse" under way, but that "my frantic concern about the barbarians, and what was to be done about the catastrophe we were living through, was distracting me from the kind of thought that could truly renew and restore a culture lost to itself[.]"

This seems to be the kind of thought Dreher has in mind:

Conservatives have worked so hard over the past few decades to fight for civilized standards against a short checklist of modern barbarisms -- abortion, gay marriage, political correctness, and so forth. What we failed to consider was that we had become barbarians ourselves.
The barbarians of the Roman era wandered and marauded aimlessly. We accepted rootlessness as the modern condition. We defended our unrestrained consumer appetites by spiting those who would counsel limits as freedom's enemies. Despisers of communism, we worshiped capitalism, naive to its revolutionary power to dissolve bonds we ought to have cherished and things we ought to have conserved. Though we like to think of ourselves as apostles of excellence preaching against the depredations of Hollywood trash and academia's political correctness, we have reduced ourselves to sneering at the concept of elitism and celebrating ignorance and vulgarity as signs of authenticity.
We cast aside the sense of temperamental modesty, of restraint and of fidelity to honorable traditions that have been conservatism's philosophical patrimony, and exchanged it for a pot of ideological message.

Dreher may discredit himself for some readers by recounting at length a dream he had in which the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy rebuffs his appeals for advice about the barbarians by asking him to admire the bells of a local church and a bottle of locally-made beer.Before the dream, Dreher had never read Cavafy but knew him as the author of a poem about barbarians. He later found that Cavafy had written: "And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?/They were, those people, a kind of solution." As Dreher reads it, obsessing over "the barbarians" is a way to distract ourselves from dealing with our own decadence. The way to deal with it, he now thinks, is "to retreat from the passions of the moment" and embrace a sort of spirituality rooted in love of local things like church bells and beer bottles. These things are real, while the ideological and partisan obsessions of modern politics are "destructive illusions," according to author Claes G. Ryn. Dispelling those illusions requires not just spirituality but also an artistic temperament dedicated to exposing "the great illusions of our age...for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal."

Since Dreher is a conservative, however crunchy, his approach will probably include Christianity, if not religion in general, more than I'd like. But when you consider what it does not include you may see a purgative process under way in which American conservatives liberate themselves from their anti-communist obsession with capitalism and an idolization of it as the ultimate form of civilization. If that happens, people on the "left" may discover that they can work with "conservatives" on many fronts, regardless of religion. If the ties linking cultural conservatives like Dreher to entrepreneurial fanaticism can be broken, political realignments on a larger scale might be possible. Here's hoping.

18 May 2009

Apology to Steve Lonegan

The American Conservative, if my hunch is right, has done a disservice to Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, by selling him their mailing list. The publishers of the beleaguered magazine (which announces with its new issue that it will change from a fortnightly to a monthly schedule) well know that a good part of its readership are people who don't think of themselves as conservatives but agree with the magazine's opposition to the Iraq War and its reservations about Reaganism. If they are the reason I got a begging letter from Mr. Lonegan today, they failed to warn him of this quirk of their readership. I could tell this from the message on the front of his letter: "I was told by a reliable source that you were an unabashed conservative."

Lonegan is making his second run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey. He finished fourth in the 2005 primary, but seems to be at least the second strongest candidate this time around. Although he didn't mention it in his letter, he's received an endorsement from Ron Paul, who admires Lonegan's fiscal restraint during his mayoral years. But I get the impression that Lonegan thinks that citing Paul mightn't be wise in such a letter, especially since it seems to be directed at Weekly Standard subscribers rather than American Conservative readers.

"The fight to TAKE BACK our country begins NOW!!!" the envelope says. Inside, Lonegan elaborates. "If our Republican Party is going to be rebuilt, it must begin now! Because one thing is beyond debate...

"Government is on the march," he warns, "today's liberal is committed to one thing...Finding new ways to separate you from your hard-earned money. They're determined to redistribute income so that they can keep stealing property and expanding government even further. This is called Socialism. And it's un-American."

Lonegan hopes to become the rallying point for a "conservative" stand in New Jersey, where Jon Corzine is "the most liberal Governor in the United States." Corzine has increased sales and property taxes, Lonegan alleges, and "promises to take his radical brand of Big Government Socialism beyond New Jersey's borders!!" He offers no evidence of any such promise, but insists, "LET ME BE CLEAR -- there's another rabid leftist at the gate just eager to push his Socialist policies on you and me."

Corzine's re-election campaign, Lonegan says, is "our first opportunity to strike back at the smug liberal Democrats and their radical Special Interest groups." Conservatives, I suppose, are expected to take the identities of these "Special Interests" for granted, since Lonegan can't be bothered, or doesn't dare, to name them.

Lonegan claims that he can win in a "blue" environment. He notes that "despite living in a 2-1 Democrat town that voted for Al Gore, John Kerry and gave Barack Obama 64 percent of the vote, I was elected and re-elected three times -- BY DOUBLE DIGIT MARGINS!!" I wonder whether the people of Bogota thought of him as a "movement conservative," as he describes himself now. For that matter, even those American Conservative readers who call themselves "conservatives" have grown suspicious of self-styled "movement conservatives" because too many of them tend to put the "movement" before conservatism. They are ideologues in a way that the magazine usually finds inconsistent with true philosophical conservatism. Likewise, if he thinks he can draw money from Conservative subscribers by waving the Reagan flag, he ought to check out what the magazine has been saying about the Gipper lately and think again.

But being a Reaganite requires optimism, so Lonegan presses on with his plea for funds. He hammers home the point that New Jersey has a "unique matching funds system of financing campaigns" through which the state doubles anyone's campaign contribution. If I were to send him $35, for instance, the state will give him $70. He repeats this point twice over in the remaining page of the begging letter. He also says:

I'm not trying to sound dramatic, but the America that you and I believe in is under assault like never before. Liberals are consumed with power and they are eager to obtain even more. IF YOU AND I ARE GOING TO TAKE AMERICA BACK, WE MUST DRAW A LINE IN THE SAND AND FIGHT -- STARTING TODAY! AND THAT FIGHT BEGINS WITH THIS CAMPAIGN!!

Remember, Lonegan's not trying to sound dramatic, despite underlining all the stuff in bold caps and drawing blue asterisks in the margins. If he wanted to sound dramatic, after all, he'd send me one of those cards that plays a song when you open it, and he could really cut loose. Still not trying for drama, he closes by promising, "With your help, I can rebuild the conservative movement with a big win here. On to victory!" But he'll have to get on with it without me.

Obama's Teaching Tour

Here's a transcript of the President's commencement address at Notre Dame. I suppose the receipt of an honorary doctorate is literally a teaching occasion, and Obama did this sort of thing for a living for a while. My hunch is that he welcomed the controversy sparked by his appearance, since it put the spotlight on another big speech. The big idea of this one was his appeal for "fair-minded words" even when people's positions are irreconcilable. He offered his own conduct as an example, explaining that he changed the language of his pro-choice position after someone complained that it was unfair of him to characterize the anti-abortion position solely in terms of denying women freedom of choice. That was decent of him, I suppose, but I don't know if reciprocity is possible. I'm not sure if "fair-minded words" are possible when your essential belief is that abortion is murder. Can you call it anything but that if that's what you believe, and can calling it murder do anything but anger the other side?

In any event, Obama's talk demonstrated why "pro-life" has the majority at the moment, because his emphasis, like the Clintons in the 1990s, was on making abortions less common. You can't really expect him to argue for more abortions, but my point is that the "pro-choice" side is hobbled by a now-inevitable reticence founded on the fact that abortion isn't really desirable in its own right. Pro-choice activists want to avoid looking like advocates of "abortion on demand." No one in the mainstream seems to make a strong case for the irreducible sovereignty of women over their own bodies, perhaps because doing so might make one look like a feminist extremist or "feminzai." The liberal position now seems to be that abortion is deplorable, but women shouldn't be punished for it. I still say that the way to block anti-abortion laws should Roe v. Wade be overturned is to raise the stakes to an unacceptable level by introducing deal-breaking amendments to any legislation that would require punishment of mothers who abort. As things stand, pro-lifers act as if mothers who abort are only dupes of the evil eugenicists of the family-planning movement. Their preference is to punish doctors rather than mothers. This may reflect a constrained sense of female autonomy that might be exposed to their discredit in a real debate. But there is no real debate at the moment, and maybe Roe must fall before we can have one. That would be the time for fair-minded words, and it would be interesting to see who can say them.

I may be a crabby secularist, but I feel entitled to complain about the President bringing up original sin in his speech. He was careful to contain it in a comment about what the "Christian tradition" believes, but too many people use original sin as an explanation of man's imperfectibility to excuse an unwillingness to attempt to at least improve man. Man is imperfect because he is mortal, not because he has a curse on him. Believing that man is cursed leads people to assume that many projects are doomed to fail that may not be. It also discourages people from using the political instruments at their disposal to improve their lives. It encourages them to take the Christian option of saving themselves rather than concerning themselves with the well-being of all. It seems to me that just as we can do without the utopian perfectionism that made many Marxists irrational, we can do without the superstitious pessimism that makes many Americans equally irrational. So that's when I would have heckled the President, maybe just to surprise people. Consider this a mild form of virtual heckling instead.

17 May 2009

Those Who Can't...

On one of the weekend talking-head shows Rush Limbaugh was quoted disparaging the idea of Republicans making a "listening tour" of the country. What was necessary, Limbaugh reportedly insisted, was a "teaching tour." Objectively speaking, Limbaugh is correct. If a politician is committed on principle to certain doctrines, his job on the stump is to sell those ideas to the public through reasoned discourse. Merely to absorb passively the demands of the rabble is far too democratic for someone of professed conservative principles. That's too much like the people instructing their representatives, as some thought they could back in the early days of the republic. I may sound mocking but I only mean it to a limited extent. It is a politician's prerogative to attempt to sway citizens to his point of view. He is entitled to believe that the majority may be mistaken in their desires. The Constitution encourages all of us to consider this possibility. All I suggest here is that Rush Limbaugh set the example for those Republicans he presumes to advise. He may think he does this already on weekdays, but when your audience defines themselves as "dittoheads" one suspects that dictation rather than teaching is taking place. At best it is preaching to the converted. If Limbaugh wants to face people and tell them that they're wrong on the issues of the day, he ought to get out of the studio and onto blue soil. Let him come into a blue state, a bluer city, the bluest slum, and teach the people the gospel of Reagan according to Rush. This really isn't so outlandish a proposal that I need be modest about it, is it? I'm sure the great man trusts his own pedagogy more than that of others. If the need for teaching is so urgent, so is his responsibility at this hour of crisis. Will he respond to his own call? Time will tell....

16 May 2009

Civil Libertarians Please Note

There have been arrests in South Bend, Indiana, on the Notre Dame campus, in response to protests against the President's appearance there tomorrow to accept an honorary degree and deliver the commencement speech. The protesters are conservative Catholics who don't believe a Catholic university should confer degrees on anyone who supports abortion rights. Dislike them all you want. But please recall that whenever protesters were arrested for trespassing during demonstrations against the Bush administration, the reaction from some quarters was as if fascism was on the march. I suspect that most of the same people are unlikely to draw the same conclusions now, but if they call themselves civil libertarians they ought to be quite sensitive to anything that looks like an excessive reaction to citizens exercising their right to protest. If protesters trespass, they should be taken off the campus if the campus authorities wish it, but to jail people for an otherwise (as far as I know) nonviolent protest sends the wrong message and allows people who don't really deserve the status to declare themselves martyrs.

As it happens, these protests take place on the heels of a Gallup poll that appears to show that, for the first time in the history of their polling, a small majority of Americans consider themselves "pro-life" on the abortion question. This was probably an inevitable result of the pro-lifers having the propaganda field mostly to themselves, as the other side has been increasingly squeamish about affirming women's sovereignty over their bodies at fetuses' expense. It should also be noted that this news appears at a time when shrinking numbers of Americans call themselves Republicans. This should be a rebuke to those Republican strategists and tank-thinkers who've been urging the party to shore up its social-conservative credentials, since a pro-life stance doesn't seem to correlate with support for the GOP. Social conservatives may well be economic liberals in hard times, and may stay so despite becoming more conservative on social issues. Republicans who see this poll as good news are fooling themselves.

15 May 2009

Nostalgianomics: An Alternate History of the 20th Century

The new issue of Reason carries a cunning little historical article by Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsey. It's a preview of his new treatise Nostalgianomics, which is a critique of criticism of growing inequality in America. Lindsey doesn't deny that inequality has grown since the 1980s, and he doesn't say flat out that it's a good thing, either. He does argue, however, that inequality is the price we should be willing to pay for greater economic opportunity for everyone.

Lindsey's argument is worth examining, whether in the magazine or the treatise, because it shows how libertarian priorities and their view of history may diverge from other people's. He credits the comparative equalization of incomes in the immediate post-WW2 years to what's known as the "Treaty of Detroit." This term covers a general agreement between business and labor to tamp down strikes and other disruptions in return for high wages and recognition of unions as collective bargainers. Lindsey opposes an account he attributes to Paul Krugman, last year's Nobel laureate in economics, who blames growing inequality on the breaking of the "Treaty of Detroit" by business in collusion with the Republican party.

Without trying to dispute Krugman's assumption that the working class in general was better off in the 1950s and 1960s, while the "Treaty of Detroit" was in effect, Lindsey emphasizes that the times weren't so good for everyone. This excerpt from the Reason article sums up Lindsey's argument.

The Treaty of Detroit was built on extensive cartelization of markets, limiting competition to favor producers over consumers. The restrictions on competition were buttressed by racial prejudice, sexual discrimination, and postwar conformism, which combined to limit the choices available to workers and potential workers alike.

Bit by bit, in Lindsey's account, revolutionary social changes increased the appearance of inequality because unprecedented numbers of hitherto excluded people were flooding in at the ground floor of career advancement. Those changes include the liberalization of immigration law enacted under Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Immigration of unskilled workers accounts for "roughly 30 percent of the increase in adult male annual earnings inequality between 1979 and 1996" according to a study cited by Lindsey. While he doesn't refer to a "gender gap" in pay, it makes sense to assume that more women in the workforce has had a similar effect on inequality. Lindsey does mention a factor in growing household inequality: the growth in two-career families and the tendency of the affluent to marry each other "explains about 13 percent of the total rise in income inequality since 1979."

Also significant, Lindsey admits, is the decline in union power decried by Krugman, but Lindsey identifies that as a symptom rather than a cause of the change. Unions have shrunk, he suggests, mainly because unionized businesses have gone under due to competition from non-union rivals, and not because of a corporate-political conspiracy. That begs the question of why non-union rivals rose in the first place, but Lindsey notes that the laws that have effectively hamstrung union organization actually predated the "Treaty of Detroit," which only consolidated the position of existing union shops.

Cultural factors are also important in Lindsey's analysis. The 1960s counterculture rebelled against the "Organization Man" conformity of Krugman's idealized 1950s, Lindsey contends, and "upended the social ethic of group-minded solidarity and conformity with a stampede of unbridled individualism and self-assertion" that peaked during the "Me Decade" of the 1970s, and peaked again during the "decade of greed." "With the general relaxation of inhibitions, talented and ambitious people felt less restrained from seeking top dollar in the marketplace," Lindsey asserts, "Yippies and yuppies were two sides of the same coin." Although Lindsey doesn't use this example, Jerry Rubin was often cited during the 1980s as living proof of this trend.

Part of Lindsey's argument is disingenuous. It doesn't follow that to restore the equalization of incomes that prevailed in the 1950 would require the reimposition of all the discriminatory or repressive rules that existed then, as Lindsey seems to imply. He can't seriously think that levelling incomes means subjugating women, immigrants or other minorities. But he does believe that any attempt at levelling will limit opportunity in general, on principle. The main part of his argument is a matter of principle for him, but his principles aren't necessarily ours.

Note again that Lindsey doesn't dispute that the Baby Boom years were a golden age for the American working class as a whole. He insists, however, that times were tougher for aspiring entrepreneurs. He insists further that inhibited competition is bad because it means less choices for American consumers. Lindsey's is a typical Libertarian viewpoint that sees the ideal American as an entrepreneur and/or a consumer while downplaying any identification of America with the working class. This, obviously, is not a conservative viewpoint. It would have been conservative to resist the trends Lindsey describes, as far as the labor market is concerned. So it's interesting to note that the self-identified "conservative" party of the era welcomed and encouraged most of these developments, apart from the counterculture stuff. What was conservative about that?

Lindsey makes a lot of sound historical points, noting that many of the deregulatory policies that contributed to growing inequality were enacted during Democratic administrations. I think he makes a case that the trend shouldn't be seen as a reactionary conspiracy. But when he insists that we should see it all as a good thing, I think he goes too far. How we view these developments is a matter of perspective. Lindsey has the liberty of choosing his perspective, but it's not the only one. We can look at it from a different angle and still see growing inequality as a problem that can be corrected without the reversion to McCarthyism that Lindsey warns against. After all, those formerly excluded people are part of the working class, now, and they'd benefit from the reestablishment of the old policies just like everyone else -- one hopes.

13 May 2009

The Truth Hurts

It now occurs to the President of the United States that the release of more photos from Abu Ghraib prison might inflame anti-American opinion and endanger American troops abroad. Therefore, despite a promise not to impede further releases requested under the Freedom of Information Act, the Obama Administration will now attempt to prevent them. This is the sort of crap that leaves Democrats vulnerable to the double-standard charge. I can imagine Mr. Right saying it was alright to inflame anti-American sentiment and endanger the truths when it all reflected on a Republican president, but now things are different, huh?

Can new pictures really further inflame anti-American feeling where it already exists at high heat? If it can, what of it? The American people have an implicit right to see everything there is to see and know all that can be known. If the revelation makes foreigners more angry at us, the photos might prove that some of that anger might just be warranted. And anyone who says that my desire to know the truth endangers the troops is an idiot of the year. If more photos incite more violence, it will be the fault of the perpetrators in the pictures and the people who commanded them. But I sense that the President would rather us and them forget what happened rather than risk looking "partisan" by holding the appropriate people to account before the world.

More Republican Soul Searching

Here's another round of it from Jonah Goldberg. This time he makes a predictable argument for good little partisans that the late Jack Kemp makes a better role model for Republicans than the lamented Arlen Specter. As a self-styled conservative Republican Goldberg could not say otherwise. The more interesting part of his column came later.

Challenging the argument that Republicans must move toward the "center" on social issues, Goldberg denies that such a thing exists, at least as some understand the concept. According to the columnist, "this argument assumes the existence of a creature that Kate O'Beirne of the National Review Institute calls the 'Jackalope of American politics': the socially liberal fiscal conservative. These critters are allegedly America's real silent majority, except they are exceedingly rare. Most people who are socially liberal are economically liberal as well."

I know that Libertarians are a small party, but I didn't realize there were so few of them. Most, from what I know of their beliefs, would fit the "jackalope" description pretty exactly, yet Goldberg is right to believe that they're not enough to tip the balance in a national election. There's a hidden presumption in Goldberg's analysis, however, although I can't speak for Kate O'Beirne. He seems to think that economic beliefs follow from "social" beliefs, but in the Libertarian case I'm pretty sure that social beliefs follow from economic ones. Believing that the state should leave them alone to their economic pursuits, they want to be left alone in other fields as well. At least that was the attitude Barry Goldwater adopted in his later years.

Goldberg is mainly concerned with keeping "social conservatives" attached to the Republican party, and wants the GOP to heighten its differences with the Democrats on social issues. There's a risk to this approach. It simply doesn't follow, even if you accept Goldberg's premise that social liberals tend to be economic liberals, that social conservatives are automatically economic conservatives. It's well known that many if not most Democrats are more conservative on social or "moral" questions than party politicians. For a while it looked as if social issues would transform such people from "Reagan Democrats" into permanent Republicans, but the transformation was never complete. Churchgoing African-Americans, for instance, are often very conservative socially, but never embraced the Republicans. In time, many "Reagan Democrats" came back to their original party. For such people, economics trumps social issues. We seem to live at a time when economic issues will be paramount for a while. It seems increasingly unlikely that social issues will determine any national election. Under such conditions, any effort by Republicans to define themselves as the party of social issues might well prove a giant waste of time.Therefore, I wish Goldberg great success in his venture.

12 May 2009


Wanda Sykes's remarks about Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers at last weekend's White House Correspondents' dinner weren't funny. I don't say that because I feel any moral outrage over what she wished on Limbaugh. I say it because her jokes were lame. I'd expect to see the same material on a Craigslist Rants & Raves page. What is funny is the sputtering outrage of Rush's fans and allies. Limbaugh himself has been smart, saying nothing on the subject. Not so smart was Sean Hannity, who made it the top issue on his Fox News show last night. He was a less publicized target of Sykes's sting, but spent his time defending Limbaugh and deploring Sykes. And so the terrorists have won. At this late date, Hannity doesn't get it, though Limbaugh appears to. My best guess is that, more than anything else, more than getting the President to laugh, Sykes wanted to make Limbaugh, Hannity and Dick Cheney publicly angry. The punchline of all such humor, as Howard Stern and any number of politically incorrect clowns will tell you, is the spectacle of outraged people losing their composure and making fools of themselves, at least in the eyes of the original transgressors. In this case, since dittoheads and their associates are extra angry at the fact that the President laughed at Sykes's comments, their outrage is extra hilarious to people on the other side. The hypocrisy inherent in this anger on the part of people who otherwise boast of their indifference to offended sensibilities makes this story funnier yet to me. To sum up: Wanda Sykes is an idiot (though not of the week), and I'm not laughing with her but at her and everyone involved in this farce.

11 May 2009

Republicans "need a hero"

Jonah Goldberg believes that personality often trumps principles in elections. Thinking that helps this Republican explain last year's presidential election, but he's willing to admit that the same rule worked in 2000, when his side won. This is from his latest column.

In my darker moods, I suspect that American politics, at least at the presidential level, is ultimately just a popularity contest. In the television age, the more personally charming guy wins — or at minimum has a monumental advantage.Partisans on both sides tend to not like this argument for all sorts of reasons. For instance, they tend to like their candidates better than the other team’s. Of course, this is often just a rationalization. If you honestly believed that Michael Dukakis was a more likable guy than George H.W. Bush, or that Nixon would be a more entertaining drinking buddy than JFK, you should seek therapy, or a vigorous regimen of enemas, or both. The simple fact is that if John Kerry and Al Gore weren’t pompous human toothaches, they would have blown George W. Bush out of the water.Also, partisans like to believe that whenever their guy wins, it’s because their ideas have been ratified by the American people, and whenever the other guy loses, they pronounce that the American people have resoundingly rejected this or that idea. Sometimes this is obviously true, but not nearly as often as we like to think.

As befits a conservative, Goldberg's idea is not a new one. Every since John F. Kennedy won the first televised presidential debates in 1960, it's been presumed that Abraham Lincoln would lose such a debate simply because he was so damned ugly. Goldberg embraces the argument now because he doesn't want the 2008 vote to be interpreted as a repudiation of Reaganism. This is where his analysis gets odd. At the least, it's strange that his column is headlined "we need a hero" in many places, since they had one last year and were beaten -- and not because people believed the attempted debunking of Seantor McCain's POW record. Here's Goldberg's thesis.

Liberals bristled at — but didn’t really deny — the suggestion that voters preferred Bush because they’d rather “have a beer with him.” What they fail to fully appreciate is that many voters preferred Obama because they’d rather have a chardonnay with him than with that cranky John McCain. Obama’s winning personality and a widespread yearning for ill-defined “change” were probably more essential to Obama’s victory than his campaign proposals.

This is debatable. I suspect that many Americans, including many who voted against him, might prefer sharing beer with McCain than hanging with the relative elitist Obama. I also question whether "cranky" was most Americans' first word to describe the often good-humored McCain, whatever fellow senators felt about the man. But Goldberg isn't far off the mark when he notes worryingly that his party lacks charismatic winning personalities. He's brazen enough to admit that his ideal candidate would be Dick Cheney, but honest enough to admit that Cheney wouldn't stand a chance in the current national mood. Too many Republicans replicate Cheney's image of a snarling, sneering (or, just as bad, contemptuously chortling) portly old man for Goldberg to like their immediate chances. The great exceptions are Governor Palin and Governor Jindal, but the Alaskan brings her own polarizing traits to the debit side of the ledger, while Jindal famously flopped in his first big chance, the reply to the presidential message.

Looming above them all, of course, is the appalling persona of Rush Limbaugh, who is perhaps paradoxically both the devil-image of the anti-Republican imagination and the nearest thing to a hero-image many Republicans now have. He's their ideal of "speaking truth to power," and as long as he remains their ideal icon, and someone to whom any other Republican must answer, I doubt whether any fresh face can reverse the current trend until the logic of the American Bipolarchy itself rescues the grand old party -- at which point, despite Goldberg, personalities won't matter.

The Pope on Religion and Ideology

Over the weekend, Benedict XVI was in Jordan doing the brotherhood act. In one speech, he seemed to suggest that the monotheist faiths, without forgetting their differences, should stand together against a common intellectual enemy.

[W]e cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better.

"Ja, Hitchens, I'm talking about you," one can imagine the supreme pontiff muttering under his breath. My problem with this part of the speech arises from Ratzinger's claim that religion has a nature. Perhaps it does according to some theory of innate human religiosity, but any given religion is a human construct, however it claims to be inspired. Meanwhile, the charge of inherent divisiveness is hard to answer, but Benedict gives it a shot.

Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?

The Holy Father hedges his bets. He has at least enough honesty to say that it is only "often" someone else's fault that religious division leads to violence. But the concept of "ideological manipulation of religion" begs all kinds of questions. To my mind, ideology happens when political philosophy aspires to the authority of religious dogma. It is no defense of religion to argue that political ideas are most dangerous when they most closely resemble religious claims. For that matter, many of the Muslims in the Pope's Jordanian audience might not accept his implicit distinction between political and religious ends, since Islamism, in general, denies the distinction. In a Christian context, his remarks might seem relevant to Irish history, or they might be digs at the leftist "liberation theology" tradition in Latin America or even at the American "Christian right." As I think about it, I'm not sure I accept the distinction he's trying to maintain, since I'm not sure you can separate the political motivations of alleged ideological manipulators from the religious motives.

Benedict moves on:

In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.

Fine. But since their kingdom is still not of this world (Muslim opinion notwithstanding), they must understand that if they enter into political deliberations with no better argument for their preferences than "God says so," they should be taken no more seriously than if they said, "Bugs Bunny says so." They are compelled to share polities with people who remain unconvinced by revelations. Such people must be swayed by reason, and if God is as reasonable as believers claim, the faithful should be able to extrapolate intelligible, logical arguments from scriptural principles that don't depend on supernatural claims. This is all that atheists and skeptics really ask of believers in the public sphere. To do differently, to demand that non-believers be governed by the dictates of a deity, whether they acknowledge such a power or not, sounds a little like the ideological manipulation of religion for political ends to me. If Benedict is actually against tricks like that, he may find that he has surprising allies.

Amoklauf in Uniform

Conflicting early reports of an incident at "Camp Liberty" in Iraq leave unclear the status of the "stressed out" U.S. soldier who apparently took it out on his own comrades-in-arms today. The body of this story asserts that the shooter took the typical way out, while a "Breaking News" banner above it states that he has been captured alive. Not in dispute, apparently, is the body count: four soldiers dead, others wounded.

First impressions must be tentative, but my first thought on seeing this news was to wonder why it doesn't happen more often. Military discipline and comradeship might be obvious answers, while Second-Amendment absolutists might point to the deterring ubiquity of guns and armed persons on a military base. I don't know where on the base the shooting took place, and I know nothing of the shooter apart from the "stressed-out" description, but if something like this can happen on a military base in an occupied country, and it can't be blamed completely on someone's extraordinary psychosis, then something wrong with our culture or our strategy is getting worse.

Update: The shooter has killed at least five people, and was taken alive. The shooting took place at a "stress clinic," which doesn't sound like a place where someone ought to be carrying weapons. As I write, the shooter's identity remains publicly unknown.

08 May 2009

Idiot of the Week

The virtue of the Idiot of the Week award is that we at the Institute are unenthralled by celebrity. Not only the great and famous but the humble and powerless can be recognized. This democratic principle is highlighted today by my selection of an Albany Times Union reader who has no credentials apart from her opinions -- and those are pretty dumb if what we saw in this morning's paper was typical. Maureen Healy of Valatie was moved to comment by the prospect of the Democratic party gaining a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate when Al Franken is seated to represent Minnesota. What does that mean to her?

It would seem that half of the citizens of the United States will have a Congress in which they are not represented. Taxation without representation is still tyranny. The last time that happened in this country, there were tea parties and a revolution. So far, we've had tea parties.

This is American Bipolarchy thinking par excellence, if you agree that it counts as thinking. Healy has a congressman to represent her district and two Senators to represent her state, but the United States is a tyranny as far as she's concerned if her opinion (or, to be generous, her ideology) isn't fully represented in the halls of government. Worse, it looks like she won't feel that she's fully represented unless her opinion (or, to put it concretely, her ideological faction) has some kind of veto power over majority rule. For Healy, Republicanism or some form of conservatism has become a form of identity more meaningful, apparently, than local or state citizenship. In her mind, her people (i.e. her faction) are the victims of tyranny if the majority fails to accommodate her ideological objections to any given measure. Worst yet, by invoking the American Revolution she implies a right to rebel if the government refuses to acknowledge her faction by giving it an otherwise unearned share in making the laws.

Perhaps I was too hasty in proposing Healy as an Idiot of the Week. The more I think about it, this isn't idiocy, idiotic though it sounds -- this is madness.

07 May 2009

Critique of Conspiracy Theory

Actually, it's specifically a debunking exercise against the "Truth" movement, as excerpted in this amusing article from the Times of London. Here's a telling sample discussing the destruction of the Twin Towers:

The conspirators would have had to have sent experts in to rig the two main towers and WTC7 with sufficient explosives to be sure of bringing the first two buildings down some time after the planes had hit them, and WTC7 whenever it was felt expedient to do so. But the explosives had to be sufficiently inert not to be triggered either by the impacts of the planes or by the thousands of gallons of burning aviation fuel, an especially tricky proposition since no precedent existed for the crashing of a large civil airliner into a 1,000ft skyscraper. The planes also had to be guided into the exact locations of the explosives. The towers had to come down because the destruction by terrorists of planes full of passengers and the unknowable number of casualities in the areas of the towers hit by the aircraft might not, in themselves, have been sufficiently provoking to cause the reaction needed by the plotters. On the other hand it was apparently thought OTT to rig the towers in such a way as to have them topple over and possibly destroy half of south Manhattan. A balance had to be struck....

Read on from the link and enjoy the rest.

At the Foot of the Capitol

The bus I ride from Albany to Troy passes nearly around the State Capitol in Albany on its way down the State Street hill. Riding this morning I noticed a crowd around the eastern staircase. The crowd was probably several hundred people strong. Someone was playing a guitar and singing on the steps. I didn't see any signs in the crowd to tell me what they were there for. Were they advocating or protesting? I'll have to watch the news or read the papers to find out. But far away from the mass, at the base where the Capitol rises from the hill, there stood a single black man holding aloft a cardboard sign that read: IF MY PEOPLE WILL NOT REPENT OF EVIL I WILL MAKE THIS NATION A CURSE. JEREMIAH 26.

Exactly what evil the man was warning against was unclear, but I presumed that he was protesting against the demonstration further up the hill. What manner of evil might inspire the man to protest with such language is probably easy to guess.

Bipolarchy: Alive and Well?

One of the local papers has an op-ed today from Howard Baker, the former U.S. Senator from Tennessee, who warns against declaring the Republican party dead or even moribund. He writes from experience, having first run for the Senate in 1964 and getting crushed as part of the landslide against Barry Goldwater. He won, however, when the other Tennessee seat came up for election two years later. He credits that Republican comeback to overreach on Lyndon Johnson's part after the landslide. If Americans perceive similar overreach, or just plain failure, on the present President's part, Baker predicts, the Republicans will bounce back as they have in the past.

Baker (so thoroughly political a man that he ended up marrying another Senator) has a pendular theory of how the American Bipolarchy works. He's no believers in great ideological shifts, but argues that voters shift loyalties back and forth based on an appraisal of each party's competence in government. If Democrats screw up, people will vote Republican, and vice versa. As he puts it.

Things change because things change, not because of any ideological primacy or purity on a particular end of the political spectrum. The American people are, for the most part, highly practical and pragmatic. They like what works, and in a properly functioning political system, two broad-based national parties will offer them reasonable alternatives for what is likely to work best.

Reasonableness depends on a broad base, if I understand Baker, but it would seem that the two dominant parties don't need to be particularly reasonable so long as each is perceived as the only "reasonable" alternative to the other. According to his reading of post-1964 politics, Americans embraced an increasingly conservative Republican party not because they had become increasingly conservative themselves, but because they had decided that the Democratic party under LBJ had failed at some important task. This analysis suggests that a major factor in the Bipolarchy's staying power is Americans' short collective memory.

A voter may think that the Republicans failed in the mid-2000s, for instance, but will not recall that he quite probably felt that the Democrats had failed as of 1994. By a certain point we might expect a large number of voters to conclude that both parties had consistently failed, and to search more extensively for alternatives. They don't, in part, because they can convince themselves that Obama, for instance, will do things differently from Clinton, or that the Republican nominee for 2012 or 2016 will do things differently from George W. Bush. Personalities disguise the persistent institutional incompetence (measured by electoral defeats) or the major parties and allow people to convince themselves that they're voting for people, not parties.

Baker himself goes on to suggest that there's more to elections, after all, than mere appraisals of competence. His imagined voter seems to swing not just between parties but between two conflicting sets of "core" values. Eight years of Bush, Baker admits, have momentarily discredited the "core Republican beliefs in less government, lower taxes, more liberty and greater security in a dangerous world." But "if the American people perceive overreaching or underachieving in the Obama administration and among its allies in Congress, the Republican way may prove very attractive again in very short order." This, too, would seem to depend on short collective memories, unless Baker wants to argue (from the safety of retirement) that each party's core values may be more effective at different points in history. It also helps the Bipolarchy that each party's core values are not as consistent as Baker insists. The ones he lists might not have been recognized as "core Republican beliefs" 100 years ago, for instance. Nevertheless, Baker seems satisfied that, between them, the two major parties will provide Americans with all the reasonable alternatives they need at any critical moment -- and that strikes me as a purposefully unexamined premise. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that history will prove him wrong.

06 May 2009

Conservatism vs. Reaganism

There was no death notice attached to the new issue of The American Conservative, so I suppose I should expect at least another issue. That the magazine isn't out of the woods yet comes through in the editorial comment opposing Senator Kerry's plan to bail out the newspaper industry. "Good journalism cannot be secured through government intervention," the writer argues, "We hope that TAC lives long enough to see [Kerry's bill] fail." As far as this goes, I'm a little leery of any measure that might tend to make the press dependent on a government subsidy (even in the form of tax credits for subscribers) that could be withdrawn on whim. At the same time, there's a whiff of sour grapes in the writer's contemptuous regard for "the self-appointed guardians of free speech," i.e. "depressed hacks." I suppose the Conservative prefers to see itself as prepared to accept the verdict of The Market and then to try, try again at other ventures. There may also be some of the typical conservative hostility to complaint (i.e. "whining") here.

But one writer's bitterness isn't my reason for blogging. I want once more to commend the Conservative for actually taking the steps so many people say are needed to revive the opposition to the Obama administration. The magazine's editors and writers seem to be trying to do what the Goldwater-Reagan conservatives did for the Republican party starting in 1964. Those reactionaries revived the party by critiquing what they saw as Eisenhower and Nixon's complacency and accommodationism towards international communism and American liberalism. By now, however, it's past time for a new generation of Republicans to critique the Reaganite tradition. The Conservative has been doing this in spurts for a while, but the new issues makes a cover story out of it, asking, "How Right Was Reagan?"

Richard Gamble is another self-style conservative with fresh affection for Jimmy Carter. More and more of the breed is embracing Carter's so-called "malaise" speech of 1979 as a signpost on the road the nation should have taken, instead of following Reagan. Carter's speech appeals to these conservatives because he called for a return to a virtue that Gamble and others think Republicans have forgotten: frugality, i.e. living both modestly and within one's means.

Gamble notes that "the federal payroll was larger in 1989 [when Reagan left office] than it had been in 1981 [when Carter left office]," and that Reagan's beloved tax cuts "left large and growing budget deficits when combined with increased spending, and added to the national debt." In retrospect, he writes, "it is hard in 2009 to point to any concrete evidence that the Reagan Revolution fundamentally altered the nation's trajectory toward bloated, centralized, interventionist government."

Worse, Gamble claims that Reagan was temperamentally "anything but conservative." Noting Reagan's religious and philosophical influences, Gamble notes an absence of any appreciation of human limits. "Reagan's optimistic Christianity," for instance, "seemed ready made for an America disinclined to hear talk of limits to power and wealth. The historic Christian message can sound downright un-American [to people like Reagan]."

Gamble himself sternly rejects the Reaganite notion of the U.S. as "the city on the hill," a divinely favored nation destined to lead the world to prosperity and freedom. "There is nothing inherently conservative about believing that America is God's promised land for a new epoch," he remarks, "Because it sounds so patriotic to elevate America among God's elect, however, many conservatives dig in their heels and resist any challenge to America's redeemer myth."

While Reagan was never as bellicose as George W. Bush, Gamble traces the Bushites' interventionist streak to Reagan's belief in America's power and right to "begin the world over again," -- a phrase Reagan took from Thomas Paine, as far from a conservative as some would say you could get. Gamble also blames Reagan for what George Lukacs calls "the militarization of the image of the presidency," the tendency to portray the President as the "commander in chief" of the country as a whole rather than the military only. Gamble elaborates:

If the president visits a city ravaged by a hurricane, he is emphatically not there in his role as commander in chief. If every American thinks of the president -- of whatever political party -- as my commander in chief and not narrowly as the Army or Navy's commander in chief, then we have taken another decisive step from republic to empire.

Harsher still is the assessment Gamble quotes from anti-war conservative Andrew Bacevich:

Reagan portrayed himself as a conservative. He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of 'morning in America,' the faux-conservative Reagan added to America's civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.

Worship of Reagan inhibits critical thinking by conservatives, Gamble concludes. "Conservatives ought to have enough confidence in their own principles to examine Reagan's ambiguous legacy in light of those very tenets....Reagan as conservative icon must not become a way to shut down debate within the conservative movement....Maybe the Reagan we think we remember is the very thing most likely to distract us from painful self-examination and serious reckoning with who we are as a people and how we got this way."

That's strong medicine compared to some Republicans' stubborn insistence that Reaganism is the party's only salvation. I'm not going to pretend that the conservative party that emerges from such self-examination would automatically be a good thing or even necessarily a more constructive element of political life, but I will say that what Gamble recommends sounds like what Republicans and conservatives should be doing instead of hoping that repeating the prayers of the past will bring them the same results. If The American Conservative can prod Republicans in that direction, its demise before it actually does so would really be cause for regret.

Dalai Lama (Finally) Meets Evil Cult?

After controversies and cancellations, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet has come to Albany today to speak at the Palace Theater as part of the first-ever World Ethical Foundations Consortium. This is a smaller venue than the Times Union Center where the Dalai was originally scheduled to appear. In general the event has been scaled down since the original cancellation gave the State University of New York an opportunity to dissociate itself from the Tibetan's hosts. The WEFC is an outgrowth of the Ethical Humanitarian Foundation, sponsored by the Bronfman heiresses and inspired by their notorious guru, alleged cultist and self-styled "Vanguard" Keith Raniere.

From the Dalai's perspective, it bears repeating, there's probably no automatic disaffinity between his mission and Raniere's. From Raniere's perspective, most likely, both men offer the world a form of mental and/or spiritual discipline that makes people better and more useful. Never mind that Raniere has been accused of running pyramid schemes in the past. How different are those from religions apart from their offering monetary compensation for the recruitment of converts? Yet Raniere is regarded as a criminal and a menace by many people because he seeks influence over people (and maybe money from them), while the Dalai Lama, who arguably practices similar forms of "mind control," is a global celebrity, a darling of Hollywood, and a kind of living martyr. The Tibetan benefits from many Americans' hostility toward China, which many still perceive as a totalitarian state. In such a setting, especially when the Chinese government is presumed to be fundamentally hostile (on account of its power) to American interests, some people will look favorably on any kind of cult, whether it's the Dalai's or Falun Gong, so long as it seems capable of subverting the feared monolithic totalitarianism of the great power. In other words, in our own country home-grown cults are seen as a menace to individual liberty, even to individual identity, while elsewhere they look more like a welcome part of "civil society," so long as they undermine the authority of dangerous states. Were Keith Raniere a Chinese, he'd probably be a hero here, and since the Dalai Lama is, technically, a Chinese subject, he is a hero. The Tibetan does have a historic and thus secular claim to leadership in his homeland, so it would go too far to say he's no different from Raniere, but it's not unfair to say he's not as different as some people appalled by their association want to think.

05 May 2009

The Supreme Court: "Diversity" and "Independence"

Justice David Souter's planned retirement places pressures on the President on all sides. The opposition will demand an "independent" replacement, ironically defining independence as conformity to the opposition's own views. Meanwhile, this article covers the possibilities open to Obama in pursuit of "diversity." It strikes me as a reductio ad absurdam. I don't think that fine distinctions of ethnicity or differences in ability contribute greatly to our collective understanding of what the Constitution means. That doesn't mean that Asians, homosexuals, or handicapped judges should be rejected out of hand. We should presume that people who have been proposed from these categories have genuine credentials apart from their diversity. But we ought to be past the point where a President should want to make history by naming the first justice of any particular kind. I'm not sure if past firsts have made that much of a difference, apart from admitting talent that might have been excluded before. The major civil rights rulings of the Warren Court were made before Thurgood Marshall became the first black justice, for instance.

Meanwhile, independence from partisanship and ideology would be welcome on the court. I would like to see a justice confirmed without any reference to his or her opinion on abortion. There are simply bigger fish to fry. Whether genuinely nonpartisan and nonideological candidates exist at this late point in our history is painfully unclear. Sometimes I wonder whether we wouldn't be better off filling the Court jury style. Find nine literate people, hand them the Constitution, give them a little time to get it down pat, and let them hear cases unencumbered by ideological scholarship or partisan preconceptions. The Constitution is neither liberal nor conservative, and its meaning shouldn't be debated exclusively between those factions. But if we've reached a point where the common people can't be presumed to understand the plain language of the Constitution, then perhaps it's time we had another.