28 February 2010

Inevitably, the Coffee Party Begins

Journalists are noting the first anniversary of the Tea Party movement this weekend. My local paper juxtaposed a retrospective article with an item on the birth of a counter-movement, the Coffee Party. The article attributes the new movement struggling to be born to one Annabel Park, but like any such phenomenon it seems now to be spreading beyond her original inspiration. On the evidence of the Facebook page, the Coffee Party aspires to nonpartisanship, compromise, civil discourse and "Reason and civility in public affairs."

The question confronting the Coffee Partiers is this: how far do you go in outreach, and how much do you compromise for the sake of progress? Is the sheer existence of a separate, distinctly labeled movement meant to exclude the Tea Partiers, or do you intend to try to communicate with them and seek common ground? In simplest terms, do you see yourselves as the enemies of the Tea Partiers? Their rhetoric notwithstanding, I think enmity is inevitable. The Coffee movement seems to have come from frustration with a paralysis in government that is believed to result from partisan obstructionism, abetted by the Tea Partiers' often-hysterical anti-statist stance. I suspect there's little sympathy with the TPs' concerns among the CPs. One writer on the Facebook page said that "government is not the enemy," and if that's representative then the CP is just about automatically antithetical to the default ideology of the Tea Parties. The TPs themselves can be expected to take a "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude that will likely guarantee antagonism wherever CPs go public.

Wherever it manifests, the Coffee Party can expect to be challenged by Tea Partiers, to be called "liberals" and "Obama worshippers" and so forth. If so, what is to be done? We've all had a year to test the Tea Partiers' amenability to reason. If they can't be reasoned with, can they simply be ignored? Perhaps as individuals, but their ideology must be challenged and refuted in public if the Coffee Party hopes to amount to anything. The existence of a figuratively if not literally opposite movement forces the question of which one speaks more truly for America. Like it or not, the question involves an appeal to emotions. CPs may fancy themselves the calm, reasonable people, but it is no time for dispassion when fear and anger appear to reign. What's needed is the agitation that a good strong dose of coffee promises. It isn't necessarily partisan to question the anti-statism and anti-egalitarianism of Tea Partiers; there are philosophical issues involved in these questions that transcend the party lines of today. In fact, the emergence of two popular movements presumably independent of the existing partisan Bipolarchy may provide the occasion for a genuine discussion of first principles. Leave debates over the merits of this or that bill to the politicians, as well as debates over the merits of this or that politician. If the Coffee Party exists because people believe the Tea Party is wrong, its mission should be to find the direct, non-partisan, non-ideological language in which to say so -- a language that the Tea Partiers themselves just might listen to.

26 February 2010

Think Locally, Listen Nationally: Tumult in Talk Radio

Glenn Beck has a home again in New York's Capital District. Readers will recall that the radio idol of many Tea Partiers lost his spot in my area when the company that owned his station changed the format from talk to simulcast music. That decision provoked a protest outside the station office, compelling management to explain that ratings and expenses forced them to switch formats. At the time, I assumed that someone would snap up the rights to Beck, and the deed has been done. Ironically, it's been done in a way that will probably provoke more protests while possibly repeating the error that cost Beck his last local home.

WGY, which already carries Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, has picked up the Beck program. To make room for Beck, the station has fired a popular local talker, Al Roney. Ironically, in light of Beck's prestige among Tea Partiers, Roney was a major local publicist for the movement and a prominent presence at local Tea Parties. So far, the move has angered more fans of Roney than it has pleased fans of Beck. You can see their reactions in the comments section of the article I've linked to.

If you think about it, there's no reason for anyone to think that sacrificing Roney to gain Beck is a fair exchange. As many of the comments note, Beck's fans can see him on Fox News and on the Internet, while Roney's only home, for all intents and purposes, was the local radio station. Roney's fans presumably don't object to Beck getting back on local radio, but feel that it shouldn't have been at Roney's expense. They want local talk, conservative or tea-partyish, that's relevant to New York State and the Capital District -- material that Beck obviously can't provide.

Some observers see the turnover as a typical move on the part of WGY's ownership -- Clear Channel. This much despised entity is supposed to be dedicated to as much nationally syndicated content and as little local content as possible, for reasons of expense if not also to use the syndicated talkers to lay down some kind of national ideological line. This presumed strategy works on the assumption that the national talkers are the main attraction for any local station. But the local radio market seems to expose flaws in this strategy. Despite having Beck in its lineup, WROW had to abandon talk in part because much of the local talk audience had followed a popular local talker from WROW to another station. That's why Beck was available in the first place. By sacrificing another popular local talker for Beck's sake, Clear Channel could well repeat the mistake, especially if Roney turns up at another station. WGY can't necessarily depend on loyalty to its syndicated lineup of talkers. As the comments note, fans of Limbaugh can listen to him online, while fans of Hannity can watch him on TV as well. The only audience truly captive to radio, apart from technophobes and the very poor, are the people who like to listen to talk in their cars. But would they rather listen to a local or a national talker? There's no automatic answer, since some local people probably are obsessed with national politics to the exclusion of local concerns. Nevertheless, localism appeared to win one round in my locale, and the next round is about to start.

25 February 2010

A Republican Party in Crisis?

"Ideology offers human beings the illusion of dignity and morals while making it easier to part with them"
- Vaclav Havel
This quote of the day comes from moderate conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who writes this week deploring a mania in the ranks of the Republican party for "purity tests" and a "hunt for heretics." She describes a GOP under pressure from without and within to assume the shape of ideological purity. The exterior pressure comes from the Tea Partiers, many of whom believe that the Republican Party, as the putative vehicle of American conservatism, belongs to them in some fundamental way and should reflect their views. From within, Parker suggests, neocons like William Kristol hope to use the Tea Parties as shock troops to enforce a Bushite ideology. Kristol has called the movement "the best thing that has happened to the Republican party in recent times," which is a proprietary claim that the partiers themselves might dispute, despite their own designs for the Grand Old Party.
Neocons and Tea Partiers seem to be united in their hatred for "RINOs" -- Republicans In Name Only, whose partisanship is rendered suspect by their allegedly poor performance on ideological litmus tests or any inclination toward bipartisanship in government. Senator Brown of Massachusetts, the idol of last month, is now being called a RINO because of his willingness to compromise with Democrats occasionally.
Parker asks whether common beliefs as well as common hatreds could unite Tea Partiers and neocons. She has her doubts, noting the libertarian, anti-War on Terror attitude of many TPs and the opinion of neocon guru Irving Kristol, William's late father, that libertarians weren't fit allies for neocons because libertarians "have no values." Arguably, nothing unites the two factions apart from the neocons' lip service to fiscal conservatism on the domestic front and the common hatred of the demon liberal.
What should the rest of us make of this mania among Republicans for ideological purity? Parker dislikes it, envisioning more of a "big tent" than the ideologues can stand. Is a "big tent" GOP preferable to an ideological fortress? It depends on your perspective. The American Bipolarchy flourishes in part because both major parties are "big tents" in practice, often in spite of their alleged "bases" of ideologically motivated primary voters. Big tents exist to win national elections and control Congress. They aren't necessarily inherently bad, since a big tent implies a readiness to compromise in a spirit of pragmatism. If the major parties don't do this, it's not entirely because they're big tents. Any movement that hopes to break the Bipolarchy will have to be a big tent in its own right in order to attract all the different factions that have been or will be alienated by either the Republicans or the Democrats. Such a big tent might well fill faster if the major parties become even more ideologically alienating, if the Republicans revert to vintage Goldwaterism or McCarthyism and the Democrats become a self-parody of politically correct leftism. From this perspective, we might want the "wingnuts" to take over the GOP on the assumption that Democrats or (preferably) independents would benefit. But other observers may fear the gravitational power of the Bipolarchy, the branding influence it exerts on voters. They might warn that too many Americans are inclined to vote Republican, no matter who's in charge, and that a GOP driven by rabid populism and yoked to a neocon global agenda has too much of a chance to win elections for their comfort. In a more perfect country, of course, the Tea Partiers would have (i.e. make) their own political party, and so would the neocons. The problem with the Bipolarchy is that the major parties now have power independent of their control of elected offices, and every faction that might otherwise form its own party seeks to infiltrate and control the existing parties because they need power to get power. To return to the popular religious metaphor, the Bipolarchy has "heretics" and inquisitions, but not enough schismatics -- maybe because any schism results in something someone calls a cult. What this country needs now is a few good schisms.

24 February 2010

Amoklauf Aborted in Colorado

In Littleton CO, in the shadow of Columbine, a loser with a rifle decided to go on an amoklauf yesterday. He appeared in a middle school parking lot, asked some kids if they were students, and shot them. They'll live. It's at this point that some people suggest that the only remedy is for someone to shoot the shooter. Only guns, they say, can save us from guns. But a teacher demonstrated that the best defense against an amoklaufer is a combination of courage and a cool head. He stopped the shooter by tackling him, another brave person joining in after he took the initiative. David Benke is a math teacher and a track coach, not a cowboy. He didn't put his trust in the power of a weapon, but did the right thing himself. People get called heroes almost indiscriminately these days, but when the people of Littleton use that word for Benke, they're right.

23 February 2010

Infiltrating CPAC?

Pundits aren't sure what to make of Rep. Ron Paul's victory in the presidential straw poll held at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference . It was a plurality win, Paul garnering about 31% of a vote representing about 30% of the people attending the convention. It was also an unpopular win, received with boos when the results appeared on screen. But if Paul's victory was unpopular, how much less popular was Mitt Romney, who had a winning streak at these gatherings but only managed 22% of the vote?

While reporters are inclined to dismiss the results as irrelevant simply because Paul won, we should note an apparent variation on the "infiltration" strategy recommended for independent-minded people who are dissatisfied with either major party. If you don't like the direction your preferred party is taking, dissenters are told, you can change it by taking a more active role in primaries and conventions. Infiltrating the American Bipolarchy is a questionable strategy, based on an assumption that the parties' behavior is determined by the beliefs of leaders rather than by their institutional entanglements, e.g. dependence on fundraising, the responsibilities of governing, etc. What happened at CPAC, meanwhile, was an attempt to infiltrate the conservative movement itself. Many of Paul's supporters were collegians at odds with the silent majority over pet issues from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to ending the Fed. The elderly congressman has paradoxically become a guru of a new generation of self-styled conservatives who men to redefine the movement. This seems like something that can happen and inevitably will happen to some degree. Paul is the idol of the first post-Cold War generation of "conservatives," and it should not surprise us if before long "conservatism" becomes as different from what we now know by that name as the current movement differs from its pre-Cold War predecessors.

Whether Paul's followers can set the tone for future conservatism is still subject to debate. Dittoheads and their ilk will fight the Paulites every step of the way, or at least until this generation of talkers falls silent. While conservatism will inevitably change, it remains unclear whether a transformed conservatism can effectively change the direction of the political party that supposedly represents conservatives. It also remains unclear whether that's the Paulites' ultimate goal. They could very well emulate their master and seek shortcuts to power in the hope of using it for their own rather than partisan ends, but Paul's own powerlessness (as far as I know) in the congressional caucuses should make Paulite conservatives think twice about that route. In the short term, it seems unlikely that Paul would run for the Presidency again, but a coup like last weekend's win ought to reveal him as someone worth courting by those who do want the nomination. Will any "serious" GOP candidate actively seek Paul's blessing before the 2012 primaries? The answer should tell Paul's followers whether they have any future in the Republican party -- and it might make them think about whether theirs is really a "conservative" future.

22 February 2010

Idiot of the Week: Her Dad's a "Hero"

Perhaps I should make allowances for family loyalty, but I won't in this case. The daughter of the Austin terrorist who murdered an IRS worker during his suicide flight into an office building last week has given an interview in which, from the safety of her home in Norway, she says that, even though the terror attack was "inappropriate" and even "wrong," her father should be regarded as a "hero" because "now maybe people will listen."

Listen to what, exactly. To the sentiments of the father's suicide manifesto, in which he states that "violence is the only solution" to his perceived oppression by the Internal Revenue Service? Or was violence the only solution to government bailouts of banks and auto companies? The dutiful daughter didn't specify. She said only that "I do agree about the government." I suppose that's why she lives under a different one. Perhaps her absence from English speakers impedes her clarity on sensitive points. "If nobody comes out and speaks up on behalf of injustice, then nothing will ever be accomplished," she told ABC. I don't think that sentence means what she thinks it means.

The man the pilot murdered also has a child. He has something to say as well.

"People say (Stack) is a patriot. What's he a patriot for? He hasn't served the country. My dad did two tours of Vietnam and this guy is going to be a patriot and no one is going to say that about my dad?"

The only thing is, I'm not sure who's calling the pilot a patriot. The last time I looked, the Tea Partier and anti-government types were on the counterattack, brandishing the pilot's hostile remarks on capitalism to prove that he was a man of the left and not one of them. Based on my reading of the manifesto, they're half right. The pilot wasn't one of them, but he wasn't a leftist either. But some people may still know only that he attacked the IRS and have formed their conclusions accordingly. Of course, if anyone really is calling this monster a patriot, they belong alongside his daughter in the Idiot of the Week competition.

Afterword: Here's a libertarian blog that claims, on pretty small evidence, that leftist bloggers are trying to build the pilot into a "folk hero."

21 February 2010

Privacy vs Freedom

It's a commonplace of conservative and libertarian ideology that private property is a necessary bulwark of freedom. A person who is essentially independent by virtue of his private property, the assumption is, is more likely to assert his rights against an encroaching government or any other power than someone who is dependent for his life and livelihood upon the state or an employer. I've always disagreed with this idea because I believe the sole prerequisite of freedom is courage, but for those who do believe, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court has chilling news: freedom does not exist on private property.

The Third Division has rejected an appeal by Stephen Downs of his 2003 arrest for wearing an antiwar T-shirt in Crossgates Mall. The court unanimously held that the First Amendment only constrains government, and that its protection doesn't extend to privately-owned retail spaces. While noting that other states have recognized that malls constitute a kind of public space and that people who enter may still enjoy their constitutional rights, the New Yorkers don't agree. Marketplaces are not public spaces and no freedom of speech or assembly exists there that state or federal governments are bound to recognize.

Private property, then, is where you are free but no one else is unless you say so. And here you thought all those freedoms enumerated in the Bill or Rights were natural rights of some sort. Maybe they are, but once someone draws a line around nature and says it's his, you're SOL. That's what worries me about what I perceive as an accelerating privatization of the public sphere as a whole. In the absence of any kind of "commons," what becomes of our freedoms if they conflict with a property owner's right to not be bothered by them? Wouldn't it be more sensible to argue that any property used for a corporate purpose, corporations existing at the state's sufferance for the accomplishment of some public good, is public in nature, and that the prohibition against infringing constitutional rights in the public sphere should be extended to corporate property owners as well as the government? If there's no room for this sort of argument it may prove true after all that freedom depends on property, since only those with property will be free.

19 February 2010

Two Kinds of Anti-Intellectualism

Who's nailin' Palin? This week one answer is George Will the conservative columnist, who wrote an article about the Alaskan predicting that the Republican party would lose in a landslide if it nominated her for the Presidency in 2012. Will has nothing against her personally, but like other concerned conservatives, he worries about her lack of "seasoning" and her dalliance with populist politics. He abhors populism because it's based on "resentment," is characterized by "whininess," and is anti-intellectual at a time when the GOP has "become ruinously weak among highly educated whites."

Will fancies himself an intellectual, philosophical conservative. There are such creatures and even as a Republican propagandist he's been willing to defy orthodoxy occasionally. It's possible that his complaint against anti-intellectual populism is an indirect attack on anti-intellectual tendencies in the conservative movement. Will might in fact define those tendencies as "populist" because they're anti-intellectual. But those tendencies shouldn't really surprise him. The populist rabble simply aren't sophisticated enough to distinguish between two kinds of anti-intellectualism within the movement, one of which Will himself practices. The column under discussion has an example of this:

America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism. But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness.

For Will, implicitly, there are two kinds of intellectuals. His own kind are those whose sincere, objective reasoning will lead them to conservative conclusions about the limits of human nature and government action. The other kind are academics, with the characteristics described in the excerpt. The conservative intellectual is realistic, Will claims, in a way the academic isn't. He is modest in admitting the limits of his knowledge in a way the academic, presumably, isn't. And he is less grating -- or so the conservative thinks. But as an intellectual, it disappoints Will that the populist can't seem to make the distinction between the good intellectual and the malevolent academic. In part, he has himself to blame. To the extent that he, like all American conservatives, persistently questions the ability of intelligent people to plan economic growth, he can't help but throw intellect itself into question for his populist readers. What good is all that booklearnin' if Will himself writes that it doesn't work any better than the blind or invisibly guided Market? Why should a populist trust anyone to make decisions for him solely because that person is smarter than he is? How could Will answer that question without sounding like a dreaded elitist, and why should it surprise him if they treat him like one if he, as a Republican, has taught them to dread intellectual elites? That's why I find his discomfiture at Palin's popularity amusing. The phenomenon is a monster of his own creation -- or at least he shares in the blame.

18 February 2010

Suicide Terrorism in America

Call it what it is: a man determined to die, who left a suicide manifesto on his website in which he wrote that "violence is the only solution," flies an airplane into an office building housing employees of the Internal Revenue Service. The only question is whether the pilot represented anyone but himself. We know that he had a grudge against the IRS, but on the evidence of his manifesto, he was no simple anti-tax right winger. He reads more like a kind of populist, a person who felt screwed by the system, resentful of others (particularly bailed out banks) getting breaks that he never got. There might be people like him at Tea Parties, but that would only show that a Tea Partier's ideology might not be as predictable as some would think. If his anger at the IRS represented hostility to government, he seemed no less hostile to capitalism, which he defined, in contrast to the classic definition of communism, as "from each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed." By American Bipolarchy standards, that left him nowhere to turn, and he must have felt the same way, since he saw nothing left to do but die in some way that might make a point. Sometimes when you're self-consciously one of the "little guys," you can't help resenting anything big, whether business or government, and you may tend to assume that anything big is oppressive and corrupt. That's a mentality as irrational as today's awful act, and I can't help wondering whether we'll see more along these lines so long as Americans feel themselves incapable of mastering the big institutions that seem to dominate their lives. Mastering them may require individuals to make themselves part of something just as big, and too many people fear losing their individuality in such a mass. Watch the news today and consider the alternative: a futile tantrum of more obvious significance to the dying man than to a public who will mostly misinterpret his motives. You may worry about losing yourself, but this alternative is literally wasting yourself -- and hurting innocent people in the bargain. People who don't believe in revolution choose terrorism.

17 February 2010

"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition"

Having recently defended the utility of ideology in politics, Jonah Goldberg turns in his latest column to a defense of partisanship. He's responding to comments by a current deputy national security adviser who's accused critics of the Obama administration's security policies of political and partisan motivations. To Goldberg this looks like the shoe being on the other foot, and that's a fair judgment. He admits that "the Bush White House certainly dabbled in that sort of thing," but to Goldberg the Democrats are the real hypocrites because they denied partisan motivation then, only to accuse Republicans of it now.

Goldberg's real agenda this week is to challenge the use of "partisan" as a pejorative. He distrusts people who call for "post-partisan politics," arguing that "Politics without partisanship isn't politics [a]nd democracy without politics isn't democracy." In other words, as far as Goldberg is concerned, there can be no opposition or dissent without political parties. That's what he seems to be saying, and he cites James Madison as his authority on the subject.

No one likes partisan animosity, never mind dishonesty, but politics are supposed to be messy. In Federalist 51, James Madison famously wrote about how 'ambition must be made to counteract ambition.' That's what 'playing politics' usually amounts to. Like the seeming chaos of the market, the hurlyburly of politics is how we sort things out. The result is often healthier than the process would suggest.

Madison certainly wrote those words, but not in defense of electioneering political parties. Here's the relevant passage from Federalist 51.

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.

As "Publius," Madison was discussing the separation of powers and relations between the executive, judicial and legislative branches under the proposed constitution. To prevent a consolidation of power in the hands of one person or clique, he writes, each branch needs to be jealous of its own powers and prerogatives, refusing to accept dictation from the other branches.

If anything, a close reading of Federalist 51 creates the impression that national political parties as we know them today only disrupt Madison's scheme to keep the powers of government separate.

In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.

But the existence of political parties who run candidates for Congress and the Presidency alike gives partisans as much agency as possible in the appointment of both branches, while the ideological discipline sometimes insisted upon by national parties gives partisanship an obvious voice in the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Partisanship violates the borders Madison and his colleagues hoped to maintain between any two branches of government. It also creates the prospect of a monolithic majority that can impose its will through all branches without having to compromise with other interests, the situation Madison hoped that the size and diversity of the nation would prevent. It's no defense to argue that Madison ended up forming a political party himself, any more than the premises of the Declaration of Independence are disproved by Jefferson's hypocrisy on the subject of human equality. When he wrote Federalist 51 Madison could not see his own future. What he saw was a future that would accommodate politics with all its "hurlyburly," but without parties. It's an idea we should still strive to live up to despite Madison's own failing. It's a matter of individual conscience, not organization -- a fact Goldberg loses sight of because he clearly fears that the only alternative to a two-party system is a one-party state. Madison envisioned a no-party state in which all the country's vital interests would be represented and representatives would have full freedom of conscience. Too many Americans have lost their ability to imagine such a place, but there's no reason why we can't have it here.

"I am an executive at heart"

Senator Bayh of Indiana disclaims any ulterior motive behind his decision not to run for re-election in spite of polls predicting an easy victory for him. But Mr. Right, for one, immediately assumed that Bayh is planning to primary the President in 2012 (he thinks Secretary Clinton will do likewise), and in this case I think his hunch is at least partly correct. Why else would Bayh make that crack about being "an executive at heart?" If he didn't mean to suggest that he was more fit for an executive political job it only makes his retirement sound like a fit of political pique because he, the executive type, could not get his way in a deliberative body. His next sentence states that "I value my independence," but being an executive at heart is only about independence insofar as you, the executive, are not told what to do, but tell others.

I'm not quite as certain as Mr. Right that Bayh will primary Obama because all the rhetoric of his retirement announcement seems designed to position him as the non-partisan, non-ideological alternative to the partisan paralysis in Congress, and thus may point the way to an independent candidacy. I wouldn't like his chances as an independent, though, because I don't see him offering the fire and brimstone that those alienated by the American Bipolarchy most likely want to hear and see. He doesn't seem ready to blame people, as Don Corleone might say, for legislative paralysis, attributing the trouble to abstract partisanship and ideology while pretty much claiming that all the other Senators are well-meaning hard-working people and personal friends of his.

For the moment, Bayh insists that his decision "should not reflect adversely upon the President," but that disclaimer wouldn't stop him from stepping in if he decides sometime next year that Obama, regardless of his virtues, wouldn't be a viable Democratic standard-bearer in 2012. Right now, he asserts that he can do the country more good in the private sector, either by starting a business to create jobs, by taking over a college, or getting in the charity business. This is classic political rhetoric. The Founders believed that public service was the highest calling, but because they feared ambition they thought no one should actively seek political power. Instead, citizens should be prepared to sacrifice their private interests for a time to take up public service at the call of the people. Evan Bayh won't say so now, but as of next year he'll be awaiting that call -- and like the politicians of the storied past, he'll probably be doing a lot behind the scenes to make sure that the call is made.

16 February 2010

Can a Constitutional Convention Reclaim Democracy?

"This is corruption," thunders Lawrence Lessig in the cover story of this week's Nation, "Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the US Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy" He's describing Congress's "pathological dependence on campaign cash," the reason why "it answers -- as Republican and Democratic presidents alike have discovered -- not to the People, and not even to the president, but increasingly to the relatively small mix of interests that fund the key races that determine which party will be in power." Lessig's attack on the "Fundraising Congress" is remarkable for being nonpartisan and non-ideological in essence. You get the idea from what I've quoted already. The problem isn't that a progressive agenda desired by Nation readers is blocked, but that Congressional dependence on and deference to fundraisers prevents radical or necessary reform of any kind, whether desired by liberals or conservatives, from getting enacted. This dependence, Lessig claims, is the reason why liberals can't push through health care reform, and the reason why social and fiscal conservatives can't push through the reforms they desire. Entrenched interests who resist pressures for change from "left" and "right" alike are the true conservative force in American politics, and they've rendered Congress incompetent to fulfill its role in the federal government.

Lessig attempt to refute apologists who claim that fundraising doesn't corrupt politicians because donors support those who already agree with them. His first answer is a little sophistic. "Even if...the money doesn't corrupt the soul of a single member of Congress," he writes, "it corrupts the institution -- by weakening faith in it, and hence weakening the willingness of citizens to participate in their government." But when he imagines an apologist arguing, "Maybe we should work hard to convince Americans that they're wrong," Lessig's response is more forceful.

Here a second and completely damning response walks onto the field: if money really doesn't affect results in Washington, then what could possibly explain the fundamental policy failures--relative to every comparable democracy across the world, whether liberal or conservative--of our government over the past decades? The choice (made by Democrats and Republicans alike) to leave unchecked a huge and crucially vulnerable segment of our economy, which threw the economy over a cliff when it tanked (as independent analysts again and again predicted it would). Or the choice to leave unchecked the spread of greenhouse gases. Or to leave unregulated the exploding use of antibiotics in our food supply--producing deadly strains of E. coli. Or the inability of the twenty years of "small government" Republican presidents in the past twenty-nine to reduce the size of government at all. Or... you fill in the blank. From the perspective of what the People want, or even the perspective of what the political parties say they want, the Fundraising Congress is misfiring in every dimension. That is either because Congress is filled with idiots or because Congress has a dependency on something other than principle or public policy sense. In my view, Congress is not filled with idiots.

In Lessig's view, ideology is trumped by money. In some cases, he claims, money throws up ideological smoke screens to disguise naked self-interest, exploiting the ideological divide of the American Bipolarchy. "Every issue gets reframed as if it were really a question touching some deep (or not so deep) ideological question," he writes, claiming that drug companies, for instance, convinced right wingers that the current Democratic health care reform plan would include "death panels" and the like. I think that Lessig may underrate the pervasiveness of sincerely felt ideology, or the possibility that entrenched corporate interests can be ideological in their own right. But he needs to argue against the idea that "it is ideology rather than campaign cash that divides us" because the solution he proposes to the impasse will require at least early collaboration across ideological and partisan lines.

The solution is twofold. It includes a package of such predictable reform proposals as public financing of elections. This is an issue on which liberals are often tone-deaf to how the proposal sounds to people who aren't liberals. To them, it can only sound like setting up the state (and implicitly the party in power) as the gatekeeper who determines which candidates (after "clearing certain hurdles," Lessig writes vaguely) will be granted funds. Such suspicions may seem irrational to liberals or progressives, but I like to think that the objection could be addressed in a manner satisfactory to all people by striving to eliminate money as a factor in politics so that candidates are dependent on neither the state nor corporations. My ideas along this line are rather draconian (e.g. eliminate TV campaign advertising) but I'd be glad to entertain alternate proposals.

The first priority for Lessig is finding a way around Congress (and around the Supreme Court) to enact those reforms. His answer is a constitutional convention, which can be called by two-thirds of the states. All those states need to agree on, he notes, is the need for a convention; "those applications need not agree on the purpose of the convention." That means that conservatives and liberals, progressives and libertarians, etc., can work separately yet in concert to make the convention happen, deferring their differences until the convention itself. Each group will have to risk the others winning in order to have its own chance to influence the nation's future, and in any event the amendments proposed at such a convention would still have to be ratified by the states the same way they are when they come out of Congress.

Lessig sums up:

Whether on the left or the right, there is an endless list of critical problems that each side believes important. The Reagan right wants less government and a simpler tax system. The progressive left wants better healthcare and a stop to global warming. Each side views these issues as critical, either to the nation (the right) or to the globe (the left). But what both sides must come to see is that the reform of neither is possible until we solve our first problem first--the dependency of the Fundraising Congress. This dependency will perpetually block reform of any kind, since reform is always a change in the status quo, and it is defense of the status quo that the current corruption has perfected.

Whether this leaves it to self-styled moderates to make a principled case for gridlock is a question for another time. For now, it seems that the mere existence of apparently intransigent ideological conflict in the country is cause enough to have a convention so the rival ideologies can hash out a new set of first principles for government, or discover that they're not such ideologues as they thought themselves to be.

15 February 2010

Conservative Armageddon in Arizona?

John McCain faces a primary challenge to his renomination as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. His challenger is a former Representative and radio talker, J. D. Hayworth, who proposes to challenge the recent Republican presidential nominee from the right. The campaign is already shaping up as a gash cutting across all convention lines of division within the GOP. Hayworth presents himself as a spokesman for the Tea Parties and grass-roots conservatism in his state, but the would-be queen of the Tea Parties, Sarah Palin, is expected to campaign for McCain, her partner on the 2008 national ticket. Hayworth is an unapologetic endorser of the invasion of Iraq, but has received the informal support of the arch antiwar conservative Pat Buchanan, albeit mainly on the strength of Hayworth's consistent and vehement opposition to illegal immigration, though Buchanan may also perceive McCain as a dangerous neocon in a way that the superpatriot Hayworth somehow isn't. In any event, Republican Arizona is a kind of wonderland, to keep alive the wrong kind of Tea Party metaphor, where McCain, perceived in the "mainstream" world to have turned sharply right since he lost the 2000 primary campaign to George W. Bush, is accused by Hayworth of veering regularly leftward since then.

This may prove to be the most interesting campaign in the nation this year on the strength of its potential for mischief among Republicans across the country. Movement conservatives have always mistrusted McCain despite his perceived concessions to them, and many still feel that a "better" candidate could have beaten Senator Obama two years ago. But "paleoconservatives" like Buchanan dislike McCain for a different package of reasons. That means any anti-McCain coalition is likely to be an uncomfortable one for all involved, just as Palin and McCain with their history are likely to be uncomfortable together on any podium hereafter. Things could only get more interesting if McCain survives the primary challenge. Would Hayworth be guided by whatever ideological conscience he has to continue his run as an independent conservative, or would he serve party first in ironic contrast to his opponent's presidential campaign slogan? Personally, I'm looking forward to a long, bitter, divisive and crippling campaign -- and I hope for the same on the Democratic side.

14 February 2010

Idiots of the Week: The Fiqh Council of North America

Some things said or done this year will certainly be more stupid or more offensive, but for utter tone-deaf self-defeating insensitive cluelessness nothing may beat the fatwa issued by the abovementioned organization of Islamic scholars. It states that Muslims, of all people, should not be subject to full-body scans in airports because the scanners produce a nude image and thus violate Islamic modesty strictures.

Would it be politically incorrect of me to state that, if not for Muslims, no one would have to go through those scanners? Would it be facetious of me to suggest that terrorism and jihad in general are immodest actions and attitudes, or that it's immodest of Muslims to say that all other believers and nonbelievers around the world have to kiss Muslim ass and acknowledge theirs as the greatest religion the same way "arrogant" Americans ask the world to kiss their asses and acknowledge us as the greatest nation on earth? Isn't it immodest in some way for Muslims to say that no one can "insult" their religion without risking death? Or is it immodest for me to suggest that no American mullah has any standing in my eyes to demand any alteration of airport security technology or practices until he has proven that he's done something to make those procedures less necessary?

Simply put, if American Muslims (who I must add aren't necessarily represented by the Fiqh Council) want to practice modesty, then they should go through the same hassles the rest of their fellow citizens endure and not demand exemptions to which, as a matter of common sense, they are the least entitled.

Talk Radio: It's Just Business

There was a sort of tea party outside the offices of radio station WROW yesterday to protest the station's change of format from conservative talk radio to simulcast music. The protesters' indignation was understandable, because the format change has taken Glenn Beck off the local airwaves for the time being. It wouldn't surprise me if some of Beck's fans saw some political motive in the move, but station representatives told the demonstrators that this particular lineup of talkers was silenced locally purely for business reasons. The station was declining in the ratings and it cost too much to broadcast the syndicated talkers. Lest anyone interpret this as proof of a decline in the popularity of conservative talk, I should note that the station lost much of its ratings to another conservative station whose flagship personality is a local conservative talker who had formerly worked for WROW. You could argue that the outcome represents a triumph for localism, though the rival station also carries national talkers. But such is the national mood that some people attach themselves to certain talkers who become (in their minds) tribunes of the people, on whose fortunes the nation depends. If Glenn Beck is a political figure, then his disappearance from any market (however temporary it will prove to be) will look like a political act. It's ironic, I suppose, since the "left" are the people who supposedly politicize everything, including business decisions, but if you think about it, once you assume that some faction politicizes everything, you too politicize everything. If some people think that there's less freedom of speech because Glenn Beck has no voice (apart from cable TV) in the Capital District, it just goes to show that, as some of the same people say, freedom isn't free.

12 February 2010

Another Teacher Starts Shooting

Now it's Huntsville, Alabama. The shooter: a woman, allegedly angry at being denied tenure, opening fire on a faculty meeting. She's in custody, three of her colleagues are dead and more are hurt.

There's nothing to do but keep making the same point every time. If people were dying or only getting shot at this rate by "terrorists," this country would probably be under martial law now. If it wasn't, people would be demanding that something be done to reduce the public danger. We get complacency instead, if not fatalism. To many Americans, it seems, this is just what some people do. That attitude only guarantees that people will keep doing it. The rest of us might be willing to concede the point about human nature if we could convince others that the practical thing to do in light of human nature is to try to minimize the damage it can do. Is that too much to ask?

11 February 2010

Populism Without Solidarity

In the new New Yorker (the 85th anniversary issue), Financial Page writer James Surowiecki contemplates what looks like an incoherent "populist" movement in the country. "The people may have spoken," he writes, "It's just not clear that they're making any sense." He takes as a sign of incoherence "populist" opposition to the auto industry bailouts. These saved jobs, he claims, and were much tougher on executives and stockholders than the bank bailouts, but "populists" hated them just as much. His perception of incoherence is shaped by his own expectations of what coherent thought should look like. He thinks the market failures of 2008 should have resulted in wider popular support for government intervention in the economy, but "the percentage of Americans who think government is trying to do too much is higher than it's been since the late nineties." Finally, Surowiecki thinks that "populists" should support stimulus spending, since he feels certain it will create jobs. Instead, "angry voters aren't that nuanced in their thinking; they want the government to tighten its belt and fight unemployment at the same time." But if any of today's "populists" are supply-siders, that wouldn't look incoherent, since they'd say that government could best fight unemployment by cutting taxes and spending. That begs the question of whether a supply-sider can ever be an actual populist, since supply-siders are trained to identify with the interests of their employers in a way many of the 1890s Populists might find contemptible. In turn, however, that begs the question looming over any discussion of populism: what is it, really?

Surowiecki notes one phenomenon that throws everyone's populist credentials into question. "Both history and theory suggest that tough economic times make people less interested in sharing burdens, not more," he writes, "One recent study found that people who had been treated unfairly became more selfish. It's hard to pass reform programs that depend on a sense of solidarity ... when voters are trying desperately to protect what they already have."

It seems to me that some sense of solidarity, however limited by prejudice or other factors, is an essential element of any political phenomena we want to describe as "populist." Perhaps Tea Party populism is an exceptional phenomenon, but I wouldn't expect a collective movement founded on the premise of "leave me alone" to last much longer than it already has. As for Surowiecki's historical analysis, my hunch is that much depends on how tough economic times actually are. In the 1930s, after all, times were so tough that a critical mass of Americans recognized their stake in an interventionist government and endorsed the New Deal. If Surowiecki describes the current mood correctly, that only means that times haven't gotten that tough yet (not that we should wish them worse). As for the apparent incoherence of modern quasi-populism, that may reflect a confusion over its proper target. Historical populism had it out for some sort of ruling class, but Americans today seem baffled by the spectacle of a ruling class seemingly divided against itself, as cultural "elites" battle entrepreneurial conservatives for dominance. Twenty-first century populism might start making more sense if it occured to today's would-be populists that one ruling-class faction or the other winning the political or cultural war won't necessarily mean that they will win, too. But if some of them are thinking that way already, that might explain Surowiecki's confused response to the apparent confusion among the rank and file.

10 February 2010

Now the Teachers are Shooting

The toll from a Knoxville elementary school is only two people wounded -- a principal and her assistant -- and the suspect, a fourth-grade teacher, is in custody, but the story planted a terrible thought in my mind. We've had children shooting their classmates and teachers in schools, and in this case we have a teacher shooting administrators. Isn't it just a matter of time before we hear of a school where a teacher or principal starts shooting the students? Would that change anyone's mind about guns? Or would someone say that now we'll finally have discipline in classrooms? I'm just asking....


Cal Thomas is on his hobby horse again about how people shouldn't be dependent on government. The occasion for this week is a report from the Center of Wealth & Philanthropy showing that wealthy people are leaving New Jersey in order to avoid objectionable taxes. Some readers may find this news reason to argue that states shouldn't be able to wage a race to the bottom to entice businesses or rich people by cutting taxes. Thomas, citing the unimpeachable authority of a Chamber of Commerce chairman, considers the news proof that high taxes cause a decline in any polity's wealth. Liberals refuse to acknowledge this universal truth, he argues, because, being politicians, they try to get themselves re-elected by making people dependent on government largess. They then argue, Thomas charges, that people will starve if taxes or programs are cut, though the columnist cites Clinton-era welfare reform as evidence to the contrary. The moral?

Government must begin weaning people from government. If it won't, we the people must do it. All programs should be continually subject to reauthorization and justification. Social Security and Medicare should be means-tested with incentives for people not to sign up for them. Families should take care of elderly parents, like they once did. Government should be a last resort, not a first resort. Just as too many have been conditioned to turn to government, we must be reconditioned to turn away from government and embrace the higher virtue of liberty.

Do you detect an unusually Orwellian note in Thomas's insistence that Americans must be "conditioned" to embrace "liberty?" Maybe it's just cynicism, since he seems to think that the dumb American people can be conditioned to choose one course, then just as easily reconditioned to choose another. He may really believe that Americans could only be "conditioned" into willing the welfare state into being. But what if our ancestors back in the 1930s and 1960s believed that, since the country was a democratic republic, government was their rightful instrument for improving their quality of life? Why shouldn't we be dependent, if Thomas must put it that way, on our government, after all? Isn't that preferable to being dependent, as most Americans are, on the whims of private citizens who aren't accountable to us the way our government is?

But being dependent on employers somehow isn't "dependence;" Thomas doesn't seem to acknowledge it as such. That's the magic of capitalism; as long as money changes hands, everyone is self-reliant! If the employer gives the employee money, that makes the employee as free as the employer, even though the employer still enjoys the power to deprive the employee of his or her livelihood at will, and the employee enjoys no comparable power to deter the employer. Here's where the free-marketeers will say that the employee can move on until he finds a job to his liking, but the real world tells us that most people ultimately have to settle on terms set by employers if they don't want to go homeless. But that's not dependence, it seems; as long as two people sign a contract it's an equal partnership, regardless of the unequal powers involved. No, Americans can only be dependent in Thomas's pejorative sense of the term when they become dependent on their government. It should be obvious, though, that it isn't the dependency on government itself that Thomas and his fellow Republicans (and their Libertarian acquaintances) object to in that case. They object to what they see as poor people's parasitism on the productive classes who'll be taxed to provide for the needy. Unless they have the power of consent or veto over every detail of the tax code, they react as if it's 1765 and the poor are the British parliament. Because they reject any notion of automatic obligation to their fellow citizens and feel that only voluntary acts are virtuous, they react to the idea of taxation as if their lives and souls were in danger.

There's no reason to reject 100% of Thomas's suggestions as long as they're adopted to reform the system rather than destroy it. Bureaucracies can always be made more efficient, after all. But we have every right to keep dependence on our government open as an option preferable to the sort of feudal dependence upon employers that reactionaries seem to prefer for us. If Republicans and their ideological allies of convenience would deny us that option, then where's the liberty Thomas wants us to embrace? If we aren't free as a people to choose mutual dependence, then the real definition of liberty when Thomas talks about it, as you may have guessed, is "every man for himself."

09 February 2010

The Tea Party: An Ambiguous Metaphor

Coincidence or not? Two local newspapers today ran amazingly similar cartoons on their editorial pages. In both, the National Tea Party Convention is presented as the Mad Tea Party from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories, while keynote speaker Sarah Palin is dressed as Alice. In both, the Mad Hatter serves Alice/Palin not tea, but Kool-Aid. In Mike Thompson's cartoon (credited "with apologies to Walt Disney[!]), Alice/Palin says, "That's my cup of tea!" In the other cartoon, under the scrawled signature of someone named Simmons from Arizona, the Mad Hatter mocks Palin's anti-Obama rhetoric, asking Alice/Palin, "So how goes your hopey for a changey in the White Housey in 2012, Sarah?" while the face of a Cheshire Cat with a "GOP" tattoo on its forehead watches from a tree branch.

Maybe both cartoonists have been watching too many ads for that Tim Burton movie, but in any event, this is not the imagery that the Tea Partiers of 2009 hoped to evoke by taking the Tea Party name for themselves. I'm sure these aren't the first cartoonists to propose alternative satirizing symbolism, but the symbolism of this particular moment is worth analysing a little. The most obvious detail is the one probably most objectionable to Tea Partiers or their sympathizers. Why are the cartoon Tea Partiers (already unflatteringly rendered as "Mad") serving Alice/Palin the dread Kool-Aid of Jonestown memory and not the other way around? I suppose it depends on whether you think the Tea Partiers are trying to lure Palin into being their independent standard bearer or that Palin is trying to lure the TPs into the Republican party. The two cartoonists either believe the former theory or that Palin has discredited herself (more than ever?) merely by participating in an event they deem quite mad.

The lesson to be drawn for the moment is a practical one. However much the TPs may love their acronymic tag (Taxed Enough Already), these cartoons are a reminder, one that Burton's movie will only reinforce, that "Tea Party" is probably not the best name a political movement can give itself given the term's multiple cultural contexts. It probably shouldn't be the name they use in active political campaigns. Maybe they should try on other Revolutionary metaphors, but "Sons of Liberty" and "Minutemen" are both unacceptably gender-exclusive by modern standards. "Patriots" won't cut it, because who isn't one, really? The real problem with these people evoking the American Revolution, one is tempted to argue, is that they're really Tories at heart. But I leave that for others to debate.

08 February 2010

The Fear of Nothing is the Beginning of Wisdom

Over at his Poli-Tea blog, d. eris recently replied to one of my comments by calling my attention to a very interesting post at a Constitution Party website. This party, readers may recall, is an anti-war, religious-right oriented organization, but what it stands for in particular is of less interest to me than the attitude adopted by Robert W. Peck. He has recognized the dilemma that the American Bipolarchy imposes on any principled voter. By insisting on a great bipolar ideological division that defines all political debate, it pressures conservatives to support the Republican party, for example, no matter how tepid that party's conservatism may seem, because the GOP portrays itself as the one reliable bulwark against the dreaded liberalism (or worse) represented by the Democratic party. Practically speaking, the Republican party practices conservative conservatism. That is, it obliges conservatives to settle for something less than what they'd consider genuinely principled government because the only alternative, according to the Bipolarchy, is the Liberal Moloch. Before this leads some readers to decide that the GOP is a good thing after all, it should occur to people on the "left" that the same rule applies to their relations with the Democratic party. Liberals, progressives, etc. are pressured to settle for only as much progress as Democrats deem expedient, because the only alternative, according to the Bipolarchy, is the Republican Moloch.

Peck has had enough of Republican trimming and refuses to be scared into submitting to GOP leadership. But if you replace "liberal" with "conservative" in the following paragraph, then his advice is just as good for the "left" as it is for the "right."

[I]t is not acceptable to support a candidate simply because they are considerably better than the liberal. If we continue to compromise and settle for less than what we know to be right and believe to be necessary, then the political powers that be will rightly assess that they can continue to force on us whatever candidate they choose and we will continue to accept that candidate so long as there is a liberal to fear who we are told “Must Be Beat.”

Peck describes the "fear factor" as "a trap used to ensnare us." He writes: "Once we yield to fear, we instantly become vulnerable and can be easily manipulated, even to the point of becoming willing to compromise our standards when told it is necessary in order to overcome the source of our fear - - - the dreaded liberal." While I certainly can't agree with Peck's account of fear as a tool of Satan, I have to say in this case that if his superstition gets him to an objectively desirable result, I can't knock it. Again, replace "liberals" with "conservatives" and Peck's advice below is just as good for the other side.

I ask you to consider, in any given election, which candidate would you advocate, acknowledge as the righteous choice, support and give the precious empowering virtue of your vote to if you had no fear, or if there were no liberals to fear. If we are voting in any other manner, then we have already succumbed to fear, allowed it to influence us to adjust our values according to its dictates and have yielded our virtue to it.

If anything, Peck could be more forceful on two points. Learning not to fear the liberal, in his case, should mean admitting (if not necessarily embracing) the likelihood of liberal victory during the time it takes to build a genuinely principled conservative movement. In other words, conservatives have to be willing to let the liberals win if that's the price of breaking the Republican party's stranglehold on conservative loyalty. Vice versa, of course, is equally true for liberals, progressives or others on the "left." In order to break the Democrats' paralyzing stranglehold on liberal loyalty, they have to be willing to let the conservatives win as the temporary price of their principled uprising. Neither conservatives nor progressives should assume that they can win in their first great effort, and they should realize that, conditions being what they are, their efforts will most likely mean the triumph of an apparently opposite ideology unless two great uprisings occur simultaneously. That's a prospect that might require conservatives and progressives (or libertarians or socialists) to really swallow their fears, because they really ought to collaborate and encourage each other to fight against their respective pillars of the Bipolarchy. That sort of collaboration may require a further step in the abandonment of fear than Peck has taken. He urges conservatives not to vote on the basis of fear, but he never explicitly denies that liberalism in general is something to fear. The same concession regarding conservatism (however defined) will be equally difficult for liberals or progressives to make. But it's a necessary concession across the board. How many people can truly vote according to their consciences as long as they believe that one party's victory means the end of the world or the fall of the republic, and can be stopped only by voting for one other party? This sort of advice may seem paradoxical for independents or third-party activists whose complaint against the Bipolarchy is usually that "their" party is insufficiently opposed to the ideological enemy. But the truth in the paradox should be self-evident. Principled conservatives will never get more than the Republicans' half-assed conservatism until they learn not to fear liberals. Principled progressives will never get more than the Democrats' half-assed progress (at best) until they learn not to fear conservatives. And who knows what principled compromise or principled collaboration might be possible once all sides abandon the politics of fear?

05 February 2010

Nut vs. ACORN

The latest begging letter to reach my mailbox came in an adorable pink envelope inscribed with the message, "I need your immediate help!" It's from Hannah Giles, who was the recently-arrested James O'Keefe's collaborator in the series of expose videos that revealed ACORN employees offering tax advice and other tips to a self-styled pimp and prostitute. Giles takes credit for Congress's likely denial of ACORN's eligibility for federal funding, which she describes as "a mortal blow to this corrupt and evil" organization. That description sets the tone for Giles's account of her own legal plight, now that "ACORN wants revenge."

Giles has been sued by ACORN employees in Baltimore and Philadelphia. While objective accounts of these suits report that the plaintiffs object to being recorded without their consent, Giles represents them as personal-damages suits demanding compensation for damaged reputations and "mental anguish." Whatever the merit of these suits, the significant point, which Giles duly acknowledges, is that the Baltimore suit, at least (her letter was probably written before the Philadelphia suit was filed last month), has been dropped because the plaintiffs haven't served her with the proper papers. That fact doesn't stop her from asking for contributions to her legal defense fund.

Referring to the Baltimore plaintiffs, Giles writes that "they're holding this threat over my head and can sue me at the drop of a hat whenever they want for the next 2 years." As if anticipating the Philadelphia suit, she notes that "ACORN is talking to district attorneys around the country trying to convince them to go after me criminally, which would mean lengthy legal battles all over the country with a chance that I would go to jail. Liberal defenders of ACORN want to investigate me and put me behind bars...but they want to let ACORN walk away scot-free!" [emphasis in the original]

So just in case someone sues her, though she may never see a day in court, Giles begs for contributions to her legal defense fund, which is identified on the return envelope as "A Project of Liberty Legal Institute." This Texas-based group made a brief appearance on the national stage when they sued for the suspension of the state of Alaska's investigation of the "Troopergate" scandal involving then-Governor Palin. Their main mandate seems to be to defend religious freedom, which in this context means the right of the Religious Right to express controversial views. This is relevant information for prospective donors to the Giles defense fund, since this disclaimer appears on the bottom of the donation form:

Liberty Legal Institute's policy is to apply all charitable gifts given toward a specific legal case to that case. Occasionally, we receive more contributions than can be wisely used toward a specific case -- when that happens, we use these funds to defend the Constitutional rights of other groups or individuals.

In the Giles case, Liberty Legal may receive about 100% more than they can wisely use toward Giles's defense, since it's very possible that she'll never see a day in court. In effect, any donation to Giles could well become Liberty Legal's to use however they please, in the struggle against ACORN or otherwise. Depending on what prospective plaintiffs do, the Giles fund may prove no more than a sympathetic pink facade for Liberty Legal's own fundraising activities.

Giles's agenda and Liberty Legal's aren't necessarily the same. Giles is singlemindedly focused, at least on the evidence of this letter, on a jihad against ACORN, "a bad organization that was corrupting America through massive voter fraud" before she came along. ACORN workers are "the irreplaceable 'shock troops' of the left that they must have to wage war against mainstream America and our way of life." In her view, ACORN continues the evil work of the great satan Saul Alinsky, "Obama's intellectual mentor" who "advised the left to use brass knuckle 'street tactics' to seize power." For that we have to take Giles's word, since she sees no need to cite any actual damning words from Rules for Radicals. Worse yet, she reports, ACORN precipitated the present financial crisis through its "involvement in mortgage rackets for unqualified borrowers."

At age 20, Giles is precociously gifted with delusions of grandeur. Just as she imagines her videotapes saving the nation from evil, she sees the wounded monster dedicating all its dark power to her destruction. "ACORN must make an example of me," she writes, "They know they must destroy me if they are to survive." To date, the evil ones have mounted a multifront attack. They have called her racist. They have made harassing phone calls to her home. Some callers have even threatened her, though those threats are "so disturbing I don't want to share them with you." But Giles assures us that she knows Brazilian ju-jitsu (what, no guns?) and "with a few sensible precautions, I don't think these cowards will show themselves."

I probably should remind readers that I have no interest in defending ACORN from the charges raised by Giles and O'Keefe's videos. I don't doubt that in making community organizing a paying proposition, the organization attracts corrupt people. I also question whether the videotaped employees have a real case against Giles, since I don't know the legal circumstances in Maryland or Pennsylvania. But Giles's account of events is a hysterical exaggeration of her own historical significance and the stakes involved in her possible legal struggles. Her appeal for personal support is really nothing more than a fundraising effort for reactionary lawyers and propaganda. Maybe Giles sees herself as the Joan of Arc of movement conservatism, but wouldn't she have to arrange her own martyrdom to play that role in full? The solution to that problem is to portray herself as a martyr already, before a single torch is lit. But you never know; Joan's greatest usefulness for France may have come after her death, and it may serve some larger interest if Giles does suffer. If I were her, I'd watch how this money is spent.

04 February 2010

On Howard Zinn and Refusing to Settle

If it looks a little late for me to say something about Howard Zinn, the best-selling radical historian who died last week, it's because I didn't have anything to say at first. I've never read Zinn's People's History of the United States, and as someone trained as an academic historian I was bound to find that book to general for my taste. I was willing to believe critics who accused Zinn of oversimplifying American history. He was a radical egalitarian and pacifist, as I could tell from the opinion pieces he contributed to The Progressive and other magazines. There's nothing wrong with that, but as an Americanist (academically speaking) I couldn't accept what seemed to be his guiding premise, that the only narrative worth writing in American (or global) history was the struggle of the poor and excluded for greater democracy and equality. I'm the sort who, when watching the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon disses Gordon S. Wood and praises Zinn, could only conclude that Damon's character wasn't the genius the script claimed he was.

But for the past week I've been following an exchange of obituaries, laudatory and damning, on the History News Network website. Among these was a predictable diatribe from Ron Radosh, who can only see Zinn as someone who hated his country. For people like Radosh the test is pretty simple: either affirm on demand that the United States is the greatest country in the world and the greatest there has ever been, or you hate it. Zinn's critics on the right believe that an exclusively critical approach to American history, as Zinn's appeared to them to be, obscures both the country's positive accomplishments and its moral superiority, warts and all, to other nations, none of which is any more innocent (as we must all admit) than the U.S. These critics will vehemently deny wanting to whitewash or bury the bad bits of our history, but they insist that a more balanced or presumably more objective approach would lead any reasonable student to conclude that the U.S. has been a force for good overall and should be defended as such.

The United States certainly has had a paradoxical history. Advances in freedom and equality have gone hand in hand with enslavement, exploitation and exclusion. One can imagine (and it doesn't really require much imagination) sincerely patriotic Americans making the same claims for their country's essential goodness while slavery was still legal, whether in spite of slavery or while taking it for granted. That's the problem with many conservative historians: their dogged insistence that their country be recognized as the greatest on earth is an implicit demand that people settle for things as they are, even if those things strike one as unfair or unjust. They object to the U.S. being held to a higher standard, just as the slaveholders and their allies 150 years ago howled in protest whenever anyone suggested that there was a higher law than a pro-slavery constitution. Conservatives can argue reasonably that our country's heritage of slavery, Indian-killing, violence against organized labor, and so on does not disqualify the accomplishments of the Founders in crafting a viable democratic republic or the improvements in quality of life made possible by American entrepreneurship. But they cannot argue reasonably that no one has a right to demand better of the nation. They can't forbid people from raising a standard of egalitarian liberty against which all nations, not just ours, are found wanting, in order to inspire people to demand what they decide is their due. And to the extent that Howard Zinn did that, his academic virtues aside, he may well deserve to be regarded as a great American.

03 February 2010

Ideologue of the Week: Jonah Goldberg

From conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg this week comes a defense of ideology, generally speaking, against criticism from self-proclaimed pragmatists like the present President. Goldberg simply refuses to believe that Obama isn't an ideologue, which means that the President can't win with this guy. If he is an ideologue, then Goldberg clearly disagrees with whatever he takes Obama's ideology to be. If he isn't, then Goldberg sics Bertrand Russell on him. The British philosopher and mathematician wrote that "ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth" is pragmatism prevailed everywhere. I googled the phrase and found it in one of Russell's Philosophical Essays in which he criticizes the pragmatism of philosophers like William James. That is, Russell wasn't attacking an approach to policy based on simple practicality but a belief that there exists no extra-human or extra-social objective standard that determines the truth of metaphysical claims. Russell's relevance to Goldberg's attempted opposition of ideology and pragmatism is questionable His usefulness to Goldberg is open to further question when you consider that Russell was an atheist whom some readers may yet remember from the 1960s as a harsh critic of American imperialism in his old age.

If it's unclear what Goldberg means by pragmatism, what does he mean by ideology? He wants to challenge the notion that ideology is at some level an "unthinking" response to political challenges. He describes ideology as a "bundle" or "values, customs, traditions and principles" that can "help you prioritize what you are going to do with the facts." He also proposes a paradox: "Indeed, the very question of deciding what to be pragmatic about -- this but not that -- requires applying an ideological test." Goldberg stretches the definition until it's too broad to be meaningful and too benign to be recognizable." Why is it "ideology" rather than "values?" Many conservatives, after all, would deny being ideologues as vehemently as the President does -- which goes to show that there are many kinds of conservatives. Goldberg appears to be one of the conservatives who believes in the irrepressible ideological conflict against "liberalism," and that belief apparently compels him to defend his right to be an ideologue.

Wikipedia defines ideology in the plural as "systems of abstract thought ... applied to public matters." The editors support Goldberg's position somewhat by arguing that "Implicitly every political tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought." But it seems like we should be able to narrow the definition to exclude some people from the taint of ideology. The reference site's definition of Political Ideology clarifies things a bit by describing "a certain ethical set of ideals, principles, doctrines,... that explains how society should work, and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order." Ideology is an attempt to reduce subjects for political deliberation to unquestionable normative rules. Its tendency is to moralize subjects that aren't really moral, and its typical expression is to denounce certain policy proposals as inherently "wrong." Ideological thinking is all done in the keys of "always" and "never." Some policies are never right, while others always work.While ideologues may go through the motions of proving these assertions through appeals to history, their reasoning is usually ahistorical at heart and thus resists practical (or "pragmatic") appeals for innovation, on one hand, or retrenchment, on the other. Marxists remain the archetypal ideologues of modern history but American entrepreneurial conservatives may be the best contemporary examples of ideologues at work because they define themselves so completely in opposition to Marxism. Jonah Goldberg is such an ideologue, and it's his prerogative to be unapologetic about it. It's also his prerogative both to question my definition of ideology in general (and his in particular) and to attribute it to an unacknowledged ideology of my own. Most likely, ideologues assume that everyone's an ideologue...or a barbarian. But based on how I understand ideologues, I really hope I'm not one.

Idiot of the Week? Eugene Robinson

As a rule, I don't have any problem with the bland liberalism of Eugene Robinson, a nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist and cable-news talking head. But his column on Senator-elect Brown from Massachusetts is worthy of attention for its cluelessness about the rights and responsibilities of our elected representatives.

"When I heard Scott Brown ... describe himself as a 'Scott Brown Republican,' I groaned," Robinson reports, "It sounded as if he's coming to Washington to be part of the problem, not part of the solution." Robinson's despair has relatively little to do with Brown's positions on the issues -- "quite reasonable" on reproductive and gay rights, less so in demanding an immediate freeze on discretionary federal spending. For that matter, my post isn't meant as a defense or critique of Brown's positions. I want to focus on the fact that freaked out Robinson: Brown's implicit promise that he would be his own kind of Republican in the U. S. Senate.

When I read a statement like that, I try to believe that it means that Brown isn't going to accept dictation from the Republican leadership in the Senate. Robinson seems to understand it that way too, warning the GOP that their "crucial 41st vote in the Senate -- the vote that can thwart just about anything the Democrats want to do -- belongs to a man who promises only that he will march to his own drummer." To which he adds: "Good luck with that."

In Robinson's reading, Brown's promise to think for himself is the new Senator's self-revelation as a selfish egomaniac. "I hope the erstwhile Cosmo centerfold is smart enough to realize there is something more corrosive to our political system than bitter partisanship," the columnist chides, "and that's, ahem, naked self-interest." Later, Robinson opines that "The last thing Washington needs is another politician who refers to himself as his own brand and promises to chart his own lonely path....If everybody in town tries to sing 'My Way,' we get a serenade -- but we don't get the solutions the country so urgently needs."

Robinson doesn't need to spell out his underlying thesis because it's obvious to anyone with an awareness of American political reality. The pundit is saying plainly enough that there is no alternative in the national legislature to party discipline. Partisan legislators in Washington are there to obey the President or their floor leaders, depending on who's in power. Conscientious self-determination is nothing more than irresponsible self-indulgence. If Brown was elected as a Republican, that means he must represent a Republican agenda defined by national Republican leaders, as if Bay Staters had voted for the party first (and the national, not the local party at that), and the man second. That's how Robinson seems to think representative government should work. It makes one wonder what the Framers expected Representatives and Senators to do back in 1790, before there was a party system. Start parties, I suppose.

The problem with Scott Brown calling himself a "Scott Brown Republican" is the second part of the compound, not the first. His own merits or flaws aside, and no matter what Eugene Robinson thinks, this nation will be better off when, instead of running as a "Scott Brown Republican," a Senator can run simply as Scott Brown.

02 February 2010

New York: A New Candidate for Governor

Warren Redlich is a Libertarian seeking the Republican nomination for Governor of New York. According to the most recent reports, Redlich has vowed to run on the Libertarian ticket whether he wins the Republican nod or not. Within the GOP he'll certainly be an underdog against Rick Lazio, but Redlich is hoping to get the local Tea Partiers on his side. Here is his campaign website.

Predictably, Redlich preaches fiscal responsibility. He intends to restore it by eliminating several government departments and eliminating fat elsewhere. Some of these proposals look reasonable, such as his plan to impose a $100,000 pay cap on public officials -- though it should be noted that there is no good reason why the people of New York should not demand or enact a pay cap for private officials. Since Redlich dismisses the argument that high salaries are needed to attract qualified people to the public posts in question, he should be expected not to make the same argument when similar caps are suggested for CEOs.

Redlich also supports submitting pay raises for elected officials and political appointees to public votes. He offers this suggestion on analogy with proposals to submit CEO pay raises to shareholder votes, so we can assume that he supports that idea as well. If so, how great a leap would it be, in a democracy, to close the circle and submit CEO pay to public votes as well. I'm just asking.

The new candidate would get rid of the New York State Lottery ("the state should not be in the lottery business"), Thruway tolls, and many agencies that seem to have purely advisory or coordinative mandates, on the supposition that the latter don't really do anything but devour taxes.

On cultural issues he's more obviously Libertarian than Republican. While he should win gun-nut support with his advocacy of concealed-weapon rights for New Yorkers, he might lose those with right-wing cultural leanings by supporting further liberalization of the state's drug laws. Redlich believes that the answer to drug crime is to "take the profit out of the market for illegal drugs." While he doesn't explicitly endorse legalization, his association with reform groups implies some sympathy toward that end. As for guns, he cites Vermont's peaceful record as proof of the effectiveness of concealed-weapon permits -- as if that were the only decisive factor in that state.

I've offered a quick sampler of Redlich's opinions. As a candidate with an inevitable funding disadvantage, this Libertarian is not above playing a little populist politics, as he does here by listing some of Democratic front-runner Andrew Cuomo's wealthy donors. It may be fair for someone of Redlich's ideology to expose a seeming hypocrisy on the part of self-described champions of the little people, but I doubt that he can object to soliciting funds from the rich as a practice on any principle he has.

It's easy for candidates to run against wasteful government. The existence of waste is too obvious to ignore, especially in hard times, but Redlich may be too quick to assume that bureaucracy itself is always waste, given his obvious bias in favor of the private sector and The Market as the answer to all human needs. The emergence of political society in all places, however, is proof of the private sector's limited efficacy in all periods of human history. Redlich's own aspiration to office is an acknowledgment of the state's necessity; otherwise he might just as well hoard his gold or his guns, hunker down and wait for everything to break down. What I want to hear from a libertarian sometime is an acknowledgment that in a political society all the people share an obligation to the material welfare of all the people. Absent that obligation, government becomes nothing more than a police state inevitably dedicated to protecting one class of people from another. But if libertarians always think that political society is less than the sum of its parts, then governing that society is always going to be a waste of their and our time.

Here's a local news report on Redlich's announcement, including comments below from the candidate himself in response to website readers.

01 February 2010

The Prime Secret

Either Reason magazine's ad rates are really low or Mark Hamilton has money to burn. One explanation or the other accounts for Hamilton buying nine pages of advertising in the March issue of the libertarian monthly to advertise Wealth, Health, Peace, a 300 page "turnkey manual" that promises to reveal the long-suppressed system that will "Make All Americans Rich, Including the Poor!"

Hamilton is the founder of a new political party, the "Twelve Visions Party." Call me prejudiced, but that name does little to inspire confidence. In any event, Hamilton is also the founder of the Neothink Society and a much-published author. His immediate agenda is to apply the paradigm of the computer revolution to the entire American economy. That is, as "computer buying power" increased in the 1980s so that "ordinary families could buy computers that a few years earlier only millionaires could buy," so the "TVP-induced" technological revolution will, presumably, make today's luxuries affordable for everyone. "All people will be the beneficiaries," Hamilton predicts, many of them "without lifting a finger!"

In Hamilton's history of the computer industry, the revolution he describes was able to take place because "the ruling class" wasn't "hovering over the computer industry." Restarting that revolution through the entire economy, he asserts, requires nothing less than the removal of the ruling class, which he describes later in the ad as a "ruling family" that has sustained itself for 3,000 years by suppressing the "Prime Secret" which Wealth, Health, Peace summarizes. Despite these suppressive efforts, a succession of "super-achievers" through history (including Jesus, Gandhi, Sam Walton and Michael Jordan) have discovered the Prime Secret for themselves. The rest of us are going to have to read it in Hamilton's book, but once we do, we'll rise up past our peers and join the "wealthy elite class." Not to be confused with the ruling class, the wealthy elite class is just another branch of the "suppressed class." This class is suppressed as a whole, notwithstanding the wealthy elitism of those who know the Prime Secret, because the ruling class divides the family against itself, inciting jealousy on the part of the majority against "those geniuses of society who are actually our greatest benefactors." Left to their own devices, the geniuses of society would act consistently in the manner of Henry Ford, who paid his workers exorbitant wages by the standards of his time so they could afford his cars. But the Fords of the 21st century are mercilessly maligned by the ruling class and subjected to "suffocating regulation and abusive litigation," while the working class (a term Hamilton doesn't use) is taught to despise their natural benefactors.

The Prime Secret, Hamilton claims, can make anyone successful and everyone rich. But there seems to be an unacknowledged exception to this rule: the ruling class. Hamilton asserts that ruling classes have attempted to suppress the Prime Secret for 3,000 years. Let's assume for amusement purposes only that the ruling class has to know the Prime Secret in order to suppress it. But if the rulers know the Prime Secret themselves, why don't they take advantage of it the same way history's geniuses have to enrich everyone? Hamilton has no better explanation for this exceptional behavior than that "they are greedy." He also describes the ruling class (which consists, if you haven't figured it out by now, of politicians) as enjoying "unearned wealth and power." So jealous are they of their exclusive wealth and power, Hamilton fears, that "the authorities would LOVE to shut me down." Of course, they'd have to know who he is in order to fulfill his flattering persecution fantasy, so I guess it pays to advertise.

His ambition aside, Hamilton's own account of history looks like damning proof of the limited utility of the Prime Secret. Here, after all, is a ruling class full of people who know the Secret and have done damn little with it, even to enrich themselves. Can that be blamed entirely on greed? Are politicians the only greedy people on earth? Unless Hamilton dares to make such a claim, he has to admit that the Prime Secret is not proof against the greedy impulses on the part of those who possess it that limit its benefits to the rest of us. After all, aren't there geniuses in our world today who can be presumed to possess the Secret, either by purchase or by intuition? If so, why aren't they sharing? Meanwhile, Hamilton could be selling it to multitudes who'll only use it to rise into the ruling class rather than share it to liberate the rest of their brethren in the suppressed class. And if we go further to assume that politicians are unproductive (hence "unearned wealth") in spite of the Prime Secret, than what guarantee can Hamilton offer that those who buy the Secret from him (for $29.95) will get the benefit he claims is practically automatic. Can we take the claim that Wealth, Health, Peace "immediately liberates all suppressed readers and sends their income soaring" at face value? Maybe the Secret is something that can only come naturally to history's geniuses, or can only be exploited properly by those with innate gifts. In that case, Hamilton is being both irresponsible and (dare I say) greedy by offering this power to anyone who can pay.

Your check or money order in payment for Wealth, Health, Peace is a political contribution to the Twelve Visions Party. Hamilton depends on that money to realize the political side of his planned revolution. One year from now, he hints in a "Hypothetical Timeline," the real "wealth-shift" begins when "the new Twelve Visions party weakens the ruling-class heel pushing down the suppressed class." But even if that doesn't happen, Hamilton assures Reason readers, his book might help individuals become "Self-Leaders" and start the liberation process on their own. But I'd like to think that anyone who even imagines himself as a "self-leader" shouldn't need a book to tell him how to be one.