29 September 2009

The "Citizens Rule Book"

Probably the most interesting publication I picked up at the "Great Awakening" last weekend was a dense little pamphlet called "Citizens Rule Book: A Palladium of Liberty." It's an almost anonymous document, with one Webster Adams only taking credit on the inside cover for editorial work. The pamphlet is printed in Phoenix by Whitten Publications, and for all I know it's that company's sole product. They sell it in bulk for groups to distribute on occasions like the "Awakening." Adams presents his product as a handbook for jurors, and it proves to be a primer in the principles of jury nullification. The editor takes the once-popular position that jurors in trials have the power and right to rule not only on the facts but on the law. In other words, they can acquit a defendant because the facts prove him not guilty, or because his actions aren't criminal under jurors' understanding of the law in question, or because they deem the law itself to be unconstitutional.

"YOU ARE ABOVE THE LAW," Adams asserts, "As a JUROR in a trial setting, when it comes to your individual vote of innocent or guilty, you truly are answerable only to GOD ALMIGHTY." That personage figures more in Adams's constitutional exegesis than he does in the original document itself. Right on page one, we learn that "RIGHTS COME FROM GOD, NOT THE STATE," with a single quote from John Adams (most likely no relation to the editor) to prove the point. God's law is a kind of shadow constitution that superimposes itself on our founding law and overrides it whenever discrepancies emerge. The Ten Commandments in particular represent "GOD'S GOVERNMENT OVER MAN!" through which he "commands us for our own good to give up wrongs and not rights!" According to the editor, "HIS system always results in LIBERTY and FREEDOM!" which will be news to all those in centuries past who endured divinely mandated tyranny.

Let's not jump to conclusions or blame Christianity alone for some of the more eccentric political science in this pamphlet. Adams seems capable of generating paradoxes quite well on his own without divine inspiration. For instance:

The base of power was to remain in WE THE PEOPLE but unfortunately it was lost to those leaders acting in the name of government, such as politicians, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, etc. As a result America began to function like a democracy instead of a REPUBLIC. A democracy is dangerous because it is a one-vote system as opposed to a Republic, which is a three-vote system: Three votes to check tyranny, not just one. American citizens have not been informed of their other two votes.

You read that right: the government becomes more like a democracy once WE THE PEOPLE give up our power. But what are those other two tyranny-preventing votes? Vote number two belongs to grand jurors; their decision on whether or not a case should go to trial is a potential check on government power. The third vote belongs to trial jurors. In court, Adams claims, "each JUROR has MORE POWER than the President, all of Congress, and all of the judges combined!" That's because there's no check that Adams can see on jurors' power to interpret the law. "[N]o JUROR can ever be punished for voting 'Not Guilty!'" he elaborates, "Any JUROR can, with impunity, choose to disregard the instructions of any judge or attorney in rendering his vote....Thus, those acting in the name of government must come before the common man to get permission to enforce a law."

The "Citizens Rule Book" is potentially useful for any American because it includes the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with all the amendments. Readers might do without Adams's editorial introduction to these documents, especially his statement that "there is a great deal of suspicion" as to whether any of the amendments from the Thirteenth forward are legitimately ratified. Adams himself provides a warning on the back cover: "THIS DOCUMENT MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO BAD LAWS." Indeed it might, and that might even apply to the bad laws of the Bible" should this pamphlet fall into unintended hands.

28 September 2009

The Working Families Party: Pawn of the Bipolarchy?

The Working Families Party aspires to be an independent force in New York State politics. Its first priority was to gain a line on the state ballot. The shortcut to this goal is cross-endorsement. The party endorses Democratic candidates in statewide elections, exhorting progressives to vote for those candidates on its line rather than the Democratic line. The candidate still gets the votes, and every vote so cast counts toward earning Working Families a line. That strategy has worked, but in at least one part of the state the WFP has found their hard-won electoral property difficult to maintain.

In Rensselaer County the WFP has found itself vulnerable to primary challenges from puppets of the major parties. Dependable people register as Working Families members in order to vote in the primaries. In some cases candidates associated with the Republican party have won the Working Families line. That doesn't mean that WFP goes conservative, but it means that there'll be a rival for the "progressive" vote in close elections when genuine WFP people might prefer to support the Democratic candidate. This year, however, Democrats appear to have taken steps to counter Republican influence, and may have stepped over the line. An investigation is now under way of alleged fraud in the casting of absentee ballots. Votes were cast in the names of people who have since stepped forward to deny signing forms authorizing absentee ballots. The physical evidence shows clear discrepancies between signatures on the absentee forms and the supposed voters' actual signatures. The story is already getting attention outside Rensselaer County, since vote fraud is Republicans' favorite story to tell against Democrats.

Arguably, Working Families has done this to itself by failing to cultivate its voter and candidate base in Rensselaer County. But their perceived need for a ballot line created the vulnerability in the first place. In a better system, an independent political party should be able to establish its viability without making itself a target for hostile takeover in every subsequent election. Maybe the ballot line isn't the proof of viability that some take it to be. If the party were really viable, it shouldn't get taken over so easily; there would be dedicated partisans in every district with enough consciousness of their party's distinct agenda to beat back any infiltrators. In any event, the farce in Rensselaer County shows that ballot access alone isn't the answer to the problem of the two-party system. It may even show that ballot access is a distraction from the deeper structural handicaps facing independent parties, since in this case the WFP's successful claim on a ballot line has only played into other partisans' hands.

26 September 2009

Barely Awake?

I spent about an hour visiting the "Great Awakening" at Riverfront Park in Troy this afternoon. The event as a whole was scheduled for more than eight hours, but I haven't been feeling so hot this week and there were other things I wanted to do. It was still fairly early when I arrived, and despite very nice early autumn weather, attendance was not so good. The crowd could be measured in the dozens. More might have come later, but at least one woman I spoke with was disappointed by the turnout she had seen so far. She'd come all the way from Utica because, from what I could tell, a local radio host had promoted the event. She assumed that the publicity would be more extensive here and the small crowd shocked her, especially considering the trouble the organizers had taken. The park's bandshell had been wired for a multimedia display that either complemented or supplemented the live speakers or singers. While I was there a woman spoke about the environmental threat posed by jet trails occluding the sun. After a set by a singer-songwriter, a video presentation attempted to explain the surge in mass killings since the 1960s by blaming psychologists and the pharmaceutical industry. These parties colluded in the doping up of our kids, so no wonder some of them turned out crazy. This was the health and environment part of the program. Meatier topics would be dealt with later but I was feeling restless. But I didn't leave before picking up plenty of free literature from the numerous groups who set up booths. Primary Challenge was there, as were the Oathkeepers, as well as a group of "9/12" Glenn Beck fans. The Constitution Party had a stall, as did the John Birch Society. I was curious enough to give up a dollar for a DVD presentation by the Birch president, which I'll review in a later post. There were gun-rights activists promoting an April 2010 march on Washington. For all that we may think of such people as right-wingers, the guy I spoke to expressed sympathy for the anarchists taking government heat around Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit. He'd heard that the cops, Secret Service etc were hitting the demonstrators with advanced microwave weapons that supposedly were not allowed to be used against insurgents in Iraq. Overall, it didn't seem like a loony gathering, and there was no truther literature in evidence. Maybe they did get purged after all. The most typical tea party type, perhaps, was a grumpy looking old man who carried a sign saying: "Fired up? Impeach Obama! MMM MMM MMM" the significance of those last syllables eludes me. Another fellow wore a T-shirt that read "Obama Scares Me" with a hammer and sickle to illustrate what really scared him. Perhaps typically, someone showed up in a version of 18th century dress, looking rather Ben Franklin-like. He apparently served as a town crier to start the proceedings. Along with the political booths there were food vendors, someone offering massages, and a Bouncy-Bounce for the kiddies. Just to the south was the weekly Farmer's Market, close enough so that the two events might have bled into one another to mutual benefit.

I didn't consider it my business to engage anyone in debate at the Awakening. I let people make their pitches and collected their literature, and in future posts over the coming week I'll describe my collection in more critical detail. In the meantime, I'll be interested in seeing how (or if) the rest of the local media reported the event.

24 September 2009

Speaking of Incivility

Just to put the supposed incivility of town-hall meetings and presidential addresses to Congress in relative context, there's going to be a G-20 summit this weekend, and that means a "Black Bloc" of self-styled anarchists has to put in an appearance to make a racket and break stuff. The performance took place today outside Pittsburgh, and if you follow the link you'll see that the demonstrators are quite photogenic in their uniform anonymity. If these guys stormed somebody's health care chat, all the whining about death panels would almost look quaint. But in the defense of this element, they're not exactly in a business where civility is a requirement. They aspire to embody everyone else's outrage at the regime of global capitalism, and they consider vandalism a healthy alternative to other acts of destruction. Naturally they complain about being arrested or being barred from demonstrating at all sometimes, but to an extent they're indulged in their marginality. Let's go back to the counterexample: if people done up like that did storm a town hall meeting in the name of conservatism or the Republican party, nationwide hysteria would result. It would be the same if Democrats ever had an urge to act that way. But when it comes to anarchists, America has come a long way in the century or so since the assassination of President McKinley made them the Commies or terrorists of their time. People considered them a genuine threat to national order because, well, one of them had killed the President of the United States. All the Red Scare tactics of decades to come were employed against anarchists. It all seems ludicrous now, and I doubt anyone apart from the local police feels threatened by the black-clad hooligans romping about near the latest power summit. There were probably more of them on the ground today than comprise the typical unregulated militia unit, but when was the last time you saw a TV commentator expound on the anarchist menace? Maybe back in 1999 when the "Battle of Seattle" seemed to portend some larger social movement. But now? Nobody takes seriously the prospect of a mass anarchist movement. There's no perception that the occasional appearance of a small mob is the tip of an anarchist iceberg floating toward the ocean liner of capitalism. Would that be because no one believes that the demonstrators represent anyone beside themselves, or because nearly no one has a clue about what the demonstrators stand for, and thus have a hard time feeling threatened by it?

I'm not saying that anyone should feel threatened by anarchists, of course. It just strikes me as odd that no one does.

23 September 2009

Obama at the UN

The President's speech to the United Nations General Assembly today seems strangely similar to speeches he has made to purely American audiences. That resemblance may be revealing of a consistent Obama philosophy as well as an ironic similarity between partisan government in one country and international bodies. His message in either context tends to be: let's get over our petty obsolete differences and solve problems together. In either venue, he confronts people who flourish on exploiting petty differences and people who honestly don't see problems where he does. Whether the subject is parties or nations, there are groups who see deliberative bodies like Congress or the United Nations as playing fields where deliberation is a game that different sides play to win.

Today Obama was pleading for powers like China and Russia to play their proper role in solving the world's problems if they don't want to deal with American unilateralism. But what if, where Obama sees problems, those countries and others see opportunities to exploit in order to advance their strategic positions in the world. The issues could be ecological or geopolitical, but nationalism and self-interest will encourage a "so what?" attitude among some countries just as partisanship does in our own legislatures. Obama's approach may just be the other side of the coin that had been Bush's face up for the last eight years. While Bushite idealism refuses to understand why others don't see everything as Americans do, Obamite idealism (or as critics call it, "naivete") struggles to comprehend why others don't act as if we are, after all, all human beings with common interests in the future of the planet. But what is one to do with the knowledge that everyone else, as it sometimes seems, wants to treat politics, whether local, national or global, as a game of winners and losers, when your own feeling, as I suspect Obama's is, is that life is not a game?

At every level of social existence, competition seems like an ineradicable impulse that could end up eradicating human life someday. Yet people flinch from any invitation to cooperation as if someone was going to rob them or otherwise trick them; some can't help but see it as a loser's attempt to gain a competitive advantage. So how do you break the competitive paradigm? Some say you can't, or that even if you could the cost would be stagnation or worse. They point to the 20th century as proof that any attempt to change human nature is doomed. The irony of it is that those same people, if they're Americans, expect the nations of the world to change, to learn to cooperate, or at least to cooperate with the world's most reasonable nation, ours truly. They rage at the intransigence of Russia or Iran or Venezuela when they look out the window, and then they close it and resume their own raging intransigence at home. President Obama has made it his business to overcome intransigence in both directions. Good luck with that.

21 September 2009

The "Great Awakening:" A Preview?

Passing through the Larkfest, Albany's big street festival of the year, I was handed a flyer for next Saturday's "Great Awakening" event scheduled for Riverfront Park in Troy. I noticed a slight change in the artwork on the sheet. It looks nearly identical to the posters I've seen in Troy, but the ones handed out at Larkfest appeared to lack the phrase "False Flag" among the issues announced for consideration at the event. As I've mentioned before, "false flag" is a signal that at least some of the participants in the Awakening are "truthers," i.e. Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists. Is there an effort underway to downplay or even suppress this originally scheduled portion of the daylong event?

Searching Google last week I found the Awakening mentioned only on truther sites. A more innocuous announcement has appeared on another site. Here's how this one describes the event:

The Great Awakening will be a fantastic live musical event. It will a peaceful public awareness event containing civic education addressing may topics & situations. Will have tables of various interest, the stage will be highlighted with video & will host various speakers of wisdom & inspirational vision sources. Great food, free parking, open access to the farmers market and free to the public. If you have concerns about what is
happening in the USA come share and meet others that are too!

"Wisdom and inspirational vision sources" looks more like what I'd expect from an event billed as a "Great Awakening." Historians use the term to denote a number of major religious revivals that have taken place since the founding of the U.S. Perhaps by coincidence, a Christian group earlier this month issued a public call for a "new Great Awakening." An Awakening America Alliance has come into being to further this end; it organized a number of repentance gatherings at court houses last 11 September. By some estimates, a revival now would be the fifth "Great Awakening" in American history, though some historians contend that the Fifth Awakening took place back in the late 20th century.

Apart from the name, however, there's no overt religious content that I can see in the promotion for the Troy Great Awakening. Is it a Christian event? The OathKeepers will be there, but they're not to be confused with the Promise Keepers. The OathKeepers are military and police personnel whose "oath" commits them to defy any unconstitutional orders given by the government, the constitutionality of such being determined by Madison knows who. They might have a Christian bias but I don't think it determines their agenda.

What about the music? Can we guess anything about the essential content of the Great Awakening from the acts scheduled to perform between the speakers? The Ameros claim to be "saying things that no one else is saying" and have a quote from The Matrix on the ReverbNation site. Ashes of Ruin appear to be just another metal band. The Realside also appears to be apolitical, and this seems to go for the other acts. Do they know what kind of event the Awakening is or may be? Should they be expected to endorse whatever may be said there? I'm not sure. There is an inclusive quality to events like these (perhaps too much so if it extends to truthers) so there may be no political tests involved in the booking, and no implicit endorsement of any ideology or conspiracy theory by the bands who agree to appear. The September 26 affair may simply be one that cannot be dismissed, at least as a whole, without going into Troy to take a look at it, which is what I intend tentatively to do. More on my plans as they develop.

"The Taliban must be defeated"

As I write, more than 57% of more than 72,000 respondents to an MSNBC internet poll have answered yes to the question, "Should the U.S. send more troops to Afghanistan?" Less than 38% answered in the negative, the remainder being undecided. It's an odd result if you presume that MSNBC internet readers would have the same biases one would attribute to a regular MSNBC viewer. I took such people to be anti-war in general, but I suppose most were only opposed to the invasion of Iraq while endorsing the Democratic line that the proper battlefront for the War on Terror was Afghanistan all along. This turns out to be the sort of poll that puts words in your mouth. You can't just say "Yes" to the proposition, because the site appends this comment to that option: "The Taliban must be defeated." Your vote thus becomes a referendum on the Taliban as well as on the necessity of an American troop escalation.

I'm sure some people will infer that voting "No" must mean that you think the Taliban are fine folk and in no way objectionable to the liberal conscience. If any of those people think otherwise, they'll be more likely to vote "Yes" than they otherwise might. But it should be remembered that the War on Terror, such as it is, is not supposed to be about the Taliban as such. It's a War on Terror, not a war on Islamism or Pashtun Hillbillies. The object of the Afghan phase of the war, as any pundit will tell you, is to prevent the country from once again becoming an al-Qaeda base. There are two theoretical ways of doing this. One would be to exterminate every known Islamist in the country and extirpate Islam itself. Good luck with that one. The other way would be to cut a deal with the Taliban on the premise that what they really want is to run their own country their own way, unmolested. If they could be convinced that the heads of Osama bin Laden, Dr. Zawahiri, et al would seal the deal, they just might do it. To presume that they never ever would betray bin Laden is to let your own propaganda stereotype of the Taliban get in the way of dealing with the actual people in front of you.

Of course, some people might affirm that "The Taliban must be defeated" because the Taliban on their own terms are atavistic beasts who should never be allowed to have power over anyone else. I agree instantly that life will suck more than it already does for certain groups in Afghanistan if the Taliban get back in the saddle, but if you as an American claim that that's your business, then you're claiming to rule the world. Since there is as yet no social contract binding all the people on Earth to each other as individuals, I regret to say that dealing with tyranny is a matter of personal responsibility for the oppressed of any given nation. It is not an American's job to liberate the oppressed of another country unless that country is waging aggressive war against us and their oppression is a tool of their aggression. If the Taliban can be trusted to leave us alone, we'd have an obligation to leave them alone, apart from cheering on anyone who manages to escape or, better yet, manages to replace the Taliban with something better without anyone's help. So unless the Taliban themselves are found conniving in plots to attack the United States, the notion that they "must be defeated" has no place in a serious debate over the future of American troops in Afghanistan, and it probably ought to be left out of internet polling as well.

President's Day in Troy

The President of the United States came to my old home town today. It's still where I work and the office, a newspaper building, was full of talk about the visit. It seems that good will prevailed everywhere. Even Mr. Right had a good word for Obama, who had chosen Hudson Valley Community College as a venue to speak on the importance of community colleges in education and economic development. Mr. Right was happy to learn that stimulus money was being spent on community colleges, since he sees that as leading to actual job creation as opposed to the sort of short-term make-work he identifies with government stimulus programs as a rule. The only ambivalence about the event arose over whether certain local notables would be snubbed. One was Shirley Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy's leading high-tech educational institution. Some wondered why Obama didn't choose RPI for his speech until his focus on community colleges became clear. Another was Joe Bruno, the former majority leader of the New York state senate and as such a major public benefactor of Hudson Valley, where a baseball stadium bears his name. Bruno was an old-school pork barrel Republican who remains under federal investigation after his retirement. Under his leadership of the senate, lots of money and jobs flowed into Rensselaer County and Troy, probably more than was proportionately due to them. But such are the privileges of power, and there you might find an irony in today's event. A Democratic President has come to a pretty much Republican city to praise a community college which had become a Republican politician's personal project, but in such a way that no longer seems characteristically Republican. I'm sure Mr. Right had people like Bruno in mind when he once opined that there were no "real Republicans" in New York State," since such people presumably would not suck taxpayers' money from elsewhere in the state into personal monuments like Hudson Valley. But now everyone seems agreed that Hudson Valley is a good thing, and the leading man in the country has confirmed their opinion. Was government intervention, whether through Bruno's control of the senate or Washington's allocation of stimulus money, necessary for HVCC to become worthy of recognition? Ponder the question for yourselves.

20 September 2009

"America Forever"

Every so often at our newspaper office press releases that really should go to the editorial fax come through ours in the department next door. This brings some strange documents into my view, from plodding poetry on political topics to the object of my present concern, which the machine disgorged last Friday. The headline reads: "Be Aware They pulled the Plug...DO NOT BE IGNORANT of these facts" Datelined Washington, it emanates from an organization called America Forever, self-described as "The Voice of the People." That header begs Edmond O'Brien's classic query from The Wild Bunch, "Who the hell is they?" Let's see if we can find out.

Before we learn who "they" are, we learn that "They derailed the economy so President Obama could win the election. Look at the dates and events and see for yourself. Are they secret combinations or simply coincidence?" The shocking answer follows immediately, but I'll tease you a bit more by relating America Forever's thesis that "In three months the OBAMA team with conspiracy and treason, along with moveon.org and The Human Rights Campaign the largest lobbying firm in the world with their million dollar financial network had all the pieces in position so President Obama could avoid answering questions during the election and could dwell only on a made up bad economy to win the seat as the President of the United States." As you see, punctuation is not this organization's strong suit. In any event, the crucial point of this conspiracy theory is that the current Treasury Secretary, then the president of the Federal Reserve, met with "the Lehman Brothers" on Sept. 13 of last year, following which Lehman, "the responsible Party...of the meltdown of the economy Filed Bankruptcy." The implicit premise is that Geithner, acting on Obama's behalf, persuaded Lehman to trigger the crisis, presumably creating it out of nothing in that instance. This is, in fact, America Forever's belief, their position being that "the economical index in mid August was sound."

If "we seem lost," that's because "America has never experienced a president who acts in contempt to freedom and maliciously tampers with democracy, promoting animosity and divisiveness while joining the international slandering of our nation; using his position as president against America." Read that carefully. If that scans the way it does to me, America Forever is arguing that we need "a president who acts in contempt to freedom...,[etc.]" This outfit really needs a copy-editor if they want to spread their message effectively, but don't tell them that.

America Forever is bothered by the fact that the U.S. has scrapped the missile defense installation plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. "Americans would never pull out of Poland and Czech on the Anniversary that the Russians invaded Poland," the writer complains, "Either our President needs history lessons or once again he wants to embarrass us as a nation." I suppose I should have saved this topic for a separate post, but it amuses me to see all the Republicans and reactionaries coming out of the woodwork to confirm what the Bush administration always denied: that the missile defense system was aimed at Russia. But I mustn't stray off on tangents. I must identify the "well organized group [that] organizes very quickly." Its allies have already been identified, but the true motivating power behind it all is...

...the homosexuals! They are Obama's collaborators and role models. "He uses the gay movement tactics to get what he wants and to shove his agenda down the people's throat, just like the gays do!" America Forever explains, "These are intolerant tactics, that when combined by intimidation manipulate the system to elevate their agenda."

But Obama may yet be saved. "America Forever calls on President Barrack Hussein Obama to turn away from the gay agenda which is deserving this nation and Stop acting like a step-mother who wants to take down the house to elevate her policies. We plead to the President to act like a mother who loves her children and without destroying a house she moves on carefully and thoughtfully and slowly to implement new rules."

Get that? This is verbatim from the press release, and so is the following, addressed to the news media authority who was meant to see this sheet:

To the News media once again: SHAME ON YOU, for forgetting who you are and what your job stands for. Once again America Forever see's you holding on to promote the gays. Have some decency, respect the reputation of journalism, stop being activists and do your job and tell the American people the truth! The race card is the gay movement card; stop using it. President Obama is doing some serious things in a manner that people don't like. This is not about race, just like homosexuality is not about race.

That bit left me scratching my head. Had someone said that homophobia was racist? But there's a helpful graphic that clarifies America Forever's position. It shows two men kissing against a wall, the image circled and bisected in the international signal for verboten, with a comment below that "HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOT A RACE! This is not about HATE or CIVIL RIGHTS."
From this I deduce that civil rights adhere only to racial groups, according to America Forever, so that resistance to homosexual rights is no denial of civil rights to anybody. If that doesn't strike you as a particularly brilliant observation, consider the source. America Forever is outraged over homosexuals "deserving this nation," after all, and I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. Certain other subtleties of their viewpoint are bound to be lost on us as well.

But to review: the homosexual movement somehow manipulated the economy, using Tim Geithner and Lehman Brothers as their instruments of destruction, in order to get a friendly President elected in order to further their maliciously "deserving" agenda. And they're protecting Obama from just criticism of his economic plans by smearing every critic as a racist. So that any journalist who sees the slightest vestige of racism in the anti-Obama movement is actually also furthering the gay "stepmother" agenda. No smear tactics on America Forever's part, that's for sure! And they're no racists themselves; they "do know that the Black population of this nation will choose God over the gay agenda." Isn't that a relief?

With an argument bordering on the illiterate, America Forever is no real threat to anybody, but for taking such pains to circulate their ignorance across the country they probably deserve an Idiot of the Week designation. The competition was fierce throughout the summer, and I think the silly season will continue for a while yet. We may hear from these people again before it's done.

19 September 2009

Campaign 2012

The presidential election of 2008 is less than one year old and the first vote of the 2012 campaign, to my knowledge, has been cast. It's a "values voters" straw poll, and former Gov. Huckabee, the man from the populist side of the Christian Right, won it by a handy margin over former Gov. Romney and former Gov. Palin. Huckabee has kept himself before the conservative public on a weekly Fox News program, but compared to the more notorious Fox hosts he's been traveling under the radar of the so-called mainstream media. One must assume that he's been relatively temperate in his inevitable criticisms of the Obama administration; he hardly ever appears, for instance, on Countdown's Worst Person in the World list. To be honest, I wasn't certain whether Huckabee would make another try. My impression was that his efforts weren't appreciated last time, since he has an appeal among the grass-roots that complicates the schemes of the self-appointed leaders of the Christian Right. The report last year was that they preferred Romney despite the anti-Mormon prejudice of the rank and file, and this straw poll suggests that this powerful faction will be split again, and most likely split three ways given the intense personal popularity of Palin in some quarters. It's one thing for some to suggest that the Christian Right should break free of a Republican party that consistently sells them out to big-tent realpolitik, but there's no guarantee that it even forms a cohesive whole that would all go one way. Protestants are a sectarian sort and that goes for politics, too. Let 'em fight is what I say. They have every right to do so, and I hope that none of them win.

18 September 2009

Quds Day: Partisanship in Iran and elsewhere

Today is a public holiday of sorts in Iran and has been since the Islamic Revolution. "Quds Day" is an occasion for Iranians to show solidarity with the people of Palestine and enmity toward Israel, "Quds" referring to al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem. We used to have a similar day in this country; "Captive Nations Day" was an occasion for Americans to show solidarity with countries suffering under Communist regimes, especially those controlled by the USSR. It never inspired the type of demonstrations one sees in Iran, and to my knowledge was definitely never appropriated by dissidents an an occasion to defy their own government. But in Iran today the opposition, remaining convinced that President Ahmadinejad stole the recent election with the connivance of Ayatollah Khamenei, hit the streets in defiance of a ban on non-official demonstrations imposed by Khamenei. The media reports a number of clashes, including attempts by counter-counter demonstrators to attack opposition leaders.

The opposition's attitude toward the actual holiday is unclear. MSNBC reports that some demonstrators expressed a "who cares?" attitude toward the rest of the Middle East while emphasizing the need to change things at home. At the same time, Quds Day may have been chosen as a way of demonstrating that the opposition doesn't fall short in its opposition to Zionism, colonialism, etc. This is an important detail, since the government will certainly insist on solidarity against the Zionist enemy (and the U.S.) as a justification for further repression at home. Ahmadinejad's supporters are likely to argue (if they haven't already) that any opposition to their man, whose maximum hostility to Zionism was again demonstrated today with another outburst of Holocaust revisionism, must mean a compromise of Iran's stance against Israel and the U.S.

As far as I know, the Iranian opposition has no less hatred of Zionism or resentment of its occupation of Muslim land than the government. But it seems to be a characteristic of partisanship around the world to raise the stakes of any disagreement. The political conflict inside Iran may have nothing to do with foreign affairs, but Ahmadinejad's party will act as if it does, because then they can make the opposition look like collaborators with the enemy. Anti-communism served a similar purpose in the U.S. for many years, and anti-Islamism may serve the same purpose today. Partisanship seems to compel politicians to take stands on all issues, or turn all issues into areas of partisan conflict, even if the original issue of conflict was limited in scope. In other words, partisanship aspires to an artificial comprehensiveness that spreads conflict when none was necessarily necessary. Worse still, in one-party states or countries in danger of becoming such, the government party ascribes an all-comprehensive and implicitly all-subversive opposition to dissidents, so that dissidents become "enemies" of the people or the state. Partisanship distorts the issues either way you look at it. In an ideal system of representative government, politicians will take principled stands on any given issue without being forced by their stand to take an automatic position on any other position unless the original principle itself requires them to do so; nor would they be assumed to take an automatic stand on any other issue on the basis of one vote. The corrosive consequences of partisanship on deliberative government should be apparent to everyone by now, whether partisans beat each other up in the streets or simply shout at one another. Americans who look with disdain on Iran should take more seriously the violence partisanship is doing to their own ability to govern themselves.

16 September 2009


The furor over recent comments by Jimmy Carter has pushed the issue of hate further to the forefront of the political discussion. Republicans have predictably reacted with outrage to the insinuation that any sizable portion of animosity toward the current President is inspired by race hatred, while Obama himself, through a spokesman, has distanced himself from Carter's opinion. In their usual "you're another" manner, Republicans have promptly called their accusers the real racists in the debate.

As a rule, Republicans deny hating anyone and see themselves as the targets of hatred from the left. And as we know, Republicans are loath to ask the "Why do they hate us?" question unless they can answer it in a manner flattering to themselves. But it ought to be obvious to anyone who risks stepping back from their front-line righteous anger that if liberals seem to hate Republicans or conservatives, it probably has a lot to do with a liberal perception that conservatives hate them. At that point, most Republicans will keep on denying, but a brave few will press further, daring to ask themselves what about their own position liberals perceive as hate. Since the argument between Republicans and liberals focuses on social welfare issues, it ought to be obvious to at least some reflective minds that Republican social policies appear, to liberals and those on points left, to condemn poor people or anyone who is insufficiently competitive in our every-man-for-himself capitalist society to perpetual misery if not death itself. Many Republicans would no doubt sincerely repudiate such an interpretation of their views, but anyone who spends a lot of time looking at the internet will affirm that there are plenty of Republicans (not to mention some libertarians) who are blatant social darwinists out of liberal nightmares, people who believe that the poor are parasites and really ought to die to relieve the rest of America of an unjust burden.

There's a limit to how far Republicans can modify their views to appear less "hateful" to liberals, because the two sides are driven by contradictory moral imperatives. For one side, it's a moral imperative that each person or each family fend for itself, since to do otherwise is equivalent to robbing somebody. For the other, the moral imperative is for everyone to pull together so that no one suffers for being insufficiently successful. These imperatives are irreconcilable, and each side is bound, to an extent, to see the other's position as immoral. I suppose moral disagreements can be expressed in an ideal world without vehemence and with philosophical modesty, but in America we're talking about political hacks after office and its privileges, on both sides of this particular bipolarchic dispute. And now add the aspersions each side casts against the intelligence of the other, Republicans denouncing liberals for being too stupid to realize that the world can only be one way, liberals lashing back that Republicans are too stupid to imagine that another world is possible.

In theory, there should be a middle ground occupied by people who realize that one side can't have everything they want and the other can't keep things the way they want. But what do these people sound like? Can they articulate a position that does not seem to either side like that of their ideological enemy, or simply hateful toward either side? Can an appeal to compromise not seem hateful in our time? Or do too many people now feel that their very lives are at stake in every partisan debate? These are the questions that trouble me, among others, as I begin my second thousand posts on this blog.

Another Republican Begging for a Handout

This week's begging letter comes from Sharron Angle, a Nevada legislator seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Senator Reid next year. It comes with the inevitable hyperbole, calling the Majority Leader "conservatives' number one enemy," but the interesting thing about the entire pitch is the way that Angle makes a convincing case for more campaign finance reform, only to miss her own point.

Angle contends that Reid is unpopular in his own state and has been so consistently during his tenure in the Senate. She cites polls that indicate that a plurality of Nevadans would vote to unseat him. Assuming all this to be correct, how does he stay on? The answer, Angle argues, is money: out-of-state money that pours in from "special interests" who expect favors from Reid. This money consistently tips the balance in Reid's favor by Election Day.

To review: Angle contends that out-of-state campaign donations so distort Nevada elections that a man who is unpopular in his own state can nevertheless keep getting elected to the U.S. Senate. Let's assume that she's correct. What, then, would be the best way to correct this distortion of the actual will of Nevadans? Common sense might suggest legislation forbidding out-of-state donations. That would get those nefarious special interests out of the picture, right?

That's not the conclusion Angle draws. Her remedy for Reid's reliance on Democratic special-interest money is to call for Republican special-interest money from out of state. She isn't as greedy as other Republican beggars, since she contends that a mere double-digit donation in a small state like Nevada is equivalent to hundreds or thousands of dollars in a large-state campaign. But she obviously doesn't get the point of her own complaint. If the object is to get at the actual desires of Nevadans without the distractions of propaganda funded from outside, Angle proposes to cancel out Reid's unfair advantage with her own out-of-state propaganda. Maybe she does think that each side's out-of-state donors would cancel each other out and leave Nevadans to figure things out for themselves. But it's more likely that she's succumbed to a certain kind of American Bipolarchy logic that makes every local election a national election in which everyone in America, or at least everyone adhering to the two dominant ideologies, is entitled to a voice. According to such logic, no legislator represents his or her state or district alone, but also and above all the national ideological constituency, which would, perhaps ironically, make Reid's "special interest" donors no more "special" than those whom Angle is asking for money.

It's even more likely, however, that Angle is just incapable of thinking of a political campaign, no matter how local, separately from the imperative of raising money from as wide an area as possible. Fundraising is virtually an end in itself for most politicians today, and not everything Angle collects will go toward attacking Reid. It turns out that Angle will face at least three opponents in the Republican senatorial primary, so some of the money you might send in the hope of financing a hard-charging attack ad against Reid will actually go toward attacking other conservative Republicans. Already, at least one of her fellow Republicans has objected to Angle characterizing herself in her begging letter as "the conservative candidate," as if there were no other conservatives seeking the nomination. It's also quite possible that your conscientious donation will end up paying some campaign worker's salary beyond the needs of Angle's campaign.

Angle apparently never got the memo from conservative apologists who've argued that since money never really makes a difference in campaigns, corrupting neither politicians nor voters, campaign donations should never be subject to regulation. In her hostility to Harry Reid and what he supposedly stands for, she readily concedes the point that most opponents of campaign finance reform dispute. But she gives no indication of favoring the sort of reforms that might, based on her own account, give her more of a chance to defeat Reid, and as a Republican she most likely opposes the entire concept of campaign finance regulation. This makes me wonder whether she's really more interested in defeating Reid than in raising money for herself. That's a question you can ask about most politicians in either major party. This post is not an attack on Sharron Angle as a Republican or a conservative, but a comment on someone who thinks she gets it about modern politics, but doesn't.

14 September 2009

Personal Responsibility

When I read the opening paragraph of an op-ed piece in this morning's Albany Times Union, I nearly jumped to the conclusion that it was a right-wing rant. Linda P. Campbell wrote: "I want my country back. The one where a message of personal responsibility and the value of a good education is celebrated, not denigrated with suspicion and hostility."

It turned out that Campbell was talking about the President's address to schoolchildren from last week and the paranoid hysteria it provoked. But that phrase, "personal responsibility," is one that I identify with conservatives. But those who heard or read Obama's speech, even some who had feared it at first, usually ended up accepting it as Campbell described it, as a statement about personal responsibility. Does that make the President a conservative? No, but it did make me think about the existence of two kinds or two concepts of personal responsibility.

When Obama talks about personal responsibility, or at least when he did last week, he's trying to tell kids not to use society as an excuse for doing nothing. When a Republican talks about personal responsibility, he usually means that individuals should expect nothing or want nothing from society. To elaborate slightly, we can imagine Obama saying that individuals have a personal responsibility to do their best on top of what society owes them as citizens and human beings. We can more plausibly infer that personal responsibility is part of each person's reciprocal relationship with society, while for Republicans, the social aspect of personal responsibility is limited to your responsibility not to demand anything from others or demand that government "rob" them to provide you with things.

For Republicans, conservatives and libertarians, "personal responsibility" is a simple two-word mantra, but leaving it at those two words begs some questions. Personal responsibility to whom? For what? If they're unwilling to elaborate, I feel justified in translating the phrase as I usually do when I hear it from such quarters, as "every man for himself." Those four words may actually be a more accurate expression of what most such people actually think. If so, then maybe "personal responsibility" is a term that should be reserved for use by the other side.

The Numbers Game and the Average People: Are the Truthers Out There?

Mr. Right came into the office today with a (dare I say) liberal estimate of the attendance at last Saturday's rally in Washington. He said that he had read that the anti-Obama demo had drawn 675,000 people to the capital. At the same time, he accused MSNBC of low-balling the crowd size at 30,000. I had heard that number early in the day on CNN, but I understood it to be the number taken at that moment, with more expected to turn up. The main organizing group for the rally, FreedomWorks, actually has a lower estimate than Mr. Right, claiming 400,000 people. However, his count falls in the middle of estimates, as some overexuberant right-wingers have claimed that 1.2 million people were there. In an unusual moment of empiricism, Mr. Right dismisses that count, explaining that the crowd did not cover the entire Mall, as one would expect from such numbers as some have claimed. He could not recall where he had seen his preferred number, and my own search for the number 675,000 combined with "March on Washington" or "Tea Party" yielded no results from Google.

While he doesn't suffer from some people's compulsion to inflate the turnout to the max, Mr. Right is sensitive to attempts to minimize the size of the crowd. To be fair, I don't doubt that Democrats and sympathizers are trying to do this, just as right-wingers are trying to maximize it beyond the bounds of Mr. R's intellectual integrity. I don't intend to play that game. I made my mockery of the demonstrators back on Saturday, but objectively I think it's a good thing that conservatives are getting over what I took to be an aversion to getting together in crowds and declaring their principles en masse in public. I had thought they had grown content to crouch on their couches, each in splendid isolation and damning any idea of society while communicating with the outside world, outside of the workplace, exclusively online. Maybe it shows how scared they are, for whatever reason, that they've left their caves to find real, live like-minded people. I congratulate them for whatever number they brought together while I insist that it proves nothing about the merits of their argument.

Of course, Mr. Right had to add a few loaded comments. He made a point of noting how neat these protesters were, how they somehow left the Mall as well groomed and unlittered as they found it, as if that proved something about the superiority of their cause. He also made a crack about enjoying the sight of so many "average people" in the streets.

"What makes them average people?" I asked, "What makes them more average compared to a pro-Obama demonstration?"

He never quite answered that question. Instead, he asked why these people should not be considered "working families." If a man and a woman work hard at their jobs and bring home a few hundred grand a year, shouldn't they be considered working families, he queried. Why is it, he pressed, that only the poor get to be called working families? But I wasn't disputing that anyone in the crowd was working class. If anything, he seemed to be implying that this was a demonstration of the affluent, though he has no basis for thinking so. He may assume so based on an original assumption about the sort of people who would come out against Obama, but maybe he should keep such assumptions to himself.

To the extent that the Saturday event counts as a "tea party," one should be very careful about identifying the participants as average folk. I don't doubt that many are, but the flip side of organizers trying to keep their distance from the Republican party is an openness, perhaps a vulnerability, to even less savory elements. Take for example a tea party-type event scheduled for my old home town of Troy, New York on September 26. It's called "The Great Awakening," and posters for it air many of the same concerns about big government expressed at tea parties. But there are other keywords like "false flag" in the mix that tip the knowing observer off to the involvement of "truthers." And as it happens, a Google search for "Great Awakening," "Troy" and "September 26" points you to a truther website. While there's been a big deal made about an Obama administration official being pressured into resigning because of an association with Sept. 11 conspiracy theory, I think there's a lot of the same junk in the midst of the tea party movement, and definitely more than sympathizers like Mr. Right would care to admit. Some Democrats made the mistake of indulging these maniacs back in the Bush years, but in the Obama era it's become clear that the object of their maniacal suspicion was never George W. Bush specifically or his circle generally, but Government and Power as abstract terrors that can just as easily take the form of Barack Obama in their fevered brains. I'm not saying that they now claim that Obama planned the terrorist attacks, but they do seem to believe that Bush and Obama are both minions of that nebulous, malign Power that did mastermind the charade. Their pathological fear of political power draws them as naturally to the tea parties, I believe, as it did to the anti-Bush and anti-war protests of five or six years ago. This just goes to show that not all opposition to the government in power is rational, and not all opposition to government or power in general is rational, either. So before anyone celebrates the crowds who gather for a cause, they might want to look at the actual people a little more closely.

13 September 2009

Whose Death Counts More?

Conservatives may have a case if they wish to question why the murder of an anti-abortion activist in Michigan last Friday hasn't received nearly as much coverage in the news media as the assassination of an abortion provider earlier this year. The difference might be justified by lingering uncertainty as to why the suspect killed the activist. Prosecutors claim that the suspect had personal grudges against three people on a death list, two of whom he managed to kill, one being the activist. But it's also reported that, at the least, the suspect was offended by the graphic content of the signs the activist displayed during his demonstrations. That in itself might be enough to characterize the killing as a political act, even if there was also a personal grudge involved. But this lone killing (though it forms part of a unique set) doesn't seem to fit into a patterns of killings or threats directed at anti-abortion activists. To my knowledge, the "pro-life" side has not publicized any widespread receipt of death threats. In the absence of such context, it may be easier for reporters to dismiss the Michigan crime as an isolated, essentially apolitical act compared to any violence against abortionists, who are known to have been targeted for reprisal as a group. Still, anyone sympathetic with the victim might understandably want investigators to probe as publicly as possible to determine whether or not the killing was meant to intimidate other activists, or whether the suspect (who has reportedly attempted suicide in jail) was connected with any kind of network of anti-anti-abortion activists. It may not be strictly accurate for activists to embrace the victim as a martyr in their cause, but it's definitely understandable. And based on what I've seen on TV and in my local papers this weekend, they have cause to question whether people are out to bury the story. I don't have to sympathize with the anti-abortion cause (and I don't) to sympathize with any suspicions they might have on this particular point. But let's see how the story develops over the next week before forming firmer conclusions.

12 September 2009

Neo-Confederate Demonstration in D.C.

What? That's not what you heard? Well, this article tells me that some people in the five-figure crowd that marched on the nation's capital today were waving Confederate flags. So by the protesters' own standards, I would be entitled to say that the march as a whole advocated secession and the restoration of slavery.

I was also amused to see Rep. DeMint say that today's was not a "radical right-wing" demonstration. It made me wonder what would qualify for that label in his mind. Would we have to see swastikas in the crowd? I mean swastikas that aren't meant to identify the President with Nazism, of course.

If I seem intolerant it's because I'm increasingly swayed by the people who ask why, if the Tea Partisans claim to protest against big government, they did not come out in such numbers against George W. Bush? The conclusion that the protesters have something against the present President besides his presumed advocacy of big government grows increasingly difficult to dismiss. Their recent idolization of the liar and/or idiot, Rep. Wilson, doesn't exactly endear them any more to me. But the mass hypocrisy is the real deal-breaker for me, for if there are any Americans who would look complacently if not happily, upon the weak dying, I suspect they were among today's crowd in Washington.

10 September 2009

"One Party Democracy"

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, issued a forceful indictment of the American Bipolarchy this week without calling it by name. He argues that the United States has become a one-party democracy because of the Republican party's effective abstention from serious participation in national policy. This is a bad thing, Friedman contends, because it empowers irresponsible elements in the majority party to demand concessions when party leaders can't get support across the aisle. As a result, useful bills are laden with pork as ransom to the cynical hacks who've mastered the system to the benefit of themselves and their constituents.

Friedman is sure to outrage many readers by arguing that a "one-party autocracy" like China might be more effective than a one-party democracy as long as the autocrats are "reasonably enlightened." They don't have to deal with self-interested partisan obstructionism when enacting long-term policies on clean energy and other future technologies. Few Americans would be willing to pay the price in civil liberties for the blessings of enlightened autocracy, but Friedman has nothing to offer them by way of solutions to the "one-party democracy" problem except exhortations for Republicans to get serious about the country's future. He doesn't seem optimistic about their doing so. What then?

The prize-winning columnist never seems to consider the significance of the fact that the obstructionist Republican party effectively monopolizes the opposition to the Obama administration. The inherently corrupt one-party democracy he decries may well be an inevitable consequence of an entrenched two-party system. If so, the solution would not be for Democrats to transition from one-party democrats to one-party autocrats, as Friedman doesn't dare suggest, but for Republicans to give way to opposition politicians who practice constructive dissent rather than dead-end obstructionism. Friedman does seem to anticipate this possibility, noting that businessmen are abandoning the GOP as it ceases to offer useful solutions to the promise of globalization. But if he gave more thought to how the Republicans got into such a position in the first place, he might not have had to bring autocracy as an option into the discussion. The solution to monopolized dissent isn't less dissent, but more, but the Republican party remains an obstacle to necessary change, and the structural tenacity of the Bipolarchy makes dislodging the Republicans a daunting prospect. Whether the American system can overcome this cancer at its heart will determine whether the system is preferable to enlightened autocracy for anything more than the sake of arguments.

The Heckler

If I looked into it more, I would probably despise everything that Rep. Joe Wilson stands for. He's the Republican congressman from South Carolina who scandalized the national legislature by calling the President a liar from the floor in the middle of an address of health care reform. He quickly apologized under strong pressure from fellow Republicans, confessing that his emotions got the better of him. People who support President Obama will be inclined to condemn Wilson, but as this British blogger for Newsweek notes, Americans have far less tolerance for legislative heckling than other free nations. Those eager to censure Wilson or do worse to him might recall how cowardly they thought George W. Bush was when he refused to address the British parliament out of fear of heckling. The blogger finds Americans to be too deferential toward their Presidents compared to British treatment of the Prime Minister. While acknowledging that the President is head of state as well as head of government, he doesn't think that fact should shield the Chief Executive from accountability to the legislature. In Britain, the Prime Minister submits to questioning from the entire House of Commons on a weekly basis. The blogger suggests that the U.S. might be better off had President Bush been obliged to submit to such questioning before the invasion of Iraq. But Presidents have been loath to appear before congressional committees for questioning ever since George Washington stormed out of such a meeting in a great huff, complaining that the legislators' questions thwarted "every purpose of my coming here." Americans might argue that accountability is inherent in the separation of powers, but the fact of deference is too well established, and I might add that some sentiments or alleged thoughts are simply unworthy of respect no matter who utters them.

The blogger himself notes, however, that Wilson's specific language would have gotten him censured or suspended from most legislatures because he violated etiquette by calling Obama a liar. Had he simply shouted "that's not true," he might have gotten away with it in most places, but Wilson apparently crossed a line that once might have provoked a less mild man than the present President into demanding satisfaction on the field of honor. On the other hand, Obama himself had pretty much said that all the "deathers" and others spreading "falsehoods" about health care reform were liars (as most indeed are), so Wilson may have meant to respond in kind. From a global perspective, it looks like Wilson was forced to risk censure because he had no other way to confront the President directly. A Presidential Question Time has been proposed occasionally in this country, usually by people from a party opposing the President of the time, as a way to expose, embarrass or thwart executive ambitions. I say it's a good idea no matter who the President is, and it'd be a good idea for Obama to adopt it. If he is really as eloquent as claimed, and as good an extemporaneous speaker, he ought to be able to wipe the floor with Republicans on a regular basis -- but would he dare?

08 September 2009

STOP PRESS: Partisan Hypocrisy Discovered!

It took some digging, but Republican researchers have found an instance in which Democrats responded with hostility to a Republican president giving a talk to public school students. It happened in 1991, and Democrats actually went so far as to demand an investigation of a supposed waste of taxpayers' money for what some deemed a campaign photo op for George H. W. Bush. In the end, the General Accounting Office vindicated Bush, whose talk was no more and no less innocuous than the present President's lecture today.

What's the moral behind this particular piece of history. I don't doubt that Byron York, the winning researcher, means it as a proof of Democratic hypocrisy. He makes the same point I did about neither speech really expressing a hidden agenda, but the implication of the entire article is that since Democrats once questioned the elder Bush's right to harangue children, it's wrong for them (or anyone else, I suppose) to criticize anyone who questions Obama's right to do likewise, or his motive.

I think there's a qualitative difference between the criticism of Bush's talk, as reported by York, and the hysteria generated by the announcement of Obama's. The Democrats of 1991 seem to have acted with typical partisan cynicism. They characterized the Bush speech as a photo op, as if it were aimed as much at adults (i.e. voters) as children. But today's reactionaries have accused Obama of wanting to brainwash and indoctrinate children. Until York or anyone else can find a Democrat, liberal or leftist who made that kind of charge against George H. W. Bush, his comparison doesn't quite fit.

The larger implication of York's column is more distressing. Faced with a backlash against the hysterical opposition to Obama's school talk (and no other adjective does it justice), York digs into the files to find evidence of hypocrisy --as if that gets the maniacs of today off the hook. While he is personally reasonable enough to say that Obama's talk was harmless, his invocation of partisan hypocrisy can have no other effect than to vindicate the hysterical opposition. If Democrats criticized a Bush speech for any reason, then it must be okay for Republicans or people further to the right to criticize an Obama speech, not for the same reason, but for any reason that they choose. Confronted with a mass outburst of unreason, as any objective person must see it, York is less interested in condemning it, except in passing, than in saying, "so are you but twice as much."

Partisan hypocrisy is a key component of the more pernicious concept of partisan immunity. Partisan immunity is claimed by those who claim that their actions are being prosecuted for political or partisan reasons alone. An inevitable element of that argument is the claim, implicit or not, that the partisan prosecutors are hypocrites who would have done the same things had they been in power. Once these claims are made, the objective injustice of the act in question becomes irrelevant. The partisan immunity principle, which may be peculiar to bipolarchies, allows no distinction between the merely cynical sniping of Democrats at President Bush and the objectively mad raving provoked by the Obama speech, and no objective appraisal of each phenomenon. What's needed in all such cases is an authority all can appeal to that is indisputably non-partisan. Whether any can be found or created at this late moment is a question on which the nation's future depends.

Democracy: the Right to Offend and the Obligation to Take It

Yale University Press is about to publish a book about the violent controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. The book may leave people wondering what the controversy was about, because it won't include the cartoons themselves. The publishers have decided not to include the images after advisers warned that their reappearance would spark a fresh wave of violence in the Muslim world. The fact that known neocons have criticized this decision as part of their own agenda should not stop the rest of us from condemning the college for cowardice. If Muslims want to be part of the modern world, a putative democracy of nations and cultures, then they cannot insist on immunity from "insult." Islam is either accountable to the rest of us, or it must either rule the world or remain outside it in its own enclave. If Muslims want to deal with the rest of us, they must accept that most of us owe Muhammad no more respect or deference than any other historical person, and that those who think him a villain have every right to say so.

Is it possible to meet Muslim insistence on Muhammad's sacrosanct status halfway? The best I can suggest is a modest compromise that affirms a general principle of non-offensiveness toward religions rather than a special immunity for Islam. But under such a standard, one of the first books needing censorship will be the Qur'an itself, since many passages of the Muslim holy text are profoundly offensive to Jews, Christians and anyone who might describe himself as a polytheist. Even those verses which treat Jesus respectfully as a great prophet are insulting to those who believe that Jesus was the son of God or God otherwise made flesh. Unless Muslims want to insist on special immunity based on a superiority that no one else acknowledges, they must renounce their right to insult other religions if they don't want theirs insulted. They must submit to censorship of their holy book or stand exposed as hypocrites with a supremacy complex. If they will not allow censorship of the Qur'an they should not demand censorship of any other text outside the Muslim world. And if Muslims feel entitled to punish blasphemy by mob violence, vandalism or assassination, it might be time for the Enlightenment to respond in kind.

07 September 2009

Idiot of the Year Nominee: Steven L. Anderson

In my complacency I thought that I could let the protesters against the President's talk to schoolchildren stand as the idiots of this week as well as last, but because I was home for the holiday today I found myself watching CNN as they updated their apparently ongoing coverage of the preaching of Steven L. Anderson, pastor of the self-founded Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe AZ. Anderson is a Christian Reconstructionist, one who believes that Christianity requires the enforcement of all Old Testament laws and penalties, including (he'll forgive the adjective) liberal use of capital punishment. He has become notorious (depending on your news sources) for preaching that he hates Barack Obama and wishes the President to die a painful death as revenge for the suffering of aborted fetuses. Here is a more detailed report of his utterances, and here is a clip of his response to a parishioner questioning his characterization of the President.

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, Anderson is no partisan. He has denounced both George W. Bush and the Iraq War in the past. He seems to identify with the "Tea Party" movement and has preached before one such event this year. In this clip he really does lay into the GOP, calling them a party of Pharisees, while affirming that as of July in his first year in office Barack Obama had become the worst President in American history. He also proposes an alternate bipolarchy of the Constitution and Libertarian parties, representing the right and left wings of the small-government movement.

Anderson actually recorded the tazing incident he describes and posted the scene on his YouTube page.

There have been some mean-spirited comments about this video following reports of Anderson's political views, but the liberal in me still says not to wish that kind of treatment on anyone. To his own credit, Anderson's hostility toward government abuse of power extends to the treatment of suspected terrorists. He claims that torturing the detainees violates both the Eighth Amendment and the will of God. The fact is that power is being abused in this country, but the problem with people like Anderson is that they blame the abuses on imaginary conspiracies with malevolent motives. It's no surprise, the more you learn about Anderson, to see him turn up on the communications center of 21st century conspiracy-mongering, the Alex Jones program. In this clip, he responds to critics who told him that Paul's Epistle to the Romans instructs him as a Christian to obey the rulers of a country.

I leave that particular issue to the theologians, but I notice that Anderson wants to fudge the meaning of Romans while insisting elsewhere on literal application of all the barbaric regulations of Moses. The larger question, of course, is who gets to define lawful authority. In a democracy it's okay for individuals to question the lawfulness of government actions, but they shouldn't attempt to nullify them unilaterally without making themselves accountable as well. Too many people today seem to think that because they're "free" their interpretations of events and their responses to them can't be wrong, especially if, like Anderson, they consider themselves accountable to God rather than to the government or their fellow citizens. That's why Anderson can, with apparent sincerity, claim that he had done nothing wrong by publicly wishing death on the President of the United States. So he says in his latest video, responding to what he calls the lies of CNN.

Anderson is a prolific YouTube poster and you can find plenty more where the above came from, including full-length sermons that are either highly infuriating or highly entertaining, but probably a little of both. I think I've included enough here to make my own case for his year-defining idiocy. Some readers, however, may feel that I'm trivializing the menace Anderson represents. I would remind them that it's no great threat to pray for God to kill anyone, since for obvious reasons God's not going to do it. Of course, if any parishioners decide they need to be instruments of God's will as defined by Steven L. Anderson, that will be another story.

04 September 2009

Idiots of the Week (and Next)

Here's to all the insane parents who feel a need to withhold their children from school out of terror at the prospect of their hearing an exhortation to study hard from the President of the United States. I don't usually like to play this game, but I have to register my grave doubt that Democratic or liberal parents would be in a similar panic had the last President Bush announced plans to give a similar talk to children. But there is something distinctively paranoid about 21st century Republicans. For such people, Barack Obama can't open his mouth without intending to brainwash the nation with "socialist" doctrine. Apparently a lot of adults are up in arms because a study guide invited kids to consider ways in which they could "help the President." To the pathological minds who increasingly typify the opposition, this can only mean "help him advance his socialist agenda." As usual, the White House has naively attempted to appease these lunatics by eliminating the offensive language from the study guide. But to compromise on that language at all is to let the idiots infer that their first paranoid reading of it was the right one. There is no need to compromise with the insane. There is no excuse for this latest, most insulting outburst from the reactionary heartland. People who live in such terror of the President or the Democratic Party or liberals, all of which are lumped together as "socialism" and made synonymous with satanism need to have their heads examined. I mean that literally. They are not sane.

"Yeah, the Communists thought the same way," someone might answer, "They put dissidents in insane asylums."

The way to deal with that response is to remind the person that you are not a Communist, if you aren't. If he tells you that you are, then he's insane. For such people, "Communism" and "socialism" are only synonyms for the great, vague THEY who are always out there waiting to take their guns, their property, their families, etc. It is not advisable to try to reason with them without proper professional training. You are only asking for frustration. The best you can hope for is that their families are aware of their conditions and taking steps to get help.

02 September 2009

"Capitalist" Propaganda

The Saratogian newspaper yesterday ran a full-page ad from an organization called the U.S. Citizens Association. Its banner headline announced: "Barack Obama and the Democrats did not inherit the bad economy; they caused it and made it worse." There follows the usual Republican-Libertarian account of the recent financial collapse, in which all blame is placed on the Community Reinvestment Act, a product of the Carter Administration, which "forced banks to lower their standards so that previously unqualified people could get a mortgage." This bomb ticked merrily throughout twelve years of Republican rule before the Clinton Administration "doubled down" and "intimidated banks with threats of legal action" if they did not give loans to "unqualified borrowers" under the "greatly lowered mortgage standards." These bad mortgages were then bought up by Fannie Mae, whose corruption was protected by Democrats against probes by the George W. Bush administration despite Republican control of Congress for all but two years of that regime. The present President comes into it by filing lawsuits on behalf of the infamous ACORN, further pressuring the stiff-necked bankers to "give loans to people who could not afford to pay them back." Nowhere in this account does one learn why all this should have so damaged the larger economy, since it isn't explained how or if any of the aforementioned culprits forced banks to buy mortgages from Fannie Mae and sell them at profits to themselves or otherwise commodify them. It seems like the damage should have been fairly localized even if all the Democrats were as guilty as this ad claims. Since it was more extensive, others must be to blame, though it isn't in the U.S. Citizens Association's interest to name them.

Speaking of naming, a little research revealed that "U.S. Citizens Association" is this organization's second name in a so-far very brief existence. It sprung to life under the name "Better Government Association," only to discover that a Chicago-based civic watchdog group has had that name since 1923. The original BGA did not find this imitation flattering and filed for an injunction against the newcomer, which solved its problem by adopting its current label.

So what is the USCA about? It's a "non-profit organization made up of U.S. citizens." Membership is free and donations are optional, but the Association's own website sets fundraising as a major goal.

In essence, conservative capitalists need an organization with mega-money and the expertise to compete with the organized efforts of the liberal socialists. This must include getting the message of the conservative talk show hosts and conservative organizations out to 100% of the public.

The USCA identifies itself as "capitalist" above all, rather than conservative (except as a modifier) or Republican. In the ad, the Association emphasizes that "Both parties, Republicans and Democrats, have been guilty of taking our country in a direction which most U.S. citizens do not want it to go. They have taken it in the direction of socialism." The ad then goes on to accuse Democrats exclusively of "a push for socialism that has never occurred in the history of the United States."

Just so everyone understands, "It is capitalism that has made the United States the most powerful nation in the history of the world. Capitalism means free enterprise and freedom for citizens. Socialism means government controls everything and no freedom for anyone else."

"Socialism," the copywriter asserts, "has never worked in history for any nation that has ever tried to produce prosperity for its citizens. Socialism only produces prosperity for the socialistic government rulers. In capitalist countries, only 10% of the people temporarily live in poverty. In socialist countries, 99% of the people live in poverty permanently. The 1% socialist rulers permanently live a life of prosperity and ultra-luxury."

The Association claims that President Obama knows all this as well as they do. Why, they ask, does he seem to want socialism for America? The answer is plain greed. "Because socialism provides much more power to the government rulers than capitalism. It prolongs their power and, in many cases, makes their power permanent. Their reasons are totally selfish; they don't care about you. They care about themselves."

Do you want proof? "Barack and Michelle Obama's wealth has skyrocketed and they live a life of luxury. The Obamas throw lavish parties on a regular basis at the White House for their socialist friends. Those parties include flying in Kobe beef from Japan which costs over $100 a pound. Michelle Obama wears designer clothes to these parties which cost thousands of dollars. These exorbitant parties cost taxpayers millions of dollars."

Oh, the scandal! And what a contrast to the the Spartan simplicity that prevailed under the previous President and his humble librarian wife -- or at least so you're left to believe, since this advertisement cites not one single statistic to back up any of its claims about the Obama's luxuries or the "permanent" poverty rate under socialism, which to no one's surprise is defined as broadly, vaguely and unfairly as possible. But nothing different was really to be expected from a paid advertisement that goes on to denounce health care reform, the "fraud" of man-made global warming, the "destructive force" of labor unions, and the notion that the top 5% of income earners should be called "rich."

But because the Association fills a page with small type and bullet points, some readers are bound to mistake it for an objective presentation of facts, if they aren't immediately tipped off by the headline. If anything, its obvious partisanship (or, more precisely, ideological bias) guarantees that it will convert nobody, but will only provide talking points to those already converted to the reactionary side. But it wasn't really designed to convert anybody; it's meant to get hysterical reactionaries to join the U.S. Citizens Association and receive its free membership kit, "which will instruct you on how you can change the government to benefit you." Again, "donations are optional," but anyone who sends in the membership coupon should expect to get asked for money very often. The Association needs money to "educat[e] the public with truthful information such as that presented above." In other words, it needs money to buy ads in order to get more members to beg money from. I'd be interested in seeing what their office parties look like.

01 September 2009

No Fear, No Competition

In renouncing his intention to challenge Senator Gillibrand next year, Rep. Peter King makes a telling twofold confession. The more predictable part of it is his admission that he wouldn't be able to match Gillibrand's presumptive (and perhaps now pre-emptive) fundraising advantage. The more interesting part is why. King confesses that Gillibrand is an insufficiently threatening figure. She "generates neither strong support nor opposition." Allegedly operating "under the radar," Hillary Clinton's successor does not provoke the anxieties or hatreds that King now admits to be necessary for fundraising among Republicans. If they can't be goaded into fear or hatred of a Democrat, King implicitly concedes, a Republican campaign in a red state is hopeless. He regrets Gov. Paterson's failure to tap Caroline Kennedy for the Senate seat, explaining that a Kennedy would have been provocative enough to make his fundraising work much easier.

Hope is not completely lost for Republicans, since former Gov. Pataki is reportedly contemplating a challenge. Nor is it lost for more progressive Democrats, since despite the retreat of Rep. Maloney Gillibrand still faces at least one announced challenger for the party nomination. But King's own admission of hopelessness is a kind of bankruptcy filing for Republicans, at least in New York State. Taking money out of the equation, Gillibrand remains a liberal (albeit a borderline "Blue Dog") and King is a conservative. Given the present ideological antipathy, the difference alone would seem to necessitate a challenge, whatever the cost and whatever the chance for success. But King has said, in effect, that there is no point to a Republican challenging a Democrat in the Empire State unless people can be terrified or infuriated into making campaign donations. The principle of the thing is secondary, though King may be adopting a literal "Let George Do It" approach to the problem. If this is the state of the opposition in this state, what kind of opposition is it, really? The object of competitive elections is to give voters people to choose from, not to raise money from paranoids. If there is genuine opposition to Gillibrand, money should be no object for it, and fear should not be a factor. Should Pataki also demur from the challenge, the resulting vacuum should welcome principled opposition from other parties, whether I like them or not. Fearless opposition in every sense of the adjective is essential to democratic republicanism. If Republicans don't want to play if they don't think they can win, they ought to step aside in favor of someone who gives a damn.