31 July 2009

Corazon Aquino (1933-2009)

The widow of a martyred dissident, Aquino popularized the term "people power" in 1986 when she became the rallying point of mass protests against a presidential election that was alleged to have been stolen from her by the incumbent, the infamous Ferdinand Marcos. International observers anticipated a bloody crackdown, but instead the Marcos government cracked. Military leaders defected to the opposition and Marcos himself fled the country within a month of the apparently rigged election. The "People Power" Revolution became a template for mass uprisings, as a rule nonviolent, against corrupt or tyrannical regimes. Observers at the time may have scoffed that people power would never work against a more totalitarian regime, on the assumption that such regimes had terrorized their subjects into abject submission. This was still the time of the Cold War, when American intellectuals still made convenient distinctions between totalitarian regimes (usually communist) and mere authoritarian states (often friendly to the U.S.). But the revolutions of 1989-91 offered at worst a mixed record against so-called totalitarian states. Most of the Warsaw Pact fell without a fight, and inside the Soviet Union itself people power helped defeat the coup against Gorbachev. In Romania the revolution turned violent in reaction to government violence, and the dictator was killed. In China the government prevailed against the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, but China was also the most advanced Communist state, at least by western standards of economic liberalism, so make what you will of that.

Part of the argument for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein was that he had so thoroughly terrorized his people that they could never liberate themselves. This year, outsiders have watched Iran in hopes that the election protests there would escalate into another people power or "color" revolution, even if the protesters themselves intended no such thing. If there is no revolution, some in the west will argue that the Islamic Republic has terrorized its people into submission, despite great evidence to the contrary, and there will be more talk of "regime change," whether leaders listen or not. But I doubt whether many people in 1986 thought that Aquino had any chance against Marcos. The world should remember her on the occasion of her death as what Shiites call a "model for emulation," but in a secular rather than religious context. History shows that people power isn't guaranteed to succeed, but common sense proves infallibly that it can't work if no one tries. For those who live in the comforts of established liberal democracy, Aquino's example should be a reminder never to assume that any regime can never be overthrown, and not to assume a right to act on any people's behalf before they make an effort themselves.

Zero-Sum Politics

Did you ever notice that when anyone suggests that the concentration of wealth in relatively fewer hands may have something to do with the impoverishment of others, Republicans and libertarians pounce on any hint of a "zero-sum" argument? How naive of you, they say, to act as if wealth were a finite resource, so that gain by one group means loss for another. Leave aside the merits of the argument, and you'd be left with the impression that these people, as a rule, reject zero-sum reasoning. Yet when the subject turns to health care, and people propose providing adequate health care for all citizens as a matter of right, many of the people who, in another context, might scoff at zero-sum arguments adopt the very principle they otherwise dismiss. They argue that we can't provide more or better health care for the poor without diminishing both the quantity and quality of care for the middle class and the rich. This is the reasoning behind the attacks on "rationing" and the lunatic corollary that envisions a slippery slope toward government-mandated euthanasia. Challenged on the inconsistency, some might say that medicine and medical personnel are finite resources. But doesn't all wealth have some material point of reference, and wouldn't that make wealth itself, in purely empirical terms, a finite resource? So why would one form of accumulation drain the pool for everyone else, while another doesn't? The answer might have something to do with the direction of accumulation. The rich, someone might argue, can't impoverish the poor, but the poor, through the dread instrument of government, can impoverish their betters. So some see it. It actually makes sense, in a way. The rich can't exactly steal what the poor don't have, while the rich have plenty for the poor to take. But the real issue involves what we claim as our due as citizens of a civilized country, and it pits those who understand that civilization itself is an entitlement claim and those, content with their "natural rights," who say that we can never have more rights than we'd have in the wilderness. The latter group are always alert for encroachments by civilization upon their natural rights, and the spectre of universal health care has the hairs upright on the backs of their necks. They think that the jostle of civilized entitlement and natural rights is indeed a zero-sum game. The character of a nation is determined by how many people agree.

29 July 2009

Doc Savage

When I saw a profile of the radio talker Michael Savage in this week's New Yorker, I wondered whether it was part of some broader "liberal media" plot to discredit the Republican party by publicizing its craziest members and factions. Watch MSNBC enough and you could believe in such a plot, given that network's growing coverage of the birthers, the C. Street "Family," health-care conspiracy theories, etc. It also seemed past the time to publicize Savage, his moment of notoriety being the time he lost his gig on television (ironically, on MSNBC) for telling a caller to get AIDS and die. But Kelefa Sanneh seems less interested in exposing Savage's ideology than in celebrating him as a uniquely eccentric entertainer. Sanneh describes him as "a marvellous storyteller, a quirky thinker, and an incorrigible free associater [who] sometimes sounds less like a political commentator than like the star of a riveting and unusually vivid one-man play...or a fugitive character out of a Philip Roth novel." The author is fascinated by Savage's digressiveness on air and his career track in life, the former Michael Alan Weiner having earned a Ph.D. from Berkeley and authored numerous books on alternative medicine while growing more reactionary as he blamed his limited progress in academia on reverse discrimination and more homophobic as he encountered the early outbreaks of AIDS in a San Francisco clinic.What most fascinates Sanneh is Savage's apparently irrepressible pessimism, a trait that may be characteristic of philosophical conservatism but isn't conducive to "successful rabble-rousing." Savage, from this account, is no cheerleader for any party or movement; "Savage never quite seems able to convince himself that the forces of righteousness will prevail," Sanneh writes. Nor is he a team player; he reportedly insults the likes of Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on a regular basis. A reader might get the impression that Savage isn't for anything apart from the usual historically hypocritical meritocracy espoused by aggrieved white men.

"The immoderate quotes meticulously catalogued by the liberal media-watchdog site mediamatters.org are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a willfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbats," Sanneh argues. His reluctance to explicate whatever Savage's actual ideology might be suggests that he might be recommending Savage to audiences who used to be entertained by the nightly meltdowns of irascible characters like Rev. Gene Scott or other cult personalities. But just as I'd warn MSNBC that its seeming strategy of sinking the Republican party by publicizing its association with its most insane constituents might backfire, owing to the underestimated credulity of Americans, so I suggest that any article that gets more people listening to Michael Savage simply for some sort of outre entertainment is deeply misconceived.

Gates and the Original Accuser

Lucia Whalen went before the cameras today to vindicate her role in the debacle over Henry Louis Gates's attempt to force his way into his own home, but her comments as reported here raise a few fresh questions. Whalen explained that she was apparently not the first person to see Gates's struggle with his door, but had been approached while walking through the neighborhood by "an elderly woman without a cellphone" who found the behavior suspicious. We may presume that Whalen investigated the situation a little herself, but not sufficiently enough to determine the race of the perceived perpetrators. We'd be going a little too far, I admit, to expect her to walk up to Gates, if she had even the least suspicion that he was a burglar, to ask if he's having trouble with the door. In any event the 911 recordings exposed some sloppy reportage by the police. As is now known, Whalen could say no more than that one of the men at the door might have been Hispanic, but the police report, described as a summary of events, says that she described two black men. Moreover, her new statements create a he said/she said conflict with Sgt. Crowley, who has said that she described the suspicious men to him. Whalen now says that she never spoke to Crowley, but was told by him to stay where she was. All this raises a question: at what point did the police know or believe the men at Gates's door to be black? My guess is that the cops are recollecting things retroactively. Because they discovered a black man, they wrote into the report that black men were described, and Crowley may honestly yet mistakenly recall being told before finding Gates that his suspects were black. The other, less wholesome possibility is that the cops inferred from the more tentative descriptions that they would be dealing with blacks.

As was only fair, Whalen's lawyer noted that her client had not been invited to the Gates-Crowley beer bash scheduled for the White House, then dismissed the snub with impeccable sour-grapes reasoning, disclosing that Whalen doesn't like beer. The lawyer may have overreached in portraying Whalen as the calm hero of the crisis while the "three highly trained guys" involved -- Crowley, Gates and the President -- all overreacted. It makes one wonder whether Whalen really underreacted, though this may prove the kind of situation where you could only know what could have been done if you were there. In any event, if the President realizes his omission and tries to correct it, he really should make it a party for five by tracking down the cell-less old lady who really started the trouble.

In the end, the story is a sort of parable for our time. We live in an era of perhaps-inescapably greater surveillance, and the mere idea of that violates our feeling, as law-abiding people, that we should never be objects of surveillance at any time. Knowing ourselves innocent, it's hard to imagine our self-consciously innocent activities being viewed with suspicion. As a black man, Gates most likely felt only a more intense form of the outrage all of us might feel if trapped in such a nightmare scenario. So I wonder whether the race issue has obscured the real moral of the story, which has more to do with how any of us should deal with surveillance and the proper relation between watchers and watchmen than with whether the whole world should know Henry Louis Gates on sight. Any of us might find ourselves mistakenly accused of something at some time. Some people seem to think that forgiving resignation is the only appropriate response. I'd hope that we keep getting outraged when such stuff happens. The limits of our indignation at such times may mark the limits of our consciousness of ourselves as citizens of a free country.

28 July 2009

White Men are Profiled, Too

Cal Thomas, the syndicated conservative columnist, feels the pain of Henry Louis Gates, the professor arrested for protesting too vehemently against police suspicions that he was burglarizing his own house last week. Thomas knows Gates, apparently at least well enough to call him Skip, and calls him "a classy guy with excellent social skills and a sharp mind." Thomas, too, claims to have been profiled. As he has stated in several columns, he is on a "terrorist watch list" that obliges him to submit to searches at airports. How he got on the list I haven't been able to learn, but to be fair it is just as likely because he shares the name of a possibly more legitimate suspect as it is anything to do with his political opinions.

"I sometimes get upset when 'profiled' by Transportation Security Administration employees," Thomas writes, "It is tempting to say, 'If I were a terrorist shouting "death to America" you'd probably let me go through,' but because I know it would do no good and that I could be arrested and miss my flight, I hold my tongue." Of course, if fewer Americans held their tongues, a policy that's presumably unfair to Thomas might be modified, but his own resigned complacency is understandable, especially if that's what he would say to security. That sounds just as likely to get him arrested as Gates's assumptions about Sgt. Crowley's motives exacerbated the situation in Cambridge.

Thomas never really says what he thought Gates's proper response ought to have been. Perhaps his empathy prevents him from making recommendations. But the columnist points out that the scene at Gates's house wasn't purely black vs. white, and he makes the same point I have about profiling being not exclusively a white activity against blacks. He quotes Rev. Jesse Jackson in an admission that the civil-rights leader himself feels less anxious when a white rather than a black stranger is walking behind him on a dark street. Thomas is more interested in accounting for the phenomenon of racial profiling, and as is his habit, he finds that liberalism is to blame.

First, the media reinforces a stereotype of irresponsible criminal black men simply by reporting on violent crime. But when it comes to explaining crime itself, Thomas reverts to his reactionary programming:

Race isn't the cause of these crimes; a social system put in place by liberal Democrats is to blame. That system does not encourage minorities to succeed. It enables them in their victimhood and sense of impoverishment. Liberal Democrats refuse to allow poor black children to escape failing government schools. The welfare system...has doomed several generations of African-Americans to misery, complacency and dependency.

In the past, Thomas has written as if "Liberal Democrats" were literally and explicitly telling blacks that they can't succeed in America because it's a racist society, and that therefore they should not seek jobs but should insist on their entitlement to welfare. I'm not aware of anyone actually saying anything like this to anybody, and in lieu of actual quotes to that effect I'm willing to call Thomas a liar. In any event, his proposed remedy to ghetto poverty is for blacks to renounce grievances. I don't know if Thomas is so much of a fanatic for meritocracy that he thinks that compensatory policies were never necessary or if he concedes a onetime necessity that has now lapsed. But he wants blacks to stop thinking that "failure is someone else's fault," even though in our age more people besides blacks have reasons to believe that.

What this has to do with Gates grows dim at times, but I guess Thomas's point is that, if people like Gates don't want to be presumed criminal because of their race (even though the evidence now suggests that Gates was not presumed criminal because of his race), they must first give up the presumption of victimization that allegedly entitles them to both break the law and disrespect authority. Gates himself presumably would have some responsibility to help inculcate correct values if he doesn't want to suffer for others' sins. Thomas wants blacks to take the chips off their shoulders, but there's something unconditional about that demand, as if the burden of compromise in interracial relations is all on blacks now. Many Americans would like to think so, and I've seen plenty of proof that they do think so, but whether they have the unilateral right to say so and make it stick is still open to question.

The Right to Get isn't the Right to Have

A letter that appeared in this morning's Albany Times Union is a fairly articulate expression of the viewpoint opposed to the idea of a right to health care. David Welch of Scotia is satisfied that health care is not a "natural right" and therefore can't be made a civil right by government action without violating other people's natural rights. In his view, natural rights are not substantive; they can be seen as rights to opportunities that others must not forbid, but they aren't guarantees of getting what you want. Welch elaborates:

Rights focus on general principles. You have a right to speak, but no right to a printing press or blogging software. You have a right to bear arms, but no right to be provided with a firearm. You have a right to exist, and to control what happens to your body, but no right to be provided with a doctor. A right cannot impose a negative cost on others.

What he means in the first case, I think, is that the right to speak doesn't confer a right to be heard. To be more accurate, he should have said that we have no right to computers, since once you have one, and you get internet access, blogging software is generally free. By saying that we have "no right to be provided with a firearm," he's not saying that the government can prevent us from having them, but that the right to opportunity does not guarantee you the possession of the desired object. For Welch, the right to bear arms means only that the government can't infringe on your right to have arms if you can get them.

Guaranteeing things that society considers necessary goods violates natural right as far as Welch is concerned because it compels people to provide the goods without what Welch might consider appropriate compensation. "Socialized health care, in any form, requires others to suffer financially for it to exist," he writes, "A right also has to exist on its own; it cannot require that another right, or the rights of others, be violated." The right violated, presumably, is that of the owner of resources to demand or negotiate for fair compensation. Affirming a right to health care as a guarantee makes it unconditional that the owner of resources must provide them, whether he wants to or not and regardless of whether whatever compensation he receives seems fair to him.

Welch's fallacy, of course, is the assumption that natural rights are the only rights that can exist. His principles effectively limit the effectiveness of civilization because the rights of individuals, based on the presumptive state of nature, would always trump whatever even the most democratic society might choose to define as a common good. He seems incapable of envisioning circumstances in which people might trade in their natural rights, so to speak, in return for guarantees that might make society less brutally competitive. He most likely takes seriously Jefferson's declaration that certain rights with which men are "endowed by their creator" are inalienable. Men either cannot or should not surrender the right to pursue happiness to the material maximum, for instance, in favor of a more secure social life. In more complacent terms, political society requires no sacrifice from the self-reliant in Welch's scheme; they must give up nothing, and especially not their right to decide for themselves how much they deserve, for the sake of social peace.

Refuting Welch requires no elaborate argument. All it takes is to affirm that people can confer substantive rights upon themselves in the course of creating a political society. Of course, no such affirmation can ever guarantee absolutely that we'll get what we claim as rights, but it's no answer to the claim that making it is wrong because it violates the rights that someone claimed for himself prior to entering into society, or that society can only confer the rights that already adhere to man in the state of nature. If that were true, the whole procedure would be redundant. The difference between society and the state of nature, presuming for entertainment purposes only that there are such things as natural rights, is that rights conferred by society come with obligations on its members. Citizenship comes with an obligation to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, etc., according to society's definition of these goods. People who refuse to accept an obligation to contribute to the general welfare by sharing resources may as well go live in the woods, since they see the state as nothing more than a police force to protect them from the have-nots of society while they accumulate wealth without limit.

Welch might claim that his views are more consistent with the Founders and Framers, but that depends on more information than we get from his letter. I'd readily concede that few if any Founders would have assumed a right to health care, but we do know that they were suspicious of the unlimited accumulation of wealth that passes for "freedom" for too many modern Americans. They believed that excessive wealth led to luxury and an inevitable corruption of society and politics. They depended, perhaps naively, on notions of virtuous frugality and simplicity to restrain greed. I wonder sometimes whether they'd reject as completely as some suspect a scheme to check wealth by diverting it to unimpeachable social goods like health care. We can guess, but we can never know the answer. But they left us a mechanism that empowers the people to figure such matters out for themselves and shape policy accordingly, and "natural rights" have no veto on that process. They're fine for purposes of intellectual argument, but anyone who thinks they're the last word on any subject has a lot of thinking yet to do.

27 July 2009

"Keep the cars coming."

The newest information about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates renders the situation even more absurd. The quote above comes from the 911 line transcript; they are the words of the arresting officer, uttered after a middle-aged man who depends on a cane to get around proved "uncooperative." They follow the officer's acknowledgment that Gates had shown identification confirming his identity. Unless Gates had been doing research in the line of gamma radiation, I doubt whether his obvious anger could have threatened the officer. Nevertheless, backup was called and Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, which still seems to consist of a failure to show proper deference or respect for authori-teh in a situation where either would be insulting to a homeowner.

More absurd yet are the excuses offered, through the medium of an attorney, by Lucia Whalen, Gates's accuser. Some of her clarifications are useful. It turns out that she is a housekeeper rather than a resident of the neighborhood; at least that's my assumption from the comment that she works there. Whalen is more determined than the officer, perhaps because she stands on shakier ground, to prove that she's no racist. She claims that she did not "profile" Gates, and the 911 transcript bears her out to the extent that she describes the supposed burglar as possibly Hispanic.

Whalen is "by no means the entitled white neighbor," her attorney argues. Better yet, the lawyer insinuates strongly that her client shouldn't even be considered white. Whalen, we're informed, "has olive-colored skin and is of Portuguese descent." While I'm as ready as anyone to concede that "whiteness" is a social construct and a form of caste rather than race, I'm still sure that numerous Portuguese-Americans will be stunned to learn that they're not white. I suppose that Whalen and her counsel implicitly accept the "if you're not white you can't be racist" proposition, but the beef with profiling isn't only that it's something whites do to non-whites. The oppressive aspect of it for black men is that everyone does it to them. Leaving aside the specifics of this story, for Whalen to try to squirm off the hook by disclaiming whiteness is pathetic. But the President shouldn't hold that against her. He ought to invite her to the White House for a beer along with Officer Crowley and Professor Gates -- if only to avoid appearing sexist.


"It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
H. L. Mencken, 1921.

Where is the modern H. L. Mencken who can do for the rhetorical splendors of Governor Palin's Farewell Address what the Sage of Baltimore did to immortalize Warren G. Harding's inaugural address? Mencken's essay on "Gamalielese" was a definitive autopsy on the bloated, nearly meaningless oratory of Harding's era, but Mencken might still have made a distinction between Harding's inept rhetoric and the substance of his policies, such as they were. For Sarah Palin, style, or the lack of it, is substance, or the lack of it. However you slice it, Palin's anti-oratory is itself a rhetorical strategy, part of her just-folks demagogy. It is useless to pass judgment on her sentence construction or other conventional details, because you'd only be falling into her trap. She's like a text-messenger or someone posting on the internet who bristles with indignation when someone points out misspellings or grammar mistakes. You know the type. They always argue that they don't have time, or that the internet isn't the place, for elitist pedantry. Pure, raw communication has priority over precise spelling or proper sentence structure for these people. Conventional rules of writing, in this lumpen form of postmodernism, only exclude the masses from taking part in the national discussion and being taken seriously. Thus does the "elite media" consolidate its rule and its right to tell the rest of us how to live. You might think that it could only grow increasingly difficult for people to understand each other if we abandon rules of sentence structure and other necessities, but that's where buzzwords come in. In Palinese, "government" means something bad, even though Palin presumably retains aspirations to participate in some form of government. Likewise, "media" itself signifies something vaguely sinister or conspiratorial, implicitly separate, like "government," from the wisdom of the people. Palin hasn't abandoned rhetoric altogether, but wants to take it in a Pavlovian direction toward the time when she could read a page of the phonebook, randomly insert the necessary buzzwords, and send her fans (many already drool, I suspect) into swoons of ecstasy. She's unlikely to accept the advice of well-meaning reactionaries like Cal Thomas who've told her to educate herself before attempting her political comeback. She'd be wise not to. She'd risk alienating at least as many of her original supporters as she'd gain with a more polished approach.

With all this in mind, I'll leave you with some choice excerpts and let you play Mencken yourselves.

And it is our men and women in uniform securing it, and we are facing tough challenges in America with some seeming to just be Hell bent maybe on tearing down our nation, perpetuating some pessimism, and suggesting American apologetics, suggesting perhaps that our best days were yesterdays. But as other people have asked, "How can that pessimism be, when proof of our greatness, our pride today is that we produce the great proud volunteers who sacrifice everything for country?"

And first [three paragraphs into the address], some straight talk for some, just some in the media because another right protected for all of us is freedom of the press, and you all have such important jobs reporting facts and informing the electorate, and exerting power to influence. You represent what could and should be a respected honest profession that could and should be the cornerstone of our democracy. Democracy depends on you, and that is why, that's why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how 'bout in honor of the American soldier, ya quit makin' things up. And don't underestimate the wisdom of the people, and one other thing for the media, our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone.

Don't forget Alaskans you are the resource owners per our constitution and that's why for instance last year when oil prices soared and state coffers swelled, but you were smacked with high energy prices, we sent you the energy rebate. See, it's your money and I've always believed that you know how to better spend it than government can spend it.[I include this only to remind people that Alaska is in one sense the most "socialist" state in the Union, a fact that some clever Republican might want to use against Palin someday.]

So much success, and Alaska there is much good in store further down the road, but to reach it we must value and live the optimistic pioneering spirit that made this state proud and free, and we can resist enslavement to big central government that crushes hope and opportunity. Be wary of accepting government largess. It doesn't come free and often, accepting it takes away everything that is free, melting into Washington's powerful "care-taking" arms will just suck incentive to work hard and chart our own course right out of us, and that not only contributes to an unstable economy and dizzying national debt, but it does make us less free. [Buzzwords emphasized]

At statehood we knew this, that we are responsible for ourselves and our families and our future, and fifty years later, please let's not start believing that government is the answer. It can't make you happy or healthy or wealthy or wise. What can? It is the wisdom of the people and our families and our small businesses, and industrious individuals, and it is God's grace, helping those who help themselves, and then this allows that very generous voluntary hand up that we're known for, enthusiastically providing those who need it.

So, we are here today at a changing of the guard. Now, people who know me, and they know how much I love this state, some still are choosing not to hear why I made the decision to chart a new course to advance the state. And it should be so obvious to you. (indicating heckler) It is because I love Alaska this much, sir (at heckler) that I feel it is my duty to avoid the unproductive, typical, politics as usual, lame duck session in one's last year in office. How does that benefit you? No, with this decision now, I will be able to fight even harder for you, for what is right, for truth. And I have never felt like you need a title to do that.

The last excerpt proves my point that Palin knows (or at least thinks she knows) what she's doing. How else can she believe that she can "advance the state" without wielding power? She clearly thinks that she can accomplish more with rhetoric (i.e. "fight even harder") than through the "politics as usual" machinery of administration. Doesn't this make her a kind of mirror image of President Obama, who is often suspected of treating the Presidency as little beside a platform to make speeches from? It does only if you assume that she is scheming to run for a higher office. If so, that'd belie her last sentence, but either way you look at it, we probably haven't heard the last of Sarah Palin. Whether we have to take her seriously after today is another story.

26 July 2009

Choosing Sides in Iran

President Ahmadinejad was humiliated this past week when the Supreme Leader told him to retract his choice of a deputy, allegedly because the man had once overexuberantly said that Iranians are friends with everybody -- even Israelis. There's also word that he might face a kind of no-confidence vote in the legislature, though I assume that it would only be an embarrassment and not a defeat to his government as such a vote would be in Great Britain or any country with a parliamentary form of government.

In any event, the persistence of high-profile protest in the wake of the government's crackdown on street demonstrations makes clear that Iran is a society divided in ways that can't be papered over either by the government's own propaganda or by American efforts to portray it as a "totalitarian" state. This leaves people picking sides, particularly on the international "left." I've recently read two strongly contrasting viewpoints from leftist writers.

Earlier this month in The Nation, Alexander Cockburn scoffed at liberals who've adopted Mir Hossein Mousavi as one of their own. He reminded readers that Mousavi participated in crackdowns against genuine leftists during the Khomeini years. He also dismisses the opposition leader as a stooge of the now leading dissident, former President Rafsanjani, of whom all Cockburn needs to say is that he's a "billionaire." "Compared with this vicious duo, Ahmadinejad is relatively wholesome and, I'd reckon on the analyses and numbers I've read so far...the actual winner of the election," Cockburn writes. He claims that a kind of fix was in before the voting, with people prepared to call it a fraud before votes were even cast. I don't doubt this, but does this mean, as we might infer from Cockburn, that the global left should accept Ahmadinejad?

Cockburn may be one of the leftists supporters of Ahamdinejad that Slavoj Zizek has in mind in his article in the new London Review of Books. A leftist himself, Zizek suspects that many comrades have embraced the president out of a kind of knee-jerk anti-imperialism. They boost his reputation as a populist and downplay his essays in Holocaust-denial. His own opinion of Ahmadinejad is less benign:

Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian [Silvio] Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the ayatollahs. His demagogic distribution of crumbs to the poor shouldn't deceive us: he has the backing not only of the organs of police repression and a very Westernised PR apparatus. He is also supported by a powerful new class of Iranians who have become rich thanks to the regime's corruption -- the Revolutionary Guard is not a working-class militia, but a mega-corporation, the most powerful centre of wealth in the country.

The main point of Zizek's article is to equate Ahmadinejad with Italy's Berlusconi and Russia's Putin as leaders who are against democracy. It's an interesting grouping, since many leftists often place Ahmadinejad on the same side as the South American leaders like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, of whom Zizek has no comment this time around. As for Mousavi, Zizek writes that he "stands for the resuscitation of the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution."

I can't help but guess that Zizek sympathizes with Mousavi not so much because of the man's merits but because he's inspired mobs to take the streets. Zizek's sympathies are always with mobs, it seems. To him, they're democracy in its purest form, and they represent the perpetual promise that people can form themselves into The People, that united and undifferentiated (one might even say totalitarian, if only to irk Zizek) entity whose existence he deems necessary for democracy to actually function the way it's meant to. Zizek criticizes liberal democracy because it takes factionalism and personal interests for granted; in his view, those concessions belie democracy. A mob might make democracy real by his standards if it only had staying power, but history disappoints the philosopher, and I suspect the Iranian mobs and their idol will disappoint him too.

Intellectuals and activists claim the privilege of picking sides in all the world's conflicts, of identifying good guys and bad guys and otherwise acting as if their preferences mean something to the people in the actual countries. Zizek, for one, warns leftists against seeing the Iranian situation exclusively in imperialism-vs-Islamism terms, but his own analysis merely replaces one overriding global template with another. He imagines Ahmadinejad as part of some malign global trend that only The People can stop, and you can't blame him for doing so. As a professor, it's probably part of his job to imagine malign global trends. But it's entirely possible that the troubles in Iran have everything to do with Iran and little or nothing to do with any kind of global zeitgeist. It's even more important for our elected leaders to bear that in mind. It's okay for academics and journalists to pass judgments on everything that happens, but responsible diplomats ought to be more careful, and they should not take sides in any country's domestic politics. So my advice to the Obama administration, for example, is to ignore everything I've written until this last paragraph.

24 July 2009

Gates, part 2: Let's "Skip" the Formalities

Turning on the TV this morning revealed a heated debate on MSNBC between Mika Breszinski and two black commentators on the Gates controversy. Breszinski complained that she's received a lot of hate mail due to her determination to analyze the incident objectively. Today she seemed determined to defend the arresting officer from any imputation of racism. This is fair, since it was the nosy neighbor rather than he who was really guilty of "profiling" Professor Gates. We've learned that the cop actually runs seminars on profiling, i.e. against it. If anything, this fact probably increased his own anger when Gates accused him of racism. But the race angle may be causing people to keep track of the real issue. Breszinski, for instance, believed that she had scored a decisive debating point by asking, "Who made this about race?" and pointing out that, as she sees it, Gates was guilty on that score. I wonder whether this rhetoric could cloud people's minds to the point where they believe that Gates was arrested for "making it about race." You could argue that he was to the extent that his allegedly abusive language had a racial context, but some observers could be convinced pretty easily that it was the presumption of racism itself that made Gates's anger abusive and disorderly, or, worse, that he deserved what he got by trying to inflate a routine police inquiry into a racist incident. Even one of the black commentators, Eugene Robinson, insinuated that Gates might have overplayed his hand by making an issue of his celebrity or connections, having heard that the professor had used the "do you know who I am?" gambit on the policeman. But all this close analysis of Gates's remarks obscures the fact that his conduct is perfectly excusable in the context of the gross mistake that brought the cop to his door in the first place. If Gates didn't go after the officer with his cane, then, given the nature of the incident, the policeman has no business complaining if Gates insulted him or questioned his political correctness. In fact, this fact has been acknowledged by the charges being dropped. Maybe that ought to mean more than any apology that Gates can demand and that the cop refuses to give. But the person who really ought to apologize, and as publicly as possible, is the neighbor who sicced the police on the professor and started the trouble. I wonder if the officer would agree with me. If he'd say that, he might go a long way toward defusing the controversy.

Update, 4:30 p.m. Under pressure from police unions, the President has moved to the first line of retreat from his Wednesday remarks, uttering the commonplace formula that "acted stupidly" was a "poor choice of words," while not apologizing for the content of his comment. He has called the arresting officer to reassure the individual of his esteem for law enforcement, though whether the officer will accept such reassurance without an apology attached is unclear. The thin blue line has formed in the policeman's defense. A black officer who was also at the Gates house vindicates his brother officer's conduct, noting that Gates was acting strange. An interracial group of gendarmes deplores the President's words. Yet another misunderstanding, it seems, has evolved during the day. The police seem to think that "acted stupidly" is synonymous with "racist cop." They may infer this because the President dared talk about race when invited to comment on the scandal of Gates's arrest, but you can just as easily assume that Obama meant that it was stupid to arrest a homeowner, no matter how angry he got, after you've mistakenly inquired whether he was breaking into his own home. At least that's how I see it. It looks like both the professor and the policeman showed thin skins on that famous day, but the policeman should be obliged to grow thicker skin. Meanwhile, the neighbor (a woman, by the way) still refuses to speak publicly on her mistake.

23 July 2009

Enemy at the Gates's?

In some circles, Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Professor who was arrested for having to break into his own home and arguing about the fact with a Cambridge policeman, is a celebrity. He shows up often on PBS and is a widely published author. That's the detail that renders shocking the fact that he was apparently "profiled" by a neighbor when he had difficulty getting through his front door. If there's a fuss over how the police behaved, it's regrettable to the extent that this neighbor ought to be the one dragged before the cameras for public scorn.

Predictably, reactionaries are protesting the President's characterization during yesterday's press conference of police conduct in the affair as "stupid." Some literal-minded observers found it hypocritical of Obama to pass such judgment when he had just said that he didn't know all the facts in the case. Others are satisfied by the fact of the President's race and his apparent friendship with "Skip" Gates that his is a hopelessly biased opinion.

It's important to recall that at this point the remaining controversy over the incident concerns Gates's conduct toward the policeman. I doubt that even the most sycophantic cop-lover believes that Gates should have been arrested merely on suspicion of burglary. But many apparently feel that he did not show proper deference to the officer when asked to show his I.D. There are two sides of the story. Gates says he complied promptly but angrily. The policeman says that Gates's refusal to comply promptly amounted to disorderly conduct. I suspect that both men remember the incident correctly as each experienced it. Certain observers are inclined to give the cop the benefit of the doubt because they assume Gates, as not only a black man but a black academic celebrity, to have had a chip on his shoulder. They presume that Gates freaked out because of an irrational suspicion of racism, while apologists for the police argue that their procedure would have been the same regardless of Gates's race.

There are people of diverse and clashing ideologies who want to make the Gates affair a racial issue. Inevitably it will be. But the real issue of proper concern for everyone is the question of the deference citizens supposedly owe to the police. Even at a moment when it should have become clear to him that a mistake had been made, the policeman seems to have continued the typical imperious demands for unconditional compliance that we see directed to human trash on television every week. There are people who will say that cops are entitled to act this way and must be given the benefit of the doubt when errors are made because theirs is the appropriate conduct in more desperate situations. This is the same style of analysis that gives a pass to policemen who slaughter innocent people with hands in their pockets as a matter of suspicious reflex. Because they are trained to kill, you see, their kill reflex must be kept at hair-trigger readiness and they must be conceded the right to act instantaneously on sudden suspicion. The Gates case is far less severe, and some might well dismiss it as trivial, but it just as well begs the question of whether citizens owe policemen all the deference they demand, or whether vice versa is the better rule in some cases. At one extreme, cops become akin to samurai who had the right to kill peasants who got in their way. And no one proposes anything that could qualify as the opposite extreme. Moderation is what's wanted, along with some clearer recognition of who serves whom in this country.

21 July 2009

Guns Don't Kill People; Children Kill People.

Here's an eye-opening news story about how ill-regulated hunting by children is nationwide. It's become newsworthy because a 15-year old was just convicted for manslaughter, having mistaken an old woman for a bear. It turns out that numerous states have lowered the legal hunting age in recent years thanks to aggressive lobbying by gun-rights groups, while several have no minimum hunting age at all. The gun-rights people resist most regulatory efforts because they think they're intended to suppress the next generation of gun-owners. They say it should be up to parents, not politicians, to determine when kids are ready to hunt, supervised or not. That argument just asks for embarrassing analogies? Should it be up to parents, then, instead of governments to determine when kids are old enough to drive? Or old enough to drink? Some people might be courageous enough in their convictions to say yes, but I doubt there are many of them. Many probably look back on the good old days when boys helped feed the family by bagging possums and the like without needing to ask permission from Big Brother. If it was anywhere necessary for kids to do this today, we might make exceptions to appropriate regulations. But since hunting is exalted as a sport these days, I see little cause for exceptions. Regulation of the use of weapons designed for lethal use is a condition of civilized life. Some may find that burdensome, but the rest of us shouldn't be burdened by their nostalgia for primitive times.

20 July 2009

A Word on Health Care

If I've been neglectful in commenting on the health care debate, that's probably because my views are rather simplistic. One side of the debate defines fairness as a situation in which people with money can get all the health care they want. The other thinks of fairness as everyone's ability to get the health care they need. This idea offends the other side's sensibility. The less clever among them, including the chairman of the Republican Party, call this "socialism," though I haven't heard anything about the government taking over the pharmaceutical or medical-supply industries, or the nation's hospitals. The President addressed some of these objections today.Some are probably beneath his notice, or should be. The opposition viewpoint might be summarized thusly: "losers deserve to suffer, or else there's no point in anyone working hard." Could we make that more concise? How about, "Let the weak perish"?

The only legitimate reason for any state to exist is to provide for its people's essential needs so that they aren't subject to the primitive struggle for existence. A world in which everyone can provide for himself or herself doesn't need a state, and people who want to live in such a world should take to the woods. The rest of us insist on some minimal material equality that includes access to proper health care. A state that isn't committed to this sort of equality is no more than a police state that exists to protect the haves from the have-nots. Health-care debates get bogged down in details of financing and management, but the debate that should come first is actually pretty simple. It requires Americans to decide what kind of society they want to live in.

Moon Plus 40, and Counting

Men landed on the moon forty years ago today. The three members of the Apollo 11 mission are still alive to receive fresh honors, but a time may come soon when no man living will have walked on the lunar surface. This prospect distresses people who regard space exploration as a human species imperative. A friend of mine told me this weekend that he regarded our failure to move out beyond the moon as a sign of national decline. If the U.S. can't summon the political will to return to the moon or move on to Mars, he said, that would show that we're finished as a nation. He went so far as to say that it would prove the United States to be a failed experiment in democracy, though he didn't go further to say that the failure would discredit democracy itself.

Nevertheless, it made me wonder whether democracy was a factor in the seemingly stagnant state of space exploration. Many look back nostalgically on John F. Kennedy's 1961 declaration that Americans would reach the moon within a decade, and on the efforts of Lyndon Johnson to fulfill that vow. The 1960s were a time when many Americans felt their nation capable of anything it wanted to do, and it seems that no one saw the moon program in zero-sum terms relative to other national priorities, as many do now. Once the eagle had landed, it became common to ask what else we could do "if we can put a man on the moon." Increasingly, people appeared to prefer that we meet the more mundane needs of fellow humans before resuming what had come to look like a national vanity project. This was partly a result of the diminished expectations of the 1970s. It had been part of the fantasy of Great Society America that we could explore space and conquer poverty -- and win the war in Vietnam. By the end of the Apollo program, a sense of scarcity imposed a choice of priorities, and most Americans opted for social programs, on one hand, or tax relief, on the other.

Advocates of space exploration presumably see this as a failure of democracy. That depends on whether you see democracy as a means to an end or an end in itself. The utilitarian view regards democracy as one of several possible means of advancing the species, but regards the advance of the species as an imperative that overrides any argument for democracy as an end in itself. But at least some believers in democracy would insist that it is an end in itself in the sense that the people should define what their interests are. If the people decide that space exploration is a low priority, from this perspective, then it is undemocratic for someone to insist otherwise. The dilemma is as old as democracy itself. If we believe that there is a Good that is true for everyone regardless of whether everyone affirms it, then democracy can't be the last word on what is good. From the time of Socrates forward, philosophers and others have argued that those who know the Good have some kind of right to rule the rest of us. That idea can take us pretty far from democracy. A middle stance would take the position that democracy requires all participants to strive toward the Good, however defined, rather than merely pursue their own selfish or tribal ends. This position, which is where I believe my pessimistic friend comes from, makes a distinction between democracy and mere "freedom" in the decadent American sense of the word. Some people may take this view further and insist that democracy is always the best way to determine the Good and get people together to achieve it. An American failure, from this perspective, should it happen, would not discredit democracy itself, but only the latter-day American approach to it.

What all this has to do with space exploration remains to be determined. We clearly have people who think that it is a species imperative and not just an American national interest. They clearly think that a persuasive argument can be made to get public opinion behind new exploration, but they don't see or hear others making it. The arguments against space exploration, I imagine, remain what they've been since the Seventies. There are questions of priorities and questions of cost. There doesn't seem to be a debate because no one in the political class seems willing to make a strong case in Kennedy style for space exploration. That doesn't stop anyone else, however. If people believe that space exploration is essential to the human future, than today's anniversary is as good a time as any to get a movement started. Their sense of necessity should be reflected in the urgency and volume with which they make their case. So let's see what happens.

19 July 2009

Cronkite and the "Liberal Media"

Walter Cronkite's death on Friday closed an era in American broadcast history and reminded me of a piece in the historical puzzle I tried to put together earlier in the week in my post on the "Conservative Media." It was my argument then that the seeming omnipresence of reactionary Republican opinion today merely restores the conditions that prevailed in New Deal days, when most newspapers reflected the reactionary opinions of their owners. Television, I should have recalled, prominently cracked a conservative near-monopoly on news, and CBS News was quickly identified as "liberal" due to Edward R. Murrow's attack on Joe McCarthy and other exposes. As newspapers devoured one another and aspired to greater objectivity for commercial reasons after the deaths of the original moguls, television came to define the news, and Cronkite came to define TV news. Reactionaries have probably never forgiven him for editorializing on the Tet Offensive, taking at face value LBJ's reported assessment that the anchorman's pessimism cost him "middle America's" support for the war. To some conservatives, Cronkite was probably a traitor for allegedly demoralizing the population. CBS News's identification with "liberal bias" continued through Dan Rather's tenure as anchorman, and is still taken for granted today. But the "main stream media" mourns Cronkite as a great truth-teller and the last link to their founding tradition, and that's appropriate. They probably also mourn the fact that no news reader will ever again enjoy Cronkite's standing with the public. Having only two rivals (and when I was a kid our house watched Chancellor and Brinkley on NBC), and being the most popular of the three network anchors, Cronkite could well claim to define for millions of people what news was, though I don't know if he was immodest enough to claim that power for himself. But the proliferation of choices available on cable and the Internet makes it impossible for any one person to have as much influence as Cronkite is credited with. Without passing judgment on Cronkite himself, that's probably a good thing, because no one person should have that much potential power, especially if there's any suspicion (warranted or not) about the person's objectivity. My hunch is that Cronkite was more objective (being mostly a reader rather than a talker, after all) than some may suspect, and what may be lost with his generation was the sense of responsibility that should come with knowing that you are a primary source of information to the public. That sense may still exist among the current network anchors, but it seems like more people -- or more opinionated people -- prefer these days to get information from people who share their biases on "left" or "right." History will judge whose audience was more informed.

17 July 2009

Race Without End

The President was in his element yesterday, and I don't mean the audience for his speech marking the centennial of the NAACP, but the fact of his making a speech. One sometimes suspects that he does indeed think that speech-making is his principal job as Chief Executive, but that's only because the daily nuts-and-bolts work is less telegenic. In any event, the news made the most of his remarks that chided people for using the history of racism as an excuse for not achieving or striving. His theme was that each individual is in control of his or her own destiny, but this is sometimes a controversial note to strike in certain audiences, whatever the color of the speaker. Chris Matthews noted that he could never say such things to a black audience, and even Bill Cosby has sometimes been criticized for saying those things. Behind the criticism, I assume, is an assumption that those who insists on individual responsibility are somehow saying that society as a whole doesn't need to change when the need for change still seems glaringly apparent to many.

Later in the evening, Pat Buchanan had a spirited discussion with Rachel Maddow on her commentary show on the subject of racial advancement and discrimination. Buchanan has pushed to the forefront of the opposition to Judge Sotomayor's appointment to the Supreme Court. He opposes her because, in his view, she has been chosen solely because she is a Latina despite having no qualifications that Buchanan acknowledges. He was unimpressed when Maddow noted that Sotomayor has more judicial experience that Justices Alito and Roberts, because he has his own standard of judicial qualification. Justices must be "geniuses" as demonstrated by brilliant scholarship, and in Buchanan's estimate Sotomayor's record is poor if not nonexistent. On similar grounds, he explained, he opposed the previous president's nomination of Harriet Meyers, though the commonality of his resistance to two female nominees did not occur to him. In any event, he offered this information to show that his opposition to Sotomayor wasn't partisan in nature.

Pressed by Maddow to account for the fact that Sotomayor is only the third non-white person nominated to the Court, Buchanan explained that white men dominated the nation for its first two hundred years, while admitting that the black minority was subject to discrimination. There are some who believe that some form of reverse discrimination is necessary to compensate for racial imbalances based on past injustice, but Buchanan rejects such thinking as unfair to individuals. He affects meritocracy, and although he acknowledges unfair treatment of minorities in the past, his remedy is an instant adoption of meritocratic principles. In practice, this means that degraded minorities now have a right to "earn" what generations of discrimination prevented them from either earning or having the capacity to earn, and that the same qualified group that oppressed them will still judge their qualifications and decide when they've earned entry into the exalted realms. More practically speaking, the best Buchanan offers anyone is a probationary period during which minorities may acquire the skills needed to earn true equality but can't actually have it until the traditional gatekeepers say so. In Supreme Court terms, that would mean no Latina justices until Pat Buchanan is convinced that they are geniuses comparable to the martyred Robert Bork -- though Buchanan's own credentials for judging juridical genius remain unknown.

It seems no more unjust to nominate or confirm justices on the basis of ethnic balance than it was in the past to choose them according to regional balance. As a historian, Buchanan has never been troubled, to may knowledge, by the appointment of one judge for the sake of sectional balance at the expense of a more qualified man from a state already represented on the court. But the appointment of a Latina while some unfortunate white genius goes begging breaks his heart -- a fragile organ already shattered many times over in the age of affirmative action. He howls for meritocracy but all such howling is disingenuous. As far as I know, most such howlers believe that meritocracy actually existed in the good old days when everyone else's inferiority to the white man was a given. Those who know history better know better than to adopt utopian principles that in practice preserve present stratifications of caste. Democracy assumes that competence for any position of responsibility is widespread, and is not so insistent upon "genius" as those who only find it in certain quarters.

But I can understand a populist objection to preferential treatment, whether it comes from working-class whites who see little proof that they've enjoyed preferential treatment in the past or from people who see the burden of reconciliation across racial lines falling on one group only. I felt something of the same objection when the new Harper's came in this morning and I read the novelist John Edgar Wideman's editorial on race. Wideman is on solid ground, as far as I'm concerned, when he writes, "Race is myth. When we stop talking about race, stop believing in race, it will disappear." But he continues: "In a raceless society color wouldn't disappear. Difference wouldn't disappear. Africa wouldn't disappear. In post-race America 'white' people would disappear. That is, no group could assume as birthright and identity a privileged, supernaturally ordained superiority at the top of a hierarchy of other groups, [etc.]"

In other words, there is a burden on "whites" to renounce an aspect of their identity (of varying meaningfulness, depending on the individual) that doesn't apply to anyone else. I understand that by "whiteness" Wideman means a sense of belonging to a ruling caste rather than notions of European heritage, but I question whether there is really no renunciation to be made by other groups, whether of fantasies of superiority (which are just as common among subordinated people as among ruling classes) or of potentially limitless grievances and demands for perpetual redress. Can there not be a time when a black man, for instance, would be expected not to assume that his blackness gives him a claim upon the United States for compensatory preferences when he wants a job, a house, etc.? My question isn't whether blacks should renounce such claims today, as Pat Buchanan might like, but whether they should ever be expected to do so by the rest of the country, just as the rest of the country rightly expects self-styled whites to renounce the notion that the nation is in some exclusive sense theirs. On this question Wideman sounds a pessimistic note: "Race, like religion, is immune to critiques of science and logic because it rests on belief. And people need beliefs."

To close my little circle, Wideman closes his article by taking up the issue of personal responsibility in the black community. The way he sees it, the problem with personal-responsibility rhetoric, whether it comes from Bill Cosby or the President of the United States (neither mentioned by name), is that it makes into a black problem what is really an American problem. "The urgent task of redressing the shameful neglect of American children gets postponed by hand-wringing and finger-pointing at feckless black fathers," he observes. Blacks, too, are guilty of thinking of the problem as a black problem, as Wideman notes. In their case, the result too often is to blame society (i.e. Whitey) for everything. Protests against the problem "become an occasion for shedding crocodile tears, washing our hands of personal as well as collective responsibility." Here he seems to acknowledge that whites and blacks alike must stop thinking in terms of race in order for everyone to share collective responsibility for solving the problem of ghetto poverty. That responsibility imposes obligations on everyone, both to renounce divisive identities and to affirm unifying ones. If we are, as we boast, a nation of individuals, we should lose nothing from trading one label for another, as long as our consciences are clear. But if we cling to labels as if they define us rather than vice versa, if we complain that one individual is preferred over another, not because some abstract principle is violated but because one of "ours" was passed over, then our boasted individual liberty remains open to question.

15 July 2009

The Conservative Media: A History Lesson

I don't mean to pick on Eric Alterman, but the same issue of The Nation that saw him feuding over the reputation of I. F. Stone finds him in his own column drawing comparisons between President Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Alterman believes that Obama should emulate FDR's pragmatic boldness, his willingness to experimentation without regard for ideology. At the same time, he notes what he sees as an important difference between Roosevelt's time and Obama's.

FDR did not face an army of lobbyists seeking to thwart his every move. Perhaps more important, he did not have to succeed in today's media environment, in which nut cases like Limbaugh/O'Reilly/Hannity manage to set the terms of debate. As sage Washington Post pundit E. J. Dionne Jr. explains, the MSM's ["mainstream media"] proclivity for giving the 'right wing's rants ... wall-to-wall airtime' gives its ignorance and recidivisim legitimacy despite its failure under Bush as well of its lack of support among the larger public.

Without commenting on Alterman's policy recommendations, I have to correct his implication that conservatives weren't prominent in the "MSM" of the 1930s. If anything, the mainstream media of the time, the press, had a much stronger conservative bias than the MSM of today. My authority for this claim is the midcentury press critic A. J. Liebling, the man who coined the famous statement, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." I'm currently looking through the latest Library of America edition of Liebling's works, which includes a collection of articles on the news media itself. In his account, Republican or conservative bias in the press during the FDR years and after was overwhelming. He cites statistics from the American Newspaper Publishers Association showing that 84% of newspaper publishers as of 1953 were Republicans -- many of whom angrily denied charges of bias during the last Presidential election. Publishers' concern for maximizing profits while dealing with militant unions, Liebling explains, inclined publishers to the right even if they started to the left. He quotes Joseph Medill Patterson, the founder of the New York Daily News, who described a career arc for papers and publishers that Patterson followed himself.

Newspapers start when their owners are poor, and take the part of the people, and so they build up a large circulation, and, as a result, advertising. That makes them rich, and they begin, most naturally, to associate with other rich men -- they play golf with one, and drink whisky with another, and their son marries the daughter of a third. They forget about the people, and then their circulation dries up, then their advertising, and then their paper becomes decadent.

I don't know to whom Patterson married off his own children, though I do know that the Daily News is still going, maybe even strong, today, but he was right about his own eventual tilt to the right. The paper is no longer conservative (except on certain details of foreign policy), but when I was growing up it was still pretty rabid on the Right. Something did change during the 1970s that created the impression that the news media had developed a liberal bias. It may have had something to do with the mergers and closings of so many papers during the period Liebling describes. He feared that the consolidation of the press business would only reinforce the Republican bias he decried. But as more towns and cities became one-paper territories, there was probably commercial pressure on all papers to lose their partisan identity in order to maximize readership by attracting former readers of dead papers. As journalists tell it, this trend encouraged greater objectivity rather than bias. But what they called objectivity proved in practice to be an adversarial relationship to the Powers That Be that became apparent when the news media turned on Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Nearly all media were inclined to knock the party in power, or at least the party leaders, and since the Republican party dominated the White House through most of this period (it held the Presidency for 28 of the 40 years from 1969 through 2009) the GOP came in most often for criticism. I won't deny that an influx of journalism majors from sometimes radicalized colleges influenced the content of journalism during this period, but publishers had no motive to discipline or simply crush the new generation the way the press barons of previous generations would have.

In the FDR years, newspapers were more obviously mouthpieces for their publishers or owners than they are now. Press barons like William Randolph Hearst were as much celebrities in those days as people like Rush Limbaugh are today. Hearst became an extremely reactionary critic of FDR and had newspapers and newsreels all over the country to disseminate his opinions. The weekly news magazines like Time were similarly biased, with Time's Henry Luce nearly as severe a reactionary as Heart. Hearst differed from Limbaugh mainly in the fact that he relied on others to speak or write for him. But the pre-eminence of people like Limbaugh may signal a reversion of the news media back to an earlier state of partisanship. On a business level, Limbaugh isn't as powerful as Hearst because he owns no radio stations (nor any media except, I presume, his own website) and must always negotiate with others (albeit from a position of strength) in order to broadcast his opinions. But the rise of political talk radio in general revived the commercial potential of overt bias in news commentary, a potential now tapped by liberals as well as conservatives with Keith Olbermann in the lead. Whether or not Limbaugh or other critics were right that ideological bias pervaded the news media of the 1980s, he might agree that whatever "liberal" bias he perceived wasn't commercially motivated, while his own is. I don't mean that Limbaugh affects conservativism only to make money, but that he realized that there was a market for his own conservative bias that wasn't being satisfied, but could satisfy his own ambition for fame and fortune. In any event, my point has been that, as Alterman probably knows, Limbaugh's emergence was something new only to the extent that he relied on radio rather than print media. He is Hearst without any middlemen, without the expense of detailed reporting or the expensive mechanics of printing ink onto paper. Hearst himself was just the latest of generations of publishers who started papers primarily for propaganda purposes, dating back to the birth of the Republic.

Every so often someone digs up a quote from some hysterical contemporary critic of the New Deal warning of the disasters that FDR's "socialism" was going to inflict on the country. These are usually dug up by Democrats and liberals who want to refute by analogy today's reactionaries who accuse Obama of "socialism." Those quotes ought to have convinced people that Limbaugh and Hannity had their counterparts seventy years ago. Columnists like Alterman may want to argue that Limbaugh and his ilk are worse or at least more stupid than the reactionaries of the 1930s, and I can understand the anger that drives them to say so, but I see no reason to believe them. If he offers the prominence of the radio talkers as an excuse for Obama's failure to experiment as boldly as Alterman would like, I think he should try again.

Major Cook and the "Birthers"

The talk of subterranean quarters of the internet today is the news that the military has revoked an order deploying Army Reserve Major Stefan Frederick Cook to Afghanistan after Cook, who had volunteered explicitly for Afghan service in May, challenged the legitimacy of President Obama as Commander in Chief. He was apparently instigated to make the challenge by Orly Taitz, who has emerged as a leader of what is called the "birther" movement. These are the people who continue to question Obama's eligibility to serve as President on the suspicion that he was born, not in Hawaii as a verified birth certificate claims, but in Kenya. The Constitution requires the President to have been born in the United States. Taitz contends that the birth certificate verified in Hawaii is inadequate documentation, and demands that Obama release what she calls a "vault" birth certificate, which she suspects will reveal the damning truth about his disqualifying alien birth.

Taitz represents an organization called the Defend Our Freedoms Foundation. This is a conservative-populist group that advocates more military spending, greater border security against illegal immigration, lower taxes and protectionist trade policies. This document details their case against Obama's eligibility, which includes the claim that, had he even been born in this country (as most people assume) he lost his citizenship as a child during the time he lived in Indonesia. They even question whether Barack Hussein Obama is his real name, asserting that he was registered in Indonesian schools under the name Barry Soetero while claiming to find no evidence of a legal change of name to the one we know. You'll notice, however, that their point-by-point attack is riddled with equivocations; they "suspect" this or that based on supposedly missing documentation. Taitz would no doubt say that this is exactly why the government should release all the information she requests, but it looks like the stand-or-fall point of the whole claim is the validity of the Hawaiian records, and on this point, since even most conservative media concede their validity, the DOFF are voices howling in a wilderness, everyone else's refusal to respect their suspicions only reconfirming and deepening them.

No reason has been given yet for the revocation of Major Cook's deployment orders, but Taitz considers it a breakthrough moment for her cause. Her hopeful assumption is that the Pentagon gave in to Cook because they could not prove what he demanded proven: Obama's legitimacy according to the standards set by Taitz and the "birthers." Inevitably, conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, since the question of why the Pentagon backed down, if this action can be so characterized, will hang in the air for a long time. For some people, questioning Obama's citizenship is probably just a way of disguising their more instinctual suspicion that his race alone makes him unfit for his office. But there were people running around last year also questioning John McCain's eligibility to serve as President, their questions having something to do with whether the Republican was born in the Panama Canal Zone, so we may now be dealing only with a more popular form of a suspicion of political power so absolute and terrible that those who share it may feel that no one is qualified to be President.

14 July 2009

Public Enemies

"How many persons know that there is at this moment a national police force, or, if they know it, realize what this implies?" That's what Harper's magazine asked in 1934 when confronted with the rise to prominence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the killings that year of John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and "Baby Face" Nelson. Responding to legislation that had increased federal crime-fighting powers, the liberal monthly called it all "unnecessary or dangerous." And this was before many people had any image of J. Edger Hoover in their minds.

This tidbit comes from Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Burrough published the book in 2004, but I'm reading it only now because the current movie loosely based on the book renewed an old interest I had in the country bandits and other criminals of the 1930s. When I was a kid, one of my treasured possessions was a copy of Bloodletters and Badmen, an encyclopedia of famous criminals. Reading Burrough's book, I found myself recalling bits of history I had forgotten, along with much that was new to me. Michael Mann's movie doesn't do the book justice, focusing as it does on John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis at the expense of most of the other bandits and G-men who figure in Burrough's story. The film isn't bad, but it could have been much richer if it dealt straight with the material instead of indulging in Mann's personal archetypes of brooding criminals and lawmen.

I've reviewed the movie over at Mondo 70, but the book deserves some notice here because of the lesson it teaches about law, order and government. As the quote from Harper's illustrates, the growth of federal law enforcement has always provoked anxiety among Americans, whether they be liberals or libertarians. Burrough notes that to this day historians have questioned whether the crime wave of 1933-34 was as grave as Hoover claimed, or whether he exaggerated the menace to justify more power for himself. Without whitewashing Hoover or his glory-hunting underling Melvin Purvis, Burrough makes a case that there had to be an escalation of government power to deal with the country bandits. It had been too easy earlier for bank or train robbers to evade pursuers simply by crossing state lines. That had been true for a long time, but by the 1930s the bandits often outgunned and outraced the state or local police they faced, boasting faster cars and better weapons. Dillinger's gang was able to raid small-town armories with little opposition in the worst days. Reading of these depredations reminded me of news from Iraq after the invasion, when law and order had seemed to fail completely. Given that, in America, all this was taking place during the depths of the Great Depression, you couldn't blame people for thinking that the country was sinking into lawlessness or fearing that all levels of government were incompetent to deal with the small-but-deadly robbery gangs. Technological progress had given individuals and small groups an advantage over traditionally limited governments. Burrough shows that it took an increase in manpower, in bureaucratic organization, in surveillance and in both firepower and firearms training to defeat the country bandits. The War on Crime came with abuses of power and selective prosecutions (Hoover was long reluctant to go after the Mafia), but Burrough argues that it was a necessary part of the New Deal program of reviving people's confidence in government. Franklin Roosevelt himself believed that it would help his own reelection chances if the federal government could prove itself capable of subduing the robber gangs.

For some people, it's still an open question whether the expansion of federal power was worth it, but the fact is that by January 1935 almost all the high-profile bandits were dead or in prison. Burrough describes a trial-and-error process marred by embarrassing, sometimes lethal mistakes that nevertheless resulted in an efficient force that insured that Dillinger, Nelson et al had no successors. It didn't end crime, but it did restore a sense of order that had been threatened by the country bandits as objects of both fear and perverse admiration. Government had to evolve to meet a menace that had itself evolved out of social change. An absolute aversion to governmental evolution would offer no answer to new challenges like those presented by the Thirties bandits except for more of the same that had failed already. A presumption that government has inherent limits only leaves government increasingly limited when social change creates new opportunities for lawlessness. People concerned only with the dangers of government ignore dangers rising elsewhere at everyone else's peril. There are worse things than an excess of government. Let's hope it doesn't take hands-on experience for people to learn that lesson.

Still Fighting Ancient Battles

The letter column of the newest issue of The Nation features an unhappy exchange between Eric Alterman, the magazine's media columnist, and Max Holland, a historian who objects to Alterman's characterization of his research on the case of I. F. Stone. Dead twenty years and probably best known as the author of a book about Socrates, Stone was a radical journalist and self-publishing muckraker who has become an object of fresh controversy because of the emergence of evidence identifying him as someone who provided intelligence to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. While downplaying the significance of whatever Stone did, Holland complains that Alterman has blindly denounced the new findings while indicting the character of Holland as a researcher by lumping him with right-wing cranks, and Alterman responds by doing just what Holland complained of.

It's a matter of indifference to me whether I. F. Stone had anything to do with the U.S.S.R., but I know that right-wingers have tried to wreck his reputation for decades, while liberals and left-wingers have doggedly defended it. Both sides act as if the stakes were higher than they seem. It reminds me of the infinitely-renewable brouhaha over Alger Hiss and whether he was a spy for the Commies. The Nation is a last bastion of belief in Hiss's innocence while most historians concede that he was guilty of something. Again, I wonder what the fuss is about, sixty years after the fact in Hiss's case. Why are Hiss and Stone considered relevant topics in modern magazines of political opinion? Just saying that one side or the other is objectively interested in The Truth doesn't seem to explain it adequately.

These are instances of the almost infinite scope of the conflict within the ideological bipolarchy of "left" and "right," with each side hoping that history will vindicate their present-day positions. On the "right," it remains important to prove that the Communist threat was as grave as claimed by such people as McCarthy, Nixon or Goldwater. It would be a long-sought coup to prove once and for all that a great critic of McCarthyism and the Cold War like Stone was not just wrong to belittle the Commie threat, but was consorting with Commies himself. The "left" has an equal interest in disproving this. To vindicate Stone against these charges would prove, to them yet again, that the Commie threat was a chimera conjured by liars in order to smear all dissenters from the Cold War agenda. Likewise, because the Hiss case made Richard Nixon a national figure, there's always been a desire to vindicate Hiss in order to discredit Nixon and the anti-communist movement he came to represent. Because the "left" seeks to minimize the influence of the U.S.S.R. over American leftists, they're hypersensitive to any charge of spying for Moscow and hopeful that most if not all such charges are false.

Why should disputes over whether people spied for a state that no longer exists matter today, except to scholars in archives? The answer is that the spectre of Bolshevism still haunts the left-right debate. There are people on the "right" who believe that any "leftism" is tantamount to hardcore vanguard-party Leninism, with all its awful consequences. They see a continuity between the leftism of the past and that of the present, and the "left" is partly to blame for that because too many people in the past were reluctant to denounce the U.S.S.R. because they thought doing so would discredit leftism as a whole. Today's leftists keep the ball rolling by going out of their way to defend people like Stone. By doing so, they associate themselves with the left of the past and open themselves to charges of still being soft on Bolshevism. What we need today are people (and here I'll leave labels aside) who will oppose the excesses of capitalism and the corporate corruption of government on the basis of today's evidence. We need a generation that will leave Lenin behind once and for all and leave anyone who had the least sympathy for him and his nation on the proverbial ash-heap of history. We ought to have authors and activists who are willing to concede every charge against Bolshevism and Leninism, because the quicker that's done the sooner we can move on to what's wrong with multinational capitalism or the American Bipolarchy. The guilt or innocence of I. F. Stone is a question for historians to answer objectively, without ideological axes to grind on his tombstone. For everyone else, it's a waste of time.

13 July 2009

Aborting Sotomayor?

The news reports that a small group of anti-abortion protesters, including the original "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade fame, since converted to the opposite side, briefly disrupted Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearing today. This outburst coincides with a fresh attempt to whip up the anti-abortion community against the nominee. The last I saw, abortion was considered a non-issue this time because Sotomayor had made rulings in favor of Bushite laws that constrained abortion rights. But there is a huge hostility to her in some quarters of the Republican/conservative community, and I suspect that those elements are trying to stir up the rest.

A fax arrived in our office this afternoon bearing the letterhead of "TheCall to Action." This is, in the writer's own description, "a leading pro-life, pro-family" voice. That voice today was boldfaced in its headline: "EVANGELICAL LEADER: 'WAKE UP CONSERVATIVES.'" That leader is TheCall to Action's own Lou Engle, who warns that "very little attention has been paid to [Sotomayor's] views on important social issues that Christians are concerned about, especially abortion."

I'd like to think that was because the concerns of Christians as such are irrelevant to the nomination or confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. But Engle is right to note that the nominee has been characterizes as a "moderate" on reproductive rights. He just happens to think differently. Sotomayor, he notes, has been a member of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and that entity "has issued six briefs in support of abortion rights and fought efforts on numerous occasions to overturn the landmark Roe v.Wade case." Voila: guilt by association. Never mind the more relevant precedents in the judge's judicial record, the basis for her "moderate" reputation. The fact that she woke up at least one morning in her life not committed absolutely to overturning Roe makes her suspect in Engle's eyes.

There follows the usual reactionary invocation of Martin Luther King's sentence about "content of character," urging certain readers to overlook the historical event of Sotomayor's nomination in favor of scrutiny of the "character" of her position on reproductive rights.

The content of her character must be judged by the Declaration of Independence which declares 'We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' We contend that a child in the womb is life and is protected by our founding documents and must be upheld by justices of the Supreme Court.

So says Lou Engle, even though he quotes only one "founding document," and one that lacks the force of law. So that we may judge the content of his character, here's his own more elaborate description of TheCall to Action: "TheCall is a divinely initiated, multi-racial, multi-generational, and cross-denominational gathering to corporate prayer and fasting. TheCall is committed to mobilizing people from all across America to gather together to petition God for His undeserved mercy for our nation in 12-hour solemn assemblies." Well, good luck with that, but as I don't notice much progress on that front, it might not be such a great idea to take one's eyes off the prize in order to cast a dubious gaze on Judge Sotomayor.

Sotomayor Without Prejudice?

Senator Sessions of Alabama is concerned that Judge Sotomayor, if confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, might determine cases according to ideological or ethnic prejudices. He confesses his suspicions in an op-ed piece that appeared in the Albany paper this morning -- before he had an opportunity to ask the judge any questions under oath. This isn't the first time Sessions, a Republican, has expressed his reservations. Hasn't he announced his own prejudices in advance of a fair hearing? Isn't he guilty of exactly the offense he accuses Sotomayor of? Could he be more guilty?

His complaint focuses on the usual quotations that seem to identify Sotomayor as a judge who will decide certain cases according to ethnic solidarities or pure feelings grounded in personal experience. This prospect troubles Sessions, who frets as if nothing like this had ever happened in the United States before. He paints a heartwarming word picture of the goddess of justice, whose dedication to the principle of "equal justice under law" is illustrated by the blindfold she wears. Since I presume Sessions to be a Christian, probably a conservative one, I'm surprised to find him guilty of anthropomorphism bordering on idolatry. Justice, he ought to recall, is not literally a woman wearing a blindfold. Nor need justice be "blind" in the same sense of the word in every single case that comes to a judge's attention. Dispute that point if you wish, but don't try to dispute that Sessions in his article is being, perhaps inadvertently, a little disingenuous. A historically illiterate person might read his comments and assume that Justice has been properly blind throughout American history until the dangerous moment when the President nominated Judge Sotomayor. Everyone should know better, and our judges themselves, presumably knowing better, cannot be as "blind" as Sessions might like when it comes to cases that pit the interests of a onetime-oppressed class against mere individuals.

What Sessions wants is an end to the compensatory period in American history, the time when the government has promoted members of minority groups once victimized by blatant, legal prejudice, often inevitably at the expense of individuals who believe themselves entitled by merit to advancement in a "fair" society. He isn't wrong to desire this. The point of "affirmative action" and other compensatory policies is to accustom all Americans to one another's presence in every sector of social life in order to dissolve prejudices. The ultimate goal isn't a permanent apportionment of jobs or other social benefits on a group basis, but the education of society to a point when everyone agrees that prejudice no longer exists and meritocracy can at last prevail. The tricky part has always been to determine when that moment has arrived. It's tricky as long as groups disagree. People like Sessions claim that the moment came some time ago, if they even conceive that compensatory measures were necessary. Some will say that the moment has come despite retaining prejudices. Some in groups that benefit from compensatory policies will say the moment has not come, or will not come for a long time, and some who say that will be prejudiced in turn. They don't or won't trust the majority group to judge them fairly, or they may have rejected a meritocratic concept of fairness altogether. Neither group has the right to unilaterally call for either an end or an indefinite extension of the compensatory period. That's one reason why a "balanced" court that reflects a variety of those dreaded life experiences is probably a good idea, and why those life experiences are at least sometimes relevant to deliberation.

As I wrote at the time of the nomination, the appeal to life experience is a double-edged sword. If we concede that life experiences enable judges to decide certain cases better than those with different experiences, it follows automatically that the same life experiences may lead the same judges to decide other cases wrongly. To ask why all-white Courts decided such cases as Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson wrongly, by modern standards, is to answer the question at the same time. The remedy is not to ban whites from the Court, but to make sure that there's a balance of life-experiences while society continues its work of integration until we reach the point when we need racial balance no more than we now need the sectional balance that seemed necessary generations ago.

12 July 2009

Lincoln for Liberal Realists

The current New Republic cover-features an enormous review article by historian Sean Wilentz to mark the Lincoln bicentennial. Though his heroes of American history are usually Democrats or precursors of the Democratic party, he admires Lincoln, but he's concerned that too many people today admire the 16th President for the wrong reasons. He finds the prevailing misrepresentation of Lincoln typical of a time that has made Barack Obama President. He doesn't really criticize Obama himself this time, but it may be recalled that during last year's primary season, Wilentz was a strong supporter of Hilary Clinton and a stronger critic of people who he thought adored Obama due to a naive infatuation with his rhetorical powers. This viewpoint carries over into his Lincoln essay, because his major complaint about today's Lincoln worshipers is that they make too much of his admittedly admirable rhetoric while neglecting the necessary political skills that allowed Lincoln to advance his liberating agenda.

Here is Wilentz on Presidential rhetoric:

Presidential rhetoric certainly can persuade, placate, or inspire people to action, whether the presidents actually write their own words (as Lincoln did) or rely on speechwriters and cabinet members. But just as presidential language need not be eloquent in any classic literary sense to get things done, so eloquence is no guarantee that the words will be effective, or even right.

True enough. It seems wise at this time to warn Obama's most ardent supporters that they can't expect him to win everyone over with brilliant speeches. But Wilentz also worries that too many liberals today seem to oscillate between an idealism that idolizes the bully pulpit and a radicalism impatient with resistance and tempted toward coercion. He reads this into Lincoln biographies that make heroes out of the abolitionists and other radicals who constantly pressured Lincoln to take extreme or arbitrary actions in the name of their idea of justice. These writers make activists like Frederick Douglass the moral superiors of Lincoln, mainly because they demanded instantaneous, unconditional abolition of slavery when Lincoln was more tentative. Wilentz makes a valid point when he observes that radicals aren't accountable to anyone in the same way that a politician is, and he makes a more valid point when he reminds readers that Lincoln considered himself constrained by the Constitution, though the constraints did come off over time.

But Wilentz is clearly building toward a moral applicable to modern politics, so the question isn't whether President Obama should or shouldn't claim extraordinary powers to take emergency actions. Wilentz is trying to teach Obama's supporters how to be political, and not to despise it. He thinks that Obama benefited across the board last year with a dissatisfaction with politics as such that he seems to regard as immature.

Many present-day American historians assume that political calculation, opportunism, careerism, and duplicity negate idealism and political integrity....they charge that the similarities between the corrupt major political parties overwhelm their differences....they equate purposefulness with political purity. Consequently, their writings slight how all great American leaders, including many of the outsiders they idealized, have relied on calculation, opportunism, and all the other democratic political arts in order to advance their loftiest and most controversial goals.

Here's another dose of the same toward the end:

Two of the major objects of enmity in this current of reformism are the political parties (with their dark hidden forces, the professional politicians) and the money-drenched system of campaigning (with its dark hidden forces, the coroprate donors). If only the hammerlock of the two major parties -- or, alternatively, that of the bosses within each party -- can be broken, then the true will of the rank and file, and ultimately of the people, will be unleashed, and principled government will be restored. And if the intrinsically corrupting (or so it is claimed) contributions of big money are ended, and something approximating public financing of elections is installed in its place, then something closer to Lincolnian government of the people, by the people, and for the people will emerge. Right?

Remember, Wilentz offers this paragraph sarcastically. In his mind, he's parodying people who believe that the monetarization of political speech and the persistence of the American Bipolarchy (were he aware of me, I'm sure he'd put my pet term in scare quotes) have harmed the republic. We are all so naive, and we'd probably be dangerous, in his eyes, if we weren't so ineffectual. What makes us ineffectual, as far as Wilentz is concerned, is that we want radical change yet expect that our leaders can make it happen by giving a bunch of speeches. So thinks the Obama voter of his imagination.

In Wilentz's own account, Lincoln's great political triumph is issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and getting re-elected afterward without a full-scale mutiny by soldiers or civilians. He believes that Lincoln's lessons for modern politicians lie in how he prepared public opinion for emancipation by refusing to go to extremes immediately and actually throwing generals under the omnibus who jumped the gun, and by making it clear throughout that his primary objective from the first shots was restoring the Union rather than freeing the slaves so that people would believe him when he finally said that the latter was absolutely necessary to the former end. In this account, that means schmoozing some people, lying to others, and stabbing others yet in the back -- metaphorically only, of course. In other words, for a politician there is no shame in duplicity as long as it furthers a noble end. Go back a couple of block quotes and you'll recall that Wilentz listed duplicity as one of the traits that negate integrity, in idealists' opinion. He's guilty of a little disingenuousness himself when he doesn't add duplicity to his list of "democratic political arts" in the same quote, since practically the only examples of Lincoln's political artfulness that he cites involve duplicity of some sort, whether it's telling radicals that he doesn't intend to emancipate while already planning to do so, in order to shore up conservative support, or making Frederick Douglass feel important and think they are going to be good friends.

I suppose Wilentz makes sense of a kind. If we can't hope to win people over purely with rhetoric, if reasoned arguments will never suffice with some folks, and we won't allow ourselves to force our ideas on people or disregard constitutional constraints on our powers, then politics is going to have to come down to tricking people, or at the very least manipulating them in ways that might seem dishonest to some idealists. Wilentz would have us be less idealistic about means and more realistic about pursuing ideal ends. What this has to do with the two-party system, which he seems to defend implicitly against the idealists, I'm not quite sure. I'm going to guess that Wilentz perfers "big tent" style politics that forces people of disparate beliefs and agendas to work with each other toward goals agreed upon through compromise. If I read him right, then he may imagine the only alternative to the Bipolarchy to be a bunch of ideologically rigid parties that would never do anything but speechify or simply yell at one another until one makes a grab for unconstitutional power. I shouldn't have to say that I can imagine a different alternative, but partisanship itself isn't Wilentz's main concern on this occasion. Our concern should be with his advice to his country. For all I know, he may be right that no great cause can be advanced in this country without tactics that will seem intellectually if not morally dishonest to many people. He invites us to embrace this truth and not be so snooty, but I wonder whether people can stand such a truth being told -- if it is the truth --without losing a little of their faith in democracy as the political system morally superior to all the others.