30 June 2009

Campaign 2008: Over At Last?

Erstwhile incumbent Senator Norm Coleman has finally conceded defeat in his campaign for re-election after a Minnesota court ruled unanimously today that his rival, Al Franken, was entitled to certification from the state's governor as Senator-elect. Such has been the intensity of feeling in this struggle that it is still not certain whether Gov. Pawlenty, a Republican, would certify Franken's election unless the court has explicitly ordered him to do so. Republicans nationwide may still urge him to refuse, convinced as many remain that a steal of near-Iranian proportions was perpetrated in that state by the usual suspects of the reactionary imagination. If Pawlenty decides to make a final stand against Franken, whose arrival in the Senate would give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in league with that body's two independents, it may prove necessary to secure a writ of mandamus or something comparable to compel the governor to finally conclude the election. In a case like this, Yogi Berra's wisdom applies: it ain't over until everyone says it's over, and even then it may never end in the minds of those for whom politics is always an ideological blood feud.

Hondurans (and others) speak out.

There's a lively, occasionally angry exchange of views going on at this English-language Honduran blog regarding the overthrow or President Zelaya. The blogger herself is anti-Zelaya, but supporters of the controversial leader are posting their opinions as well. If you scroll down, you'll see my own request for clarification. I'm biased only insofar as I'm biased against the idea of military coups. The essential question seems to be whether the coup was a punitive rather than preventive action. The new regime seems to take the position that its action was punitive, that Zelaya had to be punished by removal from office for violating the country's constitution and that the lack of provisions for impeachment made military action the only legitimate redress against him. My assumption has been that there has to have been a preventive motive, that Zelaya was removed not only to abort the questionable referendum but to stop him from doing something else (though what remains unclear) in the months remaining in his original term. By leaving my card at this blog, so to speak, I may induce some Hondurans to come here to explain things one way or another. We'll see.

For the sake of balance and consistency, here's the latest from the other blog I'm following informally during the crisis.

29 June 2009

Crisis in Honduras

The United States may seem to find itself among strange bedfellows in calling for the reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya as president of Honduras, but it can hardly do other than denounce a coup d'etat against a still-legitimate leader. Zelaya appears to be a lame-duck leader, doomed by term-limits to leave office next year. A leftist after the manner of Hugo Chavez, he sought a referendum to do away with the term limit, but the military struck, claiming to act in defense of the nation's constitution, before the vote could take place. Chavez and his allies in the region have rallied around Zelaya, Chavez himself threatening to overthrow the new government. This report suggests that Zelaya has lost the support of most of his own population. If that were so, however, why did the military fear the referendum? If the military didn't back him, how could they fear an incipient dictatorship? Is the American media being sold a bill of goods?

From what I'm learning, Honduras has no mechanism for removing a president comparable to the American impeachment process. Instead, the country's Supreme Court claims that it ordered the army to remove Zelaya in order to prevent what it deemed an unconstitutional referendum. The military is involved in the election process in Honduras, and the top soldier there refused to have the army carry out the referendum, again on constitutional grounds. The constitution forbids changing the rules for presidential terms and elections by referendum. All well and good. So if the army doesn't cooperate the referendum doesn't happen and Zelaya remains a lame duck. This still begs the question of why he had to be removed. If the army didn't support him, then all he could do is appeal to the mob. But we're being told that the people had turned against him, and that only a few hundred people turned out in the capital today to protest the coup. Again, what was the risk in letting him stew until his term expired?

A lively discussion is going on at Wikipedia over whether what's happened should be called a "coup" or not, the issue being whether the Supreme Court has the authority it claims to order the president removed summarily or not. Meanwhile, here is a Honduran blogger who supports the action of the military and the Supreme Court, and here is one who criticizes the "golpe de estado." Reading these, I got some gossip that the military has claimed or will claim that it has evidence that Zelaya meant to "steal" the referendum, though the point of doing so is elusive if the relevant authorities regarded it as "non-binding." I can understand the notion that Zelaya needed to brought to account if he violated the constitution, but the Wikipedia debate shows that it's unclear, at least to English speakers, whether the constitution itself requires some kind of due process before the president is removed. The question remains: why was it absolutely imperative to depose the man immediately? It really does seem like we're getting one side of the story, at least from English-speaking Hondurans. The pro-coup blogger claims that there's no pro-Zelaya commentary to be found in English, which may tell us something about his base of support, but I've found at least one exception to that rule. We are sure to learn more in the coming hours and days, but whether that information clarifies or complicates the picture remains to be seen.

28 June 2009

The True Faith?

Terry Eagleton is an agnostic defender of religion against today's bestselling atheist authors and anyone who would do away with it in the name of what he sees as a too-often ruthless rationalism. His book Reason, Faith and Revolution isn't a whitewash of religion, however. A long chapter explains that Christianity, in particular, has hurt its cause by so often selling out to power and failing at what Eagleton takes to be Jesus's mandate to be compassionate to the poor above all other priorities. He thinks that the monotheist religions, at least, provide a useful critique of an ego-driven individualistic materialism, buying into the canard that people who reject God believe in no restraints on their own power. He never goes so far as to say that there can be no morality (however he might define it) without religion, but he seems to fear that morality might have a much smaller constituency without it.

Of course, Eagleton tries to tell us that his idealized form of religion is the true faith. That would be a humility-inducing, compassion-encouraging sense of our dependence on some higher power, even if that awareness extends only to the knowledge that we didn't exactly make ourselves. That's an important point to our author, since he blames much of American arrogance on our sense that we are "self-made men." He seems to think that if we understood our existence as contingent, we'll be more humble, which means less greedy, less power-hungry, etc. Religion may be fine to him as long as it delivers the goods, but religion has a lot more to offer that Eagleton simply ignores because it doesn't fit his feelgood vision. He dismisses the notion that people embrace religion as an account of creation and doesn't even discuss the concept of religion as a form of bargaining for divine intervention that untold millions believe is genuinely effective.

The notion of Hell has little or no place in the rarefied theology he admires. When he deigns to mention the place, he tries to pass it off as a "living death" suffered by "those who are stuck fast in their masochistic delight in the Law, and spit in the face of those who offer to relieve them of this torture. (21)" In other words, Hell is a state of mind in the here-and-now rather than the destination of sinners after the Last Judgment. This is a fundamental misrepresentation of the common understanding of Hell, and Eagleton has no justification for preferring his notion apart from the alleged fact that a lot of intellectual believers think this way about it. This sort of willful omission forces the question of what, exactly, Eagleton thinks he's defending so chivalrously. He writes as if the mean old atheists are attacking his nice theologian pals (which I admit they are, to the extent that Sam Harris accuses them of enabling the fundamentalists) rather than the superstitious majority, members of which we have all encountered in everyday life. If he wants to refute the atheists, it would become him to defend the people the atheists have actually attacked, to work up a defense of superstition and the belief in divine intervention. Then his book would be relevant to something more than his own preference for certain personality types and his indifference to how they might be brought into being.

In the end, all we learn from Eagleton's book is what he likes and what he dislikes. To the extent that he dislikes capitalism, poverty and war, hooray! But unless he has proven that belief in a higher power than man is essential to social justice, his book is useless unless he also seriously weighs the trade-offs involved in indulging such belief, and this he does not do.

26 June 2009

The Legend of Farrah Fawcett

So who was the first person to make the "save the children" joke about the late actress's final wish and the divine intervention that supposedly followed? Whoever that might have been, the joke has gone viral. Within a hour this afternoon, I read it on a Craigslist forum and heard it from two different people in the office. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you will soon enough. If you can't wait, try googling the phrase "save the children" and the words "Farrah" and "Jackson." It's in bad taste, but there's a lot of bile being spread on the subject of the late singer that the media, perhaps correctly, isn't mentioning. In a way, the joke is a way of reclaiming for Fawcett her place in the spotlight that was suddenly snatched away. I don't think anyone means it as a vindication of Fawcett; she's just a convenient instrument to make the joke work. But I suppose it links the two late celebrities in history, if only for a while.

Iran: Vox Populi vs. Vox Dei?

A conservative member of the Guardian Council used his Friday sermon today to call for harsh penalties against anyone who rioted against the reported outcome of the presidential election. This ayatollah said, in effect, that to dispute President Ahmadinejad's re-election was to defy the will of God. From the Iranian Shiite standpoint, this conclusion is more logical than it seems to us secular humanists. The ayatollahs have power, and Ayatollah Khamenei has supreme power, according to Ruhollah Khomeini's ideology of the vilayet-e-faqih, the idea that the final acknowledged Imam of the Shiite tradition delegated authority to the leading religious jurist of the day during the time of his "occlusion" until his return as the Mahdi. Shiites as a whole believe in a divinely mandated line of succession, as opposed to Sunnis, who endorsed the spontaneous election of Abu Bakr as Muhammad's successor in spite of Ali's family-based claim to leadership.They do not all embrace the vilayet-e-faqih principle, but those who do apparently presume that the top jurist or Supreme Leader rules by divine right, though he is chosen (and may be replaced) by an assembly of peers, as is the Pope of the Roman Catholic church. I don't know if this official is presumed to be infallible, but when he endorses the official vote count, his loyalists certainly see that as a kind of divine sanction for the result. In turn, they demand acquiescence if not affirmation from the populace as proof of revolutionary solidarity if not just plain piety. In the end, with an objective verdict on the election still impossible, it looks like the Iranians, by revolting against the Shah, simply traded one form of divine-right rulership for another. Whether Khamenei's opinion of the election is objective or not is ultimately irrelevant; it will be valid because he says so with the voice of law.

The ayatollah also made the outrageous yet predictable claim that the dissidents themselves murdered the famous Neda in a classic act of provocation, no doubt aided by the perfidious West. But Iranian inquisitors aren't the only ones to make such a suggestion. Here is Kathleen Parker, a center-right Republican columnist, speculating on the same subject this week:

No one seems to know the identity of the rooftop sniper who pierced Neda's heart with a bullet Saturday. Was he a Basij sniper, as some witnesses have reported? Was it a mistake? Or did the shooter see an opportunity to create a necessary martyr? The thought is inescapable that the beautiful Neda Agha Soltan might have been selected from the crowd not to scare away protesters, but to unite them.

So we have two candidates for Idiot of the Week. Choose wisely.

Now That We've All Slept On It...

Were those celebrity deaths really the most important events of June 25, 2009? The American news media really thinks so, and I can't recall the networks giving themselves over so completely to mourning since Ronald Reagan croaked. This is inevitable, I suppose, in a news industry governed by the competitive imperative to give people what they want rather than the journalistic imperative to tell them what someone thinks they should know. News now is almost purely an entertainment medium. If any of the networks had the indoctrinaire agendas ascribed to them, they would not have gone off message for celebrities' sake. Keith Olbermann showed his true interest by commandeering MSNBC before and after his allotted time, as if this was going to be "his" defining news event. I didn't stay with it, so I don't know if he did a "special commentary" on the national tragedies. The other news channels were no better, and as for the major networks, CBS deserves props for at least sticking to its normal schedule until CSI was over before joining the funereal procession.

For my part, I couldn't suppress a gravely cynical thought that occurred to me the moment I heard the news of the second death: Ryan O'Neal must be really pissed to have his moment in the spotlight stolen like this. I'm sorry, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em. Condemn me now if you like.

25 June 2009

Manifested Glory?

Here is a story about a controversy caused by the uploading to YouTube of a video showing a church congregation attempting to purge a "homosexual spirit" from a teenager. As a religious phenomenon, it's ridiculous and worthy of mockery, as is a pastor's illiterate disclaimer that the scene shown was not an "exorcism" but a "casting out of spirits." But in certain circles the video demonstrates thoughtcrime, or worse. The thoughtcrime is that a person who once considers himself homosexual might renounce that orientation. The crime is worse when the renunciation is characterized as a "cure" for homosexuality. That language is certainly insulting, but whether the "cure" is worse than the implicit "disease" depends on individuals. The church claims that the young man came to them seeking help, hoping to be purged on cross-dressing tendencies. If that's the case, then what happened inside the church is no one else's business, though we may as well laugh now that the video's been publicized. Gay-rights groups have reacted as if the teen were a victim, somehow coerced into undergoing the ordeal. They claim that this isn't an isolated incident, and I don't doubt either that they're right or that some people have been put through "cures" against their will. Homosexuals also have a right to be just plain offended by the video or by any equation of homosexual desire with demonic possession. But if they want such spectacles to be suppressed somehow, I don't see a legal basis for doing so so long as someone chooses to endure the process. It's fair to question whether the teen's participation was as voluntary as is claimed, but is it also fair to reproach someone who may well dislike the urges he feels and would rather be rid of them? Wouldn't any condemnation of the youth for some sort of false consciousness be the same as condemning celibacy? Or has that young man a duty to enlarge the ranks of the out and proud? If some say he does, how different are they from the churches they condemn? YouTube invites us to make superficial judgments about superficial images, and it's all too easy to laugh with a degree of justified derision at what we see here. But we should reserve more meaningful judgments until we get a chance to look beneath the surface.

24 June 2009

The Return of Capitalism: Already?

Yesterday I noted Jonah Goldberg's autopsy on capitalism, a coroner's inquiry that blamed the death blow on corporations that sought shelter from both competition and the consequences of their mistakes by accepting the government's ruling that they were "too big to fail." A week before this, I'm just learning, Fareed Zakaria announced the "return of capitalism" in a cover story for Newsweek magazine. He asserts capitalism's resiliency, and calls it, in Churchillian language, the worst of all economic systems, except for all the others. No other arrangement makes as much economic growth possible, he contends. If it seems to have problems correcting itself at the moment, that's partly because government is preventing the necessary shake-up that has to happen.

This is the disease of modern democracy: the system cannot impose any short-term pain for long-term gain. For 20 years, most serious structural problems—Social Security, health care, immigration—have been kicked down the road. And while the problem is acute in America, Europe and Japan face many of the same difficulties. Right now, the U.S. government's boldness is laudable, but it is being bold in spending money. In a few years, when the bills come due, and Congress must enact major spending cuts as well as raise taxes (and not just on the rich), that's when we will see if things have changed.

It may be true that no government accountable to voters tells them to tighten their belts, but I wonder whether Zakaria concludes from this that other forms of government are more compatible with the laws of capitalism. In other writings he's drawn distinctions between democracy and the rule of law while recommending that developing nations make the latter a higher priority. For now, it looks like he expects this country to reach a moment when it has no choice but undertake the retrenchments he recommends.

Zakaria's main point, however, isn't to rail against government. Instead, he blames government's present excessive role in the economy on a cumulative failure of self-regulation on the part of the business community, especially the financial sector.

Most of what happened over the past decade across the world was legal. Bankers did what they were allowed to do under the law. Politicians did what they thought the system asked of them. Bureaucrats were not exchanging cash for favors. But very few people acted responsibly, honorably or nobly (the very word sounds odd today). This might sound like a small point, but it is not. No system—capitalism, socialism, whatever—can work without a sense of ethics and values at its core. No matter what reforms we put in place, without common sense, judgment and an ethical standard, they will prove inadequate. We will never know where the next bubble will form, what the next innovations will look like and where excesses will build up. But we can ask that people steer themselves and their institutions with a greater reliance on a moral compass.

That sounds admirable, but it seems a little inconsistent with the way Newsweek is promoting Zakaria's article. The subtitle of "The Capitalist Manifesto" is "Greed is Good (to a point)." I hope the author didn't come up with that himself, and if he didn't he should kick his editor. Greed cannot be good. The best we can say is that greed is an excessive form of some healthy ambition that (to a point) can be good if regulated as Zakaria suggests. Whether Zakaria's manifesto will do good depends on whether capitalism itself can get by on that healthy ambition, or needs full-scale greed to function.

South Carolina: Hypocrisy is no crime

Attached to MSNBC's report of Governor Sanford's confession of an extramarital affair is a poll question: should Sanford resign? So far, the overwhelming majority of readers say yes, but I voted "Maybe." In my opinion, adultery itself isn't reason enough for an elected official to quit his office. Nor, despite the renewed gloating of Democrats, is hypocrisy sufficient reason for Sanford to resign. It is noted that Sanford supported the impeachment and removal of President Clinton, but it should be understood by now that the impeachers did not seek his removal merely for having an affair, but for lying under oath and suborning perjury -- and because they hated his guts and were perfectly happy to find an extra-electoral means of eliminating him. In any event, it doesn't follow that a politician who demands that another politician pay a penalty for a moral offense should pay the penalty himself as long as I don't think that either man should pay the penalty.

The reason I don't come out entirely for Sanford keeping his office is the matter of his deceiving his staff and, by extension, the people of his state. It was bad enough that his whereabouts were officially unknown for a number of days, but to mislead the state into believing he was somewhere he wasn't ought to be censurable, at least. But punishment enough for Sanford is the realization that any higher political ambitions he may have had are gone. That may not even be fair, to the extent that it's because of the affair rather than the deception, but that's the price he pays for the partisan company he keeps.

23 June 2009

Who Killed Capitalism?

Jonah Goldberg is a slow learner, but he deserves credit for persistence. The Republican columnist reports this week that "big business" has delivered the coup de grace to the good old capitalist system while admitting that "The absence of free markets isn't necessarily Bolshevism, or even socialism." He doesn't quite find a word to describe the particular absence he perceives in the United States, but he ascribes it to the realization that some corporations are "too big to fail" and will therefore be preserved at all costs through government intervention.

"Everywhere we look we see the great and once-great beneficiaries of free markets running to the state for protection from the cruel bullying of competition," Goldberg writes sarcastically. On the government side, he continues, "The basic idea is that big firms -- giant banks, insurance companies, etc. -- cannot be allowed to fail if their failure threatens something called 'stability.'" To Goldberg this is the usual arrogant naivete of liberals who think they can master business cycles, but worse for all is big business's discovery that they can exploit the liberal environment.

The problem, asserts, "is that big companies will understand the surest way to attain immortality is to become too big to fail. Once they've achieved that privileged status, these companies will become de facto wards of the state, insured for life at taxpayer expense like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and in exchange they will do whatever Uncle Sam asks."

This approach violates Goldberg's sense that "real freedom means the freedom to fail as well as to succeed" because "Big business wants to be protected from the former and deny competitors the latter." It's Goldberg who's naive, of course, if he thinks this is a new development in corporate America. There has always been a temptation to seek monopolies among corporations. What's new now, Goldberg might argue, is that government, by guaranteeing companies against destabilizing failure, may prevent the normal transfer of capital to new, presumably productive investments that follows business failures. This violates the "freedom" sensibility that requires government to cultivate "opportunity" rather than actual well-being. It's no surprise that someone like Goldberg seems indifferent or contemptuous toward any concern for "stability." It's the belief of such people that "instability" is when you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Their ethos of perpetual competition offers no remedy for the dislocating shocks of creative destruction apart from, "If at first you don't succeed..." What happens if ordinary people, the workers dependent on companies that might be TBTF, never succeed is of no concern to them.

I think the government understands that a company is TBTF in part because so many working people depend on it for income and insurance. This particular government may err in confusing the people who own and run the structures on which so many workers depend with the structures themselves. Government should want to keep people working in factories, but it probably shouldn't be so concerned with keeping the same people in charge of them. Is competition desirable? Then let some genius submit his proposal to Washington on how to run GM better while keeping everyone at work. Let's have a bunch of proposals, and let the best one win. We can honor the beneficial aspects of competition without sacrificing multitudes on its altar, as people like Goldberg seem to want. His metaphorical cries for blood belie his own claim that capitalism is dead.

Obama on Iran

The President climbed aboard his rhetorical high horse to survey the Iranian situation for the benefit of the press today. After a superficial acknowledgment of Iranian sovereignty, he basically spoke as if assuming that which remains to be proven: that the past week's demonstrations in Tehran were a legitimate demonstration against a stolen election. His statements may still seem tame by neocon standards, but identifying the protesters with "those who stand up for justice" pretty much rules out the possibility that they might just be a disaffected faction that happens to be concentrated in a large city. Other utterances were more vague. When he spoke of a "remarkable opening within Iranian society," did he mean the election or the demonstrations? It's easy for him to deplore the "brutality and threats" faced by the demonstrators, but how different, perhaps from the body count, would an American response have been to a similar demonstration following a similarly disputed vote? It would have been amusing had someone asked Obama whether he would have supported Tehran-style demonstrations in this country in 2000 or 2004, when large numbers of people contended that presidential elections had been stolen.

I'm being hard on the President because I insist on an objective perspective on Iran. It seems to me that there is evidence, despite the Guardian Council's disclaimers, of some kind of vote-rigging. But there is no evidence that I am aware of to prove that Mir Hossein Mousavi was the actual winner of the election. Mobs are not evidence for anything but their own biases. Mobs in the streets of Washington in 2000 would no more have proven that George W. Bush had stolen the presidential election than actual mobs in the streets of New York in 2003 proved that the country opposed the invasion of Iraq. But the paradigm of "people power" has led many Americans to believe that mobs in the streets of reputedly repressive countries represent the true will of all the people -- except if they say such things as "Death to America" or "Death to Israel." We'd do well to remember our Founders' reservations about mob rule before cheering on mobs unconditionally in other places. But the President's nod to the Neda cult suggests that we can expect no better from him, and worse from the opposition.

Iran: Don't Hold Your Breath

The Iranian opposition now appeals to diminished expectations, since it's become apparent that they don't have the manpower or the guts to keep up the street fighting of the weekend. Now we're supposed to look for odd car lights and other subtleties as signs of resistance. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, the Russian government has reiterated its superfluous endorsement of the election, as if Putin's people had any credibility of the subject. It amounts to a personal endorsement of President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, with whom Putin and Medvedev would apparently prefer to deal regardless of how they hold or keep power.

Leaders like these have a good racket going, since they can appeal to the struggle against "hegemony" to partly justify increasingly authoritarian rule at home. It's almost as if the only way you can prove that you'll stand up to the U.S. is to affront blatantly the (admittedly inconsistent) American sense of fair play in politics. This is a kind of argument against American aspirations toward hegemony, since renouncing all claims to be "sole superpower" would strip the likes of Ahmadinejad/Khamenei, Putin/Medvedev, Hugo Chavez et al of some of the extra-legitimating rationalizations they offer for every new power grab. I'm not saying that they don't have purely domestic motives for power-grabbing, but they clearly present themselves as a group as a resistance to American hegemony or "arrogance," and without perceived U.S. interference as a common point of reference they might have less reason to reach out to one another for mutual reinforcement. Having said all this, I can't reproach the Russians for taking the stance they have. It is no more their business than it is Americans' how the Iranians conduct their elections, and I'm sure they have good, pragmatically strategic reasons for cultivating good relations with Iran. Maybe they felt they'd win brownie points by putting in a good word now, but it insults the intelligence of the rest of the world.

The latest from the Guardian Council is that the irregularities reported yesterday do not count as fraud and are insufficient cause to annul the election. Their view, apparently, is that all the over-voting that happened in the 50 electoral districts resulted from technical errors. This is an unsurprising conclusion. For all the show their making about investigating and discovering irregularities, if their motive is simply to confirm Ahmadinejad's reelection they really can't give an inch on the question of fraud. Acknowledging that fraud might have happened in the disputed districts forces the possibility that it happened elsewhere. Rather like Republicans in the winter of 2000-1, the ruling faction would like to nip such speculation in the bud. Technical errors can't be ruled out absolutely, but I need to know more about how Iranians voted before I can judge the possibility of honest mistakes. All we know is that we've seen the equivalent of "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago" in the streets of Tehran. If those alone can discredit a political process, history requires Americans to take a long look in the mirror before assuming moral superiority.

22 June 2009

Another Defender of Faith

Terry Eagleton is an English literary critic with a Marxist bent. From what I recall, he got involved in the debate over today's "militant atheism" a couple of years ago when he published a contemptuous attack on Richard Dawkins's God Delusion in the London Review of Books. Eagleton's opinion seemed to me to be besides the point. He knocked Dawkins for being ignorant of theology, claiming that the scientist had no credibility as a critic of religion without some familiarity with the subtleties of that discipline. My thought was: why should Dawkins bother with subtle speculations about the nature of a being whose existence he denies in the first place? The answer has something to do with the fact that Dawkins was commenting as much on religion as on God, and that religion, in Eagleton's view, is a more complex affair than Dawkins and his fellow authors acknowledge. Eagleton puts it this way in his new book Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, a lecture series he delivered at Yale last year:

It is, in fact, entirely logical that those who see religion as nothing but false consciousness should so often get it wrong, since what profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish? Who is likely to launch a time-consuming investigation of what Kabbalists, occultists, or Rosicrucians actually hold, when there is still War and Peace to read and the children to be put to bed? So it is that those who
polemicize most ferociously against religion regularly turn out to be the least qualified to do so ... It is as though when it comes to religion -- the single most powerful, pervasive, persistent form of popular culture human history has ever witnessed, as well as in many respects the most obnoxious -- any old travesty will do (50-1).

Now as then, Eagleton argues that the atheists' willful ignorance of theology blinds them to what religion is really all about. He ascribes to Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (often amalgamated for his purposes as "Ditchkins") and their peers a "primitive" understanding of religion and of God.

These intellectuals claim as Christian doctrine the idea that God is some sort of superentity outside the universe; that he created the world rather as a carpenter might fashion a stool; that faith in this God means above all subscribing to the proposition that he exists; that there is a real me inside me called the soul, which a wrathful God may consign to hell if I am not
egregiously well-behaved; that our utter dependency on this deity is what stops thinking and acting for ourselves; that this God cares deeply about whether we are sinful or not, because if we are then he demands to be placated, and other such secular fantasies (50).

Does this sound like Christianity to you? It did to me, so what is Eagleton talking about? Among other things, he takes the now-familiar apologetic position that religion is not a pseudo-science and doesn't aspire to a factual explanation of how the world came to be, and therefore shouldn't be condemned for failing at what it doesn't attempt. Eagleton sticks with a less anthropomorphic sense of God as that which sustains the universe and its natural law and explains why there is something rather than nothing. No dogmatic believer himself, he likes the idea of there being something the existence of which inherently limits human claims to mastery, that forces an acknowledgment from everyone that some things are not in their control or theirs to control. He also likes the Christian idea of a loving God that created life as a gratuitous act of love; he sees this as a model of every ideal of social justice (including his own socialism), all of which, at their best, express a compassionate love of mankind and of every person as an end unto itself. He fears that the materialism allegedly espoused by the modern atheists encourages an extreme rationalism that aspires to absolute inhuman or inhumane mastery, as expressed in everything from Stalinism to neoconservatism.

Eagleton isn't recommending religion to non-believers, but is defending his kind of believers from attack. He rejects Hitchens's argument that the best qualities of believers aren't based on their beliefs. To Eagleton, Hitchens's view is "rather like arguing that any advances made by feminists are due entirely to the benign influence of their fathers (97)." That glib line doesn't really refute Hitchens, however, if we understand him to mean that the benevolence of someone like Martin Luther King does not follow necessarily from Christian dogma, nor does it require acceptance of that dogma to be reproduced. Because Eagleton isn't really concerned with the tenets of conventional religion as most of us understand and encounter it, he doesn't attempt to prove that King's good works required him to believe in the Resurrection. His real agenda is to remind people that religion has motivated people to acts of good will and social justice, at least in their own accounts, and that people who still aspire to social justice should not want to cut off a source of sympathy and support in the form of religious faith.Anticipating the argument that the style of religion he idealizes is practiced by only a small minority of believers, he offers faith-based social justice movements of the past as proof to the contrary.

Eagleton belongs to that division of the "Left" that has discovered the usefulness of faith. He makes a plausible argument that some kind of faith, in people at least, is necessary for just about all social, cultural or scientific activity. He also argues that you can't really distinguish that kind of faith from the "substance of things unseen" in religious faith. He clearly believes that people need to adopt some sort of unconditional love for mankind, most likely founded on some form of faith, if his socialist ideal is ever to be realized. Again, he isn't saying that we'll have to believe in God or gods, but that we'll have to adopt something like the mentality that the atheists affect to despise. Reason, Faith, and Revolution is a plea for tolerance of humanity wrapped in a plea for tolerance of religion -- or vice versa, if you prefer. It is a warning that there's a precious baby in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater of dogmatic fundamentalist religion. It succeeds or fails depending on whether you finally accept his definition of religion. I'll offer my own verdict in a later post.

Iran: Mistakes Were Made

The Islamic Republic's Guardian Council is walking a tightrope during its inquiry into irregularities in last week's presidential election. They report today that irregularities have been found in 50 of the nation's 366 electoral districts, though it's unclear how high a percentage this is of the districts they investigated. The Mousavi faction claims irregularities, mostly along the lines of ballot stuffing from what I can tell, in as many as 170 districts. The Guardians, while owning up to errors, to say the least, insist that the irregularities discovered so far aren't enough to reverse the outcome of the election. In this they follow Supreme Leader Khamenei in the belief that President Ahmadinejad's margin of victory was somehow too big to be faked.

Meanwhile, after a quiet Sunday, some protesters hit the streets of Tehran today, only to be beaten down by an army of police, basij and Revolutionary Guards. Western reports count the demonstrators in the hundreds, suggesting that many more dissidents were either cowed by the violence of Saturday or have simply said their piece already. Elsewhere, exiles and their Western friends still accept fraud as a foregone conclusion, deduced pretty much automatically from their perception of the nature of their regime. That regime certainly didn't show a pretty face over the weekend. While I repeat that Americans are hypocritical for embracing the election protesters when they wouldn't have accepted such protests on their own streets in 2000, I have to admit that American authorities are far less likely to have shed blood on the streets had those protests happened. Too many Iranians remain too close to their own revolution to tolerate anything that even hints at counterrevolution. Revolutionaries are by their nature intolerant or else they would never have forced an issue anywhere. Iran can't be singled out as an "evil" regime in this case unless you want to declare all revolutionary regimes illegitimate -- though at a certain point you can question whether revolutionary necessity is a fair excuse for perpetual repression.

In any event, a detail that further amuses me is Americans' sudden adoption of what might be called the Iranian or the Tehran "street" as the legitimate tribune of public opinion. This comes after years of disparaging the "street" of Muslim nations as a mass of irrational mobs. A rule of appraisal is implicit: if they denounce the U.S., they can be ignored, but if they denounce or otherwise discomfit an "evil" regime than they are the authentic voice of the people. Pundits here are desperate to see in Tehran a popular base for the overthrow of the entire Islamic Republic, but there is still little proof that the protesters represent the nation as a whole. Neocons might argue that the rest of the country has been more thoroughly repressed, but it's more likely that no side in Iran is entitled to the benefit of the doubt -- and neocon presumptions are especially unentitled. The American government would be wise to deal with Iran on a business-as-usual basis -- not that that's been exactly businesslike, but you get the idea.

19 June 2009

The Crusaders

Military chaplains are allegedly abusing their position to proselytize for evangelical Christianity in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to this report. They seem to think they can get away with it in spite of the First Amendment by stating that they are not "the government." This is just the news everyone needed to hear, don't you think? I'd like to believe that the most inflammable Muslims were aware of this already, but that probably won't stop the report from inflaming more people. They're not likely to appreciate the nuance of the story, which makes clear that these chaplains are doing their thing without U.S. authorization. For some Americans, that might be an argument for suppressing the report, but I'd rather have Muslims inflamed than Americans left ignorant. In any event, this looks like a job for the Commander-in-Chief.

The Supreme Leader's Lesson for the Day

As an unelected head of state, the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, ideally should stand above the partisan fray of elected offices. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a self-consciously revolutionary state. With revolutionary consciousness comes a hypersensitivity to "counter-revolution," a slippery slope of sensibility that tempts one to treat any dissent from leadership as fraught with treason. Revolutionaries distrust liberalism because liberalism values dissent as an end unto itself. To the extent that Mir Hossein Mousavi and his party were the "liberals" in the Iranian presidential election, the Supreme Leader may be presumed to be biased against them and in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is as far as I'll go to establish a motive for Khamenei or the Guardian Council to rig the vote in favor of Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei delivered a rare Friday sermon in Tehran today, with Ahmadinejad in attendance. Someone has posted a transcript of the sermon, leaving out some religious matter at the start of it.The transcript isn't inconsistent with summations of the speech that have appeared in the American news media. The Supreme Leader made some gestures of conciliation toward the opposition without conceding any doubt in the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's victory. He emphasized, correctly as far as I know, that all the candidates, Mousavi included, support the fundamental idea of the Islamic Republic. He chided excesses of negative campaigning on all sides, criticizing alleged slanders against Ahamadinejad as well as slanders from Ahmadinejad's side against certain prominent Iranians who supported Mousavi. But he emphasized that the nation had seen a free exchange of views. As far as I know, having seen clips of televised debates between the two leading candidates, this is correct.

But Khamenei's attempt to refute the stolen-election charge was pretty feeble. His view is that Ahmadinejad's victory margin is too big to be faked. Had he won by only a million or so votes, the ayatollah suggested, then we could ask questions. That may have been a dig at the 2000 and 2004 U.S. elections, though he didn't cite those specifically. Since Ahmadinejad is said to have won by 11,000,000 votes, Khamenei says that could only reflect overwhelming support for the incumbent at the grass roots. While the Supreme Leader is correct to observe that the Western media have been predicting in bad faith for weeks ahead of time that the election would be stolen, his numerical reasoning will do little to calm sincere Western observers who question the result. After all, the most blatantly stolen elections in the world are those in which the leader and his party claim mandates of 90% or greater. Granting that those elections (as practiced in Baathist Iraq, for instance) didn't exactly follow the same rules that prevailed in Iran, they still show that the size of the victory doesn't prove jack about the democratic legitimacy of a regime whose commitment to liberal principles is in other respects greatly open to question.

When Khamenei says that disputes about vote counting shouldn't be settled in the streets, he's only saying exactly what leaders in any country would say after a similarly-disputed election. If supporters of Al Gore had hit the streets, as some wanted but Gore did not, in the winter of 2000-1, we can guess what Republicans and many in Gore's own party would say. But because Americans have assigned Iran to the category of "evil" regimes, and American politicians and pundits have assumed for themselves the right to question the legitimacy of all such regimes, they demand that Mousavi's supporters keep up the "people power" pressure in the desperate hope that the entire edifice of the Islamic Republic will come crashing down Berlin-Wall style. As Khamenei put it, the Americans, the British and the Zionists want Iran to go the way of the Republic of Georgia, where "people power" put in a pro-Western, anti-Russian government, -- one which the Supreme Leader probably sees as a puppet state of the U.S. He makes quite clear that he won't allow that to happen, even as the Mousavi faction announces plans for another demonstration to take place tomorrow.

Leaving aside the question of Americans' right to judge what happens in Iran, let's ask an objective question: what if Mousavi's supporters have or find irrefutable evidence that Ahamdinejad or Khamenei stole an election that was rightfully Mousavi's? What do they do then? Common sense suggests that if the rulers won't play by the rules, neither should the opposition. But what are their options. The regime has fanatic supporters; imagine talk-radio listeners who actually have the courage to fight for their beliefs, albeit backed up by the government. The basij, for starters, has already proven its readiness to beat down dissent that it equates with treason or immorality. I'm not sure that Iran is the kind of environment where Gandhi's approach could prevail. If the opposition decides that the government is no longer legitimate, it had better be prepared to use more than people power unless they're only interested in a suicidal form of moral exhibitionism. It's alleged that Mousavi has powerful supporters within the higher ranks of the regime. Depending on how powerful they are, the only practical means of rectifying the situation might be a coup d'etat, which isn't exactly a ratification of democracy itself. The only real options may be grudging acquiescence or a civil war that the opposition most likely isn't prepared to win. That's the sort of situation in which some would say the Iranians need outside help, but the situation next door in Iraq has shown that foreign intervention is no substitute for the people taking responsibility for their own freedom at whatever cost they're willing to pay. It's time for the Iranians to do the math.

17 June 2009

Birth of the Bipolarchy?

Lynn Hudson Parson's The Birth of Modern Politics identifies the time of birth as the 1828 presidential election in which Andrew Jackson defeated the incumbent, John Quincy Adams. Parsons, a SUNY professor, has written a brief book, barely 200 pages of text, that doesn't even reach 1828 until more than halfway through. The buildup is necessary, though, to contrast what happened in that year with what came before. 1828 was Jackson's revenge for losing the Presidency to Adams in the House of Representatives through the alleged "corrupt bargain" between his rival and House Speaker Henry Clay. It was also the year that Jackson hooked up with Martin Van Buren, who turned Old Hickory's personal following into a disciplined political party. That discipline, extending to a concerted media campaign by partisan newspapers, defines 1828's modernity for Parsons.

What I've gotten from the book so far is a sense that the American Bipolarchy as it would eventually develop may have been the price Americans paid for rejecting the election system the Framers had set up for them. To this day, if any third party shows signs of popularity, whether it was George Wallace's movement in 1968 or Ross Perot's in 1992, pundits spook the public by predicting a repeat of the infamous 1824 scenario, when the failure of any candidate to win a majority in the Electoral College left the decision in the hands of the House. This is the implicit worst-case scenario, though one might ask why, if it was so bad, the Framers set it up in the first place.

To bring people up to speed, 1824 was the end of the "Era of Good Feeling" that followed the post(1812)war collapse of the Federalists. James Monroe had run for reelection unopposed in 1820, but three members of his Cabinet were soon seeking to succeed him. By the fall of 1824 there were four credible candidates: Adams, Jackson, Clay and William Crawford. Clay finished fourth and dropped out by virtue of the 12th Amendment. As Speaker of the House, he had influence over many congressmen. He considered Adams the best remaining candidate even though Jackson had a plurality of both the electoral and popular vote. When Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State after his election, their opponents assumed that this was a quid-pro-quo, though history has never confirmed this. 1824 had been a campaign of personalities. Historians have disparaged this phenomenon retroactively because it seemed that personalities had been emphasized at the expense of concrete issues. Parsons makes one very interesting observation, however. Unlike the next campaign, 1824 was not marred by negative campaigning. That, the author suggests, was because all the candidates assumed that the election would go to the House, and no one wanted to alienate his rival's supporters by attacking their candidates.

It became obvious pretty quickly that 1828 would be a two-man race, as all opponents of Adams (including his Vice President, John C. Calhoun) rallied behind Jackson (who would make Calhoun his own running mate). Parsons stresses, however, that a two-man campaign didn't automatically mean a two-party or bipolarchic campaign. That's where Martin Van Buren comes in. He believed a disciplined party system as a necessary alternative to rule by elite celebrities. Jackson could well have won the 1828 election entirely on the strength of his personality and the perception that Clay had screwed him. But how could Jackson be trusted to govern? A President who depended only on his own charisma could well govern as he pleased, within constitutional limits. But by incorporating the grass-roots Jackson movement into a disciplined, ideological party, Van Buren and his allies, many of them slaveholders (like Jackson himself), hoped to steer popular enthusiasm into the service of their Jeffersonian limited-government ideology. Not coincidentally, a party hierarchy created a seemingly meritocratic path for personal advancement for politicians like Van Buren who came from relatively humble backgrounds or hadn't become military heroes like Jackson. By 1837 he was President of the United States.

By perpetuating the "corrupt bargain" conspiracy theory against Adams and Clay, Van Buren encouraged the implicit corollary notion that there was something inherently corrupt about the constitutional process for resolving elections without majority winners. For American history, the lesson of 1824 seemed to be that it was desirable if not imperative to have a majority winner in the Electoral College. Anything short of that threatened to thwart the will of the American people, even though any such scenario would mean that the people had thwarted themselves. The easiest way to ensure a majority winner is to have only two candidates. There had been two-man and even two-party elections before 1828, but to the extent that 1824 became the negative exemplar to be avoided at all costs, you could well argue that the American Bipolarchy as we know it began at that moment. We might break the spell of 1824 if we, the people, were not so jealous of our right to choose the President, and we might break the spell of the Presidency if chief executives had more humble origins, so to speak, and could not call themselves sole representatives of the entire American people. If the Bipolarchy is a product of democratization, we might want to rethink our impulse to democratize every aspect of our political system.

"Repeal the 17th Amendment"

My mention of this slogan on a sign carried at yesterday's "tea party" event in Albany has created some confusion among readers, and I wasn't exactly certain myself if the protester knew, symbolically speaking, what he was talking about. But believe it or not, there is a movement to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that stripped state legislatures of the power to elect U.S. Senators and gave it to the people of the states. Googling the slogan revealed a blog dedicated to the idea, and numerous other websites besides. The motive seems to be to protect states' rights, the perception being that Senators are failing in their obligation to represent the states and serving their own partisan interests instead. This site summarizes the arguments for repeal, offering term limits for legislators and senators alike as the remedy for the corruption that provoked the amendment's ratification in the first place. The idea has been rattling around for a while and has been endorsed occasionally by conservative Republicans who happen not to hold elective offices, though it seems to be beyond the mainstream Republican agenda. I still say it was an odd sign for someone to carry at an anti-government rally in Albany, where the legislature is the body people might least want to grant additional power.

Iran Divided

From the ayatollahs to the national soccer team, Iranians are split over the disputed presidential election. A senior cleric has said that no sensible person can accept the reported result of a landslide victory for the incumbent. Members of the soccer team were wearing opposition colors for at least part of their nationally televised game yesterday. Unverified reports claim that at least one pair of legislators came to blows over the issue. Preliminary reports from the selected recounts suggest ballot stuffing, with more votes cast than voters to cast them in several places. This story sums up much of the latest news.

Adding to the confusion for outside observers is some ambiguity regarding "the government" of Iran. If convincing evidence of a stolen election emerges, it will be necessary to ask whether the theft was perpetrated by the Supreme Leader, the president, or both. It may not be impossible that Ahmadinejad's people tried to pull something without Ayatollah Khamenei's connivance. I don't have a full understanding of the relative powers of the two leaders, or who commands whom at lower levels. Worse, we have to ask to what extent entities like the Revolutionary Guard, which is warning internet writers against creating "tension," are acting on their own initiative. At the same time, the Guard has to be distinguished from the paramilitary basij, the entity generally held responsible for Monday's killings, which seems to be personally loyal to Ahmadinejad.

However things sort out, no one should expect the West's dream scenario of some kind of people-power overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Still unlikely but more possible is that Khamenei might decide to throw Ahmandinejad under the bus, especially if it emerges that a presidential faction acted on its own in stealing the election. It would be within the Guardian Council's power to call a new election, I presume, and to exclude Ahmadinejad from the revote if they determine that he'd been up to no good. As far as I know, while Mousavi has criticized the Guardians for doing little or nothing to rectify the situation, he has no desire to do away with the Islamic Republic format or the vilayat-e-faqih principle of supervisory power for the nation's spiritual leader. Nor are there likely to be more than cosmetic changes to Iran's foreign policy, no matter how things turn out.

Given all that, the President of the United States is taking the right course by limiting himself to expressing reservations over the situation, while blowhards like Senator McCain are only setting Mousavi's faction up for the slaughter by insisting that the U.S. endorse them. All Republicans should recall how they feel when anyone on earth questions the correctness of the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections here before blowing their stacks over the Iranian imbroglio. Of course, for suggesting this I might be accused of asserting "moral equivalence" between the Iranian and American political systems, but for the moment I'm not. What I am asserting is a principle of etiquette and a little bit of common sense that might keep the people you support from losing any chance they have of prevailing or even surviving.

16 June 2009

Albany Tea Party No. 2

Here's an early report of the second "tea party" event to take place in Albany this year. The location this time was the State Capitol itself rather than the riverfront Corning Preserve. The event was scheduled before last week's state senate debacle, but that still-unfolding storyline may have swelled the ranks of today's protesters. Organizers were hoping for thousands, but this report puts turnout at hundreds, though more might appear during the afternoon depending on lunch hours and other details of scheduling. Again, organizers declare themselves non-partisan, but there is a decidedly anti-government slant to the right from what I've seen in photos brought back to the office. People are carrying signs calling for repeal of the 17th Amendment, for instance, or declaring that "Global Warming is a Fraud." I'm hoping that there might be video footage of the event for me to consult tonight. If any of it is worth embedding, I'll post it later.

Barack Obama: Hypocrite

Back when the Bush Administration wouldn't let the news media see the White House visitor logs, Senator Obama was among the multitudes demanding greater transparency from the Executive Branch. As a successful presidential candidate, he was ideally positioned to implement the necessary reforms, yet people still find themselves having to sue to even have a chance of seeing the logs. The Obama Administration has explicitly asserted the President's right to hold secret meetings in the White House, offering such examples as someone interviewing for an administrative position or foreign diplomats discussing sensitive international issues. This looks like another case where Republicans and neocons will credit Obama with wising up to the requirements of power while chiding liberals and others who still don't get it. What many of us "don't get" is the notion that, in a democratic republic, our elected leaders are apparently accountable to us only on Election Day, and that between elections they have some sort of exemption from public scrutiny of their meetings and discussions. To some observers, I suppose, this is only a matter of common sense. They believe that each election is a complete delegation of sovereignty by citizens to officeholders, so that citizens don't need to know who the President sees and what he discusses with them until it all comes up for review, in vaguest terms, at the next election. That view doesn't prevail everywhere. Those states that have recall provisions for elected officials, for instance, take a different approach. The idea that elected officials are accountable to the people at all times ought to be adopted nationwide. If that makes life more difficult for leaders, that's only as it should be, and I'd expect "left" and "right" alike to agree with me on that.

15 June 2009

New York: Senatorial Counter-coup

In the latest maneuver in the struggle to control the New York state senate, Hiram Monserrate, one of the two Democrats who defected to make a Republican the majority leader, now says he will resume caucusing with the Democrats, creating an even 31-31 deadlock in the upper house. His co-conspirator of last week says that Monserrate's decision does not reverse the result of last week's vote, which made him (Senator Espada) the president of the senate.

I wonder whether the real motive for last week's stunt, at least as far as the two senators were concerned (moneybags B. Thomas Golisano having his own motives) was to depose Senator Malcolm Smith as the majority leader, in the first place, and the leader of the Democratic caucus in the next. They have apparently disliked his leadership since the party took over the upper house, for whatever reason, and the upheaval seems likely to force a vote on Smith's standing within the party, which Monserrate is now in a position to influence. Smith seems to have few friends at this point, and it looks like no one will regret his fall from power. I would hate to think that race is at the base of this tempest, with Hispanic senators rebelling against a black leader, but one never knows. One might tell, however, from how the caucus conducts itself hereafter.

I'm also curious to see how partisans will respond to the apparent repentance and return to the fold of a man they had denounced as a despicable traitor last week, and who remains an alleged criminal. The conscientious approach might be to make Monseratte a man without a party and bar him from the caucus, but that probably isn't an option so long as his vote can make the difference on any bill. That's what partisanship reduces us to in New York State. It makes you wonder whether there's some other way that representative government can work to make scenes like those of the past week impossible or at least less likely. Politicians aren't going to help us with this one, so we'll have to figure it out ourselves.

The Iranian Crisis

Likely emboldened by the Guardian Council's decision to probe charges of election improprieties, Mir Hossein Mousavi and an estimated 100,000 supporters defied a ban on protest demonstrations to show their strength in Tehran today. The event was marred when members of what is called a "pro-government militia" fired into the crowd, reportedly killing at least one person. President Ahmadinejad has cancelled a scheduled trip to Russia in order to remain in the country, which is probably a smart move by the presumptive winner.

From the MSNBC account, the gunmen may have been members of the basij, which is a student paramilitary group with reactionary leanings. The "pro-government" label should be used with care because of the distinction between Ahmadinejad as head of government and Ayatollah Khamanei as head of state. The basij, from what I've read about them, are mainly pro-Ahmadinejad, though I doubt whether they see any conflict between that and loyalty to the Supreme Leader or the Guardian Council. The president has reportedly encouraged the growth of the basij during his first term, and they seem like the people most inclined to get rough in his defense. They could have acted on their own initiative, or with Ahmadinejad's connivance, or with approval from the very top level. This is the sort of scenario, however, where conspiracy theorists are most likely to cry "agent provocateur!" and suggest that the basij, Ahmadinejad, or the government as a whole are being framed.

Whether the Guardian Council's inquiry into the election can be taken seriously depends on how tight Ahmadinejad is with Khamenei. The election was fought mostly over domestic economic issues, and I don't know if the ayatollah has a preference here. The other main issue was Ahmadinejad himself as the image of Iran to the rest of the world. Mousavi portrayed him as an embarrassment, but supporters endorsed the president's confrontational stance as a way to stick it to The Man, i.e. the Great Satan and his pals. It's not clear whether Mousavi would offer more than cosmetic changes when it comes to foreign relations. The question is whether the Guardians would have any reason to screw Mousavi, but that question itself assumes that Ahmadinejad has already screwed his opponent. American observers may be inclined to believe that Khamenei is automatically complicit in any Election Day screw-job, but just as we shouldn't assume that Mousavi has been screwed, we shouldn't assume that the Supreme Leader was in on a conspiracy against the opposition, or that he would do nothing about it. The proof of a free election is not that the good guys win, or that all the candidates are good guys. Iran may end up an enemy of the U.S. despite all democracy, but that possibility shouldn't lead us to assume that the Islamic Republic is more of a tyranny than it probably is -- which is bad enough for many people.

13 June 2009

Iran: Righteous Indignation or Sore Loserism

Raw footage from today in the Iranian capital. These are supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate in yesterday's presidential election. They are outraged that President Ahmadinejad has won what appears to be a landslide victory despite reports before the vote that the race had been neck-and-neck. Encouraged to believe that power was within their reach, they now assume the fix was in.

American observers will likely jump to the same conclusion, even though it's unclear whether there was any sound scientific basis for believing that the race was as close as the global media claimed. All we know for certain is that Mousavi has a large and loud following in the big cities. But in the United States you can have a huge march for some cause in New York City and that wouldn't mean that the country as a whole feels the same way.

I'm trying to be neither naive nor contrarian on this subject. An Iranian election can be stolen just like any country's. I just don't want everyone jumping to that conclusion just because they dislike the idea of the Islamic Republic or hate Ahmadinejad's guts -- no matter how he's earned it. Let's hear from independent observers if any were in the country, or from non-partisan Iranians. Let's not hear from Americans who think they know what's happened because they "know" that Iran is a tyranny.

On the other hand, I suppose this is how people should behave if they think their election was stolen. But if Americans had done anything like this back in 2000, you know how other Americans would have reacted. Our final judgment on these Iranians must depend on whether their anger has any basis in facts. This remains to be seen.

12 June 2009

Democracy in Iran, Part II

The state-controlled media has called the Iranian presidential election for the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the basis of early returns. Even before the polls closed, however, Mr. Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate, declared himself the winner, warning that any deviation from that prediction would result from fraud by the incumbent's party. Many Americans will give Mousavi the benefit of the doubt based on their hatred of Ahmadinejad, but they ought to acknowledge that an American candidate -- Republican, Democratic or other -- who pre-emptively declared himself the winner of an election before the polls closed would universally be deemed guilty of bad form. Mousavi may be the good guy in the race from our perspective, but he should be judged the same way for his little stunt.

If the final result bears out the official call, I'm sure there'll be millions of Iranians who'll feel just like millions of Americans did following the 2004 election. That would be a mix of despair plus guilt on behalf of the whole country. Ahmadinejad is the Iranian equivalent of George W. Bush in many respects -- there's even a slight facial resemblance if you imagine the Iranian clean shaven -- and he clearly stirs up the same pro and con passions among Iranians as Dubya did here. His re-election would force the same questions as Bush's. Was every Ahmadinejad voter voting for Holocaust denial and The Bomb, or were there other reasons to stick with the incumbent? Just as Bush's win over Kerry was blamed on socio-cultural divides in America, similar ones may exist in Iran that don't necessarily have much bearing on the country's foreign policy. We know that Ahmadinejad is a kind of populist who ran originally and again this time against an alleged class of political fat cats, so it's quite possible that an Iranian voted for him as much to stick it to some imagined domestic oppressor as to stick it to the U.S. or Israel. That doesn't mean that no Iranian voted to send a message abroad, however. If you can imagine an American yahoo rallying to Dubya precisely because he was so despised outside the U.S., then it ought to be easy to imagine his counterpart Iranian yahoo interpreting international condemnation of Ahmadinejad as the perfect endorsement. However these factors balance out, we ought to be careful about declaring the Iranian electorate to be complicit by virtue of their votes in all Ahmadinejad's schemes. Collective guilt, after all, is how terrorists see things.
* * *
Would it surprise you to learn that at least one American neocon is rooting for Ahmadinejad to win? Daniel Pipes's logic is that, so long as Iran continues to develop nuclear power regardless of who wins the presidency, the country ought to have a creep in office to remind us that they should never be allowed to get The Bomb. I don't like to use Hitler analogies as a rule, but this attitude reminds me of those German Communists who preferred the Nazis over the Social Democrats back in the 1930s because they thought they'd benefit from his misrule. I am not equating Ahmadinejad to Hitler, but I am equating stupidity to stupidity through history. I leave it to you to choose between Pipes and Rev. Wright for Idiot of the Week.

11 June 2009

Idiot of the Week Nominee: Jeremiah Wright

We were apparently mistaken in believing that Rev. Wright's fifteen minutes of fame had expired once Republicans proved themselves unable to disqualify Barack Obama from the White House by association with his onetime pastor. The Rev. himself has not kept track of the time, however; nor could he pick a worse time to have his remarks to a Newport News paper publicized nationally than in the aftermath of the Holocaust Museum attack. He's still in a snit because Obama won't talk to him anymore, though he predicts that the President will turn to him when he's out of power or reduced to political duck lameness. While he repeats his charge that Obama himself is consciously ducking him because he is a politician, Wright found it necessary to assert that "them Jews" are keeping him from the President. He also made critical remarks about the Israeli occupation in Gaza that aren't themselves objectionable, as far as I'm concerned. The idiocy of his interview lies in his suspicion that only Jews would try to keep him away from Obama, when in fact anyone with common political sense would treat his approach to the White House as the late security guard treated Herr von Brunn's visit to the museum yesterday. The illiteracy of "them Jews" is only icing on the idiocy cake.

In case the national media are distorting the story or Wright's comments, here's a link to the Newport News Daily Press, the original source of the story, along with the video interview the paper did with Wright.

10 June 2009

Amoklauf zum Museum: A Scumbag's Last Stand

James Von Brunn might think he scored a bonus today, having killed a black security guard in his attempt to blast his way into the Holocaust Museum in Washington. He may not know what he's done, since I understand he took a head shot in the exchange. Despite the low body count I feel justified in calling this an amoklauf because I presume that he meant to kill people inside the museum in some sort of last stand against "ZOG" or whatever he calls the Jewish master of his imagination. While he may have resemblances to the cranks of today (a violent hostility toward the Federal Reserve, for instance, that he acted upon years ago), his age alone suggests that today's crime was the closing act of a slow burn rather than an outburst provoked by any recent upsurge in anti-government or right-wing extremism. He's old enough to be the dad of most of the people who might be scapegoated for his antics. Indeed, when Homeland Security warned earlier this year about veterans' susceptibility to right-wing extremism, I don't think they meant veterans of World War II. And when we get to people like this suspect, I think the "right-wing" label becomes irrelevant. I doubt this guy was much motivated by economics or thoughts on the proper size and scope of government. I also wouldn't want to dignify his psychoses with the label of ideology. He was a mad dog and was treated as such, but not before he could do awful damage that we should all regret.

Democracy in Iran

From all appearances, President Ahmadinejad is in a fight for his political life in Iran against substantial opposition in a four-way race that has focused as much on internal economic issues as on foreign relations. The incumbent has been slammed for embarrassing the nation through his indulgence in Holocaust skepticism, and he's been caught in a sizable error about the country's inflation rate. He has had to confront at least his most popular opponent in a televised debate. But he still has huge support for his populist domestic agenda and his tough-guy attitude toward the rest of the world.

Enemies of Iran will blow it all off. It's all a sham, they'll say, as long as the ayatollahs have the power to keep whomever they want off the ballot. If there isn't a candidate calling for the abolition of the Islamic Republic or unconditional reconciliation with the U.S., that absence must prove that Iran is a tyranny despite appearances. Isn't it awful, after all? That accursed nation has an electoral structure that winnows out the most insurgent candidates and limits effective choices to a narrow range of establishment-approved politicians. Americans are inclined to see this as "evil" because they see the will of wicked men behind it. But doesn't the American Bipolarchy work to the same basic effect? There may be no obvious malign will behind the curtain, but a system has evolved that marginalizes anyone who doesn't want to deal with the two giant fundraising machines which, we must recall, do not owe their place in the system to any design by the Founders and Framers. There's still room for genuine choice in each country's system, but the range of choices is limited in either case by seemingly arbitrary forces.

The American case seems more democratic to us because the American people are, in a way, complicit in it because of their complacency and their habits of brand-name loyalty. Americans can tell themselves that we have chosen the Bipolarchy and regularly reaffirm our choice, and that all objections to it are only "sour grapes" carping. They look at Iran and can't see when or how the Iranian people chose their electoral system, so they conclude that Iran isn't free. We had better not sugarcoat things: for many people, leaving elections aside, Iran definitely isn't a free country. But if we're going to question the freedom of their elections because of the impediments that exist for ambitious dissidents, I wonder if we'll find a truly free country anywhere on earth.

09 June 2009

Golisano: The Shadow Governor of New York

B. Thomas "Tom" Golisano is a self-made millionaire of the sort that think that the world is made for them to reap as much from as they can earn. Believing that the state of New York needed to be made safe for the likes of him, but not caring to kowtow to party hacks, he ran three times for governor as an independent candidate. His best performance was in 2002, when he earned 14% of the vote. Bearing in mind my reservations about the brand-name loyalty of most voters which perpetuates the American Bipolarchy, I think I can still say safely that the voters of New York State have thrice rejected Golisano by decisive margins. Yet now, more than six years after he last exposed himself to electoral scrutiny, this unelected person has emerged as the mastermind of the "coup" in which two defectors from the Democratic party gave control of the state senate to the Republican party. This news comes weeks after Golisano had announced his intention to quit the state as a protest against high taxes.I would have thought that quitting the state meant taking no role in its political life, particularly since his right to such influence as he has apparently demonstrated is questionable, to say the least. So what does his orchestration of the "coup" consist of? The people of New York have a right to know, and the elected officials of New York have a duty to ask, especially if the answer involves any subsidies for the two senators' legal or electoral expenses. If the state assembly has any power to summon Golisano for questioning, the majority, being vengeful Democrats, should do so. I have no sympathy for them as Democrats, and I'm not about to claim that they're the good guys of New York politics. But Golisano's ability to alter the balance of power from the shadows should be just as alarming to Americans as the persistence of the Bipolarchy, if not more so. Let's get to the bottom of this.

08 June 2009

"Coup" in New York State

Two New York state senators today switched their party affiliation from Democratic to Republican and joined the GOP members in an impromptu vote to replace the upper house's Democratic leadership with Republicans. In an obvious condition of the deal, one of the defectors has been given a share in the new power by being made president of the senate. The two senators are downstate Hispanics who had threatened to switch affiliation late last year in an attempted power play. They are opponents of gay marriage, legislation for which was pending, and both are in legal peril, though it isn't clear how changing sides can help them. The Democrats claim that today's action was illegal, but so far they've offered no basis for thinking so apart from accusing the two senators of betraying the people's will as expressed last November when the Democrats won the majority.

While I dislike the Republican agenda, I have to say that the senators owed nothing to the Democratic party. They are entitled to believe that their constituents voted for them personally, whether that's true or not. The law of the Bipolarchy is that since people literally vote a party line on the ballot, any given seat belongs to the party as much as to the person. Fortunately, there's no statutory law saying so, and in the absence of any recall mechanism there's no way to punish renegade legislators until the next election comes along. But that doesn't make the senators any kind of heroes. Rather than challenge the Bipolarchy, they've perpetuated it, since they've affirmed that the only effective way to express their dissatisfaction with their old party is to join the other. That's effective because they can deny their old leaders the ability to fill majorities on committees. It would cease to be effective if committees weren't filled on a partisan basis.

What should the senators' constituents make of what's happened? They ought to reserve judgment until they see how the men vote. All legislators' first responsibility is to their constituents, not to their parties, and in theory, at least, a senator might betray his party without betraying the people. If they suddenly start voting the opposite of how they did before, constituents could well cry foul. But the constituents themselves should make sure not to confuse their interests with those of parties. If we grant that any constituency, no matter how small, has distinct interests, than there can't be a perfect match between those interests and the platform of any party. In these particular cases, voters apparently thought the Democratic candidates offered a closer match. They are the same men today. It may turn out that they are just as the presumably-deposed majority leader has described them: unprincipled and completely self-interested. But that's for their constituents, not Senator Smith, to judge, and they should judge by the senators' acts. It remains to be proven whether or not today's actions are in the constituents' best interests, and only subsequent action can prove that one way or the other.

Reporters Free or Kim Dead?

I've heard some people say that Americans once upon a time wouldn't have stood for the way North Korea has dealt with the two Korean-American reporters who allegedly strayed across the border into the Communist autocracy. The women have just been sentenced to twelve years in a labor camp for what is vaguely described as a "grave crime" or "hostility toward the North Korean people." Observers suspect that the women are, in effect, hostages to be offered their freedom in return for concessions to the Kim Jong Il regime by the U.S. government or the international community. If so, that's bound to make their plight even less acceptable to our more bellicose citizens.

By now, many Americans probably hold Kim Jong Il in no higher regard than Teddy Roosevelt held the Moroccan Raisuli (of Wind and the Lion fame) who kidnapped an American family in the early 1900s. Then, the demand was "Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead." Such talk might still be permissible today to the extent that the Raisuli was a bandit, but Americans have too often extended the principle to the effect that they deny fellow citizens' accountability to some foreign governments. In the days of imperialism, the great powers exacted concessions from weaker states requiring that nationals from the powers not be tried in the weaker states' courts for crimes allegedly committed in those countries. The accountability of American soldiers in countries where the U.S. has bases is still a subject of controversy. An international rule of law should leave no ambiguity. Offenders should be accountable to the countries whose laws they violated. Any deviance from that standard is unjustified privilege. Except for the dubious vagueness of the charges against the American reporters, I would say that the same standard should apply even in North Korea. In any event, Kim Jong Il should not be allowed to enjoy the benefit of hostages. President Obama has expressed growing frustration with Kim's atomic antics, and goes so far as to say that George W. "Axis of Evil" Bush was too soft on the tyrant. If he plans to play hardball with Kim, however, he had better prepare his people to regard those two reporters as dead already.

A Balanced Court

The current issue of The New Yorker has a "Talk of the Town" comment by Jeffrey Toobin that puts Judge Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court in historical perspective. He reminds readers that Presidents have been conscious of diversity when picking justices almost from the beginning. In the past, for instance, regional diversity was the goal: "Presidents came to honor an informal tradition of preserving a New England seat, a Virginia seat, a Pennsylvania seat, and a New York seat on the Court." That seemed appropriate when different states had clear economic interests that seemed to need representation and were still jealous of the sovereignty and relative standing in the Union. Maintaining geographic balance was how Presidents created a Court that "looked like America," but as Toobin observes, this diversity did nothing to prevent the Civil War, the ultimate expression of regional diversity in American history. Religious consciousness dates back to Andrew Jackson, who appointed the first Catholic justice in 1836. Race consciousness came, depending on your own racial consciousness, either with the appointment of Louis Brandeis in 1916 or the appointment of Thurgood Marshall in 1967, while gender consciousness manifested in the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981.

Some forms of diversity become irrelevant over time. Toobin notes that two Arizonans served together for more than two decades recently (O'Connor and Rehnquist) without anyone worrying that that state had acquired too much influence in the Court. Also, no one seems to be greatly troubled (in the mainstream, at least) by the fact that, if confirmed, Sotomayor will be the sixth Catholic in the current Court. That lack of distress seems reasonable when you realize that the Catholic justices traverse the entire ideological spectrum. Fresh emphasis on new forms of diversity becomes necessary at certain moments of history, Toobin suggests. President Obama, for instance, "need not be reluctant to acknowledge that Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing ethnic group, who by 2050 will represent a third of the American people, deserve a place at this most exclusive table for nine....As [he] knows better than most, it is a sign of a mature and healthy society when the best of formerly excluded groups have the opportunity to earn their way to the top."

This view can be taken to its absurd extreme -- how many Americans are mentally retarded, one might ask, and when would their numbers entitle them to a seat at the table of power? The idea that one from a certain group must be given a position of power just because there are lots of people in that group rankles my meritocratic conscience. But Toobin does us a service by pointing out that there is nothing new about the practice, and that it doesn't just go back to those nutty Sixties radicals, even when his invocation of the Civil War might remind us that diversity for its own sake might lack practical value. We're left with the paradox at the heart of any kind of "affirmative action" policy. Our ideal is "blind" Justice that respects principles, not persons. It should be colorblind, creed-blind, region-blind. But if Justice has not been blind to persons in the past, if it has discriminated on sight or for any other region, it cannot prove itself truly blind in the good sense unless it somehow acknowledges those to whom it had been willfully blind in the past. Some people can't accept that necessity because it violates their own sense of blind justice, which they want to be blind to the past for some reason. But even if Justice is blind, it isn't deaf. It can listen to reason, and sometimes reason trumps metaphors.

04 June 2009

Gun Nut of the Week

Pastor Ken Pagano of Louisville KY has come up with a different way to celebrate Independence Day. He's invited his congregation to celebrate at his church -- and bring their guns. Believing that the nation owes its independence to firearms (which in itself is no argument for private arsenals), Pastor Ken considers it fitting for people to display their guns in a house of worship, and for one lucky worshipper to win a handgun in a raffle. He also sees his stunt as an occasion to educate parishioners on safe gun ownership, a subject of some concern to him given recent publicized shootings in churches. There's just one problem with his affirmative approach to guns. Pastor Ken insists that your guns be unloaded and that they be checked by security at the door -- the Nazi!!!

03 June 2009

More Religious Terrorism?

Since this seems like the week to pile on, may I suggest that the apparent arson that destroyed Maine's infamous yet legal topless coffee shop might have been a faith-based crime? If anything, religion was even more likely to be the motive in this case than it was in the murder of Dr. Tiller, as I can't imagine atheists getting so worked up over the notion of bare breasts that they'd burn a building down. The proprietor, who says he didn't have the place insured, accuses some folks of gloating over its destruction as they drove past the scene. Did he get their license plates? On analogy with the media's response to people who refused to mourn Dr. Tiller (I mourn him to the extent that I deplore murder, but I respect other people's refusal), we should hear calls to have those drive-by hecklers rounded up and questioned about the possible existence of an anti-toplessness network of Christian arsonists. I'll have more on this investigation as it develops.

The fate of Steve Lonegan

Readers may recall that Steve Lonegan sent me a letter last month asking for money to finance his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey. Yesterday was primary day in the Garden State, and I learned this morning that Lonegan lost badly. He at least improved on his fourth-place performance in the last primary, but second place in a three-man field isn't that good, especially when the winner is beating you 55% to 42%. New Jersey Republicans preferred Chris Christie, apparently a sound social conservative who reportedly refused to be specific on how he'd cut the state budget if elected. He was conservative enough for voters despite Lonegan's protest that he should have led the countercharge against the President and Governor Corzine's creeping socialism. Of course, I didn't give any money to poor Lonegan, but I hope he doesn't hold that against me.

Terrorist Watch

The reputed voice of Osama bin Laden was heard again on al Jazeera and other media outlets warning Americans that they would reap the consequences of President Obama's anti-Islamic policies. He blames Obama for the failure of the truce between the Pakistani government and the Islamists of Swat province, accusing the President of refusing to let the people of Swat govern themselves according to Islamic law. He's vague about the consequences we're to suffer, as usual, but I can't help thinking this week that if he'd been bold enough to threaten abortion clinics during his tantrum, some people in this country would have us declare war on Pakistan just on the suspicion that he's there. Those are the same people who sound ready to have a new Patriot Act set up specifically for the anti-abortion movement -- which may just go to show that some people's sensibility on civil liberties depends on whose ox they think is being gored, and by whom.

02 June 2009

"Sotomayor tells senators she'd follow the law"

That's a headline over at the MSNBC website. It shows you how much the radio talkers are shaping the debate, because otherwise such a commonplace utterance from a Supreme Court nominee wouldn't be headline news. The story also continues the unhappy trend of other people reporting what Judge Sotomayor said to them rather hearing any of it straight from the judge. I suppose that's only proper before the confirmation hearings, but it gives the sense of people putting words in her mouth, or of an administration afraid to let her speak for herself. At least this time we're hearing accounts of her remarks that aren't just administration propaganda. Senator Sessions, for instance, who is expected to question her sharply as the leading Republican on the judiciary committee, told reporters that she had told him she meant to "follow the law," but he implied to reporters that her attempted reassurance only begged the question, which was how one knew what the law was. Republicans and "strict constructionists" worry that she'll follow what she might call the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and that the spirit will really be the ghost of her own life experiences -- while they themselves think they can hear the ghosts of the Framers by reading the Constitution very carefully and reverently.

The confirmation hearings won't take place until September. That means we have a whole summer of this stuff to look forward to. Aren't you excited?

Homophobes: "History absolves us!"

Pastor Bud Davis of East Berne doesn't like being called a bigot. He wrote a letter saying so to the Albany Times Union after an earlier correspondent characterized opponents of gay marriage as bigots.

"My dictionary defines a bigot as someone who is intolerant of any creed, belief or race that is not his own," Davis writes, "I am a fundamentalist minister. My positions are the positions I take not because of politics or emotions, but of what I read in the Bible." Why that matters is unclear, since Davis's dictionary didn't say that bigots took their positions "because of politics or emotions."

"I cannot teach other than the things the Bible teaches," he elaborates, "I cannot wink at homosexuality and pass it off as an alternate lifestyle. I cannot go against God's word. That does not make me a bigot." But would he similarly absolve someone who denounces Jews because he read about them in a book like say, Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Yes, I'm going to compare the Bible to those books, not on the basis of historical or literary value, but because, like these texts, the Bible encourages behaviors and policies that are essentially hateful, no matter how conscientious believers feel about it all. Since I am under no obligation to regard the Bible as a book of law, I don't accept that believers can't be bigots.

"[D]on't call me a bigot because I follow what the word of God and 2,000 years of Christianity teaches," Davis pleads. Here he implies that prejudices of a certain age don't qualify as bigotry, but tell that to women fighting against millennia of sexism all over the world. For that matter, for how long in history did people own other people as slaves? Were their rationalizations justified by time? Does history absolve bigotry? Or is 2,000 or 3,000 year old bigotry still bigotry? But please don't tell me that bigotry justified by superstition isn't bigotry, or can't be. The most I'd concede in compromise is that Pastor Bud's homophobia is simply superstition.