29 April 2010

Amoklauf in China

The news that a man with a knife went on a rampage in a Chinese kindergarten and wounded 28 kids as well as staff, and the fact that this wasn't the first such attack in recent times, is fair game for those gun-rights advocates who note that violent people will find other ways of doing violence if they can't get guns. Their position is that violent or immoral tendencies, not the existence of any particular type of weapon, are the real cause of violence, and that banning any type of gun will not end violence against innocent people. The only argument worth making against this position is to point out that, as of this writing, none of this madman's victims are dead, and most will survive. Imagine if he had an automatic. The argument against gun culture in America isn't about suppressing violence; it's about limiting the damage violent people can cause.

27 April 2010

A Real Socialist on Democratic "Socialism"

The Republican radio canard that the Obama administration is practising "socialism" is the McCarthyism of the 21st century and possibly the most genuinely inflammatory part of their allegedly generally inflammatory attack on the Democratic regime. To call something "socialist" in this country is to hint that tyranny is in the wings and the Gulag is just outside. Some critics to Obama's right and left are more honest and more correct in their analysis. Ron Paul, for instance, characterizes the President's policies as "corporatist," meaning not so much modeled on Mussolini's "corporate state" but merely designed mainly to benefit large corporations. From the left, of course, the discrepancy between Democratic policy and socialism is far more obvious.

My frequent correspondent d. eris, who runs the Poli-Tea and Third Party and Independent Daily blogs, did the sensible thing. He asked a genuine socialist whether Obama's program met his party's standards. You can read the answer provided by an Ohio candidate for the U.S. Senate at your leisure. The main point Dan Labotz makes is that "nationalizing" any industry is not the same thing as workers' control -- and the latter is what socialism is all about.

"The Obama administration proposes that a government run by corporations also regulate the corporations in order to save the corporations from destroying themselves in their chaotic struggle to control our nation's wealth and resources," Labotz writes, "Obama's government, like Bush's did, acts as a kind of super-executive committee of corporations, working to coordinate the corporations so they will be more successful in wringing their wealth from us." I'd add that Democrats are at least motivated partly by a desire to preserve working people's jobs that might otherwise have been lost without bailouts, but Socialists are obviously just as concerned with keeping people gainfully employed. They believe, in fact, that workers will be more gainfully employed when they control their workplaces.

What would socialism mean? Here’s an example. The U.S. government now owns almost half of General Motors, so why don’t we turn those plants to green production—solar panels, wind turbines, hydrothermal equipments—to solve both the economic and environmental problems we face? We could as a people democratically elaborate a plan for the banks and corporations which we own, a plan to be carried out by workers collaborating with consumers, advised by environmentalists.We would not run these plants or others for profit, but rather to take care of the human needs of the American people.

In a way, the Socialist and Republican critiques of Democratic party liberalism converge. Both groups condemn a "liberal" political class that claims to know what's best for the rest of us. But while Republicans, Libertarians and most conservatives appeal to the superior wisdom of The Market, Socialists believe the people can govern themselves politically without the tutelage of politicians beholden to capital, and govern the market as well without the tutelage of capital. Now that public dissatisfaction with government is reportedly at a historic height, Socialists might well want to borrow from the reactionary playbook and argue as much against politicians as they already do against corporations. No third party is going to have lasting success unless it can convince people that people can govern the country without the expertise allegedly conferred exclusively by the two major parties. Socialists (as opposed to Bolshevik Communists dedicated to rule by the "vanguard party") have been making that argument all along -- maybe more Americans are finally ready to listen.

26 April 2010

A Christian Questions the National Day of Prayer

While he remains a dire reactionary and a religious bigot in his own fashion, Cal Thomas the columnist is, to his credit, a disillusioned member of the Religious Right. Some time ago he repudiated the Moral Majority, contending that Christians had spent too much time trying to transform society through the political system when the old fashioned approach of evangelism and moral suasion might work better. It didn't surprise me, then, when Thomas didn't exactly bite on the bait set for religious conservatives when a federal court ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. He's not impressed by the reasoning behind the court's decision, but he seems to be in no rush to have it overturned.

"It is of no concern to me whether this president, or any president, issues prayer proclamations," Thomas wrote this weekend, "I can pray or not, without government encouragement." While he notes that "Republicans and conservatives" may make political hay out of the court controversy, Thomas regards the whole issue with something like a shrug. "What difference does a national day of prayer make?" he asks.

Of course, we should note that Thomas isn't outright opposed to the idea of a nation united in prayer. It's apparent, however, that he considers the National Day of Prayer as currently conceived as vague to the point of worthlessness. "There are many non-theistic religions in America," he notes, "Does a presidential proclamation aim to ask such people to pray to those gods? And if it does, then the entire exercise is meaningless. Sending letters to the same person at different addresses would mean that most aren't delivered."

In other words, unless the people pray to the right God, any presidential encouragement of prayer could be counter-productive. That aside, the idea of the Day of Prayer as a petition for blessings offends Thomas's judgmental sensibility. "Should God be expected to bless a nation that tolerates, even promotes, so much evil?" he asks. We can guess at what he means: abortion, pornography, non-theistic religions, etc. He'd rather hear us repent our "evil" and beg for forgiveness -- again, only so long as we beg the right way. But at least he knows not to expect that, and for that reason he sees no point in any official national call to prayer. So let's give credit where it's due. On this occasion, Cal Thomas would not use politics to force his religion or any religion down our throats. You know what they say about the broken clock....

An Order of Green Tea

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, was peddling a vision of a "Green Tea Party" over the weekend. He envisions this entity as a closer metaphorical equivalent of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, dumping foreign oil instead of British tea. His GTPs wouldn't literally toss barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other obnoxious exporters into the ocean. But they would, to an extent, honor the original Tea Partiers' ideal of non-consumption by demanding a $10/barrel "Patriot Fee" on imported oil. While the proceeds would go toward paying off the national debt, the assumed drop in oil imports would spur the development of those green technologies Friedman has often urged on us.

The columnist concedes immediately that today's actually existing Tea Partiers would never go for an import tax on oil. He blames this on their "hard libertarian right" bias, and if he's right, it also shows us an important difference between 21st century TPs and their supposed role models. The resistance to British mercantile policies often took the form of non-importation and non-consumption. It involved a degree of self-denial and a spirit of modesty (as opposed to ostentation, that is) to which today's TPs may pay lip service without necessarily walking the revolutionary walk. Tea Partiers are supposedly prepared to go without certain government programs in order to close budget deficits, but I doubt they expect to feel hardship from their supposed sacrifice, since they probably don't see themselves benefiting from the programs they'd cut. As self-styled entrepreneurs and Reaganite optimists, the generic Tea Partiers more likely still expect to have it all after having been held back by the tax-fueled regulatory state. They probably expect to tell other people to tighten their belts, not do so themselves.

Friedman's pessimism about the Tea Partiers leads him to look again to his hoped-for new party of the "radical center." Judge the prospects of such a movement for yourselves after reading Friedman exhort his radical-center GTPs to support an emissions-control bill sponsored by Lindsay Graham, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman:

The reason a Green Tea Party should coalesce to support this bill ... is because it will set a price on carbon pollution and help foster commercialization of clean technologies — like hybrids, batteries and solar — at sufficient scale to enable the U.S. to rapidly ramp up when the seriousness of climate change becomes inescapably obvious to all.

A rabble-rouser Friedman isn't, nor does he want to be one. But if he wants to call into being a Green Tea party that "that brings the same passion to cutting emissions that the Tea Party brings to cutting deficits," he's going to have to do better than that. The idea may be sound, but it doesn't sound like anything likely to inspire passion. Maybe if he went on the radio and translated all of the above into "JOBS NOW!!!" it might make an impression. The only way it will, I suspect, is if he puts the horse of job creation before the cart of emissions-reduction and long-term green-industry growth. Friedman may hope that a radical center would be sufficiently aroused by calmly reasoned arguments, but I'm not sure it can be that radical and that reasonable at the same time. However, Friedman may have provided some useful raw material for real radicals to exploit.

25 April 2010

Idiot of the Week: Kazem Sedighi

President Ahmadinejad of Iran is concerned that his nation might be next in this year's wave of earthquakes. Seismologists warn that the region may be overdue for one, and the president is reportedly mulling over whether to evacuate part of the population of Tehran in advance of any possible disaster. I don't know whether he's been listening exclusively to scientists or whether his expectations are influenced by the more impressionistic analyses of experts like our Idiot of the Week. He is a hojatoleslam, a "proof of Islam," a religious expert ranking just below the ayatollahs in the Shiite hierarchy of religious scholarship and jurisprudence. He also warns of an earthquake striking Iran, but he also thinks it might be preventable. He has a daring hypothesis on the causes of earthquakes. They are caused by women dressing immodestly, which offends God. A "general repentance," on the other hand, might stay the deity's wrathful hand. The nation's minister of welfare and social security seconds this assessment. To my knowledge, the president has not issued earthquake-prevention recommendations along these lines. Is he sleeping on the job or can it be that he is not the biggest nut in Iranian high places?

This Sedighi strikes me as the type who, should the Israelis decide to preempt the Iranian nuclear program, would blame the bombings on the enemy within, the sluts of Iran who provoked God into raising his curtain of protection just to teach them a lesson. It would just go to show that while doctrines divide us, a certain type of religious mentality is really the same everywhere.

The Libertarian Gubernatorial Nomination: Platform or Stepping Stone?

Warren Redlich is the Libertarian Party candidate for governor of New York, receiving a majority of votes at yesterday's party conference in Albany. It was a small gathering, according to reports and comments, and while it might look more impressive were the candidate chosen in a statewide primary, we've seen that the major parties nominate many of their local candidates in similar fashion, in traditional smoke-filled rooms without the smoke.

Redlich also wants the Republican line this fall, and hopes that the Libertarian nod will increase his credibility in Tea Party circles. He may overestimate the libertarian strength of the New York brew, however, since the TPs look more and more like the rallying ground for old fashioned movement conservatism. I wonder, too, whether it's implicitly demeaning to the party that's just tapped him to head their ticket to so openly aspire to another nomination. It's understandable, however, since there won't be a Libertarian line on the November ballot unless the party meets the usual onerous signature quota.

The Times Union article I cite insinuates that New York Libertarians are small and incoherent, noting the nomination for U. S. Senator of a candidate who claims to be more liberal than Chuck Schumer. That candidate is also a comedian; make of that fact what you will. Questions of consistency aside, this "convention" looks especially unimpressive given the belief that there's more receptivity to libertarian ideas these days. This would have been the time to make every effort to make the Libertarian Party look like a mass movement; they may have actually made it one in the process. But it may be that a movement, mass or not, founded on an inherent distrust of politics is inherently handicapped in any effort to make itself into a major party. If there was a moment for libertarians to exploit widespread dissatisfaction with both government and the political process, this should have been it, but I notice little effort made to exploit it. It could be that a party that has little will to govern lacks the will to win elections. It's now up to Redlich to prove me wrong.

23 April 2010

Left and Right Against War

Paul Buhle is a progressive historian and activist who took part in the American Conservative's recent symposium on the chances for antiwar collaboration between forces on the left and right of conventional American politics. In The Nation, he gave his own account of a strange-bedfellows encounter of editors from both journals and other figures from the supposed ideological poles. Without expressing either optimism or pessimism, Buhle sees in this potential coalition a kind of reunion of elements who were marginalized at the start of the Cold War. He notes that back in the late 1940s, progressive Democrats (including one, Henry Wallace, who formed a third party in 1948) and conservative Democrats (including one, Robert Taft, who could plausibly be called "Mr. Republican) agreed on opposition to the country's growing inclination toward interventionist politics around the world. These figures were excluded from what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a historian of the liberal establishment, called the "Vital Center" of American politics. Admission to the Vital Center, apparently, depended on accepting an American obligation to combat Communism globally. Republicans like Taft were as anti-communist as they ever came, and no friends to organized labor in the U.S., but their suspicion of state power led some to question the consolidation of what some call the "national security state" and others call the "global warfare state." Buhle is happy to see a revival of this tradition among some Republicans or conservatives. If anything, he finds antiwar conservatives more clear-headed, because they were less taken in in the first place, about the shortcomings of President Obama on the foreign-policy front. Apart from Ron Paul, however, they have little voice in the government.

The practical question remains whether the full-spectrum antiwar movement can be motivated into uniting behind candidates who would run on an almost exclusively antiwar platform. It seems unlikely this year. As Iraq slowly calms, Afghanistan isn't generating enough American casualties yet to distract most people from domestic debates. The movement disagrees on too many other issues for it to coalesce behind a single slate of candidates. The next-best-case scenario would be to ensure that antiwar progressives and antiwar conservatives win elections and then vote together against intervention and excessive military spending. The prospects don't look good here, either. Antiwar progressives will be pressured to swallow their differences and defend the President at all costs, while antiwar conservatives will find themselves confronted by the usual neocons as well a Tea Party movement easily goaded into jingoism by pro-war radio. Things will have to get worse in Afghanistan or elsewhere before war becomes a hot issue again.

The good news about efforts to build antiwar coalitions across partisan and ideological lines is the truth they reveal about our political system. They pit people of the left and right against a "center" that pretends to be both at the same time and stages very convincing combats to prove the claim. If more people see such forces arrayed against each other, they may finally question the whole political nomenclature. If "left" and "right" can stand against the "center" on even one issue, can the "center" really be what it claims? Even if they can do nothing else, antiwar opinionators of all persuasions can keep raising that question in the hope that other people will start asking the same questions themselves.

21 April 2010

Censorship at MSNBC

The MSNBC channel has aborted a week-long afternoon report on "America the Angry" conducted by guest anchorman Donny Deutsch, reportedly because yesterday's segment included an implicit criticism of Keith Olbermann. The criticism-by-association consisted of Olbermann's inclusion in a montage of rabble-rousing talkers, most of whom are his ideological or partisan opponents,and a guest's charge that Olbermann was a "hate-monger." Anonymous sources at the channel have contradicted Olbermann's denial that he intervened in a fit of anger to have the series canned. They remain anonymous because they fear reprisals from Olbermann or other MSNBC officials.

I'm sure that Olbermann does resent the association of his image with those of his enemies. In his mind, they're inciting people to violence, not he. But the series was not called "America the Incited unto Violence." It's called "America the Angry," and there is no way that Olbermann can deny that his "Countdown" show stokes liberal anger. Oxymoronic as it sounds, it exists, though it may result in the subject no longer being liberal. For that matter, MSNBC is supposed to be the "liberal" news network. Shouldn't that mean some tolerance for criticism of the house talent? An apologist might argue that Fox News would do no different in a comparable circumstance, but isn't that to be expected of the reactionary channel? And isn't a liberal channel supposed to be different? If there's no room for anyone on air to question the channel's chief propagandist, doesn't it prove the charge that MSNBC is essentially a propaganda channel?

According to the New York Times, Donny Deutsch said that he'd tried to be a "purple" voice in a nation and media environment torn between "red" and "blue." It looks like he picked the wrong-colored network.

Conservatism in Essence No. 1

This might start a series of small items that reprint statements that impress me as getting to the heart of how conservatives think and the core of their beliefs. No one statement will sum up the entirety of conservatism, but I hope to present some that any reader, conservative or not, will recognize as representative of the general mindset.

The first comes from a Cal Thomas column from earlier this week. This article was one of a wave of writings published in reaction to Bill Clinton's speech last week in which the former President warned that excessive rhetoric from the right might lead to violence on the level of the Oklahoma City bombing, the anniversary of which he was observing. They most hysterical reaction from the right came from Rush Limbaugh, who felt that he'd been personally accused of inspiring Tim McVeigh's terrorism. His response to Clinton was to charge in advance that any right-wing terrorism in the near future would be Clinton's fault, not his, that Clinton's predicting it would provoke the crazies to action more than Limbaugh's polemics. By comparison, Thomas's response was lucid. He simply resented what he took to be an insinuation that any criticism of the Obama administration from the right was an incitement to violence. Like other rightist writers, he took Clinton's remarks as further proof of liberal hypocrisy. Like others, he brandished Hillary Clinton's protest from 2003 against alleged conservative attempts to portray critics of the invasion of Iraq as traitors. Clinton's inferred charge against Republican radio, these writers implied, belied his wife's insistence on respect for dissent. None of this actually has to do with the excerpt I'm going to quote, but I thought you should understand the occasion for Thomas's remarks. Clinton's speech provoked him to make a general defense of conservative opinion against the general charge that it is insensitive, hateful, or inappropriately judgemental towards those who don't share conservative values. This required him to clarify what Republicans and related thinkers really mean, in their own minds, when they make their occasionally controversial comments. For my purposes, here's the key paragraph:

If you think the Founders wanted to restrict the power of the federal government and that your taxes on hard work and initiative are too high, you are a greedy uncaring person who disregards the poor and needy. If you think many of the poor and needy made wrong decisions about their lives which contributed to their poverty, and that by making right decisions they could better their circumstances, this proves you are insensitive, judgmental and a religious nut.

Thomas phrases this very carefully. Note the "many" instead of "most," for instance. Does he think that most of the poor are so because of "wrong decisions" rather than economic upheavals over which they had no control? You can't quite tell from this paragraph, but "many" can certainly be very many. However you read it, it's as plain a statement of the "personal responsibility" ethos as you could ask for. On top of that is the presumption that "you," the alleged "insensitive, judgmental ... religious nut," have indisputable knowledge of what those people have to do to better their circumstances. "You" know what the "right decisions" are, and the implicit corollary is that the only right decisions possible are the ones you recommend. After all, at least some of those right decisions must be based on supernatural revelation; otherwise why would anyone call you a religious nut? But whether they are or not, we see something essentially conservative here that transcends the partisan or sectarian particulars of today. However much paleoconservatives, neoconservatives and those in between may disagree amongst themselves on important issues, as conservatives all would agree with a general statement that the answers to society's essential questions are already known and have probably been known for quite a while. That's why they can tell the unfortunate the "right decisions" they need to make, no matter what actually caused those people's misfortune. No matter what's going on with the local, national or global economy, the conservative assumes that "character" can overcome all adversity, and that lack of "character" contributed to individual adversity more than macro-economic factors. I can see why a "bleeding-heart liberal" might call this attitude "insensitive," but "ignorant" may be the correct, if also insensitive term.

The absurdity of "taxes on hard work and initiative," meanwhile, should require no explanation from me, except the note that income is taxed whether it is based on hard work and initiative or not. That lack of discrimination is lost on those who feel every tax as a penalty or an unjustified bailout levy for the losers who made all the wrong decisions. But the resentment of taxes is not essentially a conservative trait, so we can let that matter rest.

20 April 2010

Is Gerrymandering Doomed in New York?

An organization known as New York Uprising and fronted by former New York City mayor Ed Koch has reportedly secured commitments from all three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and likely Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo, the current attorney general, to prod the state legislature to end the ancient American practice of gerrymandering. Named after Declaration signer and Constitution opponent Elbridge Gerry, the practice has been mocked for nearly 200 years for the strange shapes of congressional or legislative districts resulting from a process designed to create "safe" districts for the party in power or incumbent individuals. It's one of the phenomena that shows the actual Bipolarchic nature of American politics, since Democrats and Republicans collaborate in the process. In some cynical cases, Republicans will actually make it easier for Democrats to be elected in certain districts by gerrymandering so-called "majority-minority" districts into existence. By drawing a crazy border around concentrations of black population, for instance, everyone looks good by guaranteeing black faces in a legislature, but by writing black voters out of other districts Republicans expect to make it easier for themselves to win more seats.

Gerrymandering is arguably an inevitable response to a constitutional requirement that representation in "popular" houses of bicameral legislatures (the House of Representatives, the New York State Assembly) be based on population rather than geography. If every x number of people are entitled to a representative, how do you determine which people will vote as a unit to elect that person? Good-government types trust that there's a rational way to divide the nation and the states into represented districts. New York Uprising wants to take the districting process out of the hands of elected politicians and give the power to an ideally nonpartisan citizens' board. The end that people like Koch have in mind is to make all elections more competitive. They hope that eliminating incumbent complacency will remove some roadblocks to more extensive political reform.

I'm not sure if there is a rational way to divide states into districts according to population. I don't mean that any way you try is automatically going to be partisan or biased -- just that the problem doesn't necessarily allow for a rational solution. The insistence on numbers as a basis for representation seems to be a legacy of bicameralism and the distinction that concept draws between the people and the land, or the landless and the landed. Once U.S. Senators became subject to popular election, the bicameral concept really became obsolete; Senators as well as Representatives represent the people. So why can't Representatives as well as Senators represent the land? Geographically-based representation is probably the closest thing to rational representation that you're going to get. On the state level, that would mean the counties, and it could mean the counties on the federal level as well, with each getting as many seats in a legislature as population merits. Since many congressional districts encompass several counties, my idea would mean a larger legislature, and perhaps an unwieldy one, though arguably a more democratic one and one more likely to produce representatives of actual local interests instead of national partisans. This isn't a fully formed idea, just one that occurred to me while reading the news from New York.

In any event, the reforms demanded by Koch and endorsed by the candidates will still require the consent of those legislators whose security in office is theoretically threatened by the plan. That fact may doom the idea, but dissatisfaction with incumbents seems strong enough this season that challengers of any party could only help their chances by promising to carry out the reform. But this is one of those reforms that could undermine your incumbent, the guy you usually think is doing a better job than the rest of those bums. That's what defenders of gerrymandering will tell you if they dare speak up. Since there's no such thing as an indispensable man in a democratic republic, that argument should have little impact -- right? Just in case, however, let's think of this the way the Citizens Union group recommends: do you want to keep a system that "allows legislators to choose their voters before the voters choose them," or do you think we can do better?

19 April 2010

Pew: Everything Stinks

The big news this morning in the papers and on NPR was the publication of results of the latest Pew Research Center survey. It showed that Americans' confidence in government had reached historic lows. It was reported as if it were a bad omen for the current government and a prediction of Republican victories in November, but Pew's own summary shows that respondents' opinion of the Republican party was just as low as their regard for the Democrats. Nonetheless, the analysts are probably right to anticipate a heavy turnover after the elections, since anger at government will be directed inevitably at incumbents.

Interestingly, many Americans remain unwilling to believe that there's something wrong with our politics on a systemic level. A majority of respondents told Pew that individual officeholders, not the system, were the real cause of today's troubles. It's worth emphasizing that professed Republicans are the most likely to take this view, 60% of them saying so as opposed to 50% of Democrats and 51% of independents. This discrepancy may be explained by a strong Republican conviction that the nation's problems could be solved quite simply by replacing as many Democrats as possible with Republicans.

According to Pew, Americans are dissatisfied with bureaucracy as well as with legislators. Public opinion of government agencies has plunged across the board with two odd exceptions. By one percentage point, we hold a more favorable view of the CIA than we did in 1997 -- but the favorable rating for the Internal Revenue Service has jumped up by nine points over the same period.

American dissatisfaction extends to the private sector as well. Banks and financial institutions as a category have the worst rating of all, 69% of respondents deeming them a negative influence on the country. "Large corporations" are similarly malign for 64% of respondents, but "small businesses" are regarded favorably by 71% of them, and "technology companies" by 68%. In mixed news for Democrats, Congress and the federal government are deemed a negative influence by 65% of respondents, but those surveyed are split on the Obama administration, 45% viewing it negatively, 45% taking the opposite view. Apart from small businesses and tech companies, the institutions regarded most favorably are churches (63%) and colleges (61%). The different opinions on small and big businesses point at a populist mood, and not so much a preference for the private over the public sector as a distrust of anything big -- including big media, big labor, etc. The respondents don't want government to "control" the economy, but they do want more regulation of the financial sector in particular. This does not, taken as a whole, look like an endorsement of the Republican worldview. The GOP may benefit from the angry mood for one election cycle, but unless a new Republican majority takes what would have to be radical action to favor small businesses over corporations, they'll only find themselves on the receiving end of the same anger two years later. Whether by then more people will have finally changed their minds about the system being sound remains to be seen.

18 April 2010

Do We Have to Cancel Thanksgiving?

As a non-believer myself, I can't criticize the reasoning behind a Wisconsin federal court's ruling that the "National Day of Prayer," a tradition since the 1950s (like many similar public pieties) is unconstitutional. The ruling judge issued an injunction against the President renewing the annual call but stayed it immediately pending appeals, while it's been reported since the ruling that the chief executive will go on and follow tradition regardless of the judge's opinion.

The judge refuted the prevailing reasoning that argued that a call to prayer itself does not violate the First Amendment so long as it's vague enough not to endorse any specific faith or denomination. Her finding is that prayer itself is inherently religious, and that no matter how broadly religion is defined, a presidential call to prayer is, in effect, an endorsement of prayerfulness as opposed to the irreligious attitude that there is no one or nothing to pray to. The call to prayer might be defended as a mere invitation, and implicitly an invitation to believers only, but the plaintiffs in this case have just as much right to feel that they are being exhorted against their consciences to perform an offensive act. It might be easy to argue that there's nothing compulsory about the call, but it's just as easy to argue that a presidential endorsement of prayer as an appropriate activity for any or all Americans could have a chilling effect on those who decline to pray. While religious activists have argued that the First Amendment does not confer "freedom from religion," Judge Crabbe says that it does. That makes sense; there can only be freedom of religion if there is also freedom not to be religious.

In our stupid age, it was necessary for the judge to add that she was not ruling that prayer itself was illegal. Don't be surprised, though, if radio heads tell you over the next week that that's exactly what she ruled. There are more formidable arguments against her position, however, in the form of precedents. Even our "deist" early presidents issued calls to prayer or thanksgiving, as did onetime and possibly lifelong agnostic Abraham Lincoln. Even those leaders who denied the literal truth of scripture endorsed, if only for the sake of public order, the idea of a supreme being, gratitude to which for its creation of life was a prerequisite for morality. Only in very recent times have professional fundraising atheists made a stink about it. Speaking for myself, I've never felt myself under pressure to pray as a result of any presidential statement. I've gone for years at a time happily unaware that I'd been encouraged to pray on a certain date of the year, and it goes without saying that I've never suffered for not doing so. Some nonbelievers are more sensitive on this point than I am, and some have an active interest in silencing religion altogether. But the real issue here seems to be whether anyone really feels oppressed by the call to prayer, or whether they're merely offended by it. I'm offended by it intellectually but not emotionally, and I can tell myself that the call is really aimed only at those already inclined to respond. I've never felt a need to put an end to the National Day of Prayer, but at the same time, it's not a big deal if it does end, apart from the stink it'll raise among the professionally pious. When you look at it, the only person who's had his rights limited by this ruling is the President of the United States, and despite his low-risk defiance of the ruling, I'd like to think that the President does not feel that much less free this weekend.

For more on the history of the National Day of Prayer and its unsurprising origins in anti-communist religiosity, read here.

16 April 2010

How's the Coffee Brewing?

Tea parties have been in the spotlight this week, as have rumors of leftist agents provocateurs infiltrating them in order to discredit them. Earlier this week I wondered whether people were willing to confront and argue with the TPs rather than just mock them, until it occurred to me that this was where the Coffee Party movement was supposed to come in. So what were the CPs up to this week?

Some local CPs did hit the streets. According to this illustrated report, a local CP held a counter-demonstration in Boise. Fifty CP members showed up to protest the protesters in Wichita yesterday. These are the only counter-demos I've found reports for. CPs elsewhere are still in the organizational stages, from what I could tell. I've seen some pro-tea commentators note this as a failure of the coffee movement, but the TPs themselves inflated the prospect of coffee-driven confrontation, attributing to the CPs, for instance, the inane infiltration strategy proposed by a separate "crash the tea party" organization. It may be, also, that the CPs' mandate for reasonable, rancor-free discussion will make manifestations like those in Boise and Wichita exceptions as a rule. It'd be ironic, from a historical perspective, if the coffee party claimed to represent a "silent majority" while the tea party boasts of its numbers on the ground as proof that it really represents the majority. That would be a reversal of the opposing lines of forty years ago, when President Nixon claimed support from a "silent majority" that outnumbered the antiwar protesters then flooding the streets of America. The tea party's real contribution to American history may be its proof of right-wingers' willingness, after generations of abhorring mob behavior, to show their strength in the streets. What contribution the coffee party will make remains to be seen.

15 April 2010

The ACLU Defends a Tea Partier; Will TPs Return the Favor?

Regardless of what surveys tell us, most of us probably assume the average Tea Party participant to be the sort of person who regards the American Civil Liberties Union as a subversive organization dedicated to undermining national security and/or national morals. One of the ACLU's virtues, however, is that they try to help people regardless of whether those people like them or not. I don't know what one particular Marine thinks of the ACLU, but the organization has come to his defense after his superiors ordered him to close a Facebook page that had been critical of the President's healthcare-reform agenda. Sgt. Gary Stein has obeyed the order to close his site, which was apparently in violation of a Pentagon policy forbidding any partisan advocacy by soldiers. He has also taken the admirable extra step of affirming that President Obama is his commander-in-chief and opposing, on behalf of his "Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots" group, any calls for a military uprising against the government.

The issue seems to be less about Stein's opinions than about his appearance of partisanship. Despite his group's name, Stein denies attempting to speak for the national tea-party movement, such as it is, and is considering changing his page's name in order to eliminate the offending reference. Like it or not, the Pentagon regards the Tea Parties as a partisan phenomenon, but the ACLU is understandably concerned that a ban on "partisan" expression amounts to a ban on dissent itself.

This looks like a different sort of case from those we heard about during the Bush presidency, when soldiers were discouraged from publicly criticizing the President's conduct of the war in Iraq. It's an accepted part of the whole "commander-in-chief" thing that soldiers have no business publicly questioning the military policies of the White House. Whether the same principle should apply when the subject isn't military or foreign policy is arguably another matter. If we can take Stein as his word, his opposition to healthcare reform doesn't compromise his readiness to obey Obama's orders as commander-in-chief. He seems to think now that he might be able to express his dissent so long as he doesn't label himself as a Tea Partier. If explicit partisanship was the problem initially, he may be right. However, since we live in a Bipolarchy there'll be a temptation to view any criticism of Obama's domestic policies (unless it comes from his left) as "partisan." Whether that's fair is subject to debate. A separate but related problem brings us back to the question of representation. Whether or not he claims to represent a political party, any public commentary by Stein under his military byline (so to speak) would raise the question of whether he speaks for the United States military or any branch of it. I doubt whether Stein ever meant to suggest that his views were those of the Marine Corps as a whole, but identifying himself as a Marine might give his views a kind of authority, if not credibility, that they might not otherwise merit.

My gut feeling is that any soldier has as much right as any civilian to criticize his commander-in-chief's policies, foreign and domestic, civilian and military. If we don't accept "I was just obeying orders" as a defense of accused war criminals, we have to recognize soldiers' right to question the President's commands and his policies. At the same time, I think restraints on partisanship within the military are reasonable. You can make a more plausible argument for them on the basis of "unit cohesion" than you can about some other military rules. A middle way should be available for people like Stein, and such a way is available. It'd be a simple matter of swallowing one's pride and emulating the Founding Fathers. In other words, come up with a pseudonym and publish anonymously like Madison, Hamilton, et al did throughout their careers. That way you don't represent anything but your opinions, which would stand or fall on the strength of your argument. Anonymity and pseudonyms came into disrepute at some point because they seemed like evasions of accountability, but if we don't believe in punishing people for expressing political opinions, and if we want to debate policies and principles instead of practising identity politics, then there's no reason why someone like Stein can't express himself without anyone knowing he's a soldier, or even a Stein. I do this all the time and I'm not even a military man. The same option should be available to everyone.

14 April 2010

Tea Partiers Endorse Bipolarchy

While the subjects of a New York Times survey of Tea Party adherents may indict the source, the rest of us will probably take its findings more seriously. The paper itself headlines the revelation that the TPs, on average, are not working-class idiots, but are wealthier and better educated than the general public. This doesn't surprise me to the extent that I assume the average TP to be some sort of small businessman. The surprising thing, and the ultimate disappointment for anyone who held out hope that the TPs could form the foundation for an independent political movement, is that they are more opposed than the general public to the idea of a third party. This was probably inevitable; their fear and hatred of the Democratic Party and President Obama make them the most likely proponents of lesser-evilism of any group in the country. They'll take the Republican party, warts and all, and with no more than token threats to "keep them honest," in order to turn back the "socialist" tide. But another finding makes it unlikely that they even see warts. According to the Times, TPs are far more likely than the general public, and more likely than Republicans as a distinct category, to hold a favorable opinion of George W. Bush. They are also, not surprisingly, the group least likely to blame Bush for the country's present economic plight. Obviously there's a minority within the TP movement who take more of a Ron Paul position (Paul also enjoys a higher-than-average favorable rating) and give Bush his share of blame for the bailouts and other offenses, but that minority should realize by now that the TPs in general are independent of the Republican party only to the extent that they are more reactionary and more openly contemptuous toward the poor than the GOP leadership. It is probably most accurate to portray the Tea Party movement as a sympathetic auxiliary of the Republican party that just happens to take its cues from radio talkers rather than party bosses. They offer no hope of a meaningful alternative to the American Bipolarchy. If anything, their manichean mythos pitting "freedom" against "socialism" can only strengthen it.

13 April 2010

Putting a Fire Under the Teakettle

A Tea Party was beginning to brew on the west lawn of the state capitol building in Albany while I was waiting for my bus to work this morning. The partiers were just beginning to arrive with the usual variety of signage. "Gov't is out of control," one read, while another's bearer insisted that "My Rights Come From God, Not From a Politician." A pair of matching placards read "Oh No You Cant Lie to Us" and "Oh Yes We Can Vote You Out." The most creative sign (as far as I knew) evoked what I took to be the original anti-partisan spirit of the Tea Parties in reminding the rest of one of their original complaints:


This was attached to an "Audit the Fed" motto that most likely marked the signbearer as a Ron Paul supporter. Along with the signs were the usual array of flags, including your standard U.S. flag, the "Gadsden" ("Don't Tread on Me") flag, and a design I hadn't seen before. Check it out for yourselves.

It turns out that this is a "Revolution2" flag invented and marketed by a reactionary entrepreneur who explains the symbolism here. It looks like the number 13 may end up being as mystically significant to the Tea Partiers as the number 19 is to the Nation of Islam. To the extent that this fellow's money-making scheme is adopted as the standard of the Tea Parties, it'll be another deal-breaker for people who may have problems with wasteful government and crony capitalism but don't want to be associated with anything that looks like the Christian Right.

Meanwhile, today's demonstration may also be a testing ground for Jason Levin's plan to discredit the Tea Parties by infiltrating them and exaggerating their least pleasant tendencies. Albany is the dateline for an Associated Press story detailing Levin's scheme, which he hopes to see play out across the country during scheduled "Tax Day" protests this Thursday. Levin elaborates on his plans on his own website. While he seems to be aiming at a "Yes Men" like parody through reductio ad absurdam of Tea Party beliefs, his reference to instigating the TPs' "pre-existing propensity for paranoia and suspicion" may hint that he may not even feel it necessary to show up. His goal may be to get real TPs wondering whether their more vehement compatriots are "for real" or not. However it unfolds, Levin's conspiracy shows the extent to which many people on the left have given up on trying to engage the TPs or change their minds -- admittedly, the TPs themselves have given enough signals to convince people that the effort would be pointless.

However that plays out, there was an indisputably genuine counter-demonstration under way in Albany this morning. Across the street and far enough down hill so that the two groups would not see and most likely not hear each other, a group of Democratic sympathizers were on the sidewalk declaring their thanks to the ruling party for passing a health-care reform bill. If one of today's demonstrations looked like "astroturf," I hate to say, this was the one. And so I left each group in its little free-speech zone, unable or unwilling to communicate with each other, an American Bipolarchy in miniature. It's the beginning of a week of activity encompassing Tax Day and the Lexington-Concord anniversaries that have acquired dark connotations in recent history. It could get more interesting soon.

Update: the local paper estimates the turnout at about 200 people, with no count for the counter-demo. The writer is more concerned with the Carl Paladino angle than with anything the TPs had to say for themselves. For those outside New York, the businessman and self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination has been called out for sending racist and pornographic images in private e-mails. The charge earned him the "Worst Person in the World" award for last night from the Keith Olbermann show, which Paladino might wear as a badge of honor if it had anything to do with his political beliefs. In any event, for the moment Paladino represents no one but himself, but it's still fair to ask an authentic TP what they think of a man who actively solicits their support. It would be wrong to hold anyone but Paladino responsible for his foibles.

12 April 2010

Will Straw (polls) Break Palin's Back?

Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich made high-profile appearances at last week's southern conservative conference, offering somewhat conflicting ideas of the Republican agenda. The spectators in New Orleans apparently bought neither argument. In the latest presidential preference straw poll, they preferred the ambiguous Mitt Romney (of Massachusetts "Romneycare" fame) by one vote over the persistent outrider, Ron Paul. Romney did not speak to the gathering. Gingrich ("Party of Yes," if you'll recall) and Palin ("Party of No") were tied for show at 18% apiece. No one was close to a majority, of course, but that's to be expected at this stage of the process. Supporters of politicians other than Romney and Paul have accused those men's acolytes of packing the conference, but it may speak to a weakness in the Gingrich and Palin camps that they were unable to pack the gathering with their own adherents. In any event, the monolithic negativity the GOP and movement conservatives present in opposition to the Democrats conceals the reality of a party that doesn't yet have an idea, as Gingrich seemed to realize, of what it wants to stand for. The real problem facing Republicans in the months and years to come may not be that they're seen as a "Party of No," but that they'll prove themselves to be a "Party of Nothing."

Note: Paul deserves extra credit for daring to say the obvious to the obtuse: the President is not a socialist. In the congressman's opinion Obama is a "corporatist," a label with which many on the left might agree.

11 April 2010

Prayers for Death and Selective Outrage

Looking for proof that liberals, progressives, Democrats and others to the left can be as bloody-minded as Republicans, conservative and other reactionaries, the media have latched onto something posted by a member of a New Jersey teachers' union. It was along the lines of a letter to God, noting that the deity had, in the past year, taken the writers' favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, his favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, his favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and even his favorite TV pitchman, Billy Mays. The writer then reminds the holy one that Chris Christie is his favorite governor.

I found it hard to care about this apparent prayer for a politician's death because the only thing original about it was the insertion of Gov. Christie's name. Do a Google search with the names Swayze, Jackson, etc., and the phrase "Obama is my favorite president" and you get 1,060 matches as of tonight. I saw such things months ago, long before anyone got worked up over what the divinity might do with Christie. You might be able to insert the name of the politician of your choice and get a hit, whether that now-accursed figure is Democratic or Republican.

The form letter to God is just an attempt to smear a clown smile on the ugly face of American public opinion circa 2010. More and more people seem ready to wish politicians of the "enemy" camp dead, and there's no point in trying to label this a phenomenon of the right or the left. Partisan ideology has whipped passions to a frenzy, so that people of the right fear the imminence of tyranny, while people of the left fear the imminence of murder, mob violence, armed insurrections, etc. Objectively, the fear of right-wing violence seems more plausible than the Obama administration imposing martial law or otherwise suppressing civil rights. But in our current environment the likelihood of left-wing violence in reprisal for or anticipation of rightist outbursts can only grow. For this, the right will have itself to blame. If it happens, it will be because the right has so uncompromisingly refused accommodation with the liberal/progressive agenda and so consistently characterized it as socialistic, communistic, fascistic (!) and tyrannical that they are likely someday to be confronted by exactly the sort of demon they've accused their current foes of being. If reactionaries fear the loss of their freedoms and hate the idea of a "nanny state," their opposite numbers fear being thrown to the wolves of the marketplace or being literally left to die from poverty, and hate the thought that citizenship means no fellow feeling, no collective loyalty, as far as Republicans, Tea Partiers, and others are concerned. Worst of all, no one with power has any interest in calming these terrors or weaning everyone off their ideological red meat. No one has yet successfully marketed an idea that might reconcile personal responsibility with social responsibility. Until someone does, the least we can expect are more stupid prayers, which are at least harmless. If no one does, we may as well all say our prayers.

09 April 2010

Gingrich: And yet...

Leave it to his fellow Republican conservatives to make even such a person as Newt Gingrich look like a halfway-reasonable politician. During his time at the Southern conservative conclave, the former Speaker made the entirely sensible suggestion that it might not be a good idea for the Republicans to be identified as the "Party of No." Echoing other Republican sympathizers, he urged his party and the larger movement to offer positive alternatives to the Democratic programs they would repeal. Understanding that the public will most likely not accept the status quo as the only alternative to the Obama agenda, Gingrich told his audience that the Republicans need to become a "Party of Yes."

Did Governor Jindal of Louisiana and ex-Governor Palin of Alaska not comprehend what Gingrich was saying? Each one basically told him to drop dead today. They like the sound of "Party of No," and Jindal, for one, likes it better as the "Party of Hell, No!" Both affirmed that it was perfectly fine to be the PN when faced with unconstitutional or merely unsound proposals from the majority. You would think from the way they reacted that Gingrich had told them to say Yes to the Democrats, when he had said nothing of the sort. Gingrich was making the strategic point that it might hurt his party to be seen opposing everything while offering no constructive suggestions of their own. He's conscious enough of the world outside the movement bubble to recognize that the PN label might be a pejorative for many people. He gave no Republican cause to believe that a PY would stand for acquiescence in "secular socialism" or anything like it. Yet Palin and Jindal responded with exactly the sort of obtuse bullheadedness that Gingrich warned against. I stand by all I said against him in the article below, but news like this makes the man look like a mental titan compared to his competition. They're staking their party's future on the U.S. being a Nation of No, and they may be right about that -- at least when the subject is their own presidential ambitions.

Newt Gingrich: Theocratic Capitalist

Since the former Speaker of the House is so adamantly opposed to what he so consistently labels a "secular socialist" agenda, I can only assume that he advocates the opposite program. It's the inevitable rhetorical escalation and a necessary one since "socialism" alone is bound to wear out its frightfulness from all the mindless repetition. I'd write off the "secular" part as part of Gingrich having to pander to a Southern conservative audience, but the man has written a book with the damning phrase in its subtitle. He must really believe that secularism is a bad thing. He must also really believe that the existence of Jehovah and Jesus is relevant to 21st century American politics. I'd like to see him explain this. I might even borrow the book from a library to find out how he reconciles capitalism with the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps he's a proponent of the "prosperity gospel." Perhaps he's one of the many Christians who believe that Jesus spent his time on earth lecturing on sexual morality. But there's one thing about which I'm somewhat more certain. People who insist on the need for religion in public life don't really believe in human self-government, no matter how they babble about freedom, liberty and so on. They want everyone to believe that the laws that count are neither man-made nor subject to human amendment. They need constructs like "God" and "Natural Law" to cover the fact that all laws are man-made and subject to amendment. They simply don't trust people to deliberate and legislate together without the fools ordering up a golden calf and making human sacrifice to it. That's probably not so great an exaggeration of the nightmare imaginations of those who follow Gingrich. Like Moses in the movie, they say "there is no freedom without the law" -- as long as the law is what they say it is. They and Moses might disagree, however....

Rove, Dean: Parties share blame for Madoff

Karl Rove and Howard Dean held a debate at the SEFCU Arena on the State University of Albany campus last night. For the most part, from the local reports, the content of the debate was as predictable as the presence of Green Party protesters outside the venue. The Greens objected to the university funding an appearance by Rove, whom they regard as a war criminal. As the protest was reported in advance, the news moved Mr. Right to repeat his usual complaint that the Left, not the Right, was the true party of intolerance. The truth, I suspect, is that there are different kinds of intolerance characteristic of Left and Right respectively, but in this particular case the charge, however tenuous, that Rove was involved in war crimes, served to deflect the countercharge that the Greens merely wanted to suppress Rove's freedom of speech.

The most interesting moment in the debate (in the modern moderator-plus-prerecorded-questions format; Lincoln and Douglas need not apply) came when Rove described the Democratic healthcare-reform legislation as a kind of Bernie Madoff scheme. Dean's comeback was to ask Rove, "Who allowed Madoff?" By conventional debate standards, this did nothing to refute Rove's charge. In any event, the Republican rejoined by reminding the crowd that Madoff began his scam during the Carter administration, and was only brought down by investigators under George W. Bush. Dean scoffed at the latter claim, factual though it was, but Rove affirmed that Madoff was taking his lumps in prison today because of actions undertaken by the Bush administration.

While Madoff himself has claimed that he only began to engage in fraudulent practises during the 1990s, Rove's account reflects the opinion of federal prosecutors who claim that he had begun his Ponzi practices back in the 1970s. When Dean blurted out an assumption that Republican misregulation or indifference allowed Madoff to flourish, Rove countered that Democrats under Carter had neglected to nip Madoff in the bud. For the sake of argument, let's adopt Rove's history of Madoff. In this account, the evil one began his nefarious scheme under the noses of Democratic appointees. From then until 2008, Madoff continued to operate under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (Republican), Bill Clinton (Democrat) and for most of the George W. Bush administration (Republican). During this time, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress most of the time until 1994, and Republicans ran both houses from then until 2006. While suspicions were first expressed back in 1992, the earliest known whistleblower denounced Madoff in 1999, under a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, and was rebuffed for years afterward by the SEC. Madoff fell from grace in the last weeks of a Republican presidency, under a Democratic Congress.

If you assume, as both Dean and Rove do implicitly, that the party in power is responsible for keeping an eye on investment brokers and preventing Madoff-style practices, then objective observers must conclude that both parties dropped the ball. On their own terms, Democrats and Republicans alike "allowed" Madoff to do his thing. Whether the government under either large party could have caught Madoff early is a subject for another debate. The moral of this story, as told by Rove and Dean, is that both parties either failed to notice or simply ignored the Madoff malignancy. If voters hope to elect leaders who'll prevent the next big Ponzi scheme, whether it comes from Congress or Wall Street, the cumulative testimony of two party leaders should show them that the institutions of the American Bipolarchy aren't cut out for the job.

08 April 2010

Black Tea and Oreos?

A local paper this week ran an Associated Press story about the travails of black conservatives in the age of Obama. They're complaining about being called "oreos," "Uncle Toms" or worse, and insinuate that such attacks, which have been a constant for ideologues of their complexion in modern times, have gotten worse with the election of the first black President. They also resent the charges of racism lobbed against white Tea Partiers with whom they feel a growing affinity, or from whom they seek votes in upcoming elections. Their own endorsement of the TPs' economic beliefs, they imply, should outweigh the allegedly minimal presence of racists at the parties.

Groupthink is a distasteful notion, and it seems wrong to assert that there's an appropriate ideology for blacks. After all, blacks were once as rigidly Republican as they now seem dogmatically Democratic. It was only in the 1930s that blacks began to cross the bipolarchy divide, attracted by the (often ill-fulfilled) promises of the New Deal and repelled by the apparent indifference of Republicans to Depression poverty. As late as 1960 as iconic a black celebrity as Jackie Robinson could endorse Nixon over Kennedy. But the unholy alliance of entrepreneurial conservatism and Southern racism tipped the balance apparently beyond recovery at the same time that the racists crossed the divide in the opposite direction, some after a third-party sojourn under George Wallace's standard. When the Republican party decided that state's rights mattered more than individual rights, they imposed a heavy handicap on themselves with blacks. But Obama's election may have convinced many people, blacks included, that the civil rights struggle is over, whatever inequalities remain. It's inevitable that some blacks, especially if they become entrepreneurs and acquire the pathological mindset to which that class is so susceptible, will question why they should base their political loyalties on old news. It stands to reason that blacks are just as likely as any group to look around them and resent other people getting "breaks" for being "lazy" that they don't see themselves getting. It stands likewise to reason that black entrepreneurs would learn the same contempt for mere working people or the unemployed that their counterparts of other races so often feel. It is probably a form of wishful racism to assume that blacks might have some innately greater sense of social solidarity or more entrenched hostility to the every-man-for-himself ideology of entrepreneurial Republicanism than other demographic groups. One might still assume so as long as entrepreneurial Republicans remain a wretched minority in their midst, but we should definitely avoid any impulse to call them race traitors -- especially if we don't belong to the race in question. But blacks, too, should avoid the temptation. If people like that are traitors to anyone, it's to all of us.

Is "Free Market Fundamentalism" a Myth?

Apologists for the American Bipolarchy like to argue that it was natural for the country to be split between two great political parties because the great political questions are of an "either-or" nature: large or small government; state or federal predominance; high or low taxes. One such divide, in theory, separates those who believe in the sufficiency and efficiency of free markets from those who believe government regulation necessary to a just society. While Republicans, conservatives and libertarians rail against "socialist" government controls over markets, Democrats, liberals, progressives and those further left rail against a "market fundamentalist" ideology that supposedly animates the right.

The left is used to dismissing the former charge as nonsense -- especially socialists who see Democratic regulations as far short of the ideal. It's more unusual for a writer from the left to dismiss the latter charge of "market fundamentalism" as nonsense. That's what Dean Baker does in the Spring issue of Dissent. I mean that literally.

"Progressives have wailed against 'market fundamentalism' for the last quarter-century," Baker writes, "They complain that conservatives want to eliminate the government and leave everything to the market. This is nonsense. The Right has every bit as much interest in government involvement in the economy as progressives. The difference is that conservatives want the government to intervene in ways that redistribute income upward. The other difference is that the Right is smart enough to hide its interventions, implying that the structures that redistribute income upward are just the natural working of the market."

Examples of upward redistribution include the bank bailouts and, most relevantly to current policy debates, a patent monopoly system that allows exclusive patent holders -- the pharmaceutical companies -- to charge far more for drugs than they could in a truly competitive market. In such a market, Baker writes, competitors would drive prices down by marketing their own versions of generic drugs. Baker calculates that doing away with patent monopolies might cut the collective cost of prescription drugs by 90%.

"The idea that a 'free market' is allowing some people to get incredibly rich and causing other people to be poor of financially insecure is nonsense," Baker resumes. In the case of patents, government intervention was justified as an incentive for research, but corporate research itself is arguably redundant given what the government spends on medical research. Baker proposes replacing patent monopolies with a "prize" system that would pay patent holders for the right to release their products into the generic market. This would be a case of changing market rules, which are made by government, not nature, to ensure "better distributions of income." If greater competition benefits the most people, a progressive government should structure markets to encourage competition. Baker takes this premise to a daring extreme by suggesting that Americans be allowed to buy into the vaunted health-care programs of other industrialized nations. While the idea seems far-fetched if it means ordinary Americans making regular trips to Europe, Baker's point is that competition with the existing American health-care system should result in reducing that system's own prices. Republicans might make arguments against such a proposal, but they wouldn't be able to argue in the name of free markets.

Baker claims that progressives only make Republicans look good in the eyes of some people by calling them "free market fundamentalists" He writes: "There are no free market fundamentalists in this debate, just conservatives who want to pretend that their rules are the natural working of the market." Whether he includes libertarians in this statement is unclear, but even leaving them out, I'm not sure if Baker is right. There may have been a void separating reality from propaganda when progressives first posited the existence of these fundamentalists, but nature and "the market" alike abhor a void. My impression is that there are "free market fundamentalists" out there. They are the naive populists in the tea party movement, those to whom the bailouts of 2008 revealed the existence of a "crony capitalism" abhorrent to their own ideals of rewarding success and punishing failure. They denounced the collusion of Big Business and Big Government while retaining an ideal of a free market in which Big Business would not be able to bend the rules in order to save itself from the consequences of bad decisions. The flaw in their assumption is the notion that dismantling Big Government would effectively deny Big Business any means to cheat. This assumption fails to consider the possibility that Big Business itself (or "power" or "wealth") calls Big Government into being for its own reasons rather than those of the bureaucrats and regulators these "fundamentalists" despise. The politicians Baker criticizes may well be hypocrites, but there are true believers on the ground all over the country, and abandoning the critique of "free market fundamentalism" simply because some exponents are liars can only allow a misguided mindset to spread among voters, where it can hurt progressives the most. Baker makes a good case for directing the critique more accurately, but he doesn't prove that the "myth" can be safely ignored.

06 April 2010

Mad Prophet of the Airwaves

Carl Paladino, the Buffalo businessman, officially threw his hat into the ring and announced his candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination yesterday. Appealing to Tea Party types, he presents himself as an angry populist railing against the "parasitical" ruling class of Albany. He rails in archetypal language, proclaiming that he's "mad as hell" and "not going to take it anymore."

Quoting Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay for Sidney Lumet's Network is kind of like singing "Born in the U.S.A." at a patriotic rally. It doesn't quite mean what you think it means. While anyone may agree with the literal sentiment expressed on air by Howard Beale, it should be remembered that, in the film, these were the words of a man who was losing his mind. When he exhorts his viewers to go to their windows and repeat his slogan, the fact that so many do so is not shown as a Capra-esque uprising of the common people, but as the rapid viral spread of a mass psychosis, accompanied by scary lightning flashes in the night sky. It should also be remembered that Beale's sermons inspire no rebellion or reform movement that the film notices. He only inspires more people to watch his news program, which degenerates from a dry news summary to a prophetic vision of today's rantfests from O'Reilly to Olbermann. According to Network, Howard Beale's ranting is not a remedy for the ills of American society, but a symptom. Carl Paladino offers himself as a remedy with the same sort of rhetoric about running government on business principles that politicians have used for more than a century. But the fact that he commends himself to us by declaring himself mad, in the language of a fictional madman, suggests a different diagnosis.

05 April 2010

John McCain: Liar, Senile or Idiot of the Week?

If one word was identified with Sen. John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, it was "maverick." It was meant to define his principled independence from Republican orthodoxy and "special interest" donors as well as his supposed lone stand in favor of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq amid general pessimism. The Wild West flavor of the term (also used by Madonna's record label) signified that McCain was always his own man, unafraid to make his own decisions. Well, guess what? Never mind.

In a recent interview, McCain denies ever calling himself or considering himself a maverick. This report makes the paradoxical suggestion the senator, supposedly in the race of his life against a kind of maverick in the form of J.D. Hayworth, believes he must disavow his past maverickism in order to retain or regain the loyalty of the base of primary voters who demand ideological orthodoxy in their nominees. But this may be to overanalyze the case. Isn't it possible that he just forgot?...

Prospects for a Peace Party

The American Conservative for May 2010 features a symposium of "thinkers from across the spectrum" on the prospects for antiwar elements on the Right (aka the "paleoconservatives") and Left can work together to advance a non-interventionist agenda in the current political climate. The magazine has been a particular advocate of such an approach, opening its pages since 2003 to a number of Left or left-leaning thinkers who joined the editors' critique of neoconservatism. I've seen relatively little reciprocity on the left. Andrew Bacevich is a token conservative with impeccable credentials (he lost a son in Iraq) who gets space in liberal and progressive journals for his anti-militarist opinions, but others are persona non grata for their domestic policy views or religious beliefs.

Most of the professed conservatives approached by the magazine seem more pessimistic than ever about the prospect of cross-ideological or counter-ideological coalition against an interventionist foreign policy now perpetuated by the Obama administration. William S. Lind, for instance, fears that leftists will reject anyone who doesn't share their "ideology of cultural Marxism, aka political correctness," the purpose of which, Lind claims, is to "poison Western culture." Paul Gottfried worries that most leftists are hypocritical when denouncing wars carried out by right-wingers, muting their criticism (he charges) now that Democrats control the war machine. He also suspects that leftists don't share the paleoconservative fear of executive power that fuels the latter group's opposition to the current wars. Justin Raimondo takes a different approach, arguing that there's no real Left in the U.S. anymore in the traditional anti-imperialist sense. He also admits to hurting the prospects for coalition when he explains that he can keep up flagging opposition to the war on terror among rightists by calling it "Obama's War." Donald Devine makes an odd demand that leftists recognize Ronald Reagan as an antiwar President, while Thomas E. Woods complains that leftists are happy to make common cause with neocons to slam his unorthodox interpretation of U.S. history. All of these writers also concede that their minority standing within the Republican party or conservative movement in general gives them little influence and little leverage. Gottfried, for instance, states bluntly that there's "no recognizable advantage for the Left to be allied to marginalized people on the Right."

The liberals and progressive participants in the symposium all express disappointment with Obama's failure to wrap up the wars quickly. They also recognize that many leftists remain Democratic partisans who are reluctant to risk compromising Obama's domestic agenda by pressuring him on foreign policy. Restating the obvious, they also note that the antiwar paleocons don't exactly bring much to the table in terms of numbers. Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos uses his space to denounce mainstream Republicans for using national security as a club to beat Democrats. "If Republicans quit trying to score political points by accusing Democrats of being weak on national security, then Democrats could quit being cowards," he writes -- forgetting that he's addressing exactly those Republicans (or plain conservatives) who aren't doing that. Robert Dreyfuss notes that the Tea Partiers have mostly come out in favor of war ("vociferously, if not intelligently") and predicts that "a two-winged bird is unlikely to take flight, if for no other reason than the fact that its left wing is many times heavier than its right wing."

Nevertheless, as someone closer to the left I have to say that the paleoconservatives have probably been the most principled opponents of the war on terror simply because it has forced them into conflict with their normal political home in the Republican party, while opposition imposed no such risk on Democrats until 2009. What the paleocons can contribute disproportionately to their numbers is a kind of moral authority, if only on this particular issue. They embody the fact that anti-interventionism is not strictly a "left" or "Democratic" stance. That's why they're needed in a broader movement no matter how few they are.

The writers in the symposium too often get trapped in lingering partisanship, criticizing left or right when they really mean Democrats or Republicans. A few transcendent moments shine through, however. Lind calls "democratic capitalism" the "third great totalizing ideology of the 20th century" (after communism and fascism, that is) and states that the U.S. is really a one-party state -- ruled by "the Establishment Party" for whom "war is a racket that pays well." John V. Walsh of CounterPunch notes that anti-imperialists and anti-interventionists have been "defeated because we have been divided," and "the deepest fissure is loyalty to the political parties of empire, Democrat or Republican, in place of a unifying commitment to the principle of nonintervention. As long as this crippling nightmare persists, we shall have empire and its necessary acolyte, war." A rightist and leftist agree that an Establishment that doesn't include them welcomes war. The question for the future is whether they can resist the impulse to war on each other in order to end the wars that imperil us all.

The "Cloward-Piven Strategy" Strategy

Conspiracy theorists dream of a smoking gun, an irrefutable piece of evidence that would convince all who saw it of the truth of their theory. Obamaphobic reactionaries in the Republican party and the Tea Party movement believe that they have a key to the President and his party's malign intentions in a 1966 article written by two activist social scientists, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, for The Nation magazine. As The Nation itself explains in its current issue, reactionaries interpret "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty" as a blueprint for future leftist schemes to sabotage the economy and exploit resulting crises to augment government's power to redistribute income. Now known in Obamaphobe circles as "the Cloward-Piven Strategy," the authors' proposal was to swamp the welfare system by getting as many eligible people as possible to actually apply for benefits. Exposing the inadequacy of funding for welfare, they thought, would provoke grass-roots agitation which they hoped would result in the enactment of a guaranteed national income for the poor. Cloward and Piven (the latter is still living) were unapologetic about seeking a redistribution of income, believing the poor to live in a state of oppression that only redistribution could relieve. I'll quote their rationale at some length here; readers may determine for themselves whether their diagnoses are still relevant 44 years later.

The ultimate objective of this strategy--to wipe out poverty by establishing a guaranteed annual income--will be questioned by some. Because the ideal of individual social and economic mobility has deep roots, even activists seem reluctant to call for national programs to eliminate poverty by the outright redistribution of income. Instead, programs are demanded to enable people to become economically competitive. But such programs are of no use to millions of today's poor. For example, one-third of the 35 million poor Americans are in families headed by females; these heads of family cannot be aided appreciably by job retraining, higher minimum wages, accelerated rates of economic growth, or employment in public works projects. Nor can the 5 million aged who are poor, nor those whose poverty results from the ill health of the wage earner. Programs to enhance individual mobility will chiefly benefit the very young, if not the as yet unborn. Individual mobility is no answer to the question of how to abolish the massive problem of poverty now. It has never been the full answer. If many people in the past have found their way up from poverty by the path of individual mobility, many others have taken a different route.

Organized labor stands out as a major example. Although many American workers never yielded their dreams of individual achievement, they accepted and practiced the principle that each can benefit only as the status of workers as a whole is elevated. They bargained for collective mobility, not for individual mobility; to promote their fortunes in the aggregate, not to promote the prospects of one worker over another. And if each finally found himself in the same relative economic nevertheless clear relationship to his fellows, as when he began, it was nevertheless clear that all were infinitely better off. That fact has sustained the labor movement in the face of a counter pull from the ideal of individual achievement.

But many of the contemporary poor will not rise from poverty by organizing to bargain collectively. They either are not in the labor force or are in such marginal and dispersed occupations (e.g., domestic servants) that it is extremely difficult to organize them. Compared with other groups, then, many of today's poor cannot secure a redistribution of income by organizing within the institution of private enterprise. A federal program of income redistribution has become necessary to elevate the poor en masse from poverty.

In retrospect, Cloward and Piven's proposal seems incredibly naive in failing to anticipate the sort of reactionary backlash that we'd take for granted now. But their wisdom or foresight is irrelevant to the historical question of whether their article actually influenced anyone from the time of its writing to the present day. The "strategy" was first exposed by Rudolph Giuliani while he was still mayor of New York, according to David Horowitz, a reactionary publicist credited with doing the most to popularize the idea. While Horowitz claims that Giuliani denounced Cloward and Piven by name, the mayor doesn't do so in a transcript of the speech Horowitz quotes from, though he may have done so elsewhere. (Another scholar explains that Giuliani name-checked them in a written draft of the speech, but left them out of his spoken remarks, apparently not yet realizing the power of their dread names) I have no reason to doubt that Republicans were aware of Cloward and Piven (who remained active authors until Cloward's death) at that time, but I don't know if anyone claimed, or if they even really claim today, that the activists' article was the single decisive inspiration for any government action, partisan strategy or activist movement. Horowitz claims that Cloward and Piven were instrumental in forming the National Welfare Rights Organization, a group he accuses of intimidating welfare workers, but he has no smoking gun linking the authors to that great satan, ACORN. Like most conspiracy theorists, he and his fellow researchers depend on circumstantial evidence based on presumed affinities among common enemies. That the founders of ACORN and related groups in the Tea Party demonology shared beliefs and goals in indisputable. Whether that proves that anyone after 1966 consciously followed a Cloward-Piven blueprint is less certain. Rightist researchers might want to trace a history of citations in progressive or radical publications if they want to prove the long life and influence of "The Weight of the Poor," but I suppose they assume that conspirators wouldn't be so blatant about where they got their marching orders.

The "Cloward-Piven" conspiracy theory has understandable appeal for reactionaries because "The Weight of the Poor" is written in a way guaranteed to scare them. The authors knew what they wanted and felt no shame about wanting it. I suspect, however, that it'd spook most modern-day Democrats. I can imagine an experiment along the lines of those conducted by tricksters who submit unattributed texts of the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights to politicians who end up rejecting them as extremist proposals. In this case, I'd bet that if you sent your Democratic Representative or Senator an anonymous copy of "The Weight of the Poor," he or she would trash it at once as an outburst from the loony left. What that says about Cloward, Piven or today's Democrats I leave for you to determine.

02 April 2010

Idiot of the (Holy) Week

These days, when people catch flak for saying that criticism of a Jewish state is anti-semitism, you can imagine the response when anyone suggests that criticism of something else is like anti-semitism. Nevertheless, a Vatican preacher pressed on bravely during a Good Friday service, basically equating a Pope criticized for his alleged role in covering-up for alleged pedophile priests with the victims of a pogrom. The "collective violence" waged against the Vatican, and by implication against the Catholic Church as a whole, Rev. Cantalamessa said, reminded him of "the most shameful aspects of anti-semitism."

Cantalamessa and I may not agree on what was the most shameful aspect of anti-semitism, but until he contradicts me I have to assume that he was comparing the perceived persecution of the Pope and the Vatican hierarchy not just with pogroms, but with the Holocaust itself. He pre-emptively excused himself by saying that a Jewish correspondent first made the suggestion to him. This same person, Cantalamessa said, reported his indignation at the "violent and concentric attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world."

From this account you might expect to learn, on Good Friday of all days, that mobs across the planet are besieging cathedrals and stoning Catholic school students. They aren't? Then that's why Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa is a late entrant in our Idiot of the Week competition. Vatican spokesmen are distancing themselves from Cantalamessa, stressing that he did not speak as a representative of the Holy See. That should help make it obvious to even the most obtuse, including Cantalamessa himself, that this comment is no concentric attack against his church, but a boot to his own thick head.

Ultimatum to the Governors

According to noon news reports, at least thirty state governors, Republican and Democratic alike, have received letters from an organization known as the Guardians of the Free Republics, demanding that they resign within three days. Investigators say that they're unaware of any explicit threat of violence linked to these letters, which they now expect all fifty governors to receive, but common sense says that there has to be an implicit "or else" in such communications.

Google "Guardians of the Free Republics" and you get two possible destinations. One is pretty dodgy looking, demanding that you click an "accept" button before you see any content. The other looks like the real deal, or at least it's the one reporters have looked at before describing the group as advocates of a "Restore America" plan. The home page affirms that the "Guardians" are dedicated to "behind-the-scenes peaceful reconstruction of the de jure institutions of government without controversy, violence or civil war." On the other hand, the Restore America Plan was supposedly drafted "[a]fter consultation with high ranking members of the United States armed forces." Are these consultants expected to assist in implementing the plan?

What is the plan? It seems to consist of dismantling the federal government (aka "the territorial jurisdiction United States Federal Corporation (corp. ref. 28 U.S.C. 3002) posing as the de jure United States of America."), and reducing the nation to a state of common-law anarchy without licensing, registration or other "intrusive" regulations. We seem to be looking at paleo-conservatives here as opposed to neos or unmodified conservatives. You can tell the difference when the Guardians wish to "Restore the People’s money and wealth from the banking institutions, war profiteers, and international loan sharks." The key phrase there is "war profiteers," a category most other American conservative types don't recognize. Likewise, one of the Guardians' motivations is to prevent "World War III" from breaking out, a conflict they must expect us to start unless they intervene in time.

While many conservatives claim to want to return to the Constitution in its original form, the Guardians appear to find even that too confining. Their Plan will "Issue orders to the military and police powers to enforce the Peoples’ divine rights of birth," rather than their constitutional rights. A similarly spiritual note emerges when they demand an end to "all taxes on the sacred rights of labor and privacy."

The Guardians' statement of their "rationale" gets more spiritual yet. Here's a sample:

[W]e constructed “The unanimous Declaration of the sovereign People of the united States of America to restore and reinhabit the free American Republics” to be a shining covenant with the Creator. His charging the People with dominion over all the earth in the Book of Genesis is declared in the very first paragraph as the foundation for the restoration. In so doing, the Declaration is established in history as a genuine covenant with the Creator in honor of the Law.

Some of this rhetoric jibes with what I've seen at the few Tea Party-like events I've visited, particularly the Guardians' emphasis on grand juries as the ultimate sovereign entities. Also familiar is the opinion that the Constitution began to get out of control around 1860, which means they have issues with the post-Civil War amendments -- with they way they were ratified, they'd probably claim, rather than with their content. What seems to distinguish the Guardians is their aspiration to be an invisible power, a kind of counter-illuminati dedicated to Restoring the ancient republic "quietly, efficiently and quickly without provoking controversy, ridicule, violence or civil war....in a manner designed to get results, not glory." In their best case scenario, they'd dismantle the bad state gradually, without people noticing, and without telling anyone about it. They claim that their strategy mirrors the manner in which the bad statists gradually imposed tyranny on America without twirling their moustaches and cackling maniacally, so to speak. Of course, the quiet part has been blown out of the water by the publicization of their letters to the governors, and if they thought that these communications would be conducted away from public scrutiny, the tactical soundness of their "war college restoration strategy" isn't really that sound. However, they did anticipate such exposure.

And in the event the process should ever fall under public scrutiny, the unanimous Declaration was written to be a shining beacon of reason, history and forgiveness. It even looks like, sounds like, and cites the original Declaration of Independence as its authority so that condemnation of the Restoration is also condemnation of the original Revolution. The Restore America Plan is protected by the very Declaration of Independence upon which it was modeled.

As for the "Unanimous Declaration of the Sovereign People of the United States," here it is. For the moment, so long as the Guardians haven't threatened violence, they may be treated as no more than well-organized cranks. But their insinuation that a usurpation of power will take place behind the scenes, and most likely in military ranks first, should focus federal attention on anything peculiar that might happen in the next few weeks. The Guardians have already missed their original March 31 deadline for takeover, but the letters, perhaps late in arriving, still announce an intent to commit a coup d'etat, no matter how bloodless they hope it will be. If there is a conspiracy involving "high ranking" military people, it needs to be tracked down. If it's all an elaborate and slightly mistimed April Fool's hoax, then the laugh's on me and everyone else in the news media. But it looks otherwise, and in the end, the joke's more likely to be on the Guardians.

01 April 2010

Idiot of the Week: Scott Roeder

This murderer was sentenced to a long stay in stir today. He was unrepentant, threatening the state and nation with the wrath of God, promising that every drop of fetal blood shed in abortions would be avenged. He considered himself justified because abortions were formerly illegal in his state. He complained that his trial was unfair because he could not submit abortion atrocity photos as evidence for his defense. He defied jurors by invoking a higher law of God according to which he ought to have been acquitted. He justified the murder of a fellow citizen as necessary for the defense of unborn babies whose mothers currently have a right to abort them. In sum, he refuses to recognize the laws of the United States when they don't conform with his understanding of the laws of God. And like many a Christian he forgets how Jesus rebuked Peter for raising a sword in Jesus's own defense. Given his incomplete understanding of his own faith, he's left with his own moral sense entitling him to kill. His friends see him as a moral patriot and a living martyr. I think my label is more accurate.