30 September 2010

'The revolution will not be tweeted.'

This week's New Yorker includes an essay by Malcolm Gladwell expressing skepticism toward large claims currently being made for the revolutionary potential of online social media like Facebook and Twitter. There was supposed to have been a "Twitter Revolution," for instance, in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, while Twitter allegedly served as an essential organizing tool for protests against the supposedly stolen election in Iran last year. But Gladwell observes that the social media did less to organize dissidents in those countries than to keep them in contact with western sympathizers. He believes that social media's potential in such risky circumstances is limited because those media do little to cultivate the strong ties among "critical friends" upon which effective resistance movements, e.g. the southern sit-ins of the 1960s and the Eastern European protests of 1989, depend.

Gladwell distinguishes between strong ties and weak ties, noting that social media specialize in the latter. The proliferation of weak ties made possible by social media are useful for disseminating information and collaborative creativity, but "seldom lead to high-risk activism." What makes the ties weak is an apparent inherent limit on what you can expect or demand from your Facebook friends in a pinch. They make it easier for people to participate in a wider range of low-risk activities, but Gladwell doubts that they do much to increase anyone's motivation to take principled risks. "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," he writes. Social media, then, give us an option to do less when the options used to be all or nothing.

Social media will make poor platforms for high-risk activism, Gladwell claims, because they aren't conducive to the hierarchical organization he deems necessary for effective action. Instead of organizational hierarchies capable of setting goals and priorities, social media specialize in creating decentralized networks. These networks "can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error," Gladwell presumes, asking: "How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?"

Gladwell's message -- "[I]f you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy," has obvious implications outside the realm of social media. In our usual context, it throws into question the usefulness of social media for people attempting to build alternatives to the American Bipolarchy. That's not as risky an agenda as defying the Iranian government, but were it as low-risk a proposition as it seems it should be it should have been done already. Can social media help? Howard Dean's campaign in 2004 proved that the Internet could spark real enthusiasm for a candidate, while Ron Paul's campaign in 2008 proved that the Internet can be a formidable fundraising tool. When it came to counting votes, neither candidate lived up to his online hype. In Dean's case, online enthusiasm proved no substitute for oldschool door-to-door politicking in Iowa, while Paul's fundraising base was broad but insufficiently concentrated anywhere geographically to win primaries. Since the appeal of social media is based in large part on the opportunities it creates for making distant friends, there'll always be a national or presidential temptation tied to online third-partyism. Social media also cultivate networks based on pre-existing affinities, while elections must be won by persuading a broader base of people who don't necessarily agree with you in the beginning. To win an election anywhere you have to have a local concentration of forces and resources. Does social media enhance anyone's ability to collect and control these forces? The evidence is insufficient, but the counter-example of the Tea Party movements shows that old-fashioned mass demonstrations still make a grater impression than any virtual demonstration can. For a while to come, people will probably remain more impressed by an appeal from a live person than from an e-mail or tweet. The majority of Americans may yet remain outside all online social networks, as may the majority of people in any given electoral district. Anyone who thinks that social media alone will spark any sort of insurrection is living in science fiction.

They Don't Like Tea in the Big City?

Kathleen Parker is on the verge of at least fifteen minutes of fame. The Pulitzer-prize winning op-ed columnist and relatively moderate Republican will be Elliot Spitzer's sparring partner on a new CNN talking-head program, and for that purpose the South Carolinian country girl has moved to New York City. Her experiences so far have provoked speculations in her latest column about the sociological background to the nation's ideological divide.

In simplest terms, Parker proposes that people in areas of high population density are more tolerant of a degree of government that people from less densely populated regions would find intrusive and needless. While she's already chafing under restrictions that may be unique to New York, she appears to concede in general terms that more government is required where there are more people. "Simply put, the more people cram themselves into small spaces, the more government will be involved in their lives," she writes, "If you live in a large urban area, chances are you are accustomed to lots of rules and regs. But to the newcomer, fresh from living largely independently by her own wits, the oppression of bureaucratic order is a fresh sort of hell."

While Parker accepts the necessity of a higher degree for regulation of urban life, she won't be the first person to complain that New York under Michael Bloomberg seems to over-regulate beyond reason. She cites the mayor's notorious order banning trans-fats from the city, which leads Parker's cable guy to complain that he can only get good donuts in New Jersey these days. On her own, Parker bristles at the thought that you can't light a candle on a birthday cupcake in an office building. On the other hand, she adds, "You can't have 8 million people acting out their individual impulses. What if half the city's residents decided to fire up the Weber for some burgers on a given Saturday?"

Parker's complaints are more libertarian than conservative; call them reactionary and split the difference. "It is one thing to create laws that protect us from another's stupidity, but shouldn't the cable guy have the right to be stupid?" she asks, "Every now and then? I haven't eaten a doughnut in 20 years, but suddenly I have a nearly uncontrollable urge to hit Krispy Kreme." In other words, she at least pretends to feel an impulse to do something she admits is unhealthy in order to feel more free. Were she in a more reflective mood, she might consider whether her perceived lack of freedom is consistent with her actual level of freedom within the American social order. Parker is no great fan of the Tea Parties, but at times she seems to share their strange sense that they are less free than they actually are. She attributes this vague fellow feeling to her "low-density" upbringing,

Many so-called Everyday Americans who live in the oft-maligned red states essentially are people who live in more-open spaces and, therefore, see little need or benefit for government management of their lives. The frontier may be nearly gone, but the person who prefers wider horizons will have little use for bureaucrats bearing the latest government how-to (or how-not-to) document. Those who have opted to live in densely populated blue areas need third-party authorities to maintain order and figure they'll trade a little freedom for the convenience and cultural riches of city life.

Parker worries that these "completely different orientations toward life in general and the role of government specifically [can't] be reconciled." Each group will have its own answer to the serious question Parker means to raise: "At what point is the common good bad for people?" It'd be easy and glib to say that the common good by definition can't be bad for anyone, but nearly every word in Parker's question begs another question. What do we mean by "common good?" Who gets to define it? What does she mean by "people?" Individuals or society as a whole? You can even ask what she means by "bad?" Will anyone suffer in a material way? Will the country suffer? Or will some supposedly grown-up people simply feel bad because government somehow makes them feel like children?

Of course, the crucial debates of our time aren't about candles on cupcakes or trans-fat in donuts. I don't know if population density can determine people's attitudes toward regulating banks or oil drilling, but I will allow that a person's perception of how regulation impacts his own life could influence his attitude toward regulation in general as a political topic. Whether population density alone predicts that is still open to question. Some college towns across the country have pretty low population density when you don't count the actual campus, yet they are probably pretty consistently pro-government and pro-regulation. Still, Parker makes an important distinction between a demographic and a geographic explanation for current disagreements; this is not a problem to be solved simply by separating one whole region of the country from the rest. She also unwittingly raises the point that the current disagreements are as much matters of attitude, to say the least, as matters of fact. Low-density living may well cultivate a psychological aversion to "intrusive" government. If so, maybe a lot of people simply need to get their heads examined.

29 September 2010

Another Republican Pledge: Indoctrinating Self-Reliance

Cal Thomas gives thumbs-up to the Congressional Republicans' "Pledge With America" in his newest column, but still finds something lacking in the campaign document. While he calls it "a refreshing reminder of the founding philosophy," Thomas misses any discussion of voters' role in reforming the country, apart from voting Republican. Had he read more closely, he might have noticed the bit I saw about our obligation to adopt different standards for judging candidates, choosing between them based on whether they promote "opportunity" and liberty, not whether they bring home the bacon to constituents. But Thomas isn't interested in how we vote, apart from the obvious partisan angle, as much as how we live after the 2010 elections. He observes a Republican promise to conduct a "responsible, fact-based conversation with the American people" on fiscal issues, but that seems to strike him as a little dry. He wants to know "what is expected of us?" but he knows what he expects.

As reactionary politicians in the middle of a populist moment, Republicans pander to perceived resentment of elites allegedly telling the rest of us how to live. As a partisan columnist promoting Republicans, Thomas usually sticks with the program. This week, however, he makes it clear that, as far as he's concerned, Republicans themselves need to tell the rest of us how to live.

Too many Americans have been riding the gravy train called 'entitlement' for too long and it is about to derail. Republicans should make weaning them from dependence on government a patriotic duty and the essence of liberty. Focus on those who have overcome poverty and let them serve as examples of what others can do. Let's talk about individuals demonstrating more responsibility for their lives and ensuring their own retirement, with Social Security returning to the insurance program it was originally designed to be: a safety net, not a hammock.

Thomas wants Republicans to instigate a cultural counter-revolution against eighty years of decadent entitlement.
Since the New Deal, there has been an unhealthy relationship between government and the people that has harmed both. But like illegal drugs, there would be little supply if the demand were not high. The idea that people are incapable of taking care of themselves and their immediate families would have been foreign to our Founding Fathers. What too many lack is not resources, but motivation. Remind politicians of the stories from our past and present about people who overcame obstacles, start teaching these stories to the kids in our schools.

Thomas is a typical reactionary who has complained often enough about indoctrination in public schools and elsewhere yet proves here that he objects not to the concept but only to the content of indoctrination. Since "all public policy is founded on an underlying philosophy about humanity and the world," good government and good citizenship would appear to depend upon the indoctrination of the right (or "Right") philosophy. While Thomas doesn't speak officially for the Republican party, he can be presumed to represent constituents who would like the GOP to implement the indoctrination program he recommends.

I can't say too much more about Thomas's agenda because, given the limited space of a column, it appears to be incomplete. For instance, he doesn't say what people should do when obstacles prove less surmountable than those overcome by his unnamed historical heroes, or what individuals or families should do should the vicissitudes of the economy and the Market leave them without security for their retirement. He doesn't explain why dependence upon a government of one's own making is so objectionable, or why the most likely alternative -- dependence upon private, unaccountable employers -- is so preferable. We can infer a moral preference for self-reliance based on a belief that Peter shouldn't be compelled to support Paul, but why the idea of mutual aid as an obligation of citizenship should seem unpatriotic to Thomas is unclear, just as it seems difficult to reconcile his insistence on self-reliance as the essence of public morality with his avowed Christianity. He seems readier to write off misery as the just desserts of irresponsibility than Jesus was, and more ready to hold up the wealthy as models for emulation than "the Master" ever was.

Until Thomas clarifies his views, perhaps in the course of a "responsible, fact-based conversation," I'll have to work under the assumption that he'd have the Republican party teach Americans, through the media and schools, that "every man for himself" is the highest moral principle and that "compete or die" is the supreme law of the land. Whether Republicans themselves propose to do this is a point of concern for Thomas. The possibility that they'd do so is a point of concern for us all.

28 September 2010

Lazio Endorses Lesser-Evilism, not the Lesser Evil

Rick Lazio wants the world to know that he has not endorsed Republican nominee Carl Paladino for the New York gubernatorial election. He clearly reserves the right to blast his victorious rival, as he did earlier today on the radio. While withdrawing yesterday from the campaign, for which he had won the Conservative party line, Lazio insisted that Paladino, like Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo, was a "deeply flawed individual," and that neither man had produced a real plan for economic recovery. I don't doubt that Lazio hates Paladino's guts right now, but his hatred may have blinded him to the implications of his actions.

Lazio claims that he was not pressured by Conservative party leaders, who were allegedly (and I think unreasonably) afraid that Lazio would not draw the 50,000 votes the party needs to retain automatic ballot status in the state, to drop out of the race. But if he was not pressured, and if the consolation-prize Republican nomination for a judicial post in a safely Democratic district -- he had to accept a nomination for another office to surrender the Conservative line for governor -- is no real incentive to quit, then I have to wonder what exactly Lazio thinks he was doing yesterday. The one thing he made clear in his belated concession speech is that he deemed the election of Andrew Cuomo "unacceptable" and did not want to be held responsible for such a calamity befalling New York. Lazio may want to convince himself that his comments did not even imply an endorsement of Paladino, but the real implication of his renunciation is that people who might have voted for him were better off voting for someone else in order to prevent the election of Cuomo. According to Bipolarchy logic the only way to thwart Cuomo is to support Paladino. If Lazio did not think this way himself -- or did not assume this unconsciously -- he would not have withdrawn from the race had he not somehow been pressured into doing so. If Lazio were not himself a bipolarchist he would have declared himself the viable alternative to both Cuomo and Paladino. He has not done so because he really can't see an alternative to the Republican-vs-Democrat choice that most people still consider the "real" one.

Rick Lazio is in denial right now because he's angry. I don't think he's lying consciously to the people so much as lying unconsciously to himself when he says he won't endorse Paladino. He's consoling himself by bitching out Paladino at every opportunity, as if to prove that he really is an independent voice, but his actions have proven otherwise.

The 'Enthusiasm Gap' and the 'Whiners'

The President and Vice-President are furious at what sympathizers perceive as an "enthusiasm gap" favoring Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. Tea-fueled Republicans are aroused, energized and optimistic, while Democrats are reportedly demoralized, apathetic and pessimistic. The Obama administration blames the enthusiasm gap on what the Vice-President calls liberal "whining" and on a perception that the Democrats have accomplished less than they actually have since the President took office. I think they miss the point. Obama and Biden want people to focus on legislative accomplishments, but instead we perceive a jobless recovery and feel a new sensitivity to national debt. Trumpeting health-care-reform legislation does nothing to calm these anxieties. Arguing that the economy would have been worse now had McCain been President is plausible but clearly not compelling. The only thing likely to motivate people to vote Democratic this fall is fear of the "wild Indians" of the Tea Party movement, but I suspect that Democrats have restrained themselves from really smearing the TPs because they remain uncertain about the breadth and depth of grassroots support for the movement. In any event, fear of the TPs does not yet appear to be driving Democratic base constituents to more energetic or enthusiastic activity on their party's behalf.

I feel like I should here insert my usual comment about liberals and progressives not having to settle for what Democrats insist is the best deal they can get. While Obama and Biden make a plausible argument that liberals shouldn't trade "not good enough" for "nothing" this November, liberals, progressives, leftists etc. have every right to deny their endorsement to would-be representatives whom they deem not good enough, regardless of the post-electoral consequences. But my affirmation of a right not to have to settle for the Democratic minimum comes with a corollary: the right to refuse to settle is not a right to apathy. If liberals and progressives are dissatisfied with the achievements of the Obama administration and the Pelosi-Reid Congress, then why aren't they swelling the ranks of Green parties across the country? Why aren't they rallying behind independent challengers to Obama's left, or even forming anti-tea movements ("hard cider," maybe?) to transplant spinal material into Democratic ranks? Why, if they believe that Democratic failures prove that "the system" never works for them, do they let that system stand? A big part of the answer, I suspect, is that we're dealing with liberals: people who can't help worrying that if they've made so many people angry there really must be something wrong with their views, people appalled at the thought of imposing their will on the unwilling (despite what Republicans say about them) and people incapable of the "or else" mentality that energizes their antagonists. Many liberal Democrats really do seem to be the sort of people who curl up into a ball as soon as someone disagrees sharply with them. If so, should it surprise anyone if they adopt a capitulationist attitude at the first opportunity?

Fortunately for the President, by 2012 there'll probably be enough of a backlash against Republican policies among fickle independents -- pardon the redundancy if you perceive it -- to get Obama re-elected the way the Contract With America assured Bill Clinton's second term. Whether the next two years will be fortunate for the rest of us will be another story, but until liberals take a stand and accept no alternative to their full agenda we'll do this dance again as we've done it before. I suppose if liberals did that they wouldn't be liberals, but while they remain liberals I expect they'll tolerate us asking whether their mentality is really adequate for our time.

27 September 2010

Who Were (or Are) the Progressives?

The Nation magazine has yielded to the great modern temptation to fill space in a slow news week with a list. Its cover story for the October 4 issue promises to reveal "The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century" as ranked by academic Peter Dreier. Part of the point of the project, it seems, is to re-establish a positive definition for the word "progressive." While for most Americans the best known Progressive in the country is Flo the car-insurance saleswoman, in political circles the term has been hotly contested. Right wingers have tried to make it as much a pejorative as "liberal," while even self-styled progressives find the term problematic because of its historic associations.

Dreier implicitly defines progressives as "America's utopians, radicals and reformers," and notes that "Every generation needs to retell this story, reinterpret it and use it to help shape the present and future." In other words, he's not going to be bound by any definition based upon the people and the period that made "Progressive" a meaningful political term. Progressivism in 2010 isn't, or needn't be, the Progressivism of 1910. Dreier arguably rules out many of the original Progressives when he insists that "Progressive change happens from the bottom up." That's not what the original Progressives of 100 years ago believed. But many of them don't make Dreier's list. His bias in favor of grassroots excludes most politicians, which means his list doesn't include the man who did more to make the word meaningful than anyone else: Theodore Roosevelt, the ex-President and renegade Republican who ran as the "Bull Moose" Progressive candidate and outpolled an incumbent Republican in the 1912 presidential election. The Democratic winner, Woodrow Wilson, is considered a Progressive himself by some historians, but he doesn't make the cut either, while the fourth-place candidate in 1912, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, does. While Roosevelt and Wilson are out, frivolous figures like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Muhammad Ali are in. Franklin Roosevelt is out (a politician, remember) while Eleanor, predictably enough, makes the cut.

My guess is that Dreier wants to dodge one of the big charges against historical Progressivism: its unapologetic bias in favor of the state. Teddy Roosevelt was a big-government Republican and would probably have been a bigger-government Progressive President. He believed that government had to expand to meet the challenges of modern times and master the powers of finance, industry and labor that had grown alarmingly large by 1912. He is supposed to have said that a strong people has nothing to fear from a strong government, but if so, he said or wrote it before dystopian fantasies of totalitarian potential captured the American imagination and discredited the state as a concept. Even liberals most likely see the state as a necessary evil, and Dreier clearly sees it as something that must be pressured perpetually from below rather than something to be maintained by a conscientious unashamed political class of bureaucrats and regulators.

Classical Progressivism of the Roosevelt-Wilsonian stripe was technocratic. To the extent that it was an ideology, it exalted the expert over the machine boss who ruled by arbitrary will. To both "right" and "left," classical Progressivism has an odious heritage of condescending busybodyism. Par excellence, the Progressives of 100 years ago were the politicians who dared tell their fellow citizens, bosses and workers alike, how to live and how to run their lives. For some Progressives (including birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, who made Dreier's list), that imperative to govern people's lives extended to the now-toxic zone of eugenics, an enthusiasm for which Dreier has to apologize on Sanger's behalf. Eugenics is perhaps the ultimate instance of Progressive interference with personal freedom abhorred by right and left alike. But while Dreier wants to leave behind the statist, technocratic heritage of classical Progressivism, the ideas of Teddy Roosevelt, his peers and his followers might well be usefully re-examined today. We won't want to adopt all the trappings of classical Progressivism -- it shouldn't be a matter of Ivy League whites writing recommendations for the rest of us -- but the ideal of the state as the objective arbiter between capital and labor and the necessary regulator of finance and industry should not be thrown away in another existential outburst of freedom for its own sake. By that standard, Dreier's revised Progressive heritage is a disappointment, though it might have worth in the long run if it provokes a more thoughtful, less politically-correct consideration of the full heritage and potential of Progressivism.

Venezuela: Not a Dictatorship Yet?

According to the reports we get in the U.S., Hugo Chavez has been busily stacking the deck in a variety of ways to rig future Venezuelan elections in favor of his perpetual strongman rule. Over the past decade, many here who'd been willing to give Chavez and his "Bolivarian Socialist" movement some benefit of the doubt had written him off as a virtual dictator or caudillo in the unhappy Latin American tradition. An objective analysis of his measures would probably confirm that he's been trying to make it easier for his party to win. Apparently, however, Chavez hasn't done all he could to cinch things for himself.

The latest reports from Venezuela, based on the first official election returns, indicate that Chavez's party has retained a majority but lost seats in the country's legislature. Most importantly, Chavez has apparently fallen below the two-thirds threshold he requires in order to appoint judges and rule by temporary decrees. In theory, this puts a check on his ability to make himself into the dictator many outsiders assume that he already is. The results were reportedly influenced by voter dissatisfaction with a declining economy and by the willingness of opposition parties to coalesce under conditions where a lesser-evil approach might be justified. Looking back, it may be possible to say that the opposition preferred to accuse Chavez of cheating in the past in order to cover up their own irresponsible factionalism or electoral incompetence. I don't mean to deny that Chavez has ever cheated -- I'd be extremely surprised if he didn't -- but I would suggest that the menace he represents to freedom in Venezuela may be exaggerated, if not as grossly exaggerated as the menace Barack Obama purportedly represents to freedom in the United States in the eyes of Republicans and Tea Partiers. I don't doubt that Chavez thinks of himself as an indispensable man, but the early election results indicate, at the least, that there's a line -- let's call it the Iranian line -- that he hasn't yet crossed. He might cross that line when his own job is at stake again in 2012, but if the early reports hold up and he doesn't make a move to overturn or ignore the results, Chavez -- whatever you think of his policies or his personality -- may be entitled to a little more benefit of the doubt again.

Lazio: A Voice, Not a Choice

After a conclave between Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino and Conservative Party boss Mike Long yesterday, Conservative gubernatorial nominee Rick Lazio is expected to drop out of the general election campaign today. Lazio lost the Republican primary to Paladino despite capturing the Conservative line early (though he had to defend it in a primary two weeks ago) as part of a gambit to intimidate the GOP into accepting Lazio. The Conservative endorsement is considered essential to the success of any Republican candidate for governor of New York. Last week, Lazio said that he intended to retain a voice in the campaign and criticized both Paladino and Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo for descending to personal attacks. Lazio himself could barely afford to make any attacks in his impoverished primary campaign. His withdraw gives the Conservatives a window of time to nominate another candidate, presumably Paladino. This seems to be less a surrender to lesser-evilism than an attempt by the outmaneuvered Conservatives to remain relevant. While I expected that Lazio could still have won sufficient votes from moderate Republicans to retain the Conservatives' guaranteed spot on the ballot, the narrowing of the gap between Cuomo and Paladino in some recent polls suggests that Republicans in general had already opted for lesser-evilism in the dubious form of the tea-fueled Buffalo developer. Under such conditions, the Conservatives only chance for survival may be to endorse Paladino. As for conservative New Yorkers who find Paladino obnoxious or untrustworthy, their best option now appears to be Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich, who pitches fiscal conservatism without a lot of the culture-war baggage. No matter what the news media tell you now, the New York campaign is not yet a two-man race.

24 September 2010

The 'Whiskey Rebellion of 2010' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

The Tea Partiers of 2010 are not revolutionaries, whether they claim to be or not, writes Michael Lind, an apostate from conservatism, at Slate. In his opinion, they are a "mob" and not even a proper Tea Party. In his column Lind equates them with the aroused rabble of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against excise taxes that had to be put down (albeit peacefully) by President George Washington at the head of a militia. Lind's comments, of course, won't persuade a single TP of the error of his ways. Once Lind writes that TPs, like the Whiskey Rebels, "do not understand their own interests," he can be dismissed as another of those know-it-all elitists. For the rest of us, the question is whether Lind's analogy fits.

Lind characterizes the Whiskey Rebellion as a knee-jerk anti-tax uprising motivated primarily by anger over the perceived purpose of the excise tax: to pay off the national debt created by the federal government's assumption of state debts. He argues that the Rebels did not understand their own interests because the alternative to the excise tax would have been higher state taxes had each state been obliged to pay its own debts on its own. By analogy, the Tea Partiers don't understand their own interest in the bailouts and stimulus spending of 2008-9. He doesn't mince words, either; to Lind, the TPs are "ignorant fools" for opposing those steps that "most credible Republican and conservative economists supported."

I'm not here to challenge Lind's characterization of the Tea Parties. I want to question his characterization of the Whiskey Rebellion. The Wikipedia article on the Rebellion (the accuracy and objectivity of which are apparently unchallenged) is a starting point for those who want to explore the subject further. Perhaps significantly, it doesn't portray the Rebels as objecting to taxation as such. Instead, they objected to an excise tax because local economies depended heavily upon distilling grains to make them easier to ship. Whiskey, the article contends, was practically currency in some western districts, and westerners complained that excise taxes impacted them disproportionately and unfair, while the taxation system allegedly favored larger distillers at the expense of small farmers. Rather than being anti-government types, as Lind claims, the Rebels also felt that they weren't getting their whiskey's worth out of government when it came to protecting them from Indians or dealing with foreigners who controlled the Mississippi River.

Lind's larger argument against the Rebels, that they were better off paying the excise than presumably higher state taxes, may still be valid. But the moment we get to a historical rather than a polemical account of the Rebellion a more nuanced portrait of the Rebels' grievances emerges than can be seen in Lind's caricature. You don't have to agree with the Rebels and my point hasn't been to defend them from any historian's verdict against them. My real point, based only on a superficial re-examination of facts learned in school, is that equating today's Tea Partiers to the Whiskey Rebels is unfair to the Whiskey Rebellion.

Whose Ox is Gored: The Return of Bill Ayers

Bill Ayers once may have had dreams of influencing American history, but the onetime Weatherman and present-day academic will end up no more than a footnote to history in the same category as Willie Horton. His institutional association with Barack Obama inspired Republicans to wage a guilt-by-association campaign against the Illinois Democrat as he rose from community activist to U.S. Senator to President of the United States. Like Saul Alinsky and Jeremaiah Wright, Ayers was one of those allegedly influential figures offered as proof that Obama was a dangerous left-wing radical, all of Obama's own utterances and policies notwithstanding. In light of today's news, it's strange that one of the arguably most damaging bits of Ayers's record, to him if not to Obama, never came up, as far as I can recall, during the 2008 campaign.

Ayers has just retired from his post at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is due for an honorific grant of emeritus rank. The university trustees have voted unanimously to deny that rank to Ayers after their chairman, Christopher Kennedy, noted that Ayers, as a co-author of a 1974 book on "revolutionary anti-imperialism," had included among its dedicatees none other than Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of the chairman's father, Robert F. Kennedy. The murdered man's son notes that Ayers, to his knowledge, has never expressed remorse for so honoring Sirhan.

A Google search reveals that Republican operatives did discover the damning dedication in 2008, but not until practically the last minute of the Presidential campaign. Most references liking Ayers to Sirhan date from late October and early November of that year. By then, the general electorate had grown quite tired of hearing about Ayers and was satisfied that his history, whatever you made of it, had nothing to do with Barack Obama. Some Republicans still feel that the media failed (willfully, some no doubt believe) to probe fully Ayers's alleged influence on the President. Today's news may revive Ayers as a scarecrow for the congressional election stretch run, given that the denunciation comes from a source that presumably cannot be dismissed as a right-wing crank. If so, it should be recalled that nothing in the news today proves a closer connection between Ayers and Obama than most people assume to have existed. What today's story should disprove is any lingering notion that a liberal establishment somehow condones Ayers's career and opinions. While the collective authorship of Prairie Fire throws Ayers's personal responsibility for the dedication to Sirhan open to question, it should be obvious that no one involved in such a project would be very welcome in Democratic establishment circles. There is a difference between that establishment and the erstwhile terrorists on the "anti-imperialist" left, no matter what Republicans say to the contrary. Fortunately, there are options in between as well.

23 September 2010

Republicans: The Voters Are Wrong

It was more work than it was worth getting a poky computer to show me the House Republicans' Pledge To America, which is more a statement of principles than the famous Contract With America of 1994. Its content is quite predictable: employers good, elected representatives bad and all that. It'll be news to no one that the Republicans want to dismantle as much of the "job-killing" regulatory apparatus as they can get away with, since they've long held that any accountability to civilized workplace standards is burdensome to the heroic entrepreneurial class in competitive times. I scanned the document for something novel or idiosyncratic, an authentic expression of the mood of the moment. I'm not sure if I found that much, since the Republicans have been saying the same things for the past half century, but I found one interesting passage in a closing section on the principle of checks and balances. In this passage, the GOP shifts a share of blame for our present troubles onto the shoulders of voters, whom the drafters accuse of failing to vote the proper way.

Our founders built a system of checks and balances to slow the growth of government and prevent the tyranny of the majority. The ultimate power in this system of government is held by the people, who were given the tools by our Founders to hold those they elect as their representatives accountable for their actions. Government exists to be the servant of the people, not their master. Unfortunately, the metrics used to hold Congress accountable are often flawed. Rather than using the scale of how well elected representatives represent the
views of the people, the scale is often currently measured in bills passed, dollars spent, and programs created. This must change.

Every American must ask: what has Congress done to ensure opportunity and to safeguard my liberty and the freedoms guaranteed to me in the Constitution? We stand ready to be judged by that standard.

How generous of Republicans to declare their readiness to be judged by a standard of their own choosing. How paradoxical, too, to insinuate that the people are electing people who don't represent their views, when one might otherwise assume that the fact of their election proves that politicians represent "the views of the people" at least more than the politicians who aren't elected. You may question how truly representative Republicans or Democrats ever are, given the leeway granted each party by our Bipolarchy system of government, but I wouldn't expect Republicans to accuse voters, in effect, of acting on false consciousness. The GOP seems to be saying that the views people express in elections aren't their actual views. It also seems to imply that the "views of the people" are an ideal form detached from the opinions of actual voters, but with which voters should ideally conform themselves. Conveniently enough, the Republicans summarize "the views of the people" in the next paragraph. Even before concerning ourselves with liberty, apparently, we must ask whether we "ensure opportunity" with our votes. In other words, are we making life less burdensome for our struggling entrepreneurs by making ourselves less burdensome with demands for decent wages, working conditions, etc? If not, we shouldn't think of whether the bills passed, dollars spent or programs created are necessary or desirable. If an entrepreneur can claim that he might have created another job had he cleared more profit, we must renounce our needs and interests in favor of the entrepreneur's.

"Government exists to be the servant of the people, not its master." An admirable sentiment, but what if, to serve all the people, it must appear to "master" some of them? That possibility sits beyond the pale of the Republican imagination. The Pledge is not entirely without constructive suggestions. I'd accept their challenge to include a specific Constitutional mandate in all legislation, for instance, though I don't think, given generations of Supreme Court precedents, that the requirement will limit action as much as Republicans expect. But for the most part they could just as easily have reprinted the Contract With America. The GOP has told us nothing new this week, unless you pay close attention. Then you discover that, along with all their anger at "elites," they're unhappy with millions of other Americans, ordinary voters, as well.

22 September 2010

Rick Lazio: Forced into Independence?

For Rick Lazio, the Conservative party nomination for governor of New York was only a means to an end. Lazio and his backers in both the Conservative and Republican organizations believed that securing the Conservative line for him would effectively force Republican primary voters to give him the Republican line if they wanted a small-c conservative to win the general election. It was a gambit that failed. Lazio and his allies underestimated the rank-and-file impatience with establishment politicians that Carl Paladino mobilized for a successful insurgent campaign. Paladino defeated Lazio for the GOP nod by a landslide, while Lazio fended off a petition challenger to retain the Conservative line, making this careerist party hack the most prominent independent candidate in the gubernatorial race.

Given this background, you can understand why Paladino's supporters and the Republican leadership, including a state chairman who had supported Lazio, are now calling on him to stand down. In all likelihood, Lazio had no intention of running exclusively on the Conservative line; his candidacy for the party line was always a sham of independence. It would nearly be no loss if he withdrew. As of today, however, he appears intent on continuing his campaign. He criticized both Paladino and Andrew Cuomo, claimed to be the only candidate with real plans for restoring the state economy, and vowed to have a voice in the campaign for the next six weeks. Reporters note that he did not absolutely rule out stepping aside, but for the time being there's nothing conciliatory in his attitude toward Paladino to anticipate an endorsement.

The Conservative party's future may depend on Lazio remaining in the race. To avoid relegation to the second tier of parties, those who must petition their way onto the ballot instead of getting an automatic line, the Conservatives must get 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial election. For whatever reason, replacing Lazio with Paladino on the Conservative line doesn't seem to be an option, though the Working Families Party is replacing a placeholder candidate with Cuomo after swallowing their pride and endorsing his platform.

Based on his performance in defeat last week, Lazio as an active Conservative candidate should be able to assure the party of retaining its guaranteed place on the next ballot. Apart from renewing the viability of a third party, Lazio's commitment to an active campaign would also preserve a real choice for those New Yorkers who consider themselves conservatives but aren't reconciled to the perceived extremism and self-evident boorishness of Paladino. Those people might finally find the Libertarian party inviting if Lazio finally withdraws, but if he hangs in he'd probably be the more appealing choice.

An active Lazio campaign would leave New York in the odd situation of having a Conservative candidate who is almost universally perceived to be less conservative than the Republican candidate. That may seem to defeat the purpose of the Conservative party, but some people would argue that that purpose was defeated a long time ago. Since the word "conservative" has no meaning independent of context (i.e. what does one conserve?) the possible paradox of Lazio's Conservatism shouldn't trouble us much. Maybe his supporters really believe in conserving something threatened by Paladino or the Tea Partiers who support him. Whether that something is worth conserving is debatable. Less debatable is their right to defy Paladino. If Lazio costs Paladino the election, it won't be Lazio's fault for drawing votes away from the supposedly true conservative candidate. It'll be Paladino's fault for failing to win those votes.

The China Question: Can Democracy Produce Objective Government?

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is on the defensive as he comments yet again on China's current competitive advantages over the U.S. His occasional criticisms of partisan politics as an obstacle to long-term economic policy have predictably provoked critics to sense a preference on Friedman's part for authoritarian regimes. Writing from China, where he's covering an economic summit, Friedman tries to clarify his position in his latest column.

I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America. Studying China’s ability to invest for the future doesn’t make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system.

What makes the American system the right one? The nearest thing he offers to a concrete answer is the assertion that a "knowledge economy" requires the sort of liberty the U.S. has and China still lacks in order to function most efficiently, despite China's advantages in meritocracy and central planning. Apart from that, Friedman insists that "There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things — democratically — that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before." Friedman means "that 'can-do,' 'get-it-done,' 'everyone-pull-together,' 'whatever-it-takes' attitude that built our highways, dams and put a man on the moon." He worries that our democracy is unable right now to generate focus, legitimacy, unity, etc. But if the problem isn't inherent to democracy, what's the real problem?

"[W]e’re not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country," Friedman answers. To correct this defect, democracy needs to produce and elect "candidates who will do what is right for the country, not just for their ideological wing or whoever comes with the biggest bag of money."

Friedman describes two different defects in democracy, each requiring a different solution. It's one thing to blame America's problems on selfish people acting on purely mercenary short-term motives. Dealing with ideology, a major component of "toxic partisan[ship]," is trickier, since every ideologue believes that his ideology is just "what is right for the country." To defeat the influence of ideology, Friedman depends on a "political center" that has to be "focused, united and energized." In turn, the "center" must get "a lot of people pulling in the same direction."

You can see right there how the conventional metaphorical language of political analysis fails to fit the moment. As soon as people start pulling in any direction, one might argue, they are no longer in the "center." Centrism also implies a balance or compromise between "left" and "right" that might be counterproductive or impossible, depending on your point of view. Friedman may plot his "center" to far to the right for leftists, or too far to the left for rightists. I think he means something more profound when he writes about the "center," but hasn't found the right word for it. It clearly has something to do with the recognition of an objective national interest defined independently from any particular ideology. Objectivity and ideology are opposites, no matter how objective ideologues think they are. Ideologues always think in oughts, based on fundamentally moral notions of how people should live together. Objective people (as opposed, I suppose, to Objectivists) presumably think in musts, based on pragmatic notions of the necessities for social and national survival. Ideology constantly challenges objectivity, disputing whether societies or nations that deviate from the ideological good deserve to survive. Ideologues act as if survival on terms other than their own is a dystopian fate worse than national ruin. If they prove impervious to objective arguments, the only alternative available to the "center" is to outvote them every time and ignore their complaints.

But all this hopeful talk about the "center" begs a question: what if there is no center anymore? Friedman may believe that democracy should be able to summon an effective, governing center into being, but what if the failure to do so is an objective sign of decline in any democracy? The Founders knew that all democratic and republican experiments in the past had failed; the Constitution was their attempt to learn from all past mistakes and build a democratic republic that would last longer if not indefinitely. They offered no guarantee that I know of that it would last forever. I'm not saying that the republic is dying as we speak. Friedman may be right about the persistent potential of an energized "center." But how will we know it when we see it? Tea Partiers think of themselves as the center; so do Obama supporters. How many Americans don't think of themselves as part of the center? It's easy to identify your individual interests with the national interest, and it's easier still to get angry when someone disputes the premise. Democracy itself tempts us to define the national interest as nothing more than an accumulation of individual interests that form a majority. Maybe democracy doesn't work the way Friedman wants unless citizens acknowledge that the national interest is greater than the sum of its individual interests and believe that being part of a larger whole actually enlarges individuals rather than diminishing them. Americans do seem to have believed that in the past, but many across the metaphorical political spectrum seem to have lost that faith. The ultimate question for Friedman and his "center" may be whether that faith, once lost, can be restored.

21 September 2010

501(c): Money's Secret Ballot

If donating money to a political candidate or an advocacy group for the purpose of paying for advertising is a Constitutionally protected equivalent of political speech, I suppose it would follow that the donors of money should be entitled to the same protections as the people who vote. Since the 19th century, the secret ballot has existed ostensibly to allow individuals to vote according to their consciences without fear of reprisal from employers, landlords or anyone else who might otherwise exploit economic dependence by dictating how workers or tenants voted. For those who donate money, apparently, the moral equivalent of the secret ballot is the 501(c), a category of public-interest organization under current tax law that allows donors to remain anonymous. For that reason above all, the New York Times suggests, 501(c)s have supplanted the once-famous "527s" as the vehicle of choice for political donations. Small-business donors give to 501(c)(4) non-profits, which are obliged to devote no more than 50% of their resources to political activity, albeit under a very tight definition of "political" that actually allows a lot of political-seeming activity to go on. Trade groups like the Chamber of Commerce count as 501(c)(6) groups, while labor unions are 501(c)(5) groups. All 501(c)s allow both anonymity and unlimited donations, and both Republican and Democratic sympathizers take advantage of the opportunity.

Apparently, donors are entitled to anonymity because 501(c)s are "social welfare" rather than "political" groups. Why "social welfare" donors should enjoy anonymity is a mystery to me, but in practice political donors are relying on a loose interpretation of 501(c) law to make sure their donations aren't on public record. For more than a century, advocates of greater democracy and responsible government have demanded that candidates reveal who specifically gives them money, and candidates and donors alike have been looking for ways to dodge the demand. Why? From the candidate's point of view, anonymity is preferable because he doesn't want to look like the hireling of corporations or the stooge of unions, depending on the presumed point of view of his constituents. From the donor's point of view, I have to assume that the logic behind the secret ballot applies. That is, the business owner who donates to a Republican candidate, for instance, may fear that his business will face harassment from a Democratic administration in the form of IRS audits or other burdensome investigations. In a global context, it's not an irrational fear; many governments abroad are only too happy to make life miserable for rich people who supported a failed opposition. A corporate donor might also worry that his business might be subject to boycott by angry voters.

Whatever my opinion about the propriety of campaign donations or their alleged equivalence to discourse, no one should fear reprisals from partisan government for supporting another party through words or donations. How do we weigh that principle against the public's presumed right to know where a politician gets his campaign money? It could be argued that the need to know presumes an unreasonable ad hominem argument against both the candidate and the donor. If you don't presume that the donor has a corrupting influence on the candidate, the argument might go, then you don't need to know who's donating. The fiercest defenders of the right to donate without limit are quick to dismiss the notion that campaign donations influence politicians' votes. The rest of us are under no obligation to agree. So long as a corrupting influence remains a possibility (and the Founders certainly thought it did) the public does have an interest in knowing who gives money to candidates. The only people who should suffer from such disclosures, if anyone suffers at all, are the candidates who may well be discredited by their dependence on unpopular donors. As long as the donor has the right to donate, he shouldn't be punished for doing so. The idea of forcing someone to stop donating by threatening his trade doesn't appeal to me. The idea of a government singling out opposition donors for harassment appeals even less.

If these seem like unsatisfactory recommendations, I'll revert to my preferred position, which is to eliminate as completely as possible the role of money in elections. Here my recommendations would be more drastic; I'd do away with paid political advertising on TV, for instance. If money is necessary to carry on national campaigns, then we might be better off decentralizing electoral politics as much as possible. If you want to support a candidate, go make a speech or join like-minded people and go marching like they did in the 19th century. Worry about influencing your neighbors rather than people in distant states. For now, however, we ought to know where candidates get their money and their advertising. No entity that participates in politics in any way should allow people to contribute anonymously. The public has a right to know how money votes -- and they may even have a right to know how people vote, but that's an issue for another time.

20 September 2010

The Nation Endorses a Third Party Candidate in South Carolina

John Nichols may be speaking for himself and not for the editors of The Nation magazine, but within those pages normally dedicated with sanctimonious servility to the Democratic party Nichols has invited Democrats to support the Green party candidate in the South Carolina U.S. Senate election. Readers may recall that Palmetto state primary voters anointed unknown political novice Alvin Greene as their challenger to Republican incumbent Jim DeMint. Greene has faced legal problems ever since, but despite his near-total absence of credibility he has polled consistently in the neighborhood of 20% in Rasmussen's monthly polls, probably due to die-hard support from black voters. That's far better than the total support for all third-party candidates, whom you'd think would benefit from the Democratic debacle. As Nichols himself hints ever so slightly, Democrats may still hold a grudge against the Green Party, which has nominated environmental activist Tom Clements for Senate, because of the 2000 presidential election. Nichols writes, however, that Democrats should have gotten over their anger at Ralph Nader by now, especially since "Traditional Green issues, such as climate change and sustainability, have gone mainstream." He's careful to note, as well, that "the Greens have skipped runs that might have drawn votes away from progressive Democrats such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold."

Here's Nichols's capsule profile of Tom Clements:

Clements is a native Southerner who worked for thirteen years with Greenpeace International and directed the Nuclear Control Institute before taking over in 2008 as southeastern coordinator for Friends of the Earth. He was a campaign manager to former Georgia Congressman Doug Bernard, an experienced player on the international stage since his days as a leading antiproliferation campaigner and an able spokesman on issues ranging from environmental racism to global warming to the green economy. Clements is economically populist, socially progressive and antiwar. And he knows the race should be about DeMint, not the foibles of his Democratic challenger.

Clements is challenging DeMint to debate him, accusing the incumbent of indifference to his own constituents while meddling in elections across the country. There's no good reason for DeMint to duck him. No one expects Clements to beat him even if Democrats do start following Nichols's advice, while sharing a stage with Clements would elevate the Green party in a way that could prove problematic for Democrats in the future. That might prove problematic for Republicans in the longer term, but it probably wouldn't be DeMint's worry by the time the Greens became the actual second party in South Carolina. Still, that's a result for liberals and progressives in South Carolina to shoot for. Some unions have already endorsed Clements, while greater efforts will probably be necessary to convince blacks to abandon Greene's still-historic candidacy. But if a Green candidate can't come in second against such a hopeless Democrat as Greene, the state party is a hopeless proposition.

Amoklauf in Loerrach?

Friends of mine often alert me to early news reports of mass shootings or shootings in public places. These reports raise the question of what should count as an amoklauf -- especially in the country that coined the word. Sunday brought news from Germany of a woman who walked into her local hospital with guns blazing, killing one and wounding three before security brought her down. Investigators soon discovered that the woman had killed her child and estranged husband and had tried to burn their house down before going to the hospital.

As a rule, I call it an amoklauf when I perceive that the attacker is targeting people indiscriminately, killing them for no deeper reason than that they're people. I grow reluctant to call it an amoklauf when there's an obviously personal element involved. If family's involved, for instance, I'm inclined to think of the act as a crime of passion. Workplace shootings are borderline cases, but they may be instructive in general. The workplace shooter most likely has a beef with his job and his employers. He may or may not think that all his co-workers are his enemies, but in many cases he ends up firing indiscriminately in the office, breakroom, etc. In yesterday's case, investigators speculate that the woman may have had some issue with the hospital because she suffered a miscarriage there several years ago, but I doubt whether she targeted specialists who had treated her then; those people may not even work at the hospital now. What seems most obvious is that the woman crossed a certain mental threshold and had decided, once she reached the hospital, to shoot as many people as possible. Her spree didn't start as an amoklauf, but arguably became one. An amoklauf might be best defined as a moment when someone kills, like a Kali cultist in Gunga Din, for the love of killing, achieving some kind of ecstasy (not necessarily or even probably sexual) in the act. Killing may make suicide (by cop in many cases) palatable for people who would otherwise deem it contemptible. It may make them feel worthwhile at last because killing is at least an accomplishment for people otherwise unaccomplished. The victims are most likely depersonalized for the amoklauferin, but she still takes life personally; society and everything in it becomes her enemy. None of us are innocent in her eyes; we may have done nothing personally to offend her, but we are all components of the intolerably oppressive world that is her true target.

How many of these people would detonate a nuke if they could, to spite that world or in their minds end it? Theirs may be the mentality we attribute speculatively to those "madmen" rulers whom we'd deny nuclear weapons -- and we won't let individuals have nukes, either. The same mentality, as we see all too frequently, can do considerable damage with guns, but in such cases we would rather trust other guns to defend us rather than adopt a preventive principle, based on a broadly-constructed right to kill in self-defense. Amoklaufers employ the most liberal construction possible of the self-defense principle; feeling oppressed by life or society itself, they might wipe it out if they could. We can't yet determine who among us is likely to become an amoklaufer, and no such test may ever be possible. What, then, does public safety require of us? If possible, to condition people through education to suppress the amoklauf impulse. Beside that, to minimize the possible damage by minimizing the firepower or other lethal force available to people. If that sounds like too much government to some people, let them accept the amoklauf as a regular phenomenon of the freedom they demand in our time.

In Defense of Christine O'Donnell

The Republican nominee for Vice President Biden's old U.S. Senate seat for Delaware has been forced into damage-control mode after Bill Maher dug up a 1999 talk show from his archives in which the candidate, then an anti-sex activist, admitted to "dabbl[ing] into witchcraft" during her high-school years. Maher claims to have more embarrassing clips ready to run and has promised to broadcast more of them if O'Donnell doesn't agree to appear on his current program. O'Donnell has responded to the so-called scandal with good humor, tweeting that, were she a witch today, she would have turned Karl Rove (her most vocal critic on the Right) into a Newt (Gingrich, a supporter). But the revelation has exposed her to fresh criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, the Republicans (those who voted against her in the primary, presumably) again questioning her credentials and credibility, and the Democrats presumably wanting to label her either a hypocrite (as if a conservative Christian should never have dabbled into witchcraft in her youth) or an idiot (as if witchcraft is a priori more idiotic than any other religious belief or practice). That this story can be a scandal reflects mainstream culture's continued hypocritical marginalization of wicca and related beliefs, though the younger O'Donnell didn't help matters by talking about "satanic" altars, however humorously. The O'Donnell of today is doubtless correct to challenge critics to deny that they ever hung out with "weird" friends in their youth, and as far as I'm concerned dabbling into witchcraft should no more disqualify a modern political candidate than a confession of pot smoking. Speaking entirely for myself regarding O'Donnell as a religious-right Tea Partier, her reminiscences of adolescent transgression, had she uttered them this year, would probably have been the least offensive things she's said as a candidate for office. Democrats probably think themselves beset by witches this year (and by the Wicked Witch of the North most of all) but they should refrain from making their witch hunts this literal.

19 September 2010

The Bipolarchy Mind: Fewer Candidates = 'Real Choice'

Allow me to introduce Larry Penner of Great Neck, NY, to the wider world. Larry wrote a letter to the Albany Times Union that ran in Sunday's paper. I'm reprinting the letter in full because it's a spectacularly damning illustration of the Orwellian mentality that sustains the American Bipolarchy. Penner's subject is the political future of Conservative gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, who lost a primary contest for the Republican line to Carl Paladino last Tuesday. For Penner, Lazio's obligation in partial defeat is obvious.

Rick Lazio should acknowledge Republican voters who have overwhelmingly selected Carl Paladino as the best candidate to challenge longtime liberal Democratic state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for governor. Next step is for Lazio to decline the Conservative party endorsement. The Conservative Party committee on vacancies can stand up for its long lost principles of lower taxes, limited government and free enterprise by endorsing Paladino. Lazio can go back to Wall Street earning several million dollars per year. Voters would be offered a real choice, rather than Lazio remaining on the ballot as a spoiler.

For Penner, Lazio has no right to appeal to the broader electorate as the better qualified person for the job of governor. The decision of Republican primary voters, in his view, is binding on all professed conservatives. Anyone who believes in "lower taxes, limited government and free enterprise" is obliged, as far as Penner's concerned, to vote for Paladino. For conservatives to have a choice among candidates in the general election, Penner writes, is not a real choice. To the Bipolarchy mind, the "real choice" is a compulsory one, the choices having been determined before anyone got on the ballot. In our time, that means Americans must choose between liberalism (as defined by the Democratic party) and conservatism (as defined by the Republican party); the possibility of choosing between or among conservatives, or to choose between or among liberals, only distracts voters from the real choice as defined by the Bipolarchy. A normal person wouldn't think that an expanding number of choices made his or her choice less "real." But when an acolyte of the American Bipolarchy like Larry Penner writes about a "real choice" he really means that Americans have no choice. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans may not like one another and may want to destroy each other, but to the extent that both perpetuate the "real choice" myth they are active collaborators in a Bipolarchy that is designed to limit Americans' freedom of choice. Larry Penner may be all for limited government and free enterprise, but he is no believer in political freedom.

17 September 2010

Delaware: Tea Party vs. Big Tent

It's been amusing, given how Democrats have tried to portray Karl Rove as a secret manipulator of the Tea Party movement, to see Rove himself fulminating against the "Tea Party" candidate who scored an upset win in Delaware's Republican senatorial primary. While Rove has affirmed that, as a Republican, he'll support Christine O'Donnell in the general election, he takes his job as a political analyst for Fox News seriously enough to state openly that he considered O'Donnell the weaker candidate of the two main Republican contenders. He believes that her primary victory reduces Republican chances of taking the seat once held by Vice President Biden and now sought, in another disgusting display of dynastic politics, by Biden's son. Despite his quasi-endorsement of O'Donnell, Rove has refused to back down from his criticisms despite being criticized for them by no less an authority than Rush Limbaugh. The analyst claims that O'Donnell's record of "nutty things" she's said (she's hardline on sexual morality, having once equated masturbation with adultery) and misrepresentations of her personal history reduce her electability, but the statements I've seen attributed to her don't sound that far outside the Republican mainstream.

My first impulse was to assume that Rove was unhappy because his horse had lost to one backed by other secret or not-so-secret manipulators of the Tea Party movement. O'Donnell was endorsed during the primary campaign by the Tea Party Express (which bought ads for her), by Sarah Palin and by Senator DeMint, the self-appointed TP point man in Congress. Delaware definitely bears deeper study for its exposure of fissures within the still-inchoate national Tea Party movement, even if the primary didn't necessarily pit Delaware TPs against each other. But if Charles Krauthammer is right, Delaware was less a struggle to define the Tea Party locally than it was a desperate stand by nationally oriented Republicans against a local TP infiltration that threatens the GOP's viability as a national governing party.

In his post-primary column, Krauthammer concedes that O'Donnell's opponent, Mike Castle, was a "liberal Republican." He adds: "What do you expect from Delaware?" The obvious Tea Party answer is, "someone like us," and they had the numbers to get their wish. Krauthammer argues, however, that the national Republican party, conservative as it is, needs an "electable" (i.e. liberal) Republican in Delaware. Apologizing to the TPs all the while, Krauthammer insists that "geography matters" to the national GOP. It's one thing for TPs to nominate their own kind in places like Florida and Alaska, but "Delaware is not Kentucky [and] if Republicans want to be a national party they cannot write off the Northeast, whose Republicanism is of a distinctly moderate variety."

In Delaware, he chides Tea Partiers for holding Republicans to an impossibly high standard of conservatism. "Castle voted against Obamacare and the stimulus," he notes, but "he voted for cap-and-trade. That's batting .667. [Would TPs] rather have a Democrat who bats .000 and who might give the Democrats the 50th vote to control the Senate?"

The explicit argument is lesser-evilism: Tea Partiers should have held their noses, if necessary, and nominated Castle in order to prevent Democrats from retaining control of the Senate. The implicit argument is the "big tent" principle: in order to govern nationally, the Republican party must accommodate both rabid reactionaries and moderate conservatives like Castle, apparently along geographically segregated lines. If you live in Florida, you get a man after your own heart in Marco Rubio. In Delaware, you have to settle for Mike Castle for the sake of the national party.

Tea Partiers across the country have opted for an infiltration strategy instead of forming a new political party. Infiltration is a 50-state strategy for most of them. Even in the Northeast, as New York as well as Delaware has shown, Tea Party elements want to remake the Republican party in their own image, and they've succeeded so far in those states. In Delaware they've met resistance, even after victory, from Republicans who consider it more important for the party to win general elections, at any ideological cost, than for the party to represent the interests and ideas of its most dedicated constituents. The broader the scope of politics, the more the national party can be expected to pressure Tea Partiers to water down their brew of principles. The Republican Party and the Tea Party are not yet synonymous, Democratic claims aside. The infiltration strategy forces TPs to push for total victory within the Republican ranks or risk losing what integrity they have in order to keep the establishment's big tent standing. The establishment, represented by analysts and pundits like Rove and Krauthammer, will make the Delaware general election a crucial test, challenging the TPs and their allies to elect O'Donnell. Krauthammer has challenged Palin and DeMint personally to "make it happen," with an implicit or else hanging over their heads. He claims that he'd welcome an O'Donnell victory, and I don't doubt that, but the real story developing in Delaware is his implicit threat to Tea Partiers within the Republican Party if O'Donnell fails. The fate of the infiltration strategy nationwide may be decided in Delaware this November.

16 September 2010

Don't Burn Qur'ans, Just 'Defeat' Islam (and the Constitution while you're at it)

If Rev. Terry Jones, the would-be Qur'an burner of Gainseville FL, had not gotten his fifteen minutes or so of fame last week, reactionary Islamophobes like Cal Thomas would have had to invent him. Thomas takes a parting swipe at Jones in his latest column, questioning the man's ministry by putting the word "minister" in scare quotes. Jones serves the same purpose for Thomas's kind that Fred Phelps does. By denouncing the offensive acts of marginal characters, Thomas hopes to mainstream his own bigotry. Thus, after dismissing Jones as a "distraction," Thomas proposes an Islamophobic program so thoroughly unconstitutional that it'd probably makes Jones himself flinch. It may even make Jones look like a moderate.

Thomas inadvertantly inflates Jones's historical significance by equating him with Joe McCarthy, whom Thomas sees in retrospect as a distraction from the serious work of anticommunism. Jones, Thomas writes, likewise distracts Americans from the necessary work of purging, defeating and conquering "radical Islam." It doesn't take long, however, before Thomas loses track of the adjective. Taking his mandate from the wonderfully vague Deuteronomy 22:21 ("You must purge the evil from among you"), the columnist tells us how to stop radical Islam from spreading in the U.S.

We are doing a poor job of fighting the terrorists at home if we continue to allow Muslim immigrants, especially from Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, into America. We won't win this war if we permit the uncontrolled construction of mosques, as well as Islamic schools, some of which already have sown the seeds from which future terrorists will be cultivated. We won't win this war if we continue to permit the large-scale conversion to Islam of prison inmates, many of whom become radicalized and upon release enlist in al-Qaida's army.

Thomas goes so far as to commend the government of Syria, a tyrannical regime otherwise demonized in his writings, for "understand[ing] the threat better than our own government." He applauds the Assad dictatorship for subjecting imams to government scrutiny of their Friday sermons and monitoring curricula in religious schools. The Syrian government, in Thomas's view, is happily unburdened by "fear of offending 'sensibilities'" when dealing with the Islamic threat. The sensibilities Thomas should worry about offending are those of Americans who revere the Constitution.

While immigration restriction is within the government's power, Thomas's proposals for "controlling" the construction of mosques and Islamic schools or forbidding prison conversions to Islam run right into the concrete wall of the First Amendment. If Congress shall pass no law respecting religion, then it can't pass special laws regulating Islam, no matter how Thomas tries to construct them. Presuming Thomas to be one of those homophobes who claim a religious right to discriminate against gays and lesbian, he shows a lack of respect for our blueprint of liberty that was regrettably all too predictable.

"We are tolerating, even welcoming evil under the false assumption that evil can be neutered when it is in the midst of good," Thomas writes. I guess that's why he gets to publish his column. "We must purge the evil from among us, or else," he concludes. Physician heal thyself.

15 September 2010

Idiots of the Week: Dinesh D'Souza and Newt Gingrich

Liberal columnists are having a field day blasting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for endorsing and publicizing an absurd interpretation of President Obama promulgated by Dinesh D'Souza in a Forbes magazine column and a forthcoming book. The D'Souza thesis has been described as a pseudo-intellectual version of birtherism. His premise, based upon the title of Obama's memoir (Dreams From My Father)and a single newspaper article written by Obama's father, is that the President, who saw relatively little of his father and was not raised by him, has thoroughly absorbed the elder Obama's "anticolonialist" ideology. A breathtaking range of Obama policies, D'Souza asserts, can be explained by his anticolonial bias against the United States and the western world.

D'Souza, a native of India who is a Christian chauvinist as well as a right-wing Republican, claims to know the anticolonial mentality from firsthand experience. Anticolonialism, he writes, is "the doctrine that rich countries of the West got rich by invading, occupying and looting poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America." He defines the term with care, because he sees anticolonialism as the Third World's excuse for not doing the reasonable thing by emulating European capitalism. He'd have you think that third-worlders believe that capitalism doesn't really work on its own terms, but flourished only through territorial conquest. But to my knowledge, anticolonialism or anti-imperialism, while a characteristic attitude of the "left," is not innately anti-capitalist. If anticolonialists resent the rich countries of the West, the invasion, occupation and looting of their countries is a sufficient explanation in its own right, regardless of how much any western country profited from it. But it's important for D'Souza to define anticolonialism in implicitly economic terms because he ascribes to Barack Obama an "anticolonial" desire to redistribute wealth from the West to the third world.

Obama's father appears to have advocated state expropriation of private wealth and property in order to prevent an alleged handful of individuals from controlling Kenya's resources. To D'Souza, this 1965 article is a dirty secret that the President and his acolytes in the liberal media have tried to hide from the American public, a Rosebud that reveals all the ideals and aspirations of the author's son.

It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder. Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America. In his worldview, profits are a measure of how effectively you have ripped off the rest of society, and America's power in the world is a measure of how selfishly it consumes the globe's resources and how ruthlessly it bullies and dominates the rest of the planet.

D'Souza didn't need to qualify that first sentence. It doesn't seem incredible, after all. But our scholar is so captivated by his discovery that he can write the following -- "If Obama shares his father's anticolonial crusade, that would explain why he wants people who are already paying close to 50% of their income in overall taxes to pay even more" -- with the prose equivalent of a straight face. That sample represents the whole of the article quite fairly. For Gingrich, it proved a revelation akin to the vision of John. Thus inspired, he takes the D'Souza thesis to the ad hominem heights.

What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior. This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president. I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating — none of which was true. In the [Saul] Alinksy tradition, he was being the person he needed to be in order to achieve the position he needed to achieve . . . He was authentically dishonest.

This analysis seems consistent with Gingrich's career as a writer who converts history to fiction. I don't mean to imply that he's lying, however; he may well be sincerely caught up in D'Souza's delusion. In which case, I leave you to determine the bigger idiot: the man who comes up with such a stupid idea, or the one who falls for it.

Tea Leaves: Are We Missing the Real Stories?

Reporters are describing yesterday's Republican primaries, for the most part, as a series of victories for "the Tea Party." It may suit some people's purposes to envision the movement as a coherent entity, but any close attention to its evolution reveals pluralism and rivalry among the ranks of our modern pretend-Indians. There may be a coherent bloc of "Tea Party" voters, but the people they vote for may not share their solidarity.

It's important to remember that there are multiple "Tea Party" organizations within the movement. This came to public attention most prominently when one group attempted to read another out of the movement. It matters whether a "Tea Party" candidate is endorsed or sponsored by the Tea Party Express, the Tea Party Patriots or some other group, or by none of them. Carl Paladino, for instance, is described as a Tea Party candidate. This is accurate insofar as professed Tea Party voters chose him for the Republican nomination over Rick Lazio. But Paladino, as a self-financed candidate, is not the creature of any particular TP group. The Tea Party Patriots only endorsed him late in the game, while the Tea Party Express kept aloof from him early in the process after the scandal over his obscene forwarded e-mails broke. He didn't need any TP group, to my knowledge, to buy ads for him during the campaign, though circumstances may change as the general election against a favored Democrat approaches. In any event, Paladino's independence from any specific TP organization and his self-financing leave him a sort of free agent (or loose cannon, if you prefer) whose success won't necessarily empower any TP faction.

During the primary season, pundits have followed the fortunes of Sarah Palin while pondering whether her personal influence outweighs that of any TP organization. In Arizona she opposed a TP favorite who tried to unseat her erstwhile running mate, John McCain, but whether she made a real difference in McCain's victory is still up for debate. In Alaska a personal influence predating the TP movement made her endorsement of Joe Miller crucial against her longtime enemy, Senator Murkowski. That left observers questioning whether Teapartyism made any difference in the Alaska outcome (though Murkowski herself blames her defeat on the "outside extremists" of the Tea Party Express). That brings us to New Hampshire, where Palin threw her influence behind the "establishment" candidate for the U.S. Senate nomination, Kelly Ayotte, whose strongest rival, Ovide Lamontagne, was anointed (by whom?) as the TP candidate (despite Palin's claim that Ayotte was the "true conservative" in the field) and endorsed by Jim DeMint, a power in the so-called Tea Party Lobby in Congress. The primary remains too close to call as I write, but Ayotte holds a slight lead. New Hampshire needs a closer reading than I've been able to give it so far. Outside observers should understand that any analysis of the primary as a Palin-vs-TP test of strength is complicated by the presence of five other candidates, including a self-financed businessman who received 14% of the vote. It's probably also significant that Tea Party Express stayed out of the race, though I don't know how other TP organizations behaved. Some reporters have suggested that TPE could have tipped the balance in Lamontagne's favor with an aggressive ad campaign; others hint that the group may not have wanted to cross Palin. Why she went for Ayotte remains unclear to me; could it have been as simple as gender solidarity? The journalist or historian who can answer questions like this in an objective account of the New Hampshire primary will go a long way toward clarifying our understanding of a movement that has inspired and enraged millions of Americans.

Listening to NPR this morning, I heard a reporter comment on how unusual it was that no dominant Tea Party leader had emerged so far. She also speculated that the movement would lose influence rapidly, having perhaps peaked already, if no leader emerged soon. She found it remarkable that it had succeeded as much as it seems to have while remaining relatively decentralized, while taking for granted that a decentralized movement's chances for long-term success are limited. The reporter also claimed that the TPs aim at a cultural as well as political transformation of the country, hoping to revive a spirit of self-reliance as a precondition for a permanent reduction of the size and scope of government. If that's their plan, why should they subordinate themselves to a leader, whether it be Palin, DeMint, Glenn Beck or someone else? On the other hand, there are people who clearly aspire to be, if not the leader, at least the figurehead of the Tea Party movement, whether as a presidential candidate or a kingmaker. For now, no one plays that role. The game is on, however, and for journalists (or opponents of the movement) to treat the Tea Party as if it is a finished product or fait accompli rather than something that might still be split or played against itself is, arguably, to miss the forest for the leaves.

14 September 2010

The Paladino Surge

Carl Paladino won the Republican gubernatorial nomination by a landslide margin after polls over the weekend showed him running neck-and-neck with establishment candidate Rick Lazio. So much for polls, the methodology of which will certainly be questioned soon, as it may be presumed that the pollsters simply didn't reach many of the people who came out for Paladino today. The other possibility is that a gambling mood swept Republican voters, who may have decided to go for the maximum, out of principle or for the hell of it, while the odds seemed to favor Attorney General Cuomo, the Democratic candidate, in the general election. A Paladino candidacy is their opportunity to vent, to stick it to the "elites" in the name of a multi-millionaire. Meanwhile, Lazio finds himself a third-party candidate, having most likely won the Conservative primary in what looks to have been a tighter race than expected. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the inevitable pressure from the new Republican standard bearers to stand down for the sake of "conservative" unity against the intolerable elitists. Tonight's numbers suggest that Lazio may not be much of a factor even if he campaigns actively, unless some new scandal turns Paladino toxic. In turn, Paladino will play the bogeyman in Democratic propaganda, someone to scare independent-minded liberals, progressives and others into settling for Cuomo's austerity. A Paladino administration is not a pleasant prospect for anyone who doesn't believe in government by, of and for the entrepreneurs, but it remains the right and duty of each New Yorker to vote for the candidate that best represents his or her aspirations, not to vote against the worst-case scenario. If people vote only to prevent someone from becoming governor, they shouldn't expect the person who actually becomes governor to do much for them or the state.

'A vote for a Republican is a vote for the Tea Party'

The latest begging letter to reach me from the Democratic party expresses quite nicely the majority's confusion over the nature of the threat it faces this fall. Today is the last big primary day of the season, with the news media looking for decisive showdowns between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party movement. As far as Democrats are concerned, the two are one and the same, though you would think that they'd want to tell people that "A vote for the Tea Party is a vote for Republicans." Speaker Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee director Jon Vogel, who sent me the begging letter, would really rather re-fight the 2008 election, and do so whenever they warn that a Republican Congress in 2011 would revive the policies of George W. Bush. Nevertheless, they emphasize the threat of the Tea Party as if it were more menacing than a Bushite revival. At the same time, they stress the extent to which the TPs are stealth Bushites with a selective focus on one particular "front group," American Crossroads, in which Karl Rove is involved. Why, then, don't Pelosi and Vogel say "A vote for a Republican [or a vote for the Tea Party] is a vote for Karl Rove?" When Vogel writes "a vote for a Republican is a vote for the Tea Party," he presupposes that the Democrats who form the letter's target audience are more alarmed by the TPs than by the GOP to whom the TPs have sold out -- that the TPs represent something more threatening than Dubya Redux. But when Vogel describes the presumed TP agenda, it looks like the same stuff Democrats have accused Republicans of advocating for generations.

Republicans want more unpaid tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that add billions to the deficit, taxpayer-funded subsidies for Big Oil and companies that ship American jobs overseas, and to remove the new controls on Wall Street, privatize Social Security and dismantle Medicare. These radical positions are the direct result of the Tea Party driving the Republican agenda. (emphasis in original)

In her letter, Pelosi writes about "the real Tea Party/GOP extremist agenda," which is presumably what Vogel details but also something different from what TPs advocate publicly. To me, no lover of the Tea Parties, it seems that the Democrats want to label them as the same old party of Big Business, no matter how much the TPs (who see themselves as the virtuous yeomen of our time -- small business entrepreneurs) decry the Bailout culture of collusion between Big Business and Big Government at the little guy's expense. Democrats want to portray Tea Partiers as unconditional, uncritical corporate bootlickers, when in reality they're often fueled by populist resentment or simple envy of big-time corporate privilege. That's why Pelosi portrays American Crossroads as a shadowy outfit funded by "four billionaires whose identities are kept a secret" and presents the group as if it controls the Tea Party movement. American Crossroads is also an object of concern because it's expected to spend up to $50,000,000 on "unrelenting attack ads," which is why Democrats need to send Vogel as much money as they can.

It's as if Pelosi and Vogel would rather not bring up the other familiar charges against the Tea Parties. Neither letter has anything to say about the bigotry commonly attributed to TPs; the Speaker's concerns are exclusively economic as a matter of policy and begging. If anything, however, that presumed bigotry has to be the implicit something extra that makes a vote for a Republican a vote for the Tea Party and not the other way around in the Democratic imagination.

These begging letters annoy me, regardless of the source, because they expand upon the pernicious principle that equates spending money with free political discourse. For the beggars, donating money to political campaigns isn't just an exercise of freedom of speech; it's an imperative civic duty upon which the fate of the nation depends. It makes me wonder how many people, Republicans and Democrats alike, rush to fill these envelopes with money and then complain about taxes. People who donate to political campaigns are taxing themselves.

13 September 2010

Is Germany a 'Nanny State?' What About the U.S.?

Reviewing Tom Geoghegan's new book about the success stories of European social welfare states, and back from her own trip to Berlin, Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt asks anew why Americans oppose European-style programs so much when they seem to work so well. The way she poses the question is telling: "[I]t is hard to understand why Americans fight so hard against the nanny state, which provides so many good things."

Pollitt seems to have unconsciously adopted a term for the welfare state -- "the nanny state" -- that can only have been designed as a pejorative. She uses the term uncritically, not putting it in scare quotes or using the prefix "so-called." It's strange then, that the implications of the term don't factor into her attempts to answer her own rhetorical question. Her preferred theory, admittedly "primitive," is that "a critical mass of white Americans would rather not have something than see black and Latino Americans get it too." Given how much envy fuels the current populist spirit among that "critical mass," I'm unconvinced by Pollitt's answer. She's on safer ground when she notes that angry whites simply ignore the extent to which fellow whites depend on the welfare state. The angriest people probably aren't that dependent. For them, it's less that they'd rather not have what minorities have, but that they don't care whether whites have it or not, as long as minorities don't. It's still more likely that the angry ones resent the poor across the board, even if they place a colored face on them. If Pollitt is asking why people who are eligible for European-style benefits, or are likely to be eligible someday, "fight so hard against the nanny state," the answer has to have something to do with perceptions of a "nanny state" as something that implicitly infantilizes or emasculates the beneficiaries. Whoever coined the term, I suspect, wanted people to feel ashamed of receiving benefits from a nanny state, to question their manhood or adulthood, to "grow up" by bravely and honorably taking their chances in the workplace and the marketplace. If Pollitt doesn't want Americans to feel that way about the so-called nanny state, she should come up with a better name for it.

Wikipedia claims tentatively that "nanny state" dates back to 1965, and is British and specifically Tory in origin. Here's the relevant article on the subject.

The Working Families Party of New York: An Auxiliary of the American Bipolarchy

The Daily News puts it well this morning: The Working Families Party has opted for self-preservation over political purity, assuming the two can be separated, by accepting the terms Attorney General Cuomo insisted on before accepting the troubled "progressive" party's endorsement for the gubernatorial election. The WFP now not only endorses Cuomo but his "New Democrat" platform of austerity, rejecting their own principles of progressive taxation and stimulus spending by the government. The endorsement was deemed necessary if Working Families was to preserve its reserved line on the state ballot, which depends upon the party's gubernatorial nominee getting at least 50,000 votes this November.

An anonymous WFP "insider" didn't try to conceal the mortifying nature of the Cuomo endorsement. "You've got to eat a little shit right now" to keep the party alive, this source told the News, "It's better to take it in the teeth now and in a couple of years, hopefully, you're going to be a powerhouse again.

"If the party doesn't exist, you're never moving the progressive agenda."

Two implicit fallacies in one sentence: that Working Families is the only "progressive" party in New York State, and that the only way it can "mov[e] the progressive agenda" is by cross-endorsing a candidate for whom its support is contemptibly superfluous. It should be evident by now, however, that the nearest thing to a progressive party in the Empire State is the Green Party, which is running Howie Hawkins for governor. Endorsing Hawkins was most likely never considered by the WFP, which sees itself as a dependent yet somehow potentially decisive influence on the Democratic party. Working Families has never been an alternative to the American Bipolarchy and probably was never meant to be. Whoever registered with the party in order to declare independence from the two-party system has been scammed.