30 December 2009

Partisanship and Security

Another year nears its end, but some things don't change. It appears on any objective analysis that the U.S. national-security apparatus screwed up again in failing to put the Nigerian gentleman who tried to blow up an airliner last week on a no-fly list. The error may seem more obvious in retrospect but the evidence has mounted showing that Americans were aware that some Nigerian coming out of Yemen meant trouble around Christmastime. The guy's name was known because his father had denounced him, so it seems like he could have been separated from the general air-travel population without having to profile anyone else. The President appears to realize that something's wrong with this picture, but such is the nature of the American Bipolarchy that many people will insist that nothing new needs to be done because the Republicans are insisting otherwise. Make no mistake: when Dick Cheney makes any public criticism of the present President he does so with partisan advantage in mind. Had he some higher interest in the matter, he could probably call on the President and make known his concerns and reservations. Instead, he openly questions whether the President even realizes that the country is at war with terrorists, and the only object of such commentary is to turn more voters Republican. But it's one thing to question the President's competence or fitness to lead, as Cheney does constantly, and another to admit the obvious: that something is wrong with the system as it currently functions. My fear is that Democratic partisans and people in general who hate Republicans will deny the obvious in order to spite the domestic enemy. My point is not to say that we need to become even more of a police state, since I question the policies that perpetually provoke Muslims against the U.S. But this is a time when Americans need to have an objective conversation about what to do to prevent another attempt like the Christmas stunt, and the tendency of the Bipolarchy is to make such conversations impossible.

Avatar and Fantasies of Harmony

Two weeks after its release I'm still pondering whether to take a look at Avatar, James Cameron's new wonder film. I've seen reviews that praise it as a visionary, genuinely artistic film with pictorial qualities that transcend many admitted cliches in its story of a modern (or futuristic) technological man going native to protect an idyllic world and its noble culture from exploitation and conquest. Cameron's fantasy, according to these reports, presents a world that takes the harmony of nature and living things to almost icky new levels of literal-mindedness. The creatures of the planet appear to be equipped with biological plugs and jacks so that they can physically link and commune with each other. The dominant species, the Na'vi, are idealized aboriginals of the sort that many moviegoers may find insufferable. I'm not sure how I'll react to them, but the commentary inspired by the film so far is increasing my interest in seeing the thing for myself.

In the current New Yorker David Denby anticipates some of my own reservations about the idealization of aboriginal or "noble savage" life. While generally praising Avatar as "the most beautiful film I've seen in years," he figuratively rolls his eyes a bit at the "whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture" detected in comparison of Na'vi and future-human culture.

"Well, actually, life among the Na'vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there's no reality TV or fast food, but there's no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either," Denby comments. In other words, Denby misses what he regards as high culture. I can sympathize with his attitude, but not without questioning both his attitude and my own. There's something condescending about such comments, which remind me of the novelist Saul Bellow's query, rejecting the equality of all cultures, on where he might find the Tolstoy of the Zulus. To ask such a rhetorical question, or to prepare a checklist like Denby's, should beg the question of whether the Zulus need a Tolstoy or the Na'vi a Chandler. The fact that some cultures may not need what individuals in others think they need isn't necessarily a point for or against either culture. But it does tell us something about our own culture, or people in it, that explains a dubious reaction to aboriginal fantasies like Avatar, Dances With Wolves, etc. People who partake of American or western high culture (or pop culture) seem to feel some anxiety over the apparent absence in actual or imagined aboriginal cultures of space for private, individual experience and enjoyment. They've experienced an anxious recognition of a crucial facet of utopian thought. If we want to imagine a utopia based on the collective good, the well being of all people rather than the maximum flourishing of the best, and reject the accumulation of material wealth by which individuals distinguish themselves in inegalitarian societies, we have to face the necessity of finding our own individual fulfillment not in acquiring stuff but in fellowship with our fellow humans. At least we assume that aboriginal peoples found fulfillment in fellowship, and so it must be with the more ascetic or puritanical utopians of our own day who think we can all be happy without "having it all" or even having what we think we want. But fellowship as the utopian condition bugs some people who see it carrying the baggage of conformity, superstition, rigid traditionalism and so forth. On the other hand, for those who believe in harmony with nature, and thus in harmony among all human beings, a utopian condition that individualists would find alarming would probably cause no alarm at all.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg reports that some of his fellow conservatives are attacking Avatar because they see it as a kind of pagan or pantheistic film. The Na'vi, apparently, are not monotheists, and for all I know neither are the future-humans in the movie. Goldberg himself has a point when he says that Avatar would be a really controversial film if "the good guys accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts," but he likes the film better than his colleagues and he thinks they miss a more important point while complaining about the film's fictional belief system.

"What I find interesting about the film is how what is 'pleasing to most people' is so unapologetically religious," Goldberg writes. Avatar isn't something out of H.G. Wells or even Gene Roddenberry in which the future witnesses the triumph of reason over superstition. Instead it seems to be like the decadent Star Trek of the Deep Space Nine era in which the Bajoran religion, for instance, is shown to be essentially true. Goldberg suggests that the film reflects a growing understanding that "humans are hard-wired to believe in the transcendental," and a belief that religions may have been essential to human evolution by encouraging altruistic behaviors in the interest of group survival. An environmentalist bent to Na'vi culture in the film reminds Goldberg of appeals to spirituality or holism by present-day environmentalists on Earth.

Neither Goldberg nor Denby makes clear whether Cameron's future-humans are believers themselves or rationalists. Until I understand that better, I can't even speculate as to whether Avatar is intended as an affirmation of spirituality against materialism. I suspect not because the story depends on the special circumstances of the Na'vi planet and thus has limited relevance to the real world. But Goldberg is on to something by pointing out how religiosity pervades the film that most people will call the biggest "science fiction" movie of the closing year. That brings me back to the question of harmony and fellowship: do they depend on everyone believing in something "transcendent" or bigger than themselves? In our own context, most conservatives seem to think so, and Goldberg suggests that more liberals and leftists are thinking along similar lines. The difference seems to be that conservatives look to something above and outside themselves -- God -- while the left may be leaning toward something they can claim is within us, call it Nature or what you will. It's probably a significant difference, but it makes me wonder whether there's still room for an approach different from both, the now old fashioned-seeming Enlightenment commitment to enlightened self-interest and its corollary, enlightened mutual interest. Can we achieve a harmonious culture with neither biological assistance or a mandatory endorsement of some "noble lie?" Can we even imagine doing so now? If someone can, then that's the movie I'd really like to see.

29 December 2009

The "Preppers": Fatalism vs. Preventive Survivalism

Newsweek has tried hard and somewhat convincingly to tell us that the people called "preppers" and described in this article as a historic third wave of American survivalists are not like the more menacing survivalists of the popular imagination. But the article still alarms me. I'll concede the point that many preppers are not the apocalyptic types who might actually welcome the breakdown of civilization. I'll even call it admirable that they feel inspired to learn skills for self-reliance in the event of adversity. The thing that worries me is something that looks like fatalism in their attitude, a tendency to take for granted that society and government will break down. The article hints that many preppers have been put into alarmist mode by the naysaying and doom-preaching of cable news or talk radio, from which they might also learn that government will avail them not when the crisis comes. Others are simply alarmed by the recent recession or the nation's now-obvious vulnerability to terrorism and natural disasters. But whatever the cause, preppers seem to act on the assumption that a time may come soon when they will have to save themselves. The fatalistic part of this is their apparent inability or unwillingness to believe that they, as individuals or as part of an aroused community, can take action to prevent societal breakdown. Whether because they distrust government, distrust all institutions, or distrust their fellow men and women, it seems like they've already made the decision to save themselves first, even while there's presumably still a chance to save their neighborhood or their nation. So while preppers may not be the sort of people who long for the return of the wilderness, the kind who are even now fantasizing about being the alpha males and patriarchs of Mad Max Land, the preppers' implicit fatalism has the same self-fulfilling-prophecy quality about it as the oldschool survivalists' stockpile building. Their attitude is a symptom of the very societal breakdown that they hope to survive.

28 December 2009

Iran for Dummies

It looks like another round of Gestapo tactics on the streets of Teheran as the Ahmadinejad administration and the Khamenei government hope to beat the still-disgruntled opposition into more complete submission. Ever since the disputed election, every time we see demonstrations and violent reactions from the authorities we hear Americans deploring the President's failure to denounce the Iranian regime more strongly. We even see a few people urge the adoption by the U.S. of a "regime change" policy toward Iran. That's the only way to help those poor dissidents, we're told, or the only way to prevent the country from perfecting nuclear weapons. The dissidents clearly have a hard road ahead of them, but they've impressed me as a courageous and not easily deterred lot of people. So far I see them protesting and not attempting to bring down the government. I definitely don't hear them saying, "America, come liberate us with your bombs!" They have enough troubles with their government reflexively accusing all dissidents of being American stooges anyway. So, for the dummies: all your regime-change rhetoric is only going to make things worse for the people you want to help. And here's another problem: you have no right to help them. You can cheer them on as private citizens, and to the extent that I believe that Ahmadinejad stole the election I'd cheer on the dissidents, too. But some of the people most loudly cheering them on now, who take on faith that the election was stolen, had no tolerance whatsoever for Americans who believed that the presidential election of 2000 was stolen. I can't help wondering how much tolerance they'd show for demonstrators shouting "Death to Bush" before calling the riot squad. Hypocrisy, however, is not the real issue here. The real issue is individuals conspiring to make the overthrow of any government a matter of explicit American policy. In my mind that's morally equivalent to a declaration of war, and as far as I'm concerned, if someone is out in public saying that the U.S. should change the Iranian regime, then no matter how despicable Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may be as people or as politicians, they'd be within their rights to have that agitator killed. I'm not saying that such people should be killed or that I'd approve of their deaths. I'm just reminding people that the Islamic Republic as the recognized sovereign of the country has as much right to defend itself from foreign menaces, pre-emptively if necessary, as any other nation claims for itself. If that sounds to anyone like "moral equivalence," then too bad for you.

27 December 2009

Repression in Defense of Religion: It Can Happen Here

An Illinois politician got some publicity for himself this weekend by trying to take down a display of atheist sentiments that had been put up, presumably with permission, in a public building. The sign's assertion that "there are no gods" was taken by this man to be a vicious and hurtful denigration of religion; as such, in his view, it did not belong in a public place. By that standard, of course, he disqualifies all religious signs or symbols from public display, since the affirmation of deity must, by likewise definition, be a denigration of those atheists who supposedly enjoy equal protection under American law. But sophistry aside, something is wrong with the picture when the mere assertion of one principle opposed to another is taken as an insult to the other. That sounds like Islamic extremism or, depending on context, Bipolarchy thinking. Too many Americans, secular or not, bring an all-or-nothing, victory-or-death mentality to discussions that almost always require compromise solutions. Like violent Islamists, we act as if the failure to get our way in all things is an unendurable "humiliation" that justifies a backlash. In some extreme or absurd cases (the present one falling into the latter category) hypersensitive sorts can't stand to hear or see their beliefs contradicted in any way. It may be that the more public space is eroded and we retreat into virtual communities of affinity as opposed to communities of necessity, the less tolerant of compromise, or of tolerance itself, we become. A public building is bound to become a contested zone, and the expression of minority opinions becomes our canary in the metaphorical mineshaft. It it becomes intolerable to easily offended people and gets expelled, then all of us have less breathing space left than we think.

26 December 2009

Terror Returns

While the would-be suicide bomber arrested at a Detroit airport failed in his immediate task he can console himself with the thought of some success in the form of inconveniences imposed on American air travelers at one of the busiest times of the year. Whether there will be political consequences remains to be seen. I suppose some people will try to blame the Obama administration for this man being able to board planes in foreign countries. On the other hand, I can imagine some fringites imagining that the happy-ending scenario was contrived by the Obama administration, either to reinforce its case for escalation in Afghanistan or to distract Americans from the President's alleged domestic failures. The extremes I can predict. How the rest will react I don't know. The most surprising reaction might just be a collective shrug and a return of everyone to his or her business. That would reflect an acceptance of incidents like Friday's as sort of normal. That might be regrettable, though realistic, but it would still be a preferable alternative to any hysteria that demands radical new measures after every episode of would-be terrorism. In any event, here is proof that some radical Islamists still want to kill American civilians in reprisal for Muslim suffering. It is terrorism if it's meant toward some political end, but if revenge is an end in itself that really limits our options. If terrorism is a means toward an end, then victory in a war on terror might come if the enemy is convinced that killing civilians won't advance their goals. But it these attacks are motivated purely by vengefulness, the only way to end them is to extinguish that impulse. Planes can't be made terrorist-proof unless you want to put everyone to sleep as they board and lock them in compartments for the duration of the flight. No one will stand for that, so they'll accept the risk that exists now or they'll demand a final solution, literal or figurative, to the Muslim problem. This may be one of the first questions the new year will answer.

23 December 2009

The Nebraska Compromise: the Criminalization of Politics?

The so-called "Nebraska Compromise" that appears to be essential to the passage of health-care reform legislation in the U.S. Senate sounds like a dirty deal. Senator Nelson of that state, a Democrat, apparently held out for a special provision exempting Nebraska from Medicaid contributions. Understandably, some other states are indignant. A number of states attorneys general are reportedly investigating the legislation toward the end of making a constitutional challenge to it. News reports are dramatizing the story by describing the attorneys general as "prosecutors," as if they were planning criminal action against Nelson or Sen. Reid. I could understand why they'd want to, but it looks like all they can do is to go to court against the bill or induce a citizen to do so.

For the record, all the attorneys general involved in the pending investigation are Republicans, and the apparent instigator of the investigation, the attorney general of South Carolina, launched his investigation at the request of that state's two Republican Senators. At this point many people would be happy to end the discussion, dismissing all the complaints as partisan. Let's concede that charge for the sake of arguments and perhaps assume that some of these prosecutors, at least, might not be troubled had a Republican Senator, or one from one of their own states, had cut a deal like Nelson's. Neither their partisanship nor their possible hypocrisy changes the fact that they're doing the right thing right now. The Nebraska Compromise is unfair by any objective standard, whether it proves to be constitutional or not. Legislation of this sort ought to undergo constitutional scrutiny before it's passed, and it's arguably a flaw in the American political system that there seems to be no provision for such a process. Why should we suffer under laws that can only be proven unconstitutional after the fact of their passage? You might argue that the separation of powers dictates it, or that the Framers, not anticipating judicial review on the Marbury v. Madison model, expected Congressmen to be adequate judges of the constitutionality of their own legislation. The history of judicial review proves that expectation to be an unjustified assumption. Whether there can be constitutional scrutiny of legislation prior to passage that would not be as partisan as the legislation itself is a fair question, but if we can't assume anyone to be capable of acting independent of partisanship this country is finished. If Democrats see no cause for complaint in the Nebraska Compromise, they're wearing partisan blinders. If Republicans are complaining for partisan reasons only we can at least encourage them to set a precedent for everyone else.

22 December 2009

Giuliani and his Understudies

Rudolph Giuliani did not retire from public life today, as I thought he might, and that's a problem for Republicans in New York State. Expected to be a favorite had he run either for Governor or Senator, the former mayor of New York renounced political ambitions for next year only, citing "pretty significant commitments." He then endorsed Rick Lazio for the Republican senatorial nomination as a challenger to Sen. Gillibrand. Lazio was the second-string Republican back in 2000, when Giuliani withdrew from the race against the present Sen. Clinton for health reasons. It's possible that health concerns are in back of his vague official excuse this time, but he may feel that his consulting business has higher priority right now, and his disastrous campaign for the presidential nomination last year may have spooked him off of politics for years to come. But as long as he doesn't renounce politics permanently he's still going to be considered the front-runner among Republicans for any statewide election with a Democratic incumbent. As long as that's the case, people like Lazio or whoever ends up getting the GOP gubernatorial nomination are going to look like second-stringers, second-class candidates. Whether than impression is rational or not it's bound to hurt Republican candidates. Not that I'm complaining, but looking at things objectively I have to advise the state party to pressure Giuliani to retire from politics once and for all simply so Lazio and other wannabes can step out of his shadow to be judged on their own merits, not relative to his.

Speaking for myself, I'd applaud Giuliani's permanent withdraw from the political scene. There is an unseemly authoritarian streak to the man that became most obvious when he sought an emergency extension of his final mayoral term following the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York. He seems an unlikely representative of a party supposedly dedicated to minimal government unless his prominence and popularity among Republicans betrays their desire for a maximization of government in some areas. But even if he hasn't truly retired from politics, I don't think we really have to worry about him. To drop out at a point when Republicans can still believe that either office up for grabs next year was his for the taking should brand him for good as a gun-shy quitter. Giuliani may not have given up on politics, but New Yorkers should give up on him.

Blue Dog Turns Red

Likely to be overshadowed by Rudy Giuliani's expected and welcome retirement from political life today is the announcement that a first-term Democratic congressman from Alabama is switching parties to become a Republican. Parker Griffith had been a state senator since 2006 before running in 2008 to replace a retiring Democratic incumbent who had held the seat since 1990. While this northern district, notable for having a Boeing plant, has been "red" for a long time, giving George W. Bush big margins both times out, the congressional seat has remained Democratic since the end of Reconstruction. Griffith was clearly a Democrat as a matter of convenience only, and inevitably became a Blue Dog with a particular hostility, as a physician, to Democratic health-care reform proposals. He was reportedly shaken by hecklers at town meetings earlier this year despite his own criticism of the reform plans. He was also irked that the government was going to be sending less money Boeing's way on various aerospace projects.

By progressive standards, as a Blue Dog Griffith was a DINO or "Democrat in name only," and for once this looks like a fair charge. The Democratic Party in northern Alabama is probably unrepresentative of the Democratic National Committee or Democratic voters as a whole. That forces the question of why Griffith or his predecessor needed to be Democrats, or why now Griffith's only option for political survival seems to be to turn Republican in defiance of already-announced challengers for his seat. Griffith's defection probably requires him to renounce no principles he ever held, and he will most likely vote in Congress exactly as he did before. From the vantage of the American Bipolarchy Griffith's switch may be a significant event, but for all practical purposes nothing has happened. Yet he may not get reelected and may not even be renominated simply because he's switched his label at an untimely moment. It will be hard to tell from my distance whether Griffith deserves his likely fate or whether he'll be a victim of partisanship on all sides. But to the extent that he's being held accountable for the policies of a party leadership he's apparently opposed consistently, his story demonstrates the absurdity of party politics in America today.

21 December 2009

No Society Without Government

Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty arrived in my mail last week. It's a survey of U.S. history from 1789-1815 from one of the major modern historians of the period. Reading an early chapter, it occurred to me that people in the founding generation suffered from a fundamental fallacy. They made a distinction between "society" and "government." As Wood puts it: "The most liberal-minded of the eighteenth century...tended to see society as beneficent and government as malevolent." He quotes Thomas Paine: "Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness." Idealists of the age believed that society could do without government. They believed that humans had an instinct towards a harmonious society that was only disrupted by the "artificial interference of government." If people properly developed their innate moral sense, the resulting societal harmony would make government superfluous.

When most 18th century people spoke of government, they were thinking of monarchies and aristocracies that had no rational basis as far as the most liberal-minded were concerned. If you see government as a king, you might naturally think of government as parasitic. But it makes no sense to think of government as something distinct from or alien to society, as if it only comes into being through acts of violent conquest. It makes even less sense today to dispute the legitimacy or necessity of government when some people deny the existence of society itself, taking the Thatcherite view that there are only individuals and families. Nor does it make sense to appeal to some instinctual harmony when today's social ideal for many people is competition. You cannot have harmonious competition unless you believe in divine providence, "spontaneous order" or some more superstitious version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that somehow works everything out for the best. Government may be all too vulnerable to usurpation by the powerful or cunning, but it is the people's, or society's, defense mechanism against too much or too intense competition. It expresses the people's desire for peace and, ideally, a commitment to pool resources for collective survival. Delegating the people's collective power always involves a risk, but denying it in the name of a dubious ideal of harmony of self-interests is also risky. We might be better off unlearning 200 years of rhetoric that taught that government was something done to us and remembering that government is for us to do together.

19 December 2009

Trickle-Down Obamanomics?

The President has been accused of many things this year, but for the most part, outside of the crazy basements of dead-ender racism, he hasn't been accused of giving the country to the blacks or whatever might have terrified some people about the advent of an African-American chief executive. But by doing nothing or little to provoke such fears, he has disappointed both progressives and "race men" who insist that justice requires special measures for the benefit of oppressed minorities. One such disappointed person is Derrick Z. Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe. One of his recent pieces appeared in a local paper this week. In it, he audaciously equates Obama's approach to social justice with Ronald Reagan's approach to economics.

Even though Obama is President of "all the people," he knows that the black male unemployment rate of 16.9 percent needs disproportionate remedies, compared to the 9.8 percent unemployment rate of white men. Yet he remains wedded to the trickle-down rhetoric of "The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is getting the economy going again."...Trickle-down rhetoric did not result in a flash flood of equity under Ronald Reagan and it will not under Obama.

There is one questionable premise and one insulting one in that excerpt. The questionable premise is that the disparity in racial unemployment rates (for men only, apparently) is based on some sort of discrimination that requires a discriminatory (or "disproportionate") government remedy. The insulting one is the assumption that policies designed to benefit "the American community, period," can only "trickle down" to African-Americans. Basically Jackson is denying that there can be a color-blind American economic policy and arguing that any policy that is not color-conscious (i.e. "disproportionately" beneficial to blacks) amounts to whites being first at the trough.

Jackson's meditation was actually inspired by the election of an open lesbian as mayor of Houston. He seems disappointed that Mayor-elect Parker did not or would not run an uncompromising gay-rights campaign, and he sees her apparent reticence as analogous to Obama's refusal to use his power to press for greater racial equality. Jackson is, to venture a guess, a radical egalitarian. From that perspective, common sense dictates that to establish equality you can't treat all people in an existing unequal society equally. We may presume that Jackson will not be satisfied until there are no discrepancies in economic statistics across racial lines, but I wonder if he'd stop there. I don't assume that he would, but I'm just curious. In any event, there remain people in this country who would not take the kind of discrepancies that offend Jackson as proofs of injustice that require state intervention. While Jackson himself notes that Obama has made small steps toward minority-conscious allocation of stimulus money, for all we know the President himself may not share the columnist's egalitarian standards. But the egalitarian must make common cause with the Democrat for now, seeing no alternative and having done nothing to create one as far as we can see.

17 December 2009

Why is there no Social Democracy in the U.S.?

The scholar Tony Judt gave a talk back in October on "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy" that has been published in the new holiday issue of The New York Review of Books. Judt is asking a new version of the old question once famously raised by Werner Sombart: "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" That question has received a variety of answers over the years, but for Judt the present absence of the milder option, social democracy, is more perplexing.

"Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?" Judt asks, "We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?"

Judt blames the fact that "we simply do not know how to talk about these things" on "economism," a modern tendency to think of everything in economic terms and a state of mind whose advent was anticipated with dread by thinkers from the 18th century forward. Judt seems to blame the triumph of economism on a complacency brought on by the success of the 20th century welfare state in Western Europe and the U.S. that undermined people's belief in its necessity. That still leaves no rational reason why citizens in these regions should support a gradual privatization of public services that has actually brought them little benefit. Judt seems to think that this privatization has contributed to the discrediting of the welfare state, if not the state itself, instead of being a symptom of it. He may be right, however, if he means to argue that privatization has exacerbated this sense of alienation from public feeling that leads to economism if we understand economism as a concern for one's pocketbook alone.

The cure for economism, Judt suggests, is to learn to "think the state" again. In plainer terms, we have to start thinking about the public or common good again. Judt worries that we're handicapped in doing this by the failure of Marx-style historical optimism about human progress and the state as its instrument. We can't be utopian anymore, or at least as long as memories of the failures of Bolshevism remain fresh. Judt would prefer a more moralistic social democracy that emphasizes itself as the right thing to do, but not as the answer to all questions or the fulfillment of all needs. Further, he offers the odd prescription of adopting "a social democracy of fear." This means bringing back history with an emphasis on what happens when "the market" fails and why the state needs to step in when it does. Social democracy, Judt seems to say, should be all about warning people about what can and most likely will happen if we let entrepreneurial ideologues complete the dismantling of the welfare/regulatory state. He argues that social democracy will be the real conservative movement of our time in the literal sense of that word, dedicated to preserving what was gained in the 20th century.

I'm not sure if economism sufficiently explains what's happened in this country. Judt himself notes that people have answered Sombart's original question by noting the heterogeneity of the U.S. as an obstacle to the social solidarity that emerged among European working classes. That same diversity probably had something to do with the loss of faith in the New Deal-Great Society order once some groups convinced themselves that others less deserving were benefiting more than they. But that doesn't get to the heart of Judt's leading question: why can't we think differently or outside the current box? Regular readers may roll their eyes at this point, but I can't help but thinking that the perpetual, self-reinforcing deadlock that characterizes the American Bipolarchy has something to do with this conceptual paralysis. The modern ideological alignment of the Bipolarchy along left-right lines forces too many people into reflexive opposition to policies that may benefit the country but don't fit into one or either program.

One of the two sides seems to argue in economist terms, but Judt may underestimate a "moral" element in that position. There are people in America who would argue that economism, or what Judt calls economism, is a moral principle. Judt notes the intellectual heritage of this belief in his lecture, but claims plausibly that few Americans today know the historical background of the ideas they take for granted or as gospel. At the same time, Judt may not appreciate fully the rise of a popular anti-state or anti-social ideology that owes relatively little to the likes of Hayek or Schumpeter, and everything to a dialectic process that generated a doctrinaire morally-absolutist individualism in opposition to all notions of collective welfare. At one point Judt proposes defining the humiliation of the poor as a social cost that we should try to minimize. As soon as I read the passage I regretted Judt's temporary naivete. Doesn't he realize that millions of Americans believe that humiliation is something that people deserve and should experience, either for their own good or as a lesson to others? Acknowledging the difficulty of this particular exercise, Judt says "unless we ask such questions, how can we hope to devise answers?" That's well said. My only complaint is that Judt himself isn't asking enough questions, but I suppose that's where the rest of us come in.

15 December 2009

A "People's Convention" in New York?

A Republican legislator is holding a series of public meetings to publicize his effort to convene a "People's Convention to Reform New York" that would rewrite the state constitution. Brian Kolb hopes that public support will encourage legislation authorizing the election of delegates to such a convention, from which he hopes to exclude current elected politicians, "party bosses," lobbyists and "special interests." A report in today's Times Union suggests that this is a Republican initiative, but Kolb himself claims that it's a bipartisan measure and that the convention itself should be non-partisan in nature.

Kolb's good faith can be questioned. In planning a representative convention of New Yorkers, who has the right to define anyone else as a "special interest?" Those two words alone arguably betray a populist-reactionary bias to the plan, but that shouldn't lead people to dismiss the idea of a convention outright. Such a gathering may be the only way to get around the party-system that guarantees if not seeks out deadlocked politics and prevents real progress. If the movement for the PCRNY gathers momentum, vigilance will be our responsibility. Our job will be to make sure that the PCRNY won't be a populist-reactionary or Tea-Party "coup" designed to cripple government, and to make sure that progressive or outright leftist voices aren't excluded from the process. If 64% of New Yorkers like the idea of a convention, according to a Quinnipiac poll, then no one should reject the idea out of hand. Rather, we should make sure that the authorization (to the extent that that's really necessary) and organization of a convention are taken out of partisan or ideologically factional hands. Ideology is as much a "special interest" as anything else, and any effort to use a "people's convention" to push through an ideological agenda that can't otherwise prevail should be resisted with all our power.

Go Home, Oral.

The evangelist finally got the word this afternoon. Here are the fresh details. To be honest, I thought he was dead already. His reputation was definitely dead when Charlton Heston was willing to go on Saturday Night Live and play God in a skit mocking Roberts. It was a great moment in irreverence when the actor appeared and demanded of the comedian playing Roberts, "Where's my money?" That's how Oral Roberts should be remembered.

13 December 2009

Another complaint about celebrity

In a time when many people seem not to want to know about their neighbors, the ancient impulse toward gossip finds its preferred target in the realm of celebrity. Too many of us would rather know every detail about people we will never meet than the first thing about the folks who live next door. Our obsession with celebrity is nothing new. From the time that professional athletes and stage actors became national figures, the media have encouraged us to be interested in stars' every act. This trend has only been exacerbated by the 24-hour news channels and the internet. Disinterest in our neighbors is probably a more recent trend, consistent with a general aversion to all things public that comes with the intensively marketed privatization and virtualization of all experience. The foibles of a golfer, even the best golfer, should not enthrall us as they seem to, especially not when every American should have bigger fish to fry.

Gossip itself isn't the problem. That's democracy in its most basic form. It may too often be a means to enforce mindless conformity with traditions, but it's also a reminder that we are all accountable to each other. The question that turns gossip into politics is: what should we be accountable to each other for? Gossip usually seems to focus on sex because that's one topic most people feel competent to pass judgments on. The political realm has been so mystified (or supposedly specialized) that people don't feel competent to judge anything but any policy's impact on their own pocketbooks. Even then, one suspects that the latest celebrity misadventure still means more to many people. Is it utopian of me to wish that more people would be as passionately engaged with issues that actually do mean more to them, whether they realize it yet or not? It depends, since passion often comes with prejudice. But informed passion is probably what the Founders and Framers depended on to keep their democratic republic from declining into what it is today. But too many Americans were encouraged to mind their own business (making money) or anyone else's business but that of the country, which had somehow gotten too complicated for most of us to understand. Celebrity gives us circuses without bread, and at no expense to our rulers -- indeed, practically no effort on their part. There's no conscious effort to distract Americans from what really matters; it's just too easy to make money by doing so, and the result is the same without anyone willing it so. It's just free enterprise at work.

10 December 2009

"Obama accepts peace prize, defends war."

That was the headline on the MSN homepage this morning in all its surreal grandeur, and here is the President's speech accepting the Nobel Prize. He defends war by asserting the persistence of evil, here defined as those with whom negotiation is futile. Like many people, Barack Obama equates peace with a condition of justice which is inevitably partially defined. That is, peace will come, on this view, when one vision of justice prevails over the others, or the others are proven unjust and repudiated. This is the sort of peace that can be and often is imposed by force, and requires force to be maintained on the premise that evil is a permanent element in human nature. But there's a second idea of peace that also has many adherents, and it's probably the ideal people think of when they imagine likely deserving recipients of the Nobel. That idea bases peace on renunciation, and implicitly rejects the notion upheld by both al Qaeda and America that certain things are non-negotiable. This is what we think of when we speak of pacifism, and while pacifists may believe that permanent peace does depend to some extent on some sort of justice, they emphasize the essential importance of renunciation, the resolution that nothing I desire -- or nothing I own -- is worth killing over. I don't know exactly what Mr. Nobel had in mind when he instituted the prize, but I wonder whether he appreciated the ambiguity of peace, or whether such ambiguity exists in his native language. In the future, the Nobel Committee might consider renaming the "Peace Prize" to make clear what they mean to reward. That way apparent contradictions like the award to Obama might be avoided.

09 December 2009

"Pro-Business" vs. "Pro-Market"

Jonah Goldberg's latest column reads like an attempt at clarification or differentiation, an effort to define his own position on economic issues outside of the simplistic "liberal" vs. "conservative" framework. He implicitly identifies himself as one of the "libertarian-minded right" and as such complains about "how Republicans got stuck being 'the party of big business.'" In his view this is unfair, but his reason for saying so is unusual. He contends that "big business" all too often opposes the free-market principles of the "libertarian-minded right." They are quite happy to accept government regulation on the belief, Goldberg claims, that regulation will impose disadvantages on up-and-coming competitors while their influence over politicians allows them to structure the rules in their own favor.

"Going back to U.S. Steel and the railroads, the story of big business in America is often as not the story of fat cats rigging the system," Goldberg writes. Today, he endorses a fellow columnist's observation that "while everyone has been debating the government takeover of health care, what's really transpired is health care's takeover of government -- thanks to what he calls the 'medical-industrial complex.'"

If you think about it, this is a pretty radical critique of American society and politics, coming from a Republican. But where does it leave Republicans? Goldberg writes that "Too many Republicans think being pro-business is the same as being pro-market. They defend the status quo against bad [sic?] reforms and think they've defended economic freedom. The status quo stinks. And the sooner Republicans learn that, the sooner they'll deserve to win again."

Maybe this is an early stirring of post-Bailout conservatism, but what practical form can it take? Goldberg's position is that big business too often grows disinclined to play by free-market rules. It grows unwilling to test itself in fair competition with up-and-coming entrepreneurs and exploits government to consolidate and preserve its advantageous position. Big-government liberalism is complicit in this process; Goldberg describes the liberal motive as "it's easier to steer a few giant oxen than a thousand cats." A libertarian might argue that big business would not be able to cheat and defy the market without a big-government regulatory apparatus to manipulate. But if companies grow "too big to compete" in their own minds, if they become conservative (in a non-ideological sense) rather than competitive, doesn't that mean that "the market," that legendary self-regulating mechanism for maximizing human goods, is incapable of governing that anti-competitive, conservative impulse that comes, perhaps inevitably, to exactly those people who have heretofore played by the market's rules and won? For that matter, who's to say that government is some kind of third party to this generational sort of struggle. If it comes naturally to the successful to exploit government to their advantage, is it unreasonable to suggest that government itself, as practiced in the developed world, comes not from some non-entrepreneurial lust for power, as libertarians seem to believe, but precisely from that impulse on the part of the initially successful to hold on to what they've got? Wouldn't it then be imperative for people like Goldberg, who believe in the freedom of newcomers to compete with entrenched interests for the public benefit, to propose not just dismantling the presumably corrupt sort of regulatory government we have today, but the construction of a new, more effective and thus necessarily more powerful government that would not be susceptible to the blandishments of big business but would set the rules of competition, or commerce itself, so inflexibly that no amount of money would entitle one to appeal against it. There's a paradox for Goldberg to ponder: for the market to be truly free, society may need more and better government. But it may only look like a paradox if you've been deluding yourself in the first place.

08 December 2009

Devil's Advocacy: In Defense of Filibusters

"T his is not what democracy looks like," the editors of The Nation protest in the leader for the December 14 issue, "When Americans vote, by overwhelming majorities, to place control of the executive and legislative branches in the hands of a party that has promised fundamental change, they are supposed to get that change, They are not supposed to watch as a handful of self-interested and special-interested senators prevent progress by exploiting the arcane rules of the less representative of our two legislative chambers..."

Once again, the magazine is calling on the congressional Democrats to use their simple majorities to change the legislative rules to eliminate what has come to be known as a filibuster -- something different from Mr. Smith's mythic lone stand against the whole Senate but just as capable of paralyzing legislation. As in the past, The Nation states the obvious, that the current rules are antidemocratic (not to mention anti-Democratic), though I don't quite recall if they were as insistent on this point back in 2005 when a Republican majority was pondering the same sort of reform to expedite the confirmation of reactionary judges. Correctly, they taint filibusters and any rules that require "supermajorities" as the legacy of sectional racism. And they argue the point in support of progressive health care reforms. If the Democrats did take the magazine's advice, I wouldn't kick much. But something about the argument above annoyed me a little.

Did Americans vote "to place control of the executive and legislative branches in the hands of a party?" Let's tackle the two branches separately. As far as the executive branch is concerned, the answer is obvious; a majority of voters chose a Democrat for the office of Chief Executive. What about the legislature? It will be remembered that each voter chose only one representative to sit in the House, while some got to pick a Senator as well. At the very least, no one literally voted to keep the Democratic party in control of Congress. No voter elected Nancy Pelosi Speaker or Harry Reid Majority Leader. Only by coincidence, one can argue, did these two come by their current power. Those powers are actually limited. They can't command Democrats to vote as they wish, and that's only right. Each Representative represents his district first, and his party second at best. Each Senator represents her state first, and her party second at best. To claim otherwise is to concede even more to the American Bipolarchy than most people do already. Despite appearances, Americans still vote for individuals as a matter of fact and law, not parties. Any legislative mandate the Democratic party claims for itself is provisional and not binding on individual Democratic legislators, who have their own constituents to consult before they listen to their party leaders or whips.

In this context, and so long as the Bipolarchy persists, the filibuster can be defended, at least in theory, as a check on parties and a reminder that people, not parties, vote in our legislature. If that wasn't so, and if elections worked the way The Nation claims, then why not just give Harry Reid 51 votes to cast and send the other Democrats out to their real work of fundraising? Under different circumstances, we could insist that a simple majority should rule in both houses, but in our time it's more than fair to question whether a partisan majority in either house really represents the will of a majority of the American people. This isn't a plea for the pathetic bipartisanship that President Obama has practised occasionally, which in its assumption that opposition support legitimizes controversial measures is just as much a capitulation to Bipolarchy principles. It is an insistence that government needs a check against the major parties and an acknowledgement that we may as well make the most of tools that already exist.

07 December 2009

A Conservative Who Gets It

In posts here and in comments elsewhere I've said frequently that one of the keys of weaning voters away from the American Bipolarchy is to overcome the hysterical fear of one party that compels them to vote for the other, despite mounting reservations, as the lesser of two evils, or to avert an imagined worst-case scenario. Other people are having the same idea. W. James Antle III is an associate editor of The American Spectator, a conservative monthly, but in the new American Conservative he publishes an article called "Hope and Fear," which the editor subtitles, "Democratic dominance is not the end of the world."

Antle opens by noting that the sky has not fallen since President Obama took office. While anticipating disillusionment on the "left," he suggests that "the persistence of the status quo [despite Obama] should also be disillusioning for another group: conservatives who believe that the Republic cannot survive Republican electoral setbacks."

His crucial insight is that "Conservative activists have not needed a GOP majority in Congress to slow down, or even stop, Obama's agenda. Town hall uprisings and other protests that put pressure on Blue Dog Democrats have been enough." The conservative or anti-statist grass roots has generated enough of the appearance of mass opposition to Obama to scare relatively conservative Democrats into caution or outright obstruction. As Antle notes, "the reason the Democratic supermajorities have been so ineffectual is that they are too dependent on ideologically suspect members whose constituents' underlying political sympathies are for the other party." That last comment may betray a Bipolarchy bias, but he makes an important point: in order to seize Congress, the Democrats broadened their appeal to win red-state voters but in doing so compromised their supposedly rightful "liberal" character.

Antle wants conservatives to note the fact that they did not need the Republican party to thwart as much of the Obama agenda as they have so far. He also wants to warn them that depending on the Republicans to save them from Obama is not a good idea. For one thing, Antle fairly admits that "virtually all the socialism now stalking the land [as Sean Hannity calls it] began under the Bush administration. So did the tidal wave of red ink ready to break over taxpayers' heads." While Antle claims that Obama has made things worse yet, he notes, as have many Democrats, liberals, progressives, libertarians, independents, etc., that the Republican party's radio cheerleaders "were often Big Government's biggest cheerleaders" when the GOP held power.

Believing that conservatives flourish in opposition rather than as the party of government, Antle worries that they'll lose focus if they channel their oppositional energy into retaking Congress for the Republicans. He thinks that the GOP can't do it without making the same kinds of compromises as Democrats have, leading to an ideologically compromised party on one hand and a renewed, potentially self-defeating dependence on Republicans on the other.

Contemplating the late struggle in New York's 23rd Congressional District, Antle thinks that conservatives did the right thing by rejecting the Republican nominee even if that meant a Democratic victory. He doesn't idealize Doug Hoffman, the Conservative party nominee ("he had no real knowledge of the district he was running to represent"), but in general he argues that "conservatives can only prevail on a handful of issues in the House, and if a Republican is not willing to take the right side in those fights, the grassroots should be just as pleased to see his seat fall to a Democrat."

Antle doesn't endorse supporting third-party candidates in general, nor does he oppose the idea. But he makes an important argument against Bipolarchy thinking by dismissing "the usual warnings that the sky would fall if a Democrat won an election" when conservatives repudiate Republicans. Looking to the other right-wing phenomenon of this year, he closes by writing, "The Tea Party movement will accomplish nothing if it becomes an appendage of the Republican Party." He goes further, hinting that "putting Republicans back in control might not be an improvement over a hamstrung Democratic majority." He returns to the core argument in his last sentence: "Conservatives should fight Washington's overreach no matter which party is in power, rather than being distracted from their principles by nightmare scenarios of Democratic dominance or sweet promises of Republican utopias." Principled people -- people of any principle -- should make the same distinction between their principles and the parties that claim to embody them.

05 December 2009

Idiot of the Week: The Hon. Russell Wiseman

I'll let this week's nominee speak for himself. Like many children, the mayor of Arlington TN was eagerly waiting to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas last Tuesday night, and was disappointed that it had been postponed because of the President's Afghanistan speech. Like perhaps a few of those kids, he threw a tantrum before realizing that the special would be rescheduled for the following week. This is what he wrote on his Facebook page:

O.K. so this is total crap, we sit the kids down to watch 'The Charlie Brown Christmas Special' and our muslim President is there, what a load...Try to convince me that wasn't done on purpose. Ask the man if he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he will give you a 10 minute disertation about it....when the answer should simply be 'yes.'

Honorable mentions go to all the people who expressed their support for Mayor Wiseman (and there's an ironic name) on the Memphis Commercial Appeal's comments page.

04 December 2009

Marxism: From Appeal to Reason to Call to Prayer

The following quote from First As Tragedy, Then As Farce is a neat summary of Slavoj Zizek's calling:

The great defining problem of Western Marxism was the lack of a revolutionary subject or agent. Why is it that the working class does not complete the passage from in-itself to for-itself and constitute itself as a revolutionary agent? This problem was the main motivation for the turn to psychoanalysis, evoked precisely in order to explain the unconscious libidinal mechanisms which were preventing the rise of class consciousness, mechanisms inscribed into the very being (social situation) of the working class. In this way, the truth of Marxist socio-economic analysis could be saved, and there was no need to give ground to "revisionist" theories about the rise of the middle class.

For Zizek, Leninism (i.e. the creation of vanguard parties designed to seize power opportunistically rather than wait for the proletariat to rise on its own) is the appropriate response to the realization that communism is not as historically inevitable as Marx is said to have believed. Zizek's own eclectic mix of Marxism and Lacanian psychology is an attempt to diagnose the "fetishes" and "symptoms" through which people deny or deflect the reality of class oppression and the imperative of class conflict. I admire Zizek as a writer because I think his method has usefulness independent of his own agenda. His agenda, as I understand it, is the return of Leninism as a kind of fighting faith. This appeal to Lenin strikes me as a confession of a crucial failure of Marx. Marxism, I supposed, was a kind of appeal to reason, on the premise that proletarians would realize in time that their best interests would be served by taking over the means of production. Zizek is all too aware that this appeal has fallen on mostly deaf ears. He remains convinced that Marxism is philosophically and morally correct, in keeping with what he calls the "axiom of equality." Following Alain Badiou (albeit critically), he believes that Marxists should pursue communism by all means necessary because it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether they would win an opinion poll or an election, as a matter of "fidelity to the Event," the "Event" being the axiom of equality. He's enough of a realist to promise no perfection, perhaps not even any material benefit. But in his view the world must become communist because it must, because it is right, just as the project of "universal emancipation" must result in people becoming The People, those capable or worthy of living under communism. Marx's pretensions of science are replaced with moralism and literal appeals to faith/"fidelity." But Zizek has never given me a reason to exempt his own views from his own critical technique. I can imagine a conservative Lacanian (and perhaps I have to imagine one in the first place) diagnosing Zizek as one for whom Leninism is a way to avoid confronting the "Real" of "personal responsibility" or some other brute truth that would revel him to himself as a mere disgruntled loser. I don't say that that's the right diagnosis, but I don't know, perhaps from not reading him enough, whether Zizek has a way to prove it wrong if the analyst is as faithful to his own axioms of "freedom" or "personal responsibility" as Zizek is to his own. As far as I know, after all the brilliance, Zizek seems to be just another Leninist whose main argument for revolution is "because I say so."

03 December 2009

The "Isolationist" Surge?

"I solationism" is a politically incorrect rubric applied to people who prefer to call themselves "anti-interventionists." Historically, the term is identified with Americans who resisted Franklin D. Roosevelt's increasing belligerence toward Germany and Japan, the former especially, before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941. It's a tainted term because the "America First" movement's apparent indifference to Nazi aggression and its consequences, and certain leaders' hints of anti-Semitism, makes "isolationism" sound like an abdication of moral responsibility in an era when many people feel that the imperative to save helpless lives (the "Responsibility to Protect") overrides all other political considerations.

What to make, then, of the Pew Research Center's report, based on a recent poll, that "Isolationism" in the United States is at a 40-year high? For starters, we should bear in mind that the people polled weren't asked, "Are you Isolationists?" I suspect that at least some respondents who are now listed as such would have denied it if put to them that directly. Instead, they were asked if they believed that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." 49 % of respondents said we should. Seven years ago, in December 2002, in the wake of a chimerical victory in Afghanistan and during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, only 30% of respondents said this. That was a sharp post-2001 decrease from a 41% response in 1995, when Americans still on a post-Cold War high were questioning the wisdom of getting involved in places like Somalia and Bosnia. The desire to lash out at enemies following the September 2001 terrorist attacks is apparently quite exhausted by now.

At the same time, Americans remain in a defensive, worried mood. Pew reports that 57% of respondents affirmed that "U.S. policies should try to maintain America’s role as the world’s only military superpower." If Americans are increasingly reluctant to intervene abroad, then they must think superpower-level military supremacy essential for their own self-preservation. There's a little bit of irrational thinking behind that. It may not be surprising to learn that 44% of Americans now think that China is the world's economic superpower (only 27% say the U.S.), but it's odd to see that even 18% think China is the world's leading military power, and that only 63% think that the U.S. still is. For some respondents, "isolationism" may be less a matter of principle than the consequence of their assumption that the country is too weak to make a difference abroad. It's clear enough that for many respondents, "isolationism" doesn't represent a new national modesty. Pew reports that 44% said that the U.S. "should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not." Pew defines this as "unilateralist sentiment" and notes that it's at its highest level ever now in 45 years of asking the question. "Unilateralism" has also surged since it fell to 25% (paradoxically?) in December 2002, but we should be careful not to identify what Pew calls unilateralism with the Bush administration aggressive unilateralism. For many respondents, it may simply be a matter of giving the world the finger, as Americans love to do. To "go our own way" doesn't necessarily mean lashing out at enemies whenever we please; in some cases it probably means something closer to "leave us alone."

The public has mixed feelings about Afghanistan, according to Pew. 70% of poll respondents see the Taliban as a "major threat" to the U.S., but only 56% now retroactively endorse the 2001 invasion, and 47% believe that Afghanistan can be made stable and Taliban-proof. The number of respondents who think that the U.S. is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was before September 2001 has risen sharply this year, though this can probably be attributed to a partisan lack of confidence in President Obama. In any event, the implication of the "isolationist" findings is that a plurality coming close to a majority of the population, if the sample is representative, should oppose Obama's escalation in Afghanistan. With Democrats likely to enforce party discipline in favor of this strategy and Republicans tempted to continue criticizing it as insufficient for "victory," who remains to represent the rest of the country? We may not know until the real opposition starts representing itself.

02 December 2009

Zizek on Populism

From page 61 of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. I wonder whether this describes all too much of the tea-party/anti-Obama opposition.

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry"I don't know what's going on, but I've just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!" Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess -- which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism....what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. That is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.

Zizek goes on to identify this perceived "refusal-to-know" with what his master Lacan described as "a disproportionate growth [of knowledge as an instrument of power] in relationship to the effects of power." In practical terms, Zizek refers to the anti-democratic tendency to reserve important decisions to experts on the basis of their superior if not exclusive knowledge. He sees a contradiction between knowledge as an argument for deference, an apparently increasing inability of common people to make informed decisions in the political realm, and the liberal capitalist affirmation of freedom of choice. People are pressured to exercise their agency and make choices "when we lack the basic cognitive coordinates needed to make a rational choice....We thus find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge." By adopting what Zizek describes as the fetish of the imagined external enemy (e.g., the Jew), populists too often simply abandon the task of understanding the situation. In the U.S. today, that fetishism takes the vaguest of forms in tirades against "the Elite." We are still tempted to blame people or factions instead of an overarching system that might only be amenable to radical change. Obsessing over whom to blame may leave us all to blame for what happens in the long run.

Anti-war Opinion Resists Categorization

After the President's speech last night I did a bit of channel surfing across the news networks. The most interesting thing I found was Rep. Dennis Kucinich's appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. Two things were noteworthy about this interview: Kucinich's apparent endorsement of the Cato Institute's position on Afghanistan (hinting at an antiwar coalition of progressives and libertarians) and the congressman's resistance to the host's attempt to force the Afghan issue into a liberal-vs-conservative paradigm. O'Reilly wanted to know why two liberals (Kucinich and the President) should disagree on Afghan strategy, but Kucinich was quite insistent that the war issue had nothing to do with conventional categories of liberals and conservatives. I'll put up a transcript or a video clip of the interview later when I have a little more functionality, but I wanted to emphasize the significance of this moment right away.

The American Bipolarchy as presently constituted thrives on the perception that, between them, liberals and conservatives (represented rightfully by the Democratic and Republican parties) have the answers to all political questions, and that all political questions can be reduced to liberal and conservative options. Any acknowledgement that this is not so is a wake-up call for the American people and a crack in the bipolar consensus that renders the Bipolarchy impervious to challenge. Ever since 2001, the War on Terror has met opposition across the present ideological continuum, from the "anti-imperialist left" to "paleoconservatives." Because opposition is concentrated outside the complacent "center," it is often dismissed as fringe opinion when it isn't smearingly attributed to anti-Semitism. But what if the appearance of antiwar opposition at both "fringes" actually proves that the "center" is less central and less representative of American opinion than many like to assume? Arguably, the antiwar phenomenon (however modest it looks at this point) is the one force in American politics that exposes the totalizing tendencies of both Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives as fraudulent. As a force more likely to unite dissenters from divergent ideological backgrounds than to divide them on self-defeating ideological lines, antiwar opposition should be a formidable organizing element for third parties in 2010. As always, of course, that will depend on people's priorities, and the war is bound to weigh less on voters in more local races. But the peculiar antiwar coalition, which still may not be aware of its own existence after eight years, should inspire more people trained to believe that theirs and other ideologies are irreconcilable to start asking what else they all may agree on, and what else they all can oppose.

01 December 2009

Obama's War Begins

The President is expected to announce a new deployment of 30,000 Americans to Afghanistan for what reporters are calling an "endgame" to the war against the Taliban. He can be expected to argue that doing this is essential to American national security. That argument depends on the premise that a Taliban restoration would make terrorist attacks on the United States significantly more likely. It might be reasonable to ask whether historians now believe that the safe haven provided for Osama bin Laden by the Taliban prior to the 2001 invasion was necessary to the success of the September attacks on New York and Washington. A secondary argument might be that a Taliban victory would destabilize Pakistan and put that country's nuclear weapons within reach of Islamic extremists. Those weapons are most immediately a threat to India, but an American politician will want to argue that a jihadist regime in Pakistan would distribute nukes to terrorists. This was the argument against allowing Saddam Hussein to acquire nukes or other WMD, and remains the most compelling argument against Iran's acquisition of such ordinance. A common subtext is the presumed undeterrability of Muslim nations. Pakistan is deterred by India, in the first place, and by the reasonable assumption that any act of nuclear terrorism worldwide could be blamed on a theoretical jihadist regime. Iran is theoretically deterred by Israel and by a similar assumption of culpability should any of their terrorist clients use nukes at some future point. Before the invasion of Iraq it was argued that, even in the worst case, Saddam was deterred in the same way, but advocates of invasion argued that he, not even a religious fanatic, could not be dependably deterred. Around the world, Muslim hostility toward the United States and our allies is attributed to superstitious fanaticism or simple insanity. The implicit assumption is that there is no good reason for them to be hostile (instead, they "hate our freedom" or crave a Caliphate out of sheer criminal lust for power). Thus Americans can convince themselves that there is nothing that needs to be negotiated between the U.S. and Muslim nations -- which is a good thing if you believe that there is nothing negotiable in the American stance toward the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. Once you assume that Islamists are undeterrable and impossible to negotiate with, you can only feel secure if they renounce their ambitions or are crushed to the brink of annihilation. And you'll probably prefer crushing them since you can't trust the word of such fanatics that they renounce their insane agenda of conquest. To the extent that Americans think this way, they'll expect nothing short of the extermination of the Taliban from Obama's escalation of the Afghan war. Any promises or demonstrations of a more stable Afghan government will appear chimerical as long as people believe that the Taliban is still out there. But given so many Americans' need to believe that the world is full of bogeymen who envy them and want their stuff, what evidence would satisfy them that the Taliban has been defeated? The nearest thing to objective proof would be a decisive decline in attacks on Americans, which requires Americans to be there for the sake of the experiment. This, I thought, was George W. Bush's unspoken if not unconscious strategy in Iraq: to sacrifice American lives until an exhausted enemy realized that American will was stronger than theirs. Obama now apparently intends to adopt Gen. Petreus's counterinsurgency principles as practiced in the 2007 Surge, the object being to secure territory rather than kill the enemy. I worry that this will be a counterintuitive approach if Americans believe that their own security depends on killing terrorists. Obama's war is likely to please no one unless it includes some dramatic coup that would convince American observers that a mortal blow has been struck. Republicans will second-guess every step he takes (as is their prerogative), while leftists, old-school conservatives and many libertarians will most likely renew their opposition to the War on Terror as a whole. It seems to me that all this could be avoided if we treated Muslims like any other foreigners, but Islamophobia is at least as real as "Islamofascism." One can't be discussed without the other, and trying to blame one on the other is a chicken-and-egg enterprise. Maybe there won't be any answer until Americans start asking themselves "Why do we hate them?"