30 November 2010

Candor Requires Secrecy: Orwellian rules and the end of a 'candid world'

Objections can be raised objectively and honestly to the unauthorized release of confidential government communications by a U.S. soldier to Wikileaks and to their publication by the notorious whistleblowing site. But objections can also be raised to some of the rationalizations offered in justification of official secrecy. David Brooks, for instance, considers the leaks a threat to a "World Order" that depends on diplomats' ability to speak frankly with one another, that being possible only when their discussions remain off the record. This argument is all too reminiscent of Dick Cheney's refusal to disclose details of his consultations with oil-company executives while he was Vice President. Publicity, he claimed, would compromise the frank exchange of views and facts necessary for the crafting of sound policy. There's something implicitly contemptuous about such reasoning, which assumes a population largely incapable of appreciating frank exchanges and honest assessments. Deliberations of the powerful must remain secret, it's assumed, because too many people won't understand what's said or will take unjustified offense after drawing the wrong conclusions. Lost in this assumption is the idea of a "candid" world, the global audience to which Jefferson's committee addressed the Declaration of Independence. For Jefferson, "candid" meant not only frankness in communication but what dictionaries still describe as an impartial capacity on the part of an audience to receive information without prejudice. It might be argued that Jefferson had nothing to hide, compared to the Bush and Obama administrations, only recall that the Declaration was a revolutionary document when revolutions were still rare in the world and suspicious in many eyes, and was still considered too provocative for some audiences decades later. The documents released by Wikileaks aren't nearly as lofty, but if they represent a just cause they should stand full scrutiny. If we assume that the world can't absorb this information with proper impartiality, with whatever justification, we should probably also concede a limit to the prospects for global democracy.

29 November 2010

Oakland: Vote for the Democrat of your choice

The December 6 issue of The Nation sports an admiring note from John Nichols on this month's mayoral election in Oakland CA. Nichols appears to be happy with the triumph of "veteran community activist" Jean Quan, an advocate of "smart progressive proposals," over "the more conservative front-runner," Don Perata. He credits her victory to Oakland's institution of "ranked-choice voting." The Oakland rules allowed voters to name three candidates (out of ten) in order of preference. In the absence of a majority, the least-popular candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are distributed to the candidates listed as voters' second choices. Should the second choice be eliminated after the next count, the third choice gets the vote. If that candidate falls by the wayside, the voter is SOL.

Perata led in the popular vote, with Quan a distant second, after the first round. They remained one and two until the ninth round, when the third-place candidate, Rebecca Kaplan, was eliminated and her votes distributed to the front runners. Enough of Kaplan's supporters named Quan as their second or third choice to put her narrowly ahead at the finish line. You can see how the process worked at this official election site. Perata protested the result, believing that the first-round count should have been recognized as a mandate to govern even though more than two-thirds of Oaklanders had voted against him and he would have faced Quan in a runoff anyway under the old rules. Like Andrew Jackson after the 1824 presidential election, Perata was apparently left feeling that any outcome other than a plurality victory was unfair.

Nichols portrays ranked-choice as a counterweight to the influence of money in elections, noting that Perata had outspent Quan by four-to-one. He also endorses the opinion of a ranked-choice advocate that the system discourages "polarizing" campaigns, since candidates will want each other's good will, not to mention the good will of each other's supporters. You're not going to go negative on someone who might tell supporters to make you their second choice, after all.

Before considering whether Oakland makes a model for the rest of the nation, let's take note of one fact Nichols neglected to mention. Quan, Perata, Kaplan and fourth-place finisher Joe Tuman all identify themselves as Democrats. Perata's conservatism becomes very relative in this context, and the fact that a Republican or self-described or universally-recognized conservative couldn't crack the top four suggests that Oakland is an exceptional place. On the other hand, it's noteworthy that Oakland apparently lacks a mayoral primary that would have reduced the number of Democrats in contention to one, not counting bolters. The more Democrats differentiate themselves from each other the better, I suppose, but I also suppose that there's an inherent limit to the differentiation. Whether any of the Democratic contenders can be called independent is debatable, and the triumph of a true independent would be stronger proof of the revolutionary potential of ranked-choice voting than the evidence available so far.

Terror in Oregon

I refer not to the thwarted aspiration of an alienated youth to commit jihad at a Christmas tree lighting, which appears to be yet another case of thoughtcrime co-opted by government entrapment, but to the arson perpetrated at the local Islamic center the prisoner sporadically attended. It was a small gesture, confined to one room and easily contained, but the intent, presumably, was payback for the center's presumed fostering of a jihadi wannabe. What else should we call this but terrorism? "Hate crime" doesn't quite work for me this time; the arsonist most likely targeted the place for "what they do" rather than "who they are." The perpetrator, still at large as I write, most likely wanted to send a message to Muslims, however petty it proves to be. Whether the ultimate intent was reprisal or intimidation, it falls under the category of terrorism, even if no one is hurt.

Check out the comments below the story I linked to for further parallels to other terror cases. No one likes to have "their" people identified with terrorism, so even the implication that the arson was perpetrated by a non-Muslim as an anti-Muslim act has provoked a backlash from readers raising the eternal battle cry of "inside job!" It had to be the Muslims burning their own stuff, these people presume, in order to get sympathy or stir up still more jihadi sentiment. Those people, the Muslims, are capable of anything, after all. It's the same way different classes of people feel about the U.S. government; the Oregonian idiots are "truthers" in miniature. Theirs is a kind of terrorist mentality in its own right, converting every crime into a conspiracy, conforming events to a manichean worldview. Everything is divided into "with us" and "against us." When that situation prevails, the terrorists -- on all sides -- may well have won.

26 November 2010

Messiah and Antichrist in The New Yorker

The November 29 issue of The New Yorker is an intriguing juxtaposition of our tendency to demonize and canonize both the undeserving and the unsuspecting. "Far-Flung Correspondent" Lauren Collins reports on economist Raj Patel's dismayed reaction to his identification by fanatics and/or practical jokers as "Maitreya the World-Teacher," the messianic personage whose public appearance has been prophesied for decades by Benjamin Creme, one of our time's more persistent crackpots. You've probably seen some of his literature left in libraries, or some of his ads in The Nation or other magazines. It's a phenomenon of our decentralized info age that Creme himself did not anoint the unwitting and unwilling Patel. Instead, he was tagged by "MarcLA13," a YouTube poster who heard him talk on the Democracy Now! radio show. Creme himself remains ambivalent, even after meeting Patel, who elsewhere described the prophet as "bonkers" but harmless.

Collins's piece came after a "Talk of the Town" lead article by editor Hendrik Hertzberg defending George Soros from slurs cast by Glenn Beck, who recently portrayed the billionaire patron of liberal causes as a would-be world ruler and Jewish anti-Semite. From Hertzberg's ironically outraged perspective, it was Beck who revealed himself as the barely-veiled anti-Semite. Apparently, to accuse any Jew, even one also accused of being a self-hater (and enemy of Israel) of seeking to rule the world, is anti-Semitic. I don't buy this. I also don't doubt that Beck smeared Soros (though for now I can only take Hertzberg's word for it), but the anti-Semitism charge smears Beck.

Beck isn't the only person with a paranoid obsession with Soros. I don't think the obsession is inherently anti-Semitic, though I can see how hatred of Soros could become a kind of displaced, socially acceptable anti-Semitism for Americans who don't identify the state of Israel with the folk stereotypes of Jews. In the longer view, Soros is simply the latest person to play the role of the master oppressor, the man of wealth and power who simultaneously grinds the little guy under his heel as a greedy capitalist and also plots to retain power in times of revolutionary change by co-opting the revolution or instigating it in the first place, on his own terms. Beck, for instance, credits Soros not only with funding the Democratic party but with supporting uprisings throughout Eastern Europe. People need demon figures like Soros to help explain why so many revolutions end up oppressing ordinary people as badly as the systems the people revolted against. If people are going to be oppressed under both capitalism and communism, it may be natural for some people to assume that there must be a constant oppressor, an embodiment of evil dedicated to oppression as a way of life. Paranoids have felt the same way about the Rockefeller family; David Rockefeller still figures in conspiracy theories as an alleged advocate of forced population-reduction. Marxists might take solace from this persistent fantasy, since it seems to show that some people are willing to blame the crimes of communism on the rich, but it also tends to distort critical attitudes toward capitalism, blaming its crimes on a secret cabal committed to power rather than profit. It's a simplistic impulse to blame injustice on people rather than structure, just as the messianic fantasies cultivated by people like Benjamin Creme encourage people to depend on extraordinary leaders or "world teachers" instead of long-term structural change. The New Yorker's exposure of messianic and paranoiac outbreaks in November 2010, its proofs of our continued search for messiahs and antichrists, tells us either that we still have a long way to go toward civilization or, worse, that we're slipping back from our point of furthest progress.

24 November 2010

How American is the 'American Dream?'

Cal Thomas's newest column is a polemic provoked by the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's comment that "However you want to define the American dream, there is not much of it that's left anymore." Thomas doesn't dispute the point, except to argue that the definition of the "American dream" makes a difference. He agrees that there's not much left of Herbert's "version of the American dream -- as opposed to the original dream, which remains for those who would embrace it." Herbert's is "liberalism's American dream," which has proved unsustainable. Thomas equates the "liberal" American dream with an "entitlement mentality" that "has produced a country of government addicts" devoid of "self-reliance, individual initiative and personal accountability." For Thomas, this is a dream in the worst sense of the word. "People who believe a politician of whatever party or persuasion can make their life better than individual initiative [can] are doing more than dreaming," he writes, "such persons are displaying cult-like faith, which can never be fulfilled."

Thomas offers the vaguest definition of the "original" American dream -- "basically it has meant building a life based on the foundational principles that created and have sustained America for more than 200 years," with a corollary expectation that "a new generation [will] achieve a better life than their parents and grandparents experienced." He goes into more detail listing the "rules for achieving the American dream." These include; staying in school at least until you get a bachelor's degree; saying no to drugs; getting and staying married "to benefit society;" demonstrating "personal honesty and professional integrity;" and, perhaps most importantly to people like Thomas, "saving and investing for retirement so as not to burden taxpayers and relatives [and] living within one's means."

However we want to define the American dream, how did Bob Herbert define it? Here's the key excerpt from his column, unquoted by Thomas: "the U.S. needs to develop a full-employment economy that provides jobs for all who want to work at pay that enables the workers and their families to enjoy a decent standard of living. In other words, a resurrection of the American dream."

How does Herbert's dream differ from Thomas's? The difference lies in what Thomas might identify as the implicit "entitlement" to a "decent standard of living." Thomas would say that, if you work hard, you can enjoy a decent standard of living. As a philosophical conservative, however, he won't guarantee it. We can infer from Herbert an expectation that, if you work hard, you should enjoy a decent standard of living. We don't need to infer the rest; Herbert writes explicitly that it's the state's business to ensure that workers live decently. From Thomas, we can infer the criticism that any dependence upon the state undermines the self-reliance upon which any hope for a decent standard of living must rest exclusively.

Now comes my title question: what is particularly American about either dream? In Thomas's case, does he think that no other people dream of improving their lives through hard work? For that matter, what even makes his "dream" a dream? "Work hard and you may prosper" isn't very dreamlike if you think about it. Herbert's dream begs similar questions. Does no other nation dream of making a "decent standard of living" possible for all its hard-working people?

There is something arguably American to Thomas's dream, even if he doesn't express it clearly. It follows from an assumption that, before the American Revolution, people everywhere were held back by arbitrary powers, kings and aristocrats (and churches) from doing all they could to improve their lives. That was probably true, but for a new nation to do things differently required conscious action to order society so arbitrary powers wouldn't hold citizens back. Opportunity for individuals depended on collective political action. Self-government isn't the same as no government, though the distinction is lost on many Americans today. People like Thomas think the whole point of the American project was individual opportunity, but they miss the more important point, and more important project, of democratizing government. They can be excused, to an extent, because we've been sold an "American dream" defined almost exclusively in terms of personal prosperity for a long time now. The American dream of 1776 and 1787, however, was more a matter of popular sovereignty, of people coming together to order society as they see fit. To go back to Herbert's dream, ordering society to ensure that people are rewarded for work and aren't left hostages to chance is a legitimate exercise of popular sovereignty, even if it seems to burden some taxpayers more than they like. It may not be an exclusively or originally an American dream, but there's nothing wrong with Americans claiming it as their own.

23 November 2010

National Opt-Out Day: Civil Disobedience and National Security

Tomorrow has been designated as National Opt-Out Day by internet organizers who are encouraging Americans to refuse to submit to airport body scans. Those who participate will be within their rights, so long as they then submit to a pat-down by security officials. However, airport and TSA officials are warning that a mass opt-out could drastically slow down transportation on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year. The organizers of the Opt-Out disclaim any intention to disrupt transportation, and advise sympathizers to consider the possibility of delays before making their protest.

While the action contemplated for tomorrow is legal, I feel justified in describing it as civil disobedience because it questions both the necessity and propriety of the body scans. A majority of Americans in recent polls have acquiesced to body scans, accepting them as a national-security necessity, but many others find both the scans and the pat-downs to be intrusive violations of privacy, dignity and modesty. The scans are objected to because they record a naked image of each passenger; further objections have been raised over the amount of radiation passengers are subjected to. Pat-downs have been controversial as well, though their intrusiveness or painfulness may be a matter of individual technique.

On the surface, there doesn't seem to be a partisan or ideological agenda behind the planned protest. Some opinion makers have tried to exploit widespread outrage over perceived violations or humiliations; Charles Krauthammer, for instance, has blamed our general discomfiture as the result of a "politically correct" decision not to "profile" young Muslim males. I haven't noticed more calls for profiling, however. Americans' conspiratorial imaginations may work in the TSA's favor this time, since I suspect that most of us have accepted the premise that al-Qaeda has been trying to recruit terrorists who don't fit the neocons' preferred terrorist profile. More often, I've seen legitimate questioning of why children whose parents haven't been pulled out of line sometimes end up subjected to pat-downs. Nonpartisan paranoia and technophobia have largely fueled the "Don't Touch My Junk" movement, a modern counterpart to the Founders' "Don't Tread on Me" war cry. If anything, it's disappointing that relatively few Americans question the why of body scans and pat downs. That may be because they still buy the argument that terrorism is essentially an act of aggression against America motivated by the terrorists' innate hate for our freedom. It would be more interesting, and maybe more encouraging, if the current outrage spurred more people to question whether our alleged national interests in Afghanistan and the Middle East are worth the manhandling and processing Americans are put through as part of the War on Terror.

From Bipartisanship to Bipolarchy: Two Theories of Decline

Pessimism is spreading through Washington and its orbiting punditocracy as Republican aggression and Democratic intransigence appear to diminish the likelihood of bipartisan cooperation in the divided government after Republicans formally assume control of the House of Representatives in January. Observers appear convinced that tea-fueled reactionary Republican newcomers and left-leaning Democratic deadenders are incapable of compromising their ideological differences. The situation seems to require an explanation, and I've seen two attempts so far.

In the New York Times, David Brooks attributes the trouble to ideological arrogance at both ends of the Bipolarchy. Ideology, he claims, has undone the political modesty that characterized American politics for generations after the Founding.

According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character). This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness. The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they’ve more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness. Compromise is thus impossible. Money matters should be negotiable, but how can one compromise with opponents who are the source of all corruption?

How did this happen? History isn't Brooks's subject this week; he's just calling things as he sees them. A potential answer might be found in Jonathan Chait's TRB article for the current New Republic. His subject is the "myth of divided government," the ideal of obligatory cooperation now challenged by pessimistic observers. It's a myth that once was fact, Chait suggests, but "the unraveling of a bipartisan consensus" has changed things decisively. In his penultimate paragraph he sketches an important change that took place in the middle of the 20th century, before which, we might infer, bipolarchy was not yet fully in force despite the two-party system.

Electoral politics in a two-party system inherently creates zero-sum competition. This reality was subordinated for a long time, because the peculiar politics of Southern white supremacy created many decades of ideologically amorphous parties with overlapping policy aims. That, in turn, blinded members of Congress to the fact that their success depended upon the other party's failure.

In other words, as reactionary Southerners abandoned their historic alliance with increasingly liberal Northerners inside the Democratic party, and were sought out by ambitious reactionary Republicans as allies in their ultimately victorious struggle with their own party's "Rockefeller" wing, politics became a clear field of polar ideological opposites -- or at least politicians began describing and promoting it as such. The process can be traced back at least as far as 1964, when several southern states voted for Barry Goldwater, or further back to the Dixiecrat revolt against Harry Truman in 1948. It was still in progress in the 1990s, when you could still hear of "the first Republican since Reconstruction" elected to various Southern offices as those elderly Democratic bosses who had not turned Republican finally departed the scene. Depending on your viewpoint, this may have been a good thing because it freed Democrats to become, or at least pretend occasionally to be, a true left-wing party, but it also allowed Republicans to stigmatize them as a left-wing party. Between them, of course, the parties excluded the true left from the national discussion as much as possible. In any event, the Southern turn made it easier for the two parties to sell themselves as irreconcilable ideological opposites who between them (implicitly) had all the possible answers to national problems. It'd be easy to blame it all on racism, if Chait's brief account convinces you, but widespread kratiaphobia (I'm trying out a neologism meaning "fear of political power") outside the South clearly encouraged Northerners otherwise indifferent to race to ally with Southerners battling for local rule against centralized authority.

However it happened, I'd agree with Chait that something important and unhealthy happened in those years. However, Chait doesn't follow up his conclusion on the unleashed pathology of two-party politics with any challenge to the two-party system. If anything, he suggests that pluralist results are more likely under one-party control, noting that the Obama administration enjoyed "support from a broad and diverse coalition" during its first months in power, when the Chamber of Commerce supported the stimulus. But if one-party rule is a desired good, it will force the parties still deeper into "zero-sum competition," as seems to be the case now. Chait should ask whether Americans can afford to wait for another decisive victory for one party or the other, or whether they should decide against the two-party system.

22 November 2010

More Tea Leaves: Is Glenn Beck the Medium or the Message?

When people said they hate us, well, did we deserve 9/11? No. But were we minding our business? No. Were we in bed with dictators and abandoned [sic] our values and principles? Yes. That causes problems.
-- Glenn Beck, April 2010.

The December 9 issue of The New York Review of Books is a tale of three rallies in Washington D.C. While Janet Malcolm scornfully contemplated the October 30 Comedy Central rally while wistfully admiring the October 2 One Nation Working Together gathering, Mark Lilla looks further back to Glenn Beck's August 28 Restoring Honor event. Lilla, who wrote about "Tea Party Jacobins" earlier this year, has two pieces in the new issue. The shorter piece is a comment on the midterm elections and a warning against identifying the Tea Parties simplistically with the Republican party. Republicans themselves are wrong to see the TPs as "a fundamentally right-wing phenomenon," while Democrats are wrong to ignore the "passions" behind them. For Lilla, one of the defining characteristics of TPs is their "conviction that self-interested elites are running the show." It's a lingering passion, he admits, but one that only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have managed to exploit effectively. By comparison, the current President "has put the limousine back in American liberalism," while his partisan supporters "seem unreconciled to the fact that in democratic societies you go into elections with the nation you have, not the nation you'd wish for." This sounds like a call for pandering or, as Lilla euphemistically puts it, "economic populism." He's confused by Obama's perceived failure to appeal to populist impulses and his alleged inability to connect with "those people with the misspelled signs." All they want, after all, is a more fair society.

There is still one powerful symbol the Democrats could capture because today's Republicans explicitly reject it: fairness. 'Life isn't fair' is a refrain you hear constantly from the right. Yet there is a strong sense in the nation today that things are rigged, especially at the top of the economic ladder, and this has only intensified since the bailouts of early 2009....This is the one area where [Democrats] could get a toehold, if not with the Tea Party hardcore then with the vast numbers of independents who sympathize with it and have floated back to the Republican party because of it.

To get a better sense of what the independents believe or feel about fairness or other concerns, Lilla thinks we need to take a closer look at Glenn Beck. Lilla's longer piece is a sprawling review of books by and about Beck, whom Lilla calls "the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin." Beck succeeds, Lilla claims, because he acts as a kind of mirror to his public.

I’m coming to the conclusion that searching for the “real” Glenn Beck makes no sense. The truth is, demagogues don’t have cores. They are mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are....what makes him particularly appealing to his audience is not his positions, it is that he appears to feel and fear and admire and instinctively believe what his listeners do, even when their feelings, fears, esteem, and beliefs are changing or self-contradictory. This is the gift of the true demagogue, to successfully identify his own self, rather than his opinions, with the selves of his followers—and to equate both with the “true” nation.

What do Americans see in themselves when they contemplate Beck? One thing they don't see, Lilla insists, is orthodox Republicanism. The epigraph, quoted by Lilla, isn't the typical language of a Republican cheerleader. In his published works, Beck also takes a tone unexpected by those who've only heard about him instead of listening to him. For instance: "Under President Bush, politics and global corporations dictated much of our economic and border policy....politicians on both sides have gathered illegitimte new powers -- playing on our fears and desire for security and economic stability -- at the expense of our freedoms."

Beck apparently comes close to self-parody in his novel The Overton Window, which Lilla describes as "a kind of inverted Ayn Rand novel" in which the author "idealizes the common folk who resist the John Galts and Howard Roarks of the world." Rand and Beck, whom Lilla identifies consistently as a libertarian, are nearly opposite poles of that movement. While Rand might applaud rule by the right kind of elites as a meritocratically just result, Beck expresses an utter aversion to elitism in any form that is shared, Lilla presumes, by his listeners and readers. This seems to be more than class envy or anti-intellectualism -- a deeper fear that masses of us are being shut out of power when we're actually supposed to rule.

Lilla is especially interested in the newest stage of Beck's evolution, revealed in his religious rhetoric at the August rally. Beck argues lately that the nation needs a moral if not religious revival (Lilla claims that Beck is ecumenical on this point) before real social or political reform can happen. He rails against a culture of casual indebtedness in an implicit reproach to what Lilla calls "the grab-it-all gospel preached by the Republican Party since the Reagan years." This is part of a groping effort to "sketch out some kind of prophetic vision for his Tea Party followers, linking the libertarian politics they say they want to the individual spiritual transformation he now says they need." Lilla claims that Beck is positioning himself as a "Moses" figure, but finds him reminiscent of Gary Cooper's character in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe: an opportunist hired to read a script but transformed by its message. The metaphor is unclear: is Beck the transfigured mouthpiece or the manipulator behind the scenes who plots to exploit the movement for personal political gain? Or is he both at once? Lilla's account isn't entirely convincing. I suspect, for instance, that many Beck fans feel that the rest of America, not themselves, need to change their ways. But this analysis of Beck is instructive insofar as it shows us that there are potentially dangerous, but also potentially malleable forces in the country that don't fit the Republican stereotype. If we see the Republican party as our primary problem, or assume that every reactionary element out there is under its power, we may well be missing the point as badly as if we were speeding past in the archetypal liberal limousine.

Feingold for President?

The last thing most readers of The Nation probably want to see so soon after the "shellacking" Democrats suffered in the midterm elections is advocacy of an independent presidential candidacy for 2012. It therefore fell to Alexander Cockburn, the magazine's leading contrarian since the departure of Christopher Hitchens, to raise the black flag in the November 29 issue by calling on lame duck Senator Russ Feingold, just defeated for re-election, to challenge both President Obama and the Republican party.

Cockburn pointedly argues against Feingold challenging Obama in the Democratic primaries. Whatever Feingold does, Cockburn predicts that "at some point a champion of the left will step forward to challenge [the President] in the primaries," and that "this futile charade will expire at the 2012 Democratic National Convention amid the rallying cry of 'unity.'" Instead of "some desperate intra-Democratic Party challenge late next year by Michael Moore or, yet again, Dennis Kucinich," Cockburn argues that "The White House deserves the menace of a convincing threat now."

How is a man who failed to win his own seat in his own state a convincing threat to a sitting President? Admittedly, Feingold has followers outside Wisconsin and appeal among progressives in the Democratic base. On top of that, Cockburn claims, Feingold would have a clear agenda: "to fight against the Republicans and the White House in defense of the causes he has publicly supported across a lifetime."

Cockburn reminds us of Feingold's causes. He opposed the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq and voted against the Patriot Act. He opposed NAFTA and the Bailouts of 2008. As co-author of the McCain-Feingold bill, "he is the implacable foe of corporate control of the electoral process." This package, Cockburn suggests, makes Feingold "a champion of the left with sound appeal to the sane populist right." Cockburn has been nearly alone among Nation writers in his belief in such an entity, by which he probably means something like the readership of The American Conservative. He thinks that Feingold could prove palatable to a broader base after dissociating himself from the Democratic party, citing the opinion of one Wisconsin observer that the Senator lost his job because he was misrepresented as a "party-line Democratic insider." One person's opinion isn't much to go on, however. Cockburn has given us a list of Feingold's deviations from party orthodoxy, but to the extent that the midterms were decided by debt anxiety and fears of government takeovers of whole economic sectors, how inaccurate were those ads as far as the issues that counted were concerned?

Of course, Cockburn can write off this year's results, which prove only that Americans "haven't a clear notion of which way to march," since they "want a government that doesn't govern, a budget that will simultaneously balance and create jobs, and spending cuts across the board that leave the defense budget intact." He blames the confusion largely on Obama's failure to inspire Americans toward any sense of direction, as well as the President's inclination toward compromise. Cockburn now appears convinced that the left can no longer wait upon the Democratic party to inspire them, nor hope to change the party from within. "The left must abandon the doomed ritual of squeaking timid reproaches to Obama, only to have the counselors at Obama's elbow contemptuously dismiss them," he writes.

Cockburn isn't the first person to call on Feingold to run for President in 2012, but most of the others simply want him to challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination. Feingold's own plans for the future are unknown. An independent campaign might earn him nothing but the same "torrents of undeserved abuse from progressives" that Ralph Nader has received since 2000. Who can say if he could stand it. My advice to Cockburn and those who feel as he does about the Democratic party is not to wait for Feingold. They have more than a year now to do what the Tea Partiers did: build a movement that will draw out politicians seeking their support. If they build it, Feingold might come, and others definitely will, but the movement must come before the candidacy. Right now, instead of drafting a candidate, they should draft themselves into the struggle.

19 November 2010

The vanity of moderation?

We shouldn't expect the semi-monthly (at best) New York Review of Books to have timely commentary on the news, but it can still be relevant sometimes. The new issue, dated December 9, includes a print appearance of a blog entry Janet Malcolm initially published early in November soberly scolding John Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in Washington on October 30. For Malcolm, Stewart's demonstration against media-driven extremism amounted to little more than "a giant preen-in." Participants, she sniffs, -- including herself as a reporter -- "had all come to Washington in order to congratulate ourselves on our decency and rationality."

Stewart has earned Malcolm's polite contempt because he speaks in favor of "the little reasonable compromises we all make" as people who "don't live their lives as only Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives." Malcolm's response: "What compromises? (Didn't this kind of blurry apoliticality give us George W. Bush via Ralph Nader in 2000?)" If that isn't enough for you to draw your own conclusions about Janet Malcolm, here's a little more. "Stewart," she complains, did not "blame the right for the darkness we live in now," preferring instead to focus on his pet peeve, the amplification of partisan animosity by profit-motivated corporate news media dedicated to the 24-hour news cycle. Malcolm seems to think that she's defeated this argument by citing a New York Times writer who pointed out that "less than 2 percent of all Americans" watch the opinion shows that so annoy Stewart. But Stewart's point, as far as I understand it, has never been that the talkers have caused our country's economic problems, but that they get in the way of solving them because many of the most influential people are among the 2 percent who do listen to those shows.

Malcolm is more impressed by the One Nation Working Together rally held in Washington on October 2, but is depressed by what proved to be a much smaller turnout than Stewart drew. In a proper world, she clearly implies, the Oct. 2 event would have drawn the multitudes, but given the union and activist composition of that rally, I suspect that a different idea of "working together" prevailed there than Stewart has proposed. Malcolm must believe that all it takes to change things today is get a crowd together to make demands upon government. She's right to recognize a feeling of urgent need that may be inadequately acknowledged in Stewart's satires, but she's wrong to dismiss the new structural factors that keep those needs from getting met. To be blunt, Malcolm appears to offer no more effective solution to the nation's ills than to elect more Democrats. And like many a Democratic sympathizer, she deplores any reluctance to identify the cause of the people entirely with the Democratic party. She may think that the TV talkers reach only a small audience, but her readership makes the audience for partisanship just a little larger.

The New Rome: the factions of the arena and an Idiot of the Week

History tells us that fans of chariot racing in the Byzantine Empire divided into color-coded factions to support the matching-colored racing teams, and that the arena factions became comparable to political parties, loudly and sometimes violently articulating social demands in the presence of the Emperor while battling among themselves. While there were several racing teams, an ancient bipolarchy of Blues and Greens eventually formed to dominate the Hippodrome. I don't know enough about the place and the period to say whether fans grew more politically assertive as they recognized their numerical strength or spectator sports was politicized by pre-existing factions or interest groups otherwise shut out from power by the imperial system. Whatever the cause, the rise and riot of the arena factions were another stage in the decadence of Rome after Rome itself had fallen.

The controversy over Bristol Palin's participation in the Dancing With the Stars game show has gotten me wondering about how close we are to that Byzantine decadence. Arguably, it was already a sign of decadence for the former governor of a state and candidate for the second-highest office in the land to allow her daughter to compete on such a ghastly program, but it was not surprising given that the governor is now a TV star in her own right, and it was not as if precedents had not already been sent. A former member of Congress and a legitimate American hero of the moon landing have debased themselves by playing the same game. It was certainly a further sign of decadence, albeit a predictable one, that Governor Palin's political followers would at least be accused of seeking a symbolic victory, a show of their own strength, by casting votes for Palin's daughter. It will be yet a further sign of decadence if Palin's enemies take the bait, which was probably cast quite consciously by ABC, and boost the show's ratings or revenues by pooling their numbers behind one of Palin's remaining opponents in order to deny the Palinites their symbolic victory and deliver an entirely symbolic rebuke to the former governor. I'm no fan of Sarah Palin or her party, but I don't give a damn whether her daughter wins a TV dance contest or not, and I refuse to interpret the result as any kind of referendum on Miss Palin's mother. If Palinites want to waste their time on such a project, that's their prerogative. Anyone who feels threatened by the prospect of Bristol Palin's victory should find a new hobby or simply get out more often. It takes two to tango before this country goes the way of Rome in this regard, and Democrats and liberals can perform a recognizable duty to their nation by letting this matter drop.

In this context, I can't help but view the deed of Steve Cowan of Vermont, Wisconsin, as possibly the first step on a slippery slope. Cowan reportedly shot his TV set because he was so incensed by Bristol Palin's performance on the most recent episode of the game show. That may sound funny on the first reading, but the fact that Dancing With the Stars can incite such rage, even in a single individual, and probably because of the alleged politicization of the contest, may be cause for modest alarm. Ironically, my understanding is that Dancing is one of the most popular programs on television because, despite the dancers' somewhat risque costumes, it's widely regarded as "clean" entertainment because it lacks violence and sexual subject matter. The irony would be greater if this proved to be the one TV show that directly and indisputably provoked acts of violence among viewers. On this occasion, I think we could do without irony.

17 November 2010

Koppel and Olbermann on the bias of objectivity

Keith Olbermann was not long returned from his slap-on-the-wrist two-business-day suspension for violating the NBC code of journalistic ethics (he had donated money to political candidates) before he began a feud with Ted Koppel, the former host and creator of ABC's Nightline show. In an op-ed for last Sunday's Washington Post, Koppel delivered the ultimate insult to Olbermann; he equated the Countdown host with his reactionary counterparts on Fox News, condemning both Fox and MSNBC for abandoning the old TV news ideal of non-partisan objectivity and accusing both networks of telling their audiences only what they wanted to hear. The next night, Olbermann responded with one of those fire-and-brimstone "Special Comments" in which he persists despite the devastating parody Ben Affleck perpetrated on Saturday Night Live some time ago. He denounced Koppel, claiming that his false notion of objectivity failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq because it somehow restrained Koppel from calling lies by name. Koppel riposted during a radio interview yesterday, reiterating his warnings against ratings-driven opinionating disguised as journalism.

As it happens, Koppel was also criticized by Olbermann's nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, who has reportedly promised to retire if Koppel can prove that he has ever lied on the air. As far as I know, however, Koppel never made such a charge against O'Reilly or Olbermann. The issue is bias, the absence of objectivity, the habit of talkers on either cable network to preach to choirs. Koppel's heroes, Murrow and Cronkite, supposedly never did such things, and arguably could not have because TV news in their time wasn't neatly divided into ideological niche markets. Koppel exalts them as models of objectivity, but the entire debate begs a question: is there an objective definition of objectivity?

Murrow's legendary objectivity, after all, was an early form of "liberal bias" as far as the fans of Joe McCarthy were concerned, and the entire movement toward conservative media was based on a perception that Cronkite and his counterparts on the network news shows were all biased against conservative policies and values. Conservatives watched the news and felt excluded; the networks seemed to them unwilling to acknowledge that there was more than one side to certain stories, that certain notions taken for granted were still open to debate. Politics complicates the idea of objectivity, making it not just a matter of "just the facts" but a matter of fairness -- fairness itself being a matter of equal representation for contradictory viewpoints. For some critics, objectivity defined as pluralistic fairness threatens to abdicate its responsibility to judge. A critical account of news reporting in advance of the invasion of Iraq might protest at the equal presentation of administration and opposition positions and a perceived refusal to judge between them. From this perspective, objectivity becomes a matter of bending over backwards to accommodate partisan feelings, placing too much priority on not appearing to take a side and not enough on telling truths and passing judgments. Our bipolarchial political environment exacerbates this tendency, since denouncing one party looks like endorsing the other. Objectivity becomes a matter of neutrality, but neutrality compromises objectivity if we expect it to make judgments, as we should.

Olbermann clearly sees himself as a truth-teller, someone who tells "the powerful" what they don't want to hear, should they happen to listen to his show. He bristles when anyone suggests that he's a cheerleader for the Democratic party, though he routinely makes the same charge against Fox News. His problem isn't that he's a cheerleader -- he routinely criticizes Obama's persistence in waging the War on Terror, for instance, -- but that his entire program is premised on the existence of an enemy -- the Republican party, its reactionary acolytes and their media propagandists. He doesn't say that Democrats are always right, but he very nearly says that Republicans are always wrong. He claims to hold himself to a higher standard of truth than Fox, but I don't watch Fox and won't take an enemy's word for what they do. In any event, I'm sure that O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck make the same claims of veracity for themselves while calling the MSNBC hosts liars. You can't decide between them simply by watching them both any more than you can by watching only one. You'd probably be better off watching neither network.

Apologists for either MSNBC or Fox will quickly note that Olbermann, Maddow, O'Reilly, Hannity et al are commentators. Their job is to offer their opinions, not to report news. They're not a new phenomenon; commentators of their ilk used to be common on the radio before the days of television. Nor have they replaced the nightly news or the straight news reporting on either network. What Koppel resents, presumably, is that the commentators now overshadow the anchors, that people (especially in the blogosphere) seem to care more about what Olbermann or O'Reilly say than what Couric, Sawyer and Williams report. That may be because news reporting is compromised by complicity in the American Bipolarchy and includes no viewpoints from outside the system. Real objectivity may require journalists to at least ask whether the answer is to take one side or the other, or to make a stand against both.

16 November 2010

Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

Jonah Goldberg's latest column has alerted me to the latest outbreak of op-ed polemic on the subject of "American exceptionalism." Goldberg goes after two liberal writers, Michael Kinsley and Peter Beinart, who have allegedly challenged the orthodox notion that America, in Goldberg's own words, "has its own way of doing things separate and distinct from Europe." He also takes a retrospective swipe at the President, who while running for office affirmed American exceptionalism yet added that every nation considers itself exceptional. Goldberg's criticism of Obama is relatively mild, but it gets to the point of his column, which is to affirm, contra the columnists, that the U.S. is not only objectively exceptional among nations but is still "the last best hope on Earth."

What did Kinsley and Beinart actually write? Kinsley was guaranteed to offend from the start, since he headlined his column, "U.S is not greatest country ever." Let's make clear that American exceptionalism and American supremacy are two different propositions; Somalia, after all, is arguably as exceptional a nation as the U.S. Kinsley is more concerned with American chauvinism, noting that 75% of Americans polled by Yahoo regard theirs as the greatest country ever. "Does any other electorate demand such constant reassurance about how wonderful it is — and how wise?" he asks. The answer is: probably. He then goes on to challenge a certain idea of American exceptionalism -- not so much that the U.S. is qualitatively different from all other nations, but that America is an exception to the rules governing other countries.

The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don’t apply to us. There are man-made rules like, “You can’t start a war without the
permission of the United Nations Security Council.” We’ve gotten away with quite a bit of bending or breaking of that kind of rule. This may have given us the impression that we could ignore the other kind of rules —the ones that are imposed by reality and therefore are self-enforcing. These are rules such as, “You can’t have good ice cream without fat” or “You can’t borrow increasing amounts of money indefinitely and never pay it back, because people will eventually stop lending it to you.” No country is special enough to escape these rules.

After quoting Obama's remarks on exceptionalism, Kinsley identifies the wrong kind of exceptionalism with Newt Gingrich, who still identifies America with "the frontier [and] the sturdy independent farmers." To espouse this kind of exceptionalism, Kinsley writes, is to live in a fantasyland. Worse, exceptionalism combined with faith in American's intrinsic supremacy blinds people to the necessity of change and hard choices. "If people believe it's true [already]," he states, "they won't do what's necessary to make it true."

As if anticipating Goldberg's criticism, Kinsley closes:

Every time I strike this note, which I guess I do a lot, I hear from people calling me elitist or unpatriotic. Here is my answer: If you think a friend is talking nonsense or behaving in a way that damages both of your long-term interests, it is not elitist to say so. To the contrary, it is treating him or her like an adult and an equal. As for patriotism, if you think your country is in danger, how is it unpatriotic to say so?

Kinsley's piece appeared before Election Day. Beinart's came after, and was provoked by Senator-elect Rubio of Florida's affirmation that America is "the single greatest nation in all of human history. A place without equal in the history of all mankind." For Beinart this expresses a particularly "lunatic" strain of exceptionalism, founded on the idea that "America is the only truly free and successful country in the world." To the contrary, just as Kinsley notes that BMW is opening more car plants here because it can pay American workers less than their European counterparts, Beinart observes that "From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America." Exceptionalism, Beinart argues, not only blinds Americans from the lessons to be learned from other countries, but blinds them to the useful lessons of their own history while bedazzling them with an ideological mythos of "sturdy independent farmers."

Rather than answer either writer's substantive arguments -- Kinsley in favor of austerity on the new British model, Beinart if favor of Keynesian stimulus spending -- Goldberg denounces them as if they had denied any kind of American exceptionalism. It makes him look intellectual to point out, correctly, that American exceptionalism has been a subject of historical and sociological inquiry since the time of Tocqueville, and that even leftists have had to account for America's exceptional lack, among industrialized nations, of a strong socialist movement. But neither Kinsley nor Beinart deny that the U.S. has had an exceptional history. Nor did either writer assert, as Goldberg charges, that "the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia or ignorance." It might have been more fair to write that they blame the persistence of the worst sort of exceptionalism in the face of hard facts on right-wing jingoism, etc.

Goldberg insists that declaring the U.S. "the greatest country in the world ... doesn't mean it's perfect." In recent years he's been quite critical of an American crony-capitalist culture that culminated in the Bailouts of 2008-9, though he can think of no alternative to idealized "real" capitalism as the remedy for it. I suppose Goldberg deserves credit for acknowledging American imperfection, but insisting on both exceptionalism and supremacy implies that the U.S. has nothing whatsoever to learn from other countries or new ideas, and that today's problems can most likely be solved by looking backward to our presumably more perfect past. As a nation born from revolution, Americans have naturally seen themselves as an exceptional people. As revolution recedes further into the past, however, exceptionalism can acquire an increasingly reactionary, fundamentalist aspect that could retard necessary evolution. If exceptionalism becomes entirely a matter of what Americans should not do, or should not have to do, we may find ourselves less exceptional among the ranks of failed empires and powers than we want to think.

15 November 2010

Poetry Corner: 'It is the soldier...'

Maybe it isn't a poem, but it looks like one when printed in centered italic verses in the letters page of The Saratogian. It's a request from reader Bill Nevitt of Corinth, who wanted it to run "in honor of Veterans Day." It appeared three days later. Some of you may have seen it elsewhere. It goes like this"

It is the soldier, not the president, who gives us democracy.

It is the soldier, not the Congress, who takes care of us.

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to demonstrate.

Clearly, Nevitt is asking for it. He trips up right out of the gate, I learn, by making a common misattribution of this litany to "Father Dennis O'Brien, Chaplain, USMC." O'Brien is credited with it all over the internet, though he never took credit for it himself. It turns out that the thing was written by someone named Charles Michael Province back in 1970. O'Brien was mistakenly credited as the author when he forwarded a copy for publication in the "Dear Abby" column.

Discredit, then, to whom it's due. Let's take this point by point.

Province is correct that the President of the United States did not and does not "give us democracy." As some strict constructionists will argue, no one has given us democracy, since the U.S. is only a democratic republic. It is an independent nation as a result of a war, but the soldiers themselves did not determine its future as a constitutional republic -- the Constitution did. Soldiers had no role in the drafting or ratification of that document.

What it means for either the soldier or Congress to "take care of us" is, of course, a matter of ongoing debate. Let's dismiss this line as hopelessly vague.

As for freedom of press and speech, it's unclear how the soldier can "give" these to anyone when he doesn't enjoy them himself as a matter of military discipline. To be literal about it, Americans were given these particular freedoms by the congressional authors of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and soldiers had no special role in drafting or ratifying the amendment.

To be honest, I understand what Province and Nevitt are trying to say. They want us to understand that we retain all of the above freedoms because "the soldier" protects the nation from foreign powers that might otherwise conquer and thus enslave Americans. But what if the soldier fails in his mission? What if the country were occupied by a foreign power actually bent on enslaving us? Should we concede that, by virtue of foreign occupation alone, we are slaves, and act accordingly? Without "the soldier," we might lose the "rights" that encourage us to speak, publish or demonstrate without fear of reprisal, but would we lose the ability to do these things? Does our freedom as Americans consist of nothing more than impunity, an assurance (or promise)that we won't suffer for what we say? From what I infer, many Americans think that way. But real freedom should come with a disregard for consequences, except when they impede other people's freedoms. Who is more free, after all: the person who denounces a tyrant in public, fully expecting to be arrested, or the person who has every right to think independently, never does, but acts as if he has? Freedom isn't simply a matter of guarantees and immunities. On some fundamental level, it depends on courage, and not only the armed courage of the soldier, but also, and perhaps most importantly, the readiness and willingness of people to do the right thing and say what needs to be said whether it's safe to do so or not. If only the soldier's courage counts, what's his sacrifice for the rest of us actually worth? It's actually the rest of us who give the soldier something to fight for. Remembering our responsibilities as free people would be the best way to honor Veterans' Day in the future.

The moral issues of health care reform

According to Eugene Robinson, progressives "wonder how health care reform came to be defined not as a moral issue...but as a 'big government takeover,' complete with 'death panels.'" While he doesn't elaborate, perhaps because he takes it for granted, on the moral case for reform, Robinson, or the progressives he writes for, mistake their opposition if they assume that resistance to the alleged "takeover" isn't also a moral issue. Health care itself is an issue that reveals two competing moral systems in play.

Let's assume that the moral case for reform is that no one should go without needed or even helpful medical treatments simply because they can't afford them, or are uninsured. The moral case is usually stated most succinctly as an assertion of a human right to health care. The Heartland Institute, publisher of The Patriot's Toolbox, challenges that assertion in its policy paper on health care, in terms that are moral in their own right.

A right is a claim to be treated in a certain way by others, which places an obligation on others to act in certain ways. Negative rights -- such as the rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence -- are rights to be free from interference and coercion by others. Positive rights -- such as a claim to free or subsidized health care -- are claims to the service, involuntary if necessary, of others. Positive rights therefore bring the risk of contradicting the freedom rights of others.

A 'right to health care' does not appear in the U.S. Constitution or its Bill of Rights, or in any state constitution, or in the writings of the Founding Fathers or the British intellectual tradition from which they drew their inspiration. This was not an oversight. Positive rights may require that goods and services be produced involuntarily, under the penalty of law. Historically, this has not been an efficient or just way to produce goods and services.

From the Heartland perspective, it is for all intents and purposes immoral to coerce someone into providing or subsidizing services for someone else. A different moral code, however, might recognize a general and individual obligation to assist in providing needed or helpful services to everyone within a polity, or to the entire human race. If perpetuating life for everyone is a compelling public good, it can't be immoral or unjust to require each person to contribute to securing services for all. There's an answer to this argument, though, which Heartland, to their credit, doesn't express: some people should go without health care because they don't deserve it. The Toolbox actually asserts that "The Uninsured Typically Get Good Health Care" when they need it, but the fundamental denial of a right to health care, it could be said, should make whether they get good care or not a matter of indifference to the principled opponent of implicitly coercive positive rights. That position assumes a moral imperative on each person to make arrangements for his or her own care without imposing on other people. If you can't manage it, you can hope for charity, but you shouldn't take it for granted, and you ought to be ashamed of your own inadequacy if you have to ask.

The question of rights, their sources and their authority, raises questions about the essence of morality. I've been pondering the meaning of morality for a while in an attempt to distinguish morality from ethics. One of my ideas is that morality is a general condition or state of being rather than a code of rules, so that the crucial moral question, at least according to one moral system, is whether you deserve something -- life or death, reward or punishment, etc. Consider the wounded Little Bill's protest in that essential moral text, the movie Unforgiven, when William Munny prepares to finish him off. "I don't deserve this," the sheriff insists, "I was building a house!" Many in the audience will think differently, because they know that Little Bill had tortured Munny's friend Ned to death. In their view, Little Bill deserves death for that act. Little Bill thinks differently in part because he knew Ned to be one of a band of assassins killing cowboys for money. From his perspective, Ned deserves death, though we know that Ned never actually shot a cowboy, and therefore Little Bill himself doesn't deserve to be shot. Munny himself expresses a third viewpoint. A sympathetic audience might want him to answer that Little Bill deserves death for what he did to Ned, and Munny has already said that he would kill the sheriff for that reason. However, when challenged by Little Bill, Munny answers, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." He has asserted an amoral position, admitting that he has acted purely for personal revenge. Unforgiven is mainly concerned with the entanglement of morality, justice and revenge -- the assassins are avenging a prostitute disfigured by a cowboy, but by raising the question of "deserve" it may point us toward the essence of morality, or at least the essence of one moral code. For some advocates of universal health care and single-payer provision, asserting a right to health care may be the same as saying we deserve it simply by virtue of being human or at least citizens of a civilized nation. For others, deserve's got nothing to do with it, and a person can never disqualify himself from entitlement to health care. But for those for whom deserve's got everything to do with everything, the simple assertion of a universal human right to health care, not to mention a maximized lifespan, sounds like an amoral if not immoral claim by the undeserving on the deserving. For such people, just as the beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hell and the realization that a sinner belongs there, the beginning of virtue is the recognition that you don't deserve to live, or at least don't deserve a good life, unless you earn your own way. Some others might agree with the proposition while questioning whether some who think they deserve a good life actually do so, while a hedonist or utilitarian for whom the only bad thing is suffering would grow impatient with the whole deserve question. Because the health care issue throws the question of suffering into the balance, the moral stakes are nearly as high as you could ask for short of war. In the long view, the crucial question is whether compromise is possible among the conflicting moralities in play, or whether some large faction of Americans will remain convinced, whatever the outcome, that the country has gone in an immoral, unforgivable direction.

12 November 2010

New York State of Mind: Presidential Fantasies of 2012

No New Yorker has headed a major party presidential ticket since Thomas Dewey lost for the second election in a row in 1948. Governors of the Empire State are still considered presidential papabili, however. Nelson Rockefeller tried twice for the Republican nomination, while Democrats practically begged Mario Cuomo, in vain, to run for President. The mayor of New York City is also considered presidential timber if he keeps a high enough profile, though Rudolph Giuliani proved a profound disappointment as an actual aspirant for the nomination. Now, in the aftermath of the 2010 midterms, three New Yorkers have been touted as possible Presidents. There's one each for Republicans, Democrats and independents.

On the GOP side, George Pataki has looked promising ever since he toppled Mario Cuomo in the Republican wave of 1994. A Republican who can win New York is assumed to have national appeal, and though Pataki has been out of public life since 2007, after serving three terms as governor, he's still considered capable of making a run for the Republican presidential nomination, and the man himself has said recently that he won't rule out an attempt.

For the Democrats, the hero of the moment is Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, Mario's son, who bucked the Republican wave of 2010 by crushing his tea-boosted Republican opponent. Andrew has national executive experience as the head of HUD during the Clinton Administration, as well as the glamour of having once been married to a Kennedy. Talk of his presidential ambitions began almost immediately after his victory, though it's not clear when commentators expect him to try.

Perhaps the most likely New Yorker to try for the White House, according to recent speculation, is Mayor Michael Bloomberg of the big city, a Republican-turned independent whose most important asset is his assets. A recent speculative article in New York magazine raised the possibility that Bloomberg, now serving his third term as mayor, could spend at least $1,000,000,000 of his personal fortune on an independent presidential campaign.

Not one of these men has a chance in my opinion. Pataki is old news at home and was never the sort of Republican who could hope to go national. That's more true than ever in today's tea-swamped GOP, with many hardcore reactionaries likely to echo the opinion (later recanted) of Carl Paladino, Andrew Cuomo's Republican opponent this year, that Pataki is a "degenerate." Reactionaries in New York itself barely acknowledge Pataki as a "real" Republican, and outsiders are bound to be even more skeptical. As for Cuomo, beating a dysfunctional, largely self-financed Republican in a state as blue as New York is hardly proof that he can take on the national Tea Party movement and whichever candidate it favors. Worse, Cuomo, as the former HUD secretary, is a key figure in the reactionary conspiracy theory of the recent economic collapse, since he is considered complicit in the allegedly coerced sale of mortgages to improvident poor folk -- the necessary and sufficient cause of the housing bubble and its bursting as far as Republicans are concerned. Finally, Bloomberg is a profoundly problematic figure for independents nationwide to rally around. His independence is based almost entirely on his wealth, and it comes with an authoritarian streak. Bloomberg bulldozed the city legislature into abolishing mayoral term limits so he could run and win a third time, something not even the infamously authoritarian Giuliani did. That suggests both that Bloomberg sees himself as the sort of indispensable man that American politics prefers to do without, and that he hasn't managed to build a movement to assure continuity with his policies after he moves on. Bloomberg will be further handicapped as a national candidate by his reputation as a regulatory busybody on such matters as the fat in the food we eat. That impulse clearly goes against the anti-"elitist" mood of the moment, since it makes the mayor almost the archetype of the self-appointed know-it-all who presumes to tell us how to live.

New York remains the financial and cultural center of the country, but its leaders no longer enjoy automatic prestige in the rest of the country. Like California at the other end of the continent, New York is thought by many to be isolated if not deliberately aloof from "mainstream" or "flyover" America. There's always been some resentment of New York among Americans, whether they saw it as the capital of capitalism or a ghetto of decadence. I'm not sure whether that phobia is stronger now than ever, but I suspect that it's strong enough to disqualify anyone but the most miraculously successful reactionary (and there were no miracles for Paladino) from occupying the White House anytime soon.

11 November 2010

Earmarks: GOP vs GOP

The new Congress hasn't even taken office, but seams are emerging on the strengthened Republican front. A test of wills seems imminent within the GOP senatorial caucus, for instance, over the symbolic issue of earmarks. For Tea Partiers, earmarks exemplify pork-barrel spending. They are thought to fund projects of questionable national worth and are presumed to be motivated primarily by politicians' desire for re-election, designed to be trotted out as proof that your representative brings home the bacon. Responding to this perception, several Republican senators-elect, inspired by incumbent Senator DeMint (one aspirant to leadership of the TP movement) want the GOP caucus to set a rule for itself forbidding Republican senators from including earmarks in spending bills. DeMint is opposed by Minority Leader McConnell and some other senior Republicans who dismiss the earmark issue as purely symbolic at best, and at worst a threat to the separation of powers. These so-called "old bulls" point out that earmarks add up only to a minute percentage of government spending. They warn, however, that eschewing earmarks would by default transfer discretion over the allocation of budget money from the legislative branch, where they claim it belongs, to the executive branch. If earmarks are as small a deal as they protest, however, the surrender of discretion they warn against should be of little concern. Tea Partiers might fairly ask why they should worry about the distribution of a discretionary power that they reject in general.

Democrats have no dog in this fight (except maybe for a blue one) because they're probably as conflicted over earmarks as Republicans are. Earmarks aren't a partisan or even an ideological issue, but a populist one -- an instance when common sense seems to identify an obvious abuse of power. Today's reactionary populists in the Tea Party movements have risked a bargain with the Republican party as a shortcut to getting the power to reform politics. The intraparty dispute over earmarks may be an early indicator for TPs of the extent to which the Republican establishment actually intends to accommodate their populist demands. The TPs have said that they won't take Republican fidelity for granted, so let their vigilance begin here.

10 November 2010

Austerity and Rioting: Britain's Turn

Until the 1990s, students in Great Britain could go to college for free. A Labor government instituted fees, and now the Tory-Liberal Democratic coalition government proposes to triple those fees -- raising the annual bill to the equivalent of $14,000 a year -- as an austerity measure to close the budget deficit. Thousands of students have responded with demonstrations and building occupations. The protesters complain that the government is pricing college education out of the range of the poor, however modest the fees may seem from an American standpoint. Protest leaders talk of recalling LibDem parliamentarians who renege on a campaign promise not to raise fees. Beyond that, today's actions are another tantrum of impotence along the lines of French demonstrations against raising the age of pension eligibility. As long as governments have been legally elected, and no one contemplates a coup d'etat, no amount of public anger will dissuade "conservative" regimes from austerity measures. The most the students and their friends can hope for, I suppose, would be to persuade enough LibDems to repudiate the coalition and force a vote of confidence on Tory prime minister Cameron. I have no idea of how likely that is, and there's no guarantee that the election that would follow a no-confidence vote in parliament would go the students' way. Britain as a whole may be in as much of a "no free rides" mood as America is. The most likely result of the Cameron plan will be a boom in the student-loan business.

Capitalists can be depended upon to argue in favor of higher fees on the ground that college education is not a right. In the abstract that may be so, but in a competitive global economy it might be considered a duty to one's nation to get the higher education necessary for technological and entrepreneurial innovation. If that's so, you could argue that a citizen should no more have to pay for higher education from public universities than he should have to pay a fee to join the army. On the other hand, I suppose you could say that, as the soldier risks his life, so the student should make some smaller risk of his savings, or a sacrifice of whatever spending allowance he's accustomed to, since there is more chance for actual personal gain from education than there is in soldiering. If governments must economize, they ought to prioritize as well. If they can't afford free college for everyone who wants it, they should at least subsidize the most gifted who are most likely to benefit the nation with enhanced knowledge and skills. If the state has an interest in a skilled population, it should facilitate the acquisition of skills. Relying only on market incentives is unreliable in an imperfect marketplace of limited options. But if the Cameron government believes that Britons can afford the increased fees, I'd like to see them make their case. Until then, any aversion of rioting aside, it seems like Cameron is asking the wrong people to tighten their belts.

Will the Republicans punish success?

Under the chairmanship of Michael Steele, the Republican party has rebounded from two consecutive thumpings at the polls to reclaim control of the House of Representatives. Over the past week, however, I've seen little inclination him to credit him with his party's success, and now I read that some Republicans want him to step down when his term expires and will challenge him if he seeks another.

The sort of turnover these Republicans demand is actually fairly routine. Howard Dean, who presided over the Democrats' recapture of Congress in 2006, and whose "50-state strategy" was emulated by Steele, wasn't exactly encouraged to stay on by a grateful party. Within the major parties themselves, rotation in office is deemed more desirable than it is in legislatures.

So far, no clear challenger has emerged in the event that Steele desires to stay. That should be no surprise, since the job of party chairman seems to come with no guarantee of gratitude for a job well done. At the same time, Steele's uncertainty on the throne reflects confusion among Republicans themselves over the cause of their success this year. To the extent that the Tea Party movement was not an actual creation of the Republican party -- leaving aside the extent to which it's been subsidized by GOP sympathizers in the private sector -- it's not unreasonable to question how much credit Steele should actually get for Tea-fueled victories. Given Americans' bipolar political consciousness, once a sufficient number of them had gotten themselves scared of the Obama administration and its policies, Republican success was assured regardless of who chaired the national committee.

It's probably telling that, at their moment of triumph, owed in large part to the more-or-less free support of the Tea Partiers, some Republicans have grown impatient with Steele, not just because of alleged deviations from radio-controlled ideological orthodoxy, but also if not primarily because they think he hasn't done enough as a fundraiser. Many Republicans probably consider fundraising the chairman's primary job, the party itself by implication being no more than a fundraising institution. In the wake of the Citizens United decision, however, money that might otherwise have gone to the GOP is going to sympathetic but unaffiliated groups who can offer donors the benefit of anonymity, if not more. While Republican candidates rarely have viable opponents to their right, the party itself has rivals for the free-speech dollar of reactionaries all over the country. Under such circumstances, success for Republican candidates doesn't translate exactly into success for the party as a fundraising entity. Shouldn't Steele get some credit, though, for helping ensure that the TPs didn't go off the grid and get behind independent candidates. If so, shouldn't he get more credit for easing the fundraising burden on Republicans? It looks as if some Republicans would rather have shouldered that burden, as long as it brought them more money. That should make you wonder what their true priorities are.

09 November 2010

From the 'Heartland'

Newspaper offices around the country are receiving copies of The Patriot's Toolbox, a publication of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute. The self-described "free-market think tank" intends the book, a compilation of public-policy pamphlets, as "a guide to public policy for patriot-activists in the Tea Party movement as well as for candidates for public office, incumbent office holders, civic and business leaders, and journalists assigned to cover the movement." That's a neat trick. If I read that quote correctly, Heartland intends to tell Tea Partiers what to think on public policy, and to tell journalists what Tea Partiers think.

While that blurb begs the question of whether Heartland speaks for the Tea Partiers or to them, institute president Joseph Bast and chairman Herbert J. Walberg feel a need to explain what they mean by patriot. "The word 'patriot' appears in the title because the principles we recommend would return the country to government based on the ideals of the Founders who led the American Revolution: liberty, limited taxation, and limited government." Oppose those, a reader might infer, and you're the opposite of a patriot -- a traitor???

"Tea Party patriots," Bast and Walberg continue, "recognize that basic American ideals and historical practice are under attack. Their views are radical but only in the original sense of the term, that is, reaching to the roots, foundation, or ultimate sources and principles. They are echoing the ideas of the American Founders including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington." In this case radicalism is in order, since once the foundation was laid, the ideas of these Founders grew quite contradictory. Hamilton and Madison speak as one in The Federalist, but rarely afterward. Invoking all these Founders implies a mixed message unless you assume a state of affairs so alien to all of them that they'd forget their eventual differences. But our state of affairs arguably derives from their fundamental disagreements, so echoing their ideals is of limited use. But the Heartland authors press on.

The Tea Party patriots remind us that the Founders' Declaration of Independence refused to accept 'taxation without representation,' British Parliamentary supremacy, and the rulings of King George III that violated civil and economic liberties. They call forth memories of events that led up to the Declaration, in particular of the citizens who threw British tea into Boston
harbor as a protest against new taxes.

It's one of history's oddities that an anti-tax movement has named itself for an event that had relatively little to do with taxation. The Boston Tea Party took place when it did because a new British policy that lowered the price of imported tea was felt to give an unfair advantage to the British East India Company over colonial smugglers who got their tea outside legal channels. The Tea Party was less a tax revolt than a protest against economic regulation -- in which case today's TPs can still take inspiration from it -- or the threat of monopoly in the tea trade. It's unclear to me whether the prospect of monopoly in any trade troubles the dreams of the WalMart shopping multitudes in and out of the TP movement. The bulk of the Patriot's Toolbox is, at first glance, a relatively sober discussion of the benefits and admitted risks of wholesale deregulation and privatization, so perhaps we should restrain ourselves from judging this collection of economists and academics by their shortcomings as historians.

"Although apparently abandoned by politicians and most of the media, the Founders' ideals still prevail in America," the institute claims. Leaving aside the still-questionable definition of Founding ideals, proof for the assertion is found in polls expressing a continued sense of "American exceptionalism." Americans remain exceptional in the world, the Toolbox claims, in their distrust of government, which they find wasteful, inefficient and unresponsive to "what people like me think." This reality, the editors insist, is obscured by misrepresentation of the Tea Partiers by the "liberal-biased traditional media," despite a claim made in the same paragraph that said media are rapidly losing influence.

I'll do Heartland the courtesy of reading at least a couple of their position papers and skimming the rest. While their ideological bias is self-evident, they at least refrained from wild charges of "socialism" in their introduction and assigned George W. Bush his fair share of blame for current problems. The Toolbox is of interest, not because it represents genuine Tea Party opinion as advertised, but because it shows an ongoing effort to shape the minds and options for Tea Partiers at their moment of supposed triumph.

08 November 2010

Time for a New Narrative?

A letter in the latest Nation caught my eye this morning. Tracy Kosman wrote:

President Obama has failed to use his silver tongue to the advantage of his program and his party. He should have started, on January 21, 2009, to weave a Democratic narrative; who we are, what we've done in the past, what we stand for. If he had done that, framed the issues to our advantage, it would have been much more difficult for the other side to get credence for its distortions. Now the Republicans are telling the stories, and their versions are prevailing.

This is by no means a novel observation. We've been hearing it from Democrats since at least 1994, when the latest Republican narrative was first tried out successfully. The perpetuity of complaint over an apparent "narrative gap" between the two parties should have compelled some liberal loyalists to start accounting for the gap instead of wishing it away. The narrative gap is persistent, the instances of Democrats overcoming it exceptional. It may be based in the differing narratives within each major party and its base.

Since Bill Clinton's election as President, Republicans have recognized the need to construct a narrative to convert voters to their point of view. They felt the need because their own internal narrative told them that the public, despite electing Republicans in three consecutive presidential elections, was in some way brainwashed by the "liberal bias" Republicans perceived in the mainstream news media. That bias and the resulting brainwashing of the electorate explained why Democrats held Congress despite GOP success in presidential races. It provoked Republicans and the rising voices of the radio to construct a critical narrative that challenged a supposed liberal consensus while disputing the authority and objectivity of the mainstream media.

By contrast, while Democrats and liberals are happy to make conservative media the scapegoat for every electoral setback, I suspect that they lack the same urgent sense that the public has been brainwashed. You might find some liberals who will make that claim, but they most likely believe that whatever conditioning has been accomplished by right-wing propaganda is essentially shallow. My hunch is that liberals believe man to be essentially good, and that at heart, or by instinct, most Americans think (or feel) as liberals do. By comparison, many conservatives come from traditions that emphasize innate human depravity and the need for a "born again" conversion experience in order for someone to be a good person. If so, then a critical narrative of the sort that shakes or breaks a consensus may come more easily to conservatives than it does to liberals, who are less likely to feel that anyone is damned who disagrees with them.

At the same time, liberals are limited in their ability to construct a critical narrative -- assuming that that's the sort of narrative they need now -- by their investment in the Democratic party and its investment in the corporate establishment that is the necessary target of any meaningful critical narrative. Any critical narrative designed to engage the "left" ought to be more sweeping than the Democrats' desired demonization of media meanies and select corporate scapegoats, but performing such a narrative could compromise the Democrats' fundraising capacity. Democrats may feel that they can get away with a purely affirmative narrative, a liberal equivalent of Reagan's "morning in America" rhetoric, but they'll be kidding themselves if they think they can go further now without forcefully telling people that they're wrong and they've been duped. Look at how Republican commentators have raged and sneered preemptively at any hint of such an approach -- they call it more proof of liberal elitist intellectual snobbery -- to measure its potential.

It's not only the Democratic party that needs a new narrative. Its need is almost beside the point. The nation (and not just The Nation) needs a new narrative that looks beyond the Republicans and doesn't mistake them for the sole sufficient and necessary cause of our national troubles. That's probably more of a critical narrative than the Democrats need, and that's why we don't need a new narrative from Democrats alone. Tracy Kosman seems to think that the President can still turn things around with oratory, when his loquaciousness is already something of a national joke. But she closes by quoting an earlier letter-writer who said, "We must fight the right by shouting out what the left has won for us all." I like the emphasis on "we" rather than dependence on Obama's silver tongue, but Kosman is still wrong. She should leave "left" and "right" out of it and shout out what the real elite is doing to us now on a bipartisan basis, and what we should do about it.

07 November 2010

Idiots of the Week: Video Version

If a picture's worth a thousand words, I could spend days describing why I recognize the makers of the following commercial. Let's see if you can figure out for yourselves why people should find this advert highly offensive.

05 November 2010

Countdown for Olbermann?

NBC has suspended Keith Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's prime-time Countdown show, for putting his money where his mouth is. Olbermann donated money to three Democratic congressional candidates, two in Arizona and one in Kentucky, in violation of the parent network's code of journalistic ethics. I was not aware that Olbermann was a journalist, however. Countdown is an opinion show, and despite Olbermann's protests to the contrary, it is daily propaganda for the Democratic party, even if only in the negative form of anti-Republican fearmongering. Bias is the entire point of his program, and even when he participates on Election Night panels, as he did Tuesday night, I presume that he's on to offer his personal opinions, not objective news reports. Not knowing the policy of Fox News in this regard for comparison purposes, I can only question NBC's decision -- not out of sympathy for Olbermann, whose act grew tiresome for me some time ago, but on the basis of common sense. He should have just as much right to give money to candidates as he does to advocate for them on his program. If Olbermann has breached a code of journalistic ethics, he did it long before any money changed hands. Removing him from the air may be the appropriate punishment in that case, since it would render the network itself consistent in its apparent opposition to bias, but I expect some kind of petition campaign for his reinstatement any moment now, and from a business standpoint it makes sense to keep him -- and to be honest about the actual business of MSNBC.

The American Conservative Returns

One piece of good news this week, to me at least, was the arrival of a new issue of The American Conservative in my mailbox. The anti-war "paleocon" monthly has returned from several months' hiatus, now reportedly funded enough to be published "for years to come" after its future had hung in doubt for much of this year. This is good news for anyone interested in genuine, substantive political discussion, because the Conservative offers a unique perspective on the current scene. The smug self-righteousness of most conservative media (and most opinion media in general) is almost entirely absent here, perhaps because the magazine's primary purpose has been to criticize conservatism itself, which in America has degenerated into a radical, ideological "movement," in the magazine's collective opinion, that has abandoned much of the country's true conservative tradition. Stigmatized as "isolationist" by their neocon antagonists, the paleocons of the Conservative are perhaps the most formidable anti-war critics writing today because their opinions can't be written off as stereotypical leftism.

The new issue announces that the Conservative intends to maintain its anti-war, anti-interventionist purpose, and intends to judge the new Republican congress, as well as the Obama administration, by that standard. The cover story, written in advance of the election, blames the Democrats' expected fate in this year's voting to Obama's betrayal of the anti-war left. Justin Raimondo argues that anti-war sentiment made the difference during Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, though he also notes that Obama's rhetoric about Afghanistan during the campaign itself should have been a warning sign to his supporters. The new President's perpetuation of the War on Terror demoralized his base more than anything else he did, Raimondo claims. Had he acted differently, the writer hints, he might have retained much of his popularity with angry independents despite the controversies over health care and the economy.

The antiwar Left defeated itself by electing a Democrat little different from Bush. And now Barack Obama is dismantling his own party by repudiating the causes that animated his base -- the opposition to war and fear of the imperial presidency. In the run-up to the midterm elections, Obama tried instead to mobilize his party around the weakest items on his agenda: big government and cultural issues. No wonder Democrats and the progressive Left are demoralized: is the party's antiwar base really supposed to get excited about gays in the military?

Raimondo warns, however, that "in the years to come the GOP may yet save the Obama administration by pursuing its own version of electoral suicide." Republicans will do that, he continues, if they try to revive the GWBush "Freedom Agenda," which Raimondo describes as "simply incompatible with the Tea Partiers' commitment to cutting spending and reducing the scope of the federal government." Whether the TPs themselves realize this remains to be seen. Raimondo remains convinced that "key segments of [TP] activists are antiwar as well as anti-spending," but notes that they're "primarily concerned with Obama's domestic programs." He thinks that they'll turn on Republicans again, and immediately, if the GOP pushes for more war and the deficit spending it requires.

The same point is taken up by W. James Antle, who argues that defense spending must be on the table if anyone intends seriously to reduce deficits. He goes further, arguing that meaningful defense cuts require a reconsideration of American strategic priorities as well as the usual scolding of $700 toilets and other waste. He looks forward to collaboration between Ron Paul and Barney Frank on the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which promotes "realistic goals [and] sustainable strategy," but sees Republicans as the biggest threat to this bipartisan agenda.

While Antle notes that "conservative reluctance to cut military spending is somewhat understandable [since] national defense is a legitimate function of government," but he stresses that "defense is by far the biggest discretionary spending program, vastly larger than the combined price tag of those earmarks Republicans so frequently rail against." He advises conservatives to "stop thinking of the military as if it's an honorary member of the private sector rather than a government program [exempt] from cost-benefit analysis and other reasonable standards they would impose on the rest of the federal budget." He also urges them not to panic about all the supposed threats simmering around the world. "[A]dvocates of the status quo assume a military involved in all the world's hot spots in order to eliminate any conceivable threat," Antle writes, "Of course, such a view of the military's role applies the precautionary principle that conservatives wisely [?] reject when it comes to environmental policy."

For Antle, our bloated military establishment is a constant temptation to intervene in other countries' affairs. While "many traditional conservatives favor a strong military that is used sparingly," he writes, "the military's size encourages politicians to use force as a first resort. According to this view, rethinking what constitutes defense is not the same as issuing some pie-in-the-sky pacifist manifesto; rather, it is the only way to control the Pentagon's budget....Ultimately, budget-cutters will find that the republic-versus-empire debate cannot be avoided."

It might seem like the Conservative is further marginalizing itself by emphasizing its anti-war stance at a time when everyone seems focused on domestic issues, but the editors most likely believe that it's exactly while everyone obsesses over health care and other easily-demagogued issues that the military-industrial establishment will be least challenged without someone sounding the alarm. The magazine gives instant credibility to anti-war opinion because its stance can't be smeared as Marxist or anti-American -- though it comes in for smears of its own given its critical view of Israel. Some writers on the anti-war Left have been welcomed in the Conservative's pages, and it remains a potential seedbed of a truly dissident, anti-Bipolarchy movement.

On some issues, the magazine's opinions are just as obnoxious as you might expect, but as a rule there's more effort to offer reasoned objections to liberal or progressive demands, and less recourse to ad hominem "anti-elitist" arguments. The regrettable thing about The American Conservative is that, while it wants to bill itself as the voice of authentic conservatism as opposed to radio-controlled movement Republicanism, its name will always make newstand browsers assume that there's nothing but standard Republican propaganda inside. In our Bipolarchy "conservatism" means the Republican party, and that makes some people unwilling to read or listen when thoughtful critics raise issues on philosophical rather than partisan grounds. As a persistent internal critic within the conservative community, the Conservative is an invaluable resource and worthy of attention even from those who don't call themselves conservative. With Republicans rising to power again, it's a good thing that the Conservative is back in action.