29 July 2010

A 'Battlefield Ballot Line' is Not Independent

The local papers today had the latest chapter in the sorry saga of the Rensselaer County (NY) Working Families Party, which the Albany Times Union describes as a "battlefield ballot line." The WFP is, on paper, an independent party, but as the description indicates, in Rensselaer County the party is a plaything of the local Bipolarchy. It lacks a committed local cohort, or a sense of distinctive partisan identity, capable of resisting attempts at control, direct or indirect, by Republican and Democratic operatives. In the past, the GOP has been canny, arranging for a sufficient number of loyalists to register as WFP members in order to vote in the party primary and elect stooge candidates for the sole purpose of diverting liberal or progressive votes away from the Democratic candidate. In an effort to thwart the Republican strategy, local Democrats are alleged to have committed election fraud through the manipulation of absentee ballots. I've told this story before, but I repeat it often in the hope of getting it more widely noticed. The Working Families organization in New York State as a whole is virtually a textbook case on how not to develop a truly independent party. Through cross-endorsements it has a spot on state ballots, but in at least one locality it lacks the means or the manpower to make use of it for the party's presumed purpose. In Rensselaer County the WFP ballot line isn't a battlefield but an abandoned building contested over by squatters and looters. Whatever metaphor you prefer, you can't call it an independent party if it's so helplessly vulnerable to transparently hostile takeovers. If such an allegedly independent party becomes nothing but a Bipolarchy plaything, shouldn't there be some way to put it out of the electorate's misery rather than allow the Bipolarchy parties to compete in deceiving the public? At the very least, the case of Pedro Espada, the state senator targeted for purging by Democratic party leaders, suggests that WFP members who truly cared could attempt a necessarily more extensive purge of their own ranks. I'm aware of no such attempt. It would seem to be imperative, however, if an independent party wants to be actually independent.

28 July 2010

Failure to DISCLOSE

Republican Senators were unanimous yesterday in their refusal to allow their version of H.R. 5175, the so-called "DISCLOSE" Act, to come to a vote. That means someone has crafted campaign-finance legislation that even Sen. McCain opposes. This bill would have required more transparency from campaign donors and political ad purchasers, with special responsibilities, it seems, imposed on corporations and restrictions imposed on corporations with government contracts or receiving TARP assistance. The Democrats had found an unlikely ally in the National Rifle Association after including language exempting public-advocacy groups like the NRA from the bill's requirements. Some conservative commentators accused the NRA of selling them out, and such comments, along with others, further the impression that Republicans believe that "DISCLOSE" would particularly handicap them. In their own rhetoric, Republicans claim that this bill, like all campaign-finance legislation, will only benefit incumbents at the expense of insurgents. Since every Republican Senator who opposes the bill is an incumbent, you might ask why they're complaining. The answer is that they expect corporate donations to benefit the Republican party disproportionately, but feel that the advantage they'd get from the donations will be reduced if more people know who's paying for their campaigns.

It's interesting that politicians are debating the propriety or fairness of obligatory disclosure at the same time that other people are debating the propriety of anonymity in public discourse, particularly on the internet. Many people are concerned about the way anonymity allegedly encourages irresponsible conduct online, from trolling to cyberbullying. From their perspective, anonymity obstructs accountability. I can't fully agree with this position, since I don't blog under my real name. There's an argument in favor of anonymity (or more correctly the use of pseudonyms) in political or any other kind of polemical discourse, which is that anonymity immunizes your argument from ad hominem attack. Your argument, ideally, will stand of fall on its own merits as long as someone can't say, "You only make that argument because you are a so-and-so." Republicans are making a similar argument, to an extent, against DISCLOSE, or at least they accept the premise that disclosure would serve, fairly or not, to discredit the arguments of corporate-subsidized advertisers. They want a contest of ideas without having the motives or interests of one side questioned just because of who they are or who gives money to them. But it's still profoundly debatable, the Supreme Court notwithstanding, whether paying for ads is equivalent to posting on a blog or publishing a Federalist Paper, and whether the campaign donor is entitled to the same anonymity or immunity as the author of a controversial opinion. We wouldn't let someone run for office under a false name, I assume, and our entitlement to full disclosure about anyone running for office should extend to everyone who subsidizes him. If it makes Republicans feel better, the same rules of disclosure ought to apply to any person or group who wants to donate to a campaign, whether it's a billionaire, a labor union, the NRA or the NAACP. If the GOP wants to make their stand on the inconsistency of the DISCLOSE bill, I can't really blame them. But on the principle of disclosure, they're wrong.

Some observers think this could come back to bite Republicans this fall. They cite polls showing high public distrust of corporations and strong suspicion that they play too great and influential a role in politics. Democrats stand ready to accuse Republicans of preventing corporations from receiving the proper degree of scrutiny during political campaigns. The Republicans are ready in their own right to cry hypocrisy or unfairness or bias, but if the point of all that crying is to deny the validity of the idea of disclosure, they may still end up on the wrong side of the argument. Whether this issue on its own will make a real difference is hard to say. Conditions remain volatile and any number of developments could make the elections turn out far different from what's now expected. But full disclosure of every politician's stand on this particular issue is a reasonable demand.

26 July 2010

Is Conservatism Trans-National? Can Americans Learn From Britain?

At Slate, Ned Resnikoff favorably compares the Conservative Party of Great Britain to its American counterparts. In Britain the Tories are back in power, their party being the main force in a coalition government. Resnikoff is impressed by the fact that David Cameron's government is now submitting plans to reform the government. He doesn't think the plans are great, since they cut back on the state stimuli he deems necessary for full economic recovery. But he understandably thinks that any plan is more than the Republicans in America have offered. Resnikoff characterizes the Republican position as "shrieking nihilism" and sees it as proof of a divergence of the two national strains of conservatism. In the years of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Republicans and Tories seemed to be on the same page, the Brits embracing American-style entrepreneurial conservatism. Since then, the Americans, Resnikoff thinks, have "abandoned...conservative principles." What he means is that they're no longer willing to think responsibly about the present or the future. By his standard, denying global warming is irresponsible, and so is denying American accountability for human rights violations and other wartime excesses. The British conservatives earn better marks in both categories. Resnikoff encourages Republicans to emulate Tories, but doesn't seem optimistic about that happening.

It may be that the Thatcher period was an exceptional time of affinity between Republicanism and Toryism. As I've often written, any declaration of conservatism begs the question, "conservative of what?" and the answer will inevitably differ depending on where it's asked. Toryism predates Republicanism and taps into even older traditions of culture and philosophy. Republicanism, meanwhile, is really rooted no deeper in time than the 1950s and the entrepreneurial backlash against the New Deal. I don't know if the modern Republican emphasis on entrepreneurs as society's rightful leaders and its pathological aversion to government have ever been important parts of the British tradition. It may be that even a British conservative, with some inevitable exceptions, will look like a liberal to many Republicans. As well, Republicans may reject Resnikoff's criticism and claim that their proposals and recommendations are well known. I doubt greatly whether their chauvinism would let them learn from any other country, even an ostensibly conservative state. It seems to be part of their pathology that they, as free men, shouldn't have to listen to anyone else.

Resnikoff claims that the country as a whole, and the Democratic Party in particular, would benefit if the Republicans did learn a few Troy lessons. "Liberalism needs conservatism," he writes, "Democracy is nothing...when subject to effective one-party rule." But debate for the sake of debate isn't good enough. A real, constructive debate between two (or more) sides would not be a matter of "mindless obstructionism" but a meeting of "good-faith rivals with coherent arguments."

I have to question Resnikoff's reasoning a little. Liberals may need conservatives as a matter of self-definition, but do we really need to assign liberal and conservative impulses exclusively to different factions of people? The conservative impulse, understood as a mindfulness of the past's lessons and inherent limits to our aspirations, can serve a useful purpose, but not necessarily so long as people see it as their job to be exclusively conservative, to do nothing but say no without any regard to the long future. Just as the radical who thinks nothing of the past or of limits is often seen as a dangerous unrealistic extremist, so should his reactionary counterpart who doesn't think of the future or of possibility. Society needs people who are conservatively progressive more than it needs division into conservative people and progressive people. That wouldn't automatically mean one-party rule. It could just as well mean representative governments in which every legislator speaks for himself or herself and contributes an original thought to the ongoing debate. Resnikoff's recommendations sound better than what we've got in this country, but we can still do much better.

23 July 2010

The New York Islamophobic Primary

Keeping up the pressure to Rick Lazio's right, quasi-independent gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino tells New Yorkers that he, as governor, would have a more effective way to prevent the Cordoba Institute from constructing its sadly controversial "ground zero mosque" than the regular Republican candidate. Both candidates join Sarah Palin and Mark Williams in "refudiating" the mosque and pandering to Islamophobic hysteria. I'm no fan of Mayor Bloomberg or the Islamic religion, but this idiocy has got to be slapped down and I applaud Bloomberg for making the effort. To treat the proposed mosque as if it'd be a) a memorial to the September 2001 terrorists or b) a "provocation" that "stabs hearts," in Palin's words is to act under the assumption that the religion of Islam and not a faction of Islamic ideologues attacked New York City nine years ago. To act under that assumption to suppress the mosque is merely to confirm what those ideologues have been trying to tell their co-religionists: that the United States is waging war on the entire religion of Islam. The course taken by Lazio, Paladino and their various sympathizers isn't quite hate. It's really spite. It's the feeling that, if a mosque goes up anywhere near the footprint of the late Twin Towers, some Islamist scumbag out there will think that his side has won something. To wipe that theoretical smile off the chimerical terrorist face, the New York Islamophobes stand ready to slap the faces of many more unoffending Muslims. To be clear, I'm less worried about the insult Muslims might suffer or how they'd react to it than I am ashamed on behalf of my state over the complete irrationality that drives this movement. Lazio and Paladino are engaged in a race to the bottom; the winner might be Idiot of the Year.

Who's a Conservative in New York's 21st District?

In New York State, the Conservative Party often makes it its business to determine whether Republican candidates are conservative enough to receive the party's endorsement. The Conservatives are often willing to run a candidate of their own if the GOP nominee doesn't satisfy them. In the 21st Congressional District, where Paul Tonko, a Democrat, is the incumbent, the Conservatives themselves aren't certain of who among them is the real conservative. The Conservative nomination will most likely be contested between businessman Ted Danz, the Republican candidate, and Joseph Sullivan, whom the Albany Times Union describes as "a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat turned Conservative." Danz has the support of the statewide Conservative leadership, while Sullivan is backed by the local (Albany County) party leadership.

Albany County Conservatives often play the cross-endorsement game, but give themselves more room to maneuver than, say the Working Families Party. Local chairman Ricky Stack is reluctant to make his organization a rubber stamp for the GOP, and claims that upstate Democrats are more conservative than the national stereotype. Stack himself was once a Democrat and a supporter of longtime Albany mayor Erastus Corning. When Corning was mayor, Stack says, he was more conservative than his Republican rivals. Since we're talking about a period from the 1940s through the early 1980s, the claim is plausible. Sullivan is a Conservative of more recent vintage, having switched affiliation last year after losing a Democratic primary for another office. But local Conservatives, as noted, aren't averse to endorsing actual Democratic candidates. They endorsed incumbent Albany mayor Jerry Jennings against a Republican challenger last year, for instance.

It bears repeating that conservatism in America is not a monolithic phenomenon. There are regional as well as ideological differences that make it difficult to pigeonhole anyone identified as a conservative or Conservative candidate. Albany County Conservatives may feel more affinity with "blue dog" Democrats or the establishment politics of the enduring Democratic machine -- Jennings is only the second mayor of Albany since Corning died. Theirs may be a more establishmentarian than ideological conservatism, and it may well be that, once their differences are fully aired, Danz is a more conservative candidate than Sullivan in the conventional ideological sense of the word. Would that make the Conservatives false advertisers if Sullivan wins? Not if you grant the people of any given area the right to define for themselves what conservatism is, and since the conservative label always begs the question, "conserve what, specifically?" you probably have to give locals that right. The state Conservatives who favor Danz may disagree, but since conservatives are supposed to give locals the benefit of the doubt against centralized institutions, the Albany County contest may be none of their business.

22 July 2010

Shabazz, Sherrod, Williams and Nadeau

Here are four signposts on the map of American race relations in 2010. Not every name may be equally familiar to any given reader. Samir Shabazz is the Philadelphia New Black Panther Party operative who has been accused of voter intimidation and quoted on the need to kill "crackers." Shirley Sherrod is the Agriculture Department official who was sacked, as it now seems overhastily, for recounting a racist attitude toward a white farmer who has since credited her with saving his livelihood. Mark Williams is the Tea Party Express leader and blogger who compared the NAACP's support for Democrats and the welfare state with a longing to return to slavery, and in doing so may have provoked a schism in his movement. The last-named person, Mark Nadeau, was the mayor of the village of Cobleskill, New York, until he resigned earlier this week after he was recorded calling Martin Luther King Day a "n****r holiday" and translated Barack Obama's campaign slogans as "come get a n****r elected."

We have two allegedly racist whites and two allegedly racist blacks. Do they cancel each other out? Objectively speaking, the answer would seem to be no if only because Sherrod's case has been revealed to be more complex than it was portrayed by the conservative blogger who first publicized it. She was describing a racist impulse that she instantly regretted and promptly transcended, and as people across the ideological spectrum have learned this, from the White House to Fox News, apologies have been forthcoming for a rush to judgment precipitated by the still-unrepentant blogger. His attitude gets to the real issue of the moment. We understand that some black people hate white people, while some white people hate black people. Does hate counterbalance hate? Is all hate equal?

Some conservative Republicans insist on this point. Defensive to the point of hysteria following the NAACP's call upon Tea Partiers to repudiate racists within their movement, bloggers and columnists have argued over the past week that black-on-white racism is just as bad, at least, as white-on-black racism, while still denying that the latter strain has any prominence in teapartydom. In one sense, we have Republicans and fellow travelers practicing one of their standard tactics, which is to accuse critics of hypocrisy. How dare they criticize racism within the conservative movement (and some will say the criticism is a lie), the reactionaries cry, when some black people in the universe are hostile toward whites? Seen another way, the Republican attitude seems hypocritical in its own right, because they're using a form of the "moral equivalence" argument that they can't stand when someone applies it to, for instance, American foreign policy. Whenever someone suggests that the U.S. should be judged by the same standard as other nations for what it does in the world, and when that someone points out some specific act of the U.S. that resembles an abhorrent act of the Soviet Union or some other past or present enemy, Republican superpatriots get outraged. They ask inquisitorially whether you've dared to say that the United States of America, the greatest country there has ever been, is no different or no better than the totalitarian abomination of the moment. The substance of the argument is the fact that, despite the lapse alleged, the U.S. remains a constitutional democratic republic while the other country in question remains a squalid tyranny. In that spirit, it's fair to ask the critics of Samir Shabazz or Shirley Sherrod whether they mean to say that the existence of black bigots is equivalent to the whole history of white bigotry, so that no one has a right to bring up the latter topic anymore. The substance of this argument would be that the impact of white racism on American history is so extensive and so enduring that any attempt to portray black bigotry as somehow equivalent can only look like a desperate effort to change the subject. The Nadeau scandal, meanwhile, seems to disprove any argument that there are no racists on the right, or in the Republican party. Considering what it does prove, I'm surprised that the story hasn't gotten quite as much airplay as one might expect, from what I can tell, in the "liberal media" this week.

Actually, I can comprehend some of the frustration white reactionaries feel at this moment in history. In a democracy, black people are as accountable to everyone else for what they say and do as any other demographic group, but it does seem sometimes that they enjoy a historical exemption from criticism. The problem is that we still seem to be in the compensatory period of race relations, and it seems hard to determine objectively when it will or should end. Neither blacks or whites should appear to determine unilaterally when that time has come, and the aggrieved of either group are unlikely to grant anyone else the right to decide. The mutual impatience with lingering discrimination, from one perspective, and lingering reverse-discrimination, from the other, is only intensified by the presidency of Barack Obama, whose success is taken as proof by one group that the other has no more cause to complain about anything, while the most sensitive in the other group take some criticism of him as proof of persistent bigotry. The Obama administration has inevitably provoked a dispute over the etiquette of opposition. I suspect that much of the defensiveness in tea-party circles regarding the racism charge derives in part from a feeling that there should be no limitation on the vocabulary of dissent, as if not being allowed to call a black President n****r pushes us toward the slippery slope of further limitations on freedom of speech. Apart from incitement to violence, there hasn't really been off-limits language for criticizing a President before, apart maybe from an informal ban on calling Franklin Roosevelt a cripple. Americans are jealous of their freedom of speech, and most likely even the imagination that someone would tell them you can't call the President a certain name would make some Americans furious. I can imagine that there might be a spike in racist rhetoric during the Obama administration, if only because some people will feel that it'd prove that they're still free.

That's the problem with a free society; freedom is a matter of perception as well as law. We live in a country where people are free, yet many feel that they aren't. Those people probably think that I'm objectively mistaken in describing this as a free society. Petty things like the right to call people names may make a major, existential difference for some Americans. Racial attitudes in America are problematic enough, but focusing on them may only skim the surface of our national mood.

21 July 2010

Paranoid Wallpaper

This week the abandoned storefronts and the glass walls of bus shelters in downtown Troy are papered with advertising. Most of it promotes "the explosive new film by Alex Jones," Martial Law: 9/11 Rise of the Police State. Jones is now probably the nation's leading conspiracymonger, and the ad neatly summarizes his perceptions.

Out of the ashes of the September 11th tragedy, a dark empire of war and tyranny has risen. The Constitution has been shredded and America is now a Police State. This film exposes not just who was behind the 9-11 attacks, but the roots and history of its orchestrators. LEARN THE TERRIFYING SECRET THAT HOLDS THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD IN ITS GRASP.

Jones is a "truther," but his "truth" about the September 2001 attacks is apparently nothing as banal as a self-empowering or self-enriching scheme by the Bush-Cheney cabal.

From the frontlines of the Police State to the darkest sanctum of the secret society that controls it, Martial Law reveals the master plan of a group hell-bent on capturing American today -- and tomorrow the world. THE NEW WORLD ORDER HAS SET IN MOTION THE FOURTH REICH.

Whether Jones means that actual German Nazis are behind it all, or is simply employing provocative language for ballyhoo purposes, I leave for others to learn. Conspiracists often mix metaphors since all "Power" tends to blur into a single existential menace in their troubled minds. Jones clarifies things a little below:

Martial Law is a blazing spotlight piercing the electronic Berlin Wall of controlled corporate media. Plumb the depths of the Elite's minds: their ideology, their driving philosophy -- and uncover the power-mad "cult of Death" that is sworn to turn the Earth into a prison planet. Discover the documented truth yourself -- before it's too late.

With that "cult of Death" crack (which I think refers to notions of long-term population reduction that spook many modern conspiracists) Jones surrenders whatever remaining shred of credibility other dissidents have been willing to indulge him. Few reasonable people have indulged him at all, but some may still think that any criticism of a crackpot dissident is an affirmation of the establishment. That's Bipolarchy thinking and it should be avoided. There are some folks, after all, who'll dissent from everything, and not all of those are sane.

This poster campaign in Troy is probably being waged by a sympathetic individual on his own initiative, not by any paid agent of Alex Jones. This mystery person betrays some of his or her own sympathies by including among the Martial Law ads a poster that's even more contemptible. Headlined Swindlers List, and illustrated by a photo of the President framed by a Star of David, it purports to identify "Obama's Zionist Jews in power," from Rahm Emmanuel to a member of the First Lady's staff. Obama himself is labelled, "Rothschild's Choice." This scrap of paper refers readers to www.powerofprophecy.com, a website featuring the apocalyptic conspiracy theories of one Texe Marrs. While this worthy has appeared on Jones's program, I don't know whether he's influenced Jones's own theories, or whether Jones himself endorses Marrs's conspiracy prophecies or his peculiar concern with Jews. But there's someone in Troy, New York, who appears to agree with both men. This town's empty storefronts look bad enough, but these posters make them really ugly.

A Question for Carl Paladino

In the newsroom a radio plays one of the local news-talk programs. It's interrupted by a commercial for gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. We'll be hearing and seeing a lot more of these now that Paladino has apparently secured the signatures necessary to challenge "regular" candidate Rick Lazio in the Republican primary. Paladino's assault is a crisis for the GOP. He's an insurgent candidate, a self-proclaimed champion of the Tea Parties, with plans to run independently on a Taxpayers line should he fail to catch Lazio, who may have more money to spend on the primary campaign than Lazio does.

Paladino, a self-made millionaire, contrasts himself with all "career politicians" while promising substantial cuts in taxes and state spending. He also promotes himself as a candidate with a proven record of creating jobs. You know the point he's trying to make, but it makes you wonder what he plans to do with that skill as governor of New York. As someone like him would be glad to point out under different circumstances, the only jobs a governor can create the way an entrepreneur can create them are public-service jobs. So when he boasts of his job-creating talent as a qualification for the governorship, I'd like to see a Lazio supporter or someone else ask whether Paladino intends to hire more state workers. It'd make the campaign more entertaining for a moment or two.

20 July 2010

The Consequences of Cross-Endorsement for 'Independent' Parties

If you're in an independent party that runs to the left of the Democratic party, you can usually depend on some sort of Republican support in an election campaign. That support is purely self-interested, of course; those Republicans hope to split the anti-Republican vote and win the election. But out of self-interest they may help you get on the ballot and participate in debates. The Democrats, in turn, will call you dupes of the Republicans while criticizing you along the usual lesser-evil lines, but if you really believe in your own cause and the necessity of your views, not theirs, prevailing, you won't care what they say.

Some ostensibly independent parties are actually less interested in winning office for themselves than in gaining power in the form of influence. These are the parties that practice cross-endorsement, where that's allowed. Such independents, if on the left, will offer their party line to Democrats who promise to prod their own party in a more progressive direction. These independents may also hope that the possibility of their running an actual independent candidate will scare Democrats into a more progressive direction. Cross-endorsers can expect less support from across the ideological aisle; the best such a group on the left can expect from Republicans is neglect.

The worst case scenario for a cross-endorsing party is to see the party it hopes to influence fleeing from its offer of aid, while at the same time the other big party tries to tie it around the neck of its rival like the proverbial albatross. That moment has come for the Working Families Party of New York. Beset with legal problems, it finds the Democratic gubernatorial candidate unreceptive to its enticements. Worse, Republicans have begun to treat the WFP as a liability for those Democrats who have accepted its endorsement. The GOP is calling on Democrats to repudiate Working Families in light of its legal peril. Its usefulness to the Bipolarchy it chose to play with rather than fight appears to be at an end. Its usefulness to the rest of us was probably never very great. A real independent party would never have found itself in such a predicament. Independence itself is a repudiation of the two-party system. If the system needs to repudiate an independent party, something was wrong from the start.

Maywood CA: A Libertarian Utopia?

The New York Times reports that a densely-populated town in California has taken the step dreamed of by many Americans. Maywood has eliminated its entire public workforce by either outsourcing public services to private contractors, many of whom promptly rehired the city's former employees, or placing itself under the protection of larger authorities like the Los Angeles County sheriff's department. Some residents interviewed by the paper claim that they've seen improvements in services, while others remain skeptical. If the experiment points out anything, it's the redundancy of bureaucracy in the American system. If the sheriff's department can do an adequate job while expanding its coverage to Maywood, then why should Maywood bother with its own police force? This isn't the same thing as privatization, however. The Maywood authorities presumably never thought of farming public security out to private contractors. Nor should they have. Public safety should retain a public character no matter how other things change. Privatizations should be limited to those services where no profit motive can tempt contractors to gouge the community or its citizens.

Ideally, privatization should be authorized by the people rather than politicians, through referenda rather than legislation. Citizens may want efficiency, and taxpayers may want savings, but none of us should lose track of the ideal of disinterested public service affirmed by the Founders, the ideal of public work done from a sense of duty and loyalty to the public, not from a profit motive. If people worry about the existence of a self-interested "political class" of elected officials, they should also worry about the self-interest of those contractors to whom we delegate public responsibilities. The existence of any public thing or res publica will probably create responsibilities that cannot be made profitable, yet must be fulfilled as a matter of public good. As long as that's not forgotten, let the experimentation continue.

19 July 2010

Independent Candidates: It Pays to Advertise for Free

Howie Hawkins is the Green Party candidate for governor of New York. He probably can't afford to buy advertising space in many newspapers, but it cost him nothing, except perhaps the cost of a stamp, to get on one of one local paper's most widely read pages: the letters-to-the-editor page. He turned up in The Saratogian yesterday with a message aimed straight at disgruntled Democrats. The Republican party isn't even mentioned in his letter, except implicitly in a reference to Herbert Hoover. Here's what Hawkins has to say about the Democratic party in New York State:

The Democrats tell voters that the way to peace, universal health care and a strong sustainable environment is to vote for them. But with the Democrats in control in Albany and D.C., they escalated the wars, increased military spending to $1 trillion, mandated that we buy costly private health insurance rather than provide cost-efficient, publicly financed health care for all (e.g., HR 676), bailed out Wall Street rather than Main Street and pandered to oil, coal, gas and nuclear corporations while climate change accelerated.The Democrats have abandoned the last vestiges of their New Deal legacy and now echo the Republicans in calling for the economics of Herbert Hoover. They all want to cut public spending when the economy needs a public spending stimulus to fuel recovery. Meanwhile, the corporate welfare, bailout and crime wave grows while unemployment, foreclosures, poverty and hardship spread.

This is where Democrats will protest to emphasize the obvious differences between themselves and the abominable Republicans, who alone can benefit from liberals voting for Hawkins. We may as well concede the point; there are obvious and even meaningful differences between the Democratic and the Republican approach -- but they just aren't different enough. The issue between Democrats and their constituents is always whether what Democrats offer is good enough. Democrats will insist that liberals and progressives settle for what they can offer. Given the balance of power in our political environment, they may as well command that everyone settle. No one is obliged to obey that command, however. It may well be that Republican government would prove worse than Democratic rule, but it is false to assume that those are our only choices. If this is a free country, then liberal and progressive New Yorkers have a right to demand better from the Democrats, or better than the Democrats. Democrats will sneer at anyone who allegedly makes "the perfect the enemy of the good," but their position in the American Bipolarchy allows them to make the worst the enemy of the good. That is, by arguing that the only alternative to settling for whatever they choose to do for us is the worst-case scenario of Republican control, they free themselves from any obligation to do more than just enough to win elections. Democrats don't have to be actually good, just good enough to differentiate themselves from Republicans.

Hawkins might have better utilized his space by making this sort of argument rather than simply attacking Democrats. But at least he's taking advantage of one of the free opportunities available for spreading his message, and nothing stops his supporters from repeating or refining his message on letters pages across the state. Independents have to take advantage of every opportunity, find every free or cheap way of getting their message out, since it's too late to change the rules this time. Hawkins himself ought to get a letter into every paper in the state -- and if any paper doesn't run one, we'll have to wonder why.

18 July 2010

A Tea Party Purge: Necessary Step or Beginning of the End

The Tea Party movement is said to be decentralized in nature, a simultaneous uprising from the grass roots across the country (with some "astroturf" arguably thrown in) with no single impetus or inspiration and no one leader or leadership to give orders to or take responsibility for the rank and file. What, then, is the significance of the National Tea Party Federation reading Mark Williams's Tea Party Express group out of the movement? Williams gave offense most recently with his since-retracted "Letter to Lincoln," which asserted that black people loyal to the welfare state don't really want to be free and would prefer the restoration of slavery to actually having to earn their way in the world. We last left Williams wondering whether his conciliatory gesture would impress black critics, but it apparently failed to convince some Tea Partiers. The Federation apparently pressured the Express to repudiate and rid themselves of Williams -- perhaps in that way obliging those in the NAACP who want to see TPs rejecting racists in their own camp. The Express has refused to comply, and has itself been repudiated by the Federation.

What will Tea Partiers who don't necessarily identify with either the Express or the Foundation make of this schism? I suspect it won't mean jack to many of them, as many if not most TPs may well distrust any entity that claims to represent them (rather than speak for them on the radio) on the national level. Will it mean anything to those outside the movement in the long term? Possibly. There'll be a temptation to see this as something like the moment in the 1960s when William F. Buckley, from the bully pulpit of his National Review magazine, repudiated the conspiracy-mongers of the John Birch Society. Buckley's move is widely credited with making his brand of entrepreneurial conservatism more palatable to the masses by dissociating it with the wackos who suspected Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist agent. It clearly set a limit to the diversity of opinion that would be indulged by the new-style conservative, or at least to what Buckley and his magazine would tolerate. Some modern observers may want to see the Federation's repudiation of Mark Williams as a similar gesture, but I think it misses the mark. The people who really need to be repudiated to make the Tea Parties credible to outsiders are birthers and truthers, and I'm not aware if the Federation or any other TP group has done that.

The Tea Parties may be a different sort of force from the ideologically-driven Buckley-era conservative movement. They may balk at being told that there are any forbidden thoughts or opinions, since forbidding any mode of criticizing the enemy will smack of political correctness to many of them. The Federation's assumption of a right to dictate and purge may well provoke other TP groups to question that right. The Williams controversy might not prove a clarifying moment or a milestone in the consolidation of a coherent Tea Party ethos, but might act as a deterrent to greater cohesion as groups or individuals refuse to take dictation from anyone else. Yet another possibility, of course, is that this won't prove a decisive moment in any way. That'd be disappointing, if only because conflict would be more interesting. But time will tell.

16 July 2010

Tea Parties vs NAACP: Round 2

A chastened Mark Williams has taken down his would-be satirical "Letter to Lincoln" that escalated this week's war of words between Tea Partiers and the NAACP, but the damage has been done. Readers will recall that TPs lashed out earlier this week when the NAACP approved a resolution calling on the reactionary movement to repudiate racists in their midst. In characteristic fashion, many TPs took the demand (the full official text of which is still forthcoming) as an accusation that all Tea Partiers, and the movement itself, were essentially racist. Williams, one of several self-appointed leaders or spokespersons for the movement, went on the offensive. He mockingly accused the NAACP of being racist itself because the C in its name stands for "Colored," a term no longer considered polite when describing blacks. The "Letter to Lincoln," in which Williams takes on the persona of an NAACP member asking the 16th President to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation, was his attempt at more substantial criticism. He edited and amended it several times before finally taking it down in response to both constructive and hostile criticism, which at least suggests that he meant to make a real point beyond insulting the civil rights movement.

The main point, for Williams, appears to be that dependence upon the welfare state is a functional if not moral equivalent of slavery. That comes through in some of the excerpts salvaged by a critical blogger (more complete versions of the letter in various stages no doubt exist elsewhere online). From the perspective of post-bailout populism, at least as represented by Williams, the welfare state is a perpetual bailout, and a bailout, of course, is an immoral thing. It's immoral, Williams implies, because truly free people have to "take consequences along with the rewards" of freedom. Social morality, in his view, depends on people suffering for their mistakes, though the extent of suffering he deems necessary or sufficient is left unclear.

More offensive, from the presumed perspective of a black reader, is Williams's attitude toward slavery. His fictional NAACP person describes the peculiar institution as "a great gig" that provided "three squares, room and board [and] all our decisions made by someone else." Since slavery, for Williams, is equivalent to welfare-dependence, each state of being is equally deviant from freedom, which he defines as "having to work for real" and "hav[ing] to compete for jobs." Williams shouldn't be surprised (or shouldn't have been, since I'm late to this subject) if someone interpreted this to mean that he thought slavery wasn't "real work." To me, it's interesting that Williams, attempting to parody the NAACP while affirming his own idea of freedom, manages to make freedom sound rather unappealing, little better than "every man for himself." Maybe that's his own tough-guy real-world idea of it, in which case it becomes more clear that the freedom he really values, since the freedom he describes is merely a perpetually uncertain struggle for survival, is the freedom from responsibility for his fellow citizens, which can only weigh down folks like him.

As Williams explains on his blog, he took down the parody letter in response to what he reads as sincere calls for dialogue from NAACP leaders. He warns that anyone who now continues to publicize the letter is getting in the way of "peace and progress," which is effectively an admission that the letter itself had gotten in the way of whatever peaceful dialogue he meant to encourage. He claims a sort of victory, however, asserting that by calling for dialogue the NAACP leaders "realize their error." At the same time, he hopes to mollify them by giving them part of what they wanted. "I reiterate what I and every tea partier have said repeatedly," he writes, " We denounce racists and any who seek to divide the American People along any lines." Notice the evasion, however; Williams still won't acknowledge that there are racists within the Tea Party movement, and actually makes the opposite claim -- "every tea partier ... denounces racists." The dialogue he anticipates with the NAACP ought to be really interesting.

15 July 2010

Media Censorship of 'Controversial' Ads: What Good is Freedom of Speech if No One Will Take Your Money?

Two of the major TV networks have again exercised their prerogative to refuse political advertising whose content is deemed too controversial to air. This time the group whose money proves no good is the National Republican Trust Political Action Committee, an entity unaffiliated with the Republican Party but sympathetic to much of its agenda. Instead of denouncing the Democratic Party, however, the Trust wanted to run an ad denouncing the plan to construct a mosque near the "Ground Zero" site in New York City. The plan, though supported by Mayor Bloomberg is controversial for many New Yorkers who, like the Trust, see Islam as an enemy of the United States, or at the least think it grievously insensitive for the muezzin to perform the call to prayer near where terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in the name of Islam.

In this particular case, the networks' decision makes sense from a legal standpoint. The text of the Trust's commercial is pretty much defamatory in its indiscriminate identification of the group that wants to build the mosque with the gang that destroyed the World Trade Center. "They" blew it up, the ad says, and now "they" want to insult Americans further by building the mosque. That begs the great question asked by Edmond O'Brien in The Wild Bunch: "Who the hell is they?" The pronouns may fairly represent the Trust's Islamophobia; as far as it's concerned, I suppose, Islam destroyed the Twin Towers and Islam now wants to salt the wound by building the mosque. Unfortunately, the ad copy could just as well be read to accuse the specific group that wants to build the mosque of actually participating in the 2001 attack. That ought to get the Trust sued (since the ad can already be seen on YouTube and the Trust's own website), and on that expectation the networks are wise to steer clear of putting themselves in legal jeopardy.

At the same time, I worry whether the networks' power to refuse advertising is too arbitrary and inconsistent with prevailing notions of free speech. Not every political ad that's been rejected is likely to have been as obviously slanderous as the Trust's submission, and the networks have sometimes seemed more worried about merely offending people rather than slandering anyone. Furthermore, the Supreme Court over the past 35 years or so has laid down precedents affirming that spending money on political advertising is a "free speech" right protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. If freedom of speech depends on being able to buy ad time, doesn't it also impose an obligation on media to sell the time? And if a private business's right to refuse service to a theoretical paying customer is subject to federal scrutiny as a possible violation of the customer's civil rights, shouldn't the government have similar oversight regarding the mass media's power to thwart the more fundamental civil and political right to express oneself by buying an ad? Once we assert the media's crucial role in political discourse, which is a public interest if anything is, we have to ask whether it should be up to the media alone to determine whether any advertisement is too controversial to be shown. The Trust might still get slapped down, or it might be advised on alterations that would make its ad air-worthy, but other, less legally dubious advertisers might be freed to do business with the media in the good old American way. If we're going to treat money like speech, we may as well do it right.

14 July 2010

Law, Right and Marriage

Cal Thomas finds intellectual inconsistencies throughout the recent federal court ruling that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it infringed on a state's right to allow same-sex marriage. He claims to be surprised by this assertion of states' rights when liberals typically reject them in favor of individual right or federal power. Turning from the court to critics of the disputed law, he finds their claim that the federal government cannot regulate marriage belied by an 1878 Supreme Court ruling that polygamy had no right to constitutional protection. Observing liberals generally, he finds them hypocritical for believing, allegedly, that "morality, as well as right and wrong, are to be determined by polls," yet demanding that the polls be overturned if people take disagreeable moral stands. In sum, he denounces a "cultural elite" determined to have its way without regard for consistency of principle.

Thomas believes that his own position on this particular law, and law in general, is principled and consistent.

Law is meant to conform humans to a standard that preserves the cultural and moral order. The purpose of government is to “secure” unalienable pre-existing rights about which Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence...Government is not supposed to create new rights like national health care, or same-sex marriage.

I actually admire Thomas's restraint in not dragging the "Creator" into this, as he'd usually do. The natural-law tradition he invokes here, however, is bad enough whether it invokes God or not. It's also impossible to verify. Since not even the most devout theocrats claim that we've enjoyed all our natural rights from the beginning of civilization, the natural-law or natural-right tradition has been a process of gradual discovery. How can anyone claim that we've now reached the limit of our natural rights? How can they know, and how can their limitation be trusted when every previous assertion of "natural" right has been challenged on the exact same ground? How do we know that arguments against same-sex marriage, for instance, aren't just bigoted?

Thomas expects such a question. He's resigned to having "the equivalent standing of 1950s segregationists" among liberals for opposing same-sex marriage. In their view, he claims, "Anyone arguing for tradition is branded a bigot, a label that is supposed to end all discussion." This isn't quite accurate. Anyone arguing for a bigoted tradition is rightly branded a bigot, and the opponents of gay rights in the 21st century are the moral equivalent of the racists and anti-semites of earlier times. Bigotry is not redeemed or sanctified by age. Two-thousand year old bigotry is still bigotry. Are Pashtuns not bigoted against women because their tradition tells them to treat women that way? It is likewise with homophobes everywhere. The "word of God" doesn't transmute bigotry into principle; it only proves someone a superstitious bigot.

Still, it's a fair question in a democratic republic whether the people have the power or right to dictate the terms of marriage. Obviously, people can claim the right to forbid same-sex or plural marriage, but are they justified by any compelling public interest in the sexual relations or shared property of two or more people? Thomas argues that the Supreme Court denied rights to polygamists on "general welfare" grounds. But who defines the general welfare? Did the Founders do so for all time in 1787? Is it up to a popular vote at the drop of a hat? I'd like to read the Reynolds v. United States ruling that Thomas cites to see how polygamy influenced the general welfare in those judges' opinion. I suspect that their definition of general welfare wouldn't stand the test of time, but who can say whether mine or ours would, either? To the extent that marriage involves reproduction or the raising of children, general welfare might well be involved, but conventional heterosexual marriage might well be subject to fresh regulation on similar grounds, whether husbands and wives want it or not. Leaving aside the self-evident absurdities of tradition of religion, the definition of marriage in a democratic society is arguably part of how citizens affirm their accountability to one another, and thus always a subject for political debate, no matter how much anyone would want to exclude it from debate as an eternal absolute right. As I see it, it's people like Thomas who try to place tradition above criticism who try to "end all discussion," not those who challenge it in the media, in the courts, or on the street.

Tea Party Etiquette: Listen Carefully to Others

Right-wingers may be defensive by nature. Some work under the assumption that they'll be subject to ad hominem attacks for taking "unpopular" stands, that their motives and character will be questioned. Consider the "Frustrated" letter-writer from last week; he assumed that he would be called a racist for being a fiscal conservative and opposing the welfare state, even though he made no overtly racist comments in his letter. People like him may assume that their critics are irrational fanatics who really believe them to be racists, or that the critics are simply lying demagogues. Either way, this attitude toward critics may result in a tendency to preempt criticism by interpreting it as an ad hominem attack before what was actually said to them, or about them, fully sinks in.

Something like this seems to have happened after the NAACP approved a resolution calling on the Tea Party movement to repudiate the racists in its midst. In a knee-jerk response, both immediate and predictable, representatives and champions of the Tea Parties, including Sarah Palin, reacted with outrage fueled by the assumption that the Tea Party movement as a whole had been accused of essential racism. While the final text of the NAACP resolution hasn't been released yet, what's been quoted expresses the opinion that there are racists within the TPs, not that the TPs are themselves fundamentally racist. Unless Palin and her pals want us to believe that there is not one racist, not one person disdainful toward blacks or other minorities, attending the Tea Parties, their reaction has been overblown and strategically clueless. It only allows the NAACP, not to mention the Democratic party, to broadcast from now 'til November that the TPs and their GOP allies refused to repudiate the racists in their midst.

To be fair, no apology or repudiation from the TP ranks would suffice for every NAACP member. Some people are bound to believe, fairly or not, that anyone who advocates economic or social policies believed to be disproportionately harmful to blacks, even if only because blacks are disproportionately poor, is a racist. In many circles, racism has come to be defined as any practice or opinion that is merely unfair, rather than hateful, to black people. Even when conservatives call for a color-blind society, their corollary demand for an end to compensatory policies like affirmative action condemns them to face the race card so long as some people see color-blindness as a refusal to recognize or rectify racial inequality. Since the anti-racist ideal of fairness presumes a state-mandated distribution (or redistribution) of wealth, that ideal can never be embraced by TPs whose own ideal of fairness comes down to individual just desserts and the right to keep what's yours. While blacks may endorse Tea Party ideals on an individual basis, it's unlikely that the TP movement can come comfortably to terms with the heirs of the civil rights movement. But the instant backlash against the NAACP resolution makes any reconciliation even less likely.

13 July 2010

Pedro Espada Escapes De-Enrollment

A Democratic party leader conceded yesterday that it was too late to follow through on efforts to purge State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. from the party ranks in time to keep him out of the upcoming primary election, while Espada boasted that he had more than enough petitions to appear on the primary ballot despite the opposition of local and state leaders. Statewide leaders sought to purge him under the provisions of state election law, which empowers a judge to de-enroll a party member upon an application from his county committee chairman. The chairman can act if an enrolled local voter complains that the party member has acted or spoken contrary to the principles of the party. In Espada's case, the state leaders want to punish him for jumping from the Democratic to the Republican party, then back again in return for major concessions. They claim that he isn't qualified to be a Democrat because he has rejoined it for purely self-interested motives.

Espada contends that he's been targeted because Andrew Cuomo, the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, is biased against Hispanics. He argues that Cuomo and other white Democrats object to someone with skin as dark as his having significant political power. He also insinuates that he's been targeted because he refuses to cut the budget deficit by cutting social programs, though it's hard to call that a racist agenda since it's been advanced most prominently by a black man, Gov. Paterson. Still, Espada and his ally, Sen. Ruben Diaz, insist that their dedication to social welfare at all costs makes them the true representatives of Democratic principles.

The rules for de-enrollment set deadlines relative to primary elections, and Democratic leaders acknowledged that they can't complete proceedings against Espada before the pre-primary deadline. That means that they can't stop him from running in the primary unless they mount a major challenge to his petition signatures. Whether the leadership will continue to press for Espada's de-enrollment is unclear, but it would have been interesting to see Democrats state definitively before a judge exactly what their party's principles are. It would be even more fun to see Republicans do the same thing, but nothing like that looks likely this year in New York. We'll have to settle for Democratic voters, in Espada's district and elsewhere, deciding on the party's principles the old-fashioned way -- by choosing their representatives regardless of principle.

12 July 2010

The Corporate Populism of George Will

Freedom of speech is once more in peril, George Will warned us over the weekend. Any measure that compromises the ability of corporations or their owners to flood the airwaves with political advertising is a victory for that enemy of the people, the "political class." One such scheme that was thankfully struck down by the Supreme Court was an Arizona measure that aimed at leveling the playing field by subsidizing candidates who opt to rely exclusively on public funding. I'm not that great a fan of public funding, because I'm not a fan of funded campaigns, but Will, with the Court behind him, thinks that leveling the playing field is unfair to those with the advantage of wealth.

From his perspective, however, it is wealth's power to spend that actually levels the political playing field. As others have noted, incumbents appear to have a great advantage over challengers in most elections. There are many potential explanations for this admittedly lamentable fact, from the complacency of voters to the Bipolarization of every level of politics, but Will knows of one possible remedy: money. While he's as quick as anyone to refute the charge that campaign spending automatically buys elections by brainwashing voters with a flood of ads -- and history will bear him out, to an extent, -- Will clearly believes that money can crack the wall of complacency that surrounds incumbents. Why else would he argue that any regulation of campaign donations favors incumbents? Why should that be so? Won't the wealthy want to fund the incumbent in many cases? The answer would seem obvious to some of us, but Will expects wealth to play the insurgent role in elections. That tells us about the kind of elections he envisions, and his desire that they be as well funded as possible.

Will is a practitioner of what we can call corporate populism. While the original Populists pitted the people they claimed to represent against the power of wealth, or at least against certain factions of the wealthy, Will proposes a populism in which corporations, or at least entrepreneurs, are the authentic American people, the true productive class threatened by an exploitative, parasitic clique. That clique is the "political class," the career politicians, the mandarinate of bureaucrats and regulators -- those people actually chosen by the people to lead them, or appointed by those elected by the people. They are the enemies of the real American people in Will's America.

"Beware when the political class preens about protecting us from 'special interests,' Will writes, "The most powerful, persistent and anti-constitutional interest is the political class." As a rule, I don't like calling anyone in America a "special interest," but if I have to choose to use that label on entrepreneurs hostile to regulation and taxation, on one hand, and the freely elected representatives of the people (however compromised by Bipolarchy and the regime of perpetual fundraising), my choice should be pretty obvious. Will's constitutional complaints against enacted and proposed legislation may have merit, but let's keep one general observation in mind: the rights of wealth matter more to him than the right of the people to govern themselves and the wealthy among them. He talks some big talk about rights, but that doesn't necessarily translate into democracy.

Basketball: Epilogue to Idiocy

As a sportswriter, Mr. Right probably has a better understanding of the advantages and incentives the Miami Heat offered to LeBron James than I do. When the subject came up in the sports department this afternoon, he quite justly scoffed at the offended attitude of New York City fans and media, many of whom felt just as betrayed by James's failure to sign with the Knicks or Nets as Cleveland fans felt by his departure from the city where he had actually played the game for seven years.

He then offered some theoretical explanations of his own. Climate, for instance: James had said, after all, that he was heading, not to Miami, but to "South Beach." He may simply like the weather and the lifestyle down there. Another possibility, Mr. Right submitted, was taxes. Florida has much lower state taxes, he said, than New York or other states with teams that had tried to lure James. Mr. Right did not expect any professional athlete to admit such a motive if pressed, but it seemed plausible to him that James, like any aggressive entrepreneur, would want to keep more of his hard-earned money than some states would allow.

"So to New York Knicks fans," he continues, "If you want to blame someone for LeBron James not coming to join your crappy franchise, blame Barack Obama."

The President's role in setting state tax rates was unclear to me, but to be fair, I think that Mr. Right had his tongue partly in his cheek this time.

I'd like to give him credit for ending this sorry saga on the right note of absurdity, but I also heard this afternoon that another unhappy NBA owner has called for a federal investigation of the James affair. Basketball people may end up as the idiots of a second week in a row.

Amoklauf in Alburquerque

This time the shooter is believed to have had a beef with an erstwhile significant other who worked in the office building -- something to do with domestic violence, according to this report. So did he not know where the woman lived? Could he not ambush her in the parking lot? Apparently not. Instead, this man's personal issues became a pretext for mass murder: five dead, four wounded, himself a suicide. The early reports were unclear as to whether the woman who was his enemy was among the casualties.

So how did this person go from a perhaps comprehensible compulsion to kill a particular person to that monstrous sense of entitlement that empowered him to leave his mark on our world in the form of a bloody stain? Will it come out that he thought that the woman's co-workers poisoned her mind against him? Or did some obscene ego decide that, this way, he would be more than a mere murdering male? Did the gun in his hand convert his pathetic grudge into a protest against society and his murderous impulse into some mockery of martyrdom to compel our attention? Those convinced of the gun's innocence will say the man was sick, and I'll buy that to an extent. But the gun may well have been a symptom of his sickness, and the more certain thing is that, just as the jihadist brute is not a suicide bomber without his bomb, there are no amoklaufs in America without guns.

Update: the local authorities have revised the body count downward. They now state that the gunman killed only two people beside himself, and they're still uncertain of the status of the person he presumably actually meant to kill.

Idiots of Last Week: Basketball Edition

As a rule, I avoid discussing sports here. It's a political blog, after all, and I know that some of my readers find sports trivial. But the hysteria surrounding LeBron James's free-agency and his decision to join the Miami Heat shows no sign of abating. James was a high-school phenom who entered the NBA without undergoing the usual seasoning which, in baseball, requires you to play in small towns like Troy, New York, but in basketball means going to college. He was signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers and instantly became one of the country's top sports celebrities. He led Cleveland to an NBA final, but in seven seasons failed to win the championship he coveted. He became a free agent this summer and was courted by franchises from wealthy cities with desperate teams. The New York newspapers urged the owners of the Knicks and Nets to spare no expense in attempting to land James. All the interested teams attempted to acquire other talented players, believing that James would be more attracted to teams with stronger lineups, as it is his greatest desire to win a championship. The first stage of frenzy climaxed last Thursday night, when James appeared on ESPN to announce that he was going to Miami. It emerged that he and two other players, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, had essentially made a pact three years earlier to time their free-agencies so they could all join the same team. This seemed to take the concept of free agency to a new level. Basketball players seemed closer to Hollywood star talents; as movies are initiated by coalitions of actors, writers and directors rather than oldschool studio moguls, so James and his two friends have not so much joined the Miami Heat but remade it in their own image. This takes us to a new stage in the evolution of professional sports, in which the alleged representative nature of any local team grows still more chimerical. Miami is only the most convenient place for James, Wade and Bosh to join forces. They are expected, in fact, to earn less money than they might in other cities. But their supreme interest is to win championships for themselves. This was probably the story's most scandalous aspect to most fan observers. Professional athletes have always wanted to win championships, but fans still think of the process in Kennedyesque terms: ask not what your team can do for you, but what you can do for your team. Franchises made huge promises to James thinking that he might help them win titles. But James, apparently, wanted the franchises, the teams, to make it easier for him to win titles. The balance of power between players and team owners appeared to shift, and fans didn't like what they saw.

James's decision provoked a backlash. The Cleveland Cavaliers' owner denounced James for a "cowardly betrayal" of his onetime team, and fans in that city made a show of burning imitation James jerseys as the star watched on live TV. Sportswriters across the country expressed their dismay at the presumed selfishness of James's motives and his apparent collusion with Wade and Bosh. Over the weekend came the backlash against the backlash. Rev. Jesse Jackson found the Cavaliers' owner's rhetoric, a white man addressing a black man, reminiscent of a slave owner publishing an advertisement for the retrieval of his runaway property. Jackson appears to speak for many others who question anyone else's objections to how a brother gets paid. Finally, a black sportswriter, Jason Whitlock, denounced Jackson as a spotlight-stealing interloper who didn't know what he was talking about. His column on the subject pretty well sums up the absurdity of the whole controversy, in which, it seems, there have been no good guys. While the nation's traumatic response to these events might well look contemptibly absurd from some perspectives, it may prove another eye-opening moment of our Bailout era, another exposure of the arrogance of wealth, the entitlement mentality of "talent," and its ultimate lack of loyalty to anything greater than itself. LeBron James is most likely the right sports star for our time -- and I'm sure they love the hell out of him in Miami.

09 July 2010

In Defense of 'Corporatism'

Ron Paul probably thought he was clarifying things when he told an interviewer that President Obama was not a socialist, but a 'corporatist.' But as Jonathan Chait writes in the current issue of The New Republic, 'corporatism' is a slippery concept that means different things when used by the left and the right. Chait thinks the President is getting a bum rap from both sides over his dealings with big business. He first answers the critique from the left:

One mistaken premise is the belief that there is a zero-sum relationship between good public policy and the interests of corporate America. Take, for instance, longstanding left-wing hostility toward cap-and-trade as a mechanism to control pollution. Corporations prefer cap-and-trade -- where the government sets an overall level of emissions and allows high-emanating businesses to pay low-emitting businesses -- over blunt regulation that forces all businesses to meet a fixed target. That's because cap-and-trade allows the same emissions reductions as regulation, but at a much lower cost. To assume that corporations' preference for cap-and-trade damns the policy is to assume that imposing costs upon corporations is an end in itself.

Whatever the actual effect of cap-and-trade, I'd guess that leftist objections to it aren't based on a desire to "impose costs" as much as on a belief, perhaps simplistic, that everyone ought to reduce emissions. Critics of cap-and-trade most likely believe in shared responsibility while disliking the notion that anyone's share of the responsibility should be turned, in typical capitalist fashion, into a commodity. It's kind of like a rich man paying for a substitute to fight in his place during the Civil War. The government still got the manpower it needed, but many people perceived something dishonorable in the process, the sacrifice of money and of life not being equal in their eyes. In any event, that's a particular case of a general leftist complaint about Obama's course.

"The left critique maintains that progress comes only when the president wages a climactic, Manichean struggle against the business lobby," Chait writes. He argues that progress throughout American history has come "almost exclusively through compromise," with every important measure from the emancipation of slaves through the Clean Air Act looking like a half-measure to some dissatisfied absolutist. I don't think that Obama's critics on the left necessarily look at matters in "Manichean" terms. They don't necessarily view big business as evil, but they do most likely question the extent to which and the basis upon which the business lobby insists on compromise from the elected representatives of the people.

Chait now turns to the confused conservative response to Obama's alleged corporatism:

It is worth noting that conservatism is starkly divided between those terrified of Obama's coziness with big business and those terrified of his hostility to big business....[To the former] American business is Volkswagen, a grubby handmaiden to power. [To the latter] it is the Jews, being demonized and stripped of their rights while a nation cheers....Of course, most right-wingers stop well short of the Third Reich metaphor. Yet the striking thing is that few leading conservatives can be found who consider Obama's relationship to business neither frighteningly close nor frighteningly hostile.(emphasis in original)

Chait's own view is that "corporatism" -- which might be best defined in the current context as the politics of corporate welfare -- is a fallacy we oughtn't worry about.

The central fallacy of all the critiques of Obama's 'corporatism,' both right and left, is that they mistake negotiation for collaboration. There is a difference between businesses jostling to minimize the damage of a reform they can't stop and businesses crafting legislation they desperately want to enact.

The latter, Chait implies, simply isn't happening under Obama. But there seems to be room, despite Chait's chiding, for both left and right to question the extent and propriety of the "negotiation" Chait describes so benignly. Whether you think that government should keep hands off business or that business should defer to elected representatives, you have every right in our era of post-Bailout populism to question the business lobby's influence on legislation and regulation.

Chait also seems to believe that 'corporatism' is a false charge simply because some business groups publicly oppose the Obama administration. It should occur to him that those hostile noises are simply part of the "negotiation" process, if not an eminently successful negotiation technique for dealing with the likes of Democrats. Against all critics, Chait appears to recommend complaisance. To the right, he insists that things aren't as bad as they say; to the left, he insists that this is the best they're going to get. Writing like a stalwart Democrat, he exhorts disappointed liberals, progressives, leftists, etc., to settle for all a Democratic administration says it can afford to do, while pretty much dismissing conservative and populist objections out of hand. Chait's attempted refutation of the "corporatism" charge ends up being a vindication of "business as usual" in Washington.

08 July 2010

Is this 'Socialism Now?'

Michael Kazin introduces a Dissent magazine symposium on the modern state of socialism with a quote from Eugene V. Debs, the leading American socialist of a century ago: "The Socialist movement is as wide as the world....its mission is to win the world, the whole world, from animalism, and consecrate it to humanity." Kazin goes on to note: "The history of the twentieth century made such confidence quite impossible." What interested me about the Debs quote wasn't his confidence but his use of the word animalism to describe, presumably, capitalism. I wanted to read more of that speech, so I googled the phrase Kazin quotes. It comes from a speech Debs composed for a phonograph record, though the recording was actually made by an actor impersonating Debs. The full speech can be found here, but I want to call attention to a particular passage.

The historic mission of Capitalism has been to exploit the forces of nature, place them at the service of man, augmenting his productive capacity a thousand-fold, to turn as if by magic, the shallow, sluggish dreams into rushing, roaring Niagaras of wealth, leaving to the toilers who produced it, a greater poverty, insecurity, and anguish than before. The mission of Socialism is to release these imprisoned productive forces from the vandal horde that has seized them, that they may be operated, not spasmodically, and in the interests of a favored class, as at present, but freely, and in the common interest of all.(emphasis added)

Strong language, again: capitalists are a vandal horde, barbarians by implication, exemplars of animalism as opposed to humanity. I looked in vain for similar language from the four authors who participated in the Dissent symposium, all of whom were struggling to clarify exactly what socialism offers to people. I learned from Shari Berman, for instance, that socialism has been in rhetorical trouble since Debs's own time. Berman notes how socialism evolved in different directions at the end of the 19th century. One route was Lenin's, the way of the vanguard party and its tyranny over the state and everyone in it. The other route is known as "revisionism" and was founded on the presumption that an actual workers' revolution was not as inevitable as Karl Marx believed. Revisionism itself evolved into "social democracy" or "democratic socialism;" whatever you called it, it meant an emphasis on using political power to improve conditions for workers through taxation, regulations on industry, and so on. Berman's article goes into a lot of intriguing detail in just a few pages, but it ends up being a rather demoralizing account of how non-Leninist socialism became a non-violent variation on the vanguard party idea. While Lenin's Bolsheviks and their many imitators believed it the Party's business to tell everyone what to do, many socialists believed it was a socialist government's business to take care of the working class rather than empower it. Their object was less to win the world from animalism than it was "taming and domesticating the capitalist beast." Indeed, a wise social democrat, Berman presumes, acknowledges that "capitalism is the only economic game in town [while] the Left's energeies, both intellectual and practical, should be devoted to taming and restructuring it." Berman is unlikely to call a capitalist an animal or a vandal. Is that progress?

Robin Blackburn echoes Berman's emphasis on taming. "The socialist aim should be to tame and 'socialize' market forces on a national, regional and global basis -- but not to aim at outright suppression of the market," Blackburn writes. He likes Marx's insistence that "the free development of each requires the free development of all," and would like to see Americans interpret their "pursuit of happiness" as something more than an individual right. But his socialism still looks like an adaptation rather than a replacement of capitalism. He hopes that continued state intervention on the 2008 model will save capitalism, and he wants governments to retain some ownership of bailed-out businesses or industries in order to regulate responsible growth and distribute revenues. This is certainly socialism in the feverish imagination of reactionaries -- and since this is a socialist writing, I guess they're right -- but I still feel like I'm missing something. Isn't socialism on some level supposed to be about workers' control of the means of production? A regime of socially conscious bureaucrats and regulators isn't quite the same thing.

"Socialists continue to believe what we have always believed," Jack Clark writes, "that we need to shape the economy to meet human needs. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around. Profit-maximizing corporations distort the economy and the polity." That sounds better, and I also like what Clark says about financial reform: "Don't leave it to the experts." The experts, he reminds us, got us into trouble in the first place. On other fronts, too, "the experts who tell us that we can't afford to do these things are the same wise men (and they are mostly men) who assured us that the [economic] crisis couldn't happen because our financial system was so sophisticated." Clark is all for full employment because "the power of workers grows" that way. But he identifies workers' power with the strength of unions. "Building the labor movement is critical to the creation of a better society," he writes. I don't disagree, but wouldn't a socialist movement ultimately make a labor movement redundant? Shouldn't it?

Michael Walzer seems to be reading my mind when he criticizes the "conventional socialism" that seems to prevail today. Conventional socialism isn't exactly a bad thing; it consists of democracy with strong civil liberties, state regulation of the market, and a welfare state. But Walzer asks, "is that all there is?" Then he asks, "What degree of democratic participation, market regulation, and welfare provision should we aim at?" Beyond that, he proposes a perpetual "socialism-in-the-making" that looks a lot like liberalism to me in its emphasis on process over result.

Unless liberation is self-liberation, it won't work; it won't make us free, on the ground, in everyday life. What is most important, then, is not the final realization of socialist goals, but the process by which they are realized....We think of socialism as a 'final goal,' but what we are really focused on, and what we are really committed to, is the means by which we work to reach that goal. Here is our most intimate and actual ambition. In truth, the people we would most like to be are not the citizens of some future socialist state but the activists and militants struggling to bring it about.

Walzer is concerned about the "iron law of oligarchy," which he sums up thusly: "In the absence of countervailing forces, the powerful get more powerful and the rich get richer, and this is what is going on everywhere, all the time." Socialism is the countervailing force, and "socialism-in-the-making" presumes a constant vigilance against the consolidation of hierarchies and concentrations of power anywhere, including in socialist movements. As he puts it: "Repeated insurgency is the price of equality." Not all insurgencies are equal, however. He warns against mass movements and leaders like those in South America today, the kind that he claims empower only demagogic leaders like Hugo Chavez. Walzer has a healthy mistrust of leader types and self -proclaimed ideological experts. "In politics," he writes, "any claim to esoteric knowledge is dangerous....in any genuine left insurgency, intellectuals are not leaders because they have special knowledge [but] because they are persuasive and energizing, because they are models of commitment and activism."

It could be argued that socialism is a process that depends on a result, and that putting the process before the result is like putting the cart before the horse. To be less proverbial about it, what exactly is the perpetual process of "socialism-in-the-making" aiming at, if it can be said to aim at anything? Maybe I'm still thinking about the wrong movement, because I'm stuck with this nagging idea that socialism has something to do with workers controlling the means of production. Isn't that the final goal? And if "the means by which we work to reach that goal" really matter more than the goal itself, then what exactly do the workers control? Walzer answers: Socialists "have come to believe in the market's capacity to coordinate economic activity, so long as it is subject to democratic control." Is democratic control the same as workers' control? The argument could be made, but it depends on what we mean exactly by "democratic control." If it means that voters control the market by electing conscientious politicians who appoint conscientious bureaucrats and regulators to oversee capitalism, then it isn't exactly a bad thing, but I'm not sure what Debs would make of it. On the evidence of that one speech, he had a moral passion about his version of "socialism in the making" that I find entirely absent in the Dissent writers. Walzer's socialism-in-the-making, the writer warns us, "is the only socialism we will ever know." And he follows that with a quote from Kafka about life being short.

Eugene V. Debs represented socialism at its peak of popularity in America. Whether the Dissent writers represent anything more than themselves is debatable. If the editors wanted to get more people interested in socialism's future, they might have tried printing more Debs.

07 July 2010

A 'Frustrated' American Speaks Out

Two days ago, the Troy Record gave two columns of its "Pulse of the People" section to a long letter from Hank Treggat, a resident of the Collar City. I suspect his comments represent the mood of many Americans, whether we like them or not.
I'm frustrated. I don't own a gun. I support gay marriage. Religious zealots drive me nuts, though I do consider myself a Christian. I'm white, which must mean I am racist. I love the notion of the Tea Party, and I hate the flippant responses from the left concerning it. I am first a fiscal conservative and general believer that the founding fathers of this country understood a whole lot more than most today give them credit for. Sarah Palin makes me want to jump off a building, but Nancy Pelosi is twice as bad. I believe this country is in a free fall, and it's not the fault of Barack Obama or George W. Bush. It's the fault of the people that refuse to stand up to the oppression that inches closer each day.

Treggat doesn't detail the oppression he sees coming, but he sees plenty wrong with the country right now. He traces the trouble to the New Deal, "a wonderful utopian idea that fails on every level." FDR's program set the nation on "an unsustainable path that has resulted in an "apathy" that "will be the downfall of this great society." It snuffed out the "American Dream ... achieved through calculated risk, hard work, and a willingness to believe anything is possible" and replaced it with a lower-case "american dream" of "free-dumb," described thusly: "Why work, when the government will pay you not to? Why bother to achieve when speed bumps along the way will make it difficult?"

"The massive government programs, created and continued so that the poor and needy have a voice, will never raise the people up," Treggat writes, "Each entitlement dissuades [sic?] growth. It will however drag the rest of us down." He believes that our political leaders know this fact, "but they continue to fight using the high moral ground. They will tell you that their beliefs are what are best for mankind, best for the welfare of our friends, families and neighbors. They tug at the heartstrings of people that are naturally good. They play well at emotional games. They use success and achievement as vessels of guilt." Worse, "they resort to the political games, tried and true, and aim to disfigure their perceived enemy."

What does Treggat propose to do? He says he loves the notion of the Tea Party, but doesn't claim membership. In many ways his ideas sound libertarian, but he never uses that particular L-word himself. He opposes the traditional Democratic agenda but doesn't seem to identify with the Republican party or conservative poster-kids like Bush and Palin. If he identifies with anything, it is, predictably enough, with "the men and women in the middle [who] must fight for the change." For Treggat, "change" means "fighting generations of unearned privilege," and it's up to "those of us that could benefit from the short-term 'heaven on earth' ease that [politicians] promise, who must fight back."

At his most provocative, Treggat vows to "take away your false hope, and instead shine fresh light upon the results of your efforts. If you find this notion to be offensive, you are part of the problem." He closes with a churchillian promise to "fight them on the battlefield of logic" and predicts eventual victory. What he means to do, I infer, is to argue on a factual basis that the welfare state is "unsustainable," and that there is no alternative to "hard work" and "calculated risk" on the part of every American. He anticipates a hard time trying to break down Americans' entitlement mentality, and he expects to be vilified. For the second time in his letter he assumes that he will be denounced personally as a racist, though that assumption may be the only evidence in the document that he is one. In general, he expects that anyone who tells hard truths will be slandered, and he appears in no mood to sugarcoat his message.

There's something breathtaking in Treggat's intention to "take away false hope," but also, perhaps, something inconsistent with his presumed desire to replace "false hope" with the reinstated belief that "anything is possible" to those who work hard. It may be simply a distinction between the possibility inherent in freedom and the "unsustainable" guarantees he identifies as "false hope." In any event, Treggat seems more comfortable with "I think I can," without questioning its realism in any given case, than with "the government will provide." Logic, he appears to believe, dictates that "anything is possible" is the only hope permissible, and then only at the individual level. His professed dedication to "common sense and reason" as well as logic leaves him no other course than ...what, exactly?

All we know from what Treggat writes is that he believes that the U.S. has been on the wrong path for nearly eighty years, and that many Americans enjoy "unearned privilege." He invites us to join him in a struggle, I presume, to undo that privilege. Then what? He complains that today "we no longer produce in our lives, we merely consume." I presume further that he wants to get Americans producing again. Maybe he thinks it will happen once Americans realize, once stripped of "unearned privilege," that they have no other choice. Would such shock therapy work? "Anything is possible" is probably all the answer Treggat deems necessary. If some sink while others swim, who does what is probably a matter of principled indifference to him. After all, "entitlement" and "unearned privilege" will "drag the rest of us down" if things stay as they are. It's "the rest of us" with whom Treggat is really concerned. I might be more sympathetic with his frustration and his determination to do something about it if he showed more concern for all of us, but I fear that he'd find my objection "part of the problem."

06 July 2010

The Purge of Pedro Espada?

In the past, I've noted that the two parties that form the American Bipolarchy differ from ruling parties in other countries in not enforcing their ideological lines by purging dissenters from their ranks. I was mistaken, at least as far as the state of New York is concerned. Section 16-110 of the state election law, dating back to 1976, establishes a procedure for cancelling the party enrollment of any individual voter. The power is actually in the hands of the state and county courts; they can purge a voter upon a complaint or "proceeding instituted by a duly enrolled voter of a party," if it is determined that "any material statement in the declaration of the voter upon which he was enrolled is false." A party's county committee chairman can respond to a complaint by any party member by determining that "[a] voter is not in sympathy with the principles of [the] party. Authorized by that determination, the accusing voter can go to court and get the accused stricken from the ranks "if it appears from the proceedings before such chairman or sub-committee, and other proofs, if any, presented, that such determination is just."

These laws are designed to prevent people from voting in primary elections. In the first instance, the courts can take action no later than "the second Friday before a primary election." In the second, the deadline is ten days prior to the primary. Today, however, the NYS Democratic Committee is invoking the law to have Senator Pedro Espada Jr. removed from the Democratic rolls. They have chosen the second option, charging that Espada, who bolted briefly to the Republicans in a power-play not so long ago, is "not in sympathy" with Democratic party principles because he joined the party with "ulterior motives." Here's a statement from the state Democratic chairman:

Time and again, by word and by deed, Pedro Espada has put his own naked financial interest ahead of bedrock Democratic ideals. Espada has run rough-shod over campaign finance rules devised by Democrats, has played fast-and-loose with state residency requirements, and - most egregiously - appears to be a Democrat purely for personal profit, not a commitment to our core values.

I have a problem with this law that has nothing to do with Senator Espada. The law begs a big question: who gets to define the principles of the party? Those principles are theoretically redefined every time a party publishes a platform. In time, a party can completely reverse its positions on some issues. It does so, presumably, because successive generations of rank-and-file party members decide, through their delegates at conventions, to steer parties in the directions they see fit. Primary elections or caucuses appoint the delegates to party conventions. The primaries and caucuses are determined by majority votes. The majority can construct a platform with which the minority disagrees. The majority thus decides what the principles of the party will be for a particular election cycle, but those principles only acquire authority through a process in which a minority participates and has, in theory, a chance to win. But by the standard set by New York election law, party members who want to steer their party in a new direction, or reverse its position on a controversial issue, could be deemed ineligible for party membership, and from running or voting in primaries, if their agenda is deemed "not in sympathy with the principles" of the party. This is not done normally to my knowledge. My hunch is that it isn't done because partisans understand that the Democratic and Republican parties are historically flexible (for good or ill) and are rightfully subject to influence by insurgents or innovators. They welcome challenges (within reason) because evolution is healthy for the major parties, They can't be allowed to become obsolete due to excessive dedication to permanent principles, after all. As long as this law is on the books, however, and if compliant courts can be found, less (or more) principled party leaders would seem to be able to use them for mischief in the form of disfranchisement in the name of ideological conformity.

On a more cynical note, I should add that mercenary motives have never proven that a politician is "not in sympathy" with the principles of his party. If Sen. Espada is clever, he might make the point himself -- and it might be fun to watch him prove his point.

U.S. vs. Arizona?

Against the advice of embattled Democratic representatives from Arizona, the Obama administration has announced its intention to sue the state for an alleged usurpation of federal authority. Arizona recently authorized state and local police to inquire into the citizenship status of suspects picked up for unrelated offenses. The federal government's contention, apparently, is that it's the federal government's business exclusively to conduct such inquiries and to make appropriate arrests.

The Arizonans presumably took their controversial step because they felt that the federal government was falling short of its responsibility in keeping illegal border crossers out of the state. It would seem to be an impractically narrow definition of federalism or federal supremacy to tell Arizonans that they're SOL if the federales can't solve the problems they assign to themselves. Perhaps the solution would be to have the state government call up the National Guard as auxiliaries to the Border Patrol, if that hasn't been tried already. I suspect, however, that jurisdiction isn't the real issue behind the impending suit. It's more likely that Hispanic voters, like most Americans, resent the idea of ever being an object of suspicion. Even though the Arizona legislation evolved from an earlier, more controversial version that seemed to authorize ethnic profiling even when there was no other evidence of lawbreaking, many legal Hispanic residents of Arizona may well think that it's racist of anyone to question their citizenship (or the legality of their residence), no matter what the circumstances. The national Democratic leadership is more likely simply solicitous toward Hispanics' wounded ethnic pride than interested in protecting actual illegal immigrants. But that's not how Republicans will portray Democratic motives. Republicans, in turn, are inclined to believe that Democrats want illegals to flood the country so they can be recruited for fraudulent voting, while many Americans regardless of party suspect that the "elite" want illegals here as cheap labor.

If the Justice Department presses this suit without offering Arizona a remedy appropriate to its situation as a border state, more people may be willing to believe conspiracy theories about Democratic or "elite" intentions. I can understand why some Arizona Democrats oppose this idea. Regardless of the suit's merits on constitutional grounds, it doesn't sound like good politics this year. Americans would be better off with a "left" party that took a stronger stand on border security, but many people on the "left" probably don't believe such a thing is possible. If that's their attitude, then they guarantee that illegal immigration will remain a "right-wing" issue.