31 August 2010

The Bipolarchy of Olden Days

At under 200 pages of text, Charles W. Calhoun's From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age is a concise and clear history of political and partisan issues in the period between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century. It offers ample proof of the historic inconsistency of the two major parties that still dominate American politics. Calhoun portrays a Republican party convinced of the economic benefits of government intervention, especially in trade policy, and a Democratic party dominated by a fiscal conservatism that would seem extreme to Tea Partiers today. Grover Cleveland, the lone Democratic President of the era, would stand well to the right of anyone planning a presidential run in 2012. He was fond of saying that it was the people's duty to support the government, but not government's duty to support the people. His party claimed to champion the poor, as it claims to do today, by trying to reduce consumer prices by lowering tariffs. Republicans claimed to champion the poor by maintaining high tariffs, which they claimed kept Americans at work. Calhoun does a good job explaining the importance of the tariff and the money supply as the key issues of the period, but he also shows how Republicans, in particular, played the bipolarchy game of lesser-evilism. For decades after the Civil War, the GOP warned that Democratic victories would put Confederates in power; this was called "waving the bloody shirt." Democrats did little to dispel that impression, being for all intents and purposes complicit in terrorism to suppress black voting in the South. But Democrats had support outside the South from people who hoped to benefit from free trade and others who worried that measures proposed to tame the South would expand federal power to a dangerous degree.

Calhoun disappoints a little in his dismissive treatment of third parties, particularly the Peoples/Populist party that waged perhaps the most formidable assault on the Bipolarchy ever in the 1890s. While acknowledging Populist successes, he rejects their claim that Republicans and Democrats fought battles irrelevant to the interests of ordinary Americans. He cites high election turnout as proof that Americans took the tariff and silver issues seriously, and the facts inescapably prove that the majority rejected Populism. Calhoun's point in writing the book was to get people to take the issues of the Gilded Age seriously, as if the Populist critique had prevailed in retrospect. He does give us a good idea of the stakes involved in those issues, but the fact that they mattered to many people doesn't mean that they mattered most to everyone, or even to a majority of the electorate -- many of whom may have voted Republican or Democrat for sectional or ethnocultural reasons. Given the unflattering portrait he paints of a nation divided between the grafters of the North and the terrorists of the South, he might have made more of an effort to step outside the Bipolarchy box and see it from an alternative viewpoint. But I can't complain very much after admiring the book's brevity in the first place. Calhoun deserves credit for laying out the facts in a way that at least leaves you asking questions, even if he has neither the time or the inclination to answer all of them.

'Collective Salvation' is what Civilization is All About

Theologian Glenn Beck has determined that the President of the United States is not a proper Christian. The radio talker is not saying that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. Rather, he claims that the Chief Executive is a sort of heretic. Beck can tell this because Obama has said on at least one occasion that "my individual salvation depends on our collective salvation." Beck, a Mormon, believes that this sentiment distorts Christianity's proper emphasis on individual salvation, each soul taking personal responsibility for saving itself.

Googling the heretical phrase reveals that the future President uttered it most notably in 2008, when he delivered the commencement address at Wesleyan University. Immediately afterward, the New York Times published an excerpt including the terrible clause. Here are the candidate's un-American words:

It's because you have an obligation to yourself, because our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America's story.

Looks like typical commencement-speech banality to me. What it doesn't look like is a theological statement. Beck has chosen to read a religious context into Obama's use of the word "salvation," but in context there's nothing here to suggest that the Senator was speaking about the salvation of the soul. In cliched language, Obama was saying something the Founders would agree with: a person's character finds its highest expression in public service and civic virtue. It is a relatively recent innovation in the history of Western thought to believe that public service subtracts from a person's freedom or corrupts his character. Where Jesus would stand on the issue is irrelevant.

In a civilized society, the only proper object of a state's existence is the collective salvation of its members. Any state not committed to that end inevitably ends up favoring one class of people, however constituted, over others. Why Christians (or Mormons) should favor that sort of state rather than one dedicated to collective salvation in the secular sense of the words is a question I leave for Glenn Beck to answer.

30 August 2010

The 'Ground Zero' Mosque Imam is Wrong About Something

Feisal Abdul Rauf gave an unfortunate interview today in which he complained that the protests against his proposal to build a community center, with a prayer site included, near the Twin Towers site in New York City, were essentially political in nature -- which is to say implicitly partisan. "There is no doubt," he told an Arab newspaper, "that the election season has had a major impact upon the nature of the discourse." The comments are unfortunate because Rauf is currently traveling in the Middle East on the State Department's dime as part of an "educational and cultural program." That will make his comments appear to be those of a political hireling. If anything, that will do more to politicize an issue that has cut across partisan lines. I've seen Democratic elected officials speak out against building the "mosque," and I've read Republican columnists writing in favor of Rauf's project. Even someone as partisan as Mr. Right observed that the issue was not a partisan one when he had an occasion to comment on the subject last week. Islamophobia is not an exclusive tendency of the Republican party, the Christian right, or any of the usual bad guys. It's an all-too reflexive response to the irrefutable fact (conspiracy theorists notwithstanding) that the September 2001 terror attack on New York was perpetrated by a group of Muslims, acting as self-appointed defenders of their faith. Many Americans who hate Republicans probably hate Muslims as well. Many Americans who despise Christianity automatically despise Islam as well. To the extent that they accept that the terrorists attacked New York because they were Muslims -- and their religion is a necessary but not a sufficient cause of the attacks -- all these Americans feel that each and every Muslim is a proper object of suspicion. It's the same mentality that condemned Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, and that cut across party lines as well. It's simply wrong to suppose that this anti-Muslim sentiment depended on partisan instigation by "very small [yet] loud and vociferous voices] to flare up as it did this summer.

While Rauf should not have to answer for the 2001 terrorists and doesn't need to prove that he disagrees with their motives and goals, he could have gone further to acknowledge that the terror attacks have something to do with the opposition to the Park51 plan than he did in the interview excerpts I've seen. He's quoted saying that "we have radicals in the other faith traditions as well" while acknowledging that "the issue of radicalism is a threat to us all." But the problem isn't "radicalism" but terrorism, the fact that certain Muslims feel entitled to commit mass murder. All I'm asking is that Rauf say something as simple as "people are angry at Muslims because of 9/11" before explaining why they shouldn't be angry at all Muslims.

Rauf also noted that Muslims aren't the first religious group to fall under widespread suspicion in American history. He's absolutely right on that. Roman Catholics, in particular, were accused of conspiring to subvert American democracy in favor of papal hegemony, and to the extent that Catholic immigrants were blamed for incidents like the New York Draft Riots of 1863 we can say that Catholics were blamed for mass murder as well. American anti-semitism, which Rauf also mentions, never came close to the fear felt toward Catholics in the past or the fear felt toward Muslims today. Like Islam now, the Catholic version of Christianity was widely assumed to be incompatible with the values of a democratic republic. It took the fear a long time to die, and a search on the internet might reveal that it isn't completely dead, but the Catholics simply overwhelmed the old suspicion by settling here in numbers that could not be repelled by nativists or ignored by politicians. On that model, the remedy for Islamophobia should be more Muslims and more mosques in America. We have no more reason to assume that they'd impose the Sharia if they got the chance than Protestant morons had reason to assume, for instance, that a Catholic President would take orders from the Vatican. But if that's a chance you're not willing to take, you don't really believe in democracy. You either welcome Muslims and trust them to become Americans like every other immigrant group, or you don't. That's the political dividing line in New York City and the rest of the country, and Imam Rauf misses the point of the moment if he tries to draw the line somewhere else.

For the record, here's the full text of Imam Rauf's interview with the English-language Abu Dhabi paper.

Populists Can't Be Bigots, Can They?

Charles Krauthammer's latest column is a case study in the cynical manipulation of perceived populist sentiment in the country. He wants to incite people by suggesting that the Obama administration and the Democratic party consider them "the great unwashed." The proof of this contempt, Krauthammer claims, is liberals' attribution of any opposition to liberal policies to bigotry. Any charge, any suggestion that bigotry persists in some quarters, the columnist asserts, is just liberals' sour-grapes way of explaining the public's considered rejection of the liberal agenda.

Krauthammer applies this analytic tool across the board. He claims, in effect, that liberals ascribe all opposition to Obama to bigotry, though he can offer no evidence that liberals have said this. The only liberals quoted in the column are President and Mrs. Obama, who are denounced anew for daring to say that some Americans are "bitter" or "mean."

Getting down to specifics, Krauthammer considers the three issues most recently provocative of populist sentiment: the Arizona illegal-immigration controversy, the court rulings regarding gay marriage, and the agitation over the "Ground Zero mosque" in New York City. The first of these is ultimately a question of jurisdiction that has been manipulated cynically by left and right alike. Bigotry is a factor in the controversy but not a decisive one. Krauthammer, however, goes out of his way to endorse bigotry in this case. It's not enough for him to state that Americans have a right to believe that "illegal immigration should be illegal." He goes on to assert for the presumed majority a right to "determine the composition of its immigrant population." That is, he would see nothing wrong with Americans passing laws excluding certain nationalities (or faiths?) from the country for any reason they please. As far as I can tell, Krauthammer wants to give more scope for bigotry than most opponents of illegal immigration have even asked for.

Meanwhile, neither homophobia nor Islamophobia are bigotries as far as Krauthammer is concerned. On the gay-marriage question, he writes: "is it so hard to see why people might believe that a single judge overturning the will of 7 million voters is an affront to democracy? And that seeing merit in retaining the structure of the most ancient and fundamental of all social institutions is something other than an alleged hatred of gays — particularly since the opposite-gender requirement has characterized virtually every society in all the millennia until just a few years ago?" Simple answers follow. Many civil-rights milestones in this country have overturned the will of voters. Antiquity is not inconsistent with bigotry. The struggle for homosexual equality is the civil-rights struggle of the 21st century, and resistance to equality in civil rights is bigotry by default.

We've already considered Krauthammer's Islamophobic stand against the mosque, but here's a recap: "This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than 'violent extremists' of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief." Never mind that Obama's pretense was Bush's as well; simply observe that Krauthammer's defense against the Islamophobia charge is to reassert his own Islamophobia! To review: you are an Islamophobe if you believe that every Muslim has to prove his innocence of complicity in either the September 2001 attacks or a conspiracy to impose the dreaded Caliphate on America. The "insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam" is what we Americans call a presumption of innocence. The denial of this presumption of innocence to any Muslim is Islamophobia. On this issue in particular, where there is no refuge in a positive argument for the necessity of the heterosexual couple for parenting purposes, there really is nothing but bigotry and its opposite, except for those few touchy-feely bleeding-heart types who may not be Islamophobes themselves but want us to be oh-so sensitive to the Islamophobia of the bereaved from 2001. Krauthammer does not belong to the latter group.

Personally, I've never blamed all the opposition to Obama on bigotry. Selfishness and crackpot economic notions have been constant factors in the right-wing resistance and certainly count for more, for most opponents, than mistrust of the President's race or suspicions about his religious affiliation. But I can't agree with what Krauthammer writes, because he charges falsely that liberals blame all opposition on bigotry, and implies quite smugly that none of the opposition is based on bigotry of any kind. In his eagerness to ride with the herd to an expected victory in November, Krauthammer is offering an indiscriminate endorsement of populist majoritarianism that he might regret later. Today, because "the great unwashed" appear to agree with him, he declares implicitly that they, the presumed majority, are always right. When they stop agreeing with him, I suspect that no amount of rhetorical soap will make them less "unwashed" in his own eyes.

28 August 2010

Fearmongering: Glenn Beck's Iceberg Test

C-SPAN was running live coverage of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally from the National Mall today, but I only had time to watch a little of it as it happened. I did get to see what I considered an unobjectionable video tribute to Martin Luther King, whose appearance at the same site 47 years ago has made Beck's appearance today controversial in some eyes. In the little I saw of the event I saw more black people in front of microphones than in the audience, though the C-SPAN cameras made a point of showing as many black spectators as possible. Since Al Sharpton's counter-event had not yet started, it'd be natural for some of his cohort to stroll over and see what the fuss was about. A little bit later, I caught some of Beck's own speech.

Beck was in a defensive mood when I saw him. He noted with some indignation that he has been called a "fearmonger." He denied the charge, arguing, to paraphrase, that when someone on the deck of the Titanic calls out that he sees an iceberg dead ahead, that isn't fearmongering. That point is inarguable. The question for the year 2010, however, is whether there is an iceberg. If there isn't, the man who cries iceberg is a fearmonger. We shouldn't have to wait until the iceberg hits, of course, but there should be ways to verify its imminence without having to take one man's word for it, especially when the man is as interested in steering the ship in a particular direction as in avoiding the iceberg. For all we know, his proposed course will put us on a collision course with an iceberg, -- only don't take my word for that.

In any event, Beck doesn't think of himself as a fearmonger, and since I don't watch or listen to him I won't venture an opinion. He argued today that fear is inadequate by itself to motivate people in a necessary direction. He believes that the nation united immediately after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, but that the moment of unity passed quickly because it was based mostly on fear. He offered another instance of the inefficacy of fearmongering: the story of Jesus. Beck assumes that the Disciples must have been scared when they spent the night in the garden of Gethsemane, what with the authorities hunting them and all, but their fear wasn't enough to keep them awake. By the time Jesus woke them up, it was too late to escape Judas and the gathering soldiers. The Disciples only gained long-term resolution, Beck explained, following the Resurrection. This left open the question of exactly what he thought might inspire a new sense of resolution today, but I had places to go and couldn't wait to find out.

27 August 2010

The Lincoln Memorial: 'Ground Zero' for the Civil Rights Movement?

Glenn Beck is holding one of his rallies in Washington tomorrow. Sarah Palin will be there to stir up the yahoos. Beck himself has been there before as an organizer of last year's "9/12" march. This time, however, prominent black activists are denouncing Beck for his scheduling of the "Restoring Honor" event on the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. For Beck and Palin to speak on the same steps where Martin Luther King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech, some say, is an affront to Dr. King's memory and the civil-rights movement as a whole.

Beck's response to criticism has evolved from disingenuousness to defiance. After initially claiming that he had not realized the historical significance of the day he chose for his rally, the demagogue has claimed his own right to the King legacy. He has invited a niece of King, who has accepted the invite, to speak at the rally. He argues, rightly in my opinion, that King's legacy belongs no more exclusively to black people than Abraham Lincoln's legacy belongs exclusively to white people. Predictably enough, Beck identifies King's legacy almost entirely with that single famous reference in the famous speech to "the content of our character. Like many reactionaries, Beck believes that King's dream vision of a time when every American will be judged solely by the content of his character rather than by superficial details like race, gender, etc., requires the immediate institution of a "color-blind" society through the abolition of all "affirmative action" programs. Whether an 81 year old King, were he alive today, would agree that compensatory programs could be done away with now is quite debatable, but Beck has every right to make the claim, just as Rev. Al Sharpton, who is holding a counter-demonstration tomorrow, has every right to dispute it.

The latest Beck brouhaha makes an interesting companion story to the ongoing contretemps over the proposed 'Ground Zero mosque' in New York City. It's another instance of hypersensitive backlash against a properly inoffensive exercise of civil rights. I can defend Glenn Beck's right to hold a rally where and when he pleases, as long as the law permits it, without endorsing any of his reactionary views. He is under no more obligation to defer to the sensitivity of some black Americans than the Park 51 planners are to defer to the irrational sentiments of some New Yorkers. A similar mental impulse animates both disputes. The aggrieved New Yorkers visualize the Twin Towers replaced by a mosque and their sensitivity is violated. Sharpton and others look to the Lincoln Memorial and see King displaced and replaced by Beck, as if the site would no longer "belong" to the civil rights movement but would be conquered and occupied by right-wingers and reactionaries, if not by outright racists. They identify the Memorial steps, if not the entire National Mall, with the sacred moment of 1963, so that its occupation by anyone believed to disagree with King or oppose his legacy, all of Beck's disclaimers notwithstanding, becomes a desecration. It is all perfectly irrational, and probably as cynically political, to an extent, as much of the outrage over the mosque plan.

Sharpton is within his rights to counter-demonstrate, as he probably would if opportunity allowed whenever and wherever Beck held a rally. Everyone has the right to use the occasion to criticize or simply insult Beck, Palin and the doctrines they stand for. But to suggest that Beck has no right to speak from the Lincoln steps on a particular day, or even to challenge the "wisdom" of his schedule, is unacceptable. This isn't about right and left or black and white; it's about an attitude that seems to be all too common in this country but ought to be less so.

26 August 2010

The Power of Palin?

Mr. Right and I were discussing the results of this week's Republican primaries a little while ago. He mentioned that some people have claimed that the Tea Party movement had shown its weakness by failing to boost insurgent J. D. Hayworth to victory over John McCain in the Arizona senatorial primary. Mr. Right himself was perplexed by the inconsistency between McCain's victory and a poll showing that a minority of Arizona Republicans had a favorable opinion of the incumbent Senator. He attributed McCain's survival to an open-primary rule in Arizona and to Sarah Palin's refusal, out of respect for her former running mate, to campaign for Hayworth. I reminded him that Palin had, in fact, gone to Arizona to campaign for McCain, but that didn't necessarily change his estimate of her significance as a factor in the Arizona campaign.

Results in Arizona and Alaska raise the question of the co-existence or overlap of a Tea Party movement and a Palin movement. In her home state, an insurgent endorsed by Palin holds a slim lead over Senator Murkowski. Reporters describe the insurgent as a "Tea Party" candidate and his apparent victory as the latest triumph for the TP movement. But Mr. Right and I agree that the outcome may have been the same had there never been a Tea Party movement. Sarah Palin rose to power in Alaska as an enemy of the Murkowski family. According to the history we learned in 2008, Palin wished to be appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Murkowski, who instead appointed his own daughter in a stunning but regrettably not uncommon act of political nepotism. The indignant Palin then challenged Gov. Murkowski in a Republican primary and defeated him. Given this history, it'd be plausible for a Palin-sponsored insurgent to defeat a Murkowski without any larger movement to boost him.

Is Palin bigger than the Tea Parties? The Arizona primary might support the claim unless Mr. Right's hunch about the influence of non-Republicans in an open primary proves correct. I don't know enough about Arizona to be able to guess how such voters might have behaved. On one hand, people who cross party lines to vote in an open primary often like to make mischief by voting for the candidate they consider least electable in November. On that assumption, I'd expect them to vote for the extremist Hayworth. On the other hand, Arizona may be so securely Republican that the primary winner would be assured of a November victory. In that case, non-Republican voters would want to prevent the extremist from advancing. Exit polls may reveal the truth if any were taken; until then we're left with the bald fact that in a high-profile contest in which Palin went against the presumed will of Tea Partiers, the presumptive TP candidate lost. I don't know if there is or has been a more purely objective test on this year's schedule: a closed Republican primary in which Palin has campaigned against a perceived or designated Tea Party tribune. Of course, Arizona may prove an exceptional case because of Palin's sense of obligation to McCain. Elsewhere, she might be cunning enough not to perpetuate the appearance of defying the will of the TPs.

Palin's greatest power down the line may be an ability to keep Tea Partiers tethered to the Republican party. Even if she doesn't appear on the 2012 national ticket, if she manages to become the public face of the GOP as a campaigner and fundraiser she may continue to convince would-be insurgents that the Republicans are their party. But many TPs probably feel that way already. I see no indication that Hayworth, after denouncing McCain for months, will continue to campaign against him as an independent. Just as most disgruntled liberals and progressives act as if the Democratic party is theirs, so disgruntled conservatives and reactionaries still identify with the Republican party. In both cases, the real meaning of their feelings isn't that the party belongs to them, but that they belong to the party and the movement for which it supposedly stands. That will be their downfall, but who will they take down with them?

25 August 2010

Why is a 'Progressive' Presidency Impossible? Because there is no 'Progressive' President

The latest issue of The Nation features a digest version of a long article columnist Eric Alterman published online earlier this summer, along with a selection of responses to the longer piece. Alterman has coined the phrase "Kabuki Democracy" to describe an environment in which allegedly liberal or progressive politicians go through the motions of governing according to the will of their voters, but end up failing to fulfill many if not most of their promises. Alterman offers a number of explanations for this state of affairs, including right-wing intimidation of the media, the media's own declining standards, arbitrary supermajority rules in Congress that empower obstructionist minorities, and a lack of confidence throughout the culture in government's power to achieve great objectives. Something seemed missing in his account, and I expected his respondents to correct the omission, but none of them did. Not one of them seemed to think that the current two-party system, that regime that obliges liberals and progressives to settle for whatever the Democratic party offers them as the price for keeping the Republican monsters at bay, as a factor inhibiting the development of genuine progressive politics in this country. Alterman himself acknowledges the compromised nature of the Democratic party, its ideological incoherence and lack of discipline compared to the ever-more dogmatic Republicans. Despite that, he appears to take its permanent presence for granted, suggesting as the only potential remedy the organization of extra-political mass movements to pressure Democrats to govern progressively.

Eric Alterman, in fact, opposes third-party activism. For the last ten years he has blamed Ralph Nader for the presidency of George W. Bush, as if the only choices Americans have in a presidential election are For or Against the Republican candidate, the Against choices being automatically registered as Democratic. He is as much a creature of his benighted time as anyone he criticizes in his columns or longer articles, because he, as much as they, believes that the Other Side winning means the Fall of the Republic. In his mind, we are all obliged to settle for Democratic governance, though we still seem to have the right to pressure them anytime except during an election campaign, because the only alternative imaginable to him, Republican rule, is intolerable. It is not enough simply to oppose Republican candidates, as every Nader voter did; you must swallow your pride or your priorities and vote for the other strongest party, or else you may as well have voted Republican as far as Alterman is concerned. When one party's victory is intolerable, voting for any other party but the official opposition is also intolerable. When that logic prevails, why should Democrats respond to any kind of pressure from any sort of mass movement that Alterman or his respondents might conceive? I see no possible answer unless he thinks the mass movement should include rioting in the streets.

Alterman has attacked Nader for claiming that there was no meaningful difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. He observes, based on Bush's performance, that such claims are self-evidently false. They certainly would be if Nader or his supporters had claimed that there was no difference at all between the two parties. The question has always been whether they are different enough. They're different enough for Alterman because he seems to live in undies-soiling fear of Republican rule. For others not so blinded by fear, they may not be different enough. It might be paradoxical to propose a progressive party that is less fearful of Republicans than the Democrats, but we may have a model in the Liberal Democratic party of Great Britain, which stands to the left of the Labor party (which when led by Tony Blair was Bush's great ally in the world) but has formed a coalition with the Conservative party to share in the new government. A strong progressive third party in this country might eventually land in a position to do similar horse-trading with Republicans in order to share control of Congress at the expense of a hopelessly establishmentarian Democratic party. How much more unlikely is this prospect than the suggestion Alterman leaves us with of demanding change from that which we won't force to change?

Alterman may think that the Republic is in a bad way now, but if he represents the mindset of self-styled progressives then we're worse off than he thinks.

24 August 2010

A Call for 'Mental Courage'

In light of my comments below on the populist tendency to flatter the middle class (or the "majority" or "the people," however construed) and absolve coveted voters of responsibility for national failings, David Brooks's latest column comes as something like a gust of fresh air. Brooks can probably still be described as a moderate Republican, but his comments this week have a non-partisan, non-ideological flavor. He writes in opposition to a kind of anti-intellectualism that we may see concentrated in Brooks's own party, but is more widespread. His subject isn't so much the hostility to knowledge that the left attributes to the right but a more general unwillingness to question one's own presuppositions. Like many conservatives, he's concerned with cultivating individual character, but unlike many of the more popular conservatives, Brooks believes that "character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts."

Brooks supposes that people were less self-satisfied in the now-distant past when most presumed themselves (and all human beings) to be "fallen," hopelessly imperfect by virtue of original sin. Such people, presumably, would not have believed that they knew everything they needed to know. Instead, Brooks claims, they knew that "to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness. In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful."

The truth was probably less ideal than Brooks's account. For most of our ancestors, the struggle against "mental laziness" did not extend to questioning the truth of allegedly divine revelations, for instance. But on their own terms they did often demonstrate an intellectual humility and an appreciation of improvement through learning that seem less prominent today. Brooks aligns himself with the more idiosyncratic conservatives by placing part of the blame for the change on capitalism. If anything, capitalism's corrosive effect has intensified lately.
In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime. In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.

Brooks writes that "The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics." While his bipartisan examples of Republican insistence that the President is a Muslim and Democratic skepticism about the 2007 Surge in Iraq don't seem equally apt, let's give him credit for making a nonpartisan point. Better yet is this bit of common sense: "Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity."

It's pretty bold of Brooks to write that what he calls a "metacognition deficit" -- a reluctance to "habitually step back and think about the weakness in [our] own thinking and what they should do to compensate" -- is the underlying problem among all the problems that afflict the country. It would probably be expecting too much to want him to offer a solution in the same column, but the problem is stated with commendable force. I'd like to see him return to the subject, to see whether he'd link our time's "mental flabbiness" with the anti-"elitist" attitude that prevails in so many places today. Do we suffer from a hostility to knowledge itself or from a resentment of the knowledgeable? Do we reject reasoned advice because taking it would make us "inferior" to the advisor in our own minds? Are we so enthralled with the idea of a pure, originally whole self with a destiny distinct and independent from everyone else's that we rage against compromising our ideals and interests with almost existential fury? These are not new topics here, but in the wider world David Brooks may deserve credit for starting a new and necessary discussion.

Populism: the Art of Flattery and the Rejection of Shared Responsibility

In the current New Republic John B. Judis blames the declining popularity of the Obama administration on the President's failure to take a "populist" stance on the issues. In the course of explaining himself, Judis offers, perhaps without realizing it, as cynical an understanding of what populism means and how it works as I've ever seen.

In the United States, politics pivots around the allegiance of the middle class, even as its identity has changed from yeoman farmers and mechanics to store clerks, office workers, x-ray technicians, and small business owners. They are, in Bill Clinton's words, 'those who work hard and play by the rules.' They are the central characters in a populist rhetoric that goes back to the early republic. It depicts the middle class as embattled and threatened either from forces below (impoverished immigrants, welfare cheaters, ghetto rioters) or above (Wall Street speculators, state bureaucrats, K Street lobbyists). Populism can be embraced by Glenn Beck or Tom Harkin. It is intrinsically neither left-wing nor right-wing. Politicians, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who found a way of using populism's appeal during downturns have enjoyed success, while those who have spurned it have suffered accordingly. If, in circumstances like the present one, you don't develop a populist politics, your adversaries will use populism to define you as an enemy of the people.

Barack Obama reminds Judis of Jimmy Carter because both have eschewed populist rhetoric. Without intending to, Judis clarifies one of the flaws of populist reasoning. He argues that Obama should have been "rallying the public against the 'money changers' as Roosevelt had done" instead of appearing to accommodate them too often. In effect, Judis thinks that Obama should have scapegoated Wall Street. What Obama actually did was unacceptable; like Carter, he dared to "put the blame on the public as a whole." Judis quotes the President's inaugural address, in which Obama criticized "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age" as well as "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some," as a prime example of the wrong rhetorical approach. To be a proper populist, then, it isn't enough to defend the middle class against those Others who caused all the trouble. You must also affirm that the middle class is innocent. You must confirm its virtuous self-image in the flattering language of Clinton. If you doubt their innocence -- even if you believe that they, too, must change their ways, you had better suppress that thought if you want to get re-elected.

Judis is not an unconditional populist. He admits that "Populism has profound shortcomings as a worldview," but he insists that "populism has been an indelible part of the American political psyche, and those who are uncomfortable making populist appeals ... suffer the consequences at the polls." That's not an encouraging diagnosis for democracy. It forces one to wonder whether populism is a pathology common to all democratic experiments or a peculiar defect of our own political culture. Judis himself realizes that populism has taken an especially expansive form in our time. It's not a matter now of the middle class feeling threatened by forces below or above. Today's reactionary populists feel threatened in both directions, by "moochers" high and low, by Wall Street and the ghetto. They were allegedly "sparked [into] a right-wing populist revolt" by "Obama's apparent tilt to Wall Street," not by any solicitude of his toward the poor. They are armored against persuasion by their impenetrable presumption of their own innocence and virtue, their conviction that they've done nothing wrong.

I don't mean to dispute Judis's contention, from a pure policy standpoint, that Obama could have been tougher on Wall Street. Judis makes a plausible case that the President has handled the bankers and brokers too gingerly out of fear of provoking further economic instability. But to say that Obama is wrong to talk about "collective failures" or for refusing to flatter the middle class is just a little contemptible from a nonpartisan perspective. If the core message of populism is "we don't have to change," anyone with a sense of the national interest that extends beyond the next election has to resist the populist temptation.

23 August 2010

Paladino: Gravedigger of the Bipolarchy?

I missed a "brush with greatness" by mere moments Friday morning, since Carl Paladino was leaving my office just as I was heading in. He had stopped in to chat with our editors, promote his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, and dis his principal rivals: Republican competitor Rick Lazio and Democratic front-runner Andrew "Status" Cuomo. While Paladino has an independent line of his own to run on, he wants to knock Lazio out of the race (despite Lazio's own presumably guaranteed spot on the Conservative line) because Lazio "showed no absolutely no depth on any of the issues" and "illustrated no intestinal fortitude." Lazio does not impress Paladino as being fit for the "magnanimous job" of "confront[ing] this ruling class" embodied by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whom Paladino wants to transport in a cage from village to village." As for Cuomo, while the semibillionaire Paladino is certainly a much wealthier man, he "illustrates" the arriviste's envy of the establishment, sneering that the attorney general is not only an "insider" and solely responsible for the housing bubble, but also "daddy's boy."

Given how Paladino covets the Republican line, this comment looks a little strange:

We are watching right now the beginning of the demise of the party system in the state of New York. The disaffected voters, the people in the Tea Parties and the Patriot parties. You’ve never seen that in past elections. These people are not aliens climbing out of some spaceship or living in the woods. These are real people. These are disaffected Democrats. They are disaffected Independents. They are disaffected Republicans and Conservatives. These are real people and especially the prime voters and they’ve had enough. They don’t want their rulers anymore.The idea here is we are seeing the budding of a revolution and that revolution doesn’t want that government anymore.

Perhaps Paladino believes you can only undo the party system by taking it over. But he seems to be doing little to speed the system's demise so long as he has promised not to campaign actively for his own Taxpayers line should Lazio win the Republican nomination. Defeating Cuomo apparently takes priority over dismantling the party system of the ruling class, even though Paladino is convinced of Lazio's inability to reform the system. Moments earlier, Paladino had described politics in general as "a minefield of disloyal, distrustful people all interested in themselves.

"It doesn't matter what the party label is," Paladino said, "it's a ruling class. We have to take out the ruling class." So perhaps it doesn't matter what party label Paladino wears, so long as the "disaffected" give him the power to "take out" his oppressors. But it seems to matter to him. He's invented his own party, but that isn't good enough for him, unless his enmity for Lazio proves so great that he forgets his promise in defeat. But if Paladino keeps his word, which he claims is a businessman's supreme virtue, the party system will have buried him.

20 August 2010

What is Islamophobia?

It's a social phenomenon, not a psychological disorder. Islamophobia is primarily a belief in collective responsibility, a preference for generalization over the particular. In practice, it is an insistence that, though not every Muslim on earth is responsible for the terror attacks of September 2001, they must all answer for it. That is, the Islamophobe imposes upon the individual Muslim or any particular Muslim group an obligation to prove that they do not sympathize with the terrorists. At the same time, the Islamophobe assumes an entitlement to generalize from the particular. He doesn't want to hear that the 2001 attacks were perpetrated by 19 men and a handful of facilitators, or that Islamism -- the belief that Muslim countries, at least, should be governed according to the Shari'a, -- is a minority doctrine among Muslims worldwide. Charles Krauthammer is an exemplary Islamophobe. He condemns a fellow columnist for calling the 2001 attacks "a rogue act." For Krauthammer, that's "Obtuseness of [a] magnitude [that] can only be deliberate." Mohammed Atta's team must not be seen as "freelance rogues," he insists.

They were the leading, and most successful, edge of a worldwide movement of radical Islamists with cells in every continent, with worldwide financial and theological support, with a massive media and propaganda arm, and with an archipelago of local sympathizers, as in northwest Pakistan, who protect and guard them.

Krauthammer goes on to estimate that Islamism is espoused by a grand total of 7% of Muslims worldwide. That's enough, apparently, to entitle Islamophobes to regard all Muslims with suspicion and perceive any Islamic presence near "Ground Zero" as an insult.

Ground Zero is the site of the most lethal attack of that worldwide movement, which consists entirely of Muslims, acts in the name of Islam and is deeply embedded in the Muslim world. These are regrettable facts, but facts they are. And that is why putting up a monument to Islam in this place is not just insensitive but provocative.

Monument? That sounds suspiciously like the opinion of discredited Tea Party mouthpiece Mark Williams, who described the proposed mosque/community center as some sort of tribute to the 2001 terrorists. That kind of rhetoric is pretty provocative in its own right. In any event, Krauthammer's syllogism fails because it doesn't follow that anyone needs to be provoked, or should have their sensitivity offended, by a "monument" to a notoriously decentralized religion, one which has no central authority to command all the faithful and therefore cannot be said to have initiated or endorsed Atta's attacks.

Krauthammer currently believes that Pearl Harbor is his winning analogy in arguments with mosque supporters. He asserts that "the people of Japan today would not think of planting their flag at Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that no Japanese under the age of 85 has any possible responsibility for that infamy." But when Stephen Cohen explained why the analogy failed -- because Atta's terrorists were not agents of any central Islamic authority in the way that the Pearl Harbor attackers were agents of the Japanese Empire -- Krauthammer replied in the manner quoted above.

None of the analogies to which Krauthammer and fellow Islamophobes resort will win an argument, however, because the argument in favor of the mosque is that an Islamophobic expression of grief over the 2001 attacks is irrational. It may sound mean of me to say this, but it would be just as irrational for Americans over the age of 85 to continue to hate Japan for what happened at Pearl Harbor nearly 70 years ago, and it was just as irrational for Jewish protesters to see some sort of anti-Semitic intent in the nunnery at Auschwitz, to bring back another favorite analogy of the moment. Grief does not confer an entitlement to be irrational. By writing this I may risk the charge of being insensitive to grief itself, but let me raise the stakes by questioning the sincerity of the grief. Is this really about grief at all, or is it about grief conferring a right to hate? No one would be offended by the erection of a mosque if they didn't hate Islam already. That's Islamophobia, and that's the bottom line.

Manifesto for a 'Hostile Takeover'

A "Tea Party Manifesto" was published this week in the Wall Street Journal, which may be a strange place to publicize a movement founded partly on hostility to bailouts. You'd think such manifestos would be a dime a dozen already, but the Journal op-ed is really a free ad for a book-length manifesto from the same authors. And who are these tribunes of the grass roots? One is a retired Congressperson, Dick Armey, and the other, Matt Kibbe, is his partner in the FreedomWorks think tank, which proves to be a post-schism rebranding of an Eighties entity known as the Center for a Sound Economy. These guys are old news. Who are they to speak for the people who reportedly rose spontaneously, without prompting from raido, internet or think tanks, to protest government-business collusion in general and the Obama administration in particular? They promise on behalf of Tea Partiers a "hostile takeover" of the Republican party, but the Manifesto itself seems like an attempt to take over the Tea Party movement and steer it in those directions Armey and Kibbe choose.

What would the authors have the movement stand for? Armey and Kibbe appear to be doctrinaire libertarians. They invoke both Friedrich Hayek's concept of "spontaneous order" and Ayn Rand's "Trader Principle" to argue that "Decentralization, not top-down hierarchy, is the best way to maximize the contributions of people and their personal knowledge." By contrast, according to their demonology, "The big-government crowd is drawn to the compulsory nature of centralized authority. They can't imagine an undirected social order. Someone needs to be in charge—someone who knows better."

This is a comprehensive mischaracterization of the way democracy has evolved in America. There is centralization, and there is hierarchy, but the authors fail to recognize, or are unwilling to acknowledge that when these work properly they form a bottom-up hierarchy through which citizens as voters give direction to the government, which then implements democratic directives in the top-down manner FreedomWorks finds so odious. Armey and Kibbe are eager to characterize "big government" as a creation and instrument of know-it-all elitists (as opposed to an alleged "common sense" preference for decentralization), but it was called into being and affirmed repeatedly by landslide majorities of ordinary Americans during the 20th century. They blame the excesses of big government on "bureaucrats presumed to know better what you need," but their real problem, whether they realize it or not, is not with bureaucrats but with millions of fellow citizens who presume to know better than Armey, Kibbe et al what we as a country need. Centralization and hierarchy are appropriate when government is mandated by the people to concern itself with the well being of everyone. As standard-issue entrepreneurial reactionaries, our would-be Tea Party spokesleaders are only concerned with ensuring that individuals maximize the winnings deemed rightfully theirs by their doctrine. They might argue that this is the best way to ensure that the most people prosper, but their consideration of "most people" is certainly secondary, and almost certainly incomplete, compared to their claim of entitlement to all that the market might give them.

Of course, my disliking this manifesto could be taken for granted. The real issue is whether Tea Partiers will recognize it as a bible of their own. It sounds some libertarian notes, but it's still unclear if the movement is deeply libertarian in orientation. Armey tries to ignore his own past as a Republican hack by applauding TPs' readiness and ability to defeat GOP "big spenders" in primaries, but his promise of a "hostile takeover" of his old party should beg the question of how thoroughly Armey repudiates his old establishment peers. The op-ed version of the Manifesto, for instance, says nothing about foreign policy, while Tea Partiers, to the extent that they're libertarian or paleo-conservative, should be skeptical toward the country's foreign commitments. Nor does the word "bailout" appear in the Journal piece, despite the role of bailouts in provoking the TPs, except in the context of pensions for state workers. For Armey and Kibbe the cardinal economic sin of our time wasn't the bailouts but the stimulus. The issue of government-business collusion, which troubles many TPs and many of their sympathizers, isn't up for discussion here. Since shrinking government has been part of the Republican rhetorical routine for nearly fifty years, and has been consistently belied by the performance of Republican presidents, why should any self-styled insurgent see anything new in a former GOP majority leader preaching that old line and nothing else? Armey and Kibbe may call for a hostile takeover, but who'll do the taking-over remains to be seen.

19 August 2010

Goebbels Was Right?

Or at least he would be if he actually said something frequently attributed to him: that if you tell a lie often enough, many people will eventually believe it. There's some mystery over whether the Nazi propaganda minister actually said this, and one researcher on the subject who has found quotes resembling the proverb from both Goebbels and Adolf Hitler himself notes ironically that in both cases the Nazis were citing what they claimed were successful instances of British propaganda at work. In any event, the United States in 2010 appears to offer fresh proof for the proposition in the form of poll results indicating that more Americans now believe that the President of the United States is a Muslim than did so last year. The increase is shown in a poll taken before the present "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, while one taken after the issue hit the news shows an even larger number identifying Barack Obama as a Muslim. The number of Americans who claim to be uncertain about the President's religious affiliation has also grown.

Only 11% of those who call Obama a Muslim claim to have deduced it for themselves. The large majority of misbelievers on this point claim "the media" as their source for the info. We can guess what media those are, and only the most generous interpretation of their claims -- attributing them to paranoid delusions, for instance, --would absolve them from the charge of deliberately lying. There is even less reason (evidence doesn't even enter the discussion) to suspect that Obama is a closet Muslim than there is to suspect that he wasn't born in the United States. Someone might have a hunch about the President's religion, but if he can't back it up with facts his hunch is no better than a lie. Unfortunately, one of the tenets of Islamophobia is that Muslims are licensed to lie about their faith in a hostile environment, so a complete lack of positive evidence of Muslim practice by the President would not satisfy the accusers, if their suspicions were sincere. Even if Obama drew a picture of Muhammad on the cover of a Qur'an and then burned it, some Americans would say he was shamming. To them, he is irredeemably alien, and calling him a Muslim is just the more politically correct way of saying so, and a more effective way in the 21st century than the old-fashioned method of Red-baiting.

One of the surveys cited in the linked article also tracked Americans' attitudes toward religion in politics. Those polled opined that both major political parties seemed less friendly toward religion in general than they were thought to be two years ago. But most people must be satisfied with that, since the poll revealed that, for the first time since the 1990s, a majority believes that "churches should stay out of politics." Meanwhile, regardless of what religion they believe the President to practice, a strong plurality of those surveyed say that he lets his faith influence his policies by "the right amount," while only 11% say he is too strongly influenced by religion. I'd be interested to know how many of that 11% think he's a Muslim. For the 18-24% of Americans who think he is, I suspect, the concern isn't so much the religion itself as it is the possibility that the President is one of the enemy. That's what his enemies want us to suspect. They're not just his enemies, however. Regardless of their own political agenda, if they think they can undermine a presidency with a campaign of lies, that makes them enemies of all the American ideals they pretend to defend. Their success would only undermine the world's confidence in a people's ability to govern themselves reasonably in a democratic republic. But this week's poll results alone are a disgrace to American civilization.

18 August 2010

Nine Choices for Governor of New York

As of today, seven independent or semi-independent candidates for the office of governor of New York have submitted claims for ballot lines in the form of collections of signatures in excess of the minimum total required by law. Barring challenges to these seven, as many as nine candidates will appear on the November ballot, including Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo and Conservative candidate (and Republican claimant) Rick Lazio. Should Lazio win the Republican primary, Carl Paladino has promised not to contest the general election on his newly created Taxpayers line.

Local papers acknowledged only two of this week's successful petitioners: Green candidate Howie Hawkins and Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich -- Paladino had turned in his Taxpayers petitions earlier this month. Joining these three independents are Kristin Davis, representing the Anti-Prohibition Party; Charles Barron, representing the Freedom Party; Jimmy McMillan, representing the Rent is 2 Damn High Party; and Steven Cohn, representing the TEA Party, whose petitions have not yet been accepted by election officials.

A number of additional independent parties are skipping the gubernatorial race to focus on winning representation in Congress or the state legislature. Bruce Blakeman seeks to challenge Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on a new Tax Revolt Party line, while James Germalic has petitioned for a Black/White Party line to challenge Sen. Charles Schumer. Tax Revolt has also petitioned to contest two congressional districts, two state senate districts and one assembly district. The Anti-Prohibitionists, Greens, Libertarians and Taxpayers are challenging both U.S. Senators, while Rent is 2 Damn High is running Joseph Huff against Gillibrand. Libertarians are running in four congressional districts, the Taxpayers and Constitution Party in one apiece, and the sole candidate of the New York Moderates Party is running in the 24th District. Appearing in legislative races are two candidates from the Change Albany Now Party and one apiece from the Fix Albany Party, the Had Enough Party, the Common Sense Party and the Little Party. For more information about who's running where, check the official list of independent petitioners. In the coming weeks I intend to profile as many of these independent parties as possible. For now, I congratulate all of them, regardless of ideology, for making it this far into the game.

Build a Mosque, Burn a Qur'an; Freedom is Sometimes Messy

While the most notorious outbreak of Islamophobia so far this year has been the protest movement against the construction of the Islamic community center popularly known as the "Ground Zero Mosque," that high-profile controversy has put the media on the lookout for other expressions of hostility to the religion of Muhammad. Potentially the most provocative expression of American Islamophobia is scheduled for the ninth anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks: a public burning of copies of the Qur'an by members of a homophobic evangelical church whose pastor proclaims that Islam is "of the devil."

It may confuse matters for me to play "devil's advocate" on this issue, but I want to go on record as endorsing both the erection of the mosque and the burning of the Qur'an. My opinion on the former issue is already known to Think 3 readers. As for the book-burning, I accept that the congregation should be punished if their action violates state or local laws, but I applaud the act on civil-disobedience principles. While I condemn critics of the Ground Zero Mosque for irrational sensitivity, Muslims still set the standard for irrational sensitivity worldwide, as is proven anytime anyone creates an image of Muhammad or says a critical word about him. Every time a Muslim threatens some infidel for violating the purported Qur'anic taboo against picturing the Prophet, I get into a punitive mood. Non-Muslims are not governed by the prohibitions of Islam; it's our prerogative to illustrate our accounts of Muhammad and to caricature him if we think he deserves it. We are no more to be constrained by the irrational sensitivity of Muslims on this point than the Muslim community-center planners are to be constrained by the irrational sensitivity of those flagrant perpetual mourners who identify the religion of Islam as the prime mover of the September 2001 attacks. The only remedy for irrational sensitivity is to get in the faces of the irrationally sensitive and make them get used to our right not to defer to their unreason. That means standing with Mayor Bloomberg against mounting opposition (now apparently including Governor Paterson) in support of the GZM, and it means affirming our right to thoughts and actions that may be provocative to Muslims, but are still within the prerogatives of free people. The Florida church's refusal to be intimidated by the threats of reprisal that have predictably appeared is probably the one indisputably admirable thing about their scheme. It's just unfortunate that this stunt is being perpetrated by a Christian church, not to mention a church of homophobic jackasses, because the congregation is bound to misunderstand what's wrong with the Qur'an. They condemn it because it deviates from the Bible and thus must be heretical or satanic. But the problem with the Qur'an is that it is just like the Bible, and if we have to stoop to book burning to force a point home about religious extremism we could just as well burn a Bible or a Torah, or any book of superstitions that drives believers to kill or simply hate non-believers. If Muslims feel a need to make reprisals if the book-burning takes place as planned, they'd have just as much right to burn Bibles as far as I'm concerned.

There is a widespread perception (probably shared by many Hindus as well as the predictable Christians and Jews) that Islam is a uniquely evil religion. Because Islam is a latecomer among the great religions, and because Muslims are relative latecomers to America, the religion and its believers are often pressured into proving their good will in a manner not demanded of other faiths and faithful. Here's an example of that attitude as expressed by Cal Thomas -- another Christian Islamophobe: "It isn’t America’s obligation to demonstrate our tolerance, as if by doing so those within Islam who wish to destroy us will ultimately transform into religious pluralists. It is their obligation to demonstrate their own tolerance in the face of much evidence of Islamic intolerance and violence by radicals." But if history forces Muslims to prove their worthiness of American liberty, history should impose the same obligation on Thomas's own faith in nearly all its denominational permutations. History also tells us that other newcomers throughout American history -- Irish Catholics, Italians, Chinese, etc.-- were challenged to prove their cultural or intellectual worthiness of American citizenship against charges that Catholicism, "Latin" culture, "Oriental" racial characteristics, and so on made them incapable of living as citizens of a republic. These nativist demands have always been proven unnecessary by the successful assimilation of immigrants within two or three generations of American life, and the capacity of Muslims for assimilation was not questioned by most people in this country before 2001. Nor has it always been controversial for Americans to accommodate Islamic customs. As Eugene Robinson points out, Ramadan was first observed at the White House by Thomas Jefferson in 1805 as a courtesy to a Tunisian ambassador. Robinson is right to suspect that a President showing the same courtesy today would be tagged as an appeaser by our modern Islamophobes.

It's one thing for us to respect the obligations Islam imposes on Muslims, and another when Muslims claim that their beliefs impose obligations on the rest of us. If respect for Muslims' regard for Muhammad must be weighed against respect for everyone else's right not to share that regard, the latter wins. If respect for a Muslim group's desire (innocent until proven guilty) to make a goodwill gesture in lower Manhattan must be weighed against respect for the indiscriminate grief of certain Americans, the former wins. There is an obligation to tolerate on both sides, and that's why both must be denied veto power over potentially offensive free expression. You don't trust Islam? If Muslims have a right to build on that property, too bad for you? You don't think Islam should be insulted? If Florida law allows a book burning, too bad for you, too. Neither of you have a right to dislike the other unless you acknowledge the other's right to dislike you, and neither of you can turn your dislike into law. That's the American way.

17 August 2010

Fear Drives the Two-Party System. Does Complacency Threaten the Republic?

My frequent correspondent d. eris, the proprietor of the independent Poli-Tea blog, calls attention in his latest post to the apparently contradictory findings of recent political polls. These find Americans poised to favor Republican congressional candidates over Democrats by landslide margins this fall, despite preferring Democratic to Republican control of Congress by an admittedly small margin. Of course, the different samples consulted in different polls may be expected to produce contradictory results, but the actual unpopularity of the Republican Party seems consistent in all surveys. So what's happening? Here's how d. eris explains it:

[O]f those who favored a Democrat-controlled Congress, 48% stated that they actually support Democratic candidates and policies, while 47% said they really just oppose the Republican Party and its candidates. On the other hand, of those who preferred a Republican-controlled Congress, only 35% said they support the Republican Party and its candidates, while a whopping 59% said they actually only oppose Democratic policies and candidates (emphasis in original).

d. eris correctly interprets this as proof that most probable Republican voters, and nearly a majority of probable Democratic voters, will be voting on a purely reactionary basis in order to prevent the "bad" party from keeping or gaining power. He sees this as a byproduct of the two-party system, aka the American Bipolarchy. "Simply put, the two-party system produces a literally reactionary majority, which is willing to support the major party it favors less because it opposes the other major party more," he writes, "This is the contradictory and paradoxical ideology of lesser evilism."

Lesser-evilism is only part of the explanation, however. It begs the question of why those who oppose the Democrats feel that they have no choice but to support the Republicans. The answer is obvious: while they feel an urgent need to beat the Democrats, they also feel it impossible to beat the Republicans. As long as they assume that some people will stick with the GOP, they'll assume that any attempt to create an independent party or movement opposed to Democratic rule will only guarantee further Democratic rule. If there's no chance of annihilating the Republicans in a single stroke, there's no point to challenging them. As a result, they settle for Republican rule on the short-lived but invariably recurrent assumption that they can't do worse than the current crop of Democrats, and will at least prevent Democrats from perpetrating whatever horror these opponents imagine.

However dissatisfied with Republicans these anti-Democratic Americans are, few will attempt to advance a more satisfactory alternative as long as the GOP exists to pre-empt the possibility of a majority for the new movement. As a result, Republicans can do nothing or propose nothing, as has been charged against them during this Congress, and still depend on the support of many Americans. But I'm not sure if the Bipolarchy alone suffices to explain why so many of us would rather settle for major-party incompetence than insist on our own desires prevailing.

I've begun to wonder whether our reactionary complacency is a predictable product of liberal republican forms of government. One of the defining features of such systems is the readiness of any faction to give up power when another faction wins an election. Each faction must be convinced that a failure to get their way will not mean the end of the world, or at least the republic. The obvious corollary is that people in a healthy liberal republic will not regard the victory of any faction as the end of the world or the republic. The first sign of decline may be when people begin to regard a particular faction's victory as a mortal threat to the nation. A bipolarchy may exacerbate that feeling, but it might also be the result of that original decline. Once the decline sets in, voters seem to become more interested in denying victory to the most-hated faction than in insisting on the triumph of their own principles. All of this may be rooted in a more fundamental confusion about the role of politics in society that threatens any republican experiment. Readers may disagree about this tentative diagnosis, but the irrational state of American politics today can't be denied. If republican government is to advance humanity, someone will have to get to the root of this problem.

Protest: American as Apple Pie

Ahlam Mohsen should be prepared to pay the price for hitting Senator Levin of Michigan in the face with an apple pie last night, but I find it hard to work up any real outrage at her action. Descriptions of the young woman from early reports of the incident range from "anti-war activist" to "violent anti-Zionist." Googling her name reveals a history that starts at least as far back as January 2009, when she and two other college activists were arrested outside of Levin's office in Lansing. They had demanded an audience with him to protest the Israeli bombings of Gaza then under way. That summer she went to Israel and was arrested while protesting the eviction of a Palestinian man. The Israelis deported her later that year.

The purpose of last night's pie attack was allegedly to remind Democrats that they share responsibility for the wars and injustice in the Middle East with their Republican predecessors in power. Pie attacks have been a popular protest tactic of the global left for the past decade, with billionaires usually targeted for pastry assault. On one level it's obviously a juvenile tactic, and people can be excused for declining to take Mohsen seriously. On another, the humiliation of the powerful is often enjoyable, depending on the observer. More importantly, Mohsen has pitched her protest at the level of personal humiliation. She wasn't out to kill Sen. Levin, but she had clearly reached the end of her patience with his apparent refusal to engage with her or the numerous Arab or Muslim Americans in Michigan who don't share the majority's love for Israel yet have as much claim on the Senator's attention as, say, Cuban Americans have on Floridian politicians. Mere civil disobedience wasn't cutting it for her anymore, but real violence, presumably, wasn't an option either. In another time, she might have thrown cabbages or tomatoes or eggs at the great man. A pie implies a self-consciously comical intent, and we should probably read it as a firm disavowal of more violent intentions. She should still suffer whatever the law requires, since it's still disorderly conduct, but considering the alternatives I salute her.

16 August 2010

The Race Card Has Sharp Edges

Embattled congresswoman Rep. Maxine Waters and Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg appear to agree that there is "no coincidence" involved in the high number of Congressional Black Caucus members under investigation for alleged corruption or impropriety. Waters has a conspiracy theory: reactionaries or simple racists, presumably, want to take down powerful black politicians, including herself. Goldberg sees a correlation rather than a coincidence; too many black legislators are corrupted by the effective life tenure that comes with gerrymandered districts and an absence of real political competition. He's honest enough to admit that Republicans are partly to blame for this state of affairs, though only for the gerrymandering. He reminds readers in his latest column that "cynical" GOP lawmakers were happy to aid in the creation of "minority-majority" districts because it made other districts more lily-white and thus safer for Republican candidates. Gerrymandering is partly to blame for the absence of competition that spoils black Democrats, but the ultimate reason for the lack of competition has to be the lack of a viable competitor, and Goldberg can't account for that.

Goldberg hopes, however, that the fresh scandals involving Waters and Rep. Rangel will speed the end of the days when black politicians can routinely employ the "race card" to save themselves from scandal. Implicit is his hope is a wish that black voters would start voting Republicans to rebuke and repudiate corrupt Democrats. He notes that blacks as a group are more "conservative" on certain social or moral issues than their representatives in Congress. Given that, the persistent absence of competitive elections still baffles him. He stakes his hope for competition on the President, whose administration should teach blacks that there is no conspiracy to hold them down. Obama's electoral success should make blacks skeptical when their congressmen claim that charges lodged against them are nothing but a plot by The Man to bring them down. Objectively speaking, this makes sense, but it still leaves Goldberg without the crucial piece of his puzzle: the viable competition for the Democratic establishment. It should be plain that Goldberg assumes the only viable alternative available to be the Republican party. But whatever socio-moral conservatism exists in black communities hasn't yet been enough to get blacks to elect candidates from the onetime Party of Lincoln. That's because the GOP has been the Party of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms for nearly fifty years, and no matter how much Republicans want to talk about the history of racist Democrats before 1964, blacks identify Republicanism with racism today. Nor does an endorsement of supply-side economics follow from whatever traditionalist attitudes persist in black constituencies. If there's an absence of conventional two-party competition in black districts compared to the country at large, that's because Republicans are selling nothing that blacks want. If those districts become more competitive, it will more likely be because constituents sick of Democratic corruption will have embraced independent challengers to the Democrats' left.

Goldberg should be careful about declaring the race card overdrawn or void, since that can be seen as a way of using the race card himself. As my friend Cryhmethinc noted today, any attempt to accuse the likes of Rangel and Waters of using the race card will probably be seen as a racist attack in its own right. If propagandists like Goldberg really want to neutralize the race card, they'll have to find some way to attack Rangel and Waters without mentioning race. That would mean resisting the temptation to bring up the subject of the race card when the other side slams it on the table. To neutralize it, you don't want to complain as if the person who uses it is cheating. You have to refuse to recognize it. If you can't refuse, then you've taken the bait and your antagonist will find a way to say that you're criticizing his conduct because he's black. I doubt whether many Republicans can resist the temptation; too many of them want to knock the figurative chip off black Democrats' shoulders. Black Republicans would have a better chance of pulling off the trick. The challenge for white Republicans is to figure out how to create more black Republicans.

15 August 2010

Our Populist Moment

The particular character of the 2010 model of American populism may be crystallizing around the two most argued-over issues of the moment: the demand for gay marriage and the effort to build the "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York. It's claimed that a majority of Americans oppose both ideas, and it's quite likely that the same Americans form the majority in both cases. In each case, an elite is accused of defying the people's will in the name of political correctness. In the case of the mosque, the majority is presumed entitled to a sensitivity that excludes any Islamic symbolism from supposedly sacred ground. In the case of gay marriage, the majority is presumed entitled to declare homosexual marriage, if not homosexuals themselves, unacceptable. To the extent that you deny either premise, today's populists argue, you oppose democracy. Presumably you prefer the rule of cultural elites as philosopher kings with the unjustifiable power to tell everyone else how to live or how to think.

Of course, seeing some people cry for democracy at this time is funny. Usually what I get from them is the reminder that the U.S.A. is not a democracy but a republic, and that the majority can't always get its way. But now we hear that homosexuals have only those rights that the voters, not the Constitution, suffer them to enjoy; and on the subject of the mosque we get complete mystification, and an insistence on sensitivity to sensitivity that is usually laughed out of the room when a minority sensitivity demands sensitivity from the rest of us. When Muslims themselves demand sensitivity to their scruples and taboos from the culture at large, they are sneered at before they have a chance to discredit their cause with threats of violence. But when the alleged majority brandishes its own raw sensitivity, than democracy itself, it seems, demands that everyone respect it even when, intellectually, it just isn't respectable.

Unfortunately, I suspect that a growing feeling of thwarted sovereignty provoked by these two controversies and others may make the difference that puts reactionaries over the top in the fall elections. Even the President fears this, I suspect; hence his weaselly backtracking this weekend from an affirmation of Muslims' right to build a mosque where they please to a statement leaving the "wisdom" of building near Ground Zero open to question. While Mayor Bloomberg remains resolute in support of the mosque, I think it's only a matter of time before the White House leans on him to lean on Cordoba House to end the matter. That'll be too bad. I don't like Islam but I try to dislike all forms of irrationality equally, and Islamophobia is just as irrational as what it hates. Populism in 2010 takes its stand on the side of irrationality and the right of the majority to govern, in some respects at least, according to whim. Freedom as we understand it today restrains us from saying that the majority has no right to be irrational, but it doesn't oblige us to defer to irrationality, either. Real freedom may require us to do the opposite.

12 August 2010

The Party of Charles Rangel

The leading Democrats of New York State paid homage to a defiant Rep. Charles Rangel last night at a lavish birthday celebration. Rev. Sharpton denounced an attempted "crucifixion" of the embattled congressman, while former mayor Dinkins gave the finger to a heckler who called the octogenarian birthday boy a "crook." The lame duck governor and both U. S. Senators, both to face the voters in November, attended on the veteran legislator in a Republican dream of guilt-by-association come true.

So why did the Democrats do it? To an extent, it may have been a matter of necessity. Many of Rangel's constituents are understandably highly sensitive about presuming accused people innocent until they're proven guilty. They might well resent any statewide candidate like the two Senators or Attorney General Cuomo acting as if they assumed Rangel guilty of the charges made against him. Their apathy might cost a statewide Democrat an election in this difficult year. On this understanding, attending the party was less a matter of regard for Rangel than of maintaining the base when few votes can be taken for granted.

On the other hand, partying with Rangel may prove that Democrats do take many votes for granted. At this point in the polarization of the electorate, it may be assumed that Rangel's troubles are unlikely to drive anyone from the Democratic to the Republican side, or that those expressing the most outrage at Rangel are Republicans already. If a person votes Democratic, they may be presumed so fearful of the Republicans, or so hateful toward conservative ideology, that no Democratic enormity could make them switch parties. That would make sense. It would not make sense for someone to suddenly start voting for a party and ideology they find abhorrent simply because of corruption within a more congenial party. What would make sense would be for liberals and progressives and all opponents to the Republican party to dissociate themselves from a Democratic party too often identified with corruptions or allegations of corruption and form a new party dedicated to progressive principles and ethical government. As long as liberals, progressives, etc. are unwilling or simply afraid to do this, the Democratic party will take their votes for granted and abuse their trust with impunity.

11 August 2010

A Spokesman for Superstition

Back in March, Cal Thomas wrote an opinion column denouncing Rev. Fred Phelps, the "God Hates Fags" minister who tries to hold vigils at military funerals blaming deaths in combat on America's tolerance of homosexuality. He accused Phelps and his followers of "advanc[ing] a judgmental agenda that is rejected in the Scripture in which they claim to believe." He condemned them as "deeply offensive, un-American and un-Christian."

After reading his latest column, I wonder what Thomas was complaining about five months ago. He's now enraged by the judicial ruling striking down California's Proposition 8, describing the decision as an act of "judicial vigilantism." By that he means to accuse the judge of taking the law into his own hand, but he means more than that. He denounces the judge as a "false god," implying that the jurist had played god by daring to dispute Christianity's exclusive jurisdiction over the institution of marriage. For Thomas, the ruling is simply the latest outrage in sixty years of moral decline, dating back to the founding of Playboy magazine, during which sinful humans rejected God's guidance on sexual matters. We have gone wrong, he laments, because we no longer accept biblical revelations as absolute truth and law. He quotes Proverbs 29:18 in two translations, the point being: in the absence of divine authority, people have no restraint.

But what of it? What is the consequence, or what might be the consequence that so troubles Thomas? He explains it plainly enough:

Most great powers unravel from within before invading armies (or in America's case, terrorists) conquer us. A preacher might develop a good sermon on how nations fare when they mock God. No less a theological thinker than Abraham Lincoln concluded that our Civil War might have been God's judgment for America's toleration of slavery. If that were so, why should [God] stay His hand in the face of our celebration of same-sex marriage?

Let's review. In March Thomas condemned Fred Phelps for saying that every American death in combat could be blamed on our tolerance of homosexuals. This week, he writes that gay marriage (a moral equivalent of slavery???) might provoke God to destroy the United States, either from within or without. Perhaps Thomas thinks he's sticking to speculation while Phelps expressed obnoxious certitude about the will of God. Maybe "God Hates Fags" is just too vulgar a way to express what Thomas himself feels about homosexuals. But these distinctions are too fine to maintain any meaningful difference between Thomas and Phelps in the realm of homophobia. They are equally bigoted, but Phelps at least has the honesty to reject the mendacious "love the sinner, hate the sin" stance of so many Christians, which is unsustainable when it comes to homosexuality. If you hate homosexuality as a sin, that means you hate homosexuals. Period.

Thomas adds this: "Muslim fanatics who wish to destroy us are correct in their diagnosis of our moral rot: loss of a fear of God, immodesty, especially among women, materialism and much more. While their solution -- Sharia law -- is wrong, they are not wrong about what ails us." That left me wondering why Thomas thinks the Sharia is wrong. Yes, there's an obvious reason: it doesn't come straight from Jesus. But what about the content of the Sharia would he think is wrong. These days homophobic sophists like to ask defenders of gay marriage on what grounds they would deny the right to marry to anyone if they won't draw the line at homosexuals. In the same spirit I'd like to ask them why they don't embrace Islam, become Islamists and impose Abrahamic morality the old-fashioned way? People like Cal Thomas strike me as mullahs in all but title and language. While he often disclaims any desire to use state power to impose morality, given the gravity of the crisis as he sees it now, how much longer will he restrain himself, and how soon will he send out the suicide bombers?

Third Party vs Fourth Party

Carl Paladino has submitted what he claims to be far more than the number of petitions necessary to put his new Taxpayers Party on the official ballot for this fall's statewide elections in New York. Paladino is currently spending a lot of money on an insurgent campaign to upset "regular" candidate Rick Lazio in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He has stated recently that he will not run on the Taxpayers line alone if he loses to Lazio. If Paladino wins the primary, however, Lazio will remain on the November ballot as the candidate of the Conservative party. The Taxpayers party then enters the picture as an alternative to the Conservatives. While some right-wing New Yorkers prefer to vote for Republican candidates on the Conservative line (when the Conservatives haven't endorsed a Democrat), and thus may be tempted to vote Conservative instead of Republican if the parties have different candidates, Paladino has conceived the Taxpayers party as a way to contest the small-c conservative vote. If things go as Paladino hopes, he will argue that Taxpayers is the true home of Empire State conservatives, as opposed to the home of Rick Lazio.

Conservative party boss Mike Long resents this idea. He accuses Paladino of trying to "torpedo" the Conservatives. "Elections," he protests, "are not about trying to torpedo other parties." This is one of the year's more baffling utterances from a politician. As long as elections are contested among political parties, they certainly are about torpedoing rival parties. Republicans seek to torpedo Democrats, and vice versa, while independents, if they deserve the label, seek to torpedo both. Long affects horror at the thought that a new political party should seek to torpedo his own long-established organization. Implicit in his outrage is an unwarranted sense of entitlement. He seems to think that the ideological conservative vote in New York belongs to the Conservative party, to be delivered to Republicans (or the occasional Democrat) as Conservative leaders please.

Worse, this leader of an ostensibly independent party argues against Paladino and the Taxpayers using exactly the same "lesser evil" rhetoric that Republicans and Democrats use routinely against all independent parties. Long insists that conservatives "should be uniting forces to defeat Andrew Cuomo," the front-running Democratic candidate. Some Paladino supporters agree with that thought, but they have the admirable brazenness to argue that the principle will require Long to jettison Lazio and surrender the Conservative line to their man after Paladino wins the Republican primary.

The battle between Lazio and Paladino is a three-level struggle. Most obviously it's a fight for the Republican party line, but it's also another round in the long struggle to define conservatism in New York. When Paladino faces Lazio's ally, Long, it becomes a battle to redraw the playing field of independent (or pseudo-independent) politics in the Empire State. Whatever we may think of conservatives, there's no reason why they shouldn't have a choice of parties to vote for in elections. The Conservative party, or Mike Long himself, doesn't seem to believe in such a choice. New York's conservatives, Long seems to think, owe his party their loyalty. While there's no reason to think that Paladino's party would behave differently if it actually sinks the Conservatives, the Taxpayers certainly have as much right as anyone to enter the waters of political combat, and Long's protests to the contrary belie his own commitment to genuinely independent politics.

10 August 2010

'What's the point of having a Senate?'

Christopher Dodd, who'll retire from the U.S. Senate at the end of this year, asked this question rhetorically in order to explain what he thought the point was. The Democrat from Connecticut believes that the upper house is a necessary line of defense against "the tyranny of the majority" and should require more than a majority vote to pass legislation. "If the vote margins are the same as in the House, you might as well close the doors," he recently told reporters.

"I've reached the point where I'd abolish the Senate if I could," writes E.J. Dionne, who interviewed Dodd for his latest column, "It is more profoundly undemocratic than it was when the Founders created it and less genuinely deliberative -- problems compounded by a Republican majority's strategy of delay and obstruction."

I find both these statements problematic. Dealing with Dionne first, no matter how much Republican exploit their rights under the rules to obstruct legislation, the body is absolutely more democratic now than when the Founders created it simply because, since 1913, Senators have been elected directly by all the voters, not by state legislatures. I'm guessing, however, that Dionne means that it's undemocratic to the extent that anything more than a simple majority is required for legislation to advance.

Dodd, on the other hand, argues that supermajorities are a proper protection of minority rights. He fails to appreciate that a simple majority of Senators is already a kind of supermajority because of the two seats apiece guaranteed to all states, including small states who barely have that number of seats in the House of Representatives. The two-seats or all-states-equal rule was designed to protect the small states from being dominated or ignored by the big states, so protection from alleged majority tyranny was built into the system before any rules were written requiring supermajorities for cloture or anything else.

Dionne reports that Dodd "didn't change my attitude toward the world's longest-winded legislative body." He was disarmed, however, by Dodd's "ebullient joy about what democratic politics can accomplish." He notes approvingly Dodd's observation that Democrats have been hurting themselves by complaining about Republican obstruction because it creates the impression that the Democrats haven't accomplished anything, when the opposite is true.

Whether Dionne agrees with Dodd's embrace of partisanship is another matter. "There's nothing wrong with partisanship," the Senator told the columnist, "A little more civility would be a good thing, but it was partisanship that created this place." The problem now, Dodd claims, is the absence of socialization across party lines, in part because everyone's compelled to go out fundraising. "Members don't know each other, and there's very little respect for each other," he laments.

Partisanship created the U.S. Senate? What does Dodd mean by this? Were the advocates of the Constitution partisan because another group opposed it? Were the revolutionaries partisan because other Americans were loyalist? There was no party system when the Senate was created, and while one emerged quickly enough it was not written into Madison and Hamilton's plans beforehand. Dionne attempts to clarify the matter, presumably paraphrasing Dodd when writing, "Partisanship simply reflects the reality of disagreement in a free society." But that can't be right. A free society permits people to disagree about public matters. It doesn't require people to form factions dedicated to perpetual disagreement with each other. If anything, partisanship constrains the right of disagreement in a free society by pressuring most people into buying into conforming their disagreement with any proposal into agreement with other opponents on a range of unrelated issues. Disagreement itself doesn't require the formation of permanent fundraising and electioneering organizations. Politicians require parties as coattails to ride on; disagreement, ideally, is a matter of each person standing on his or her own two feet.

In the end, a still-skeptical Dionne concludes that "Dodd may be too sentimental about the old Senate." But he admires the old Senator as a "happy warrior" and agrees with him that "politics could use a little more joy." That depends on what you're joyful about. Dodd's happiness may be that of the institutional mind, the attitude of the old convict accustomed to the customs of prison who ends up unfit to live as a free man. There's a lot to be unhappy about in both houses of Congress, and I'd rather see more congressmen express their unhappiness. Maybe then their constituents would get the point.

09 August 2010

Child Abuse? Censorship?

An anti-smoking commercial made two years ago in Australia is now being shown (with a different narrator but the same text) in New York State, where it has caused a controversy. Here's the original ad:

A Rensselaer County legislator wants an investigation of the making of the ad, and its removal from local airwaves, apparently due to concern over how the little boy was induced to cry. He seems to believe that the commercial makers actually stranded a child without his mother in a train station to get the desired effect. The state department of health insists that it was filmed without causing real distress for the boy. The legislator, Martin Reid, worries that the kid was too young to feign that distress, but the politician may have underestimated the little thespian. Then again, maybe not, since the Australian producers have admitted, in the face of a controversy in their own country, that the boy's tears were real despite his mommy's presence just out of camera range. But is that all there is to this story? Do all the ad's critics object exclusively to the perceived emotional abuse of the boy, or do they object to the objective of the producers' emotional manipulation? There are plenty of commercials that show small children and even babies crying. Why is this one so objectionable? I don't think it's because people reject its anti-smoking message. More likely they resent the emotional impact the ad has on them. If they respond emphatically to the boy's fictional plight, they probably feel manipulated themselves, whether they smoke or not. While most propaganda in this country comes garbed in metaphorical velvet gloves, this ad seems to strike like a mailed fist to remind people of their susceptibility to manipulation by the media. Ironically, in this case people object because they believe that the media has shown them something real, not fake. If only they were so sensitive to media manipulation on a more regular basis. But here the sense of being manipulated is so strong that some people want to suppress the ad. Maybe, however, keeping it in circulation would remind people of how much every other ad is out to manipulate them into buying something, donating money, voting for someone, etc. If the ad could have such an educational effect, it would do a public service beyond its original purpose.