30 June 2010

Competitive Codependency: The Bipolarchy Begs

Two begging letters arrived in my mailbox yesterday. One was from Sharron Angle, who somewhat defensively, as if anticipating a dispute, dubs herself the "Official Republican Nominee for U.S. Senate Against Harry Reid." "If you're the Republican I've been told you are," Angle writes, "then I need you to find your checkbook right now." That statement doesn't inspire confidence. If anyone told Angle I was a Republican, that person was a liar or a fool. It's more likely that she bought access to The American Conservative's mailing list and assumed that anyone who subscribed to that idiosyncratic antiwar journal must belong to the GOP. The fact remains, however, that Angle needs money. That's because Senator Reid "has nearly $10 million in the bank [and has] been waiting until I secured the nomination to go on the attack....unloading everything he has on me in an effort to smear my good name." Reid also reportedly plans to raise an additional $25 million from "liberal special interest donors." To counter that power, Angle wants 1,000,000 Americans (that is, "patriotic Americans who love this great country enough") to give her $25 each.

Angle is an utter reactionary who wants the U.S. to abolish the Department of Education and withdraw from the United Nations. She has hinted that increased gun and ammo sales indicate growing fear of the government, and that this election year might be the last chance to prevent an armed insurrection by peacefully pushing Democrats out of power. Her ideology disqualifies her from my support. Worse, she shouldn't have asked me in the first place because I'm not the Republican she assumes me to be. Worse still, I thought the likes of her were all for federalism and states' rights. Why, then, is this person who seeks to represent the state of Nevada asking for donations from a New Yorker? The mere request proves that in her own mind she doesn't represent her state as much as she does a party or an ideological movement. But I'm sure she'd excuse herself by saying that liberal Democrats are doing the same thing.

In fact, they are. The other begging letter came from Nancy Pelosi, with a cover letter from Barney Frank. The Speaker of the House is writing on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This is a general fund dedicated to retaining Democratic control of the House of Representatives. That control is in danger, Pelosi writes, because Republicans and their "special interest contributors" are furiously fundraising to flood the airwaves with smears and lies. "With millions pouring into Republican campaign coffers from special interest groups, the 2010 midterm elections are shaping up to be one [sic?]of the most expensive in history," the Speaker warns, "And now that the Supreme Court's radical decision in Citizens United has opened the floodgates for special interests in our elections, I can only imagine how much money they will pour into defeating Democrats."

So each side accuses the other of being dominated by "special interest" donors, and this is one of those happy cases when both sides are right, or both wrong, depending on whether any American has the right to call any other a "special interest." The Pelosi letter is a more elaborate mailing than Angle's simple appeal, but together they demonstrate how perpetual competition enriches both pillars of the American Bipolarchy. The Republicans must have money because the Democrats have more, and the more Republicans raise, the more Democrats need. This money fuels the permanent fundraising machines both parties operate (though Angle has her own lone-wolf Washington-based committee), and the people who operate these machines are the principal beneficiaries of campaign donations. Arguably, both major parties exist today primarily as fundraising machines, pitching their opposition in extreme terms to maximize donations by making the need for them appear more urgent. Neither party could raise as much money if it didn't have the other nearby to scare people into donating as if their lives depended on it. Neither might be able to raise as much money if voters' choices didn't appear as starkly limited as they do to most people, if one party could not say that the only alternative to itself was the worst possible option for the country. But that might be another case in which both sides are right: when the only alternatives are the same two parties, each of which appears more interested in fundraising than governing, that's the worst possible option.

28 June 2010

McDonald v. Chicago: One Nation Under Guns

Two years ago a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the District of Columbia could not restrict handgun ownership because the Second Amendment to the Constitution enshrined a "pre-existing" human right to gun ownership as a means of self-defense. Because the case in question applied to an entity that is not a state or an ordinary municipality, the nation was left waiting for the other shoe to drop. It has today in McDonald v. Chicago, in which the majority, led by Justice Alito, rules that the incorporation clause of the Fourteenth Amendment extends the Second Amendment's protection of individual gun ownership to states and municipalities. In his opinion, Alito reiterates the historical reasoning of the 2008 Heller case: despite the language linking the right to keep and bear arms to the militia's role as the bulwark of a free state, which the majority admits was obsolete by the mid-19th century, the Second Amendment was always understood chiefly as guaranteeing the individual right of self-defense, and remains relevant in that respect above all.

Interestingly, Alito attempts to assemble a "politically correct" history of gun rights, emphasizing abolitionists insistence on their right to self-defense against pro-slavery mobs and freedmen's need for firearms for self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, as well as their rightful opposition to state laws aimed at disarming black people specifically. Clearly, gun rights haven't always been a reactionary cause in American history, and it might be interesting to learn why the National Rifle Association is identified with, and to a great extent identifies itself with modern-day reaction. Perhaps it has something to do with the reasoning spelled out by Alito, who acknowledges the public-safety concerns of those who want to curtail gun ownership. These people claim that the Second Amendment is exceptional within the Bill of Rights because of its implications for public safety, and should be treated exceptionally, and with deference toward the states and municipalities when those bodies legislate with public safety in mind. Alito answers that there are, in fact, other constitutional rights with potentially adverse public-safety implications -- he cites decisions limiting police powers, for instance -- but presumes that no one wants to compromise those fundamental protections of individual rights. The implicit subtext is an admission that liberty comes with risks, and is worth the risks. More explicitly, the individual right to self-defense is seen as more essential to ordered liberty than the public interest in preventing amoklaufs and other cases when an instrument of self-defense becomes an instrument of crime.

In a departing dissent, Justice Stevens notes that the common-law right of self-defense differs from the Second Amendment's explicit justification by the defense of liberty. In the latter, the individual's (or the community's) right is asserted against the state, while in the former the right is asserted against other individuals. Stevens argues that the individual right of self-defense has traditionally been a last resort, available only after the state has failed in its responsibility to protect individuals against crime. He means, presumably, that government should have some benefit of the doubt in crafting public-safety regulations, since the primary responsibility for individual defense is government's, not the individual's. This reasoning has never impressed people who note that the police can't be everywhere, and are concerned most with the homeowner confronting an imminent threat to life or property. But it should remain relevant to how we treat these people when they make it their prerogative to kill someone with a firearm. Here's a tidbit from Stevens' dissent:

[I]n evaluating an asserted right to be free from particular gun-control regulations, liberty is on both sides of the equation. Guns may be useful for self-defense, as well as for hunting or sport, but they also have a unique potential to facilitate death and destruction and thereby destabilize ordered liberty. Your interest in keeping and bearing a certain firearm may diminish my interest in being and feeling safe from armed violence. And while granting you the right to own a handgun may make you feel safer on a given day -- assuming the handgun's marginal contribution to self-defense outweighs its marginal contribution to the risk of accident, suicide and criminal mischief -- it may make you and the community you live in less safe overall, owing to the increased number of handguns in circulation. It is at least reasonable for a democratically elected legislature to take such concerns into account in considering what sorts of regulations would best serve the public welfare. (p. 158)

Of course, a certain contempt for safety is characteristic of the most aggressive advocates for liberty, those who are convinced that Ben Franklin had the last word on the subject when he asserted what they take as a zero-sum relationship between safety and liberty. But might it not be possible that the only true or viable liberty in a social world is that which assures the maximum safety for each and all of its members? If we press this point, we may discover that the manly contempt for safety expressed by so many is no more than contempt for other people.

In any event, the Constitution as presently interpreted will remain a license for disorder, to the extent that it licenses people to kill, until all the people supposedly interested in gun control, those who elected the various legislatures whose laws are struck down regularly, resolve to force the issue by demanding a constitutional amendment clarifying the individual right to self-defense and abrogating the Second Amendment if necessary. We live in a historical moment that requires us to make laws for a society the Founders probably could not imagine. We ought to keep in mind their thoughts on the importance of individual liberty, separation of powers, etc., but we should also acknowledge cases in which their abstract reasoning gives us no practical guidance. The debates over the ratification of the Second Amendment, in their relation to modern gun issues, make up just such a case. It may comfort some thinkers to believe that the Founders are only being held hostage by reactionary jurists, but this can only happen because the Founders have nothing practical to say on this particular subject. It's up to us to speak up when they can't.

27 June 2010

Toronto: Dissent, Anger, Violence

Toronto is host to the latest G-20 summit and with it the now-inevitable protesters, including some sort of "black bloc" dedicated to protest through vandalism. Even since the Seattle demonstrations of 1999, governments hosting the gatherings of leading economic powers have justified greater restrictions on protesters of all kinds by referring to the menace represented by the masked or black-clad vandals. Also inevitably, some more pacific dissidents accuse the black-clad ones of being agents provocateurs, and probably within the black-clad ranks themselves distinctions are drawn between morally or strategically acceptable acts and those which would raise suspicion that the perpetrator is a government plant. The debate over the civil obligations of dissent is all-encompassing, with some people apparently believing that the civil modifier of civil disobedience has been overstressed since the 1960s, while others reflexively discrediting any dissent that finds violent expression. Predictably enough, Toronto policemen doubt whether the vandals have any actual political agenda or legitimate dissent from the decisions of the G-20, dismissing them as mere thugs doing violence for its own sake, for kicks. I don't doubt that many of the peaceful protesters feel the same way, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were right about at least some of those who burn cars or break windows.

But I can't dismiss violent dissent absolutely. I can't characterize vandalism as terrorism, for one thing; the black blocs aren't in the same category as the black shirts, for instance, or any of the color-coded political street gangs that imposed their will (or their fists) on people from the 1920s forward. If they started beating up Tea Partiers (or vice versa) it'd be a different story. For now they seem to be groping for the most effective way to tell the powerful that they are angry and fed up, and that current conditions are intolerable. They seem certain that merely to march and wave signs and go home isn't getting the message across. Marches haven't stopped much of anything lately, at least in the United States. Dissent works quite nicely here. We have elections, and those can actually put people out of power. We have free speech, too, but since we reserve accountability for election time, our elected leaders have the prerogative (some might even say the duty) not to listen to us when we protest their actions. There's no proof that dissidents represent a majority of anything, after all, and the implicit principle of democratic republicanism as practiced here is that voters empower their representatives (including that presumptive representative of all the people, the President) to govern according to their own consciences (and the Constitution, one hopes), not on specific instructions from the masses. The problem faced by protesters of all temperaments is the fact that your leaders have no obligation to listen to you until they receive their next authorization at the polls. So how do you make them listen, presuming that you make a right to be heard a corollary of your freedom of speech? The Tea Parties have one answer, which is to make it clear that they intend to vote as a bloc against the policies they abhor and the politicians who advocate them. But the black blocs represent a body of opinion that is at least superficially excluded from elections -- their parties won't appear on most ballots. From outside the Bipolarchy mainstream (though the latest demonstrations have taken place in Canada, I refer to the U.S. now) they most likely see elections as an unlikely if not an inadequate vehicle for necessary change. The changes Tea Partiers hope for would be meaningless (at best) for the black blocs. For them there may be no alternative to raising the stakes through intimidating displays that promise further violence in the absence of reform. But that must still seem unsatisfactory to other observers who don't identify with either the government or the black blocs. What right has a minority to force any change in policy?

The challenge for such groups is to win mass support while carrying on their campaign, to convince more people that conditions are as awful as they claim and that their currently minimal violence is justified by the injustice of government. As anarchists, the black blocs face a big challenge in such a project, and the hopeless nature of their ideology may well justify the dismissals of their demands. But people with more plausible demands may face the same dilemmas down the line. If electoral politics appear incapable of accommodating their demands, must they concede their status as impotent minorities and simply shut up? Or do they make a similar effort to shake others out of their supposed stupors so that they recognize that the anger expressed on the front lines of protest is actually more widely shared? Can people make their leaders listen when they need to listen, and not just when the leaders want to or have to by law? You may not care about the battle of Toronto today, but you may want to think about these questions for the future.

24 June 2010

An Intellectual attempts to explain Anti-Intellectualism

In a column that deplores the President's apparent lack of passion when dealing with problems from the Gulf oil spill to foreign policy, Richard Cohen comments that the quality that had once seemed most important and admirable about Obama -- his intellect -- no longer earns him respect. Cohen isn't the first writer to note a surge of anti-intellectualism in the country, particularly after Obama's election. The trend, most noticeable among Republicans and radio-driven conservatives, has earned scorn from liberals and libertarians alike. But Cohen seems to perceive something those critics haven't. The other anti-anti-intellectuals see the obvious: reactionary anti-intellectualism objects to the alleged hegemony of a "cultural elite" that might include politicians, academics, entertainers and scientists, depending on who's throwing a fit at the moment. There are a number of ideological and psychological factors behind this "anti-elitist" antipathy toward intellectuals, but Cohen finds them all irrelevant. For this week, at least, he theorizes that the anti-intellectualism of the moment was provoked not by the perceived ascendancy of a "cultural elite," but by the clever hucksters of corporate boardrooms.

A world of smart guys has turned against us. Everyone at Goldman Sachs is smart, but they seem to have the amorality mocked by the songwriter Tom Lehrer in his sendup of the celebrated American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun ... The oil industry is full of smart people and so is the mortgage industry. Smart people seem to have brought us nothing but trouble. Smarts without values is dangerous — threatening, scary, virtually un-American.

Cohen's analysis looks like wishful thinking to me. There remains a widespread hostility to Wall Street and to bailed-out corporations, but it isn't anti-intellectual in nature. If Americans despise intellectuals, it's not because the intellectuals have tricked or conned them, and if they're angry at corporations it's not because CEOs are too smart, but because they're slick, tricky or downright immoral. But one thing a CEO doesn't do, the thing that really riles up the anti-intellectual element, is "tell us how to live." Yes, a sociologist or Cultural Studies professor can show us that corporations do "tell us how to live" through their various marketing strategies, but the whole point of those strategies is to avoid making it look like you're being told what to do. In any event, being told what to buy isn't the same as being told how to live, and the latter is what rankles the radio-controlled rabble. I really doubt whether Joe the Plumber feels condescended to when CEOs explain themselves on Capitol Hill in the same way I presume he feels when some politician or academic or actor tells him that he ought to change his ways or challenges his traditional values and prejudices. More likely, he and those like him feel like they're on the same side as the CEO against the "cultural elite" that supposedly wants to limit their aspirations and control every aspect of their lives except those that God wants controlled. If they end up resenting CEOs, it's probably not because those executives are too smart, but because they're too successful in a way that proves to the suspicious that they cheated in becoming "too big to fail."

I can see what Cohen is trying to do here. He's a liberal (albeit of the kind that enjoys insulting foreign governments about their human rights records; he thinks that Obama doesn't do enough of that) who'd like to turn the anti-intellectual tide against the corporate elite and their presumed champions in the Republican Party. Putting it another way, he'd like to steer today's populism in its historically proper direction. But he admits in this same column that Republicans have only benefited from anti-intellectualism.

This is why a succession of arch-conservative eccentrics have succeeded. Their values are obvious, often shockingly so. We know what they want, just not how they are ever going to get it. Experience has become a handicap and inexperience a virtue. Smart is out. Dumb is in.

To point anti-intellectual populism in its proper direction, Cohen suggests, liberals need to assert their values with passion. Obama is too dispassionate about things for the nation's good, he fears. He doesn't show "that indispensable wince" when pragmatism forces him to deviate from what Cohen hopes are his core principles. To save his Presidency, the columnist argues, "It is not necessary that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven't a clue."

Speak for yourself, Mr. Cohen. I'm not going to defend the President just now, but I must note that Cohen's column demonstrates a certain cluelessness about an important sociocultural trend that might account for his mystified perception of the Obama administration, which therefore shouldn't be attributed to the general population. In other words, Obama may still be a mystery to many people, including some who voted for him, but Cohen's cluelessness may be his own problem, not theirs.

23 June 2010

'Where Do Libertarians Belong?'

Some readers may already have some snappy answers in mind to our title question, but let an actual libertarian try to answer it himself. Brink Lindsey is a contributing editor of Reason magazine and a research vice president of the Cato Institute. He has the cover story for Reason's summer issue, in which he poses just that question and answers: not with the Republican Party or the Tea Party movement. While the revival of "libertarian rhetoric" since Barack Obama's election may tempt libertarians to ally with conservative forces, Lindsey argues that conservatism is "a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom" and "so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative." Writers for The American Conservative might object, but that sort of thoughtful paleocon isn't in Lindsey's sights. He judges conservatism by talk radio and the Tea Parties and perceives "a raving, anti-intellectual populism," "a brutal nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia," "a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism and extremism on beginning-and-end-of-life issues," and in general "a noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment [that] is the antithesis of libertarianism." Republicanism is too concerned with "building a rabid fan base by demonizing the other side and stoking the audience's collective sense of outrage and victimization" -- what he later calls "the conservative message machine's toxic mix of intolerance and self-pity [that] has veered off into feverish self-delusion." Republican/Tea Party "populism, nationalism, and dogmatism" makes it "a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement." Instead of identifying themselves with an irrational Right, Lindsey advises libertarians to claim the Center while admitting that it will take their movement "in a new direction" and "make for a very different movement than the one we've got now." The libertarian center would cooperate with the right on economic issues, with the left on civil liberties and foreign policy, and would presumably steer its own course on other matters.

Reason invited a Republican and a Tea Partier to respond to Lindsey. Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg reminds readers that Lindsey had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to ally libertarians with liberals, and argues that the failure of that venture proves the necessity of continued cooperation with conservatives. Clearly resenting what he saw as Lindsey's caricature of conservative opinion, he counters with his own caricature of an intolerant, politically-correct, secular Left. In other words, in classic Bipolarchy fashion he brandishes a straw man and tells Lindsey and his fellow libertarians: this is your enemy! Goldberg also openly sneers at Lindsey's aspiration to occupy the center, noting that the center will never endorse drug legalization, full marriage rights for gays and other libertarian demands. He closes, however, with an appeal to all readers (including liberals and progressives) to get behind an ideal of federalism that would give every ideology the chance to prevail in some part of the country without interference from the others or the federal government. The Tea Parties are represented by FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, who quotes The Fountainhead at Lindsey and basically tells him to get off his high horse and get his hands dirty alongside the reactionary rank and file. Kibbe calls Lindsey a conservative because he resents the fact that "citizens are no longer dependent on old-school institutions [including libertarian think tanks] for information and good ideas." He revels in the decentralized information network available online and claims that TPs make scrupulous use of it. He also reminds readers that the Tea Parties were first formed in opposition to the big bailouts of 2008, which he remembers were a Republican idea.

If anything, this fascinating exchange of views reminded me that libertarianism as a body of opinion is as diverse as "conservatism" or "liberalism." Lindsey's attack on the Right exposes a major divide between what we might describe as Progressive Libertarianism and Reactionary Libertarianism, the former taking a utilitarian view of individual freedom as a progressive force opposed by traditionalism as well as socialism, the latter being the "Leave Me Alone" or "Don't Tread on Me" element most tempted by the rise of the Tea Parties. Just as leftists vie with centrists to define liberalism and paleos, neos and theos contest the truth of conservatism, so the progressives and reactionaries are destined to have a long debate over the meaning of libertarianism, if not the meaning of liberty itself. It may be that libertarianism will not become the influential force, moderating or otherwise, that Lindsey and Reason hope it will be until this debate is settled and one side or the other defines itself as something else altogether.

Judge Feldman and the conflict of interests

My frequent correspondent Cryhmethinc notes in a comment on my post on the decision striking down the moratorium on deepwater drilling that Martin Feldman, the judge who wrote the ruling, appears to have a conflict of interest based on his ownership of oil-and-gas industry stock. In a subsequent conversation, Crhymethinc expressed his surprise that the media only discovered Feldman's stock-ownership after the decision, despite reports from earlier this month that warned that a large number of judges in the region are similarly compromised. More surprising to him was the government's failure to demand that Feldman recuse himself, as some stockholding judges have done, not to mention the Obama administration's failure since the decision to force the conflict-of-interest question to the forefront of the discussion. The blogosphere has pounced on the news, of course, and Republicans are defending Feldman on the stubborn ground that his integrity is not to be questioned, though that of the government is to be at every moment. From what I've read during a quick examination on the subject, the rules don't require a judge to recuse himself if his potentially-compromising holdings are part of a mutual fund over which he exercises no control in investment or selling decisions. I don't know if this was Feldman's case, but unless he invests in a blind mutual fund, where he wouldn't even know what's being invested in, he would presumably be aware of the stocks in which the fund invests and how his decisions might influence their performance on the stock exchange. His decision itself, however it holds up as law, quite blatantly prioritizes economic over environmental interests, leaving his integrity perfectly open to question no matter how much such questioning outrages Republicans. But the Obama administration's failure to date to question Feldman's integrity more aggressively raises Crhymethinc's suspicions about the government's own intentions. While an appeal and a new moratorium order are promised, Obama's perceived failure to confront an enabler of deepwater drilling makes some observers question whether the President really meant to take decisive action to regulate drilling or simply sought to take a symbolic action that would only look better to most of his acolytes when it was inevitably struck down by a mean old judge. Feldman struck down the moratorium in part because he thought it half-assed in proving the alleged imminent threat to life; was it meant to be like that? That's the sort of question asked by people who see the Gulf spill as a national emergency that has not received a proportionate response from the government. While the Republicans seem confused over whether to exploit the spill as "Obama's Katrina" or downplay its threat to the environment, another opposition seems more convinced that it's the former -- an equivalent failure of government to do what many people think is its business. While the nation seems to be in an anti-government mood, the spill may help bring to the surface a hitherto-silent body of opinion, possibly a majority, that sees a pressing need for more government, in the right places, than ever. If so, we should see signs of its spread soon enough.

Update: If you scroll toward the bottom of this page, you'll see some uncertainty over whether Judge Feldman still owns the oil or oil-related stocks he disclosed back in 2008. It seems that no one can say definitely that he doesn't, and one person interviewed for this particular story is bold enough to say that if Feldman's continued ownership can be verified, his ruling should be rescinded. That person has no power, however.

22 June 2010

The "New Old Right"

"C onservatism is a diverse movement with many philosophical trends and tensions," writes E. J. Dionne, "In opposition [to a liberal regime] conservatives often manage to bury their differences. But conservatism has flown apart when its components have come into conflict or when extreme rhetoric has come to the fore." While conservatism seems to be gaining strength at the moment, Dionne suspects that a "revolution on the American right" may undermine its momentum. What he describes sounds more like a counter-revolution, since it amounts to the revival of "a venerable if disturbing style of conservative thinking" that seems to be supplanting the Religious Right as the dominant element of reaction.

The rise of the Tea Party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal is unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with 'American values.'

I didn't realize that this had gone away, since Dionne describes the "New Old Right" in the same terms liberals use for any conservative movement that confronts them. I'd expect to see a similar paragraph in an op-ed from 1994 or 1980 or even 1964, or any time that conservatism has gotten vocal and angry. Like many liberals, Dionne's understanding of what conservatism is all about is shaped by the sociological and historical writings of the early 1960s, which sought to account for the popular support for McCarthyism, the rise of Barry Goldwater, the emergence of the John Birch Society, etc. Dionne himself invokes the Birchers as exemplars of anti-intellectualism, and cites one of the classic interpretative works of the era, Lipset and Raab's Politics of Unreason, as an authority on anti-government conservatism.

The big difference Dionne notices now seems to boil down to a greater emphasis on liberty than on traditional morality; hence his description of the New Old Right as libertarian. The Tea Parties seem less interested in repealing Roe v. Wade, I might grant, than in shrinking government, and the Sovereign papers I've been reading lately seem completely secular in orientation. I wonder, though, whether the Tea parties or the New Old Right are only segments of a larger national mood that might not be so easily defined along ideological or partisan lines. This larger opposition resists government as part of a larger aversion to power that also distrusts Wall Street, the Pentagon, globalization and anything that makes individuals feel powerless or unacceptably constrained. Dionne focuses on that segment most loyal to the Republican party, but he suspects that its reactionary extremism may discredit the GOP down the line. The danger for Republicans may not be disrepute by association, however, as the prospect that they will also be seen as part of the elite establishment and left behind by a movement that might grow stronger once it finds its authentic voice. Dionne concludes that conservative extremism may prove President Obama's "salvation," but he's thinking purely in Bipolarchy terms. If this movement outgrows the two-party system and keeps growing, Republican failure could prove neither Obama's salvation nor anyone else's.

Deepwater Drilling Moratorium Overruled

A federal judge in New Orleans has granted an injunction against the government's 60-day moratorium on deepwater oil drilling following the Gulf oil spill, ruling that the government was "arbitrary and capricious" in the scope of the injunction because it failed to prove an imminent threat to life and property in the continued operation of other deepwater rigs. The judge rules that the moratorium threatened irreparable harm to jobs and business interests in the region. The government has vowed to appeal the ruling, which you can read for yourself here. It's actually pretty brief and to the point; it suggests that the government succumbed to irrational hysteria following the spill and imposed restrictions on presumably innocent drillers without establishing that they presented risks similar to the BP-Deepwater Horizon rig. The notion that deepwater drilling is dangerous may seem like common sense to many lay observers, but the law apparently requires a higher standard of proof before it condones the kind of curtailment of commerce contemplated by the moratorium. Drill, baby, drill is the order of the day.

The McChrystal Controversy

The Rolling Stone magazine profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal has provoked calls for the Afghan commander's sacking or resignation, mainly because of disparaging comments made by members of his staff about Vice President Biden, other generals, etc. The article itself reads like one of Bob Woodward's exposes of the inner circles of power; the tone is gossipy and snarky at times. It is not a puff piece on the general itself; the author concludes that McChrystal's favored counterinsurgency strategy is untenable in Afghanistan. Nor is it a vehicle for the general to advocate for strategies contrary to those of his commander-in-chief. We learn that McChrystal was disappointed with the number of troops the President committed to the Afghan buildup (30,000 instead of 40,000), but it was the general's public advocacy of a buildup last year that helped convince Obama to commit any extra troops. If McChrystal's offense was going public to advocate his agenda for national strategy, then he should have been gone months ago. Even then, however, it wasn't a case of him going against the President, but a case of McChrystal making a case to convince an undecided C-in-C. Whether military strategy should be debated in public prior to a presidential decision is a subject for its own debate, but the idea isn't exactly inconsistent with democracy.

The McChrystal profile is a nonpartisan intervention in the Afghan War. The author is critical of the war from the left, presumably, while McChrystal himself is said to have voted for Obama in 2008. There are some unfavorable comments about the President, but nothing suggesting a repudiation of him or any break that would make it impossible for McChrystal to work for him. The article also includes comments from soldiers critical of McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, which they feel is overcautious about the risk of civilian casualties, as well as criticism from other officials regarding the general's close relationship with President Karzai. Nevertheless, the President is said to be furious with the article's publication, perhaps on behalf of the hurt feelings of advisers, and perhaps because he, too, thinks anything critical of his administration benefits the Republican Party. But the story only reveals prematurely, at worst, the details of infighting that emerge in military and bureaucratic histories long after the fact. If McChrystal has done wrong in cooperating with the reporter (and he has apologized today for doing so), it may be because you object (for reasons of morale or otherwise) to the dirty laundry of history being hung out to dry before it's gone through the spin cycle.

21 June 2010

Sovereigns of Their Own Domain

Thanks to my frequent correspondent Hobbyfan I'm in possession of three issues of The Sovereign, a monthly tabloid published in New York City. Hobby got them as samples from a pen pal, but as he is largely apolitical (or nonpartisan, to be more fair) he found them a pure nuisance. When he told me about them I had an instant anthropological interest, so he sent them along. These are the three most recent issues, unless the July 2010 number has already appeared, and I'm halfway through the May issue, but I'm ready to draw general conclusions.

Published by Philip J. Schrader, The Sovereign "does not apply a 'litmus test' to any contributor(s)," but its content will draw a certain type of contributor. Schrader presents his paper as "an outlet for information that helps the Citizenry defend their freedoms currently under attack by our so-called 'government,' and to keep selected/elected officials honest." There is an editorial bias in favor of individualism against "collectivism," though the tone is less anti-Marxist than anti-conformity of all kinds. Hostility to President Obama is intense (one contributor suggests that he may have been a CIA operative working in Afghanistan during his 1980s college years; another identifies him as "level four" manchurian candidate, "a fully programmed 'sleeper' assassin" potentially programmed with "'super human' talents such as a photographic memory and the ability to lie convincingly") but there is little sympathy shown toward Republicans here. The Sovereign opposes the War on Terror and one contributor regards Dick Cheney as a confessed war criminal. As a rule, the paper expresses a nonpartisan distrust of all complex systems. The American Bipolarchy, from this perspective, merely fronts for what Stewart Dougherty calls a predatory Master Class "so alien to mainstream American culture and thought that [it] might as well be an enemy invader from Mars." Echoing many other contributors Dougherty accuses this Master Class of seeking the literal enslavement of humanity, while others go further. The Master Class, some believe, want to reduce the human population by any means necessary. Some writers tie what they consider the great hoax of climate change to this mass-extermination agenda, while others obsess over every report of innovations in robotics for military or surveillance purposes. Regular contributors use pseudonyms taken from the Terminator movies, to give you an idea of the prevailing suspicion. Truthers and Birthers are well represented, the former somewhat more than the latter, though one can easily be both.

The best description I can think of for The Sovereign's style is "paranoid punk." The papers are liberally illustrated with images from classic album covers or old concert posters. There's no "heartland" feel to the thing, which probably makes sense given its metropolitan origins. There's little sense of reverence for religion or tradition, except insofar as those affirm the individual's right to be left alone. There is much protest over the immiseration of humanity but little or no evidence of any commitment to social justice. The publisher's attitude toward the "collective" pretty much preempts that idea. Some might characterize the paper's philosophy, if they concede that it has one, as right-wing libertarian, but right-wing anarchist seems closer to the mark. Nihilist individualism may be closer still. The contributors' idea of democracy, one suspects, wouldn't go far beyond voting people off the island. This is what some of us thought the Tea Parties were going to become, but The Sovereign almost makes the Tea Partiers look not so bad in comparison. It may regard itself as an information resource (though only the committed will be convinced by most of its reporting), but it really represents an intellectual dead end. Reading it uncritically could kill your mind.

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

One of the implications of the government's power to designate foreign political factions as "terrorist" groups is the assumed right to regulate and criminalize American citizens' involvement with such groups. The scope of that right was clarified today when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Obama administration's reading of a ban on "material support" for such groups. In Holder v Humanitarian Law Project the government was challenged by a plaintiff that wished to teach the Kurdish separatist group PKK and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka how to use non-violent means to get claims heard by international human-rights bodies. The HLP felt entitled to do this despite the existing law because they didn't propose to provide these groups with any means to help them wage war or perpetrate terrorist attacks. They also worried that a broad interpretation of the law violated their First Amendment right to advocate for the two organizations. The majority, speaking through Chief Justice Roberts, ruled that the plaintiffs retained their fundamental right to speak out or publish in the groups' interests, which were not constrained by the law, but that providing the groups even the sort of legal-service aid proposed would violate the ban on material support. The Chief Justice explains that providing such services could free up resources that the PKK or Tamil Tigers could then divert to terrorism.

While both groups have reportedly killed Americans in the past, neither is an essentially anti-American organization to my knowledge. Neither is "at war" with the United States. Each claims to represent a minority that wants independence from the majority regimes in their respective countries. From Roberts's opinion it becomes clear that they're on the U.S. terrorist list, and are denied material support from American citizens, not so much because of an objective repudiation of terrorism around the world but as a matter of maintaining good relations with the governments of Turkey and Sri Lanka. The Court calls on Americans to defer to the President and Congress's understanding, based on superior access to intelligence, that these groups are unworthy of individual American aid.

The dissenters, led by Justice Breyer, find a direct violation of the First Amendment and a slippery-slope threat to Americans' right even to sympathize publicly with "terrorist" groups not "at war" with the U.S. In closing, Breyer writes that Americans need to "consider how to apply the First Amendment when national security interests are at stake." Whether national security and diplomacy are one and the same, given that the latter seems really at stake here, is not considered here, but Breyer insists that deference to the other branches' expertise or authority on national security "do not automatically trump the Court's own obligation to secure the protection that the Constitution grants to individuals." Also unaddressed is the fundamental question of Americans' right, relative to their own government, to intervene even nonviolently in the affairs of other countries. It's each individual's prerogative to decide for himself that the Kurds or the Tamils are getting raw deals from their governments. It's obviously the individual's right to say so in the American media, as the majority affirmed. Given the existence of an international human-rights community of concerned individuals who investigate rights violations around the world, have Americans a right to participate in that community. Conversely, has the U.S. government a right to constrain such activity on national-security or other grounds? The Court says yes today, but the dissenters say that the government can't impose such limits without potentially threatening the more essential right to dissent from American foreign policy. The Obama administration and the conservative majority of the Roberts Court are on the same side this time. Does that prove that nonpartisan objectivity and dispassionate justice prevailed, or that bipartisan power upheld its own prerogatives at the expense of individual liberty? Figure it out for yourselves.

18 June 2010

Walter Mosley on Lesser-Evilism

Last week's Nation magazine published an acceptance speech delivered by one of its columnists, the novelist Walter Mosley, upon his receipt of the Upton Sinclar award from the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles. You have to subscribe to read his remarks on the Nation site, but they're also available here. In part, Mosley addresses a subject familiar to my own readers: the perils of lesser-evilism.

The notion of two evils is broadly accepted in American culture. Most working people are well aware of the rock and the hard place, damned if you do and damned if you don't. We accept the inevitability of a losing trade off on the long, declining, slippery slope of working class American life.

Mosley's context isn't partisan politics; his subject was a friend's struggle with lung disease. For this man, the lesser evil when faced with chronic bronchitis was accepting the risks that came with steroids. He found an alternative to the lesser evil, however, in the form of Chinese herbalism. Mosley concedes that herbal remedies "may fail sometimes," but in the case of his friend they've worked so far.

The real subject of Mosley's talk is the lesser-evil choice forced on many people between poverty and charity. In Mosley's opinion, charity is a lesser evil that remains an evil because it "weakens and ultimately eliminates our ability to live lives for ourselves -- leaving us dependent upon the kindness of bureaucrats." That sounds like the conservative critique of welfare-state dependency, but Mosley's talking about exactly the sort of philanthropic charity conservatives find preferable to welfare. But "the arbiters of philanthropy and good-will organizations never prepare us for liberation or revolution," Mosley protests. They are "misguided acolytes who aggrandize themselves by throwing money at people who are ultimately transformed into bondsmen under the domination of this lesser evil." This is a critique of charity that does not demand individual self-reliance; "liberation" and "revolution" are implicitly communal in Mosley's context.

This line of thought is relevant to our ongoing discussion of the way lesser-evilism sustains the American two-party system and restrains the rise of alternatives to our present Bipolarchy. Mosley objects to the lesser evil of charity because it renders recipients dependent upon itself by offering itself as the only alternative to an intolerably worse fate. By analogy, all lesser-evil reasoning, including the appeal to support Big Party A as the only alternative to intolerable Big Party B, instills a sense of dependency once voters are convinced that the good party, and not themselves, are the only defense against the bad party. Liberating oneself from lesser-evil thinking may mean taking risks -- I'm not sure if herbal medicine is the ideal analogy for independent political action -- but once someone sees, as Mosley wants, that "there is almost always a third and fourth and fifth approach to any predicament -- and any one of these methodologies may not be evil," the implications could well be revolutionary.

17 June 2010

Idiot of the Week Nominee: Rep. Joe Barton

Anyone wanting the Idiot honor this week has to work hard to top America's newest folk hero, Gary Brooks Faulkner, but for tone-deaf ideologically pigheaded cluelessness, as judged by his own peers, the title may well go to the Congressman who has received the most donations from the oil and gas industries. Barton has had a rough day since his aggressive display of servility this morning, when he apologized in a committee room to a British Petroleum executive for the White House having allegedly subjected the beleaguered corporation to a "shakedown" resulting in the formation of a $20 billion escrow fund. Within hours, fellow Republicans were demanding that the Texan be stripped of his committee seniority for the damage they believed he had done to the entire party's prospects this fall. Barton's righteous indignation over what he takes to be an unconstitutional imposition upon BP either blinded him or made him arrogantly indifferent to the fact that, before the American people, he was apologizing to the corporation most Americans hold responsible for the Gulf oil spill. He has since clarified that he doesn't deny BP's responsibility himself, but only objected to the manner with which the President enforced that responsibility. As the report linked shows, Barton is not alone in this thought on the right wing of the Republican Party, but his more practical comrades realized almost instantly how bad his apology can be made to look. Some rightists might well want to say, "the public be damned!" on this point, but some Republicans still understand that public opinion still matters, whether it conforms with free-market orthodoxy or not. The damage has been done, and Democrats are sure not to let anyone forget it. People may be dissatisfied with the President's handling of the oil spill, but they're likely to be even less satisfied with a party portrayed as not giving a damn about it, or caring more about a corporation's rights than the public interest.

16 June 2010

The Revolution of Attitude: The Tea Parties' Anti-Intellectual Revolt against Elite 'Hegemony'

The latest diagnosis of the Tea Party movement comes from Lee Harris, who writes for the Hoover Institute's Policy Review journal. This emanation from a conservative think tank presents conservative intellectuals with a stark choice: embrace the Tea Parties or prepare for irrelevance. Harris appears to believe that the intellectuals need to get over their condescending reservations about the mentality or attitude of Tea Partiers. In his view, their attitude is just what makes them a vital, potentially revolutionary force, and it should outweigh any of the admittedly bad proposals that many TPs propagate.

Harris is quick to concede that Tea Partiers don't really have any new ideas about politics. He might even agree that many TPs have no ideas at all. As he sees them, the Tea Parties are all about attitude, specifically the attitude symbolized by the "Don't Tread On Me" banner so often seen at such events. This attitude is the natural reaction of a previously apolitical population that has been suddenly and radically politicized.
[In the past] They were apathetic and apolitical. They did not interest themselves in public affairs, usually because they didn’t find public affairs very interesting. They had better things to think about — their jobs, their families, their homes, their cars, their favorite sports team. If other people were willing to tackle the complicated and tedious problems associated with governing the nation and defending it against foreign foes more power to them. So long as the managerial elite was taking care of business, and ruffling no one’s feathers, ordinary Americans were content to stay on the sidelines. The silent majority would remain contentedly silent, provided that the elite in charge of things did nothing to offend or outrage them.

This is no longer the case. The shock of September 11, the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the debacle following hurricane Katrina, the inability to control illegal immigration, the financial crisis, the massive bailout, the election of Barack Obama — all these events catastrophically undermined the implicit trust that the silent majority once placed in the competency of our national leadership. For many it has become an article of faith that something has gone terribly wrong with our country.

One key to understanding the Tea Partiers, Harris argues, is their previous lack of political engagement or awareness. Their prior detachment means that they've never learned the habits of deference to political experts that (he contends) constrain conservative intellectuals. If there is a widening schism between conservative intellectuals and TPs, Harris traces it to the intellectuals' yearning for validation from fellow intellectuals or opinion leaders, whether those are conservative or not. The Tea Partiers, by comparison, don't care what those people think, and they don't care what conservative intellectuals think, either.

Harris borrows from Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci the notion of hegemony to explain conservative intellectuals' alienation from a mass movement that's on their side. To the extent that they are intellectuals, conservative intellectuals are bedazzled by the prestige of the intellectual and cultural elite, even when they disagree politically or ideologically with its consensus on many issues. Conservative intellectuals aspire too much to intellectual respectability, Harris suggests, while the Tea Partier is more inclined to tell the cultural or intellectual elite to go to hell. Intellectual conservatives, he fears, have a hard time bringing themselves to do this even when it might be the right thing to do.

According to Harris, Gramsci believed that the only people immune to the hegemony of prestige were society's "marginalized outsiders." The peasants of Gramsci's native Sardinia defied the snobbery of their fellow Italians by adopting something like the Tea Partiers' "don't tread on me" attitude. It may be a stretch, given surveys of Tea Party demographics, to equate them with poor Mediterraneans, but Harris sees an admirable likeness in each group's stubborn resistance to that most awful of tyrannies, being taught how to live by "elites." Harris clearly believes that there is a intellectual and cultural elite in America that aspires to impose a hegemony over society that would compromise liberty. Freedom's strongest line of defense against this assault is that force that concedes nothing to the elite and doesn't care what it thinks, of them or of anything.

What's the danger of elite hegemony? Harris explains:
What sparked the Tea Party revolt is mounting dissatisfaction at living in a society in which a small group has increasingly solidified its monopoly over the manufacture and distribution of opinion, deciding which ideas and policies should be looked upon favorably and which political candidates will be sympathetically reported. Even more, the Tea Party rebels bitterly resent the rigid censorship exercised by this elite over the limits of acceptable public discourse. Those who have the power to rule an opinion “out of order” do not need to take the trouble to refute it, or even examine it. They can simply make it go away.

When the forbidden thoughts are deeply repugnant to us personally, it is easy to sympathize with the goal of the censors. The elimination of racist thinking, along with all the other forms that bigoted intolerance can assume, would surely be a national blessing. But this blessing would come at a steep price. If the censors have the power to eliminate thoughts they find objectionable, what will prevent them from abusing their formidable capacity by imposing their own narrow agenda on the rest of society, and for their own selfish purposes? Indeed, what is to keep them from establishing a totalitarian regime that does not need to rely on terror or brute force simply because it has developed far more effective methods of obtaining the consent of the masses — namely, cultural indoctrination?

Note that the "narrow agenda" is assumed and neither proved nor even defined. It's probably assumed to be narrow simply because it's the agenda of an elite. Nor does Harris ever demonstrate that the Tea Party agenda (or "attitude") is any less narrow. He probably didn't think he had to. The important thing is that the elite not dictate, however gently or subtly, to anyone else -- and whether the others could stand some dictation, direction, education or good advice is irrelevant. There is no freedom, we might infer from Harris's sympathetic account, without the freedom to be stupid.
[T]he fact that the Tea Party movement does not give a damn about the current standards of intellectual respectability makes it problematic for the intellectual, who cannot take the same attitude. But it is also the characteristic that justifies the Tea Party’s claim to be revolutionary. To be sure, this is not the revolution envisioned by Marx, in which the working class overthrows the capitalist class. It is rather the revolt of common sense against privileged opinion makers, and, by its very nature, it can only be carried out by men and women who are not constrained by the standards of intellectual respectability current in polite company. Again, it is precisely their status as marginalized outsiders that allows them to defy the monopoly of prestige possessed by the cultural insiders. This fact may put them beyond the pale as far as the conservative intellectuals are concerned, but it is precisely what makes them a force capable of resisting the liberal elite’s efforts to achieve cultural hegemony — a resistance that conservative intellectuals had hoped to mount but which they have not mounted, which explains why the Tea Party movement has so little use for them as a whole.

For Harris, this is a simple defense of the principle of self-government, which he finds under siege from the "liberal elite." He concedes that some kind of elite or expert rule is inevitable, but he thinks that the best way to keep it honest is to keep it accountable to (or simply afraid of) people who refuse to be impressed by their elite expertise. He doesn't appear to think it important for such dissidents to prove the validity of their objections; that would imply that the uneducated are answerable to the educated in some undemocratic way. Harris appears willing to stand some degree of stupidity (he dismisses TP advocacy of the gold standard, for instance), so long as it holds off the spectre of unlimited elite power to do...whatever. See if you find his closing thoughts inspiring or chilling.
People who are easy to govern lose their freedom. People who are difficult to govern retain theirs. What makes the difference is not an ideology, but an attitude. Those people who embody the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude have kept their liberties simply because they are prepared to stand up against those who threaten to tread on them. To the pragmatist, it makes little difference what ideas free people use to justify and rationalize their rebellious attitude. The most important thing is simply to preserve this attitude among a sufficiently large number of people to make it a genuine deterrent against the power hungry. If the Tea Party can succeed in this all-important mission, then the pragmatist can forgive the movement for a host of silly ideas and absurd policy suggestions, because he knows what is really at stake. Once the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude has vanished from a people, it never returns. It is lost and gone forever — along with the liberty and freedom for which,ultimately, it is the only effective defense.

15 June 2010

George Will on the Costs of Prop 14 vs the Benefits of Partisanship

Like many an advocate for alternatives to the two-party system, George Will sees California's Proposition 14, recently approved by voters, as a new obstacle to independent candidates. Unlike other critics, he's less inclined to see it as a veiled victory for the American Bipolarchy under the guise of "nonpartisan elections" than as a triumph for a theoretically similar entity, the permanent political class. While Bipolarchy theory (if I dare dignify it with that title) asserts that the major parties exaggerate allegedly irreconcilable all-or-nothing ideological conflicts in order to make themselves appear as the only real choices for voters, Will's latest column accuses the permanent political class of trying to smother principled differences in the name of a convivial, fundamentally unprincipled "pragmatism."

"Proposition 14’s purpose is to weaken and marginalize parties, traditionally the principal vehicles for voter education and mobilization," Will writes:

Supporters of "top two" primaries think parties are too representative — too responsive to their “ideological” members. These are usually the parties’ most interested, informed and active members. But such people, say Proposition 14 supporters, are tiresome because they are not congenial centrists. Being “partisan,” they do not practice the bipartisanship that enables government to “get things done.”

As a philosophical, not to mention partisan conservative, Will doesn't see "getting things done" as a constant good. He opens this particular column with a conservative credo: " Under the current imperfect administration of the Universe, most new ideas are false, so most ideas for improvements make matters worse." Prop 14 is offered as proof for this assertion. Will sees it as Arnold Schwarzenegger's monument, "a candidate selection process that is intended to nominate candidates like him....It seeks to generate a homogenized political class, one not lumpy with liberals and conservatives who, being politicians of conviction, do not always play well with others." Notice Will's small gesture of generosity toward liberals, crediting them at least with conviction when the hegemony they share with conservative ideologues is threatened even in this clumsy fashion.

The implication throughout Will's column is that principled politics is possible only through ideologically oriented partisanship.

Does America need a cure for “partisanship,” the supposed disease of leaders such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson at the birth of America’s party system? Does America need a nominating process that narrows choices by stacking the deck against minor parties? Does it need a process that produces “pragmatic” candidates who, because they have no ballast of “ideology,” aka ideas, and are not rendered “rigid” by convictions, can “reach across the aisle” to achieve compromises congenial to the entire political class? [emphasis added]

According to Will, there are no ideas without ideology, no conviction without rigidity. The only proof of principle for him is that refusal to compromise that characterizes the state of legislative gridlock he favors out of fear of innovation. But it can just as easily be argued that the rigidity of ideology suppresses ideas by automatically segregating them into one category or the other, the good and the evil. Ideology as Will idealizes it rejects any pragmatic appraisal of proposals, which are reflexively deemed permissible or forbidden according to where they're plotted on the ideological map, not that of the real world or one's actual constituency. By rushing to the defense of the ideological bipolarchy Will wants to force on us a false choice between dogmatism and ruthlessness. His conclusions suggest that, despite its plain faults, Proposition 14 is a clumsy, stumbling step in the right direction.

A Racist Candidate for Governor

A new candidate has joined the race to become the next governor of New York State. Charles Barron is an New York City councilman and the would-be founder of the New York Freedom Democratic Party. He has announced plans to secure the petitions necessary to earn a spot on the November ballot in order to offer nonwhite voters an alternative to the Democratic Party and its candidate, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Barron believes that Cuomo snubbed racial minorities by choosing a white man as his running mate. He sees a Democratic ticket with no minorities at the top (governor and lieutenant, two incumbent U.S. Senators) as no better than what Democrats offered in the Jim Crow South.

Barron's candidacy looks like pure identity politics. In his reported statements he offers no explanation of how Cuomo's platform does black voters or other minorities any disservice. His opposition to Cuomo appears to be based entirely on the Democratic Party's failure to include a black face at the top of the state ticket. There's a racist implication here that black people can be represented properly or faithfully only by black politicians. Had white voters thought along the same lines two years ago, Sarah Palin would be a heartbeat away from the White House today. For his part, Barron may well believe that a refusal to nominate a black person for lieutenant governor is an implicit denial of black capacity to govern, but the complaint seems frivolous at a time when anyone's capacity to govern seems open to question.

We can expect Democrats to howl and Republicans to gloat if the Freedom Democrats show any momentum this summer. Barron has already had to answer the charge that he's a spoiler, and his is the right answer, generally speaking, for any independent candidate: "Spoil what? They already spoiled us by excluding us and having a statewide slate that looks like Mississippi in the 1950s. What am I spoiling? I’m going to be an empowerer." My criticism of Barron's racial bias in no way diminishes his right to run for governor. He and his potential supporters owe neither Cuomo nor the Democratic Party their votes. Nor need they be concerned about the possibility of Republican rule if, to their minds, that would be no worse than an allegedly lily-white Democratic regime. The Democrats, in turn, have every right to defend themselves against the charge and cast countercharges against Barron. They can challenge his fitness for office and his prejudices, but they have no business questioning his right to run against them as if he were, indeed, a rebellious servant.

14 June 2010

Afghanistan: Are Natural Resources the way out or the way in?

Conspiracy theorists have long believed that the U.S. has had an ulterior material motive for its involvement in Afghanistan, beyond the presumed security interest in denying al-Qaeda one particular safe haven. Speculation has usually focused on the country's potential strategic placement for an oil pipeline as an alternative to carrying oil through Russia. Now comes news that Americans have been actively looking for natural resources, and have apparently found them in mineral form: trillions of dollars worth of iron, copper, etc. as well as lithium and other modern essentials.

Optimists identify these resources as the root of economic development that could lift Afghanistan into modern times at last. Other experts warn that these discoveries could exacerbate the potential for civil war if the Taliban and other warlords scramble for control of resource sites despite laws that place them under central government control. Readers can infer the beginnings of an argument for continued U.S. intervention from the perceived need for guidance in exploiting the resources, the need to keep peace to ensure their orderly exploitation, and the already alleged strategic need to keep them away from the control of nearby resource-hungry China.

Are these reports part of a not-so-subtle propaganda effort to portray the Afghan Occupation as "worth it" to impatient Americans with hints that this country will benefit from the projected resource bonanza? I suppose it could be, and I also suppose that there's fair money to be made by providing Afghans with the technology to make the best use of their resources that they see fit. It'd be fair money if contracts are fairly earned in a fair process open to all comers, including China and anyone else who can offer the Afghans a deal. But if the occupation gives Americans an unfair advantage in exploiting these resources, it will at least partially confirm the assumptions of skeptics, cynics and conspiracy theorists that something other than principle or national security has kept us in Afghanistan long after bin Laden presumably left. Americans who assume that only Republicans would do such things may be in for surprises soon.

13 June 2010

"A bill that hurts people"

The government of New York State may shut down tomorrow. That is, it may go into emergency mode while cutting off many resources, including unemployment checks. The state budget is weeks late, and legislators must approve the governor's extender bills in order to keep government functioning more or less normally. Governor Paterson, a lame duck, is trying to cut the budget, while Republicans complain that he won't cut enough and one Democrat, occasional renegade Ruben Diaz, says he won't vote for too many cuts, or for any bill that "hurts people." Diaz's opposition may be enough to sink the latest extender, the contents of which are still being negotiated, given the close margin of Democratic control of the state senate, unless some Republicans decide that Paterson's cuts are adequate compared to the ultimate cut of a shutdown. Diaz's stand raises a question about government in hard times: has government an obligation to ask its dependents to tighten their belts? The other side of the question is whether poor people should be immune to retrenchment when government lacks the means to provide for them? Do the rights of the people to a minimal standard of living trump any apparent limit on state resources? If so, what are politicians to do? Too often they simply dodge the question by borrowing more money, but current conditions force them to answer. If we accept that rights are conferred by the people on themselves through government, then it's government's obligation to clarify when rights have material limits. If the people decide that their rights (in some cases, their necessities) are more than government deems itself capable of providing. what then? Compared with people in other countries, Americans seem reticent about asserting their material rights. When threatened with the sort of cuts Paterson or the Republicans might demand, working-class people in other countries take to the streets, peacefully or not, to make their own demands clear. Who does Ruben Diaz speak for? I can't tell. Some of his constituents may well think it necessary to tighten their belts for a time, but others may not. But the people themselves seem to have little say in this drama until they vote in November, or so most of them assume. Should they really wait so long if the stakes are as high as some say? We don't necessarily have to see Greek-style rioting in the streets or even French-style general strikes to find out where the people stand, but we need to see and hear more than we have now, or else they'll have to content themselves with whatever the party hacks in Albany deliver or withhold.

10 June 2010

California Adopts "Open Primaries": How Open Are They?

In theory, Californians voted in party primaries for statewide offices for the last time Tuesday. That's because they also took time to approve Proposition 14, which mandates "open primaries," or what are elsewhere called "nonpartisan elections." The California proposal was also known as "top two," based on its provision that the two most popular candidates as determined by the open primary, regardless of party affiliation, will move on to the general election. In other words, the final choice could come down to two Republicans or two Democrats, depending on the public mood, or the usual Bipolarchy selection of one from each major party.

In theory, an independent candidate could also make the final cut. But as critics have pointed out, by failing to change the rules for ballot access, Prop 14 may have made it insurmountably difficult for independents to get on the open-primary ballot. As in New York, ballot eligibility in California is determined by a party's performance in the gubernatorial election; you have an automatic spot next time if you get 2% of the popular vote in the general election. The rules for eligibility for the nonpartisan primary ballot apparently remain the same, even though party identification on the new ballot is purely optional. But if you can't get onto the primary ballot, how are you supposed to earn the requisite percentage in the general election to guarantee your spot next time? This analysis of the situation led independent parties to oppose the proposition, which seems to have been designed to empower centrists rather than radical alternatives.

All problems of ballot access boil down to the inherent problem of the official ballot. Once upon a time, the ballot was something you stuffed into a box. Parties printed their own ballots, and people could probably make up their own as well. Ballot access in such circumstances was not a problem, unless some ward heeler wouldn't let your friends vote. It became a problem when governments established official ballots. These were meant to list the choices available to voters, rather than a list of the individual voter's own choices, but the range of choices the ballot itself made available was inherently limited by space, and the write-in option was always poor compensation for that limitation. Official ballots inevitably defined the choices available in an exclusionary fashion, empowering officials to impose tests on new parties or independent individuals that have no constitutional sanction. The California case suggests that nonpartisanship of the kind enacted by Prop 14 is no threat to the American Bipolarchy so long as ballot access remains under state control. The only way to level the playing field effectively is to repossess it so that the government has no power to limit the people's choices. If California has taken no steps to do this, its first step toward nonpartisanship may prove worse than no step at all.

09 June 2010

Will the National Popular Vote Make Us All Matter?

Today's Albany Times Union has an op-ed urging readers to encourage New York state senators to support a bill that would bind the Empire State to an interstate pact that to award presidential elections to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. So far, five states are parties to the pact, which asserts a raw democratic principle against the country's constitutional tradition. Advocates believe that the President of the United States should be elected by a majority of the American people -- or at least a majority of those who vote. Rather than amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College, which guarantees a minimum of electoral votes to the smallest states and thus gives them disproportionate influence in elections by pure democratic standards, the National Popular Vote pact, upon taking effect, would bind state signatories to allocate all of their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes nationwide, regardless of whether that candidate got the most popular votes in any particular state. The commanding principle behind the plan is that the people, not the states, elect the President. The corollary is that the people should choose as a single assembly or electorate, not in separate assemblies whose artificial rough equality actually makes some votes count for more than others.

John R. Koza's reasoning in favor of adopting the pact may strike local readers as paradoxical. He opens his article by complaining that presidential candidates don't pay enough attention to, or spend enough campaign money in New York. He appeals implicitly to state pride and seeks to make us angry that we are ignored. He blames this neglect, not on the fact that New York seems safely "blue," but on the state's winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes. That distribution isn't mandated by the U.S. Constitution, Koza rightly notes, but is entirely up to each state.

Assuming first that it's a problem or an injustice that New Yorkers aren't visited often enough by presidential candidates, there are two possible solutions to the problem. One alternative is to change the state rule so that each electoral district can cast its vote for the popular vote winner within its own borders. Since there are "red" as well as "blue" sections of New York, that gives candidates of both major parties, not to mention independents with concentrations of local support, incentive to campaign more aggressively (and responsively, one hopes) in the state. Because Koza rejects any scheme that divides the electorate and disrupts the "one man, one vote" balance that pure democracy demands, he prefers the National Popular Vote scheme. This creates an incentive for candidates because each individual vote they can get in any state will count toward the raw national total that would alone determine the winner.

Koza's proposal will require New Yorkers to rethink their own role in the process. The obvious argument against the National Popular Vote in any state debating it will be the prospect that the people of that state may prefer one candidate, but will be bound to surrender their electoral votes to another if that person gets a mere plurality of the national vote -- Koza doesn't say that the NPV winner must have a majority of the popular vote. It will be easy to tell New Yorkers that they'd be disfranchised by such a process. The challenge for Koza and other advocates of the NPV is to convince them otherwise, that their votes will count for no less and no more than anyone else's in America. They'll need to persuade New Yorkers that in presidential elections they must vote as individuals and Americans, not as New Yorkers.

A different argument against the NPV has nothing to do with democracy, except to question democracy's claim on the Presidency. The entire movement for a national popular vote is based on the premise that the President of the United States is the representative of the entire American people, and should be selected by the people as a whole the same way that local populations pick their representatives in Congress. Over the course of American history, Presidents have been happy to make that claim, especially when they seek to expand their power at the expense of Congress and the Supreme Court or want to ignore the will of those branches of government. Whether the Founders meant the President to see himself that way is debatable. Wouldn't they have mandated a popular vote in the first place had they seen the chief executive as a tribune of undivided democracy? Instead, they expected people to vote for electors, not presidents, and not necessarily with foreknowledge of whom the electors would make president. This is old news, of course, and I bring it up again only to remind readers that they should not take for granted that the President is supposed to be the unique representative of all the people. Before we alter our election process based on such an assumption, let's decide what we want the President to be, where the office stands between the people and the rest of the government, how much prestige and power an entirely democratic election should grant a President. We don't have to be bound by what the Founders thought on the subject, but if we intend to do things differently we should be clear on why we're doing it.

The Mystery of Alvin Greene

Alvin Greene is arguably the embodiment of the anti-incumbent, anti-establishment spirit supposedly loose in this country. He is the Democratic nominee to challenge U. S. Senator Jim DeMint after defeating a veteran state politician and officeholder in the party primary in South Carolina yesterday. He would also seem to be a living refutation of all the complaints against the exclusionary expense of modern campaigning. According to reports, Greene had no campaign website and couldn't even afford signs, much less commercials. He is an unemployed veteran who lives with his parents. He seems like the dream of many an independent politician come true, yet he has risen like a rocket through the ranks of the American Bipolarchy, as if proving the argument against nonpartisan elections that major-party membership gives unique opportunities to the poor for politician advancement.

Yet Democrats in and out of South Carolina are mostly responding to Greene's victory with despair. They see him as a hopeless challenger to DeMint, and many have theorized that his primary win was somehow an irrational choice by voters. Some have said that he won because his name came first in alphabetical order on the primary ballot. Others claim that black racial chauvinism favored Greene. Some have hinted that he's a Republican plant, though it's more plausible to note that South Carolina has open primaries, so that anyone could vote in the Democratic primary. Some people may well have voted insincerely to burden the Democracy with whom they deemed the weakest possible candidate. But few seem to take seriously the idea that Greene would be the natural choice of all the angry people who now supposedly despise incumbency and political experience or even prosperity.

I want to know more about the campaign Greene actually waged before yesterday. Google searches today are dominated by reports of the primary, but before anyone draws conclusions about how he won we need to review events objectively without ruling out the possibility that Greene actually earned his victory, or that it was a sincere protest vote and not an attempt to sabotage the Democratic party. For now, I'm grimly amused by the way the emergence of an indisputable man of the people has been treated as if the system had suddenly gone wrong.

Update: If Republicans think that Greene's nomination is a best-case nomination, it just got better with this report that the candidate has a felony charge pending involving obscene Internet content.

07 June 2010

Conservative Senate candidate promises to be 'commonsense Republican'

In New York, the Conservative Party is always happy to remind Republicans that no modern GOP candidate for governor has won without the Conservative endorsement. The Conservative endorsement of Rick Lazio in advance of the Republican convention may have made it easier for him to win his own party's nomination, though he still faces a token primary challenge. Whether the same rule of necessity applies in campaigns for U.S. Senate is unclear. The Conservatives have nominated Joe DioGuardi to challenge Senator Gillibrand, but he won't appear on the Republican primary ballot unless he can secure a certain number of petitions. DioGuardi clearly believes that his victory depends on winning the Republican primary. His rationalization for coveting the Republican line betrays the way that Bipolarchy thinking can infiltrate even the minds of independent candidates.

"New Yorkers deserve to hear every voice, every idea, every candidate during the debate preceding the primary election." DioGuardi writes, "They deserve to understand every angle before deciding who they believe can beat Sen. Gillibrand this November and go on to proudly and properly represent New York in the U.S. Senate. In order to give Republican voters that opportunity, I have decided to petition onto the Republican primary ballot."

The candidate forgets that Republicans already have that opportunity, because he already has a line on the November ballot. Nothing stops registered Republicans for voting for him this fall except the admittedly tenacious delusion that no candidate but the Democrat or the Republican is truly creditable. By seeking the GOP nomination, DioGuardi himself effectively concedes that point. He also asserts the existence of that ideological Bipolarchy which justifies the existence of the partisan bipolarchy in ideologues' eyes. In what some observers may admire as a reversal of the usual Republican argument, DioGuardi, calls on Republicans to unite with Conservatives by nominating him in order to defeat the common enemy, the liberal [albeit Blue Dog] incumbent Gillibrand. But he defeats whatever ironic effect his appeal might have by billing himself as a "commonsense Republican." A New Yorker might ask why a commonsense Republican begins the race as the Conservative rather than Republican nominee, when ideology is arguably a deviation from common sense. Conservatives, however, are even less likely to ask the question, since they see themselves as the shadow Republican party in this state.

In fact, DioGuardi comes across as something close to a commonsense Republican when you look at his issue statements. He appears to be primarily a fiscal rather than a social or cultural conservative. There's little red meat for anyone to dunk in their tea. As a former congressman he bucks the tide against experienced politicians, though he boasts more of his decades as a CPA than of his tenure in the House of Representatives. If there's anything to fault him for besides his ideology, it's his failure to appreciate his independence or his obligation to build on it to ensure that New Yorkers have more choices when he isn't one of them.

Palestine: The Forbidden Thought

Helen Thomas's apology for her off-the-cuff comment on the Middle East is better proof of her need to retire than the statement she apologized for. Either way you look at it, the elderly doyenne of the White House press corps has demonstrated that she says things she doesn't mean, and that's unacceptable from someone commissioned to press the White House and its representatives for the truth of things. Either she's confessed to senile whimsy that borders on anti-semitism or she's uttering obligatory apologies that are patently insincere.

A younger reporter would probably find herself banned from the press room for making similar remarks, but that theoretical person should be more willing to defend her remarks than Thomas has been. Her career-ending comment was to the effect that the Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go back to where they presumably came from, Europe or the U.S. It's an outlandish comment, but I question whether hostility toward Israel should implicitly disqualify a journalist from a place in the White House press corps.

The objective fact is that only a megalomaniac can fantasize Israel out of existence. Any event resulting in a second diaspora or mass expulsions of millions would be a greater humanitarian injustice than any original offense on Israel's part. The Zionist entity often annoys me, too, and I resent the attitude in my own country that treats Israelis as heroic pioneers or surrogate Christians (fulfilling God's will in any event) while treating Arabs the way we used to treat Native Americans. American unwillingness to see history through Arab (if not Muslim) eyes is a kind of bigotry in its own right. But the Arab viewpoint is no more the objective one than the Zionist viewpoint. A Palestinian might ask if any other nationality has ever been treated the way they've been, and the historian can point to the dominant populations of the Hapsburg empire who at the same time as the Muslims lost the satisfaction of being able to call certain lands theirs. The birth of Czechoslovakia and the rebirth of Poland, for instance, probably came as psychic shocks to Germans who considered those lands and their peoples as part of their patrimony, or more simply regarded them as their homes -- and who waged a monstrous war to reclaim them. It can be argued that the Balfour Declaration was qualitatively different and more pernicious to the extent that it was an invitation to people to settle and take over a territory rather than a liberation of an established subject population, but Palestine was never really empty of Jewish people. What can't be argued, I'm afraid, what no one has a right to claim, is that Palestinians have no right to regard the Zionist ascendancy as an injustice. That goes as well for those people in the wider world who choose to sympathize with the Palestinian Arabs; they have every right to hate Israel the same way other people hate Islamist Iran or Kimite North Korea. They can be criticized for intemperate or just plain stupid remarks, but a liberal society has an obligation to indulge the opinion or the attitude. Thomas has made the issue moot by retiring, but whether she has retired in disgrace is subject for further debate. The real subject of that debate is whether Americans can take sides based on conscience (or maybe even on prejudice) in disputes between foreign countries without being subject to penalties in professional life.

06 June 2010


"W e're making progress downstairs," Mr. Peepers told me a few weeks ago, "Why is that a bad thing?"

He's an all-around handyman in the office, and he'd been tasked with renovating some old office space into a multimedia conference room. He seemed satisfied with his work.

"Why do you ask that?" I asked, "Does someone disapprove?"

"Why is progress a bad thing?" he requeried.

"Who says it is?"

"Mr. Right, Republicans, conservatives. They don't like progressives, but what's wrong with progress?"

I've been pondering ever since how to explain it in a way that's intellectually fair to conservatives. That gave George Will time to write a column that explains it as well as anyone could.

Will has just read a critique of American progressivism written by conservative editor William Vogeli. According to Vogeli, writes Will, progressivism is defined by the absence of a "limiting principle." They believe, we may presume, that progress itself is limitless, that things can get better and better, even if they may also get worse at times. Conservatives by definition question whether progress is improvement. It's a fair question to ask, but some conservatives automatically assume that progress, understood as deviation from proven wisdom, is often the opposite of improvement. It often depends on the subject of progress. Few conservatives, I presume, question technological or scientific improvements, except possibly in the realm of biology. In politics, however, conservatives by definition believe that the definitive answers to the problems of human society have already been discovered. They believe either that the answers were given to us by a higher power, or that they were discovered through the use of reason applied to the subject of the abstract human individual. For the latter group, the problems of politics are solved by discovering the "natural rights" of individuals, which follow from "human nature." Since human nature is unchanging, so are our natural rights. In Will's words, they are "rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct." This was once a radical viewpoint, so long as it granted individuals more rights than traditional governments did. It becomes conservative, and must do so inevitably, once political progress comes up against the supposed limits of natural rights. A believer in natural rights most likely believes that there is an upper limit to what people can demand as their rights from society. There may be no limit to the individual's right to what he can "earn," but there must be a limit, conservatives believe, to what he can demand materially from other individuals. That limit applies to governments as well.

Will, speaking for himself as well as, presumably, for Vogeli, believes that Progressivism is a heresy against the Founders. As he understands them, they instituted government "to protect pre-existing and timeless natural rights." This understanding depends on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, of course, though the provision for amendments in the latter document belies any Founding commitment to inherently limited rights. Progressivism, which Will partisanly dates back only to Democrat Woodrow Wilson (forgetting his predecessor, Republican Teddy Roosevelt) is a repudiation and reversal of the Founding restraints upon government and a mandate for unlimited state power at the expense of individuals' most important natural right, that of keeping the property they earn. As elaborated by arch-Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, it threatens to treat "all human desires as needs and hence as rights." Will does not elaborate on which of our desires don't make the timeless cut, but one can imagine.

Since I write about the Progressive Era, I have some idea of what Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt were about. They weren't as interested in government vis-a-vis the individual as Will would imply. They and fellow Progressives believed that government had to grow because the nation had grown and, most importantly, business had grown. Wilson and TR differed in their approach to the problem, but they both recognized the problem presented by the rise of giant corporations, monopolies and trusts, as well as the slower rise of large-scale labor unions in opposition to corporate power. Progressives believed that corporate influence could overwhelm traditionally-limited government, and they believed that it was the nation's business to govern corporations. They also saw government as an objective referee between Big Business and Big Labor, and realized that it had to become Big Government, or at least bigger than the 1788 ideal, to do so. They were Progressives not because they had a theory of desirable human or social Progress, but because they saw Progress happening right in front of them and had to deal with it. Whoever questions Progressivism had better be able to prove that the problems that Roosevelt and Wilson perceived weren't really problems.

Will and Vogeli complain that there's no apparent limit to progressive rights claims on government or government claims to more power, but nowhere in his column does Will assert a limit to the individual right to accumulate personal wealth. But if society is to be based on limits, then limits should apply to individuals as well as the state. The Progressives saw an imbalance developing in favor of wealth and other concentrations of power. The Founders themselves worried about the effect of inequality on their ideal polity. As far as I can tell from this column, George Will is unconcerned about inequality. So who's really against the American tradition this time?

03 June 2010

Working Families in Name Only?

The Working Families Party of New York State may be in a fight for its political life. As with any political party in the Empire State, its "life" is its place on the ballot. You get a higher spot alphabetically based on electoral performance, but you get nothing if your candidate for governor gets less than 50,000 votes. As a rule, Working Families endorses the Democratic candidate, expecting enough liberals or progressives to vote for that candidate on the WFP line to preserve their ballot position. This year, however, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic candidate, is reportedly reluctant to occupy the WFP line because the party is under investigation. So is the Independence Party, whose nomination Cuomo has accepted, but that's another story.

An anonymous Working Families sympathizer has introduced legislation in the state senate to change the election rules so that the party can preserve its ballot line by getting 50,000 votes in any statewide election. I found out about this by reading the New York Daily News, which denounced the scheme on its editorial page today.

The editors call it "an underhanded plan" and a "dirty deal" that would "lower the bar" of party viability. They seem to object primarily because the proposal is designed to benefit the WFP, which allegedly "embodies much of what's wrong with New York's dysfunctional government." The News thinks so because Working Families "is essentially a front for major labor unions and other narrow interests that thrive on the excessive state spending and too-high taxes that are sapping New York's economy." The Democratic and Republican parties, of course, aren't "fronts" for anything, especially not narrow interests. You may now scoff.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is still negotiating in hardball fashion with Working Families. He's reportedly worried that WFP will influence the upcoming Democratic primary for the Attorney General nomination by nominating one of the candidates on its own line. The New York Times reports that Cuomo has told the party to nominate "placeholders" for both AG and governor, the idea being that the placeholder AG nominee would not be one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination. Cuomo presumably believes that denying the WFP line to either of her rivals will help his favored candidate, Kathleen Rice. He supposedly holds out the possibility of accepting the Working Families nod on the implicit condition that the party also accepts Rice. The state election law allows the party to replace its nominees between convention or primary and election.

Such is the lot of an independent party in New York State, where ballot lines matter more than principled campaigns. Working Families is basically the "left" counterpart of the state's Conservative Party, the primary reason for each entity's existence being to pressure a more powerful party into nominating ideologically congenial candidates rather than winning power by running such candidates on their own. You have to look to the Greens and Libertarians and the Constitution Party, for starters, for genuine independent candidates. That judgment aside, I don't see anything wrong with the proposal that so bugs the News. Like them or not, the WFP is an established party and should not be relegated to some second class of parties that have to scramble for petitions to get on the ballot. Indeed, there shouldn't be a second class of parties at all, and if that makes things difficult when putting a ballot together, then the ballot itself ought to be reconsidered. That would give once-presumably principled parties like Working Families less cause to compromise themselves. Of course, given that the WFP opposes even the more modest idea of nonpartisan elections, it may be a lost cause, but real reform could only benefit more principled parties in the future.