28 October 2009

All Conservatism is Local

The Conservative Party of New York State has gained national attention for its surging campaign to elect Doug Hoffman to represent the 23rd District in Congress over a Republican candidate as well as a Democratic nominee. A victory by Hoffman might establish the Conservatives as a viable alternative to the Republican Party for Empire State conservatives, or it may prove a tactical maneuver, whether Hoffman wins or loses, in a long-term strategy for movement conservatives to take over the state GOP and its fundraising apparatus.

Is the Conservative Party in a position to exploit a Hoffman upset? It's hard to say. Hoffman may be the face the party chooses to showcase in the 23rd District, but it shows different faces depending on where you are in New York. Like all smaller parties here, the Conservatives play the cross-endorsement game to get better ballot position, and Conservatives in each county make their own tactical decisions with little apparent regard for ideological consistency statewide.

Consider Albany, where I live. In the state capital city the Conservative Party has endorsed Jerry Jennings for mayor. Jennings is the Democratic incumbent and heir to one of the most enduring political machines of modern times. He is opposed by a Republican, Nathan Lebron, and a Working Families candidate, Corey Ellis, who lost to Jennings in the Democratic primary. The Hoffman candidacy has shown that Conservatives don't consider themselves obliged to endorse Republicans, but to prefer an archetypal machine Democrat to a GOP candidate is strange. Stranger still, some of Jennings's cronies were defeated by insurgents in the Democratic primaries, but remain on the final ballot on the Conservative line.

Perhaps the Albany party practices literal conservatism. Is it not the conservative thing, leaving ideology out of it, to stick with the machine that has ruled Albany from time immemorial? It should be obvious, anyway, that the conservatism practiced in Albany is something quite different from what the nation sees in the 23rd District. Would the Albany Conservatives ever support someone like Hoffman to represent themselves in Congress, or in City Hall? A more important question is whether the statewide Conservatives need to enforce some sort of ideological consistency throughout New York in order to take the maximum advantage of whatever success Hoffman has next month. That is, will conservatives need to infiltrate Conservative county organizations in order to make themselves a viable statewide party? Or should New York conservatives worry less about ideological correctness and more about allowing local parties to represent constituencies in ways that Republicans or Democrats don't? This is going to be a tough question for them, because another way of saying, as I suggest in my title, that all conservatism is local is that all conservatism is relative. For ideological conservatives that may be unacceptable, but local or literal conservatives may prove more pragmatic.

27 October 2009

Afghanistan: The Bipolarchy War

The Washington Post has given considerable space to an important military advisor who has resigned in protest against American military policy in Afghanistan. Coming from the country, he's come to the conclusion that continued American presence in Afghanistan on the current scale only fuels the ongoing insurgency while miring the United States in what he describes as a multifaceted civil war. He offers no reassurance about the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but he has obviously rejected the arguments of both the Bush and Obama administrations that Taliban control of the country would provide the terrorist network with an essential base for the organization of attacks on other countries. He sees the conflict in Afghanistan as a war of all against all, with many factions having no more ideology than what he calls "valley-ism," a desire to run things on their own ground without interference from anyone else. It sounds like some people's ideal of how the U.S. itself should work, but Afghanistan seems to be a place where tribes and sects can get away with it, no matter who tries to tell them otherwise.

This is a case in which the American people confront a bipartisan consensus that the Taliban must be prevented from retaking power in Afghanistan at all costs. For public consumption, at least, that consensus depends on the premise that a Taliban restoration would crucially enhance al-Qaeda's ability to strike at the U.S. Dissidents exist on the left "anti-imperialist" fringe of the Democratic party and, if anywhere, on the right "isolationist" fringe of the Republican party. These are the same elements that opposed the invasion of Iraq, and they're the necessary building blocks of any mass movement against either entrenchment or escalation in Afghanistan. Neither is strong enough to place its own party on an antiwar platform, but would they be capable together of appealing to a non-partisan "center" that also questions the necessity and cost of the Afghan war? Is Afghanistan an issue that could provoke a mass political realignment in the U.S., replacing the old left-right divide with an admittedly bipolar division between interventionists and anti-interventionists? Could foreign policy be the 21st century equivalent of the slavery-expansion issue in the 1850s, when an earlier Bipolarchy failed to represent public opinion and was destroyed? Or have all the structural changes in our electoral process since then made it possible for the present Bipolarchy to defy public opinion in favor of its own consensus and its own choice of issues without risk of consequences? We can't begin to formulate answers or predictions until we get a better idea of actual public opinion on Afghanistan, but we can see plainly enough right now that a Bipolarchy consensus does exist on the issue, whether the American people like it or not.

26 October 2009

Government and Wealth

For nearly a week I've been brooding over Governor Paterson's opposition to the federal government's plan to cut salaries and bonuses for executives of bailed-out companies. The Democrat opposes the idea because it will cost New York State the tax revenue that would come from its cut of the extra money the executives would have received. It has been pointed out to him by fellow Democrats that, since taxpayers would be paying those salaries via bailouts, cutting salaries and bonuses could be seen as a kind of tax cuts. But you can see why the Governor of New York might not be impressed by tax-relief spread out across the country at a loss to his own state. Other observers might argue that Paterson "sees" an essential truth that his fellow partisans miss: that the wealth-creation of the great executives fuels government itself and that anything government does to curtail that wealth-creation is done at government's own peril. But maybe our gubernatorial oracle detects a kind of paradox without recognizing it as such. He belongs to the party that is always accused of wanting to redistribute wealth unjustly, robbing from billionaire Peter to pay plebeian Paul. The implication of the charge is that government somehow impoverishes Peter and thus ultimately undermines Paul's chances for survival to the extent that Paul has come to depend on the government largess taken from Peter. The further implication is that all this activity somehow undermines Peter's power to generate wealth. But isn't Paterson telling us something else? Hasn't he implied that for the redistribution system to work, that system must place no limits on Peter's wealth, and that in reality the liberal redistributionist agenda depends on the continued existence of super-wealthy people and enterprises, and that therefore liberals are no enemies of the super-wealthy at all? Yet Republicans persist in calling liberals the enemies of wealth, while liberal Democrats are glad to play that role before the appropriate audiences. Some Republicans in their enthusiasm for the game even call Democrats socialists, but the system that Paterson has implicitly described looks anything but socialist. It looks more like a system of exploiting capitalism that still allows capitalists considerable leeway in exploiting workers. Some capitalists might resent the system, but calling it socialist only shows how spoiled they've grown in this country.

Don't even get me started on the other argument against the salary caps -- the warning that it will cause a "brain drain" as the masters of the universe seek better opportunities elsewhere. Unless they have hidden talents for acting, singing, or sports, I see little cause to worry.

23 October 2009

Should Presidents Beg?

I hadn't gotten a line from Barack Obama since last November. He'd written to me often last year asking for money, but even though I never sent him anything I supposed that he wasn't too annoyed with me, since he won anyway. Now, after nearly a year, he's sent me a note asking "Can I count on you?" The man deserves credit for perseverance at least.

The President called me by name on the envelope, but the letter inside, disappointingly, is addressed to "Dear Friend." Things look serious on the evidence of his opening: "There are times in the life of our nation when America's course can only be set by the concerted effort of citizens determined to pull our country through. This is one of those times -- and your personal involvement in moving America forward is absolutely essential."

He reminds me that "as you know, we have put in place a comprehensive strategy designed to attack America's economic crisis on all fronts. It's a strategy to create jobs, to help responsible homeowners, to restart lending and to grow our economy over the long term. And we are beginning to see signs of progress. But, let's be clear with one another. We are facing extraordinary challenges and only extraordinary and sustained effort will help meet them."

Obama has done his part. "I have acted on the economy, health insurance reform, energy and education with the knowledge that a 'business as usual' approach will not serve our nation," he writes, "Now, you and I must act with the understanding that it will take exceptional energy and effort to mobilize public support for our plans."

So what would the President have me do? He'd like me "to make a decision right now to support a fundamentally important Democratic Party initiative." Would that be giving money to congressional candidates? No, but it does mean giving money. This time he wants me to contribute to Organizing for America, which he describes as "a coming together of people from every corner of our nation. Folks who understand just how much is at stake are working side-by-side and asking, 'What can I do to lift America up?'"

I visited Organizing for America's website, which is www.barackobama.com. The organizing organization's main activity, at first glance, is to incite Americans into telephoning their representatives in Congress and firming up their resolution to support the President's agenda.

"Let me be clear," the President resumes, "This initiative is essential to our efforts to renew America." But if anything, it seemed superfluous. If Obama wants me to call up Paul Tonko and warn him not to be a Blue Dog, or to put the spurs to Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, he could have said so in this letter. I admit that sending the letter itself costs money and might justify a bit of panhandling, but maintaining the website as well as sending letters only makes the organization more costly, however hip and modern it makes it appear. And for that he wants a minimum of $25, an ideal of $35, and $50 or $100 if I can spare it -- and I should make the check out to the Democratic National Committee. So I got the letter, which means that the President got his message out without the techies whose site I never visited before today, yet he expects me to subsidize the techies. Worse, he wants me to help "carry our message to living rooms, coffee shops, front porches and community centers all across this great country of ours," but rather than trust me to carry it myself (admittedly a risk on his part) he wants me to pay other people to do it.

Call me an old fogy if you must, but the mere idea of the President of the United States asking for a handout of any sort is offensive to my small-r republican sensibilities. I don't know if George W. Bush made similar pleas because I wasn't on the "right" mailing lists at the time, but whether he's set a precedent or not, this President has lowered himself a bit in my judgmental eyes for this bit of begging. You'd like to think, also, that any President would at least at times pretend to stand above parties, or at least above fundraising, but who am I kidding with this idealism? Barack Obama is a creature of the Democratic Party, and for any Democrat, as for any Republican, fundraising is job one. In this particular case, he isn't doing his job.

22 October 2009

G.W. Bush as a Motivational Speaker

The news that George W. Bush and his wife have signed up to be motivational speakers has to be one of the most absurd stories of the week. Here is a man widely perceived to be a failed President, who before his election was a byword for failed entrepreneurship. What can he say to motivate the go-getters who attend such extravaganzas?

The former first family will join a tour of motivators that made a stop in Albany a few months ago. Then, Rudy Giuliani, Colin Powell and Steve Forbes were part of the caravan, and my understanding is that some of these worthies will appear with the Bushes on their performance dates. Some people who attended the Albany event expressed surprise at an unadvertised degree of Christian proselytizing tied into it. That bit of intelligence, combined with a certain concentration of Republican personages suggests to me that the "Get Motivated!" managers have hired Bush on the calculation that he will draw great crowds of people who still admire the man for ideological or religious reasons, who see him, despite all other failings, as a moral exemplar compared to his predecessor and an indisputable "real" American compared to his successor. While these encounters are apolitical events, they are also rallies of the small entrepreneurs and would-bes who have formed a major part of the GOP constituency since Barry Goldwater's time, and on some level, for some reason Bush is still an idol to them. That may be because he still shares their values despite his inability to practice them effectively in private life. He strikes me as a "power of positive thinking" type, which is perhaps not so different from "hope" as some might think apart from an inferred emphasis on self-enrichment. I have no doubt that even "Dubya" can come up with a medley of slogans, bromides and affirmations for his motivatable audience. They may in fact come naturally to him, as glossolalia does to some people. I'd be curious to learn what he does say, though I suspect it would take a Mencken or a Thomas Frank to do it justice.

21 October 2009

GOP: "We're not the enemy!"

Lamar Alexander protests too much. Today he warns the President not to make an "Enemies' List" of his critics, all of them after all being well-meaning and honorable men, and he cautions Obama against the fate of the last President known to keep such a list, Richard Nixon. Alexander insists that all these honorable men, and there are honorable women involved as well, no doubt, "want to work" with the Administration. Does that extend to Rush Limbaugh, who has said that he wants the President to fail? Would Alexander acknowledge that Limbaugh, at least, is an enemy? Are the birthers enemies? Or do they just want to work with the President in clarifying beyond the last reach of doubt the where and when of his nativity for history's sake?

Were I in a more generous mood, I might grant that there's nothing personal to most Republican criticism of Obama's policies, and that from their own sensitive perspective such criticism should not rise to the level of enmity in anyone's mind. But when the criticism is so comprehensive that the President would have to abandon his own principles to "work with" an opposition that he is constitutionally unobliged to recognize, thanks to the verdict of the voters, Republicans should not sound so offended when their determination to deny Obama any fruits of his victory is described in fair language as enmity. The Republican party and its radio auxiliaries are waging a fear campaign to thwart the will of the electorate. How can that not look like enmity to at least some people?

For some people, Alexander's warning comes too late. I've seen supermarket tabloids that take the existence of such a list for granted and claim to report regularly on additions to it. Their market is those people who were already convinced a year ago that Barack Obama was their enemy, and those people are a constituency that no Republican would dare repudiate. Anyone who can stand to listen has probably heard such talk of enemies' lists on radio as well, or seen reports of lists online. This preemptive presumption of enmity means that enmity toward Obama existed, and he has enemies, independently of any perception of their enmity on Obama's part. I see no reason why the President's friends can't state this fact, although I'd advise them to identify such people as enemies of economic recovery, enemies of working people, enemies of public health, enemies of peace, etc., depending on the context, so that listeners realize that those named aren't enemies of Obama alone. For people like Lamar Alexander I'd recommend more honesty about their own positions and motives. And for him specifically, if he believes that Obama's recognition of his enemies must lead him to Nixonian tactics and a Nixonian fate, I might suggest an Idiot of the Week nomination.

Against the Bipolarchy in New York State

The special election to fill the vacancy in New York's 23rd congressional district has its own Wikipedia page, allowing interested readers to keep track of the candidates, endorsements and controversies involved. The race has gradually captured the attention of the national news media because it has exposed fissures within the supposedly-monolithic conservative movement which even the most obtuse or ideologically blinkered observers can't ignore.

The vacancy opened when the President nominated the Republican incumbent, John McHugh, to become Secretary of the Army. Apparently unconcerned about the future of a "red" district, albeit one that preferred Obama to McCain last November, the incumbent accepted the appointment. Assemblyman Dierdre Scozzafava was nominated by a committee of Republican county chairmen in lieu of a primary election. A failed Republican candidate, Doug Hoffman, accepted the nomination of the Conservative Party, a long-established institution in New York that usually endorses Republican candidates automatically. Scozzafava is seen as too liberal on social issues including abortion and gay marriage, to receive Conservative support.

The most recent poll cited by Wikipedia credits Hoffman with support from 23% of the people surveyed, while Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate, leads the race with 33% support. Scozzafava has 29% support in the latest survey. She will also appear on the Independence Party line, while Owens will have the Working Families line.

A growing host of conservative pundits, politicians and pressure groups has endorsed Hoffman, the most famous names among them being former presidential candidate Fred Thompson and neocon columnist William Kristol. Scozzafava has been endorsed by a more eclectic coalition that includes Republican elected officials, Newt Gingrich, the New York State United Teachers union, the National Rifle Association and the fanatically Democratic Daily Kos website. Kos himself, usually hostile to any challenge to Democrats from the left, here supports a Republican he deems more liberal than the Democratic nominee. He excuses himself by labelling Owens a "Blue Dog" who had been an independent before his nomination.

My own view is that someone who wants to advance the Democratic agenda, but is not greedy, should support Hoffman. Since the seat was Republican in the first place, Hoffman's victory would not be a loss in Democratic voting strength, even if people argue that anything short of Democratic victory in every election is a rebuke to President Obama. Never mind him. The opportunity here, not just for opportunistic Democrats but for all enemies of the American Bipolarchy, is to give a "third party" the elusive viability that would come from electing a member to Congress. My hope is that, given the climate of dissatisfaction with Republican representation of the conservative movement, a Hoffman win would embolden the Conservative party to contest more elections in its own right rather than complacently endorse Republican candidates. The benefit to Democrats in the short term would be, ideally, a permanent split in the anti-Democratic bloc. The benefit to everyone in the long term would be the emboldening of progressive and leftist New Yorkers, in the absence of a monolithic Republican-conservative bogeyman, to make their own break from the Democratic party, to challenge incumbents or fill vacancies in "blue" districts with actual independents committed to the agenda of progressive constituents rather than that of a big-tent national committee. The odds are probably against this best-case scenario, but if it even seems possible it ought to be encouraged.

But ideology blinds some Democratic sympathizers to the opportunity in front of them. I saw some discussion of the 23rd district on the Rachel Maddow Show last night, and the theme seemed to be the menace of extremism represented by the Conservative candidacy, the malign effect of which was anticipated to be the further purging of moderates from the Republican party. Hoffman's rise was not attributed to self-assertiveness on the part of Conservatives, but to a desire to punish the local GOP for nominating a moderate. It was interesting to see progressive propagandists pontificate on whom Republicans should nominate and the implicit duty of conservatives to defer to Republican leadership. It looked as if Maddow was trying to urge some kind of "moderate" discipline on both the GOP and conservative voters, and in that moment I almost heard the Bipolarchy itself talking. It goes without saying, I suppose, that Maddow's audience will want another Democratic vote in Congress despite the party's existing comfortable majority, but the show's attitude is of a piece with Kos's intervention to save Republicans and conservatives from themselves. Neither sees the potential benefit of even this minimal subversion of the Bipolarchy because they clearly dislike the people who'd be crashing the party. Conservatism licensed by the Republican party is barely palatable to them anyway, so one can imagine how unlicensed conservatism will strike them. It would probably be much like how the rise of unlicensed progressives and leftists would strike them,should the opportunity arise.

Addendum: Damon Eris at Poli-Tea has been following this race intensively for a while. Here's a collection of his comments on the campaign.

20 October 2009

The Limits of Partisan Immunity?

Leaders of the New York State Democratic party, including both U.S. Senators, are pressuring state senator Hiram Monserrate to resign following his conviction on a misdemeanor assault charge. The conviction does not automatically cost him his seat, and he is expected to receive a light sentence because the crime is officially his first offense. But the incident that led to the trial was a high-profile one which, despite his girlfriend's recanting of her charges against him, gives the senator the image of a batterer of women. Here we may discover the limits of the partisan immunity principle. In practice, partisan immunity protects a legally embattled politician from losing his seat by accusing his accusers of persecuting rather than prosecuting the politician for partisan motives. Both major parties invoke the principle without citing it as one, defenders of Dick Cheney accusing Democrats of partisan persecution, on one hand, and defenders of Rep. Rangel accusing Republicans of the same thing. Monserrate is in a different position because he's been convicted in a criminal court. At the same time, Democrats are probably calculating the actual advantage to the enemy of Monserrate's unrepentant persistence in office, compared to the alleged advantage one party often accuses the other of seeking. Worse yet, Monserrate most likely has few friends among New York Democrats. He collaborated with another Hispanic senator in a power play earlier this year that temporarily threw control of the upper house into Republican hands until the two renegade Democrats got what they wanted, which above all seemed to be the toppling of a black majority leader. At this point, Monserrate's only hope of survival depends on whether his district is one that could be claimed by a Republican in the next election in the absence of his own personal following. The New York Democracy now considers him expendable, however, and this shows that partisan immunity is a concept formulated for partisan rather than individual benefit. If the party does not benefit from extending immunity to an individual politician, that individual will be left to his own devices, at best.

19 October 2009

Another Advance Obit for Newspapers

The new Harper's has an impressionistic piece by Richard Rodriguez on the "twilight of the American newspaper." He's less interested in blaming technology for successfully supplanting print media than for inexorably stripping people of that sense of place on which newspapers seemed to depend. With virtual friends all over the world, he suggests, people are less rooted and less interested in what's happening in their immediate physical environment, and without that vital interest in locality, newspapers become meaningless. As he puts it, "When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed." Here's a thicker excerpt:

We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill....We might say now: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor [all cities that lost papers this year -- ed.] The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with "I." Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin's wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl-punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from city.

Rodriguez wants people to realize that their virtual lives are some sort of second-class sham, an inferior version of a reality that they're being denied by people who want to sell them some cheap alternative. This passage is an attempt to get people's populist dander up:

You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons....They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo....they want to see their names in hard copy in the "New Establishment" issue of Vanity Fair....they want five-star bricks and mortar and DO NOT DISTURB signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART) they will do it.

It's a partially comforting fantasy to believe that the vanguard of unwelcome change isn't made up of true believers but cynical con men who only believe in money; if you can show that they're nothing but hucksters who've sold the hottest fashion line to a nation of emperors, you might get the masses to renounce their new fancies and return to their old ways. At the very least, such a fantasy assures you that there are still people who think and feel as you do, even if they're your mortal enemies. But even if we call Rodriguez's suspicion speculation rather than fantasy, my hunch is that it's at best only partly true. The pod people aren't necessarily ruled by some urbane cynical sensualist. At the same time, who's actually said that we mere proles can't have or shouldn't want all the things Rodriguez writes about. I must have missed that while living through the last generation. Still, if we stick to his basic point that a growing detachment from our physical homescape is a factor in the decline of newspapers, there's room for agreement. It doesn't exactly point us toward solving the problem, if we want to save newspapers, but Rodriguez never claims that there is a solution. His is one of the best feel-bad essays I've read this year.

The Official Opposition Network

It seems wrong somehow for the Obama administration to notice a certain ideological editorial bias on the part of one of the country's news networks. Any implication that opposition media might be treated differently from those that don't dissent so much goes against the American grain and, worse, tends to confirm the supermarket-tabloid level suspicion that the President has a Nixon-style "enemies list." Fox News itself no doubt welcomes the recognition while it denies the charge, and it will certainly confirm the paranoid impulses of some of their talkers. In some eyes, to be identified as opposition media is to be targeted for censorship. The talkers have long feared a revival of the Fairness Doctrine as an instrument of suppression, and some also claim to dread a Venezuela-style denial of routine license renewal as a means of driving opposition opinion off the ether. If the Democrats at all think that this discussion might make Fox change its ways, they're terribly mistaken. It will more likely intensify the network's alarmist tendencies while allowing its talkers to portray themselves as brave dissidents against the great and powerful government.

Before television, Americans took the partisanship of news media for granted. They knew that a Hearst paper or Time magazine would have a Republican or conservative bias, while certain other papers or journals were known to go the other way. But apart from Edward R. Murrow, television news aimed for an objectivity that took the simple negative form of not endorsing candidates for office or otherwise editorializing on issues of the day. Whether there ever can be such a thing as political objectivity is debatable, of course, and TV news's objectivity inevitably took the form of a kind of consensus that in time seemed more obviously to exclude newer viewpoints from Goldwater-style conservatism to hippie radicalism. As Goldwaterism evolved into Reaganism, yet failed to pervade the news media, Reaganites and their successors finally decided that the news networks were not objective, but biased against the entrepreneurial-conservative viewpoint. At the same time, though less loudly, progressives denounced the same media entities as "corporate media" that excluded viewpoints critical of aspects of capitalism. Reaganite efforts to create alternate media, from the Washington Times to talk radio to Fox News, finally provoked a reaction in the turn of MSNBC into a Democratic-progressive vehicle, so that now television news looks pretty much like newspapers did in the 20th century. If anything, we may be heading back to the 19th century, when there were papers known to everyone as mouthpieces not merely for parties but for the administration itself. And some people may want to go all the way back to the 18th century, when partisan papers were sometimes seen as dangerous or even subversive instruments of faction: unprincipled, self-interested or foreign-subsidized opposition.

There is a hostility toward Fox News among Democrats that exceeds, in my view, the critique of "liberal bias" that led to Fox's invention. Fox fans might call it simple resentment of whatever success Fox has enjoyed in persuading people, though I doubt they do more than preach to the converted. The perception that Fox has actually converted people probably does fuel Democratic hostility, but so does a belief that TV, despite the hallowed example of Murrow, has some public obligation to objectivity that newspapers never shared. By "Democratic," in this case, I mean those left-centrists who don't accept the "corporate media" charge of critics further to the left. The assumption that conservatism, however defined, exalts private over public interests may also contribute to the notion that Fox and other conservative media are somehow-illegitimate factions rather than legitimate participants in the national discussion. Whatever the reason, the Reaganite determination to challenge a (to them) outdated consensus, to contest premises formerly taken for granted across the board, certainly rankles intellectually complacent liberals who would rather not hear the challenges than have to answer them. By comparison, the emergence of MSNBC is a healthy development to the extent that it represents a critical engagement with Reaganism, even if MSNBC and Fox together may appear to take TV discourse to a new low level of insult and paranoia. The consensus objectivity of the past was exclusionary (and the American Bipolarchy itself is a creature of consensus), and the more media reject the idea that an obsolete objectivity should prevail, the more people may be emboldened to demand time or a channel for their own viewpoints rather than expect the news establishment to speak for them. The thing to be avoided is a new quasi-consensus based on the assumption that Fox, MSNBC and CNN (presumably representing the center) together represent all the political possibilities available to Americans. But for the moment the thing really to be avoided is the self-righteous assumption that there's something wrong with Fox News having a viewpoint of its own, even if you think that viewpoint is wrong.

17 October 2009

"Can You Hear Us Now?" Probably Not

Travelling between Albany and Troy this afternoon, I suddenly realized I was going right past the headquarters of the Albany Times Union at the time of the promised "Can You Hear Us Now?" demonstration, organized to protest alleged media neglect of the tea party/September 12 protest movements. As it turned out, a protest was going on. My passing estimate was that there was somewhere between a dozen and a score of people putting on a show. I was in no position to stop, but I did notice one sign that read, "No More Socialized Anything!" and another that reiterated the titular challenge. As vehicles passed, the demonstrators agitated for drivers to honk their horns in support. I didn't hear any, but I'm sure some did during the afternoon. It was a nice day in town, but perhaps a little too cool to be standing on a street corner away from the city center when there were leaves to look at or football games to watch. I suppose I should give credit to those that showed, but at the same time there was no proof of an aggrieved mass movement there.

16 October 2009

One Man's Obscenity...

Sarah Silverman, a comedian, appeared on Bill Maher's talk show the other day and said something obscene -- or at least it was obscene to the ears of the Catholic League, that institution of bigotry-envy that acts as the Popish equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League or the Rev. Jesse Jackson. According to the League's own website, this was Silverman's obscenity:

What is the Vatican worth, like 500 billion dollars? This is great, sell the Vatican, take a big chunk of the money, build a gorgeous condominium for you and all your friends to live in…and with the money left over, feed the whole f---ing world....You [The Pope] preach to live humbly, and I totally agree. So, now maybe it’s time for you to move out of your house that is a city. On an ego level alone, you will be the biggest hero in the history of ever. And by the
way, any involvement in the Holocaust, bygones…If you sell the Vatican, and you take that money, and you use it to feed every single human being on the planet, you will get crazy p---y. All the p---y.

In the opinion of Catholic League grand inquisitor Bill Donohue, this is an "obscene rip" at the Vatican and a "filthy diatribe," and further proof that there is "something pathological" to Maher's indulgence of anti-Catholic commentary. Donohue explains that the Church has done quite enough for the world by running "more hospitals...than any other private institution in the world," though the story of the Widow's Mite might come to even irreligious minds. One wonders whether the obscenity that so offended the admittedly easily-offended Donohue was Silverman's dirty words or the idea that Catholicism should live up to the teachings of its founding spirit.

Donohue's bigotry-envy is blatant in his crack that Silverman's little rant wouldn't be tolerated "if the chosen target were the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the state of Israel." Whether targeting that official makes sense compared to the wealth of the Vatican is one issue, but the more obvious one is Donohue's persistent insistent that any criticism of Catholics or Catholicism be equated with bigotry against Jews or blacks. Once upon a time, when Catholicism was identified with particular ethnic groups in certain countries, like the Irish in the U.S. in the 19th century, you might have made a case for anti-Catholicism as a form of bigotry. But I define bigotry as hostility based on who you are rather than what you do, and anti-Catholicism is self-evidently a critique of the beliefs and practices of Catholics rather than their mere existence. Catholicism is no longer identified with particular races of people the way Judaism is identified with Jewish ethnicity or Israeli nationality, or the way Islam is often (if wrongly) identified with Arabs or Pakistanis. Catholicism is a value system and like every other value system it is accountable for its values. But before I go further I should note that Silverman never criticized any aspect of the Catholic value system, unless you count a papal habit of accumulating property and art treasures. All she said was that a rich institution ostensibly dedicated to helping the poor could go further in helping the poor by giving up its most ostentatious wealth. But Donohue is so thin-skinned as a matter of choice that he feels compelled to lash out as if Silverman and Maher had reformed the Know-Nothing party. I might have made him a late contender for Idiot of the Week, but Donohue is such a chronic offender that he really doesn't belong in the weekly competition anymore. He belongs in an Idiocy Hall of Fame.

15 October 2009

Idiot of the Week: Keith Bardwell

The year is 2009 and the son of an interracial relationship is President of the United States. But as this story relates, in Louisiana there is a justice of the peace named Keith Bardwell who refuses to perform interracial marriages out of concern for the suffering the children of such pairings might experience. Given the year, Bardwell is quick to deny that he is a racist. To prove his point, he notes that he performs marriages for black couples all the time. But he believes that neither whites nor blacks fully accept mixed-race people. Bardwell's age isn't given either in the wire-service story or the original local report, but the Hammond Daily Star does tell us that he's been a JP for 34 years. Had it been 54 years his attitude might be more plausible. To his credit, he did tell the aggrieved couple that they could seek permission from another JP, which they did. But that doesn't change the fact that this man probably won't be owning a football team anytime soon.

Limbaugh Punted

As I wrote earlier this week, I had no problem with Rush Limbaugh buying a share of an NFL franchise. It was an issue on which even politicized people had a right to have no opinion whatsoever. Now that the mastermind of the scheme to purchase the St. Louis Rams has booted Limbaugh from the group, it will only enhance the radio talker's standing among his dittohead followers as a martyr to political correctness, reverse racism or whatever he wants to call it. Now that I think of it, it would be amusing to see if Limbaugh's listeners start a retaliatory boycott of the NFL (to punish the players' union) and switch their loyalties to the new football league that's in the works. For all I know, someone has already proposed this, but somehow it seems unlikely. In any event, even though I think objectively that the entire scandal has been unfair to Limbaugh, it really does amuse me to see this champion of capitalism kicked out of a money-making venture due to somebody's arbitrary calculation that he was bad for business.

14 October 2009

"Can You Hear Us Now?" Good?

Tea-partiers and like-minded people think that they aren't getting proper recognition from the media. They feel that the turnout for the September 12 march on Washington was underreported and the event itself largely ignored by most major news organizations. The next phase of the struggle, then, is to get into the faces of the media, metaphorically or not. Operation "Can You Hear Us Now?" has targeted news organizations for mass calls and e-mails, and in Albany organizers are planning a live event, a demonstration outside the offices of the local newspaper, the Times Union. Of course, with the event scheduled for a Saturday the demonstration may not get as much coverage as the protesters hope for, but they presume that their proximity will make it impossible for whatever reporters are there to ignore them.

Again, people opposed to "big government" are showing initiative I once thought them incapable of. The revival of a populist streak has in many cases overcome what I took to be a characteristic conservative aversion to crowds or the mob mentality. It seems like the "right" has the field to itself, apart from still-aggrieved minorities, because the "left" suffers from a complacency based on the belief that Barack Obama is their President. Instead of taking to the streets themselves to pressure the Democratic regime to push through more progressive reforms, they look at opposition demonstrations and imagine the brownshirts on the march. Some won't go that far in their fearful rhetoric, but many of those most likely still see the tea parties and like phenomena as irrational mobs. My point is not that they aren't irrational mobs, but that it's odd and even unseemly to see the "left" look down its collective nose at mass demonstrations. Maybe it's understandable when they're demonstrations of which leftists don't approve, but shouldn't it be the leftist strategy to prove that they are the party of the people by bringing out the bigger battalions, to answer every tea party or anti-"big government" outburst with a larger demonstration of support for bigger and better government in the people's interest? I can't help but wonder whether too many liberals, progressives, etc. simply act now on the assumption that the Democratic Party is the proper vehicle for all their aspirations, and that to go off the rez to make demands of the Dems would simply confuse things. It should come as no surprise if that's the case, since that's what most reactionaries do when the Republican party holds the national reins. But the reactionaries are doing more now while out of power than they've done during past cycles of exile. The question now is whether progressives can match or top them while they arguably have some chance of influencing government by doing so, or whether it'll take yet another Democratic crack-up to galvanize them into more constant action.

Snow(e)blind: Coalition Government in America?

The elevation of Senator Snowe to the status of a national heroine yesterday was a pretty contemptible display. I have no problem with her voting for the Democratic health bill, but the idea that her superfluous vote somehow legitimates the measure more than the already existing majority did disgusted me. The Democratic party from the President down, as well as the allegedly liberal media, have in effect endorsed the notion that Bipolarchical coalition rather than majority rule is the governing principle of the United States. The majority party's desperation not to appear "partisan" despite the electorate's grant of power to rule on its own betrays the extent to which partisanship has become an extra-constitutional organizing principle of American politics. A sufficiency of voters has decreed over the past three years that Democrats do not need to consult or compromise with Republicans in order to govern the country, but Democratic leaders have decided that they must. They've enabled the spurious argument that the Republican party is a constituent element of the United States that is entitled to a degree of representation bordering on the Polish liberum veto despite the outcome of recent elections. To Republicans themselves, the idea that one Senator's vote makes the bill bipartisan must seem even more ridiculous than Democratic efforts to compromise with a party that only had power to complain and lie. But they benefit just the same from the universal concession that their party must be consulted even when it hasn't earned the right. And they will argue hereafter, as they already have, that no policy to which they haven't consented is really legitimate, no matter what the Constitution says.

The American Bipolarchy is a historically accidental coalition of parties, each of whose efforts to manipulate the electoral system to its own benefit has benefited both parties to the effective exclusion of ideas and interest groups outside of a "mainstream" of fundraising entities that finance political advertising. It isn't a matter of conspiratorial collusion except insofar as it's motivated by a shared sincere belief that any "third party" must represent a dangerous form of extremism. Neither party has reason to disrupt a state of affairs that benefits both in turn, but neither would really object to the destruction of the other -- or so one assumes until one reads news like yesterday's, which reminds the reader that one partner in the Bipolarchy seems to be more naive than the other. I suspect that many if not most Republicans would happily see the "Democrat" party destroyed or at least turned into a harmless clone of Republican conservatism. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the Bipolarchy -- and that it's a good thing. That comes with being liberals, I suppose. But there are numerous voices and interests who, by Bipolarchy logic, belong on the Democratic side of things, yet feel that they were not consulted on health care reform -- and because they did not belong to the official opposition, they didn't have to be. The party that they're told is theirs was more solicitous toward a single opposition Senator than toward many more people who are supposedly their natural constituents, and that supposedly makes the end product more representative. That's how representative government works in this country.

13 October 2009

Who Needs a Peace Prize, Anyway?

As soon as I heard about the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, I knew that I would be in agreement with many people I normally don't agree with in thinking he hadn't earned it. I expected to hear or read opinions so obnoxious in every other regard that I'd be tempted to rethink my opinion of Obama's award. What I didn't quite expect was Cal Thomas's latest column, in which he argues that Obama's prize is meaningless -- because the Nobel Prize itself is meaningless.

"The peace prize concept is flawed," Thomas writes, "because the problem of war does not lie with those who would make peace, but with those who would make war. If the Nobel Committee were realistic, it would stop handing out peace prizes and start issuing awards for those who have confronted evil and produced peace in nations that have only known oppression." For example, during the 1980s Thomas would have preferred to see the Nobel committee honor that holy trinity of anti-communism, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. To show that he's not entirely partisan about this, however, he suggests that Bill Clinton "would also be a legitimate candidate for his efforts that stabilized Bosnia."

Thomas disagrees with the whole concept of the Peace Prize, as generally understood, because he does not believe that peace can be achieved by renouncing war. "The Nobel Committee apparently believes that by diplomatically singing 'All we are saying is give peace a chance' evil people will study war no more and be so impressed by our intentions they will lay down their arms."

For Thomas, the persistence of "evil" makes it impossible for people of genuine good will to renounce war. "Evil" people (e.g., Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) will never renounce war themselves, he states, but can only be "defeated." In a passage that proves only that Thomas watches too much television, he compares the Nobel Committee to "like-minded male wimps around the world [who] idolize Michael J. Fox instead of John Wayne and find their role models in the liberal ladies of 'The View,' not in muscular characters like Jack Bauer (and Chloe, who gets it) on '24.'" The TV theme had already been established when Thomas suggested earlier in the column that the committee may as well have awarded the Peace Prize to Homer Simpson.

"The question should be: why, despite man's best efforts, including the League of Nations and United Nations, have we been unsuccessful in eradicating war?" Thomas writes. It's a question worth asking, but not if you're going to answer from the Bible. Thomas opens the column with an epigraph from Daniel: "War will continue until the end of time." He finds the explanation in James 4:1-3: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

Give Thomas and James the benefit of the doubt for a moment, if only so we can ask whether that statement describes only people who are anti-American, or only terrorists. If not, then why does Thomas describe only them as "evil?" Who is so pure that they can be trusted to fight evil and bring peace -- or whatever Cal Thomas recognizes as peace -- without doing evil themselves? Doesn't Ahmadinejad believe himself to be fighting evil in the name of peace? Doesn't Osama bin Laden think the same thing? And isn't the habit of calling "evil" anyone who disagrees with you or has different interests from yours just another thing that man must renounce before peace really has a chance? A teacher Thomas often claims to follow said something once about someone mocking the mote in someone else's eyes while ignoring the beam in his own. It makes you wonder how Thomas can even see the monitor when writing his columns.

12 October 2009

Do Parties or People Matter?

Here's a link to an interesting debate taking place between the Poli-Tea Party and Organized Exploitation blogs over the relative merits of independent party building and "infiltration" of the existing parties. Paul of Organized Exploitation argues that an infiltration strategy is more cost-effective than any attempt to build a new party from scratch, while d. eris of Poli-Tea insists that any attempt to infiltrate the major parties will compromise the infiltrators. Paul disagrees, and seems to disagree with the idea that the Bipolarchy (or what Poli-Tea calls the duopoly) is a fundamental structural problem of American political life. His idealistic view is that people of principle can transform either major party into an instrument of principle. My own small intervention in the debate has been to note that history proves the effects of past "infiltrations" to be short-lived. Whether that's structurally predetermined or just a tendency that can be overturned with greater dedication is still open to debate, but I sympathize with Poli-Tea's position that breaking the "duopoly" is an end in itself, if not a national necessity. Where we really need people of principle (and will) is among the general electorate. Parties are built all the time, but the Bipolarchy won't be broken until people disabuse themselves of the notions that they can only entrust power to those who already have it, and that those who don't already have power are self-evidently incompetent to exercise it. No effort to infiltrate a major party will ever dissuade citizens from the prevailing sense of dependence upon the two-party system as the exclusive possessors of governmental expertise. A successful infiltrator may win a personal following of principled voters for a party, but when that person passes from the scene the party remains to exploit his or her memory without necessarily living up to the hero's principles, and people remember the party as the instrument of principled reforms whether it intends to continue them or not. I challenge anyone to argue that this feeling of dependence on the major parties is a good thing. If it isn't, then we should avoid any strategy that will actually perpetuate this dependence.

Let Limbaugh Waste His Money

The National Football League players union seems on the verge of declaring its opposition to Rush Limbaugh acquiring a share in the ownership of the Los Angeles Rams franchise. Several players have said that they would refuse to play for the Rams if the group which includes Limbaugh manages to purchase the team. Their animosity stems from Limbaugh's short-lived tenure as a football commentator on ESPN a few years ago. He was driven from the airwaves after he claimed that the sports media showed favoritism toward Donovan McNabb, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, whom Limbaugh considered overrated, because they wanted a black quarterback to succeed.

Our local Limbaugh fan, Mr. Right, is quick to clarify that his hero did not say that McNabb was an untalented or inferior player. He thinks that Rush (Limbaugh's fans are on a first-name basis with him) was correctly pointing out a "politically correct" tendency in the media to overvalue black players in order to create feel-good scenarios of achievement overcoming racism. Limbaugh's critics claim that he implicitly devalued McNabb and was saying that he only got recognition because of his skin color when he might not have deserved it otherwise. Inevitably, they accused Limbaugh of racism.

Limbaugh is used to this. NBC, accused of liberal bias itself, is making a big deal of giving Limbaugh air time today in an exclusive interview, during which he had this to say on the race issue: “There’s a cliché about conservatives: racist, sexist, bigot, homophobic. Now, you announce you’re a conservative, you’re automatically all those things to the critics. Even though you’re not, that’s what they say you are. They are the real racist, sexist, bigots and homophobes. They are the ones that look at people and see skin color, gender, sex orientation, victim, group."

This is an odd comment because critics presumably weren't judging Limbaugh by how he looks but by what he says. But he was trying to make the usual argument against "reverse racism," which is that liberals refuse to judge people as individuals according to the content of their character, but assign them to categories of victim or oppressor. This is the typical position of those who want an immediate transition from racism to color-blindness without any compensatory phase, and demand to be trusted unconditionally when they say they are unbigoted. They're bound to be disappointed, especially when, like Limbaugh, they're so transparently hostile to the idea that they are answerable to black people for their attitudes and for large parts of their nation's history. I'm not saying that the heritage of slavery and racism makes black people the unique moral arbiters of American politics, but just as it can't be up to blacks exclusively to say when the country has paid up its moral debts, it's not up to whites like Limbaugh exclusively to say so, either. And that's why he rubs so many black people the wrong way, I suspect: he speaks as if black people are still fundamentally accountable to white people as if they were still an alien element in the country that has to earn white approval before they're finally recognized as fully American. But black Americans no more have to prove their national or patriotic credentials to him than he must to them.

Having said all that, I think resistance to his having a share of ownership in a sports team is ridiculous. It's not as if he, as one partner among many, could render the Rams lily-white even if he wanted to -- and I doubt he would. Right now the Rams are a crap team, and if Rush Limbaugh wants to flush his hard-earned money down such a toilet, I don't see why anyone should object. And think of the satisfaction so many people would feel if Donovan McNabb is still playing when the Eagles get to play Limbaugh's Rams and throws five or six touchdown passes against them. Why would anyone deny themselves that experience for petty political reasons?

09 October 2009

Partisan Immunity and Rep. Rangel

"Partisan Immunity" is my term for the practice within the American two-party system of politicians evading or attempting to avoid accountability for questionable conduct by claiming that any demand for accountability is politically motivated for partisan advantage. The principle is at work in efforts to protect Vice President Cheney and other members of the Bush Administration from accountability for their condoning or encouragement of torture. It benefits both sides of the American Bipolarchy, of course, and it can be seen at work now as the Democratic party rallies around Rep. Charles Rangel, the embattled chair of the Ways & Means Committee who's accused of tax evasion. The public letter issued by the Congressional Black Caucus sets the tone, accusing the Republicans of violating bipartisan principles in their attempt to drive Rangel from power. While it can't be denied that the GOP wants to exploit Rangel's troubles for partisan advantage, that fact doesn't compel anyone else to suppress their indignation at what's been reported about the congressman. The reminder of the traditional presumption of innocence would ring more true if Democrats more consistently extended the same courtesy to similarly accused Republicans. But whoever's ox is gored, the argument is the same; the charges are less legitimate than they appear on the surface, but are part of a partisan plot to destroy the opposition or "criminalize politics." Thus, whether they intend to or not, the two major parties enable one another. Arguably, a modus vivendi exists based on the understanding that the shoe will be on the other foot eventually and the party that now hold the potential power to prosecute may be prosecuted itself in turn for mere policy differences. It all follows from the notion that there are only two sides in politics and that nothing is done unless it benefits one party or the other. It would be harder, though not impossible, for partisans to cry partisanship if there were more parties in government. That simply follows from the larger point: if you want to hold both parties accountable for the state of the country, you have to be ready to vote for other parties. If you don't, you enable the American Bipolarchy and you help perpetuate the partisan immunity principle.

Idiots of the Week: The Norwegian Nobel Committee

With all due respect to the President of the United States, I had been under the impression that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to people who had actually accomplished some mission of peacemaking. When Theodore Roosevelt got it a century ago, for instance, it was for his role in brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War. What war has Obama ended? If anything, he's going to escalate the Afghan War, and one might think that alone would disqualify him, no matter what you make of developments in Iraq.

Let's be honest: Obama is receiving the Peace Prize because he is not George W. Bush and not a neocon or neocon-friendly Republican. The Committee makes this clear in its press release. It states: "Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts." But if Obama is being rewarded for better American behavior, where's the practical proof of it? I'll give him credit from backing off the provocative missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe, but over this weekend you should be able to find numerous left-wing bloggers to tell you what a travesty this award is. I look forward to reading Alexander Cockburn's comments in particular. Until he posts himself, here's an angry commentary from Counterpunch, the website Cockburn co-edits. For every leftist who protests the award, of course, there'll be a Republican who treats it with contempt precisely because he thinks Obama earned it through some form of "appeasement." Wait for Charles Krauthammer in particular on that point. But Republican criticism of the award can be ignored because Republicans are contemptuous of peace on anything but their own unconditional terms. The true, substantive criticism will come from the "anti-imperialist" left, which for some observers will confirm the rightness of Obama's course.

My own complaint is that Obama is being rewarded for no more than good intentions. That these impress the Committee so much only reflects its understandably low regard for American diplomacy over the last eight years. But shouldn't the keepers of the world's most prestigious peace prize hold recipients to a higher standard? I suppose not, based on the recent trend of making it a kind of "Person of the Year" award for philanthropists, human rights activists and so forth. Al Gore got it for writing books and making speeches, not for anything he did when he had some real political power to make a difference in the world. Obama has gotten it for using real political power to make speeches. But, as Churchill is said to have said, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Unfortunately, people are focusing on the jaw-jaw to the point that they seem to miss the war-war still going on. We could look at Afghanistan (or Pakistan) three years from now and decide that the Committee was even more idiotic than I think them now -- but let's hope not.

07 October 2009

Beware False Prophets

Mr. Peepers said a forbidden thing in Mr. Right's presence this afternoon. He had seen a TV show in which someone had said that the world is running out of oil.

"There is absolutely no evidence of that," Mr. Right protested. He thinks there are abundant oil deposits in Alaska, for starters, and that observation led him to bemoan the fact that "one major party in this country doesn't want us to be energy independent."

"Why do you think that is?" I asked.

"Because the Democrat party doesn't want to offend its big donors in the environmental movement," he explained.

"So you blame the environmentalists."

"I blame the Democrats."

"But you said they're taking that position because of environmentalists' influence. So why do you think the environmentalists object to energy independence?"

"Look, I don't want to say anything that'll offend you--"

"I don't necessarily consider myself an environmentalist, so fire away."

"Well, the problem with environmentalists is that they worship the planet."

"Worship? You mean with rituals and scriptures?"

"Look, they've replaced God with the planet Earth."

"I don't know if it's that stark. I suppose some of them identify God with the Earth or Nature."

"They don't normally use God's name. I know that much."

"But what's that got to do with the environment?"

"Because I don't think that Almighty God would end the world that way. I don't know because we can't know the mind of God, but I can't believe that He would.do it that way."

"Well, don't you have some idea already of how God will do it?"

"All we know is that he promised that he wouldn't cause another Flood."

"But what about the Book of Revelation? Isn't that a detailed scenario for how God is going to end the world. Isn't that what all those End-Time preachers say?"

His next answer surprised me.

"If someone claims to know the mind of God like that, that's blasphemy. We simply cannot know. Maybe God in His wisdom might let us run out of resources and go back to primitive society. I just find that hard to believe."

It must make for awkward moments at right-wing gatherings if Mr. Right isn't willing to indulge some of his fellow ideologues in their prophetic interpretations, but I suppose his comment was a timely reminder to me that not all right-wingers are evangelical or pentecostal seers. So many people claim the right to interpret the supposed word of God when it gets obscure or symbolic that it's kind of refreshing to have someone say that it's none of his business. But at the same time, while he's careful not to violate his own rule by ruling it out entirely, he feels strongly that God would never starve mankind of natural resources. Something about his concept of God makes that seem implausible to him, or is it something about his idea of man's relationship to natural resources? After all, despite Mr. Right's assertion about environmentalists, I'm sure that many devout Christians of all denominations do feel threatened by global warming or nuclear power or declining oil resources. Rather than blame religion for people denying environmental threats, we should ask whether people use God as a facade to justify their own preferences and prejudices as part of the way God meant them and the world to be.

The Fringe Around the Center

In the latest issue of The New Republic Michelle Goldberg tags Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mongering radio and internet host, as "the next Glenn Beck," presumably meaning that Jones will be the next mass phenomenon of multimedia extremism. Already, you don't have to go very far in many political discussion threads before someone recommends that you visit one of Jones's websites or watches one of his videos. Rather like an invitation into a cult whose innermost teachings are revealed only much later, you get only vague hints from his followers regarding Jones's storyline. If Goldberg has summarized it correctly, keeping it close to the vest is probably the practical thing to do, like not telling any aspiring Scientologist about the evil aliens until after they've paid a high price. To my knowledge Jones doesn't charge for his gnosis, but the full revelation could be just as disillusioning.

As Goldberg puts it, Jones "purports to reveal a eugenics-obsessed global elite bent on eliminating much of the earth's population and enslaving the rest. Members of a Satanic international network, Jones explains in an ominous voiceover, have been 'steering planetary affairs for hundreds of years. Now, in the final stage, they prepare for open world government.'"

There's nothing new to this, of course, but what's recent is Jones's position as a "truther," one who believes that the U.S. government carried out the September 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. As a matter of consistency, he seems to believe (as I infer from Goldberg) that the government also bombed the World Trade Center on its own in 1993. He is legitimately non-partisan, believing Clinton, Bush and Obama, from what I tell, to be equally evil. "To him," Goldberg writes, "both Democrats and Republicans are puppets of the same set of rapacious moneymen who have hatched the New World Order conspiracy."

Alex Jones is the funhouse mirror image of those who believe that there is such a thing as an American Bipolarchy, that the shared monopoly of political power between two parties has harmed the country. While I would argue that the Bipolarchy is in part a structural accident, but one that has been exploited consciously for all it's worth by its beneficiaries, Jones seems to see the two parties as conscious agents of some still higher power with an Orwellian agenda of dominance for cruelty's sake. His anger is bound to be tempting to those who are frustrated with two-party politics, and Goldberg notes that he's been patronized by dissident elements on the "left" and "right" alike. She names Dennis Kucinich and Noam Chomsky as leftists who've appeared with Jones, while the great hope of many independents from last year, Rep. Ron Paul, has been a frequent guest.

The main point of Goldberg's article, however, is that elements of the Republican media, who might be expected to curse Jones, and in the past have, for his truther speculations, have grown more tolerant of him as he has inevitably focused his fury on a Democratic administration. He has appeared as a friendly guest on at least one Fox News program, and at least one Republican congressman besides Paul has made an appearance on Jones's own show this year. This is actually small evidence, but one might expect a Republican policy of zero tolerance of Jones because of his slanders of President Bush. The apparent lack of such a policy smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy -- the latter being the sin Republicans most like to attribute to others.

It's a sad fact that Jones's conspiracy mongering is one of the few forces in American politics that seems capable of transcending party differences. His is a debased form of populism that portrays "real" Americans not only threatened by "special interests" but under concerted, deliberate attack by them. One doesn't have to be "left" or "right" to feel profound powerlessness in today's America, or to feel tempted to blame this on a single malevolent and omnipresent power. Americans in particular may have an aversion to feeling controlled that may exacerbate their suspicion of actual powers in the world. But none of that excuses lying. Insanity may excuse itself, but unless Jones wants to confess himself mad such a preponderance of evidence exists to establish the facts of September 2001 that anyone who persists in conspiratorial fantasies must be called out as a liar. No movement against the Bipolarchy should be built on lies, and there should be no place in tea parties or any other independent movement for liars. As for Jones, he is probably not so much the next Glenn Beck as the Father Coughlin of our time.

06 October 2009

Is Popular Sovereignty a Menace?

Back when a man killed an abortion doctor earlier this year, many observers compared the perpetrator to an Islamist terrorist. According to Daniel McCarthy in The American Conservative, one blogger even dubbed the shooter a "Christianist" to make him equivalent to "Islamists." Interestingly, McCarthy isn't going to dispute that the shooter and the terrorists are similarly motivated. He just thinks that religion has less to do with it than many people think.

McCarthy is willing to grant that Muslim terrorists are fighting for a system of rights, much as the American shooter was fighting for the "right to life." To him, this means that mere religion is only a secondary motivation for either party. "The primary one is political: the belief that the state must uphold the values of the people (rightly understood), and should it fail to do so, ordinary men may take action." The American gunman and Osama bin Laden are equally in thrall to the idea of republicanism, the small-r kind as opposed to capital-R partisanship.

The essence of republicanism, according to McCarthy, is that "the people" must have their way. But his critical commentary reads more like a critique of populism, which is always a kind of selective republicanism. This comes through when he discusses the U.S. "In the United States, every four years it transpires that some people are more truly American than others -- they are the 'real America,' regardless of how outnumbered they might be by inhabitants of the coasts and cities."

I don't agree with all of McCarthy's premises, but he seems to be on to something. He accepts that all people are susceptible to what St. Augustine called the libido dominandi or the "appetite for power," and that republicanism taps into a universal libido dominandi that was once enjoyed only by monarchs or aristocrats. "Yet because the republican spirit leads people to believe that their will and values should be expressed in government, it follows that when the state fails to live up to those expectations, individuals feel thwarted and alienated," McCarthy resumes, "A passion has been excited, then denied....[W]hen a government that claims that it is ["the people'] fails to do what the public -- or the person who thinks he speaks for the public -- demands, the entire theory of legitimacy upon which the state rests has been undermined. A practical justification for revolution and the psychological impetus for one (frustration) has emerged."

This is interesting because it seems to explain behaviors on both left and right without taking either side. The problem seems to be that republicanism may not be compatible with pluralism, the idea that society or polity can be composed of different groups, not all of whom can expect to get their way on every question. Extremists on the right see themselves as the "real" Americans, while their counterparts on the left see themselves as "the people." Both attitudes are exclusionary and come with an expectation of entitlement, an idea that politics should be set up to serve them in particular. When they don't get their way, some evil force has stolen their rightful power, and the most extreme reaction is to take up arms against the "usurpers." McCarthy doesn't address populism or pluralism, but these suggestions shouldn't be inconsistent with his own findings.

McCarthy himself would like to see Americans show more deference to their legislators. The Founders set up a deliberative branch of government just in order to dampen grass-roots passions, he suggests. He adds that many recent problems stem from the other branches of government (the President, the Supreme Court) going over the heads of legislators. He cites both Roe v. Wade and President Bush's conduct after 9/11/2001 as instances where the other branches ignored Congress and incited "popular mania," the Court in Roe unintentionally, Bush deliberately to further his own agenda. McCarthy seems to suggest that if everyone lets Congress have the final word on the grave issues of the day, that would give us our best shot at moderate results.

That conclusion depends on the assumption that Congress represents something like the collective, diverse will of the American people. "By their very nature, legislatures give voice to many views," he states, but that assumption grows more questionable as more people question whether the Republican and Democratic parties adequately represent the will of anyone but themselves and their donors. It could be argued that partisanship in its Bipolarchy form, with its focus on Presidential elections and "big tent" politics, has rendered Congress incapable of playing its role of really representing diverse views and moderating all their passions. But the parties themselves may well argue that their big-tent approach accomplishes the goal of moderating extreme viewpoints. The present state of party politics should prove them wrong, but where do we find alternatives to the Bipolarchy parties that won't repeat their mistakes? Won't any new party that aspires to national power claim to represent either "the people" or the "real" America? Could any party that doesn't so aspire succeed in toppling the Bipolarchy? McCarthy's own rather predictable suggestion is that people learn from religion that they can't have their own way all the time. It seems to me that we shouldn't need myths to teach us that, but maybe we need new myths to teach us that the national interest requires some concessions to people who aren't exactly like us and some obligation on our part to listen to people with different interests or values who are nevertheless just as American as we are. We don't need God to show us that we don't rule the universe; we just need to acknowledge the existence of other people and relearn the value of compromise.

05 October 2009

ACORN: Partisan Immunity and the "Borat Effect"

The new issue of The Nation features Christopher Hayes' apologia for ACORN in the aftermath of videos that showed employees in some local offices of the much-hated organization readily offering tax and business advice to a self-proclaimed (albeit fraudulent) pimp. Since a number of the videos have been released (Hayes claims that the provocateurs have withheld videos that show ACORN employees in a more positive light) Democrats have flung the activist group from them like a grenade with the pin pulled. Congress has stopped a flow of government money that had averaged about $3,500,000 a year. Hayes describes this as a political vendetta fueled by Republican hostility to ACORN's voter-registration agenda -- as if that explains all the Democratic votes in favor of cutting off ACORN's federal funding.

Hayes acknowledges ACORN's "manifold dysfunctions," including a million dollars worth of embezzlement by the founder's brother. He admits that some of the ACORN responses to the pimp-provocateur were "unconscionable," but tries to excuse as much of it as possible. "Mostly," he writes, "the tapes are a testament to what might be called the Borat Effect: human beings' intense socialization to be helpful and not rock the boat, even when confronted with someone doing something objectionable, outrageous or preposterous."

He is less forgiving of what may be evidence of the same effect when it comes to an entity he really abhors: the corporation formerly known as Blackwater. He notes the admittedly deplorable fact that this entity still feeds off government contracts despite revelations of malfeasance and incompetence. His implication, at least as I infer it, is that ACORN should have been given a similar pass. Hayes regards the sudden ease with which Congress cast out ACORN as a clear debunking of Republican conspiracy theories of the organization's malign power. If anything, Congress's conduct proved ACORN's powerlessness, which seemed only fitting given the group's dedication to helping the powerless of society.

This all reads like a too-late attempt by Hayes to invoke the principle of partisan immunity in ACORN's defense. "The other side gets away with stuff" is a key component of partisan-immunity reasoning, as is Hayes's effort to indict ACORN's persecutors. Because Republicans hate it, ACORN should have been protected by the Democratic majority in Congress, Hayes seems to argue. But Hayes is right about something. The Democrats' easy abandonment of ACORN belied any claim that the organization was a power in party councils or even a necessary tool of the majority party. ACORN may have been useful to the party, but it was not of the party, so the Democrats' own partisan-immunity shield was not extended to its loyal vote-recruiters.

It may be that Hayes wasn't invoking partisan immunity but an older principle that transcends partisanship: the idea that the poor and their friends are always right, or at least should be cut considerable slack when they screw up. ACORN's failings are excused, from this perspective, because of its funding troubles and because of the often-desperate circumstances of the people ACORN deals with. That's all cause for sympathy for the people who may depend on ACORN, but if ACORN employees are engaged in sleazy practices, and if that seems to be systematic, than ACORN itself should be held to account. The fact that "the other side gets away with stuff" doesn't excuse anybody and is no justification for even an implicit argument that one group shouldn't be held to account until another is, or all are. Justice is never absolute in scope or effect, and often seems unfair for that reason, but that's never an excuse for bringing no one to justice. If Hayes wants Blackwater to be held to account, let him use all his influence to that end, without using Blackwater as an excuse for ACORN.

04 October 2009

A Quick Guide to the Constitution Party

The one political party to set up a booth at last weekend's "Great Awakening" in Troy, New York, was the Constitution Party. I remembered this outfit from the 2008 presidential election as an anti-war Christian Right party. With the next presidential vote three years away, I was curious to see what their current priorities are.

First, before I dismiss it, I should acknowledge the CP's answer to the rhetorical question, "Don't We Already Have A Conservative Party?" The answer, as you'd suspect, is "No," because the Republican party doesn't practice absolute zero tolerance on abortion by shunning politicians who don't take the absolutist stand. Republicans as well as Democrats also support international treaties that undermine U.S. sovereignty. It isn't clear if the CP has met an international treaty it liked, but on the other hand it does believe that a conspiracy's afoot in which both major parties are complicit to create a "North American Union." Republicans also fail the CP's conservatism test by voting to fund the allegedly unconstitutional Department of Education and doing little to counteract a perceived erosion of Second Amendment rights.

The CP also addresses the question, "Why Not Reform the GOP Instead of Building a New Party?" Its brochure states bluntly that "the restoration of constitutional government is not on the GOP agenda in Washington." That's because the Republicans aren't as committed as the CP thinks they should be to really reducing the size of government and eliminating departments the CP deems unconstitutional. Those who might be called "movement conservatives" face a "glass ceiling" in the GOP leadership, the CP claims, while the Republicans are "completely unwilling to nominate a constitutionalist for President," i.e., a candidate who endorses the CP's reading of the Constitution. The CP is absolutely correct to blame this on the Republicans' "big tent" philosophy, but takes Lincoln's side against that approach by calling the GOP "a house divided against itself." Of course, when Lincoln used that phrase he meant not that the house would fall, but that it would become all one thing or all another. That ought to mean there's a chance that the GOP could be converted to movement conservatism, but for reasons the CP doesn't discuss it considers that so unlikely that the movement should defect to the CP.

So what does the Constitutional Party offer to the movement. I said this was going to be a Quick Guide, and so it will be, since the first item on their list of principles is a deal breaker. The CP is dedicated to "Restoring America to 'One Nation Under God.'" Just to elaborate a little, the brochure states that "The Constitution Party is the only party that acknowledges the sovereignty of God and believes that our rights come from God not government. We are committed to returning our country to government under the Constitution which is based on Biblical principles."

I suppose I'm no more a believer in "big tent" politics than the Constitution Party, since I reject anyone who contends that political virtue depends on religious belief. I'd equally reject anyone who said it depended on the lack of religious belief, if anyone did. There may be reasons to argue for smaller government, but the chance of government impinging on God's sovereignty is not one of them. The CP's rhetoric about God throws their whole constitutional interpretation into question. Worse, its stance most likely compels partisans to hold suspect anyone who refuses to affirm belief in the God of the Bible. Any party that implicitly reduces atheists or agnostics to second-class citizenship deserves no future in this country. If my choice is between "big government" and theocracy, which is what the Constitution Party seems to preach, give me a big helping of man-made, man-amenable government, please -- only we need new chefs in the kitchen.

02 October 2009

What's Wrong With the Country? A Pundit's Diagnosis

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, published a little jeremiad against the American political system this week. His basic argument is that partisanship has gone too far, to the point that one of the major parties basically refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a President belonging to the other. This habit began, he writes, with Republican demonization of President Clinton, and was answered with Democratic demonization of the second President Bush. Friedman thinks the situation has gotten worse with today's Republican demonization of President Obama; the Facebook death poll discovered this week seems to have disturbed him greatly.

Friedman doesn't blame the two-party system itself for our current dismal state. Instead, he points to media developments over the last twenty years that, in his view, encourage the exacerbation of partisanship:

The American political system was, as the saying goes, "designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots." But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system. Those factors are: the wild excess of money in politics; the gerrymandering of political districts, making them permanently Republican or Democrat and erasing the political middle; a 24/7 cable news cycle that makes all politics a daily battle of tactics that overwhelm strategic thinking; and a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world. Finally, on top of it all, we now have a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.

Friedman fails to note that the geniuses who designed our system did not plan for an American Bipolarchy. Instead, they anticipated that regional factionalism and local economic interests would make it impossible for legislatures to coalesce into two parties; the system was designed to prevent any permanent faction from regularly wielding the majority power that Republicans and Democrats constantly fumble back and forth between each other. He doesn't attack partisanship itself, but isn't his thesis that media evolution has exacerbated partisanship best explained by the fact that bipolar partisanship already existed to exploit the new media?

According to Friedman, the changes he describes "add up to a difference in degree that is a difference in kind -- a different kind of American scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of national interest." He thinks this can be changed, though not overnight, with renewed civility essential to the change. Beyond this he has nothing to suggest in his column. But the new media aren't going to go away, and I doubt he would every propose censoring them, except in extreme cases like the death poll. That means Friedman has to look at partisanship itself and the way the media have empowered it. He may think partisanship valuable to democracy, but he should learn to distinguish partisanship as a synonym for pluralism from the actually existing Bipolarchy that more than ever forces politics into all-or-nothing, even life-or-death gambits, depending on the point of view. There is no space for the moderation Friedman demands when two parties have a co-monopoly on political discourse and every interest in polarizing the electorate by publicly maximizing the extent of their differences. If Friedman wants to be taken seriously he has to acknowledge the necessity of breaking that co-monopoly. But we'll see if he has anything more to say on that topic.