27 May 2010

Moderate Independence: the spirit of compromise

The existence of anti-incumbent sentiment nationwide is undeniable this year, as is the existence of anti-statist or anti-"big government" sentiment. That's where the Tea Parties come from. There's also an anti-Wall Street and anti-corporate sentiment that has boosted primary challenges from the left of Democratic incumbents in some places. Ideology is rampant, but some hopeful analysts point at what might be described as anti-ideological or even anti-partisan sentiment. As this op-ed in the New York Daily News points out, more Americans in at least one poll prefer a theoretical candidate willing to negotiate and compromise with people who disagree with him over one who is unwilling to compromise. It may not be surprising to learn that Republican respondents were the ones least likely to support a compromiser. They're also the ones least likely to support an incumbent, but that's most likely explained by the fact that theirs is the minority party in Congress. On the other hand, Democrats are the least likely to support a candidate who has never held elected office before, so there are plenty of obnoxious traits to go around. For more on the survey itself, look here.

The author of the op-ed, Douglas E. Schoen, has written a book that predicts "the Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System." He seems to identify independence particularly with a readiness to compromise, implicitly deeming moderates or non-partisans more independent than Tea Partiers or MoveOn.org types. By his standards, a veteran partisan like Charlie Crist in Florida can re-emerge and flourish as a newly-minted "independent" after being purged (or purging himself) from a party infiltrated by ideological zealots. Schoen notes that Crist is currently leading polls for the U.S. Senate race after trailing while he remained a troubled Republican candidate. Because Crist would not kowtow to the Tea Partiers, an insurgent element within his old party, he now becomes an independent in Floridians' eyes, and Schoen encourages us to see him as such. Schoen describes Crist jumping ship as his having "eschewed the partisanship he once championed." But how has Crist changed? If the Republican party in Florida has changed, then the GOP itself no longer embodies "the partisanship he once championed." If it has changed, and he hasn't, how has he become independent? By saying so, apparently.

Anyone running against a Tea Party, I suppose, will look "less divisive" to the typical voter, but is "less divisive" the sole criterion of independence? A readiness to negotiate and compromise is often an admirable trait, but praise for compromise begs the question: who's at the table negotiating? Praising the likes of Charlie Crist (or even less plausibly, Andrew Cuomo) as true independents misses the point that we need new people at the table.

Speaking of Cuomo, Schoen actually takes the Independence Party seriously. He has some statistical reason to do so. Mike Bloomberg has had the Independence Party line in all three of his NYC mayoral election campaigns, along with other lines. Schoen points out that more Bloomberg supporters have voted for him on the Independence line with every election. Whether this actually influences Bloomberg's policies (his true affiliation is "plutocrat") isn't of concern to Schoen. He thinks that the Independence endorsement could put Cuomo over the top this year, winning him support from people unwilling to vote the Democratic line. Never mind that Cuomo remains, as far as anyone can tell, a 100% Democrat. His victory, with a proper portion of Independence votes, could herald a "renaissance" of the political center if voters reject "the current toxic fever of partisanship."

I certainly hope Schoen's book is better argued than his column.

26 May 2010

The Religious Right is After Me!

The news came in an envelope from Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "The Religious Right wants to change the way you live in Troy." While I only work in Troy, this was still cause for concern. Inside, however, Barry W. Lynn, the AUSCS Executive Director, had no concrete evidence of a fundamentalist power grab in the Collar City, apart from the assertion that "the Religious Right is now targeting your neighborhood, and every town and city in America." Lynn charges that the RR is "joining local school boards and local communities...winning local elections...and creating local precedents with NATIONWIDE consequences." On the basis of generalization, then, Lynn saw the need to warn me...and ask me for money.

To clarify: according to Lynn, the specific threat comes from an entity that has "hijacked Christianity and claims to speak for all people of faith," but is really interested in "forc[ing] their ultraconservative agenda on you and your community." This agenda, also known as its "ideology-based social agenda," boils down to interpreting the Christian message differently from Barry Lynn. His interpretation is probably the more palatable one, but whether it is more true is either beyond my power to determine or completely irrelevant. Fortunately, Lynn's main concern is to defend the Jeffersonian "wall of separation" against the Religous Right assault. Those people want to "force you to live a 'moral' life," Lynn scarequotes, "Based on their morals!" Of course, any democratic election is on some level an attempt to force others to live according to a particular moral code, but let's grant the premise that the moral code of the Religious Right is undesirable for adoption by the entire nation. What will Americans United do about it if the RR wins elections or otherwise acquires power to impose their morals. Like Chico Marx in Go West, Lynn's answer is: sue 'em!

My hoped-for donation to Americans United will help subsidize a "Rapid Response team" of "the best church-state lawyers in the nation" to practice "pre-litigation advocacy" and litigate aggressively against prison ministries, intelligent-design instruction in classrooms, and so on. My money would also pay for a Communications Department dedicated to getting Barry Lynn and his lieutenants on TV and radio. His mailing includes a "Media Log" of their appearances over a recent six-month period; it looks a little like boasting to me. Also in need of funds is his Field Department, which "organizes citizens and activists across the country" who are apparently incapable of organizing themselves. Finally, a donation will also bring me twelve monthly issues of Church & State, the Americans United journal. That's actually appealing, but $25 for a 24-page magazine seems a little pricey these days. But wouldn't I be supporting a sympathetic lobby in the bargain? Perhaps, but something's not quite right when the lobby tells me I need to call on them to fight my theoretical local battle with the Religious Right. Some people might feel fortified by the notion that a prominent national lobby led by a man they may have seen on television would be backing them up, but I still hold out the hope that local freethinkers are capable of organizing resistance on their own without help from Separation Central. Would they really be freethinkers otherwise?

Liberalism and Lesser-Evilism

Critics of the American Bipolarchy have long recognized that it sustains itself to a large extent through the principle of the lesser evil. When there are only two "real" choices in most voters' minds, one is automatically the worst, to be prevented at all costs, no matter how inadequate the only "real" alternative is. Most people perceive only two choices even when there are more, but lesser-evilism discourages consideration of alternatives, especially when ideology insists that there are only ever two choices, one being the worst-case scenario, no matter how many choices actually appear on a ballot.

Slavoj Zizek doesn't directly address the limits of the U.S. two-party system in his latest book, Living in the End Times. But the Slovenian scholar does recognize a "deadlock" in American politics, and he argues that it results from contradictions inherent to classical liberalism, the tradition from which both modern "liberalism" and American entrepreneurial conservatism derive.

Today, the meaning of 'liberalism' moves between two opposed poles; economic liberalism (free market individualism, opposition to strong state regulation, etc.) and political liberalism (with an accent on equality, social solidarity, permissiveness, etc.) In the U.S., Republicans are more liberal in the first sense and Democrats in the second. The point, of course, is that while one cannot decide through closer analysis which is the 'true' liberalism, one also cannot resolve the deadlock by proposing a kind of 'higher' dialectical synthesis, or 'avoid the confusion' by making a clear distinction between the two senses of the term. The tension between the two meanings is inherent in the very content that 'liberalism' endeavors to designate, it is constitutive of the notion itself, so that this ambiguity, far from signaling a limitation of our knowledge, signals the innermost 'truth' of the notion of liberalism.

For Zizek, disagreements within the liberal tradition, positions that appear to be diametrically opposed to one another, reveal the contradictions within the core liberal ideology. In an aside, he identifies Ayn Rand as the exceptional unconflicted liberal of the 20th century because she "advocated both market liberalism and a full individualist egotism deprived of all traditional forms of morality concerning family values and sacrifice for the common good." More provocatively, he goes on to assert that lesser-evilism is inherent to liberalism.

An anti-ideological and anti-utopian stance is inscribed into the very core of the liberal vision: liberalism conceives itself as a 'politics of the lesser evil,' its ambition is to bring about the 'least worst society possible,' thus preventing a greater evil, since it considers any attempt to directly impose a positive good as the ultimate source of all evil. Churchill's quip about democracy being the worst of all political systems, with the exception of all the others, holds even better for liberalism. Such a view is sustained by a profound pessimism about human nature: man is a selfish and envious animal, and if one attempts to build a political system appealing to his goodness and altruism, the result will be the worst kind of terror.

Zizek's own alternative, as a Marxist and a kind of neo-Leninist, is to take the risk of "enforcing the Impossible onto reality" in the hope of at least "chang[ing] the coordinates of what appears as 'possible' and giv[ing] birth to something genuinely new." If that sounds like it might end in tyranny and terror, he argues that liberalism itself has an almost unconscious tyrannical tendency. He describes something others have noticed, the paradox that compels those most vocally opposed to state power to claim the maximum state power in order to keep others from abusing it.

However, the liberal critique of the 'tyranny of the Good' comes at a price: the more its program permeates society, the more it turns into its opposite. The claim to want nothing but the lesser evil, once asserted as the principle of the new global order, gradually replicates the very features of the enemy it claims to be fighting against. The global liberal order clearly presents itself as the best of all possible worlds; its modest rejection of utopia ends with the imposition of its own market-liberal utopia which will supposedly become reality when we subject ourselves fully to the mechanisms of the market and universal human rights. Behind this lurks the ultimate totalitarian nightmare, the vision of a New Man [or Nietzschean "last man"] who has left behind all the old ideological baggage.

Today's "postmodern" liberalism (or "liberal multiculturalism") is driven by historicism and the "hermeneutics of suspicion" to distrust all appeals to universal values. The postmodern liberal, Zizek suspects, believes that "the call to sacrifice our life for a higher cause is either a mask for manipulation by those who need war to sustain their power and wealth, or a pathological expression of masochism [or both]." This is the liberalism of "this atomized society, in which we have contact with others without entering into proper relations with them." If liberals of the "left" and "right" alike reject or recoil from positive (or "progressive") appeals to change their lives and their relations, or to adopt new values, and automatically distrust such appeals as self-interested power grabs, then liberal politics is inherently if not inevitably reactionary in nature, and lesser-evilism would be its natural expression.

Zizek quickly moves on to other subjects in his typical rambling, digressive fashion; this section on liberalism appears in the middle of a chapter that begins and ends with a consideration of the French ban on Muslim veils. He's also after bigger game than the American Bipolarchy, but for those of us for whom that's target number one, Living in the End Times may have more insights on our situation and the challenges it presents. If so, I'll let you know.

25 May 2010


The Independence Party holds Line C on New York State election ballots. That means it's the third-largest party in the state, bigger than the vaunted Conservatives or the better-known Working Families Party. Lines are determined by electoral performance, and it often seems as if Independence is concerned more with maintaining the line than with establishing a coherent identity. New York allows cross-endorsement of candidates, encouraging minor parties to nominate major-party candidates. Since all votes for a candidate count toward his total, regardless of which party line you vote for him on, "independent" parties encourage supporters to vote for Bipolarchy candidates on their lines in order to secure or strengthen the parties' positions on the ballot. It is hoped that elected officials will recognize the proportion of their support that comes from independent parties and adjust their policies accordingly. Since New York remains a classic case of Bipolarchy gridlock, you may judge the success of these tactics for yourselves. Nevertheless, the Independence Party perseveres. While genuinely independent personalities like the billionaire Tom Golisano have headed the Independence ticket in the past, this year the party leadership will endorse Andrew Cuomo, the current attorney general and presumptive Democratic nominee for governor. The Independence chairman in particular is practically servile in his adulation of Cuomo, declaring himself ready to hold the man's coat during the race.

If truth-in-advertising laws applied to party labels, the Independence Party's expected endorsement of Cuomo, which would have to be ratified at a party convention, would oblige it to change its name. What they'd call themselves I don't know. I have no idea because I have no idea of what they stand for apart from perpetuating their place on the ballot. If that's what it takes to hold a place on the ballot in New York, that's just another argument for radical reform of the ballot itself, not just the rules for access to it. For now, anyone looking for an independent candidate for governor on Row C will have to look elsewhere.

24 May 2010

A Libertarian Begs

"I promise not to insult your intelligence with a lot of capital letters and exclamation points," Edward H. Crane writes to me, "The issues we're confronting are far too serious for that." Instead, Crane will try to smother me with verbiage. His is the longest begging letter I've ever received, but despite his disclaimer it's no less hysterical than any communique from the anti-statist camp.

Crane is the founder of the Cato Institute, the best known libertarian think tank. He's alarmed by the "unconstitutional innovations" of the Obama administration, from the appointment of "czars" to "Obamacare." On the subject of healthcare Crane is as hysterical as any radio Republican. "Government-controlled medicine...inevitably brings bureaucratic rationing," he writes, "as a result, treatable conditions like prostate and breast cancer are often death sentences in Europe." Crane may think a begging letter doesn't require footnotes, but that's the sort of claim he should prove when he makes it.

Anticipating a turn of the tide against the Democrats, Crane claims that "I have never seen our side more energized and clear-eyed in its commitment to reclaim our liberties and our government from the statists and redistributionists who infest our nation's capital." He takes the Tea Parties as proof that "Americans haven't abandoned the values that inspired the American Experiment: skepticism toward power and respect for the dignity of the individual." Instead, they've "demonstrated a growing resistance to regimentation that frustrates latter-day planners and 'progressives.'"

But what side is this, exactly? Crane calls it "an energized freedom movement," but you have to reach Page 8 of this ten-page missive before he makes a real effort to differentiate this movement from the Republican Party. Once there, you'd see Crane condemn the last Bush administration for "spending faster than Lyndon Johnson" and "expanding executive power at a rate that would make Richard Nixon dizzy." He also reminds readers of Cato's genuinely admirable opposition to the invasion of Iraq and Bush's infringements on civil liberties, though Crane also finds it objectionable that Bush signed the McCain-Feingold bill. Both major parties, he complains, have shown "a general decline in respect for the Constitution." He would have been better off putting this section closer to the front of his letter. While I take him at his word when he writes that his concerns transcend "the Red Team/Blue Team fights that so preoccupy Washington," his emphasis on the menace of Democratic rule inevitably ends up reading like Republican propaganda. Admittedly, Crane isn't fundraising for the Libertarian Party, but for his own Institute. His object isn't to build an independent political party, but to influence whoever gets elected. But this agenda is unlikely to galvanize those Americans who are "so disgusted with both political parties that they're ready to throw in the towel."

Crane asks these skeptics to see Cato as a surrogate lobby for them. "Today most Americans simply don't have the time or resources to deal directly with the constant encroachments on our liberties that take place in Washington, D.C.," he explains, "The Cato Institute exists to provide that vigilance: to warn of new threats to our liberties and to propose means of winning back liberties we have lost." Ordinary Americans should donate to think tanks like Cato because they are "a market response to the intellectual conformity and stagnation in most American universities." Donors will help pay for "a powerful platform for getting our message out to those who want to hear -- and those who don't." But while Cato is certainly not compelling anyone to fund them, I can't help but ask why they can't make this venture in defense of free-market culture a profitable proposition. Maybe a "public policy organization" doesn't have the same kind of profit imperative as other entrepreneurial ventures, since it competes in the "marketplace of ideas" rather than the shopping mall. But I'd think these idolaters of entrepreneurship would be too proud to beg. I would be mistaken, obviously.

At least you get something for your trouble, even if you don't donate. Cato encloses a neat little booklet with their begging letters containing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and if you donate $100 or more they'll send you three more copies to hand out to friends. The booklet includes a nonpartisan but subtly ideological introductory essay by Roger Pilon, who suggests a natural-law interpretation of the Constitution in the context of the Declaration. You can take or leave that, but the founding documents are always nice to have on hand for impromptu political debates. Just bear in mind that, despite whatever Cato implies, they are not the last word on our future.

Terror, Democracy and Personal Responsibility

Al-Qaeda has been saying the same thing for a decade now, but the American news media responded this weekend as if the terrorists' American-born propagandist had said something new in justifying the killing of U.S. civilians. Mr. al-Awlaki, like his emir bin Laden, rejects the idea that American civilians are innocent. They endorse wars against Muslims by voting for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he notes, and they finance those wars by paying taxes.

I'd be surprised to find anyone in the U.S. who doesn't at least feel an impulse to refute this argument, even if reason compels them to suppress the impulse. Let's separate two propositions: the subjective charge that Americans deserve death for causing the deaths of Muslims and the argument that civilians, i.e. citizens, are responsible for the acts of their government. The first is a political argument and little more than an appeal to revenge. The second gets to the heart of what Americans mean by democratic government. As any inegalitarian thinker will remind you, the U.S. government is a republic, not a democracy. Policy is made by elected representatives who have to answer for their decisions during regular elections. Because the right to vote is now restricted only by age and not by any other demographic considerations, we are a democratic republic in fact as well as claim. But our government remains essentially republican because we grant our elected representatives the right to legislate according to their own consciences instead of by instruction from their constituents. Where does responsibility lay? A republican system of government may encourage citizens to assign all responsibility to their representatives. Voters might say that they are responsible for putting a person in a responsible position, but not for the decisions their representative makes. Someone with a sense of history might argue that once Congress rejected the idea that it could be instructed by its constituents, the constituents were no longer directly responsible for his decisions. That representative remains accountable to constituents for those decisions, but not in any way that requires them to share responsibility for them. Even if they re-elect their representative, they might claim to be endorsing the person or the general principles he or she stands for (i.e. a party platform or movement ideology), but not his entire voting record. A delegation of responsibility, it might be argued further, is inherent in representative government. As a result, Americans are inclined to look at their government's actions and say "They did it" rather than "We did it."

My question is: Is this a responsible attitude? My follow-up is: Why do I suspect that those Americans who talk the most about responsibility in every other aspect of life are the ones most likely to disclaim personal responsibility for the actions of their democratically-elected representatives? Leaving ideological grudges aside, my final question is: Might this more widespread denial of personal responsibility for government explain much of our present dysfunction? Might it not also explain why we treat elections like job interviews, paying attention to the resume (party affiliation) and personal impressions and expecting the applicant to solve our problems for us or be fired rather than putting our heads together to figure out solutions for ourselves?

al-Qaeda doesn't believe in democracy, but sometimes those who criticize a thing have a better idea of what it is (whatever their opinion of it) then those who praise it while taking it for granted. Whether this is one of those times you can decide for yourselves.

21 May 2010

Rand Paul: Democratic Poster-Child?

Admittedly it was something of an event for Rand Paul to defy his state's GOP establishment yet win the primary to run for U.S. Senator, but I didn't realize that we now had to hang on every word of this new celebrity. Yet for a while this morning the top political news item on the MSNBC website was a report of the candidate's remarks in defense of British Petroleum and against what he took to be the Obama administration's "un-American" prosecutorial tone in dealing with the unfortunate corporation after the Gulf oil spill. "Accidents happen," is Young Dr. Paul's own view of the case, and that's unremarkable (in the sense of "not worth remaking upon") in its own right. But it looked to me as if MSNBC will exploit any opportunity to put Candidate Paul back in the spotlight so that it can again remind the public that he had not endorsed absolutely legislation from half a century ago: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Readers will recall that he has some philosophical objections to private business owners being denied the prerogative to deny service to whomever they choose. MSNBC as a cheerleader for the Democratic party is interested in portraying this as Paul's endorsement of racism, and their motive is obvious: they want their portrayal of Paul to confirm the stereotype of the Tea Partiers, whom he claims to represent, as revanchist racists. Paul himself is a little slow: only today, two days after his torturous interview with Rachel Maddow, did he grit his teeth and say the necessary thing: he would have voted, despite his reservations, in favor of the 1964 law, and he would not vote to repeal it if elected. Ideally this will end the controversy, but I suppose MSNBC will find cause to question Paul's sincerity over the remaining months of the campaign season.

I'm not endorsing Rand Paul for anything, and anyone who reads this blog knows that I don't support the Tea Parties. Leaving even the possibility of racism out of it, I find much of their worldview abhorrent. But I take political campaigns seriously, and I think they should be debated, by the candidates and by their supporters in the media, on the actual issues of the moment. MSNBC represents those Democratic sympathizers who would rather not debate the issues raised by the Tea Parties or refute their errors, but seek to change the subject and scare Americans. That is, they do exactly what they accuse Republicans and their radio auxiliaries of doing. They're practicing the politics of fear.

20 May 2010

Tea Parties vs. Islamists: Let's You and Them Fight!

For the past few weeks I've been checking up occasionally on a controversy brewing down in New York City over the proposal to build a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center. As you might expect, the idea has provoked some hysterical hostility from Islamophobes and idiots in general. As one comment put it, raising a mosque near Ground Zero would mean that "the terrorists" had won. That's rich. Even George W. Bush, no titan of intellect, understood that we'd been attacked not by the religion of Islam, but by a conspiracy of fanatics acting in its name on their own dubious authority. But when people freak out at the notion of a mosque, they admit that, in their own minds, they're at war with the whole religion.

I hadn't commented on this subject, however, because I'd not been feeling very sympathetic toward Muslims lately. Just last week in Europe there was an attempt to mob (lynch?) one of the cartoonists who'd perpetrated those oh-so-offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a newspapers a few years ago, and before that we had Comedy Central caving under pressure from one crackpot website to censor a South Park episode in which Muhammad, so to speak, appeared. News like that makes me want to burn a Qur'an. Muhammad was not a prophet of God because the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad is a myth. Muhammad made up the Qur'an, whether he realized it or not. I should be able to say these things, and illustrate them, in more widely read media than this without fearing for my life. I don't know what it'll take to make that happen. In my darker moods I wonder whether anything but consistent reprisals against Muslims whenever they offend my principles of free speech and free inquiry will drive the message home. But I suspect that the vast majority of Muslims couldn't care less if someone draws a dumb cartoon, and those people shouldn't suffer for their co-religionists' crimes. So I restrain myself most of the time when my thoughts turn bloodthirsty; it's just too bad that more Muslims can't do the same.

Now, however, a surrogate has emerged who can fight the battle of free speech for me risk-free. That is, I don't give a damn if Mark Williams lives or dies for his principles. He's a radio talker and chairman of the touring Tea Party Express who opined on the mosque subject on his blog recently. This sensitive soul described the mosque as a monument to the 2001 hijackers and a shrine for the worship of a "monkey god." He then had the gall, when Muslims for once rightly chided someone for insulting their faith, to deny that he was insulting Islam in general. Only the terrorists worship a "monkey god," he now clarifies, though there's no evidence that the groups who plan to build the mosque practice or endorse terrorism. Williams has since issued an apology on his website -- to Hindus, on the ground that calling Allah a "monkey god" is an insult to devotees of the perfectly respectable monkey god Hanuman.

In Williams, Islamic idiots and haters may have met their match, at least in idiocy. And the Tea Parties are one group of people, one would think, who won't feel constrained by political or ecumenical correctness from insulting Islam in the ripest language. All we need is for the inevitable mujahid wannabe to threaten Williams's life and the battle will be joined. What a spectacle it would be! My imagination can't do it justice. I know I shouldn't wish for it, but sometimes you can't help dreaming.

What's Fair for Right and Left?

The newest issue of The Nation includes an almost counter-intuitive opinion piece by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who warns readers against believing that life is fair. Apart from whether it is or not, the author thinks that thinking so might turn you into a conservative.

That's the counter-intuitive part for me, because the conservative with whom I'm most familiar, Mr. Right, is fond of saying that life isn't fair. But Harris-Lacewell appears to want liberals, progressives, etc. to acknowledge the same thing in order not to adopt Mr. Right's conservative attitude. We'd better check whether these two people mean the same thing when they talk about fairness.

"There is some evidence that believing in the fundamental fairness of the world can lead to surprisingly conservative reactions in moments of disaster and suffering," Harris-Lacewell writes, "When faced with the circumstances that reveal human vulnerability, people have two choices: they can determine that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victims must somehow be responsible for their suffering."

Are there really only two choices? Harris-Lacewell cites "decades of psychological research" to demonstrate that "those most attached to the belief that the world is fair are those most likely to reconcile their distress about unearned suffering by blaming the victims." One study appears to show that observers grow more contemptuous the more observed subjects suffer under certain circumstances. Shown a group of people learning a task, and seeing some people shocked for making mistakes while others making the same mistakes were merely admonished, the observers "expressed much lower opinions" of the shock victims.

"When the idea of justice and fairness is threatened by the suffering of innocent victims, people will work hard to maintain a sense of balance even if that means rationalizing that innocent people deserved to suffer," the columnist explains, "The belief in a just world can act as a psychological distortion encouraging support of political agendas focused on individual effort rather than structural change."

What Harris-Lacewell means by "fairness" should be more apparent by now. In her chosen context, it means an ordered universe that operates predictably to reward good behavior, at least, and probably also to punish wrong behavior. This sense of fairness is founded on the Panglossian presumption that this is the best of all possible worlds, or for simpler minds on the sovereignty of an omniscient and just God. She worries that Barack Obama misguidedly promoted this idea of fairness when he said during his presidential campaign (in her paraphrase) that "the world was basically a fair and just place." But whatever he actually said would most likely not translate into, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," which is what Harris-Lacewell implies. In any event, the complacency based on belief in fairness that troubles her looks more like the monotheist faith in an omnipotent, lawful deity than it resembles the fairness liberals and progressives usually talk about.

I presume that Mr. Right believes in an omnipotent, lawful deity, though he occasionally observes that this potentate's motives are mysterious to man. For him, however, it doesn't follow from his faith that the world is "fair." He may believe the opposite, to the extent that he believes that this world is "fallen" and incapable of fairness without God's grace. When he says that "life's not fair," he offers that as a riposte to someone who wants the world to become more fair. What he means is that we fallible human beings can't make the world as fair as some of us want it to be. This limitation is a matter of scale, since he is often insistent on the need for Major League Baseball to make its rules more fair so that the richest teams don't sign all the best players. A game can be made fair, he might say, while life is intractable.

The difference between Mr. Right and Melissa Harris-Lacewell is that she thinks that an unfair world can be made more fair through political action. "The point is not to assert that the world is just," she writes, "but to help make it so." Notice the change of word at the last moment, though. Justice and fairness may not be synonyms for everybody. I can imagine Mr. Right asserting that the world is not fair (i.e. it doesn't give us what we want) but is just (i.e. there is a cosmic order just the same). That may explain why he seems to regard so many efforts to make society (as opposed to sports) more fair as fundamentally unfair or unjust. The idea of fairness that he denounces, and that Harris-Lacewell prefers, is one defined by people according to their own desires and intellects, not by divine or "natural" law. By the end of her article I agreed with her actual belief that fairness is made, not given, but I was left wondering whether any liberal or progressive person actually holds the faith in fairness she spends most of the piece criticizing. "Fairness" is a word everyone needs to use carefully, whether they think that's fair or not.

19 May 2010

Rand Paul vs. Rachel Maddow

It's been a while since I watched MSNBC for more than a couple of minutes at a time. I got tired of the obvious partisan bias, as bad in its disregard for objectivity as that of FOX News, some time ago. But on a channel surf this evening I learned that Rachel Maddow was going to have Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for Senator from Kentucky and new idol of the Tea Parties, as the lead guest on her program. The approximately 20-minute segment was riveting and infuriating because Maddow had no questions whatsoever about the Republican party, the Tea Party, the Paul family, or the issues of the 2010 campaign season. Instead, she spent the entire segment arguing with Young Dr. Paul about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Democrats had probably decided some time before yesterday's primary that they were going to tag Paul as a racist or soft on racism. Their case is based on Paul's reservation about one provision in the 1964 legislation, the one any libertarian would object to. While he approves of measures ending "institutional" (i.e. public or state) discrimination, he can't endorse the idea of banning private business owners from practising discrimination. He stressed repeatedly tonight that he deplores discrimination, but as far as he's concerned a government ban on discrimination amounts to government ownership of businesses. There is no freedom, he wants to say, unless we allow some freedom for "abhorrent" ideas and abhorrent practices. He also tried out an analogy that left Maddow unimpressed: if we grant the government the power to force private businesses to serve everyone, it'd have the same power to force restaurants, for instance, to admit customers with guns regardless of the owners' safety concerns.

In other words, Paul doesn't buy the idea that a business owner, as the proprietor of a "public accommodation," has a public obligation to serve whoever walks in, or at least an obligation not to refuse service automatically to certain people. He thinks that, however foolish or abhorrent the policy may be, a shopkeeper has as much right not to serve a black man as he does not to serve someone who walks in barefoot or shirtless. I think Paul's sincere in disapproving of racial discrimination on principle, but he thinks that society would suffer some harm from banning the practice that outweighs whatever benefit would result, and on that point I disagree. Society benefits not at all from perpetuating the idea that any demographic group is inferior to others or unfit to do business with, and I think a government can do more to purge that poison from national consciousness without sending us down some slippery slope to Stalinist collectivism. This is one issue where the interests of the consumer should come first.

I'd join Paul, however, in wondering what this "abstract" issue has to do with the 2010 Senatorial campaign. Maddow, however, doesn't see this as an abstract discussion. She sees a clear and present danger of a re-establishment of segregation, though she didn't make clear exactly how a Sen. Paul might make this happen. I think she's sincere in her anxiety, but I also think that her sincerity fits in conveniently with a Democratic game plan to equate the Tea Parties, if not all opposition to President Obama's right, with bigotry. Readers may agree or disagree with that equation, but they should ask what it has to do with the economy or foreign policy. Just calling the opposition racist (even when it's true) evades the real debates that we need to have on the future of the country. So while it was interesting to see a Republican and liberal argue civilly on a news network, it ended up wasting our time.

Strange Days Indeed

Francis Wheen identifies the 1970s as "the Golden Age of Paranoia." Strange Days Indeed is his selective history of that fascinating decade, global in scope but with an emphasis on Wheen's native Britain. There the context of paranoia was a feared social breakdown that makes today's anxieties look unwarranted. A one-two punch of the Arab oil embargo and a relentlessly militant coal-miners' union reduced the UK to three-day work weeks and scheduled power outages by 1974. It was beyond the power of Prime Ministers to control, and an illuminating aspect of Wheen's book is its demonstration that British leaders had gone nearly as mad as their American [Nixon] and Communist counterparts. The Labour premier Harold Wilson succumbed to paranoia that was at least partly justified by a right-wing conspiracy, paranoid in its own right, determined to prove that he was a KGB agent. But whether Labour or the Tories ruled, 10 Downing Street seemed to be a perpetual madhouse during the Seventies.

It actually seems that the paranoid tide began to recede before the decade ended, at least in political circles. Ford and Carter were improvements on Nixon, while in China anything was better than Mao, and in Britain James Callaghan was apparently of sounder mind than his predecessor. But by 1976, the year of Wilson's resignation and Mao's death, paranoia had permeated much of western culture, fueled in America by regular revelations about FBI and CIA skullduggery and exacerbated by conspiracy-mongering on the subject of JFK's assassination. At the same time, Sixties experiments in altered consciousness reaped their consequences in new waves of credulity regarding UFOs, "ancient astronauts," and the powers of Uri Geller. Paranoia seems linked to an oppressed consciousness of power influencing our lives, despite a greater awareness of disorder in society and the world. Or it may be based on the belief that some Will must lay behind tumultuous events that disrupt our lives and traditions.

Wheen identifies a surprising key text for understanding the Seventies: Frederick Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War. He describes this story as a thinly-disguised account (with a revised ending) of a real conspiracy to overthrow an African government, in which Forsyth himself may have taken part. Some of the novel's characters were real people, and in reality those mercenaries used the novel as a blueprint for later, successful coups d'etat in other countries. Forsyth's fiction includes a bit of political science: the nations most vulnerable to toppling by mercs are those with weak governments with power concentrated in a tyrant. The novelist meant nations that could be revolutionized by a simple decapitation strike, but if we broaden the survey we might see why rulers in objectively stronger nations that still suffer from crumbling infrastructures, social breakdowns, cultural demoralization, etc., might also feel vulnerable to overthrow by conspiracies of all kinds. Surveying the world, Wheen finds leaders everywhere who feel most certain of their own control when oppressing those closest to them while causing little but chaos outside of government precincts.

I sometimes look back on the Seventies as a golden age of pop culture, but Wheen reminds me that it was often a desperate time in the real world. It should remind every reader that we have a long way to go now before we reach the worst of the Seventies, when left-wingers were planting bombs all over America and reactionary hard-hats were beating up antiwar demonstrators. I have to ask, however, whether the next decade will surpass the Seventies on the paranoia meter. Hostility toward political power and power of all kinds seems to be rising again, and by embedding ourselves more completely in 24/7 social networks we're probably more likely to grow more paranoid towards each other or ordinary people in general. Paranoia as a social phenomenon may be a reaction to an overwhelming awareness of everything out there and how little control we as individuals or in our traditional groupings can exert over it all. While it may get worse during hard times like we had in the Seventies and may see soon, the rapid evolution of social technology since Wheen's Strange Days may make our collective reaction even worse even if the times aren't as bad as they were forty years ago. But that may just be me being paranoid....

Texas: A Homeschooler tells us what to learn

While I'd thought the adoption of right-wing textbook guidelines in Texas was a fait accompli, the vote on it actually happens this week. The vote may have national significance, depending on how one measures the influence of Texas as the second largest textbook-purchasing state on the publishing industry. Opponents of the new guidelines warn that publishers' need to accommodate Texas may force students in other states to learn similar lessons. With that possibility in mind, here's an interview a British newspaper conducted with an advocate of the rightist guidelines, a woman who'd homeschooled her own children rather than subject them to the hellfire of allegedly liberal-biased public schools. In simplest terms, she advocates theocracy plus laissez-faire capitalism, which for her kind has the force of theocracy itself. Apart from the possible consequences for the textbook industry and students elsewhere, I'd bring this issue up only to mock it, since it's mainly Texans' problem. But on some level Ms. Dunbar is correct that public schools have an obligation to inculcate patriotism. The question is: what kind of patriotism? Another is: who gets to define it? The Texas rightists would like to say that God sets the standard so that it can never change. But if patriotism rather than state pride is at issue, it seems like all Americans should have a say on the subject, like I've just had. I'd be surprised if a Texan reads this, but this debate may need to expand beyond Texas if we don't want patriotism to be defined differently by each state in the Union. That doesn't sound very patriotic at all.

Limited Government in China: Amoklauf Updates

Here's a change of pace: the latest attack on a Chinese school was a gang attack, and instead of targeting kindergartners they went into a vocational school with knives. That leaves open whether we should characterize this as a classic amoklauf, since the incident also seems tied to a student-vs-villager feud. Something more like what we've come to expect happened over the weekend, except that the man went mad in a market and attacked adult women instead of kids before jumping to his death.

The Chinese regime may be some people's nightmare (or ideal) of "big government," but this crime wave may have exposed a limit to government's sweep regardless of scale. The government has had a month to crack down by heightening school security, and has done a pretty poor job so far. Cynics might say that the Chinese tyranny doesn't really give a damn for its citizens' safety, but I thought that China was a "totalitarian" state, and that totalitarians by definition give a damn about everything.

Some observers have looked to China as an alternative to the west's risk-crazy globalized economy, claiming that the Chinese have immunized themselves from many of the stresses and strains of laissez-faire finance markets. But we've seen enough of these episodes by now to assume that something is going seriously wrong in Chinese society, whether it has to do with the rest of the world economy or not. It may be that mutilation and murder become the only options left in some people's minds when open opposition to the government is outlawed. But why attack children or students instead of bureaucrats or cadres? I suspect that these crimes are a kind of dissent, but they're not a cry for freedom or anything Americans can root for. These Chinese amoklaufers and similar criminals are self-evidently anti-social if not anti-socialist. The distinction is important and might be made elsewhere, even where violence is currently absent.

18 May 2010

Kentucky: Another Win for Infiltration?

Rand Paul has apparently won the Republican party nomination for U.S. Senator from Kentucky by a wide margin tonight. This was a primary race that divided the state and national party organizations. The junior Senator and Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, endorsed Paul's opponent, while the outgoing incumbent, Jim Bunning, endorsed Paul. Sarah Palin spoke on Paul's behalf, while Dick Cheney spoke against him.

What does this tell us about the relative power of personalities within the Republican camp? Does it prove that Palin has more clout than Cheney? I'd withhold judgment of her influence until the Arizona primary, when we'll see whether she can save John McCain from the same tide that lifted Paul to victory. As for Cheney, I wouldn't dismiss him as quickly as I'd dismiss national security as an issue for the 2010 campaigns. The former veep opposed Paul because the son shares the father's anti-interventionist attitude in foreign policy, but I don't think that factored in the primary. More locally, some see the vote as a rebuke to McConnell and a warning that he might lose his leadership post (be it Minority or Majority) in the next Congress. I'd also question the extent to which tonight's a triumph for Ron Paul's legacy. Just as I think the Paul position on war didn't hurt Rand, I don't think it necessarily helped him. Foreign policy simply won't matter unless terrorists attack successfully again or it can be tied to economics, in which case the big issue won't be Iraq or Afghanistan but Greece and Spain and whether the U.S. should contribute to bailing them out. Rand's win is still a selective endorsement at best for the complete Ron Paul package.

Young Paul calls his triumph a victory for the Tea Parties, but even if many TPs agree with him, they should think twice about one thing. They dislike "career politicians" and expect Rand Paul to eliminate them from American life by voting for term limits. They've rallied to Rand because he's never held or run for office before, but think of the one obvious fact about this person. How much better than the politics of career politicians is dynastic politics or the politics of celebrity and name recognition? On that level, tonight has shown us nothing new.

Conservative Hypocrite: Washington is to Blame

Less than a month after winning a tough primary battle for the right to run again on the Republican line, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana has announced his resignation, confessing to an extramarital affair with a female staffer. Souder is a member of the Class of 1994, the radical Republicans who took Congress from the Democrats on the strength of the "Contract With America" and a small-government agenda. Souder in particular was one of the Religious Right, quoted as saying that there's no room for compromise when it comes to biblical principles. Naturally, he apologizes today to God as well as his family and his constituents, but he seems to stop short of taking that "personal responsibility" for which his kind take pride. In his statement, he blames his failings on the allegedly poisonous environment of Washington D.C., where he could not lead a "normal life" with his family. If there is a poison in the air, it took hold, old Republicans might realize, once Souder, like so many of his cohort, went back on his term-limits pledge of 1994. The affair may not be the only thing he should apologize for, and as far as his constituents are concerned, it might be the least thing.

Souder's constituents should really be infuriated by the fact that he fought for his political survival while presumably still carrying on this affair, wasting an untold amount of money spent by all the primary contestants. His narrow victory in that contest, however, points out a weakness in political "outsiders." Souder's opponents most likely accused him of being a "career politician" or a "Washington insider," and while those may have been fair hits it seems obvious now that "outsiders" were in no position to ferret out the information that has now brought down their antagonist. It makes one wonder. Maybe the insiders knew the score but had Souder hold on until an undesirable candidate, his strongest primary challenger, was out of the picture, on the assumption that it would be easier to exclude him when the time came to fill an expected vacancy. The story as it develops should have Hoosiers of all parties and persuasions wondering about their entire Republican leadership.

They should wonder about this as well: while Souder was, by his own Christian Right standards, a hypocrite, was that really a strong enough reason to disqualify himself from a race in which he had once again earned his place? Given the reported anti-incumbent mood of the nation, adultery is probably among the least of offenses for which constituents might condemn their representatives. Souder may have been overreacting to imminent exposure, but he might have considered whether voters should hold him to a higher standard than they do themselves. Adultery is a commonplace of our time, and I doubt whether the great majority of those who practice it feel that it compromises their integrity in other areas. Why should it be different for politicians? If revelations of adultery infuriate voters, it should be because of the secrecy, not the sin. It's the secrecy that leaves politicians vulnerable to blackmail or anything else that might compromise their integrity. Timely honesty can make a big difference. Back in 1884, when moral standards were presumably far more severe than they are today, Grover Cleveland was accused in a whispering campaign of having fathered an illegitimate child. He admitted it, and was elected President of the United States.

17 May 2010

Lettres de Cachet for 'Sexually Dangerous' Americans?

The Supreme Court has ruled by a 7-2 margin in favor of the federal government in the case of U.S. vs. Comstock, confirming the government's power to order the indefinite confinement of 'sexually dangerous' convicts (i.e. pedophiles) beyond the terms of their sentences. The majority, led by Justice Breyer, finds no trespass on state sovereignty in the policy, and locates Congress's power to mandate the policy in the Constitution's "necessary and proper" clause, the necessity in this case being public safety. The dissenters are the Court's two arch-conservatives, Justices Thomas and Scalia, the former writing the official dissent. Thomas understandably questions Congress's entitlement to define the "sexually dangerous" and dictate their confinement beyond the terms set by due process. In this context, the majority's comment is rather alarming:

In resolving [this] question, we assume, but we do not decide, that other provisions of the Constitution—such as the Due Process Clause—do not prohibit civil commitment in these circumstances.Cf. Hendricks, 521 U. S. 346; Addington v. Texas,441 U. S. 418 (1979). In other words, we assume for argument’s sake that the Federal Constitution would permit a State to enact this statute, and we ask solely whether the Federal Government, exercising its enumerated powers, may enact such a statute as well.

I suppose we should be grateful that Breyer et al didn't "decide," but their assumption is as good as a decision until someone challenges the indefinite-confinement rule on due-process grounds. As the majority insists (and as was argued by the Solicitor General, i.e. Justice-designate Kagan), this case was focused narrowly on whether the rule trespassed on state rights. Its real test will come when its trespass on human rights is challenged.

The majority also argues from the precedent of federal commitment of the mentally ill, and that approach makes me worry about future diagnoses of mental illness in "dangerous" prisoners of other kinds who will have otherwise paid their debts to society. But if society determines that pedophiles are a perpetual danger to the general public the proper remedy should be life without parole for the first offense -- or else the diagnosis of sexually dangerous mental illness should be made at the sentencing, not after. The alternative endorsed by the Court gives the government too much discretion without proportionate due process. It's one case in which the classic cliche of the "slippery slope" seems appropriate. Thomas and Scalia are reactionaries, but sometimes their hypersensitive hostility to progress can serve a canary-in-the-mineshaft function. Just as paranoids may have real enemies, reactionaries my sometimes react to something genuinely dangerous. Maybe someone can reassure me about this case, but it doesn't sound like a good idea at all in the long term.

And what's a lettre de cachet? Look it up here.

16 May 2010

Describe This Man in One Word

He climbed aboard the bus on Friday night in a belligerent mood:

"Look at me," he said, "What's a better country than this one? There ain't one. And you know who built it? My ancestors....I'm worse than a terrorist. I'm the one you fuckin' owe. You owe me....Look at this body. This is a mandingo body. I'm what you want to be."

"Shut up!" a passenger shouted from behind me.

"You shut up! You want to shut me up? I'm a gladiator. I'm a gladiator!"

"You want to talk about a gladiator? How about the U.S. Army?"

"The army? They just do what people tell them. And you know who tells them what to do? Who's your president? That's right. We ain't taking shit no more....I'm a real man. This is a hard body....You're scared of me, that's why you all shut up...."

Later he taunted passengers as they got off the bus. He challenged one woman: "Did you call me a nigger? Did you?...I am a nigger."

Another woman boarded, black this time. He became flirtatious. She became embarrassed. "You're like a star in the sky," he said, "You want to know what you look like, just look outside at night. That's you....You know why you're so beautiful? I make you beautiful...." The woman looked like she wanted to hide under the seat.

I was prepared to run the gauntlet and I even had a response ready -- "I think you're an alcoholic" -- but his heckler from earlier was getting off at the same stop and offered him some more choice words, distracting him as I stepped onto the sidewalk.

The challenge is: describe him in one word. Your choice may say as much about you as it does about him.

15 May 2010

The Tea Party "Menace"

Analyses of the Tea Party movement remind me of the blind men and the elephant -- and not only because you want to scream out the obvious fact that they're Republicans at heart. Each analyst focuses on details of subjective significance, whether to portray the TPs positively or pejoratively. The latest contestant is John B. Judis, writing in The New Republic, which helpfully advertises his piece on the cover as "The Tea Party Menace." Judis identifies three defining ideas that unite TPs: an "obsession with decline" that they blame on "evil forces and individuals"; a "staunch anti-statism" (duh!); and "a tradition of producerism that dates back to Andrew Jackson."

That last one is the most novel element in Judis's analysis. He defines producerism as the idea that "workers should enjoy the fruits of what they produce and not have to share them with [those] who didn't actually create anything." Like the anti-state strain, Judis identifies this as a mentalist that has drifted over time from "left" to "right." Producerism was originally hostile to bankers and speculators, but modern producerists see enemies elsewhere.

While the Jacksonians and Populists had largely directed their anger upward, conservatives directed their ire at the people below who were the beneficiaries of state programs -- from the 'welfare queens' of the ghetto to the 'illegal aliens' of the barrio.

I don't dispute that something has changed, but Judis doesn't really explain how or why it changed. It also may not have changed as completely as he suggests. Populist producerism saw entrenched wealth limiting its opportunities, and to an extent Tea Party producerism does also. Judis mostly underplays the TPs' hostility to Wall Street, though he notes that "These men and women look uneasily upward at corporate CEOs and investment bankers [as well as] downward at low-wage service workers and laborers, many of whom are minorities." He believes that populists in general break left or right based on "whether they primarily blame those below or above for the social and economic anxieties they feel." He believes that TPs belong to the "right" or Republican side because, as he sees it, they blame minorities and poor people for the country's current troubles.

Do the TPs really have to make the choice Judis assumes? It seems that a lot of them blame both Welfare and Wall Street for the current crisis, and the anti-statism that Judis rightly recognizes may not require them to choose between rich and poor in conventional right-vs-left fashion. American politics has superimposed the fundamental left-right conflict between workers and bosses upon an older, pre-Marxian conflict about state power. As historically conscious conservatives recognize, it was not un-conservative in the past for politicians to institute social-welfare policies, as Bismarck did in 19th century Germany, in order to preserve the overall social order. But that was aristocratic conservatism, and the social order it aimed to preserve placed aristocracies above an increasingly resentful bourgeoisie. Opposed to this kind of conservatism was a mentality radical for its time, and arguably still radical today, that sees the state as a distinct class of oppressors with whom the bourgeoisie (or entrepreneurial class) imagines they can do quite well without, a parasitic cohort not above resorting to demagoguery to rally the shiftless rabble to its side. That sounds like the Tea Party mindset. The TPs are not taking the side of the rich against the poor; as producerists, they see themselves as the virtuous middle class and the rightful majority who should rule the country.

The main point of Judis's article, which justifies its billing as a description of a "menace," is his prediction that the Tea Parties will not break up as quickly as other analysts think or hope, unless the economy improves dramatically in the near future. As long as the economy merely limps along, the TPs will flourish on the "conservative producerism [that] has most deeply resonated during economic downturns." Judis also believes that the TPs can become a larger force in politics than their arguable ancestors in the Christian Right because they "do not have the same built-in impediments to growth." That is, they don't have the same kind of deal-breaking litmus tests that the Moral Majority types allegedly imposed on otherwise-likely allies. "Even the wackiest Tea Partiers wouldn't demand that a candidate seeking their endorsement agree that ACORN fixed the election or that Obama is foreign-born," Judis explains. I'm not so sure about that. To the extent that Judis himself claims that the TPs are influenced by ideas handed down from the John Birch Society through the medium of Glenn Beck, it may become necessary to be true believers in their demonologies to earn their trust. It's certainly in their opponents' interests to make such a claim, and Tea Parties should have to account for the crackpots in their midst. But I lean toward a more optimistic estimate of their longevity or lack of it. Let's assume a lot of TPs are the same people who applauded the Contract With America in 1994 and carried Newt Gingrich to the Speakership that year. Since then, the Republicans have fallen away from the true doctrine so badly that the Tea Parties had to convene to correct them. But where were they between 1995 and 2008? The watchdogs were clearly asleep or at least distracted in those years, and I suspect that a triumph similar to 1994's will render them nearly as complacent and deferential as before. They may get agitated when they see a stranger in charge of things, but they also get all too trusting when one of their own is in place. If I'm right about this, it may almost be worth the trouble to let them have their victory as soon as possible, so they go back to sleep. I don't mean to disparage vigilance, but misplaced vigilance (aimed at the mere idea of the state, for instance) may be worse than none at all, counterproductive rather than merely unproductive.

13 May 2010

Democracy in Pennsylvania

This is party politics in America: the President of the United States and the governor of Pennsylvania are telling Democrats in that state that they are better represented by an erstwhile Republican, octogenarian Arlen Specter, than by a representative who has risen from the party's own ranks. Rep. Joe Sestak is seriously challenging Specter, whom he accuses of switching party affiliation solely to get another term in office. Perhaps even more seriously, Sestak reportedly claimed during a debate that the White House had tried to bribe him out of the primary race by offering him a federal post.

Sestak once trailed Specter by a big margin but has mostly closed the gap in recent polls. He may yet get the nomination, in which case the anti-incumbent mood in the country would for once benefit a liberal. That might prove a happy ending, but this is a sordid story of party politics. The President may be a Democrat, but he has no business telling Pennsylvanians which Democrat better represents them, and he has no moral authority on the subject when he endorses Specter only to fulfill a deal. A U.S. Senator is supposed to represent a state, not a party. Pennsylvanians owe the national Democratic party no consideration whatsoever when nominating someone to represent them in the Senate.

I wonder what Specter will do if he loses the primary? Will he turn Republican again? Will he run as an independent on the Charlie Crist model? If so, how far will the President's gratitude to Specter extend? The main point has been made already, in any event: here is a moment when the agendas of Democratic leaders and those who consider themselves loyal Democrats diverge, and the leaders favor a man who is Democratic as a matter of convenience. The scene should leave people questioning whether Democratic partisanship is a matter of convenience or a matter of principle across the board.

12 May 2010

Arizona: "We're all individuals!"

For a while I've been trying to give the state of Arizona the benefit of the doubt regarding its treatment of Hispanics. I did not believe that the measures for stricter surveillance of possible illegal aliens demonstrated hatred for Hispanics, though in original form the legislation did appear to mandate racial profiling. Now, however, the governor has signed into law a bill banning ethnic-studies programs in Arizona public schools. This legislation is reportedly aimed at a program in the Tucson school district that allegedly indoctrinates minorities into thinking themselves oppressed. The bill does not forbid the teaching of controversial topics, but seeks to regulate the context in which these subjects are taught. No class should "promote resentment toward a race or class of people." An admirable sentiment until you recall the thin-skinnedness of white Americans when it comes to this country's history. Too many of my fellow Caucasians resent any open airing of past injustices, thinking that it is brought up only to make people hate America. That makes me question how resentment will be identified. Some reactionaries will assume instantly that a curriculum that pulls no punches on racism and bigotry must automatically promote resentment. That assumption sounds like guilty conscience to me, but I suspect it will have a chilling effect on attempts to teach anything besides the utopian narrative favored by knee-jerk patriots.

Meanwhile, the law also forbids courses that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Solidarity is a dirty word in reactionary circles, so this little detail doesn't surprise me. I'm surprised they didn't take advantage of the opportunity to forbid "class solidarity" as well. Again, it's most likely that "ethnic solidarity" will be identified in the eye of a hostile if not prejudicial beholder. I'm not unconditionally promoting ethnic solidarity as opposed to other loyalties, but when the only alternative suggested isn't even patriotism but an inevitably ideological individualism, it should be obvious that one form of alleged indoctrination is being replaced by another through this legislation. Maybe public education automatically involves some kind of indoctrination; given the purpose of creating citizens, indoctrination may be an inescapable imperative. If so, let people make an informed choice of the kind of indoctrination they want. Don't say one thing is indoctrination and another of the same kind isn't. That's your lesson for today.

Another Amoklauf in China

Despite efforts by the state-controlled media to downplay the trend, there was another attack on a Chinese kindergarten yesterday. This time it seems to have been provoked by a property dispute, the attacker being the kindergarten's landlord. He went in with a cleaver and killed two adults and seven children, leaving another eleven children wounded. This is the fifth such kindergarten attack in the last two months.

While the Chinese media are reportedly taking precautions against provoking copycats, the killings seem to be a topic of open discussion among the general public. Western reporters in China are able to find people ready to offer theories to explain the wave of attacks. Most of them speculate that the attackers are lashing out in frustration over economic instability. I can't help but wonder about the selection of very young children as targets. That seems like an explicit attack on the future, or a utopian future advertised by the government for which the attackers feel pressured to sacrifice without benefit to themselves. It's the sort of behavior one doesn't expect to see in a Communist country in any sense of the term, though I don't know whether it should be taken as a refutation of communism as a social ideal or Communism as a political system of party dictatorship. One thing seems certain: the attackers are selfish persons in some monstrous way. Meanwhile, the background of the latest amoklauf suggests that we need a better understanding of these kindergartens' role in rural or small-town Chinese society and any conflicts their existence provokes.

The last time I noted a Chinese amoklauf, I commented that the attacker's choice of weapon had at least meant fewer fatalities than if he'd come in with a gun. The fact that the latest attacker killed people bolsters the American gun-rights argument that wicked people, not the existence of weapons, are the real threat to public safety. It may also bolster the American gun-rights argument that the best defense against murderous impulses in any setting is the presence of individuals trained and equipped to nip those impulses in the bud. On the other hand, the American vision of a good guy on every block prepared to save the day may be as utopian as any liberal or communist social vision. If the Chinese crime wave teaches the world anything, it may be that the impulse to kill, once provoked, will inevitably find an outlet, and that all the precautions and deterrents we institute will only make the amoklaufer seek out the most defenseless people as his victims. Society's priority should not be to deter that impulse from expressing itself with threats of reprisal, but to prevent the impulse from emerging in the first place.

11 May 2010

Strong Tea in Utah

The Tea Party movement can claim partial vindication for their apparently preferred strategy of infiltrating the Republican party instead of starting their own insofar as they can claim credit for bringing down an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator in Utah at the state convention. Robert Bennett seemed doomed by the runoff format of the voting as much as anything else, and in advance of the nomination Kathleen Parker, a moderate conservative who is no great friend of the TPs, published a column bemoaning their imposition of extreme ideological litmus tests on Republicans who otherwise have very respectable conservative credentials.

"Bennett earns an 84 rating from the American Conservative Union, an A ranking from the National Rifle Association — and is nothing like a liberal," Parker notes, "But Bennett committed the ultimate sin in tea party circles. He voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, aka "bank bailout," during the George W. Bush administration. And he advanced a market-driven health care reform bill as an alternative to the Democratic plan that, alas, also included an insurance mandate." For those reasons, despite endorsements from Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, delegates repudiated Bennett.

This is the latest chapter in the long debate over how conservative the Republican party should be, and an episode in a longer debate over the meaning of conservatism. I can understand why a Tea Partier might refuse to defer to the American Conservative Union, Kathleen Parker, or even the NRA when it comes to deciding whether someone's conservative enough for the times. The comments attached to Parker's column on this website for a Utah newspaper show a widespread belief that Bennett's credentialed conservatism was compromised by his being a "Washington insider." American conservatism is an amorphous concept, depending on what any individual wants to conserve, and the positions that make Bennett a satisfactory conservative to the ACU or the NRA may not matter as much to people in Utah as do the crises of the moment: TARP and bailouts, health-care mandates, etc. The Tea Parties remain in part a populist revolt against the "Too Big To Fail" principle, which Parker endorses in her column. The TPs are people who know they're not too big to fail and are unlikely to be shielded from adversity. Theirs is a leveling impulse; no one or no entity should be too big to fail, in their view, and if multitudes must suffer from the failure, the TPs expect them to learn a lesson and be better off for the ordeal. I'm not sure exactly what's conservative about this stance, but since the TPs see themselves as conservatives (meaning perhaps the people who still play by the old rules) they are determined to redefine conservative politics in America.

Parker writes for those Republicans who think that the party only needs to be conservative enough to win elections and work well with others in government. She worries that a TP purge of the GOP would result in the party "losing some of their strongest voices and diminishing their power in an arena where relationships matter," i.e. Congress. Critics of her article portray Parker as Washington insider herself whose recent Pulitzer Prize signifies her selling-out true conservatism in order to join the Establishment. Do these primary battles (there are more to come) boil down to Establishment vs. Grass Roots? Are they an effort to impose a stricter ideological orthodoxy, or are they clashes between actually different ideologies?

This should be the part where I condemn the TPs for lacking the courage to start their own party, but since they've cleared the first hurdle on the infiltration course, objectivity requires me to reserve some judgment until they face the next hurdles: winning a general election and having their new Senator represent his constituents rather than the national party organization. Infiltrationism depends on the premise that the party as an institution has no institutional mentality or institutional interests of its own that are separate from the interests of the majority of party members. The infiltrationist presumes that, as long as you win the primaries, you control the party. They reject the premise that a fundraising bureaucracy and the donors on whom they depend can dictate platforms contrary to the will of the rank-and-file. But they do accept the premise that the "Washington establishment" can corrupt the ideological integrity of politicians. We're sixteen years removed from the last conservative takeover of the GOP, and if the leader of 1994, Newt Gingrich, can endorse Sen. Bennett, that should stand as proof for TPs that something happens to ideological fire-eaters once they taste power. Some people blame that something on the permanent fundraising imperative. Others blame it on a corrupting Capitol culture. Others still might less judgmentally point out how responsibility inevitably moderates radicalism of any ideological bent. But the infiltrationist stakes much on vigilance and accountability as effective correctives against all these compromising or corrupting tendencies. That means that the success of any infiltration scheme to take over a major party depends on the infiltrators themselves. Whether today's infiltrators inside the Republican party have the determination and the punitive spirit to see things through past the first victory remains to be seen -- and remains open to doubt.

10 May 2010

The Constitution: Original Intent and the Intentions of Originalists

The President has presented his nominee to fill the latest vacancy to open on the Supreme Court, guaranteeing us, on top of any discussion of the demographic milestones of this nomination (a third woman if confirmed, and no Protestants), a rehash of the ancient debate between "originalists" and "activists." Joseph J. Ellis, a popular biographer of the Founders, issued a preemptive strike on originalism in an op-ed that appeared in newspapers and on websites across the country last weekend. Ellis claims that his fellow historians find the conservative emphasis on the Founders' original intentions a little absurd, since the Framers were not of one mind on the subject at the time. He equates originalism with a kind of religion or superstition by referring to it as the "Immaculate Conception" theory of the Constitution.

The doctrine of original intent rests on a set of implicit assumptions about the framers as a breed apart, momentarily allowed access to a set of timeless and transcendent truths. The doctrine requires you to believe that the "miracle at Philadelphia" was a uniquely omniscient occasion when 55 mere mortals were permitted a glimpse of the eternal verities and then embalmed their insights in the document.

No originalist, I suspect, would recognize this as his viewpoint. None with any scholarly credentials would dare say that the Framers were "momentarily allowed access" in such a passive sense, as if they had received a revelation from a higher power. The originalist position, as I understand it, gives the Framers more credit for agency and original thought. The main difference the originalists posit between the Framers and today's jurists and politicians is that they presume the Framers, generally speaking, to have been philosophers engaged in an inquiry into the ideal form of representative government, the one best suited to a notion, likewise philosophically rooted, to individual human nature. Originalists presume the Framers to have been guided by a concept of unchanging human nature and natural right toward discovering, rather than inventing, the form of government, compromises notwithstanding, that is best for all people at all times. By comparison, originalists accuse activists of being driven by self-interest (i.e. political gain) or unsustainable concepts of "fairness" instead of any long-term notion of justice.

While I wouldn't be so contemptuous toward originalists as Ellis is, he's right to state that their idealist understanding of the Framers' work isn't backed by facts. It doesn't take much reading on the making of the Constitution to see that the Founders had set themselves to solving a specific political problem, not a universal one: how to maintain a federal state with multiple layers of representative government across a large territory. Much of the polemical or op-ed literature in defense of the Constitution was meant to refute the idea, popularized by Montesquieu, that a republic could not govern a large territory, but would inevitably collapse or turn into a tyranny. Federalist Paper No. 10, written by Madison, is key to understanding how the Framers tailored their work to a specific challenge. Madison envisioned a federal republic of sufficient size and diversity that no single interest group could end up dominating the others. Eliminate the size and the diversity and he might have proposed a different form of government altogether. The Constitution does not represent a "one size fits all" political philosophy. Since it was a do-over of the Articles of Confederation in the first place, it's obvious that within a single generation the Founders adapted their notions of ideal government to changing circumstances after their first draft proved inadequate in practice. They didn't expect their second try to be jettisoned entirely as the Articles had been, but they did provide for amendments in a manner belying any assumption that the document ratified in 1788 was a permanently perfect frame of government. The mere fact of an amendment provision makes clear that the Framers themselves didn't think that their original intent would be the final word on the question of representative government. The only point originalists can make legitimately is that any overruling of the Framing intent should be done through amendments rather than through legislation or judicial rulings. Even on that point, however, the almost immediate polarization of the Framers into Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians made the meaning of the Constitution a matter for perpetual debate, with leading Framers on both sides of many disputes. A 21st century appeal to original intent begs the question whether one means Hamilton's intent, Madison's or someone else's -- and how does one choose among them? And if the actual authors of the Constitution ended up disagreeing on its scope and limitations, why should their conflicting opinions automatically overrule those of moderns interested in applying the mechanics of the Constitutions to problems the Framers never anticipated?

Ellis cites Thomas Jefferson as a debunker of originalism, though it should be remembered that Jefferson had no hand in writing the Constitution and may well have been expressing sour grapes in the following:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did beyond amendment. ... Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs ... Each generation is as independent of the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before.

You can also tell that Jefferson is writing about amending constitutions, not interpreting them, but he makes Ellis's larger point, which is that the Framers, however superior in some respects they were to our present political class, don't have a veto on progress. Nor did they intend the Constitution as a permanent veto on progress, and as each Framer interpreted it according to his own values and interests, so should conscientious people today. The Framers intended the Constitution to outlive them. Common sense should tell us that their original intent was not to leave people 200 years later asking what they, the Framers, wanted future generations to do, but to figure out for themselves what the Constitution empowered them to do.

07 May 2010

Greece: Austerity, Adversity and the Personal Responsibility of Citizens

It takes some effort to find an account of Greek opposition to the country's austerity plan that isn't just a description of rioting and arson. Here's a sympathetic interview with a "Socialist Worker" who opposes the plan from the position of the "anti-capitalist left." You have to get to the end to find out what he proposes as an alternative, and it's not surprising: default on the Greek debt and nationalize the banks.

The austerity plan, required as a precondition to an EU bailout, was rammed through the Greek legislature by the ruling socialist party over objections from communists and "conservatives." It includes increases on existing taxes and a onetime tax on corporations, as well as cuts in social programs and compensation to public-sector workers. Some of the measures do not inspire compassion for the oppressed Greeks. They may want to mount the barricades in defense of their full two-weeks'-pay Easter bonus, for instance, but somehow I don't feel like joining them on that one.

Greek governments put themselves in this predicament by behaving like capitalists. They bet on economic growth by borrowing money, but found themselves short when the global economy struggled. As usual, capitalists elsewhere invested in Greek debt when it looked like a safe proposition, so just as with the bust of the U.S. housing bubble, a local crisis has become a global one, much of yesterday's Wall Street panic reportedly being caused by events in Greece and Europe. Call me risk-averse if you must, but capitalists have got to find more sensible or just plain safer ways of doing business with each other. Reform of regulation of capitalism should come with any bailout or austerity plans anywhere, but they can't be a substitute for austerity everywhere.

As long as people still have to pay for things with money, and as long as money remains a limited resource, nations as well as people have some responsibility to live within their means, and that includes retrenching when your means are short. I might accept that some government services are so essential that they shouldn't be based on cash exchanges or subject to fluctuations in cash resources, but it just makes sense that times will come when governments will have to advise people to retrench. If progressives around the world believe that there should always be more for the masses, and never less, then they live in a fairyland.

I've suspected that one legitimate critique of the "left" by the "right" is the charge that encouraging dependence on the state leaves individuals and families, as well as the state, ill-equipped to deal with adversity. I don't think it's a decisive critique, and it's one that the left ought to be able to find ways to answer. For instance, a true socialist ought to reject the model of dependence on the state, which can just as easily be encouraged by conservative or capitalist regimes, in favor of the responsibility that comes with actual workers' control of government and society. But that responsibility should include a readiness to acknowledge that circumstances can arise, not caused by someone's greed, that may require everyone to tighten their belts for a time. Natural disasters or defense against invasion come to mind as cases when retrenchment or austerity may become necessity. Mistakes by government, as in Greece's case, are another category. A properly educated citizenry should not react to such crises as if the end of the world were nigh. Nor should they insist on an unsustainable "not one step back" principle regarding pay for public workers or funding for social programs. At the same time, people might not panic so readily if governments would make clear that no proposed retrenchment is permanent. If we're asked to tighten our belts in bad times, we ought to get bigger belts in better times. The main point people should learn is that social justice is no guarantee against adversity -- and it can only help if everyone can see that austerity is shared across the board.

I don't claim to know enough about the Greek situation to tell either the government or the people what to do. But the news from Greece has had me thinking about the general issues involved, especially because it could be other countries' turn at austerity soon. The country regarded as the cradle of democracy may be setting precedents for the rest of the world again.

06 May 2010

A 'Red Tory' Against the 'Market State'

Writers for The American Conservative magazine like to accuse more mainstream Republicans, neocons in particular, of being radicals rather than conservatives. Sometimes, however, they serve up rather radical-sounding ideas themselves. The June issue of the unorthodox monthly introduces Americans to the thought of Phillip Blond, a British Conservative who coined the term "Red Tories" to describe those Britons who criticize both the conventional Left and the conventional Right. Both sides, Blond says, have succumbed to a pernicious libertarian individualism that has undermined civil society, leaving us with what he calls a "market-state." He perceives the same sort of convergence that Mark Lilla describes in America, a synthesis of a "left-wing" desire for personal autonomy and a "right-wing" demand for economic autonomy that saps the state's will to discipline individuals or regulate the economy for the public good, but doesn't actually reduce the size and power of government.

[T]hrough the privileging of alternative lifestyles, the prioritizing of minority politics, and the capture of markets by monopolies, we have destroyed the sustained and sustaining society. Little wonder that in a world in which binding norms, civil behavior and notions of the common good have ceased to exist, frightened, isolated individuals call upon an increasingly authoritarian state to impose the order that we can no longer create for ourselves.

Blond takes a long view of history, tracing both right-wing and left-wing libertarianism to Jean-Jacques Rosseau's belief that, in Blond's words, "society was primordial imprisonment." Like Lilla, Blond detects something Jacobinical in the present mood, something more dangerous, however, than what Lilla describes. "Any anarchic construal of the self," he proposes, "requires for its social realization an authoritarian statism to control the forces that are unleashed." Individual liberty paradoxically calls a more powerful state into being because it destroys all the intermediate "civil society" institutions that might otherwise regulate personal conduct. Those include "local government, churches, trade unions, cooperative societies or civic organizations that operate on the basis of more than single issues." These, Blond claims, were "a means for ordinary people to exercise power." But if we are all individuals, civil society disintegrates, leaving only the biggest possible government -- and not an effective one.

Blond sees the same paradox at work in the economic realm. "The invisible hand is meant to mediate goods and allocate resources according to the price system and the efficient market cycle," he notes, "But the 'free' market produced a massive centralization in capital, and it fed an asset bubble whose expansion and disastrous contraction has been underwritten by the state." Blond insists that he's a "pro-market thinker," but he finds that unregulated markets in a "neoliberal" regime only result in monopolies that limit opportunities for most people and stifle the innovation that freedom is supposed to foster.

Blond regards himself as a classical liberal. "I believe in a free society where human beings, under the protection of law and guidance of virtue, pursue their own account of the good in debate with those who differ from them and in concord with those who agree," he writes. All of this, he argues, depends on our recognition of common bonds that unite us as people and limit us as individuals.

If we are just empty, atomized individuals whose only mode of progress is whim and personal inclination, then no common bond can exist between us, because bonds limit will and subject us to something other than ourselves. For the [modern] liberal, there is no more profound violation than that. Moreover, a self-interested individual needs the state to police relationships with other individuals. Ergo, extreme individualism leads to extreme collectivism -- and back again.

The above sums up Blond's account of "a violent, secular liberalism," and from that point I read through the rest of his essay waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never did; Blond shows admirable reticence in refraining from what seemed like an inevitable insistence on religion as the only thing that might save us. But he had already included churches as only one category of several within civil society that might play the necessary role of regulating individual conduct without requiring an oversized state. Instead of playing the religion card, Blond wraps up with three recommendations. Conservatives, he writes, need to come up with an alternative to free-market ideology that would check the rise of monopolies and make sure that opportunities really are available to everyone. Second, as an alternative to the libertarian mantra of privatization, Blond calls for the conversion of the public sector into "employee-owned co-ops" that empower beneficiaries instead of (allegedly) rendering them passive. Finally, people need to rebuild some kind of civil society to which "both the state and the market" will be subservient. "This requires a restoration of social conservatism that recognizes the claim of the common good over the free agency of the individual," Blond emphasizes. Again, some people will see that recommendation as a blank on which they'll automatically write in a church's name, but there's nothing in Blond's article that says that people can't create new associations, if not new traditions.

Blond's "Red Tory" philosophy supposedly has influenced David Cameron, the Conservative leader who may end up the next Prime Minister of England tonight. If so, we may see some of his ideas put into practice soon, but I suspect that Blond himself won't hold his breath for that. His article was a first step toward gaining a foothold for some modified form of "Red Toryism" in the U.S., and the Conservative has published a number of responses from American writers. I'll take those under consideration at another time.

05 May 2010

The "new populism": The "antipolitical Jacobinism" of the "libertarian mob."

The latest attempt to account for the tea-party movement comes from Mark Lilla, a scholar in the field of political philosophy whose The Reckless Mind collects case studies of intellectuals who, in his view, corrupted themselves by becoming cheerleaders for revolutionary terror and totalitarian regimes. Writing on "The Tea Party Jacobins" in the May 27 issue of The New York Review of Books (the article isn't yet available online), Lilla offers a hostile analysis designed to be at odds with more conventional tea-readings from both left and right. He insists, for instance, that the TPs don't represent a "conservative counterrevolution," as many Republicans may hope.

[T]he angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic left-right battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Lilla is pretty certain that the TPs are populist, but they're a new kind of populist.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that 'the people' can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power....A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now.

According to Lilla, TPs combine two strains of libertarian opinion often seen as at odds with each other: the "anarchic" lifestyle libertarianism rooted in the 1960s and the "selfish" economic libertarianism that became widespread during the 1980s. "Though there's been a slight conservative retrenchment since the 2008 election, it's clear that the Sixties principle of private autonomy is rooted in the American mind," he writes, "And so is the Eighties principle of economic autonomy." Lilla regards this as a toxic blend and "a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century."

The synthesis of the Sixties and Eighties is "a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin." This sounds oxymoronic to the extent that a Jacobin is someone who tends to politicize everything as part of a revolutionary project, but Lilla sees the TPs a revolutionaries against politics itself, politics being understood here as any institutionalized collective endeavor. Lilla's TP Jacobins "have two classic American traits that have grown more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing -- and unwarranted -- confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers."

Lilla's trying to account for the virulent anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism of "the libertarian mob." He sees dangerous consequences of this attitude in the growing number of unvaccinated children, the growing sum of money spent yearly on "unregulated herbal medicines," and the increasing resort to "many dangerous medicines banned in the United States," purchased online. Here he makes a sweeping judgment that doesn't necessarily apply to TPs only:

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.

The word Lilla may be looking for is autodidactism. To an extent the Think 3 Institute itself endorses this principle in our motto: "Figure it out for yourselves or obey without question." But the resolution to figure everything out for yourself has a bad side if you don't also resolve to hold yourself to a rigorous intellectual standard. The archetype of the wrong sort of autodidact is Adolf Hitler, who read extensively but always, he claimed, with the object of confirming his own suppositions and prejudices. Lilla suggests that something similar is going on in America as Americans "vote with their feet," sometimes virtually, to segregate themselves into "local communities where they share their neighbors' general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them." He describes this trend as a reaction to the growing complexity and diversity of government, some of which Lilla himself claims has made government less effective. But as far as his libertarian populist Jacobins are concerned, he thinks, the main complaint is that they don't hear themselves or their values "echoed" by government. This is as close as Lilla comes to suggesting that some kind of bigotry (apart from paranoid suspicions about the President's origins) fuels his subjects.

While the "anti-elitist" element of Tea-ism is undeniable, I think Lilla exaggerates the "childlike optimism" angle. I don't claim much firsthand experience of the movement, but my impression from what I have heard and read isn't that the TPs assume that they'll succeed in everything without government interference. Reaganite optimism (antithetical in many ways to authentic conservatism) does influence the movement, but a stronger element, as I see it, is a resentment, split between contempt and envy, of people on every level of the economy who "whine" whenever they suffer setbacks and run begging for government aid when the authentic Tea Partier would feel too ashamed to do so. That is, they resent a system that rewards behaviors (whining, begging for handouts) they consider beneath themselves. The core assumption isn't that they'll all get rich absent the welfare state, but that their pride should be validated in an ideal society in which everyone else would be too ashamed to do anything in adverse straits but work harder.

There's a twist in Lilla's story: "Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason," he writes, "as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively." So something's going on that's not exceptionally American. Nevertheless, this country's presumably peculiar "libertarian spirit" may have accelerated the trend here. It even dooms the Tea Party movement itself to short life, since it can't evolve into a lasting political force while its members are "ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind." Again, I think Lilla exaggerates slightly. To the extent that Tea Partiers identify themselves with the entrepreneurial class, I assume that they endorse one of the fundamental hierarchies of society, that of employer and employees. I suspect that they do distrust hierarchy, however, whenever it places someone above them, whether its a government bureaucrat or any kind of boss. As Lilla puts it near the end of his essay, "They don't want the rule of the people, though that's what they say. They want to be people without rules." This, too, may be unfair, but it comes close to some kind of truth about the movement.

I find it interesting, given the continued weakness of libertarian politicians in electoral politics, that more people seem to be indicting libertarianism as a corrupting element in American politics and culture. While Lilla attacks from someplace slightly left of center, as best as I can tell, a future post will detail what's perhaps a more powerful attack on libertarianism, encompassing the entire American Bipolarchy, from the thoughtful right.