30 November 2009

Is Capitalism an Ideology?

Slavoj Zizek's newest book is First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. The title refers to recent history repeating itself, the tragedy being the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the farce being the 2008 economic crisis. Together, Zizek claims, the two events undermined the post-Communist "end of history" consensus and threw the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism into doubt. He warns readers against capitalist attempts to impose a narrative on the past decade that shifts the blame from capitalism itself to other malign forces. In the course of this he attempts an expose of capitalist ideology in order to refute claims made by capitalist apologists that their preferred economic system is not an ideology but simply a practical system proven to work. He quotes one such apologist, the economist Guy Sorman, who laments the fact that capitalism never seems to arouse the same passions that ideologies do:

From the intellectual and political standpoint, the great difficulty in administering a capitalist system is that it does not give rise to dreams; no one descends to the street to manifest in its favor. It is an economy which changed completely the human condition, which has saved humanity from misery, but no one is ready to convert himself into a martyr of this system. We should learn to deal of this paradox of a system which nobody wants, and which nobody wants because it doesn't give rise to love, which is not enchanting, not a seducer.

Zizek doesn't buy this:

This description is...patently untrue: if there was ever a system which enchanted its subjects with dreams (of freedom, of how your success depends on yourself, of the run of luck which is just around the corner, of unconstrained pleasures...), then it is capitalism. The true problem lies elsewhere: namely; how to keep people's faith in capitalism alive when the inexorable reality of a crisis has brutally crushed such dreams? Here enters the need for a 'mature' realistic pragmatism: one should heroically resist dreams of perfection and happiness and accept bitter capitalist reality as the best (or the least bad) of all possible worlds.

It looks to me that Zizek is trying to fit under the "capitalism" label a lot of attitudes and "dreams" that pre-exist that particular economic construct. There are other cultural influences that make people resist dreams of perfection, particularly the Christian belief of inherent imperfectibility based on original sin but also an irreligious skepticism grounded in cynical misanthropy. But capitalism, of all systems, should be capable of pitching itself differently to different audiences. It can offer the sort of dreams Zizek describes to plain materialists (though not the martyrdom-inspiring dreams Sorman seems to envy) while offering the more intellectual likes of Sorman the consolation of believing that they are undeceived by those other dreams. It can also co-opt more hot-blooded dreams, love of country especially, to keep people motivated to defend capitalism against "alien" influences. It's still worth asking whether we're still describing capitalism at this point or some other cultural construct or ideology that finds capitalism its ideal organizing instrument. I've still got plenty of this current Zizek to read, and I'm waiting to see if he gets this all sorted out.

Bipolarchy Logic: The 'Perils of One-Party Control'

Gary Andres has just published a routine op-ed warning the Democrats against overconfidence in assuming that the 2008 elections represented a long-term political realignment in the U.S. He has nothing really special to say apart from his curious suggestion that the major parties' aspiration to control all branches of the government is self-defeating.

"[T]his year revealed that controlling all levers of power endangers a party's political health. It haunted Republicans in 2006 and Democrats in 2009," Andres writes. But how can that be? Shouldn't that represent total victory? Instead, Andres hints that victory guarantees eventual defeat. Why? Apparently because the party with exclusive power is stuck with exclusive responsibility for anything that goes wrong in the country. Thus the Republicans were blamed for Hurricane Katrina and the near-collapse of the Iraqi occupation and lost Congress in 2006, then the White House in 2008. While Andres snarkily remarks that the "mainstream" media isn't as quick to blame President Obama for this year's national blunders as they were to blame previous ones on Bush, he seems certain that if conditions remain bad or grow worse, the Democratic party will be blamed and will pay at the polls in 2010 or 2012.

Obama himself may see things the same way. That might explain why he seemed so desperate to apply a patina of bipartisanship to his major legislation. Republicans may believe it as well, which would explain why they've refused almost all such invitations from the President. As the minority party, the Republicans are officially irresponsible; they are not to be blamed if government measures fail. They are reborn in innocence as soon as they're cast from power while the opposite party takes its turn as the scapegoat. The opposition party is under no obligation to contribute constructively to necessary national projects. The logic of the Bipolarchy requires them to assume adamant opposition so that they can claim innocence at the next election. For voters, Bipolarchy logic dictates that all national failures are the fault of one party or the other, and can be remedied by switching from one party to the other. But too much success, resulting in "one party control," tips the balance the other way and threatens each party in turn with scapegoat status.

This is arguably how a Bipolarchy works in a period of national decline. Gone may be the days when one party could ride sustained prosperity to sustained hegemony. If the nation remains stagnant or slips further, each party may get more turns in power and lose power more rapidly as each takes blame for failures that are national rather than partisan. The cycle will accelerate, perhaps without limit, so long as voters continue to believe the myth of the defeated party reborn in innocence through opposition. So long as each party can blame the other for whatever goes wrong, the larger system can go without the critical examination it needs or the critical reconstruction it may need. The cycle can be broken, one hopes, if people can be made to remember that both parties have failed before, and to understand that in crisis times to stand aloof and claim innocence, as the opposition party now does, is also failure. No third party will accomplish this if it only offers more of the same of one sort or the other, exaggerated "liberalism" or exaggerated "conservatism." Despite the illusory comprehensiveness of the choice offered by the Bipolarchy, someone needs to say that both "liberalism" and "conservatism" (not just Democrats and Republicans) have failed enough already, and that there has to be another choice if the country is to survive.

27 November 2009

Not That Kind of Black Friday

The stock market closes early today, which may prove to be a lucky break considering the grim financial news coming out of Dubai, where overextended state-run businesses are having problems making their scheduled debt payments. I've heard that anywhere from $60 to $100 billion may be in jeopardy, though this Bloomberg report warns that things could be worse yet. The last NYSE quote I saw had the market down by more than 150 points, but it could have been worse and might have gotten worse had the market kept open for normal hours. In any event, I'd like to see someone blame this one on politicians forcing the poor old banks to give mortgages to poor people.

25 November 2009

Doug Hoffman Re-Concedes

For a week a flame of hope flickered for Doug Hoffman's Conservative party campaign for New York's 23rd Congressional District. A recount in some voting districts appeared to put Hoffman close enough to Bill Owens, the Democratic Representative-elect, for the outcome to be changed, in theory, by a count of absentee and military ballots. Hoffman went on Glenn Beck's radio show to "un-concede" the election and resumed fundraising.

Yesterday, with less fanfare, Hoffman again conceded the election to Owens. It was not, however, as complete a concession as objectivity might require. On his website, Hoffman wrote:

[My supporters] proved that average Americans can stand up and make their voices heard, all the way from Watertown to Washington. They proved that the voters are sick and tired of wasteful government spending, high taxes and an ever growing deficit. And most importantly, that when it comes to politics: principles do matter. While we may have lost the election, this race proved that Americans are sick and tired of the status quo in both Albany and Washington.

What Hoffman's supporters proved and what the voters proved are two different things. The Hoffman movement did prove that an ideologically motivated group can mount a credible challenge to their Bipolarchy minders (the Republican party in this case) and drive a major-party candidate from the field. That deserves recognition and a degree of respect, regardless of your opinion of what Hoffman stood for. But Hoffman's supporters, in the end, were a minority of voters in the 23rd District. It could be argued that a Democratic victory in a district that had been Republican almost since the party's founding proves the opposite of what Hoffman claims: that voters are not sick and tired of what Hoffman claims to be wasteful spending, excessive taxes, etc. Does the fact that Hoffman lost prove that Americans are not sick and tired of the state and national status quo? I wouldn't go that far. But the fact Hoffman still refuses to concede is that his was the one race in the nation that was a referendum on movement conservatism rather than an alleged referendum on the Obama administration, and the movement lost. Until he admits that, the campaign really isn't over; it's only segueing into 2010 mode.

Land Mines: Another Obama Cop-out

A bipartisan consensus exists on at least one issue in American military and foreign policy: land mines are essential to national defense. As a result, President Obama joins his two predecessors, fellow Democrat Clinton and Republican Bush, in refusing to sign the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty. Your safety, the Obama Administration will have you believe, depends on our unrestricted ability to blow the legs off people. But is it our safety, really, that matters? Consider the explanation given by this Obama spokesman: "We determined that we would not be able to meet our national defence needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we signed this convention,"

Minimal research reveals that one friend in particular is the object of American concern: South Korea. The Korean DMZ is one of the few areas on Earth where people still anticipate an old-school human-wave tank-supported invasion of one country by another. Since 1997, the United States has demanded that the Ottawa Treaty include an exception for Korea on the ground that South Korea's right to self-defense, and America's right to defend South Korea, entitles them to the presumably unrestricted use of land mines to thwart North Korean invaders. Denied the exception, the U.S. implicitly affirms the right to use land mines in all circumstances, and surrenders any moral authority to reprimand anyone who uses them in any circumstance.

The U.S. isn't the only power refusing to sign the treaty. Perhaps predictably, neither Pakistan nor India have signed, but neither has China and Russia. Isn't that excellent company for our progressive land? As I understand it, Senator Obama of Illinois once voted in favor of ratifying the Ottawa Treaty. Some observers will point to his current policy as proof that power makes idealists like him more responsible and realistic about security and military force. But isn't there something else power does to people? What did Lord Acton say...?

24 November 2009

"Botax:" A Brilliant Idea and its Critic

Sound the alarm! Now the mean old government wants to tax plastic surgery. Sounds like a good idea to me, but as soon as someone proposes any tax, even one that can be justified as a luxury, "sin" or even vanity tax, someone else pops up to explain how it will hold back economic growth. Sounding the alarm this time is Christopher Beam, a writer for Slate, whose main argument against taxing these procedures (apart from a lame attempt to claim that poor people have them, too) is that plastic surgery makes people more successful and, arguably, more productive. He can't even make that claim too confidently; objectivity compels Beam to acknowledge skeptics who suggest that prettier people may make more money due to favoritism rather than increased industriousness. But he thinks that the possibility that plastic surgery may improve productivity is reason enough to give up any idea of taxing the procedures. Best of all, though, this tribune against taxation wants Congress to commission a study on the subject before voting on the so-called "Botax." That sounds like money well spent, but where's it going to come from, genius? Maybe I should be more charitable this week, but Christopher Beam sounds like an Idiot of the Week candidate.

A "Brutal Choice" Between Values.

David Brooks attempts an objective look at the long-term stakes involved in the debate over health-care reform in his latest New York Times column. He usually comes across as a moderate conservative, but what's interesting about this article is that his either-or choice isn't necessarily in sync with Republican-vs-Democrat or conservative-vs-liberal dichotomies. The choice he sees us facing is between "vitality" and "security," but who'd object to either one? The problem, Brooks claims, is that there has to be a trade-off, despite the optimistic hopes of Democrats that they could reform health care without imposing extra costs on the productive economy. Brooks credits them with facing up to necessity by advocating higher taxes, but he warns that the current plan will divert resources from the productive economy (i.e. "vitality") to the less productive, with uncertain consequences to American vitality.

Brooks concedes that it's natural in the course of history that nations will want more security for their citizens to make up for the "large amount of cruelty and pain" that came with dynamic economic expansion. He admits that "poor people living in misery" and "workers suffering from exploitation" were part of the price of early American vitality, and that it's inevitable that nations "use money to buy civilization" in the form of social welfare programs, (i.e. "security"). But he worries that drastically expanding health-care costs, despite the Democrats' honest efforts to control them, may undermine our economic vitality in some undefined way. His point is not that health-care reform will fail to provide what it promises; he actually believes that the current legislation "would almost certainly ease the anxiety of the uninsured ... without damaging the care the rest of us receive." He simply believes that, with rare exceptions in history like the U.S. in the mid-20th century, security (or "civilization") comes at a cost to vitality, just as vitality often comes at a cost to security.

There's an implicit premise behind the article, which is that security ultimately depends on vitality. Brooks would probably argue that the country acquired the means to make itself more civilized and offer more security to citizens only because of its early economic vitality, regardless of the costs it seemed to impose in the form of personal insecurity, cruelty, exploitation, etc. He would most likely also argue that security can be pursued by governments to a point when the expenses involved would sap economic vitality so badly that security, too, would be impossible. Would he go further and argue that some personal insecurity is the price we must pay to maintain the economic vitality necessary to guarantee at least some security? I think he might if he could phrase the argument in order to portray the perfect as the enemy of the good. But there's also an unexamined premise in his article, or at least a vagueness about what, exactly, constitutes desirable vitality. "The unregulated market," he notes, "wants to direct capital to the productive and the young." But productivity is one thing, youth another, -- and greed another thing yet. Brooks might ask himself whether greed directs capital to itself in the unregulated market in a way that has nothing to do with productivity and thus could be reformed or dispensed with to allow a sufficient flow of capital toward both vitality and security. He might not think so, but I'd like to see him address the point.

In any event, Brooks sums up the matter in a manner admirably free of the usual ideological cant. He doesn't call this a choice between "freedom" and its opposite, or between "personal responsibility" and "dependence on big government." Nevertheless, Brooks says we face what he calls a brutal choice:

Reform would make us a more decent society, but also a less vibrant one. It would ease the anxiety of millions at the cost of future growth. It would heal a wound in the social fabric while piling another expensive and untouchable promise on top of the many such promises we’ve already made. America would be a less youthful, ragged and unforgiving nation, and a more middle-aged, civilized and sedate one. We all have to decide what we want at this moment in history, vitality or security. We can debate this or that provision, but where we come down will depend on that moral preference. Don’t get stupefied by technical details. This debate is about values.

To see how people are responding to Brooks, here's a link to readers' comments on the article from the Times website.

23 November 2009

The Right Hand Doesn't Know What the Left Hand's Doing

I don't know whether to be amused or annoyed whenever someone calls the President a socialist or says that he's out to "destroy capitalism," as Mr. Right put it recently. Comments like those are put in their proper absurd light when real leftists comment on the Obama administration. Here's Alexander Cockburn, for instance, in the newest issue of The Nation:
It's exactly as I predicted from the start. The past year has yielded one surrender by the administration after another -- whether it be renditions, phone-tapping or an accelerated schedule in giving the finger to organized labors, whose troops had done the most to put Obama in the White House. Even before his election last November, Obama extinguished all hopes -- risible though they were to those who had followed the senator's brief political career -- that he would harvest public fury at Wall Street and curb the power of the banks. He voted for the Bush/Paulson bank bailout and then hired Lawrence Summers -- one of the prime architects of the country's economic death plunge -- as his chief economic adviser.

You would think that people would take the word of authentic leftists that Obama is no leftist, but writers like Cockburn are dismissed as extremists or fringe elements. No one will deny that Cockburn himself is a leftist, but leftists apparently have no say in saying who's a leftist and who's not. That responsibility has been claimed by the right, the Republican party and the radio talkers. The left is whoever they say is the left. So Katha Pollitt's complaints against Obama and the congressional Democrats in the same issue are also irrelevant. "If I ever give that woman another dime," she writes, referring to Claire McCaskill, a supporter of the Stupak Amendment, "shoot me." Pollitt feels sold out by the Democracy, believing as Cockburn does that progressives effectively elected Obama only to be betrayed by concessions to Blue Dogs. She'd probably agree that Obama is not a man of the left, but who even reads or hears these complaints without subscribing to progressive media or publications. When in the "MSM" is a conservative calling Obama a leftist or socialist challenged by someone ready to criticize Obama for not being one?

It's no wonder that Americans feel that their options are limited, or don't know that they have more choices. Why should they look up genuine leftist organizations when they're told that the Democrats are the leftist party, and that a choice between Left and Right is perfectly represented by the American Bipolarchy of Democratic and Republican parties? The Bipolarchy is a two-way street, of course, and Cockburn also warns against identifying the Republicans with the conservative fringe. Using C. Wright Mills's terminology, he predicts that "the 'sophisticated right' equipped with big Republican money will assert its power over the 'wild-eyed Utopian capitalists.' Glenn Beck will burst the envelope he's already pushing or be impaled on some disclosure from his fraught psychic past. Sarah Palin will be similarly discredited as a public figure." As a result, he predicts, the GOP will retake the House of Representatives next year. In this case, he expects the Democrats to be complacent in their belief that they'll face easy targets in 2010. In Cockburn's view, they'd be buying into their own propaganda that the Republican party as an institution represents the far right. It serves their interests to persuade people that the likes of Beck or Rush Limbaugh are the true face of the Republican party (rather than representatives of grass-roots reaction that isn't necessarily powerful in its own right), because that's preferable to what Cockburn implies is the truth: that the true faces of both major parties look more alike than either would admit.

22 November 2009

Religious Extremism in America

A United States Congressman is being denied the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church because he does not take the Vatican's preferred stand on abortion. The Representative, a Kennedy of all people, of the family symbolic of this country's acceptance of Catholics into the cultural mainstream, has reportedly been informed that he is not a "good practicing" Catholic because he believes that American women have a right to have abortions.

As far as religion goes, Rep. Kennedy is SOL. The First Amendment does not guarantee him the right to receive communion against the will of the Catholic hierarchy. The bishops can do as they please, while bearing this in mind: about 150 years ago, Roman Catholics were widely believed incapable of becoming valid American citizens because their were suspected of taking political dictation from their priests. Priests were presumed capable of enforcing such dictation through their power to withhold the sacraments. The "Know Nothing" movement arose in order to combat the perceived Catholic menace. Their proposals focused on extending the naturalization period for Catholic immigrants, the extra time (as long as 21 years' residency if some had gotten their way) being necessary to Americanize these priest-ridden people. The movement failed, in part because its leaders were split on the question of slavery extension, and in part because Catholics convinced other Americans that their "whiteness" counted for more than their religion in defining their worthiness. But even as late as 1960, Rep. Kennedy's uncle needed to reassure Protestants that his policies as President would not be determined by the Vatican. By that time, most Americans believed him. What should they think now?

Few people will take alarm over this news, since the bishops haven't threatened Kennedy's life, but on principle this should be as alarming as any news that Rep. Ellison of Minnesota was being threatened with fatwas from local imams. We should rebel against the thought that any politician should be subject to religious discipline for exercising his conscience as an elected representative of all his constituents. There is nothing we can do about it, except perhaps to stop electing Catholics, and we are sure to hear objections to any such proposal. Remember that, though, when anyone argues against giving civic responsibilities of any kind to Muslims. Remember it not to argue against those people, but so you can remind them to be consistent.

20 November 2009

The Conservative Victim Mentality

Cal Thomas is an often infuriating reactionary columnist, but he contributes something useful to conservative discourse: a disillusioned ambivalence about politics itself. Once little more than a spokesman for the Moral Majority, Thomas ultimately decided that politics was not the means to achieve the moral reforms he desired. He'll still use his column to lecture readers on the subject of Christian morality, and he'll appeal to politics when he feels that religion is under attack, but he seems to have accepted that government dictation is no substitute for the churches' real work of converting people one at a time.

Thomas's ambivalence comes through in his newest column, in which he respectfully refuses to get on the Sarah Palin bandwagon. He assumes that he'd like Palin as a person, since they seem to share so many interests and values, but he sees the rush to embrace her as the Republican savior as an unseemly manifestation of something usually attributed to liberals -- a tendency to see themselves as victims rather than autonomous, responsible individuals. This victimization mentality, Thomas suggests, is blinding many conservatives to Palin's obvious flaws. He takes last year's interviews with Katie Couric as his example. Palin herself apparently believes she was set up by Kouric and victimized by her in the editing of the interview. Palin's supporters accordingly see her as a victim of the liberal media. Thomas isn't buying it.

I thought Couric gave her ample opportunity to reveal herself and to let viewers see if there was substance behind Palin’s attractive exterior. Couric legitimately tried to find out what shapes Palin’s worldview and what she reads. Palin couldn’t name a single publication. Oprah gave her another chance, but she never followed up to ask about books or a newspaper from which she gets information, ideas and inspiration.It is true that conservatives are often asked questions that are never asked of liberals and in ways that seem condescending and superficial. But that is an opportunity to give an answer that can skewer the questioner while making the point you wish to make.

If Palin looked like a deer in the headlights under Katie Couric's scrutiny, Thomas implies, the Alaskan has only herself to blame. He thinks that Palin is capable of "sharpen[ing] her intellect" with the help of "the best and the brightest tutors," but the important thing is that he admits bluntly that Palin needs them. Too many conservatives, he worries, think that Palin is fine as she is and only a victim of liberal persecution or misrepresentation. In Thomas's view, they should get over it. "The victim thing is getting old," he writes; conservatives are not as excluded from the cultural elite as they have long claimed. But the movement (perhaps catering to a fundamental paranoia that Thomas doesn't acknowledge) prefers to be defensive, to pretend that they are under siege. Thomas sees this as a self-fulfilling attitude:

Victimization plays well with the conservative base and that’s a problem. If conservatives don’t rise from the muck of feeling excluded, disrespected, ignored and mocked, they will continue to suffer all of these things. There is nothing like proving the worth of your ideas to put the mockers in their place. Victimization can raise money, sell books and get one face time on TV, but it doesn’t advance the ball.

Thomas thinks it imperative that Palin make an effort to improve himself, because it may be necessary for the Republican party to have her, or someone who has her endorsement, on the national ticket for 2012. "Sarah Palin is a force the Republican establishment must reckon with," he concedes, "If the party ignores [her] base and nominates another candidate in 2012 who is part of the inside-the-beltway crowd, it could lose." At his most optimistic, he hopes that "If she can sharpen her intellect ... she won't be mocked; she will be feared." But for the moment it's Thomas who fears that Palin is making a mockery of the conservative movement.

18 November 2009

"Except for war..."

Mr. Right was going off last night, telling a fellow conservative (who at least isn't obnoxious about it) some horror story about some athlete who had a terrible time trying to get some sort of treatment from Canadian health care, only to get instantaneous service in the U.S. This was all to set up his usual punch line: "Except for war, there's nothing the public sector does that the private sector can't do better."

I've lost track of how many times I've heard that crack, and this was the last straw. I knew there was no point in arguing with him about health care, since he believes that those with money shouldn't have to wait for anything and "life's not fair," anyway. But the more I heard him repeating his mantra, the more it seemed like there was an unexamined premise in it.

"Can I ask you a question?" I asked, "I don't want to go over old ground, but I am surprised that you think that there's anything the public sector can do better. I'm just curious about why you don't think the private sector could wage a war better than the government?"

My question may have taken him aback a little, but he did have an answer: "In the military there isn't the same level of bureaucracy."

"What are you talking about?" I countered, "There's a big five-sided building in Washington that's full of bureaucrats who run the military."

He conceded the point, but believed that military bureaucracy worked differently from its civilian equivalent. It was "more disciplined," even though he allowed that there had been considerable waste in military spending over the years.

I pursued my argument further. "If the problem is bureaucracy, there's plenty of bureaucracy in the private sector, too, in any business."

"Yes, but in the private sector if the bureaucrats screw up they get fired." The implication being that public-sector bureaucrats are immune from discipline (except in the military) and thus render the public sector permanently less efficient than the private sector. The superior discipline in the military against inefficiency remained unexplained, and in any event I think Mr. Right was a little confused by the entire line of inquiry.

"Is it really necessary?" he asked. He wasn't questioning our conversation but the concept of privatizing the military, or the idea that his own logic would seem to make privatizing it a good if not imperative idea. His ultimate point seemed to be that warfare was something that government was supposed to do. It was the public sector's proper area of expertise, and despite the history of mercenary armies in medieval and Renaissance Europe and the more recent ventures in privatizing soldiery around the world, it clearly seemed inappropriate to him to privatize the entire military. If government has any purpose, it seemed, it was to kill our enemies for us.

Judge for yourself whether Mr. Right's arguments were logically consistent or not. The point of the exchange for me was that he revealed a limit to his own belief in the universal applicability of "free-market" principles. Rational or not, it exposed a crack in his ideology, a line separating national security from the omnipotence of the market. It raised the possibility that if one could refine his understanding of what national security means, one might someday get more concessions from him regarding the necessity of government and regulation. But it isn't a big enough possibility to get me holding my breath waiting for the crack to spread.

NY23: It Aint Over Until After It's Over

Little more than two weeks ago, reporters from New York's 23rd Congressional district predicted that the special election would probably go undecided for a while due to a high number of absentee and military ballots. It struck many observers as a surprise when Doug Hoffman, the Conservative party candidate who captured national attention by overtaking the Republican nominee in opinion polls, conceded defeat fairly early in the evening to the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens.

Yesterday, however, after Owens had been sworn in some time ago, Hoffman has changed his mind. He went on Glenn Beck's radio show to "unconcede" the election. In a related statement, he hints at an election stolen by that bogeyman of reactionaries, ACORN, with the help of the evil labor unions. He points to recounts that have lowered Owens's margin of victory to the point where absentee ballots could reverse the outcome. Apparently, people need to give him money to facilitate this process. With apologies to Hoffman's supporters, I can't help but wonder whether money is the prime motive for this unconcession.

In any event, I wouldn't stake a lot on those absentee ballots if I were Hoffman. Since many were most likely mailed well in advance of Election Day, it's quite possible that many of them will be votes for Dede Scozzafava, the controversial GOP nominee who only suspended her campaign on the last weekend before non-absentee voting. If anything, Scozzafava should have a larger percentage of absentee votes than she did live votes on Election Day, a probability that can only hurt Hoffman's last-ditch hopes.

However, Hoffman's may be a long-term strategy. He's expected to seek the Republican nomination next year, when there'll be an actual primary, as he did unsuccessfully this year, when the candidate was chosen by a committee of county leaders. Crying "fraud at the polls!" now is in his interest for next November. If we've learned anything so far in the 21st century, it's that stolen-election charges never go away. Just as some people will never accept the legitimacy of either of George W. Bush's elections, plenty of people in NY23 won't want to concede Owens's legitimacy, even if his victory is backed by the absentee ballots. The magic of ACORN for the reactionary imagination is that its existence throws any Democratic victory into question. You can assume that ACORN stole it no matter what the official facts are. The only risk of playing up the ACORN angle is that you might convince your more paranoid supporters that ACORN is so omnipotent and expert at its alleged business that there'd be no point to Republicans or reactionaries bothering to vote. Superstitious minds may transform scapegoats into devils and flee rather than fight. Perhaps Hoffman should be careful when he invokes such witchery, whether he means it or not.

17 November 2009

Invitation to an "Anti-Tea Party"

The Albany paper has picked up a column from a Florida paper that expresses liberal frustration with the limited accomplishments of the Obama administration and obvious envy of the tea-party movement. The writer, Rhonda Swan, sees the tea parties primarily as means for conservatives to exert pressure on Republican politicians, and wants a progressive counterpart to apply similar pressure on Democrats. She seems to recommend this kind of activism as a more effective alternative to forming new parties, citing alleged successes the tea-partiers have had enforcing ideological discipline on Republicans.

What passes for debate on Capitol Hill is partisan bickering over narrowly perceived policy ideas. Such is the problem with our two-party political system. The Tea Partiers, like members of the Libertarian Party, Green Party and Progressive Libertarian Party before them, want something different. That is the beauty of the U.S. political system. They can get it.

Third-party promoters may note with dismay the implication that the Libertarians and Greens are obsolete, or have been rendered obsolete, by tea-party activism. There's at least one other questionable assumption in that excerpt: the idea that the tea-partiers have "got" what they wanted and should be satisfied with their alleged successes. The perception that the Republican party is now more dogmatically conservative than ever, and presumably will engage in even more "partisan bickering over narrowly perceived policy ideas," proves that the beautiful U.S. political system, despite its two-party "problem," works, i.e. is responsive to concentrated activism.

Swan wants the President to give up his bipartisan pipe dreams and concentrate on whipping the "wimps" in the Democratic party into line. She believes that progressive activism on the tea-party model -- the "Anti-Tea Party Express" -- can help him by pressuring Democratic waverers to support the health care legislation. She'd also like to see an ATPE pressure legislative leaders to purge Joe Lieberman from the Democratic caucus and strip him of his Homeland Security chairmanship. The original tea-partiers would do the same if a Republican Senator were similarly heretical, Swan assumes.

Obviously there's nothing wrong with progressives organizing and holding demonstrations to demand passage of important legislation. But I think Swan is missing something if she assumes that the original Tea Parties were mainly if not only about pressuring elected officials, and she'd miss it again if she wants an ATPE to come into being solely to pressure Democratic politicians. It seems to me, whether I liked it or not, that the tea partiers (not to mention the organizers of the "Great Awakening" I visited in Troy last September) weren't out only to send a message to politicians. These were efforts to communicate to the general public, to raise alarms (however irrational in some cases) about government gone wrong and to form connections and opinion networks that just might exist outside the influence of the major political parties. If progressives are to answer the tea parties, they should be aiming their own activism, not just at Washington or the nearest state capital, but at the people around them. The tea parties did a good job, I fear, in spreading fear this year. Any ATPE that hopes to succeed must spread truth and principle as widely as the tea-partiers spread their (call it what you will) across the American landscape.

A Call for Civility

Kathleen Parker, an increasingly moderate sounding conservative columnist, feels a need this week to call for greater civility in political discussion. She's objective enough to see that most of the incivility is on one side of the divide, calling out Joe Wilson and Glenn Beck as alarmingly popular uncivil conservatives. She also notes that political incivility is nothing new in American history. But there does seem to be a difference between the often-slanderous negative campaigning of the Early Republic and the increasingly uninhibited hatred exhibited on the Internet. Parker herself blames the net, which ensures that nasty remarks never disappear. " Whereas in previous eras, an uncivil exchange might be confined to a room, a building or a public square, today’s media technology means that it is captured, amplified, replayed and distributed — perpetually," she writes.

I don't think media are mainly to blame for today's mood. The U.S. has gone through fluctuations of civility and its opposite from the beginning. In the early days it was perhaps understandable if the Founders felt that any disagreement portended the end of the Republic. If so, their anxiety explains their vehemence and their occasional plain old nastiness. The negative campaigning against Abraham Lincoln and other original Republicans at the brink of the Civil War is also understandable given people's fear that Republicans rocking the boat on slavery could tear the country apart. We live in another age of anxiety now, with our country's economic future in question, and we have two powerful factions, each of which accuses the other of ruining the country. In periods of relative civility Republicans and Democrats probably didn't think each other capable of bringing the country down. But in a period of American decline many Americans, like Don Corleone, are going to blame somebody even if it isn't rational.

Parker agrees with academics who are looking for ways to make civility more "exciting and interesting to young people." This sounds self-defeating, since the point of civility is not to excite the passions. She admits that it'll be a challenge, but since "civility, after all, is nothing but great acting," she wonders whether Hollywood stars could be recruited to promote it.

My hunch is that she's pursuing an admirable goal bass ackwards. The problem isn't that we have insufficient incentives for civility, but that we lack sufficient disincentives to discourage incivility. People are unashamed of what they say. You might blame the Internet for the shield of anonymity it provides, but there was an effort to shame Joe Wilson for his public heckling of the President, and that resulted in a backlash that turned "You Lie!" into a marketable slogan. It's hard to impose shame when no one feels accountable to their neighbors for what they say or how they behave. Shame in the old sense may be impossible in a society in which both major ideological factions are dedicated to different kinds of individualism. Meanwhile, a distrust of intellect that seems characteristic of many self-styled conservatives would make it hard to cultivate the sort of respect for superior argument that Parker's project demands. Conditions aren't likely to revert to greater civility unless a national recovery restores confidence and kills the fear that leads to some of today's incivility, or until one side somehow becomes so ashamed of its beliefs that it becomes more willing to listen to reason.

16 November 2009

The Palin Hysteria

Sarah Palin's memoir arrives in bookstores this week amid what strikes me as an atmosphere of fear barely disguised as contempt in liberal or Democratic-sympathizing circles. The news that many people ordered the book in advance seems to trouble some observers, but it is a long-established fact that reactionary readers never tire of consuming Republican propaganda. There's usually at least one reactionary screed in the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and over the past year or two you could usually find several there. That was just as true throughout this decade, and it didn't stop Democrats from winning elections. That may mean that liberals and progressives don't need the constant ideological reinforcement their antagonists crave, but I'm sure that some people on either side of the main ideological divide see book sales as some form of voting with money, just as radio ratings are taken to reflect the ideological preferences of the nation as a whole. In short, the fact that Palin's book is a best-seller before it even arrives in stores worries some people and encourages others.

Some skeptics try to dismiss the book's pre-emptive popularity by arguing that the public's interest is prurient and primarily focused on the romance of Palin's daughter. Their hope is that the former governor somehow will have to answer for the disgusting Levi Johnston for the rest of her public career, or at least that his proximity to her in the public imagination will permanently taint Palin with the stink of white trash. But this tactic strikes me as a form of nervous laughter in the face of a looming threat. Like her fellow best-sellers, Palin embodies a threat that seems to weigh more on the "un-American" liberal consciousness than it does on the minds of presumably more traditional reactionaries, yet has long been recognized in the classical political tradition that the reactionaries claim to uphold and accuse liberals of betraying. In liberal eyes, she is a demagogue, a rabble-rouser who manipulates public sentiment, presumably by appealing to base prejudices, to advance her own ambitions, which liberals take to be at odds with the masses' own objective interests. The radio talkers, of course, are also demagogues, as is anyone who affects a populist style for reactionary ends, as liberals see them.

Conservatives by their nature should also be averse to demagogues, but it really depends on which rabble is being roused. For liberals, the rabble are rednecks, "angry white males," etc., while for conservatives the rabble dwell in ghettos and certain immigrant neighborhoods. Some Republicans tried to portray Barack Obama as a demagogue, and according to an older concept of the demagogue his artful rhetoric would fill the bill. But genuine oratorical skill and writerly craftsmanship of the kind Obama best demonstrated in his "More Perfect Union" speech of last year send a mixed signal. To today's reactionary, all that marks the President as an "elitist," while the notoriously inarticulate Palin with her "you betchas" and her jumbled syntax seems the perfect demagogue to liberals because she appears to be speaking the authentic language of the reactionary rabble in a way that not even George W. Bush, who always had an air of affectation about him, can match. Worse, because she's a woman, she suggests "reaction with a human face" compared to the perceived boorishness of Rush Limbaugh and his peers that turns off people who might accept the same message in Palin's honeyed tones.

I see little cause for worry. As I wrote, Palin is just another best-selling reactionary author. As a politician, she now has a possibly unshakable reputation as a quitter. I really don't see her winning a run of primaries or sweeping a convention. I strongly suspect that she'd lose what mojo she has in debates if she's just one of several contenders who might share a stage in the fall of 2011, where she'd most likely be outclassed by more than one person who is also a conservative and can't be written off as a clever elitist. But I doubt I'll convince anyone not to be afraid of her at this time, simply because there are ratings to be earned and money to be made by making people even more scared of her and her plans than they should be.

Update: On the Winfrey show, I learn from news reports, Palin made this cryptic statement: "I'm concentrating on 2010 and making sure that we have issues to tackle." What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that if there aren't any, she'll create them? Or does it mean that she's actually going to start reading the papers to learn what the issues are? Stay tuned....

13 November 2009

2012 and the Eschatological Impulse

Perhaps I should write this on my movie blog, but Roland Emmerich's latest disaster film, 2012, opens around the country today. The film's story seems to be tied only tangentially to the Mayan calendar prophecy that so intrigues many non-Mayan people lately, but those entranced by the Mayans' supposed prediction of an end of the world will see what they want here: cataclysm, the toppling of symbols of civilization and the near extinction of human life. I only mention this as an introduction to a comment by Hearst reviewer Mick Lasalle, who seems to misread the national mood, regardless of what he thinks of the movie. Here are his relevant remarks:

"2012" is a light film, with very little introspection and an upbeat tone that's undiminished by the implied slaughter of about 7 billion people. This is ludicrous, and yet it's interesting, in that it may signal a shift within the culture at large. For seven years following 9/11, we had a series of films depicting civic chaos and destruction, and these films were invariably downbeat or at least cautionary. (Even "The Day After Tomorrow" was about the threat of global warming.) In those years, within the context of a brainless action movie, you simply could not show an American landmark getting annihilated. People wouldn't stand for it. Only an audience that feels invulnerable can enjoy watching on screen the wholesale destruction of its civilization and not take it as a threat. A cloud has lifted. It's safe to be happy and brainless again. "2012" may be Hollywood's first post-post-9/11 movie.

Looking around me, I see very few people feeling invulnerable. That doesn't mean anyone will feel threatened by the ridiculous computer effects of Emmerich's movie, since few if any viewers will take it as a prediction of events to come three years from now. But Lasalle may be right that people are ready to watch American landmarks getting annihilated again (The White House gets hit by a tsunami wave that carries an aircraft carrier onto Pennsylvania Avenue for overkill effect). If so, the fact has little to do with anyone's optimism. But it probably has a lot to do with the folk fascination with the Mayan "prophecy." My unhappy hunch is that a lot of Americans are ready, and some may like, to see the world, or at least civilization, end -- if that means an end to all the institutions and other entities that seem to hold them back or hold them down, and a purge of all the surplus people, enemies, human parasites, freeloaders, bureaucrats, welfare recipients, etc. who might be blamed for the nation or the world's present troubles. I'm not saying that Roland Emmerich feels this way, but the feeling I get from what I've seen, what I've heard, and what I've read this year is that many people, whether they dare say it or not or consciously admit it or not, feel a need for a purge, a shaking out of the weak, the unworthy or just the uncompetitive, so that the good people can rebuild unburdened and the new world will be "free." Delve into the dregs of the Internet and you can find people saying it outright; they'd be happy if whole hosts, whole categories of their fellow humans would just die.

Roland Emmerich has been typecast as a director of disaster films (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow). In theory, there's nothing new about his latest bout of CGI mayhem, except maybe in the eyes of specialists, and it sounds like there's definitely nothing new about 2012's typical disaster-movie scenario of disparate characters banding together to survive adversity and resolve personal issues. If it proves popular on the opening weekend, that'll leave me wondering whether some people just never get tired of special effects or whether 2012 satisfies a renewed appetite for destruction on the part of many Americans.

12 November 2009

Moderation is not Independence; Independence is not Moderation

Here's a link to an intriguing report from Zogby International that challenges what the writers take to be a common assumption that people who identify themselves as "independents" are political "moderates" who are equally dissatisfied for both major parties for the same reasons. While noting that two-thirds of "independents" do identify themselves as moderates, Zogby finds it significant that the rest split two-to-one for conservatism over liberalism. He warns against assuming that making the Republican party more conservative would drive away independents, noting that a majority of Republicans themselves believe that their party is "not conservative enough" while a conservative bias among declared independents has been growing in recent years. Zogby suspects that the independent ranks have been swollen with Republicans who've renounced the GOP because it isn't conservative enough, who could be drawn back in if it becomes more the party of Doug Hoffman than that of Dede Scozzafava. That would only show the limits of self-styled independence. Zogby defines it as not belonging to a party, but can an ideologue, even one without a party, or one who sees himself without one, really be called an independent? There are also limits to Zogby's analysis, since the tangible independence of third-party formation was off-topic on this particular poll. In any event, the most interesting detail is the enduring dissatisfaction within the Republican party with its ideological direction. It seems that Republicans who think their party isn't conservative enough don't bolt the party (with rare exceptions as in NY23). If they did, we should see more independents also say that the GOP is insufficiently conservative. But only 26% of independents say that compared to 58% of presumably still loyal Republicans. For comparison's sake, only 32% of Democrats think their party isn't liberal enough, a point with which only 11% of independents agree. Zogby observes that the Republican party is in a volatile state because it hasn't achieved the ideological cohesion that presumably exists among the Democrats. But what I see is a bunch of people held hostage in a cell without captors or guards. They remain prisoners because they think they own the place.

Democracy Against Itself

The Daily Kos website presents itself as a champion of progressive politics, but has long been hostile to people who believe that the best way to pursue progressive goals is to break with the Democratic party and form a new one. I learned of Kossacks' hostility to independents the hard way when I naively tried to post comments against the two-party system there a few years ago. The site is for all intents and purposes an auxiliary of the Democrats, but Kos himself signaled this week that the bond of solidarity may be cracking. He's irked that any Democratic Representatives voted against the House health-care reform bill, and his response is to advise his readers not to donate money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Explaining his position, he states the obvious: "Their first priority is incumbent retention, and they're (necessarily) issue agnostic." Since the DCCC will distribute money to any Democrat, regardless of whether they're suitably progressive, Kos has decided that money donated by progressives to the committee is wasted. He recommends giving directly to "those elected officials who best reflect your values." Among the responses are comments gently mocking him for violating his own rules, which presumably include "don't dis Democrats."

This is an interesting development, but I wonder whether Kos and his readers will follow through on the reasoning of his article. Kos has decided that certain Democratic representatives are unworthy of his support. One may assume that he'd support primary challenges against every Democrat who voted against the health bill, not to mention every "Blue Dog." I don't suppose that's anything new, but his stance against the DCCC raises the question of what to do when the hated incumbents win their primaries. We know that he endorsed Dede Scozzafava, a Republican over Bill Owens, the Democratic nominee and eventual winner, in the famous special election in New York's 23rd District. If a conservative or too-moderate Democrat faces a similarly moderate or liberal Republican, he might take the same course next year. But what if the choice is a Blue Dog or a movement conservative, as it well might be in some districts? Does Kos swallow his pride and tell his followers to donate to the Dog to keep another conservative out of Congress? Or does he tell them to find candidates who "best reflect your values," wherever they might be? Should he encourage defeated progressive primary challengers to bolt, to accept Green or Working Families or any other endorsement that gets them a ballot line in November? If they can't tolerate Democrats who oppose progressive health care reform, -- and that sounds like what Kos has just said -- it would seem to follow that their top priority should be replacing them with progressives. If Kos and his Kossacks don't follow through, their present complaints can be dismissed as a childish sulk from kids who'll never leave home.

10 November 2009

Islam and/or Evil

David Brooks's latest New York Times column appeared in one of our local columns today. It's a critique of what he sees as politically correct efforts to gloss over the evil of the Fort Hood amoklauf. He is uninterested in any theory that portrays Maj. Hasan as a disturbed or traumatized person, and I think his skepticism toward the psychoanalytic impulse is healthy, even if I disagree about it being motivated by political correctness. It's bound to be a provocative column because Brooks employs two arguments that can easily blur into one. He notes a recent tendency of Muslims to construct a narrative that explains events in terms of a war waged on Islam by Christians and Jews, and suggests that Hasan had adopted that narrative. Brooks even goes so far as to acknowledge that this paranoid worldview has some basis in reality, since a conflict against specifically Muslim extremism is a central fact of American foreign policy. But then he starts writing about evil. He does so, as I said, in reaction to the therapeutic reflex that automatically views Hasan as a merely sick person. I don't like to use the word "evil" myself, but I find myself more tolerant of it when used to describe individuals rather than nations or ideologies. I'm not going to gripe if someone wants to describe Hasan as evil, except to offer the usual "innocent until proven guilty" disclaimer. But we need to be careful in determining exactly what about Hasan Brooks deems evil. Is it the fact that the "self-radicalizing" major used the narrative of embattled Islam as a rationalization of murdering people? Or does Brooks mean to say that the narrative itself and its tendency to dehumanize non-Muslims are evil? In this particular case, I think he meant the former, but his column can easily be read, especially by readers sensitive on these issues, to have meant the latter. For some readers of extreme sensitivity, such a conclusion may only further prove that non-Muslims have it out for the believers.

Brooks wants the massacre to inspire a national discussion of some kind, but finds the implicitly exculpatory impulse to treat Hasan as a mere sicko getting in the way almost immediately. What exactly does he want to discuss? From his column, I assume that he wants to drag this issue of a Muslim persecution complex into the fresh air so it can be refuted decisively. How much more does he want to refute? Does he want us to have a national discussion about the menace of the Islamist ideology? That's fine by me, but bear this in mind. Islamism may be repugnant to most Americans, but it seems to me that American Muslims have as much right to pursue the goal of an Islamist America by constitutional means as any group has the right to reform the country in its own image. No ideology or belief system is un-American that can win an election. If we have people here, however, who think that their religion entitles them to convert the U.S. and its people by the sword or by any means necessary, that's another story that won't take long to tell. How relevant it'd be to the Hasan case I don't know. We believe that we know that he thought that the U.S. shouldn't have waged war on Muslim countries. Speaking for myself, I don't know if he advocated the sharia or its imposition by jihad. Frankly, I'd have no problem with him believing such stuff so long as he upheld his oath and obligations as an American soldier. A lot of Christian soldiers probably have undemocratic or even theocratic views if you probe deep enough. The real issue that Brooks and others probably want to raise is whether we can depend on the loyalty of Muslim soldiers. It should be obvious that more than 99% of those serving now are loyal, but how many incidents of fragging or amoklauf will it take to throw the wisdom of recruiting them or retaining them in service into question? Are American Muslims under a special obligation to prove that they put the Constitution before the sharia? Will they be required to make special gestures to prove it? These are some of the possible questions that Brooks, presumably, would not have us duck by dismissing Hasan as an irresponsibly disturbed person. Let's ask them by all means, but if we have a national discussion I expect that Muslims will have some questions to ask as well. If Muslim loyalty is on trial, Muslims have a right of cross-examination, particularly on the subject of the present wars, and the rest of us will have an obligation to answer.

Fall of Communism, Triumph of...What?

The New York Times invited Slavoj Zizek to contribute an op-ed to yesterday's issue commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. A few posts ago I took a swipe at Zizek for advocating a sort of neo-Leninism, but I actually find him one of the most consistently challenging and entertaining authors publishing today -- entertaining by polemical standards, at least. He was smart enough not to use his space in the Paper of Record to call for new forms of Leninism or suggest the usefulness of revolutionary terror. Instead, he ironically noted a fresh wave of anti-Communism in several former Eastern Bloc countries, only to note that the anger in those countries is also a form of anti-capitalism. Here's the meat of his argument:

The new anti-Communism provides a simple answer to the question: “If capitalism is really so much better than Socialism, why are our lives still miserable?” It is because, many believe, we are not really in capitalism: we do not yet have true democracy but only its deceiving mask, the same dark forces still pull the threads of power, a narrow sect of former Communists disguised as new owners and managers — nothing’s really changed, so we need another purge, the revolution has to be repeated ...

What these belated anti-Communists fail to realize is that the image they provide of their society comes uncannily close to the most abused traditional leftist image of capitalism: a society in which formal democracy merely conceals the reign of a wealthy minority. In other words, the newly born anti-Communists don’t get that what they are denouncing as perverted pseudo-capitalism simply is capitalism.

Zizek goes on to suggest that ex-Communists were "effectively better suited" to "ruthlessly accommodate themselves to the new capitalist rules and the new cruel world of market efficiency" than the idealistic dissidents who dreamed of plain and simple freedom. This leads him to restate a point that's come up in a lot of his recent writing: the adoption of capitalism by corrupt former Communists or by enduring Communist-in-name-only dictatorships (i.e. China) is undermining people's naive identification of capitalism with democracy. In the U.S. it's still widely assumed that the two go together like peanut butter and jelly; where there is free enterprise, there'll be a free society. It has long been hoped that China's adoption of capitalism, even under state or party control, would nurture a "civil society" that would eventually rival and finally supplant the Communist Party. Zizek is one of many writers to point out that that isn't happening.

"What if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal capitalism?" Zizek asks, "What if democracy is no longer the necessary and natural accompaniment of economic development, but its impediment?" The next question is: what if we prefer democracy, even if it impedes an efficiency that benefits the powerful? On this occasion, Zizek's answer isn't Leninsim, but something we might all agree on:

Deceived by 20th-century Communism and disillusioned with 21st-century capitalism ... on the search for justice, they will have to start from scratch. They will have to invent their own ideologies. They will be denounced as dangerous utopians, but they alone will have awakened from the utopian dream that holds the rest of us under its sway.

09 November 2009

Who is a Republican?

In the aftermath of the debacle in New York's 23rd Congressional District, Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava has given an angry, defensive interview to Michael Smerconish in which she defends her right to call herself a Republican and challenges movement conservatives' right to dictate what Republicans should believe. She defines herself as conservative on economic and foreign-policy issues and insists that a preference for individual liberty allows her to define her stands on abortion, gay rights, etc. as conservative. Her argument is that an intolerant faction of cultural or religious conservatives is trying to drive out people who are otherwise advocates of limited government and strong national defense who nevertheless resist dictation on moral issues by the Religious Right. Scozzafava is angry that the radio talkers and allied pundits have characterized her as in no way conservative when the actual difference between them and her comes down to issues which Scozzafava thinks should not be decisive. In addition, she denies the charge that she was nominated in an unrepresentative "smoke-filled room" process, explaining that "hundreds" of Republicans had a chance to her views along with those of Doug Hoffman and six other aspirants before she was selected by the county committee chiefs. She also takes a parting kick at Hoffman, claiming that he, like she, promised during the selection promise to support the party's choice -- a promise on which he obviously reneged. Then again, she reneged eventually by ceasing to support herself and endorsing the Democratic nominee instead, so slurs on Hoffman's honor can only take her so far.

In any event, here is the ground of differentiation and the line where the battle for control of the New York GOP will be fought. Scozzafava's sympathizers have the evidence of the final vote in NY23 to argue that a religious-right Republican party cannot win in this state. They also have the evidence of their own action in the final weekend of the campaign to prove that they will not tolerate a religious-right takeover in their territory. The other side seems to say that you can't be a real Republican (i.e. their kind of conservative) unless you sign up for the culture war and all its battles. In a better place there should be no cause for fighting except at the polls; in that place there'd be a Scozzafava party and a Hoffman party -- both hawkish on foreign policy and otherwise fiscally conservative, but defining themselves in opposition to each other on cultural issues. But we live in the American Bipolarchy, so each faction insists that it must control the Republican party, that the GOP rightfully stands for its particular ideological package or else it stands for nothing. Hoffman's friends can't just concede the GOP to the Scozzafavists and focus on building the Conservative party because they crave Republican fundraising power and they can't shake their sense of entitlement to it. Nor are the Scozzafavists more likely, should the worm turn, to renounce a tainted GOP and form a secular-humanist conservative party, because they share the same sense of entitlement, the sense that the Republican party has an inherent nature that makes it rightfully theirs. This is all just another way of saying that the parties of the Bipolarchy have become constituent elements of government just like the congressional districts they contend over. The Republican and Democratic parties are seats of power for which political factions contend. The fact of their power distorts the political landscape so that nearly all the factions that exist battle in order to leave the undiscerning voter with only two choices every November rather than competing on a level of equality in the general elections. We won't be rid of the Bipolarchy until politicians feel confident enough in their core beliefs and their connections to the people that they'd consider the primary process a waste of time and resources. The challenge for us is to figure out how to boost their confidence.

08 November 2009

Praising with Faint Damnation

Over the past week all kinds of commentators have been commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and its significance as the symbolic end of the Cold War. Predictably, the anniversary inspired some comment from American conservatives who feel that Communism has still been insufficiently denounced since the demise of the USSR. Since the appearance of Martin Amis's book Koba the Dread there's been an attitude that anyone who sympathized with Communism at any point should be as contrite about it, or as ashamed, as anyone who had a good word for Hitler. This raises an issue that requires a little clarification. If you'd like me to help celebrate the end of the Cold War by denouncing Leninism or Bolshevism, sign me up. Intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek are trying to rehabilitate Leninism as a model for some sort of secular religion, presumedly complete with an inquisition, based on "fidelity to the event" rather than faith, but Lenin has always struck me as a power-mad jerk driven mostly by a desire to tell everyone what to do, however marginally more civilized he might have been about it than Stalin. I'd like to think that the 20th century discredited Leninism or any vanguard-party concept for all time. But I have a feeling that my cursing Lenin's memory wouldn't do for some people. They'd want me to denounce not just Leninism but Marxism as well and Socialism in general. They definitely argue in their own right that the follies and failures of Leninist states prove that no sort of Socialism can ever work anywhere. Were I willing to concede that point some people still wouldn't be satisfied. What they're after is not just a denunciation of error, but an affirmation that capitalism is the best socio-economic system that has ever existed and can ever exist. What they want to hear from everyone on occasions like this is an admission that humanity can never do better than capitalism. Understandably, that's a lot to swallow for some thoughtful and conscientious people. There's no similar string attached when someone denounces or even renounces Nazism, and that's probably why Nazism is denounced more full-throatedly whenever the appropriate anniversaries come around. Nazism was a misguided alternative among a multitude of alternatives for mankind, and condemning it has never required anyone to repeat the Thatcherite formula that "there is no alternative" to the one right way of life. If any celebration of the ruin of Leninism must be forced into such a formula, then who are the totalitarians now?

06 November 2009

Amoklauf Aftermath

A lot of people on television last night talked as if they had a personal stake of some kind in the details of yesterday's killing rampage at Fort Hood. On CNN, during the Larry King program, a former POW and advocate for PTSD sufferers argued bitterly with a former JAG as Dr. Phill looked on perplexedly. The JAG was inclined to dismiss any suggestion that the shooter (then still thought to be dead) might have been suffering from PTSD or even some vicarious form of it acquired from treating sufferers. He was more inclined to believe that the amoklauf was a religiously motivated terrorist attack. The PTSD advocate was outraged that the JAG would not allow the possibility that the shooter had mental issues, while Dr. Phil thought the JAG's speculation on terrorist motives was unfairly provocative. On Fox News Sean Hannity was at least talking to someone who knew the shooter, a colonel who elaborated on the information that the major was resisting deployment to Iraq. Hannity was interested in learning to what extent the major had spoken out against the war itself. This was a fair line of inquiry, but there's something about Hannity that made me suspect that he was trying to build a case against the entire anti-war movement as the enablers of the shooter's fury. But another of his guests reined him in by noting that many thousands of people, both military and civilian, have denounced the war without taking up arms against the military. The guest's suspicion was that the motivation for the attack ran much deeper than anything politics could explain. At the same hour on MSNBC Rachel Maddow was pretty much in plain reporter mode, but an hour earlier Keith Olbermann had led, not with the shootings, but with the "Kill the Bill" rally in Washington so he could accuse Rep. Bachmann of inciting violence against the government. I guess there was no way to turn the Fort Hood story against the Republicans, so it had to get somewhere back in line of Countdown's priorities.

As I write this afternoon, the media report a "High-Rise Rampage" in an Orlando office building. The early word is that a shooter has killed one person and wounded several others, and may still be at large in the structure. The beat goes on....

05 November 2009

Lessons From the 23rd District?

While I cynically rooted for Doug Hoffman to win the special election for the 23rd Congressional District in New York, thinking it might be a blow against the American Bipolarchy, I didn't really look forward to the prospect of another movement conservative in Congress. But I couldn't deny the significance of the grass-roots uprising his defiance of the local Republican party generated. However, the Albany Times Union could. The paper leads its editorial page today with a retrospective commentary on the special election. While the editorial writer agrees with me that this election, out of all those in the country, was a referendum on movement conservatism rather than President Obama, the writer seems to misunderstand what was going on to give it that identity. Something just doesn't look right about the T-U version of events:

For all the money that national conservative groups poured into the race for the 23rd Congressional District, their candidate lost. That is the undeniable bottom line. There is a costly lesson here for interlopers who think New Yorkers can be so swayed by a barrage of advertising that they will forget what they stand for, and what they want and don't want in a representative.

Doesn't that look like the writer is saying that the Hoffman candidacy was somehow an invention of "national conservative groups" and "interlopers?" But my impression was that the national attention and money didn't start flowing until the grass-roots insurgency got their attention, and that Hoffman was gaining strength before his discovery by the national movement over the last month of the campaign.

The writer goes so far as to claim that Dede Scozzafava, the failed Republican nominee, and actually an appointee of county bosses rather than a winner of a proper primary, "might have pulled this one out for the GOP" if not for Conservative interference. This seems to ignore the fact that a majority of Republicans had repudiated Scozzafava, fairly or not, by the time she suspended her campaign and endorsed the Democratic candidate. At the same time, the editorialist offers the election as proof that movement ideologues can never win in New York. While I'm happy to note that they haven't, I wouldn't be objective if I didn't admit that Hoffman's performance shows that they could well win in some parts of the state.

"If the 23rd Congressional District race proves anything," the editorial concludes, "it's that politicians can't force their values on voters." This is a strange statement. We live in a democratic republic, after all, so the statement should be a truism. Yet I can't help inferring that, in the writer's mind, a Hoffman victory would have meant that politicians had somehow forced their values on voters. Would that have meant that people had been forced to vote for him? Meanwhile, did Bill Owens force his values on voters? Given that some liberal commentators considered him less liberal than Scozzafava, I'm not actually sure of what Owens's values are. Or does the writer mean that Hoffman's values might have been forced on voters through the dread vehicle of paid political advertising? If so, I must note that Owens didn't exactly take a vow of poverty this fall, and didn't exactly turn away support from "interlopers." In the end, the only coherent thought I could take away from this editorial was that the writer believed that Doug Hoffman represented some kind of alien ideology unsuited to the soil of northern New York. But like it or not, 45% of the vote testifies otherwise. That's not an endorsement of Hoffman or his movement. That's just the facts.

Amoklauf, Mutiny or Terror?

Some reporters this afternoon compared Fort Hood to a college campus, and the comparison probably seemed natural once a soldier had run amok on the nation's largest military base. By the latest count he (or he and his accomplices; details are still being sorted out) has killed twelve people and wounded thirty more. The one person assumed with certainty to have done the shooting has been killed. His name indicates Middle Eastern ancestry. He was a major who reportedly served as a mental health officer. Second-hand reports, conveyed by Senator Hutchinson, state that the major was vocally unhappy with his imminent deployment to Iraq. But because the question of accomplices remains unresolved, the nature of his attack remains so also. Was it a failure of the "physician heal thyself" principle in which the shooter simply snapped and ran amok? Was it an act of resistance against his deployment, or a conspiracy against it involving others similarly assigned, and hence a kind of mutiny? Or was it worse yet? At the moment we don't know whether this man was even a Muslim, but already we can guess that this will not be good news for Arab-Americans or any Americans of Muslim ancestry, all of whose patriotism or reliability will probably be questioned by professional hysterics. It might be preferable if this man were proven to be merely mad, or so extravagantly, idiosyncratically mad that the act could only be attributed to his individual lunacy and not to some imagined treacherous blood. But whatever made this man tick until he exploded, this is a sad day for the country. Every so often, and really too often, men like this give Americans a glance at a cracked mirror image of themselves, a grotesque reflection of our national persona that nonetheless shows us a truth about the country that some would rather deny. But while they deny the reflection they keep the mirror, and then act shocked every time they see the image again....

Update: Last night a general told the media that the shooter is alive and his death is "not imminent." Meanwhile, another of his victims has died.

March of the Misanthropes

The news media reports "thousands" of people participating in a Washington D.C. protest against the Democratic health-care reform legislation today. Eyeball accounts assert that the crowd skews old, white, and Christian. They were inspired to come to the capital by Rep. Michele Bachmann, a popular punching bag at MSNBC. I'd been wondering whether the liberal talkers were making too much of an insignificant politician because she's such an unselfconscious caricature of a paranoid reactionary. But I suppose we must take her seriously, since she's summoned a constituency that reaches well beyond the boundaries of her Minnesota district. They are the enemies of "socialism," which when they say it I understand to mean any effort to help people who wouldn't deserve to flourish in the protesters' own utopia, the wilderness. These are the people who don't trust government to do anything right, while believing that the profit motive is an infallible guide to all right answers. Let's skip the distracting debate over whether there's racism in their midst and go straight for the obvious: they are haters of their fellow citizens, regardless of race or creed. They are the ones who need to see other people suffer in order to validate their own life choices. They reserve unto themselves the right to decide whether people who are not criminals deserve to suffer or die because they aren't competitive enough. Some of them probably still think of themselves as part of a "moral majority," but I see no morality in these demonstrations. In a civilized society morality is concerned with the material well being of everyone. These marchers are neither moral nor civilized. They may be well-behaved in most situations, but displays like today's reveal their essential barbarism. Question the legislation if you must for whatever reason, but if you believe that citizens have no right to health care, say so. If you believe that the poor have less right to life than the rich, say so. If you would rather see people die than compromise your sacred right to what by one jot, say so. And don't hide behind the "laws of nature" or slogans like "life's not fair." Tell the truth and tell the world that this is how you want things to be, and take responsibility for the consequences of your will.
* * *
Getting back to the question of hate, the new Reason arrived in my mailbox today. The lead article is editor Matt Welch's defense against an admittedly flimsy charge that he had crossed the line into racism by comparing something the President had said to something Snoop Dogg had rapped recently. Welch is eager to exculpate almost everyone who questions Obama's policies from the racism charge. He attended the September 12 march on Washington and claims that writers who called it racist ("a Klan rally" in someone's words) were missing the forest for the trees. He admits seeing a few Confederate flags and a few tasteless signs, but he claims that "well above 90" percent of the participants gave no reason for anyone to infer that they opposed Obama because he was black. I have no reason to dispute that. My own optimistic estimate is that, one prominent group excepted, most of the reactionary opposition to the President's agenda would be doing and saying the exact same stuff had it been President Clinton's or President Biden's agenda. The one prominent exception, however, is the one Welch doesn't mention in two pages worth of commentary: the birthers. This is a case of missing some pretty tall trees for the forest. Maybe they're the 10% left out of Welch's head-count of legitimate protest, but it still seems neglectful in any survey of anti-Obama opinion not to acknowledge a sizable group of people linked by a pathological inability to acknowledge the President's citizenship. Maybe doing so would get in the way of the libertarian imperative to dissociate small-government and states-rights principles from their racist heritage. The fact is that there exists a cohort of self-evident racists who are among the loudest opponents of Obama and perhaps not so small or marginalized a part of the whole opposition as Welch wants us to think. But as he notes, the President himself wants people to see things the same way Welch does. But Obama has his own reasons to sugar-coat the situation, not the least being a wise unwillingness to look like he's playing the race card. I suggest a compromise, which I hinted at already above. Let's not worry so much about whether the reactionaries are racist as long as we recognize that, on some level, they really just hate people in general.

04 November 2009

Conservatives Lose 23rd District

At the midnight hour MSNBC is reporting that Doug Hoffman has conceded the race for the 23rd Congressional District of New York to Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate. This news surprises me, since I was reading on newspaper websites shortly before that Hoffman's supporters wanted to wait for a count of as many as 10,000 absentee ballots that might have tipped the balance in a close race. Instead, the great third-party adventure of 2009 is over, and the story has multiple morals. Opponents of the American Bipolarchy may take heart from the fact that Hoffman defied the decision of Republican county leaders in favor of an allegedly too liberal nominee and ran such a strong campaign as the Conservative candidate that the Republican ultimately suspended her own efforts. Opponents of movement conservatism as represented by Hoffman will note that the movement lost a district that had been reliably Republican for generations. The movement and the Republican constituency were not synonymous. On the other hand, the movement nearly won in its own right, but nearly may be as good as it gets in the 23rd, where we may have seen a realignment pitting the movement against all its enemies. Fear of the movement will benefit the Democratic party at least in the short term, since those who fear the movement will feel compelled to support Democrats as the only force strong enough to resist it. There'll be little pressure on the Democrats to do anything but not be movement conservatives, so dissatisfaction will persist but few will dare act on it due to fear of conservatives. This is the part where I should tell people not to fear movement conservatives so much that they feel obliged to settle for mediocrity and compromise instead of demanding real representation. But I also think people should fear the resurgence of movement conservatism and its attendant demons. The question for the future is whether we should vote according to our fears or according to our beliefs. We'll have occasions to come back to this question in the coming year.

03 November 2009

Undead Conservatism

If reactionary candidates do well in today's elections, Gary Younge's column in the October 26 issue of The Nation may help explain it:

The right's ability to cast white people as victims is possible only because of the dramatic downward spiral of power and influence for white Americans at home and abroad that, paradoxically, accelerated under Bush.... [N]eoliberal globalization has left white Americans feeling insecure in a world where they once called the shots. Among citizens of forty-six countries polled in 2007, Americans had the least positive view on foreign trade and one of the least positive on foreign companies. With unemployment edging toward double figures and a once stagnant median income now shrinking, white Americans do not experience their lot compared with nonwhite Americans as
one of relative privilege, because compared with last year they are poorer.

Add to this the fact that numerically, white Americans will be a minority by 2045, and you have the basis for the panic that has been unleashed. Obama's election did not create these anxieties. (Were he more radical in his policies he might actually alleviate some of them.) It has simply provided a focus for them and, conversely, proved that there is a vast constituency -- particularly among the young -- who do not share them. [Emphasis added]

The country these right-wingers keep saying they "want back" is a white one in which their exclusive entitlement to the exercise of power, locally and globally, goes unchallenged. The fact that that country isn't coming back is what makes their voices so shrill and their actions so extreme....In the absence of any meaningful analysis of class, race or internationalism, white Americans are understandably disoriented. Never having considered the unearned privilege of being white and American, all they can see are things being taken away from them. Never having considered solidarity with blacks and Latinos, they see them not as potential allies but as perpetual enemies. Obama's election showed that these appeals to fear can be defeated; events since then indicate that they can still be destructive.

Younge goes too far only in accusing rightists of wanting to reserve power to whites. I think they would welcome any nonwhite who convincingly repudiates all notions of group or class solidarity in favor of "personal responsibility." But there does seem to be a mentality peculiar to white voters, though not necessarily typical of them, that rejects any identification with the working class or the poor in favor of anything that allows them not to be "losers" in spite of actual economic circumstances and enables them to stick that label to others who actually dare protest against conditions. Poor whites often act as if there's some spiritual reward in store for them if they affirm that the system is fair and keep playing by the rules without questioning them, and these same people often seem to hate no one as much as a complainer, a "whiner." For them, "whining" defines the true loser, and they can't be losers if they don't complain. The fact that other people have protested, "whined," even, against the rules and gotten results doesn't dispel the illusion but only infuriates this element. This analysis needs more development than I have time for tonight, but we need to delve deeper yet into the psychology of the reactionary working class if we're going to figure out how to persuade them to set aside flattering yet self-defeating ideologies and see things as they are.

"The Death of Conservatism": A Premature Burial?

Sam Tanenhaus is seen as some sort of authority on American conservatism because he wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who testified against Alger Hiss and became an anti-communist guru in the 1950s. So when Tanenhaus writes a book-length (barely) obituary for the conservative movement it theoretically commands attention. The book is actually an obit for what's often called "movement conservatism," which is what most modern Americans think of when they use the c-word. But Tanenhaus is one of those writers who claim that the "movement" was never authentically conservative.

Like many such writers, he holds up Edmund Burke as the standard of conservative thought. As more scholars are pointing out these days, Burke was not anti-government or even anti-"big government" in the American sense. He was conservative because he opposed radicalism; he opposed the French Revolution because it proposed to start from scratch on the basis of reason alone instead of building on and improving the work of centuries past. For Burke, Tanenhaus claims, reform is the essential conservative activity, and he set no ideological tests for the legitimacy of reform measures. Burke once wrote: "As the liberties and restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule." That sounds at odds with most of what passes for American conservatism today, whether most American conservatives can comprehend the sentence or not.

Tanenhaus portrays his hero Chambers as a Burkean conservative. In practice that meant that he differed from many who came to idolize him on what to do when Republicans regained power in the 1950s. While Chambers advised accommodating the reforms of the New Deal as a permanent fact of American life, many "conservative" Republicans were what Tanenhaus calls "revanchists." They wanted to undo the New Deal, just as they wanted to aggressively subvert Communist regimes around the world. This made them radicals from the Burkean standpoint and, at their worst in the 1990s, they could be accused by Tanenhaus of being interested only in destruction. Fortunately for the country a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, ignored the revanchists and retained New Deal programs. For this, Tanenhaus praises Ike as one of the two most successful conservative Presidents of the later 20th century. The other was Bill Clinton, whom Tanenhaus praises for reforming Great Society programs while fending off the "Contract With America" agenda of undoing the welfare state.

2008 marked the death of movement conservatism, according to this coroner's report, because Republican dogma, in spite of John McCain, had finally lost any relevance to the crises facing the nation in the wake of the financial panic. Republicans can only recover, Tanenhaus claims, when they come to terms with the actual state of things and what Americans actually want, even when these things conflict with their precious dogma. But as I write today, with the movement licking its chops in anticipation of vindicating victories across the country and predicting a reconquest of Congress next year, I question the author's diagnosis. He may have underestimated the atavistic fears and fresh anxieties at large in the country that leave Americans still susceptible to revanchist fearmongering or outright lies. He may also have underrated the movement's capacity for adaptability, or at least a knack for adopting a populist guise to exploit a mass subconscious suspicion that all the country needs is a good purge of the weak, the sinful or the Other to get back on its feet.

Intellectually, I might even question Tanenhaus's history and his indictment of "revanchism" as a heresy. Those he calls revanchists might, after all, think of themselves as "restorationists," and even Burke himself, one suspects, would have welcomed a restoration of the French monarchy after the Jacobins abolished it. What's a Burkean conservative to do, after all, if he thinks that the radicals have taken over? If radicalism is wrong, how far can he accommodate it until principle obliges him to raise the banner of counter-revolution in the name of restoration? Counter-revolution may appear as radical as revolution itself from an objective perspective, but it probably looks like a moral imperative to those engaged in it. This is just my way of saying that using Burke against movement conservatives won't get Tanenhaus very far, especially given how unlikely it is that many in the movement at this late date have read Burke. As Tanenhaus himself notes, movement conservatism isn't so much a spinoff from Burke or any European conservative tradition as it is a reactionary outburst of the American entrepreneurial class. It is less interested in the state's obligations to its citizens than in an idea of "freedom" that can only be measured by the amount of money individuals can make. Tanenhaus can complain that it isn't conservative in his sense of the word, but he only proves himself naive if he thinks that the word is anything more than a brand name for the movement. His own effort to rebrand the movement and declare it dead is almost certainly in vain.

02 November 2009

"Ghost Candidates"

The latest round in the Rensselaer County Bipolarchy tug-of-war for control of the Working Families Party involves a person named Kevin Gervasio who won a nomination to run as a WFP candidate for the county legislature with 76 votes in the party primary. Gervasio is alleged to be a "ghost" candidate recruited by local Republicans to occupy the WFP line and keep it out of Democratic hands. Blog readers will recall that local Democrats have been accused of fraudulent use of absentee ballots in another WFP primary. In Gervasio's case no laws seem to have been broken, but Democrats are trying to use the episode to embarrass Republicans because Gervasio, who now claims to have been put forward without his knowledge by his own brother, is a convicted criminal with multiple arrests on his record who also happens to live in North Carolina.

This is more proof of the pathetic shape the WFP is in Rensselaer County, where the party has a line on the ballot because of its performance in statewide elections but lacks the personnel to enforce any kind of partisan integrity. Across the river in Albany, the WFP has its own credible mayoral candidate, albeit a disgruntled Democrat. In Rensselaer County it's nothing but a piece of property the Bipolarchy fights over. This would seem to be an argument for centralizing control of any such party under a statewide leadership, on the assumption that somebody must have an interest in the integrity of the brand and a right to protect it against destructive exploitation. All that may be needed would be some requirement that any local candidate get a WFP stamp of approval from the statewide party apparatus -- if the WFP has such a thing. This may look objectionable to advocates of maximum localization or decentralization, but if we want parties to really stand for something besides fundraising in a post-Bipolarchy polity, someone has to have the power to say that someone like Gervasio doesn't actually represent the party and should not appear on its ballot line -- a statement with which Gervasio himself would apparently agree.