30 August 2009

The Cheney Doctrine: Partisan Immunity

The former vice president has denounced all moves that might be made to investigate the conduct of the CIA or anything to do with torture or illegal treatment of prisoners during the George W. Bush administration as "partisan" and "political." An echo chamber of Republican opinion will confirm Cheney in his opinion that a Democratic administration is looking into these things only because the previous administration was Republican. But the burden of proof ought to be on Cheney to prove the motive. The logic of the American Bipolarchy is such, however, that the mere existence of two major parties who monopolize the government between them is proof enough for a dedicated partisan that any move by one party that might reflect badly on the other is automatically partisan. In other words, the fact that the Justice Department is under the control of a party other than Cheney's is proof that anything it does while so controlled is "political." This is the basis of the unspoken concept of partisan immunity that allows each party to get away with numerous abuses of power or law on the assumption that the other party is less interested in upholding the law than in abusing power to destroy its opponent. Republicans try to obfuscate this point by accusing Democrats of hypocrisy. They contend that Democrats condemn policies carried out by Republicans that they would just as readily carry out themselves, or that they only question the legality of Republican policies out of partisan malice. Democrats don't make the same argument as often, but it can be argued that Bill Clinton benefited from the partisan immunity principle when he was spared removal from office after his impeachment despite Republican control of Congress.

The easiest way to refute the partisan immunity premise would be to break the Bipolarchial domination of the political sphere so that it would no longer be possible for one side to argue that a legal inquiry could only be meant to benefit one party. Once it can be shown that policies won't only benefit one party or the other, that kind of argument won't hold water any more, though partisans will probably still try to use it. If more people recognized how the two major parties enable one another in spite of yet because of their exclusive enmity, they might be more willing to support new parties to hold both present ones accountable to the law and the constitution, and maybe even the will of the people as well.

29 August 2009

The Pulse of the People?

The specific subject of Norman Greenfield's letter to the Albany Times Union is the scandal and faction-ridden New York State legislature, but he may be expressing a more widespread frustration with representative government in general:

We are asked, by editorial comment, to continue to 'peel the onion until 2010' when we shall, presumably, vote the rapscallions out of office. Need we wait? Can we not try to impeach these thieves for malfeasance in office? If not, can we not emulate the French in 1789 and reinstate the guillotine? Please, something must be possible besides sitting on our hands in dumb inaction.
Our Founding Fathers held the belief that, in the course of time, this institution would demonstrate, with the greatest clarity, the achievements of which the American people are capable. Instead, we find that governmental protections are not up to handling legislatively empowered lawbreakers.
A nation should stand with a leadership generating ideals and ethics rather than those exercising the rule of law for selfish economic advantage.
If Americans no longer trust each other to represent each other for even two years at a time, if there is in fact a growing clamor for something along the lines of recall for every elected official, is that a good sign for democracy or a bad sign for republicanism? -- small r, please note. History warns us that when people feel oppressed by an elite, they are often just as happy to leave things to one strong leader, the big bully who can beat up the little bullies, as they are to take and keep matters in their own hands. Mr. Greenfeld's vague remark about "a leadership generating ideals and ethics" makes one wonder a little. A helpful editor might have changed this to "A nation's people should generate ideals and ethical leadership," but that'd be reading my own ideas into someone else's letter.

26 August 2009

Composite Portrait of a Town Hall Meeting

My Representative in Congress is Paul Tonko, a first-term Democrat. He held a "town hall-style meeting" on health care reform in Bethlehem yesterday. A number of accounts of the event have been published. The local newspaper version emphasizes the number of activists brought in by a pro-reform group and allows dissidents to complain that they were excluded, but notes that the crowd seemed evenly split. Meanwhile, a sympathetic report on Daily Kos accuses "Ron Paul cultists" of hogging the microphone. A more objective Kossack reports mike-hogging and impoliteness on both sides, but also directly challenges the newspaper account, claiming that the audience was overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic reform plan. However, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate also described the crowd as 50-50. The moderator reports that the shouters drowned out potential questioners on both sides of the debate. She writes that "There was a gentleman towards the end who pointed out that calling your opponent a racist or Nazi doesn’t add anything to the dialogue." We can assume that those names were called during the meeting. Her blog is followed by several comments. These are representative:

Both sides came loaded for bear, and no one was willing to listen to see if their position could even be changed. I’m not sure what would be a better way to discuss this. Everyone seemed willing to talk and no one to listen. How do you start a discussion if people want to do one and not the other?

Boy that was something wasn’t it? I didn’t envy you being up there and I felt a little silly as well. I didn’t realize that people could be so violent over something so, well out of our hands. People need to realize that all that shouting and inappropiate language isn’t going to get us anywhere.

Somewhere along the line people seem to have forgotten what it means to debate. It is a reasoned exchange of ideas. It does not involve lying. It does not involve making things up. It does not involve not letting others talk. (If you shout someone down you are ultimately the loser, not the person shouted down.) For democracy to work, there must be this exchange of ideas, otherwise, it is a rule by mob, not unlike Nazi Germany....Much of the problem is that few of us are taught to think critically. Consequently, we allow ourselves to be swayed by talking points that may or not make sense, instead of weighing the evidence and coming to a reasoned conclusion.

I was at the meeting. I never saw anythign approaching a “near riot”, which was reported by at least one media source. Shouting, yes, yelling, yes, middle finger salutes, I guess, but Lydia [the moderator] and Paul handled these and more moderate questions and comments with aplomb and equity. And I moved around, to get a better sense of the crowd. Plenty of cops, local and state, including a police dog, struck me as a bit of overkill, but I guess you can never be too sure, even in Delmar.

There were partisan comments as well, but these provide something more like an objective view of the event. Whether they are cause for optimism or not is another story.


It was interesting to learn on the radio this morning exactly how much the Massachusetts Democracy bent over (backwards if you prefer) to accommodate the Kennedy family. Only the inescapable fact of his age kept Edward from inheriting brother Jack's seat in the U.S. Senate when JFK moved up to the Presidency. As NPR explained it, a "family loyalist" took over the seat for two years until Master Ted was of age, then yielded in his favor. Kennedy held the seat until he died late last night. Against his deathbed wish to have the power of replacement restored to the governor, Kennedy's place will be filled through a special election. There remain Kennedys in politics, but they are all mediocrities compared to Teddy's generation, and the dynasty as a power in national politics is at an end.

The late Senator is being remembered fondly as one of those pols who was still capable of amiable relations with the opposite party while playing hardball on the Senate floor and on the hustings. Republicans speak highly of him today even while admitting that they used him as the scary face of Democratic liberalism for many years to motivate the reactionary base of their party. The point is not that they were hypocrites but that they and he alike accepted the rules of the partisan game and could still be friends off the field of play, an outcome that seems far less likely now that we have a generation of politicians raised on partisan propaganda and demonizing ideologies. That amiability might be overrated, since some people are bound to deserve scorn for what they do, but it's probably preferable to partisans hating each other before they know each other.

Before apparently regaining some stature late in life, Kennedy became a caricature of a liberal politician if not politicians in general: fat, drunk, self-indulgent. This image was not entirely a creation of Republican propaganda. His behavior at Chappaquiddick is, after all, the reason why he could never be nominated for the Presidency by his own party. His ability to continue a political career afterward seemed to prove that politicians, or at least those with wealth and powerful family ties, could get away with anything. Much of today's hostility toward "liberals" is based on the idea that someone like the caricature image of Teddy might be living off our taxpayer dollars and telling us how to live while living la vida loca himself, laughing all the way. But he remained an idol of many liberals because he supported their causes and carried (now to the grave) the kingly charisma of his lineage.

That idolization betrayed something unseemly about some liberals: a weakness for what might be called horizontal dynasticism, less oriented toward handing power over from one generation to another than toward sharing the elected power of an individual with a clan of heroes -- brothers, wives or others. This seems like a liberal trait; by comparison, George W. Bush, a vertical dynast, kept his brother Jeb at arm's length during his regime and famously ducked his father's counsel on certain issues. Why liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, should differ this way I really can't say. In any event, the dynastic mentality ill became liberals, and if it's buried with Kennedy it might actually represent a new beginning for Democrats.

25 August 2009

Republican Begging Letter of the Week

The financially troubled American Conservative magazine can't afford to be choosy about who purchases its mailing list. I assume that I got on William T. Russell's mailing list because I subscribe to that unorthodox monthly. Russell may assume that all "conservatives" are equal, and that I am one for reading the magazine, but I doubt whether many readers will support him in his congressional campaign. Russell is a pro-war Republican running against Rep. John Murtha, one of the most hated Democrats in the House of Representatives among the pro-war crowd. The Conservative probably has little use for Murtha on domestic issues, but since the magazine itself is anti-war I doubt it'd endorse Russell. In any event, and most likely through the magazine's agency, Russell's begging letter arrived in my mailbox yesterday.

Russell challenged Murtha last year, and contends that the incumbent only beat him then because "in a desperate attempt to cling to power, he turned to the Democrat big guns and big money." Murtha received an infusion of money for advertising, and then Senator Clinton "recorded two nasty phone messages personally smearing me." Russell doesn't tell us what Clinton said in these messages or how she smeared him. He does accuse Murtha of "personally attacking my former military service" by calling him (this Russell quotes) a "God da#n ... carpetbagger!" Russell was born in Virginia, and apparently came in for criticism for campaigning while still on active duty (here is more information). He lost by the narrow margin of 58% to 42%, he asserts, because the Democrats spent $1,000,000 in the last ten days of the campaign. Analyzing his defeat, the Republican has decided that he needs a war chest to rival Murtha's. That's where I come in.

Russell isn't greedy. "The backbone of my campaign is made up of conservatives who are writing checks for $50 and even $35," he writes, even though he'd like anywhere from $100 to $2,400. These donations subsidize Russell's current itinerary. "I'm already spending part of each week going to county fairs, attending front-porch rallies, walking in parades and knocking on as many doors as possible," he explains, "And to better get my conservative message out, I'm already running radio ads."

Russell retired from active duty last July 31, and won his district's Republian primary as a write-in candidate. He and his wife escaped the attack on the Pentagon in September 2001. He went on to serve in Iraq and get pissed at Murtha's accusations against American soldiers. It became his mission to unseat "the biggest adversary our military has in the entire U.S. Congress." He calls himself a "TRUE conservative" by virtue of his positions on gun rights, border security, taxes, abortion and national security. His mailing is a bit behind the curve since it expresses no opinion on health care or the economy in general. It does include an informative clipping from Roll Call magazine describing Murtha's beneficial relationship with a defense contractor that's under investigation by the government. It shouldn't surprise me if Murtha is dirty in some way, since power does corrupt. That's why it's imperative for someone else to get into the campaign rather than leave the field to Murtha and Russell, since a warmonger with a grudge is no replacement for even a corrupt party hack.

Russell's mailing included a separate sheet marked "Breaking News," in which he describes a threat made against him by a Murtha aide. "For legal reasons I cannot get into all the details," he demurs, but the story has made the news and you can learn more here. If true, it's a nasty thing to say, but I'm not going to chuck my own principles out of sympathy for a beleagured Republican. I pity Murtha's district if these are going to be their only choices.

24 August 2009

Boycotting Glenn Beck

Earlier this summer Glenn Beck made a fool of himself on a Fox News talk show by blurting out his suspicion that the President had a deep-seated hatred of white people, only to deny in his next breath that he had said that Obama hates whites. It was all too funny to annoy me, but Beck's claim that the President is a racist has infuriated an organization known as ColorOfChange.org, which has been lobbying advertising to pull out of sponsoring Beck's own program on Fox News. They have apparently convinced a number of sponsors to ask Fox to run their ads during different hours.

I'm sure that some Republicans have already declared this campaign another instance of double standards at work. To an extent they have a point. If it is intolerably offensive to accuse someone of racism, then it must be equally offensive to accuse Republicans and conservatives of racism, as happens often in the media. But it appears to be more offensive for someone to accuse Barack Obama of racism, to the point that Beck's accusers imply that he is the racist for making the charge. Putting it more broadly, the partisan talking heads on TV and radio routinely make gross charges against the leaders of the enemy party. If a pro-Republican or so-called conservative pressure group tried to get sponsors to abandon MSNBC's prime-time programming to protest the hosts' abuse of Republicans, the cry of "censorship" would be heard more strongly than I hear it now during the campaign against Beck.

If sponsors decide on their own that they don't want to be associated with an idiot like Beck, that's their business. A campaign of the kind now underway is less about businesses keeping their consciences clear than it is about driving Beck off television. That bugs me. TV might be better off without his stupidity, but that's a decision for viewers to make. Their decision may reflect poorly on them to the extent that they fall for Beck's buncombe, but before anyone decides that the decisions about who gets to talk about the news on TV should be made by someone else, it should be understood that applying any standard of fairness (especially under Bipolarchy conditions) would eliminate others besides Beck in the name of inoffensive neutrality. Some people may deem that a fair price to pay to be rid of all rabid partisanship in the media, but I wonder how many people really want to be rid of all partisanship, especially when partisanship itself dictates what's offensive and what isn't for many viewers. Singling out one person for exemplary punishment isn't going to solve the larger problem.

21 August 2009

Healthcare: Debating in Bad Faith

Charles Krauthammer thinks he can pose as an objective voice in the healthcare debate by calling Sarah Palin an idiot. He'd never be so explicit, of course, but in his latest column he advises "asking Sarah Palin to leave the room." Of course she's wrong about "death panels," he insists; "to say that there are [such things] is to debase the debate."

In the very next paragraph, he writes:

To offer government reimbursement to any doctor who gives end-of-life counseling -- whether or not the patient asked for it -- is to create an incentive for such a chat. What do you think such a chat would be like? Do you think the doctor will go on and on about the fantastic new million-dollar high-tech gizmo that can prolong the patient's otherwise hopeless condition for another six months? Or do you think he's going to talk about -- as the bill specifically spells out -- hospice care and palliative care and other ways of letting go of life?

Never mind that the bill spells out just about every other option, including heroic measures to preserve life. Krauthammer may fancy himself smarter than Palin -- and who can blame him? -- but he's making exactly the same "error" that the Alaskan has. He makes the same presumption about the motives and inclinations of practitioners who participate in the proposed counseling that Cal Thomas does. But Krauthammer doesn't seem to realize this. He goes on oh so reasonably: "It's not an outrage. It's surely not a death panel. But it is subtle pressure applied by society through your doctor."

He adds: "And when you include it in a health care reform whose major objective is to bend the cost curve downward, you have to be a fool or a knave to deny that it's intended to gently point you in a certain direction, toward the corner of the sick room where stands a ghostly figure, scythe in hand, offering release." That's how reasonable Charles Krauthammer is; no one but a "fool" or a "knave" could dispute his interpretation of Section 1233. That's rather like a glove to the face, and ought to be answered in kind: just like the others whose hysteric fears he claims not to share, Krauthammer is a liar.

Thought (?) For the Day

Like a glutton for punishment I read Cal Thomas's columns regularly, and sometimes I'm rewarded with gems like this bit from his newest effort:

I have a suggestion. Unlike Obama's 'Yes We Can' slogan of the last campaign, how about 'Yes You Can'? The rebuilding of the country can begin when more of 'we the people' realize that real power lies within each of us and not in Washington.

Thomas's aversion to anything that might hint at collectivism is practically pathological. I had thought that "Yes We Can" was one of the more innocuous political slogans, but Thomas hears it as a hymn of dependence upon The State. And check out how he puts scare quotes around the opening words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. One wonders whether he really thinks there is, or ought to be, such a thing as "the people," or if his soi-disant conservatism is so much like Margaret Thatcher's that he, too, believes that there's no such thing as society, only individuals and families.

If Thomas believes that "Yes We Can" is an inappropriate slogan for the United States, I have to wonder why he thinks this nation even exists, or why any nation exists. His own suggestion from the current column, which is that government exists "to protect us from foreign dictators and domestic charlatans who would injure or destroy our liberties," doesn't really answer the fundamental question. If collective endeavor is so terrible a thought, if even the suggestion of it is a threat to individual freedom, why do we bother forming states instead of each building our own little fortress in the wilderness? The best answer I can offer from my efforts to get inside the "conservative" mind is that we may as well have a certain minimalist kind of government so that worse forms of government don't fill the vacuum. But why is there even a vacuum if we're all so self-reliant, or should be? My guess is that government, for rugged individualists like Thomas, is what should be there to block other powers that exist in the state of nature from imposing their will on individuals or denying them "the opportunity to advance toward the highest levels of achievement consistent with their skills and persistence." Those are Thomas's words in quotes. As long as the best and brightest can always maximize their winnings, the world is fair, and every other person's portion is also fair. The notion that what's fair is what's needful to each and all as human beings rather than the just desserts for individuals is alien to the point of heresy to pious Cal. In other words, any alternative to the perpetual competition for existence that we know euphemistically as the "state of nature" or to its essential law of "compete or die" is painfully unacceptable to Thomas's hypersensitive animal perceptions. Even hearing the idea proposed makes him feel like a caged beast. It's got to be rough for him living in America today and staying enough in touch with even our rudimentary civilization to deliver his newspaper columns. The poor man ought to go live in the woods where he might lope about as free as the other woodland life, ironically protected by the federal government, and never have to worry about other people again -- except fetuses, of course.

20 August 2009

Sen. Kennedy's Deathbed Request

Once again the question of how to fill vacancies in the U.S. Senate has been brought to public notice. In Massachusetts Ted Kennedy is terminally ill with brain cancer, though it remains uncertain how much longer he'll live. His office has released the text of a letter Kennedy wrote earlier this summer calling on the Massachusetts legislature to revise the state law regarding Senate vacancies. The law currently mandates a special election, but the vote can't take place until at least five months after the seat becomes vacant. Kennedy believes that this would leave the state, not to mention the Democratic party, without its full representation in the Senate at a crucial moment for progressive legislation. He recommends giving the governor the power to fill the vacancy by appointment prior to a special election. Here's more information about the story.

The governor of Massachusetts had the power Kennedy asks for him until 2004. In that year, the state's junior Senator, John Kerry, had a good chance of becoming President. His election would create a vacancy, but the Democratic majority in the legislature didn't like the idea of the vacancy being filled by Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican. So they enacted the present law with the special-election provision. But now the governor is Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and the party is more worried about the lack of a Senator to maintain the "filibuster-proof" majority in Washington D.C.

Thus partisanship makes a farce out of lawmaking. The law was changed for partisan advantage, but the change will last only as long as it continues to benefit the party. That last sentence looks like I was describing the Soviet Union or some other Bolshevik state, but if that's an extreme comparison the fact remains that this particular law has become a plaything of parties. Added to the follies of Illinois and New York over the past year, the Bay State episode is more evidence for the necessity of a federal constitutional amendment setting down a single rule for filling Senate vacancies. I fail to see how any state's peculiar interests are enhanced by making up rules as it pleases as it goes along. The sort of amendment I propose should not be seen as a new assault on states' rights, but as a check on partisanship manipulation of law. While there are people today who claim that the major political parties are integral parts of the American system of checks and balances in government, it's past time people began to consider whether the nation needs checks on partisanship itself in its decadent form: the American Bipolarchy.

"Actual Democracy"

Every few days I get a chance to look at the New York Daily News, the more liberal-leaning of the big city's tabloids. Today was one of those days, so I had the dumb luck to read a column by Michael Daly, who announced that "actual democracy" had arrived in Albany yesterday. This actual democracy was presented in stark, damning contrast with the faction-ridden, conspiratorial state senate. Had there been a revolution? Did a tea party race up the famous Capitol steps and send Pedro Espada bouncing down? Not at all. The real, democratic action took place away from the seat of government.

Democracy arrived here in the early afternoon on a fleet of gray and silver buses carrying the duly elected members of the 2009 American Idol Tour. This season's top 10 are touring 52 cities after Americans cast 624 million votes. Just the chance of a fleeting glimpse of them had a hundred fans standing in the sweltering heat as they never would for the politicians who babble and bumble and bluff at the Capitol, a two-minute walk from the concert arena.

Is there better proof in our time that the people rule than that these Idols reign? According to Daly, there is, and you can see it in the Idols' humble acknowledgment of their accountability to the People.

[T]he startling volume of votes and their remarkable popularity are not what make these young singers true figures of democracy. What sets them apart from the politicians who infest our state capital is their attitude toward the voters.
This year's winner,
Kris Allen, received more votes than both houses of the New York State Legislature combined. His attitude toward his electorate would transform government if our politicians felt the same.

"Being the American Idol, I feel like there is a pressure to live up to a certain standard," he said in a pre-concert chat. "I want to be someone people look up to."

You may have noted a note of irony in my selections from Daly's commentary. Is he really saying anything awful? Maybe New York's senators do deserve an unfavorable comparison to the studiously humble, grateful contest winners, though you might remember the senators saying similar nice things when they're up for election. But we can let Daly have his little joke and still insist that the difference between American Idol and state government is not the difference between "actual democracy" and its absence. Daly has forgotten, presuming that he ever knew, the fundamental definition of democracy -- and it doesn't involve elections. Elections are a function of representative government, what we call around here a republic. Commentators of a certain bent are fond of reminding us that we live in a republic, rather than a democracy, because ours is a representative rather than a direct government. Ours is a democratic republic because the people choose their representatives, though we called ourselves that even when many representatives (e.g. U.S. Senators, presidential electors) weren't chosen in strictly democratic fashion. The New York senate is an institution of representative government, and American Idol is an analogous institution. The singing contest is no more "actual democracy" than state government is, and a besotted Daly, basking in the presence of celebrity for what may be a rare time in his life, has forgotten that the singers are doing no more than practising public relations just as the senators do -- or does he imagine that Espada and his peers actually go about in public sneering at the masses and saying, "We're not answerable to you, mwa-ha-ha-hah!"

Daly's article is wrongheaded from so many angles that I feel justified in nominating him for Idiot of the Week. The floor is open for seconding speeches or further nominations.

19 August 2009

Score Voting

Score voting, the remedy for Bipolarchy recommended by Broken Ladder (see comments on "The American Bipolarchy: Power Without Discipline") is synonymous with "range voting," as described in this sympathetic Wikipedia entry. It works in a way similar to polls designed to determine the most popular movies, record albums, etc. Voters would rate each candidate for an office on a numerical scale. The winner can be the candidate with the best cumulative score, the best average score or the best median score. Political scientists and range-voting advocates have suggested further tabulation methods to minimize the impact of voters giving some candidates exaggeratedly low scores or neglecting to score other candidates. The anti-bipolarchic aspect of score voting is its presumed tendency to encourage voters to rank sincerely preferred candidates (i.e. independents) higher than major-party candidates, while still allowing them to rate one major candidate higher than another. Score-voting advocates insist that some system along these lines is necessary to discourage voters from thinking that votes for independents are "wasted," as they're alleged to be when each person has to give 100% of his vote to one candidate.

At first glance, score voting seems to introduce a questionable element of subjectivity into voting, depending on the scoring range permitted. It'd be minimal if the scoring range is determined by the actual number of candidates (i.e. if you have six candidates and must rank them in order from 1 to 6), but allowing a range from 1-100 would permit people to exaggerate the actual differences in quality or desirability among candidates, though remedies to this tendency, as I said, have been proposed. Any such remedy must take into account the likelihood of conservatives minimizing scores for candidates to the left, and vice versa, or else ideology might distort the process more than it does now. Apart from that caveat, I have no major objection to score voting as a concept. I do question the argument that score or range voting alone can prevent the consolidation of a bipolarchy. There are many possible voting systems in which all it would take to elect independent candidates would be independent thinking and will power on the part of voters. Duverger's Law and other arguments for the necessity of alternate voting systems have an air of capitulation about them. They concede something about the habits of voters that I would rather not take for granted.

18 August 2009

Duverger's Law

If anyone is following the discussion of my post below "The American Bipolarchy: Power Without Discipline," the question may arise: What is "Duverger's Law." Here is Wikipedia's explanation. On one level, it seems like a glorified way of saying "success breeds success" or, more relevantly, "failure breeds failure." Once a party establishes a record of finishing third or worse in legislative elections, Duverger contends, it faces an insurmountable obstacle to getting out of the rut. Again, this seems like stating the obvious, except that Duverger asserts that this is a condition peculiar to "single district plurality" elections, so that the way we vote supposedly influences whether we have a bipolarchy or not. This assertion has inspired people to argue that only voting systems that allow people to express multiple preferences, second choices, etc., can prevent bipolarchies from forming. Hence the appeal of "score voting," which I'll consider in a separate post. Duverger also asserts that ideology exacerbates the tendency of his Law, so that rightists, for instance, will consolidate into one big party to counter the influence of a strong leftist party, which in turn will draw all left elements into its embrace. This may be so, but I wonder whether any voting system can resist the pull of ideology more effectively. The hope is that multiple-preference systems would allow people to express very specific ideological preferences, but if the real problem is ideology itself, I'm not sure of the benefit of such a system. Nor do I see why Duverger's Law should apply automatically to every layer of a federal system like the U.S. Two particular parties may dominate the national scene, but that shouldn't automatically exclude independent parties (like Farmer-Labor in Minnesota back in the day) from playing a more powerful role at the state level. In any event, use the link to educate yourselves further about the concept, and don't feel left out of the discussion.

Coming Soon: Suicide by Secret Service?

Perhaps lost in the concern over the appearance of openly armed private citizens at recent Presidential appearances is the fact that the demonstrators may as well wear jackets with bullseyes painted on them. I would at least assume that every such person is a target for a Secret Service or police sharpshooter, whether such attention is really warranted or not. That would at least give these yahoos an intelligible reason to carry firearms, though the reasoning would certainly be circular. Otherwise, it's fair to ask such people what immediate danger they think themselves in that they have to strut about so. They might answer that they don't need to feel endangered to display firearms openly, or don't have to justify their exercise of a constitutional right. Whatever their constitutional cover, they carry the guns because they want to, because they want the world to know that they are ready to kill at any moment in defense of their perpetually endangered right to...kill at any moment. They construe the Second Amendment to confer upon themselves as private citizens the right to kill, when in fact the explicit right to keep and bear arms in anticipation of forming a citizen militia, the inferred right to personal self-defense, and the assumed right to kill are three different things. But why even argue this point? The President, while campaigning last year, deferred to the Supreme Court's dubious ruling that the amendment conferred a personal right to bear arms. He is no threat to any gun owner unless gun owners choose not to trust him for their thinly disguised racist reasons. But some Americans have already decided that the President of the United States is their enemy -- not merely a fool leading the country to ruin, mind you (so let the comparisons die on your tongue) -- but an essentially if not actually alien enemy of the country he was elected to preside over. They posture as if the republic were in danger, but they endanger it, if anyone does today. I don't know if the Arizona jackasses are birthers, deathers or any other kind of conspiracy-monger, but I suspect that they belong in the same general category. I hope they enjoy the scrutiny. If they start whining that "Big Brother" is watching them, they ought to remember that they asked for it.

Healthcare: The Transatlantic Debate

Great Britain has become embroiled in the American debate over health care reform. The leader of Britain's own Conservative party has denounced a Tory MP who has gone on Fox News in this country to denounce his own nation's National Health Service. The leader, David Cameron, has reaffirmed his own commitment to the NHS and has promised to strengthen it if he becomes Prime Minister in the next general election. His denunciation of MP Daniel Hannan has sparked a debate within British conservative circles, Hannan having emboldened others to speak out against NHS in defiance of the party leader and in sync with U.S. Republicans.

Cal Thomas, who has staked out a fringe position in the American debate (even Mr.Right was baffled when I described Thomas's views to him), notes the British imbroglio in his latest column. Statistics suggest to some observers that Britons are forced into a kind of trade-off. The nation's recovery rate from many forms of cancer is worse than America's, but many people are satisfied with free, universal health care. Critics, including Thomas, insinuate that inferior treatment of major diseases is an inevitable consequence of universal coverage. He writes that the British predicament is likely to grow worse, citing statistics that suggest that "socialized medicine has created a shortage of doctors, nurses and other clinical staff." Thomas interprets this as confirming a common argument against "socialized medicine," which is that it would decrease the monetary incentives for people to enter the medical profession.

His main argument this week, before he succumbs to his compulsion to equate universal health care with Nazism, is that "Free is nice, but best is better." He seems to be saying that Americans and Britons alike should prefer a system in which some people can get the best care that money can buy, regardless of whether individuals can afford it themselves. There's an implicit argument here that only money can guarantee adequate medicine, that the absence of a proper profit motive in the medical profession throws the competence of those who end up in the profession despite the lack of proper incentive in question. There's also a predictable contempt for Britons who express contentment with, or Americans who desire, "free" health care, which according to Thomas is actually an unfair burden on the successful minority of taxpayers.

It may be "statist" of me to ask, but why can't we or any other country make it a national priority to train a generation of doctors and nurses the way we strove, or at least made an appearance of striving, to train a generation of scientists following the launch of Sputnik and during the space race? What would be wrong with that? Would people like Cal Thomas question the competence of doctors who are not motivated by greed or ambition, but by a dedication to medicine and the public good? And wouldn't such a commitment almost automatically belie all the paranoia spread by the likes of Thomas about "socialized medicine" as a slippery slope to government-mandated euthanasia? At this very moment, I suspect it would make a major difference in the American debate if the President and the Democrats made such a commitment, regardless of the fate of the current reform plan. Complaints would inevitably follow. Some people will dislike what would look to them like "drafting" people into the medical profession. But if a nation has a right to call on its citizens to kill in its defense, it should be less objectionable to recruit Americans to save lives. I'd be very curious to learn why anyone would think otherwise.

17 August 2009

In Defense of Birthers?

While Mr. Right may be a "deather" (see below, though he hadn't heard of that tag before I told him about it today) it's unclear whether he's a "birther." At the very least he's a critical sympathizer with the movement. The criticism consists of his complaint that the leading spokesperson for the movement, Orly Taitz, is an inarticulate speaker, a fact he blames on English not being her first language. But he didn't consider it inappropriate for the birthers to inquire into the President's background. Liberals demanded all kinds of information (though not exactly the same kinds) about George W. Bush, he argued, though he denies that the birther movement is just a tit-for-tat tactic by disgruntled Republicans.

"Aren't you curious about his background?" he asked me. The answer is that I'm not curious because I'm not suspicious about it. But for Mr. Right speculation about Obama's background and possibly secret origins seems to follow from his perception that the President is somehow culturally alien. Once again he repeated the canard that Obama is a Marxist. Asked to tell when the President confirmed this, Mr. Right first pointed to the "nationalization" of the banks and the proposed "nationalization" of health care, then asked (and not for the first time) why I wasn't curious about the fact that all of Obama's advisers were Marxists. There followed a litany of the usual names: Alinsky, Ayers, etc. "And those are all the advisers he's ever had?" I asked, "Are those his only advisers?" He conceded that there might be at least one advisor who was only a "plain Socialist," but he felt that his point had been made.

"If you want to think that Socialism is on a par with capitalism, go right ahead," he said, "History proves otherwise and the majority of the American people know better." Actually, I hadn't espoused Socialism, except if you think I'd done so implicitly by refusing to condemn the President's policies. I'd be for a strong regulatory state that retained private ownership of industry so long as it remained consistent with the national interest, that in turn to be determined by pragmatic rather than ideological standards. But I refuse to rule out Socialism as an option the American people can choose, and I reject the insinuation that any sympathy for Socialism renders someone so un-American that their ancestry ought to be suspect. Socialism may not have been American in origin, but it ceased to be non-American or un-American the moment Americans started to believe in it. And if anything, it'd become even less anti-American if voters actually chose it as their path to the future. This seems very unlikely now after generations of indiscriminate anti-communist propaganda, but you never know. And no, you can't see my birth certificate. It's a matter of principle.

The "Death Panel" Section

Section 1233 of H.R. 3200 is the apparent source of alleged anxieties about the establishment of "death panels" along the lines described by Sarah Palin. Defenders of the Democratic reform plan have argued that this section does nothing more than extend insurance coverage to the consultations described therein. Mr. Right recently called my attention to the section because he saw the implication of death panels in it. After hearing him I decided that I finally ought to read the section. To my eyes, at least, the Democratic description of i"Advanced Care Planning" sounds more accurate than the alarmist Republican inference. Regrettably, the legislation is written in the inevitable and probably inescapable bureaucratese typical of big bills. It may be better for everyone if I just paste the whole section here and let readers figure it out for themselves.

(a) Medicare-
(1) IN GENERAL- Section 1861 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395x) is amended--
(A) in subsection (s)(2)--
(i) by striking `and' at the end of subparagraph (DD);
(ii) by adding `and' at the end of subparagraph (EE); and
(iii) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:
`(FF) advance care planning consultation (as defined in subsection (hhh)(1));'; and
(B) by adding at the end the following new subsection:
`Advance Care Planning Consultation
`(hhh)(1) Subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), the term `advance care planning consultation' means a consultation between the individual and a practitioner described in paragraph (2) regarding advance care planning, if, subject to paragraph (3), the individual involved has not had such a consultation within the last 5 years. Such consultation shall include the following:
`(A) An explanation by the practitioner of advance care planning, including key questions and considerations, important steps, and suggested people to talk to.
`(B) An explanation by the practitioner of advance directives, including living wills and durable powers of attorney, and their uses.
`(C) An explanation by the practitioner of the role and responsibilities of a health care proxy.
`(D) The provision by the practitioner of a list of national and State-specific resources to assist consumers and their families with advance care planning, including the national toll-free hotline, the advance care planning clearinghouses, and State legal service organizations (including those funded through the Older Americans Act of 1965).
`(E) An explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title.
`(F)(i) Subject to clause (ii), an explanation of orders regarding life sustaining treatment or similar orders, which shall include--
`(I) the reasons why the development of such an order is beneficial to the individual and the individual's family and the reasons why such an order should be updated periodically as the health of the individual changes;
`(II) the information needed for an individual or legal surrogate to make informed decisions regarding the completion of such an order; and
`(III) the identification of resources that an individual may use to determine the requirements of the State in which such individual resides so that the treatment wishes of that individual will be carried out if the individual is unable to communicate those wishes, including requirements regarding the designation of a surrogate decisionmaker (also known as a health care proxy).
`(ii) The Secretary shall limit the requirement for explanations under clause (i) to consultations furnished in a State--
`(I) in which all legal barriers have been addressed for enabling orders for life sustaining treatment to constitute a set of medical orders respected across all care settings; and
`(II) that has in effect a program for orders for life sustaining treatment described in clause (iii).
`(iii) A program for orders for life sustaining treatment for a States described in this clause is a program that--
`(I) ensures such orders are standardized and uniquely identifiable throughout the State;
`(II) distributes or makes accessible such orders to physicians and other health professionals that (acting within the scope of the professional's authority under State law) may sign orders for life sustaining treatment;
`(III) provides training for health care professionals across the continuum of care about the goals and use of orders for life sustaining treatment; and
`(IV) is guided by a coalition of stakeholders includes representatives from emergency medical services, emergency department physicians or nurses, state long-term care association, state medical association, state surveyors, agency responsible for senior services, state department of health, state hospital association, home health association, state bar association, and state hospice association.
`(2) A practitioner described in this paragraph is--
`(A) a physician (as defined in subsection (r)(1)); and
`(B) a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant who has the authority under State law to sign orders for life sustaining treatments.
`(3)(A) An initial preventive physical examination under subsection (WW), including any related discussion during such examination, shall not be considered an advance care planning consultation for purposes of applying the 5-year limitation under paragraph (1).
`(B) An advance care planning consultation with respect to an individual may be conducted more frequently than provided under paragraph (1) if there is a significant change in the health condition of the individual, including diagnosis of a chronic, progressive, life-limiting disease, a life-threatening or terminal diagnosis or life-threatening injury, or upon admission to a skilled nursing facility, a long-term care facility (as defined by the Secretary), or a hospice program.
`(4) A consultation under this subsection may include the formulation of an order regarding life sustaining treatment or a similar order.
`(5)(A) For purposes of this section, the term `order regarding life sustaining treatment' means, with respect to an individual, an actionable medical order relating to the treatment of that individual that--
`(i) is signed and dated by a physician (as defined in subsection (r)(1)) or another health care professional (as specified by the Secretary and who is acting within the scope of the professional's authority under State law in signing such an order, including a nurse practitioner or physician assistant) and is in a form that permits it to stay with the individual and be followed by health care professionals and providers across the continuum of care;
`(ii) effectively communicates the individual's preferences regarding life sustaining treatment, including an indication of the treatment and care desired by the individual;
`(iii) is uniquely identifiable and standardized within a given locality, region, or State (as identified by the Secretary); and
`(iv) may incorporate any advance directive (as defined in section 1866(f)(3)) if executed by the individual.
`(B) The level of treatment indicated under subparagraph (A)(ii) may range from an indication for full treatment to an indication to limit some or all or specified interventions. Such indicated levels of treatment may include indications respecting, among other items--
`(i) the intensity of medical intervention if the patient is pulse less, apneic, or has serious cardiac or pulmonary problems;
`(ii) the individual's desire regarding transfer to a hospital or remaining at the current care setting;
`(iii) the use of antibiotics; and
`(iv) the use of artificially administered nutrition and hydration.'.
(2) PAYMENT- Section 1848(j)(3) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(j)(3)) is amended by inserting `(2)(FF),' after `(2)(EE),'.
(3) FREQUENCY LIMITATION- Section 1862(a) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395y(a)) is amended--
(A) in paragraph (1)--
(i) in subparagraph (N), by striking `and' at the end;
(ii) in subparagraph (O) by striking the semicolon at the end and inserting `, and'; and
(iii) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:
`(P) in the case of advance care planning consultations (as defined in section 1861(hhh)(1)), which are performed more frequently than is covered under such section;'; and
(B) in paragraph (7), by striking `or (K)' and inserting `(K), or (P)'.
(4) EFFECTIVE DATE- The amendments made by this subsection shall apply to consultations furnished on or after January 1, 2011.
(b) Expansion of Physician Quality Reporting Initiative for End of Life Care-
(1) Physician'S QUALITY REPORTING INITIATIVE- Section 1848(k)(2) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-4(k)(2)) is amended by adding at the end the following new paragraphs:
`(A) IN GENERAL- For purposes of reporting data on quality measures for covered professional services furnished during 2011 and any subsequent year, to the extent that measures are available, the Secretary shall include quality measures on end of life care and advanced care planning that have been adopted or endorsed by a consensus-based organization, if appropriate. Such measures shall measure both the creation of and adherence to orders for life-sustaining treatment.
`(B) PROPOSED SET OF MEASURES- The Secretary shall publish in the Federal Register proposed quality measures on end of life care and advanced care planning that the Secretary determines are described in subparagraph (A) and would be appropriate for eligible professionals to use to submit data to the Secretary. The Secretary shall provide for a period of public comment on such set of measures before finalizing such proposed measures.'.
(c) Inclusion of Information in Medicare & You Handbook-
(A) IN GENERAL- Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall update the online version of the Medicare & You Handbook to include the following:
(i) An explanation of advance care planning and advance directives, including--
(I) living wills;
(II) durable power of attorney;
(III) orders of life-sustaining treatment; and
(IV) health care proxies.
(ii) A description of Federal and State resources available to assist individuals and their families with advance care planning and advance directives, including--
(I) available State legal service organizations to assist individuals with advance care planning, including those organizations that receive funding pursuant to the Older Americans Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 93001 et seq.);
(II) website links or addresses for State-specific advance directive forms; and
(III) any additional information, as determined by the Secretary.
(B) UPDATE OF PAPER AND SUBSEQUENT VERSIONS- The Secretary shall include the information described in subparagraph (A) in all paper and electronic versions of the Medicare & You Handbook that are published on or after the date that is 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act.

* * *
One of Mr. Right's general objections to the plan is that it allegedly takes decision making away from medical experts and places it in the hands of bureaucrats. In this particular case, the criticism seems unjustified, since the consultation is done with "practitioners" with explicitly delineated medical qualifications. Also, far from being a death panel, the consultation appears to allow the patient to set his preferences at either extreme, from do-not-resuscitate to heroic measures, or anywhere in between that he sees fit. The overall idea is to give people an incentive to use the counseling to establish their preferences early rather than have loved ones or doctors guess the preferences during a crisis. This strikes me as a case in which critics are reading their own anxieties about "bureaucrats" into innocuous measures. Mr. Right himself says that the issue isn't whether the government is going to kill anybody, but whether bureaucrats should have the power to allocate inevitably limited medical resources. Since no such power is granted to bureaucrats in this section, the source of Republican objections must lie elsewhere, either within this cumbersome bill or in their own heads. However, if someone sees something in here that I'm not noticing, I'd like to have it called to my attention.

Truck-Bombing in Russia

A Russian official takes a conspiratorial view of the suicide truck bombing that has killed at least 20 people in the nation's turbulent Ingushetia region. Muslim separatists are most likely to blame for the attack, but the Russian sees them laying with strange bedfellows. He accuses the U.S. and other western powers of supporting the separatists, the west's aversion to Muslim guerrillas and terrorists presumably being mitigated by their hatred of Russia. Using provocative language, at least as reported in English, the official accuses the west of scheming to stop Russia from regaining its "Soviet-era might."

That's a bombshell if the translation is accurate and the statement represents the Medvedev-Putin mentality. Russia, one would think, should have no reason to aspire to "Soviet-era might" because Russia and the Soviet Union are not synonymous. The USSR encompassed many nations that are now separate and independent, from Ukraine to Uzbekistan, so that, territorially speaking, Russia cannot have "Soviet-era might." If anything, these former Soviet republics should view references to Soviet-era might with more alarm than the west.

Furthermore, Russia often seems to act as if it's entitled to "Soviet-era might." Russians sometimes seem to think that their geographic size entitles them to a major voice in global affairs, a claim that Canada, perhaps surprisingly, never makes. Like other ambitious nations (including the United States), Russia has a lot of people who think that their culture has something to teach the rest of the world. That idea dates back well before the Bolshevik revolution, but has had little basis in genuine cultural appeal apart from novelists and classical composers.

No nation is entitled to be a superpower. At the same time, no nation has a right to prevent another from becoming a superpower. If the U.S. is backing separatists to make mischief for Russia, it ought to stop. In turn, Russians really should get over themselves a little. To the extent that there is a global marketplace for cultural ideas, it's been clear for a long time that the world hasn't been buying what Russia's been selling. Russia is entitled to no more influence in the world than they've earned fairly as a model for emulation. The fact that there are separatist movements signals that the country still has a long way to go.

14 August 2009

What's in a Name? The Kim for Mayor Campaign

Ron Kim is the public safety commissioner of Saratoga Springs and the Democratic candidate for this year's mayoral election. He is half-Korean in his ancestry. The Saratoga newspaper reports today that Kim has asked for the removal of online reader comments on articles about his campaign "that are culturally biased and racist." Most such comments, apparently, are riffs on his last name, the Korean equivalent of "Smith" which he shares with the infamous ruling family of North Korea. The comments allegedly equate candidate Kim with Kim Jong Il, to an extent that the candidate found people telling him that the newspaper was calling him a dictator.

There are many ways to look at this. For starters, wordplay itself isn't inherently racist. If someone named Bush runs for office anywhere, he or she should expect to be compared or equated with the notorious presidential clan, even if only for the sake of jokes. Candidate Kim is compared to Dear Leader Kim because of the name, not because both men have Korean ancestry. If the candidate's name were Ron Cho and someone still equated him with the dictator (rather than the comedienne or the Virginia Tech amoklaufer), he might have a case for claiming racism. On the other hand, a person of any other race named Kim (most likely a first name in such cases) might also get compared to the Korean tyrant.

Meanwhile, the newspaper notes that its reader-comment pages have the usual "Report Abuse" feature that would have allowed the candidate or his supporters to flag the offending posters or petition to have them removed from the page. Candidate Kim apparently only heard of the posts from other people and had not seen them himself. Newspaper representatives claim that he ought to have followed the procedure offered to protest the posts, or at least met with the publisher before taking his complaint to the media at large. It's nice that a complaint process exists, but it probably irked Kim to see that either no one had availed themselves of it on his behalf or editors had ignored any complaints. He should grow a slightly thicker skin. As I stated above, the offending comments were based on his name first, not his ethnicity. It might be regrettable that people are tempted to make jokes or insinuations based on common names, and the practice may well be holding back many otherwise inoffensive Hitlers, Mussolinis and Maos out there. But the candidate shouldn't make more of it than is actually there. I think we might all recognize genuine anti-Korean racism when we see it, and unless Kim can show examples of that kind, he should save his invective for his real political opponents.

13 August 2009

The American Bipolarchy: Power without Discipline

Listening to yet another round of Republican infighting raised anew the old questions of why one faction doesn't split from the other. I have my own answer to the question, which is that all sides covet the party organization's fundraising apparatus. But I suddenly found the old question begging a new one: why is it up to disaffected factions to leave the party or not?

The more I think about the American Bipolarchy, the more convinced I become that it is a structural rather than a conspiratorial phenomenon, the result of a sequence of decisions of policies, few of which were designed consciously to exclude rival parties. I wonder whether invoking the Bipolarchy creates a deceptive image of two powerful parties on the model of the monopoly parties of one-party states. The fact is, the Democratic and Republican parties lack a particular power that is characteristic of tyrannical parties elsewhere. When we think of the history of communist parties, for instance, we likely think of a succession of purges. These purges would not only eliminate people from positions of power within the parties, but often would expel them from the parties entirely, which in one-party states was tantamount to disfranchisement. Elderly purge victims like Vyacheslav Molotov might spend the rest of their long lives begging to be reinstated into the ruling party. Nothing like this happens in the dominant American parties.

Nobody gets thrown out of the Republican party for failing to toe the current ideological line, no matter how many people call for or dare dissidents to go elsewhere. All the groups can call each other "RINOs" or otherwise disparage each other's partisan credentials, but no one has the power to state as fact that someone else is no longer a Republican. On one hand, this looks like a matter of common sense; if one faction purged another, the losers would have nothing else to do but join the other major party or form a new party, and it makes no sense to force people to vote against you in the general election. On the other hand, it may have been a historical accident that revealed the genius of this reticence, since recent history, at least, has shown that dissidents, if not pushed out or purged, will not leave. This wasn't always the case a century ago. The more local you got, especially, primaries very often resulted in independent tickets as recently as 100 years ago. In my research on the city of Troy I found that the 1905 mayoral election was a four-way contest, not counting smaller parties like socialists or prohibitionists, because independents had split from both the Democratic and Republican parties. But this tendency seems to have become less pronounced as the 20th century went on. Perhaps there was an ultimate concession that splintering was always futile, but perhaps something else was happening that made dissidents less likely to bolt. What that might have been may be a key to the consolidation of the Bipolarchy, and that makes it a subject for further research.

Idiot-Proofing the Healthcare Debate

A constructive suggestion by a Republican! Credit is due to Kathleen Parker, who seems like one of the few reasonable ones left. Her latest column addresses the fear inspired by the end-of-life counseling provision in the Democratic proposal. While she's literate enough to understand what it actually means, which is that such counseling will now be covered by insurance, she concedes that many people are bound to see that as the first step on a slippery slope that might lead to the "death panels" of Sarah Palin's rotten imagination. Parker offers an amendment which she hopes would calm most fears. "All that's needed is specific language saying that these end-of-life consultations are not mandatory -- either for physicians or patients -- and that there would be no penalty, either in coverage or compensation, for declining to participate," she writes. I see no reason for Democrats not to take up her suggestion. If they did this, Republicans and allied reactionaries would have even less excuse for their paranoid raving than they have now. Their continued opposition could then be attributed, as it should have been all along, not to fear but to hate.

12 August 2009

Another Note on Conservatism

It was dispiriting to discover on page 159 of Patrick Allitt's The Conservatives that the first self-conscious, self-identified "conservative" movement in the U.S. only emerged in the 1950s. If that was so, what was the point of the first 158 pages? Actually, the point was to point out the precursors to the full-blown conservative movement, and in turn to show what the movement took from past thinkers, and what it changed. As a whole, Allitt has reinforced my own sense that modern conservatism had deviated from what might be called the conservative tradition in this country and in Western civ in general. There's always been an aversion to so-called "forced" equality, but older versions of conservatism at least asserted that inequality was necessary and even beneficial to society as a whole. They believed that leadership and wisdom were qualities that required leisure to learn, so that societies had to have aristocracies in order to have proper leadership. With that came a notion that those with privilege had a responsibility toward society as a whole, not just to lead it but to set good examples for it. With the American Revolution and the idea of a "natural aristocracy" came the idea that excessive concentrations of wealth were dangerous to a republic. This attitude persisted at least through the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and Allitt points out that many founding fathers of modern-day conservatism still regarded excessive entrepreneurealism with suspicion. In part this was because some still upheld farm life as the human ideal, but there was also a strong feeling that accumulating wealth was not an end in itself. Since the middle of the last century, this sensibility has been nearly drowned out by a rabid entrepreneurial individualism that goes at least as far back as William Graham Sumner and metastasized under the sensational influence of Ayn Rand. Now, it seems, the social responsibility of wealth extends, as far as too many conservatives are concerned, only to giving to charity, while there's little sense left of obligation toward the state. American conservatism is distinguished, in its decadent modern form, by a distrust of the state, apart from its capacity as a police force to control the masses, that is opposite from the conservative traditions of other lands.

Conservatism isn't something that evolves inexorably. It was true that the "liberalism" of the 19th century became the "conservatism" of the 20th century, but there's no sign yet of a similar turnover from the 20th to the 21st. Americans who want to preserve the New Deal social order, for instance, are not regarded as "conservatives," but remain "liberals" in the public mind. This is largely because conservatives, having refused with Palestinian stubbornness to concede the permanence of FDR's reforms, have kept politics on settings dating back to the 1930s. At some point, however, it must make more sense to call their agenda "radical" rather than conservative, since they want to dig at roots of our social order that reach down nearly a century into the past. Distinguishing the extreme individualism of modern Republian conservatism from the older tradition of social cohesion might clarify matters, and there are some American Conservatives trying to do this. But as long as Republicans see advantages in fearmongering and keeping people scared of reform, they'll still look like conservatives to most people, however unfair that might be to more honorable people.

11 August 2009

The Philosophy of Deatherism

While some so-called deathers may believe that there are explicit provisions in the Democratic health care-reform proposals that mandate compulsory euthanasia, much of the opposition seems to be grounded in assumptions or suspicions about how "rationed" health care run by liberal Democrats might work. Those suspicions in turn are based on the belief that liberals practice a "culture of death" characterized by their support for women's reproductive sovereignty and the belief of some in a right to die at a time of one's choosing, with assistance if necessary.

Cal Thomas might be described as a philosophical deather. His latest column on the subject shows plainly enough that he doesn't see his antagonists as the Democratic party but as the "culture of death."

The debate — OK, the shouting match — we are having over “health-care reform” is about many things, including cost, who gets help and who does not and who, or what, gets to make that determination. Underlying it all is a larger question: Is human life something special? Is it to be valued more highly than, say, plants and pets? When someone is in a “persistent vegetative state” do we mean to say that person is equal in value to a carrot?

This is a one-sided debate, since Democrats and other supporters of health care reform aren't debating these topics at all. If anything, they take affirmative answers to all of the above for granted, since such regard for human life explains why they want to provide health care for everybody. Somehow, Thomas doesn't get this. To him, the advocates of universal health care are the enemies of life.

It is between these two distinctly different worldview goalposts that the battle is taking place. Few from the “endowed rights” side [i.e. those who think rights come from God] are saying that a100-year-old with an inoperable brain tumor should be given extraordinary and expensive care to keep the heart pumping, even after brain waves have gone flat. But there is a big difference between “letting go” and “snuffing out.” The unnatural progression for many on the secular left is to see such a person as a “burden.”

What is Thomas's proof of this assertion?

The secular left claims we are evolutionary accidents who managed to crawl out of the slime and by “natural selection” stand erect and over millions of years outsmart our ancestors, the apes. If that is your belief, then you probably think health care should be rationed. Why spend lots of money to improve — or save — the life of someone who evolved from slime and has no special significance other than the “accident” of becoming human?

Notice that this is a proof based entirely upon his own assumptions about how the "secular left" thinks. It is unsupported by even one quote from any identifiable "secular leftist" who has ever made such suggestions, unless, as Thomas probably does, you presume that anyone who advocates universal health care really means, or desires, "rationing." Thomas says such an attitude results when people stop regarding human beings as "special," but I'd think universal health care is based on a notion that everyone is special, only apparently not in the way Thomas thinks. "Secular leftists" can't regard people as "special," it seems, which may come as a cruel surprise to many bereaved secular leftists over the years.

Again, Thomas has nothing to say about any of the existing proposals, but bases his opposition to them on a presumption about the evil motives of their supporters. Since that presumption has no basis in reality, the columnists' intervention in the health care debate is worse than worthless. The problem is that many of the opponents of health care reform or universal health care think the same way. No tweaking of any proposal will mollify them, since any advance for "rationing" can only mean unleashing Dr. Kevorkian from his hellish lair, perhaps in the uniform of the surgeon general leading an army of killer nurses of the kind that haunted the waking dreams of the lunatic who used to hang out in downtown Troy. The fears of the deathers should be taken just as seriously as that old man's ravings, but since they're part of the official opposition, they're apparently entitled to more attention than they actually deserve.

10 August 2009

Social Studies Through Films: HANDS OVER THE CITY (1963)

No, I didn't post this here by mistake. I've put a movie review here instead of on Mondo 70 because I thought that Francesco Rosi's 1963 movie has something meaningful to say about the ties between partisanship and political corruption. It's a fine film in its own right, though it may seem dry by "wild world of cinema" standards. Rod Steiger stars, but his voice is dubbed into Italian by another actor. His performance ends up as a kind of pantomime, but he clearly understands the character and gives his all, short of his voice. His presence gives the film a kind of resonance for people who remember Steiger from On the Waterfront and similar hard-hitting urban dramas.

Steiger plays Edoardo Nottola, a developer who has a seat on the Naples city council. He's got a big apartment complex project in the works and is knocking down one neighborhood to build another, at profit to himself. The film opens with a spectacular sequence in which Nottola's pile-drivers accidentally bring down a rickety building. This is what I call Italian neorealism on steroids. If Rosi wants to show a building falling down, he knocks down a real, full-sized building.

The collapse, which results in fatalities and injuries, becomes a political scandal, with critics assuming that Nottola is cutting corners around Neapolitian building codes. But as a politician, he has a powerful political party behind him. As a landlord and employer, he has the power to deliver votes and make his party obliged to him. In return, the party defends him, accusing critics of trying to politicize the issue.

Nevertheless, an investigation takes place, despite partisan obstruction, even while Nottola's colleagues consider throwing him under the bus. In the end, however, the developer prevails, arguing on his own behalf that his political enemies are only going after him for propaganda purposes, without any real regard for the people whose hovels he promises to replace with modern apartments.

Nottola's story illustrates a point I've made here about the way partisanship confers immunity on politicians and licenses them to transgress as far as they dare. You can see this immunity principle at work in debates over whether to investigate members of the Bush administration for their roles in the torture of alleged terrorists. Against the idea of prosecution it is argued that bringing alleged criminals to account would be "criminalizing politics." When people who happen to belong to one party accuse others who happen to be in another party of criminal conduct, partisanship encourages us to presume that the accusers are acting chiefly from partisan motives, not from sincere concern for justice. At least that's how partisans usually react when someone from their own party is accused.

The interesting, eye-opening aspect of Hands Over the City is that this familiar scenario plays out in a setting with a genuine multiparty system. Naples in 1963 was not a "Bipolarchy." Though Rosi (or the writer of the English subtitles) is coy about identifying the parties by name, there's clearly a "left," a "right" and a "center." Before watching the film, I had assumed that a bipolarchic system like the U.S. was the most likely breeding ground for partisan immunity. Hands Over the City suggests that any party system, with any number of parties, can foster similar corruption. All it takes is partisanship so pervasive that people no longer believe in the existence of an objective space free from partisan interest, where there might be right or wrong, crime or justice, independent of how parties might suffer or benefit from events. It helps, too, to have cynical, self-interested characters like Nottola who latch onto the political system and leech off of it, fully aware of the immunity it can confer on him.

The moral I take from Hands Over the City is that wherever there are parties, there is the danger of a culture of partisan immunity prevailing, and that the danger doesn't seem to decrease as you add more parties. The only real solution may be to achieve a genuine no-party (as opposed to one-party) system in which no wrongdoer can claim sanctuary in the privileged position of an official opposition, and no one will protect a wrongdoer from justice because he's part of one's particular team. You might argue that we don't need to dismantle parties, we only need to elect people of sound moral character. But it was James "Father of the Constitution" Madison who said that if men were angels we could do without a lot of safeguards we end up finding quite necessary. It may be that even more safeguards are needed than Madison anticipated.

09 August 2009

Partisanship: An Entitlement to Lie?

Former governor Palin calls the Democratic healthcare reform plan "evil" and claims that, under its provisions, the government would claim the prerogative to determine whether her handicapped child would be allowed to live. This is a variation on the "deather" theme that reactionary Republicans have been playing all summer. And no one dares to call them liars to their faces. No one makes the call that their claims aren't worth hearing. Why? Because they are the opposition, and liberal democracy gives dissent the benefit of the doubt. Unlike other notorious nations, we effectively grant the opposition party (though only the "official" opposition party) an entitlement to appear on television whenever they please to make whatever assertions they please. No extreme of outlandishness, no obvious lie, disqualifies them from this entitlement. Thus the deathers and thus the birthers. The problem with this situation is twofold. First, it basically entitles the official opposition to lie if they have nothing more substantive to say. Second, the entitlement, as I said, really only extends to the official opposition. There are dissidents against the Democratic plan who want a greater government role in providing health care and insurance. They are not as often heard as the hysterics who happen to have the Bipolarchy seal of approval that identifies them as the legitimate opposition. If anything, the rotating monopoly on dissent only emboldens the current opposition party to take more irresponsible positions, so long as they aren't answerable to any third group that might claim that they are equally legitimate in opposition to both major parties. But any claim about the Bipolarchy, I'm obliged to admit, begs a question. If the Republican party can do or say nothing in opposition to discredit it permanently among the electorate, is that because the system is rigged to protect both major parties, or because the electorate, bipolar in its own right, is incapable of thinking outside the Bipolarchy box? The answer might determine whether political reform in this country is actually possible.

06 August 2009

The Voice of the South? "Errrr, errrrr..."

Senator Voinovich of Ohio, a Republican, worries that the GOP has grown too Southern. He raised eyebrows a week ago when he told the Columbus Dispatch: "It's the Southerners. They get on TV and go 'errr, errrrr.' People hear them and say, 'These people, they're Southerners. The party's being taken over by Southerners.'"

Commenting on Voinovich's remark, conservative-leaning columnist Kathleen Parker concedes that "Southern Republicans, it seems, have seceded from sanity." The proof of this is the large percentage of Southerners who question the President's place of birth and his eligibility to serve in office. The source of that percentage is the same Daily Kos poll that I tend to mistrust, but the Republicans have been turning into a Southern party long before that controversy arose. It may have been an inevitable outcome as soon as Richard Nixon adopted the "Southern Strategy" for the 1968 election. There are some Republicans (Mr. Right, for one) who still deny the existence of the Southern Strategy. There are others who try a more sophisticated argument, claiming that Republicans won southern votes by asserting law-and-order principles that had nothing, the apologists allege, to do with race. However it happened, the South, once "solid" for Democrats, followed the lead of the likes of Strom Thurmond into the Party of Lincoln, to the point where they seem to be driving others out.

As a critic of the American Bipolarchy, I see no reason why there can't be both a conservative party of some kind and a Southern party. The Founders expected politics to take the form of clashing regional interests, so the rise of a party dedicated to representing the interests of a particular region would, arguably, be less objectionable to them than the rise of the allegedly ideological parties that form the present-day Bipolarchy. It might also be a clarifying moment for self-styled conservatives to distinguish their fundamental principles and priorities from the prejudices of the old Confederacy. A conservative party purged of Southernism (though not closed to appropriately principled Southerners) might be less fanatical about faith, for instance. Southerners, from what I can tell, imagine themselves as the bearers of authentic American conservatism. The appearance of a conservative movement that repudiates the most obnoxious aspects of Southern heritage might make them rethink their assumptions.

But more likely the conservative media will backlash on poor old Voinovich and accuse him of prejudice against a geographical region. That "errr, errrrr" business may strike some as equivalent to white folks attempting to imitate the Ebonics of their own imagination. To be honest, when I attempt a Southern dialect, those aren't exactly the first syllables out of my mouth. In any event, neither a split nor a purge is likely, because both Southerners and those who resent their influence still want access to the Republican fund-raising machine. Each group most likely assumes that the Republican party belongs to them, but so long as people can't imagine alternatives to the two major parties, it's indisputably true that both these groups belong to the Republican party.

Liberal Anger on the Rise?

An ugly tone came into reports this week of Republican mass heckling at "town hall" meetings held by Democratic congressmen to pitch their healthcare-reform plans, a phenomenon described more objectively here. There was a note of conspiracy-theory in the charge that the hecklers did not act spontaneously, but were operating according to a Republican script of talking points. Beyond that, there was an unseemly air of outrage over the fact that anyone dared question the administration's proposals. Don't get me wrong; I'm for big-time reform and I disagree with GOP obstructionism. But when you watch MSNBC especially you get the impression that the hosts think that no one has a right to heckle or "shout down" Democrats. This is hypocrisy coming from people who mocked George W. Bush whenever he chickened out of addressing foreign legislatures where heckling was likely. It's hypocrisy from the left in general, the people who invented the tactic of shouting people down with heckling slogans.

But I sense more then hypocrisy at work here. I sense an angry liberal backlash building against conservative anger. I get a vibe from ostensibly liberal commentators and from people around me that their patience with conservatives is at or near an end. I don't want to overstate the implications of this feeling. Most liberals remain liberals at heart, but I wonder whether anger at conservatives, whether over the healthcare heckling or the admittedly despicable birther movement, might make some liberals less so when it comes to expressing their anger. There'd be nothing wrong with more heated rhetoric; I'd rather have more people say what they really mean, since that might have unexpectedly constructive results. But if it gets to a point where people start thinking that the opposition has no right to oppose, then we'll become no better than the countries we like to chide for how they treat dissenters. There can never be a government policy so perfect that no one could have reason to say it was wrong, in practice or on principle.

The responsibility of democracy is to make sure that a loud minority doesn't get mistaken for a majority opinion. The only way to prove that one side is the majority is through numbers. Are there Republicans heckling Democrats? Then lets see how many Democrats or others can heckle Republicans. How hard is it to find a GOP congressman and ask why he or she supports a system of privileged health care access, or why they believe the rich have more right to life than the rest of us? Instead of wishing that Republicans would shut up, their opponents should try to drown them out. The whining of some commentators betrays a fear that their side can't match the fervor of the opposition. Instead of questioning the legitimacy of dissenters, they should be stirring up an army of assenters. If they can't do that, then their side deserves to lose -- and if you don't like that, then your problem is with the American people as well as the Republican party.

05 August 2009

Who Cares About the Birthers

Eugene Robinson has published an opinion column in which he asks whether the "birther" phenomenon is "an orchestrated campaign to somehow delegitimize Obama's presidency," before advising readers not to take it seriously, since "taking it seriously would be like arguing about the color of unicorns." My advice to Robinson is "physician, heal thyself." It'd be a lot easier to ignore the birthers if pro-Democratic reporters wouldn't keep dragging them out from under rocks. For every Lou Dobbs who tries to have it both ways by reporting on the controversy itself while seemingly stoking it, there are, it sometimes seems, twice as many MSNBC commentators talking about how terrible Dobbs is. Maybe I just watch that station too often, but doing so has given me the suspicious feeling that some "liberal media" elements are trying to inflate the birthers beyond their actual significance in a conscious effort to discredit the Republican party by association with the lunatic fringe. Robinson, himself a familiar face on MSNBC, cites a survey from a dubious source (Daily Kos, fanatically pro-Democrat) that purports to prove that as many as 58% of surveyed Republicans have doubts or outright disbelieve that the President of the United States is constitutionally eligible for his job. This, Robinson writes, "is a fascinating indicator of just how far the Republican Party has drifted from the mainstream." I really, really doubt that those numbers reflect the truth. The Republicans are bad enough without making most of them look even worse than they are. Worse yet, as I've said before, continuing to publicize the birthers could tempt still more credulous yahoos into believing the buncombe. The best way to deal with the fringe phenomenon of the birthers is to treat it like most other fringe phenomena of political life; ignore them and they'll go away, literally, from your pages, your websites and airwaves, until their beliefs are taken no more seriously than those of the John Birch Society. They still exist, you know, but once people stopped worrying about them about forty years ago, they stopped being something to worry about. Let the birthers find their level in the same fashion.

04 August 2009

Amoklauf in Pennsylvania (updated)

This time it was an aerobics class, a room with up to 40 women in it. Three are dead, as is the gunman, and more are wounded, so the death toll may rise. The site and choice of targets are suggestive, but it is far too soon to speculate meaningfully about the man's motive, except that he had an obvious compulsion to take out as many women as he could before the time came, apparently, to end his own life. Yet another brave American lived out his fatal fantasy of gunplay, and yet more will contribute their usual asinine post-mortems to the effect that someone armed could have defended herself and the other women. I'm sure, though, that on some level the gunman thought he was acting in self-defense, too -- maybe even when he shot himself.

Our free states were certainly more secure by virtue of this guy having a gun, weren't they?

Update: the killer has been identified as the alleged author of a web diary that reveals nine months of contemplation and planning for the attack, including a visit to the fitness center earlier this year that ended when he "chickened out." The diary seems to expose the shooter as an extreme social misfit who blamed women in general for his inability to connect with any of them. Guns presumably gave him the power to punish women for denying him his due. It occurs to me that that a presumed right to punish may be inextricably linked with the right to self-defense most gun enthusiasts claim, that it might not suffice for many of them simply to escape an attacker unless they can also punish the enemy for the affront on one's personal space. This may just be another way of saying that the gun owner provisionally appoints himself judge, jury and executioner under the self-designated emergency conditions of self-defense. What worries people about widespread gun ownership is the constant threat that someone will decide for reasons of his own that others have wronged him and have to be punished. Guns themselves can never be purely defensive instruments, so self-defense may not justify gun ownership as obviously as gun owners claim. Incidents like last night's amoklauf are the opposite side of the same coin.

A "Deather" Writes

"Deathers" is a term I first heard on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC program last week. A play on the term "birthers," it identifies those extremist opponents of the President's health-care reform plans who believe, or at least claim, that "Obamacare" will result, unintentionally or not, in the mass demise of old people who will lose out on health care. Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist, is a sort of philosophical deather. He writes from the U.K. this week, where he's appalled to learn about a case in which the House of Lords ruled in favor of a multiple sclerosis patient who wants to end her life at a Swiss "euthanasia clinic." The Lords have required the country's Director of Public Prosecutions to "spell out exactly when the government will act if someone helps a friend take their own life abroad." The decision, I infer from Thomas's commentary, limits the Director's power to prosecute the patient's husband, for instance, if he accompanies her to the clinic.

"One doesn't have to be a futurist or a prophet to see where this is headed," Thomas writes, "Having removed the right to life from the unborn in the UK and the United States, it is only a matter of conditioning before the at first 'voluntary' and ultimately involuntary snuffing out of life at its other end will be tolerated and, indeed, promoted as the state seeks new ways to cut expenses."

I thought liberals were the ones who believed in the "slippery slope," but that just goes to show again that "liberal" and "conservative" are nearly useless labels for describing the factions involved in our national debates. Thomas clearly fears (and I'll give him credit for sincerely fearing) a slippery slope from the "right to die" to government-mandated euthanasia, which some (and perhaps Thomas himself) see as a long-term consequence of "rationed" health care. But he's also got to get a dig in at the reproductive rights movement.

"As suicide, like abortion, becomes a 'choice,' it will be done for reasons that go beyond the reason through which it is ushered in: the supposed 'intolerable pain and suffering' and 'lack of hope' of recovery," he continues, "Abortion on demand was conceived through the bogus rape of an unmarried woman and now it can be had for any reason, or no reason."

What worries Thomas is the possibility that the decision to die might not be made by the actual sick person. "Should that decision be left in the hands of others whose motives may be suspect, or even to our own hands when our perspective may be clouded by drugs or pressures from family members trying to unload their 'burden' and get to the estate before the money is spent?" he asks -- as if no family had ever taken such steps for greedy reasons before, say, the advent of Dr. Kervorkian.

"If granny has willed you her nest egg, why not convince her and the doctor to slip her a pill and end her 'suffering?'" Thomas theorizes, "Wouldn't she 'want it that way' so as not to be a 'burden' to her family?" This, of course, is a monstrous insult to anyone who has actually had to deal with a loved one who wanted to die more quickly, and the insult is only made worse by the timing of Thomas's column, which is obviously meant to draw analogies between greedy, selfish relatives and an insensitive state dedicated to "rationing."

Thomas is a Christian conservative, though on many issues he's backed away from old-school Christian activism on the Moral Majority model. This issue, however, is an old fashioned crusade for the columnist. "The one who gave us life has, or ought to have, sole discretion as to when it ends," he thunders, "But if increasing numbers of us think 'the one' refers to a character in 'The Matrix' [way to stay hip, Cal!] and that we are just evolutionary accidents, then the conclusion of it all is euthanasia for the elderly, the 'defective,' the inconvenient and the unwanted. It's coming sooner than you think to a senior center near you, especially if Obamacare becomes law."

In their hysteria about euthanasia, some conservatives lose track of the script for their ongoing jihad against liberals. The last time I looked, liberals were supposed to be "bleeding hearts," compassionate to a fault when it comes to those conservatives consider unworthy of compassion, too willing to burden the self-reliant with the costs of helping the dependent. If "Obamacare" is a liberal scheme, then shouldn't conservatives assume that it will be the able-bodied who'll suffer as "socialized medicine" perpetuates the no-longer productive lives of the infirm? Might the all-powerful state not seek out those who pose the greatest risk through reckless behavior of using up hospital resources that ought to go to the weakest and most helpless? Wouldn't liberals rather kill the young to save the old the way they supposedly rob the rich to give to the poor? Does that argument sound absurd to conservative readers? Well, don't knock it until you try it. For all I know, if you started making that case on the radio or online, you could actually kill health-care reform.