31 January 2011

H. L. Mencken on 'Forward Lookers'

From the perspective of the 21st century, Theodore Roosevelt still looks like a progressive figure in many ways. He has impressed me as someone worthy of intense study as we approach the centennial of his "Bull Moose" independent presidential campaign because he recognized that government had to evolve beyond the original intentions of the Founders and Framers in response to fresh concentrations of industrial and financial power. He seemed to stand above "Left" and "Right," believing that both capital and labor had to compromise, neither being entirely in the right, in the national interest. Despite the prejudices of his time and his class, he strikes me as a clear-eyed non-ideological patriot. H. L. Mencken, who shared the earth with him for a number of years, saw Roosevelt differently.

He didn't believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern ... a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights....

All the fundamental objects of Liberalism -- free speech, unhampered enterprise, the least possible government interference -- were abhorrent to him. Even when, for campaign purposes, he came to terms with the Liberals his thoughts always ranged far afield. When he tackled the trusts the thing he had in his mind's eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust, with himself at its head. And when he attacked the courts it was not because they put their own prejudice before the law but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.

Mencken had a grudge against Roosevelt, as he had against Woodrow Wilson and anyone he thought had made life difficult for those, like Mencken, who had opposed America's entry into World War I. He had cause for complaint. Whether one sympathized with Germany, as Mencken did, or simply opposed war, as Eugene Debs did, you were subject to censorship, intimidation or prosecution, depending on the nature of your offense. He saw the government's pro-war propaganda campaign, along with the ratification of Prohibition, as signs that the U.S. was headed toward a grim Puritanical tyranny antithetical to the kind of culture he valued. Roosevelt was part of that trend. As for his Progressivism, Mencken deemed it "the most amazing mixture of social, political and economic perunas ever got down by one hero, however valiant, however athirst -- a cocktail made up of all the elixirs hawked among the boobery in his time." The most Mencken will say in Roosevelt's favor is that he probably didn't believe in most of those things himself.

At the same time, Mencken didn't quite dismiss Roosevelt as one of the "mountebanks" or "quacks" that routinely exploit the naive "forward lookers." Reading between the lines, Mencken ventured that "his actual beliefs were anything but nonsensical." On the major point of the obsolescence of the Founding political model, Mencken agreed with Roosevelt, whether he liked it or not.

The old theory of a federation of free and autonomous states has broken down by its own weight, and we are moved toward centralization by forces that have long been powerful and are now quite irresistible. So with the old theory of national isolation; it, too, has fallen to pieces. The United States can no longer hope to lead a separate life in the world, undisturbed by the pressure of foreign aspirations....Roosevelt, by whatever route of reflection or intuition, arrived at a sense of these facts at a time when it was still somewhat scandalous to state them, and it was the capital effort of his life to reconcile them, in some dark way or other, to the prevailing platitudes, and so get them heeded.

To-day no one seriously maintains, as all Americans once maintained, that the states can go on existing together as independent commonwealths, each with its own laws, its own legal theory and its own view of the common constitutional bond. And to-day no one seriously maintains, as all Americans once maintained, that the nation may safely potter on without adequate means of defense. However unpleasant it may be to contemplate, the fact is plain that the American people, during the next century, will have to fight to maintain their place in the sun.

Mencken might be as surprised as Roosevelt would be to hear Americans still maintaining these premises ninety years after he wrote. He entertained seemingly contradictory beliefs, hoping for limited government while conceding the necessity of consolidation in many realms. Elsewhere, he advocated the replacement of small farmers by corporate factory farms in the consumers' interest, considering the traditional yeoman nothing but a stupid, greedy yokel who tried to rip off city folk at every opportunity while begging constantly for government aid. He would not, however, have advocated doing this at once or by force. His conservative critique of politicians like Roosevelt was that they always wanted to get done too quickly "what could only be accomplished by a long and complex process." Mencken condemned radical reformers for their impatience, for their alleged belief that they could accomplish their goals within their own lifetimes or, worse, could accomplish what Mencken thought could never be accomplished.

H. L. Mencken was incapable of faith, either the spiritual faith in a divine order and ultimate justice nor the secular faith in human perfectibility and progress. His assimilation of Darwin and Nietzsche taught him that man's life was without cosmic significance, and that objective, intelligent people could not expect justice from life. He cultivated a tough-minded attitude toward life, which for him meant recognizing your obligation to look out for yourself first, and warned against the "tender-minded" mentality characteristic of "forward lookers." When pressed, Mencken preferred forward-lookers to those reactionaries he called "right thinkers." The forward lookers "show[ed] more courage and originality," he wrote in the essay, "The Forward-Looker," but suffered from what he considered a congenital mental disorder.

All that may be said of them is that they are chronically full of hope, and hence chronically uneasy and indignant -- that they belong to the less sinful and comfortable of the two grand divisions of the human race....They are, on the one hand, pathologically sensitive to the sorrows of the world, and, on the other hand, pathologically susceptible to the eloquence of quacks. What seems to lie in all of them is the doctrine that evils so vast as those they see about them must and will be laid -- that it would be an insult to a just God to think of them as permanent and irremediable...it simply refuses to harbor the concept of the incurable.

Mencken claimed, perhaps facetiously, to be a happier person because he was less tender-minded. People like him "seek contentment by pursuing the delights that are so strangely mixed with the horrors -- by seeking out the soft spots and endeavoring to avoid the hard spots." He justified his stance by stating that "the world is not our handiwork, and we are not responsible for what goes on in it, save within very narrow limits." He admits that this is a "ruthless" viewpoint, but laments the forward-looker's incapacity for such ruthlessness. "It is of the essence of his character that he is unable to escape the delusion of duty." That essence makes the forward-looker "the ideal citizen of democratic states," but Mencken didn't believe in democracy. He thought democracy was driven by envy of anyone better situated than the rabble, whether the plutocrat, the intellectual or the artist. In his mind, that envy probably had something to do with the "notorious ill-humor of uplifters." But there was nothing to be done about it. The forward-looker "was born that way, as men are born with hare lips or bad livers, and he will remain that way until the angels summon him to eternal rest. Destiny has laid upon him the burden of seeing unescapably what had better not be looked at, of believing what isn't so. There is no way to help him. He must suffer vicariously for the carnal ease of the rest of us."

I suppose I see myself in this gently contemptuous description, and I agree that Mencken has no cure for me. I'm not as easily convinced as he was of the incurability of some sorrows or evils, and I'm not as ready to concede his entitlement to carnal ease or his exemption from civil duty. As a Nietzschean, he'd have no basis for complaint if I made the cosmic hopelessness of the situation a basis for raiding his Baltimore home and robbing him of his beer, books and bank account. Had I pulled off the job, it would only prove that I was better than he, after all. Since I'm not aware of any provisions he ever made to defend his home by armed force, I assume that he had some stake in social order and some expectation of how others should behave toward him. He might even agree that those expectations are negotiable. As a forward-looker myself, that's all I ask -- for starters, at least. Mencken himself never said that things can't be made better; he only said that they couldn't be made better as instantly as some forward-lookers would like. But sometimes they can't be made better without insistence, and that insistence shouldn't be seen as some desperate perfectionist yearning. In retrospect, it seems that Mencken abandoned too quickly the idea that society can be improved by concerted effort; hence his critique of Theodore Roosevelt and his implicit critique of progressives and forward-lookers to come. Sometimes you can't know that a thing can't be done until you try it. If Mencken somehow knew that some things weren't worth trying, I'd like to know how he gained that knowledge. Until I read more of him, I find him of limited use for our time, though his ability to amuse remains far less limited.

The Exceptionalism that proves the rule

Kathleen Parker has some interesting observations on her fellow Republicans' obsession with American "exceptionalism" in her latest column. While exceptionalism has long been a subject of inquiry by historians and sociologists -- the notion arose, if I remember my history right, to explain why the U.S., uniquely among industrialized nations, lacked a strong socialist movement, -- it has more recently become an article of Republican faith. For them, Parker notes, it doesn't mean merely that the U.S. is unique. Instead, exceptionalism is, or should be, another way of saying that the U.S. is "the greatest nation in the world." Republicans cite the President's alleged refusal to affirm this sense of exceptionalism as proof that he is somehow anti-American.

Parker has already found Republican exceptionalist rhetoric tiresome, but expects to hear more of it over the next two years. In her column, she notes that exceptionalism is misused as a rhetorical club to hit Barack Obama with. To her credit, she places the President's notorious (to Republicans) quote about exceptionalism back in its original context to show, among other things, that he had after all affirmed the country's exceptional nature. More significantly, she reminds us of the actual question Obama was answering, which explains the meaning of exceptionalism from a foreign perspective, if not from an implicit Republican perspective as well.

Exceptionalism became radioactive a couple of years ago when Obama was asked at an overseas news conference whether he subscribes to "the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world."
His answer has haunted him since:
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
I remember thinking at the time: Bzzzzt. Wrong, Harvard. That is not the correct answer. There was more to his response, in fact, but the impression was already set. What Obama added was that "we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."
Not so hard to say after all?

In other words, Obama had affirmed what all real patriots consider exceptional about America -- hadn't he? Parker may think so, but I suspect that many other Republicans may remain dissatisfied because they'll feel that the President didn't answer the reporter's question fully or decisively enough. What they really wanted from him, as I suspect and Parker probably suspects, was an affirmation of America's exceptional qualification to "lead the world." Merely to say that America's is one exceptionalism among exceptionalisms, or even that it's exceptional among exceptionalisms, won't do for the jingoes. Militarist Republicans (as opposed to anti-interventionist paleocons) believe that the U.S. is exceptionally qualified, if not exceptionally obliged, to dominate the planet. For them, to deny American exceptionalism is somehow to prefer Chinese hegemony or condone the rise of a Caliphate. To deny it is to be an appeaser or a capitulationist. What's exceptional about America, as far as the jingoes are concerned, is Americans' unique entitlement to have their way in the world -- because we deserve it.

Parker doesn't necessarily deny the premise, but she does seem to consider modesty more becoming. "Great nations don't have to remind others of their greatness, " she writes, "They merely have to be great." What that greatness means for her is a question for another time. As for what it means to the President, she suggests that he make a speech in which he "takes possession of the word." Such advice is good sportsmanship coming from a Republican, but as a non-partisan observer I'd say that the thing to do with the word "exceptionalism" is bury it.

30 January 2011

Egypt: What color is your revolution?

Suddenly it looks a lot like 1989, if not 1848, in the Arab world. Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" has sparked uprisings elsewhere, most dramatically and ominously in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has ruled with ample American aid since the assassination of Anwar Sadat almost thirty years ago. Is this the springtime of democracy predicted by neocons in the aftermath of the American conquest of Iraq? It seems unlikely. I'm not aware of anyone in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Jordan saying that they want what Iraq's got, though some Egyptians, at least, have emulated the Iraqis by looting their national museum. The U.S. has supposedly wanted democracy to spread in Arab lands, but now that the Egyptian masses appear to have stood up, many Americans are terrified. How will this effect the movement of oil through the Suez Canal? How will it impact Egypt's Palestinian neighbors in Gaza? Will Islamists come to the fore? What would that mean for Israel? Will there be truly democratic elections? If so, will we see the sort of "one man, one vote, once" phenomenon Americans worry about so much? The price of oil has already jumped, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has already dropped. Everything is interrelated in our globalized age, but as long as we remain divided into sovereign nations, how accountable should one democracy have to be to another? Some Americans would clearly rather not see democracy break out in Egypt. Since that nation was already friendly with Israel, and already a happy recipient of millions in American aid, democracy probably doesn't seem necessary there. It was the dictatorships, the presumed enemies of America, that needed democratization, the neocon presumption being that greater democracy in a place like Syria, for instance, would automatically mean kinder feelings toward the U.S. and Israel. Now, some fear that greater democracy in Egypt will mean greater enmity toward Israel and the U.S. But we were also told that democracies don't war on one another, that they're inherently peaceful. But if more democracy won't mean more peace in the Middle East, that should force us to rethink our presumptions, not only about the dependence of peace upon political systems, but about the reasons for enmity toward America in that troubled region.

28 January 2011

'American Mental Illnesses': a self-diagnosis

Someone in downtown Troy, New York, has a habit of taping xeroxed advertisements for Alex Jones's conspiracy-mongering books and videos to the panes of bus shelters and vacant storefronts. He's brazen enough to leave these anti-government adverts in the middle of the downtown post office, and now, apparently, he's grown brave enough, or confident enough of his own opinions, to express himself directly. He's left copies of two different screeds throughout downtown. I've appropriated a copy of the one titled "American Mental Illnesses," which was drafted, with no sense of irony, on an Albany Medical Center history sheet. I transcribe the text in full below, adding boldface and italics for the sake of organizational clarity.

Sickness symptoms: To watch all you ever worked for and had wars for...to be played...given No voice...to be only given: spots & shots & parroting like tots...always stay a sleep for ever...In the Land of Never, Never...Brake-Stop -- Control -- Command -- New American God Union powers -- big Rx -- big city & state & God to all fed Government funding.

objective: Always, Always, Always...sound the trumpets the king is here. (Left or right) the game system: to make every Citizen Bad & mad and Blame game. To take all money to self fed. Government and lord over you all!!! Left & right take all your rights!

problems: 1) socialism: to own all you own even your very thoughts to be Controlled; every day!!!?
2) socialism: parroting to social mind (mass media owned & operated by Both sides left & right polly want a cracker! polly want a cracker!
3) socialism: control; no walls to stop; total Control all public places; cameras, Air ports, Bases, phones, Auto's, TV's, schools, sports stadiums, computers, ect.

objective: 4) socialism: finish you off, collect you up...Bring to camps...immunize forced, Gun control only Government counts and its Unions. total loss of freedoms.

* * *
I'm no psychologist, but I like to think that I recognize some pathologies when I see them. Do you suppose there are people like this outside the United States, outside of mental wards? Where else is an abstract concern with individual liberty taken to an existential level, and then beyond to mania? Don't look for economic analysis or anything resembling political science here; this manifesto is a confession of absolute fear of "control," an announcement of personal incompatibility with complex systems. To him, no doubt, my disparagement of his concerns only marks me as a "sheep" if not an actual conspirator against his freedom. Any suspicion I express regarding his mental health would only confirm for him the establishment's intention to brainwash him into dehumanized conformity with the god-state. There is, I fear, no arguing with this author, precisely because his problem is illness, not error.
Let's leave some room for nuance. The fact that I reject the writer's warnings doesn't make me an uncritical cheerleader for the establishment, nor does it signal a blind faith in "government" on my part. At the same time, not every person who considers the existing socio-cultural and political establishment oppressive is a mental case. However, this broadside demonstrates as baldly as possible that there is such a thing as irrational fear of government. Whether demagogic hucksters like Alex Jones contribute to or only corroborate such people's suspicions is open to debate. But here is definite linkage of a sort between rhetoric and behavior. The author is a fan of Jones; on the second broadside (Trojans will recognize it by the big "R" on top) he includes the infowars and prisonplanet web addresses. If the author is the person who's been promoting Jones's products, it would seem that he's been inspired, at the least, to put his own fears in writing for public consumption. What's the next step? There may not be one, but the stakes seem dangerously if not mortally high for our writer. His purpose here is not to propose remedies, but to sound a warning. But as to remedies: does anyone in America want this person to own a gun?...

26 January 2011

National Popular Vote unpopular in New York

While the Founders never intended that the President of the United States should be chosen directly by the American people, fidelity to democratic principles, rising expectations of presidential power and entrenched partisan consciousness have seemed to dictate more insistently over the last two centuries that the official widely believed to be the sole representative in government of the entire populace be appointed in the most democratic matter possible. Despite this evolution, the Electoral College remains entrenched in the Constitution despite the offense to democracy inherent in its disproportionate guarantee of at least three electoral votes to every state in the union. So many small states are presumed jealous of the power they gain from this arrangement that reformers concede the impossibility of abolishing the College by the usual amendment process. Instead, some small-d democrats have proposed an informal abrogation of the College by persuading states, each of them having the right to decide how its electors are chosen, to award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. The National Popular Vote movement has support in at least 20 states already, but while its intentions are as purely democratic as you could wish for, it finds itself opposed by a caucus of Democratic party assemblymen in New York State, despite a resounding victory in the state senate last year. As this report explains, Democratic opposition to the plan is based partly on calculation and partly on fear. With the electorate as polarized as ever, all the happy talk of the last fortnight notwithstanding, a razor-close vote on the model of 2000 and 2004 is likely in 2012. It's quite possible that a Republican candidate will win the popular vote next year, but it's also possible, as history shows, that a candidate can lose the popular vote and still win the electoral vote, thanks to the undemocratic disproportion built into the Electoral College. Democrats in New York clearly don't want to deny their incumbent any road to victory, while their own pride makes them unwilling to assign their electors to a Republican despite a Democrat winning the state.

I'm not keen on the NPV myself. Under current conditions, it would only make it even more difficult for independent presidential candidates. Call me perverse, but I wouldn't mind seeing presidential elections decided by the House of Representatives if no candidate gets an electoral-vote majority. If the Founders provided for it, it can't be a failure of their system, and if that seems undemocratic, then you ought to rethink the President's role in government. Having declared my opposition, however, I have to say that Democratic excuses, if reported accurately, are lame from a democratic perspective. I'm sure that their intolerant partisanship is reflected by Republican legislators elsewhere, and in either case partisanship itself is contradictory to democracy. It makes you wonder what Democrats mean by their name.

Presidential hypocrisy on public funding?

In 2008 Senator Barack Obama opted out of the voluntary public-funding program for presidential candidates. In place since the 1970s, and used by Senator McCain during the same campaign, the program rewards candidates for setting limits on the contributions they receive from individual donors by granting them matching funds once they reach a threshold of funds raised. The matching funds come from taxpayers checking off that little box on their return forms, three dollars at a time.

Perhaps frustrated with McCain's self-righteous naivete, and definitely provoked by Obama's success in fundraising outside the system, Republicans have decided that the public-funding system is obsolete. Nearly two years ago, Rep. Cole of Oklahoma introduced legislation abolishing public funding. Now, with his fellow Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, Cole's bill seems likely to advance to the Senate, where its fate is less certain. President Obama opposes the bill.

Lest the President be accused of hypocrisy, Democratic defenders of public funding contend that Candidate Obama promised while doing without it that, upon his election, he would work to modernize the system to improve its incentives. Predictably, Democrats warn that doing away with public funding will only increase the influence of corporations on elections, while Rep. Cole observes that Obama's own example should refute such worries -- though more progressive Democrats may not agree with that evidence.

While Cole promotes his bill as a deficit-cutting measure, there's a certain unsavoriness to his arguments, particularly his dismissal of the public-funding concept as a way to "prop up the candidacies of long shot presidential hopefuls." The implication here is that the money primary, if you will, is the real test of a candidate's viability, and anyone who loses the money primary is unworthy of public subsidy. Further back of Cole's stance, I suspect, is a longstanding hostility on the right to the idea of anyone having to subsidize opinions with which they don't agree. That comes through in opposition to political lobbying by unions, and I've seen some progressives adopt the idea by advocating that political spending by corporations should be subject to shareholder votes. I'm not the biggest fan of public funding myself; in my view it dodges the real problem, which is corporate media's power to impose a toll on political speech. But I do believe that there's a public interest that transcends individual partisanship in a level playing field for elections. To make elections as fair as possible, the object should not be to make it easier for everyone to raise money, but to make everyone less dependent on money and less obliged to spend the people's time raising it. As long as neither side in the present debate addresses or alleviates the causes of dependence, neither side is worth supporting.

25 January 2011

H. L. Mencken as a prophet?

My research on Theodore Roosevelt has been interrupted by the arrival at my local library of the Library of America's two new volumes of writings by H. L. Mencken. I was a big Mencken fan in my adolescent and collegiate years and I'm happy to see him admitted into the Canon of national literature, though he might be alarmed to be let in years after someone like H. P. Lovecraft. Mencken actually does have something critical to say about Roosevelt in his second collection of Prejudices, but I'll save that for another time. What intrigued me more immediately was a notion he advanced in "Das Kapital," an essay from the third collection, that capitalism takes on a reactionary and ruthless political character in a democracy that isn't actually characteristic of capitalism itself.

What I mean, in brief, is that capitalism, under democracy, is constantly under hostile pressure and often has its back to the wall, and that its barbaric manners and morals, at least in large part, are due to that fact -- that they are, in essence, precisely the same manners and morals that are displayed by any other creature or institution so beset. Necessity is not only the mother of invention; it is also the mother of every imaginable excess and infamy.

Mencken's comment requires contextualization; you have to understand what he means by democracy. Mencken was no democrat. He fancied himself a Nietzschean with an objective, realistic view of man and the cosmos. He rejected idealism and utopianism. He considered socialism harmless because it was hopeless, and while he defended socialists' civil liberties during the post-World War I red scare, he also considered them a bunch of quacks. Socialism, for him, was just another expression of the unfortunate democratic impulse.

The essential thing about democracy, as every one must know, is that it is a device for strengthening and heartening the have-nots in their eternal war upon the haves. That war, as every one knows again, has its psychological springs in envy pure and simple -- envy of the more fortunate man's greater wealth, the superior pulchritude of his wife or wives, his larger mobility and freedom, his more protean capacity for and command of happiness -- in brief, his better chance to lead a bearable life in this worst of possible worlds.

There'd be no use telling Mencken that for some people socialism is a movement of moral indignation over the exploitation of labor. As a Nietzschean, he dismissed all moral claims, including those of religion, as wartime propaganda for the envious. Worse yet, in his eyes, socialist critiques of capitalist greed were hypocritical.

All the known species of democratic theory are grounded firmly upon this doctrine that money, and money only, makes the mare go -- that all the conceivable varieties of happiness are possible to the man who has it. Even the Socialists, who profess to scorn money, really worship it. Socialism, indeed, is simply the degenerate capitalism of bankrupt capitalists. Its one genuine object is to get more money for its professors; all its other grandiloquent objects are afterthoughts, and most of them are bogus. The democrats of other schools pursue the same single aim....The average American democrat really cares nothing whatever for liberty, and is always willing to sell it for money. What he actually wants, and strives to get by his politics, is more money....

It is my contention that the constant exposure of capitalism to such primitive lusts and forays is what makes it so lamentably extortionate and unconscionable in democratic countries, and particularly in the United States. The capitalist, warned by experience, collars all he can while the getting is good, regardless of the commonest honesty and decorum, because he is haunted by an uneasy feeling that his season will not be long. His dominating passion is to pile up the largest amount of capital possible, by fair means or foul, so that he will have ample reserves when the next raid comes, and he has to use part of it to bribe one part of the proletariat against the other. In the long run, of course, he wins, for this bribery is invariably feasible; in the United States, indeed, every fresh struggle leaves capital more secure than it was before.

Mencken doesn't restrict the capitalists' arsenal to bribery. The Tea Partiers of his time were none other than the American Legion, which he characterizes throughout the Twenties as a sinister instrument of reaction little better than the Ku Klux Klan. As a German sympathizer, Mencken was extremely sensitive and hostile to U.S. manipulation of public opinion and suppression of dissent during and after World War I. He describes the Legion as something like an American Freikorps, incited and organized by capitalists "with lies about a Bolshevist scheme to make slaves of them (i.e., to cut off forever their hope of getting money), and put them to clubbing [literally?] and butchering their fellow proletarians."

From an essentially nonpartisan if not non-ideological perspective, Mencken found fault with both capitalists as a class and workers as a class. It was his habit to generalize unapologetically -- it has gotten him in trouble with posterity -- but to respect individuals of proven talent indiscriminately. He can never belong to the "left" because of his contempt for democracy, but he can't belong to the "right," either, because of his contempt for religion and tradition. Putting aside any disagreements with his admitted prejudices, is it possible to agree with him that an innate incompatibility between capitalism and democracy actually distorts capitalism into a malignant political force? Did Mencken discover a pattern in the Twenties that has been replicated ninety years later? If so, does he show us a remedy? It depends on your own perspective. He certainly wouldn't favor democracy over capitalism. Of capitalists he wrote, "They are criminals by our democratic law, but their criminality is chiefly artificial and theoretical, like that of a bootlegger." He suggests that capitalists would largely cease to exert a negative influence on politics if politicians would simply leave them alone to do what they do well. He was more respectful of capitalists for their "pride of workmanship" than he was of the actual working man. He believed that modernity could not do without capitalists, even (or especially) if politicians replaced them with bureaucrats. On the other hand, he wrote that the Founders "were chiefly what would be called Bolsheviki to-day," acknowledging that the tension between capitalism and democracy was fundamental. Democracy, in his view, "penalizes ignorantly what is, at bottom, a perfectly natural and legitimate aspiration, and one necessary to society." By doing so, it makes that aspiration "evasive, intemperate, and relentless."

Assuming that Mencken saw the situation clearly, his recommendations remain debatable. We aren't obliged to join his rejection of socio-economic morality, and we can risk his scorn quite easily, given that he's been dead for almost 55 years -- the anniversary is this Saturday. If one man's morality is another's petty resentment or envy, what of it? The Nietzcheans, to my knowledge, have never proven to moralists the necessity of deferring to their skepticism. Mencken was interested only in the flourishing of superior people, particularly artists and scientists, and dismissed most social reform as pipe-dreaming. But if the only legitimate reason for forming a state is to secure the maximum material well-being of everyone -- if any other motivation inevitably exacerbates the oppression of those who started powerless -- we can't be as complacent toward capitalism as Mencken was. And if we shared his contempt for the "stupid" majority of mankind there'd be no point to politics at all, except perhaps the amusement it provided him. If he is right, however, that the tension between capitalism and democratic politics is innate, we might do better going back beyond Mencken to those "Bolsheviki" Founders who apparently tried to give us a warning.

24 January 2011

Liberals still unrepentant

It seemed to take a long while for The Nation to respond to the Tucson amoklauf, but that's only because I tend to ignore the magazine's online presence while waiting for the print edition to reach my mailbox. Only today did I get the Jan. 31 issue, with its editorial on the Tucson "tragedy" and The Nation's version of what I could call the "Hertzberg counterdefense," which I first encountered in Hertzberg's New Yorker editorial last week, against Republicans' "blood libel" charge that the liberal media had cynically politicized the Tucson story. The Hertzberg counterdefense, readers may recall, insists that right-wing rhetoric remains an appropriate topic for discussion in the Tucson context and, if rightists don't like being blamed for the amoklauf, they still have only themselves to blame. Here's how The Nation states the case, with a somewhat more academic spin than Hertzberg:

Republicans, gun activists and Tea Party adherents are trying to put distance between themselves and the Tucson rampage by pointing to Loughner's evident mental illness. But Loughner's mental state does not absolve the lock-and-loaders of responsibility. To the contrary: it is well established in psychiatric literature that the delusions experienced by schizophrenics are shaped by the language, images, resentments and fears that permeate their wider culture in any particular country or time. Those politicians and pundits inviting or implying "Second Amendment remedies" for liberal "conspiracies" on immigration, healthcare, President Obama's citizenship, gun regulation and on and on are selling a daily dose of eliminationist fantasy to the angriest and most estranged minds—including those unable to draw a distinction between gunsight as metaphor and real-life target practice on politicians.

Strongly put, but if we have to be mindful of the schizophrenic's receptivity to "languages, images, resentments and fears," -- bearing in mind that the suspect still hasn't been diagnoses, to my knowledge, -- doesn't that mean we also have to go back to all the other language and imagery whose influence is so often contested: video games, violent movies, and so on? That crackpot who held a school board hostage a few weeks ago drew a V for Vendetta logo on a wall. Does that mean we ought to ban the comic book and the movie it inspired? Before you draw distinctions, remember that The Nation isn't talking about anyone's intent. They're saying that militant rhetoric is dangerous even if it can be proved without doubt that none of the demagogues want anyone to kill anyone else. The sensitivity of schizophrenics seems like a stronger argument for their separation from society than one for toning down everyone else's discourse.

After scoring fair hits against Republican neglect of mental health needs and their indulgence of gun nuts, the editorial concludes:

To raise these issues does not exploit or politicize the horror in Tucson. Rather, it recognizes that the political currency of the right has long made a dangerous world more dangerous: shredding social safety nets, flooding our country and our neighbors with weapons, pitting civil rights and progressive social policy against reckless, I've-got-mine individualism backed up by insistent and violent paramilitary visions. Jared Lee Loughner appears to be a conspiracy of one. But the gun in his hand, the language and images he absorbed daily, even the fact that no institution was prepared to catch him as he went over the edge—those are a product of political design and intention nurtured over a generation

Here again is a presumption, based on an inescapably biased perception of Republicans or conservatives in general as uniquely violent people, that their rhetoric must have been a crucial if not predominant influence on the shooter's vulnerable mind. While I don't exactly disagree with the magazine's description of the world Republicans have made, it remains true that people have done more damage with guns than we saw in Tucson without their rampages being blamed on politics or partisanship. And while the Tucson shooter's choice of primary target is certainly significant, no one explanation of it can exclude other interpretations. As impulsively as he acted, liberals reacted by blaming elements in society or culture that they'd like to eliminate. But while there's something deplorable about that impulse, the amusement I experience as Republicans splutter with self-pitying rage nearly balances out my intellectual disappointment. Since I still think that their whining will hurt them in the long run, I can't quite suppress an impulse to see the liberals keep goading them.

The right of self-defense...against what?

H. Randy Morris ought to applaud the brave showing on behalf of individual liberty made by a Florida man today. As of the time I started writing, the Floridian had fended off attempts by government officials to invade his home, killing two policemen and wounding a federal officer, but the latest update from St. Petersburg reports that he has died. Of course, the government had accused the man of aggravated battery, false imprisonment and sexual offenses, but he wasn't he simply exercising some of the old patriarchal prerogatives? Who is the state to judge?

How does Morris come into this? Two days ago the Rotterdam Junction man had a letter published in the Troy Record under the heading, "No more gun control." Responding to the alleged politicization of the Tucson amoklauf by the "liberal media," and seeing that as prelude to "the enactment of new anti-gun legislation," Morris warns his readers against the "deceitful propaganda" of "these 'government can cure all ills' cultists." The propaganda, he allows, is not so much deceitful as "blind" to "the very real relationship between the private ownership of weapons and the long-term survival and political freedom of man.

"History demonstrates that, without exception, all goverments eventually grow into uncontrolled, abusive, corrupt and monstrous tyrannies that continually threaten the life, liberty and property of their servile citizenry," Morris writes. After citing grim statistics from R. J. Rummel's Death by Government, the writer accepts the crimes of Hitler and Stalin as proof that America will go the same way, unless we arm ourselves.

All governments are fearful of a sufficiently armed populace — properly so. An armed populace represents a very real check on government usurpation of power and on the violent abuse of delegated authority. As a result, government always uses contrived schemes, as well as genuine tragedies, as an excuse for civilian disarmament.Once disarmed, former “citizens,” now spineless ““sheeple”,” can be easily herded, dominated and terrified into doing whatever armed government criminals demand of them. Unfortunately, what has been human experience will be human experience again and again. Given flawed human nature, it is most foolish to believe that such things “can’t happen here.”

The Second Amendment, Morris insists, is our only safeguard against such a fate, though his own fatalistic viewpoint gives little cause for optimism. Since he's informed us that tyranny is inevitable, all resistance must eventually prove futile. All he appears to allow himself is the opportunity to die with honor, as the man in Florida may have in his eyes. But wasn't that man a criminal? In whose eyes? The government's? Shouldn't their dictates be suspect? Since all government tends to tyranny, and each man, presumably, is the best judge of the threats to his own freedom, who is Morris to say, should he say so, that the St. Petersburg man was not acting legitimately in his own defense against a usurping state? And should Morris determine that the Floridian somehow had no right to self-defense against the constabulary or federales, what makes his argument compelling to the man in the attic?

Leaving Florida out of it, Morris begs a big question by invoking a "sufficiently armed population." Since the sufficiency guarantees fear, in his opinion, are the people today sufficiently armed, or the government sufficiently fearful? Given the forces at government's disposal, how many arms will suffice to establish the proper balance of fear? On that practical point, just as on the point when one is entitled to perceive tyranny on the march, Morris is menacingly vague.

22 January 2011

The Anti-Piven Strategy: Death Threats

The last time we checked in with activist sociologist Frances Fox Piven, she was being accused of inciting violence in a recent Nation magazine article, in furtherance of the legendary "Piven-Cloward Strategy" she first formulated back in 1966. Piven had called on the unemployed to unite in a protest movement and had, in fact, suggested that "disruptive" demonstrations like those seen recently in Greece and Great Britain might be necessary to shake politicians out of craven complacency. I'm still not sure why those futile protests should be models for emulation by anyone, but let's change the subject. Let's change the subject back to the topic of the month so far, the disputed relationship of militant rhetoric to public violence like the Tucson amoklauf. A few days ago, apparently, Glenn Beck tried to demonstrate that activists on the left were just as prone to violent rhetoric as right-wingers are alleged to be. Exhibit A was Frances Fox Piven's perceived recent call for violence. Not without some slight justice, Beck characterized Piven's article as an incitement to riot. But if he hoped by doing this to claim the moral high ground in the current debate, his fans undermined him. They've posted comments to his web site purportedly threatening Piven's life. It was a slow pitch, dead center in the strike zone, for the "liberal media" to swing at. Now Beck and Fox News are on the defensive again, with his alarmist characterization of Piven as a menace to the Constitution portrayed as the sort of militant rhetoric that might provoke violence. To make the scene more menacing or poignant, many accounts emphasize that the dreaded Piven is 78 years old.

If the debate of the month has had tragic implications, here it reaches the farcical level. Given that, to date, Nation readers have not taken to the streets to smash windows or tip cars, it would seem that rightists like Beck are, in fact, more likely to provoke violence than leftists, if only because they're more effective propagandists. Once again, rightists can cry that they're being punished for success. Looking at it from another angle, however, it seems that one audience is more receptive to provocative rhetoric than another. The problem may not be with any particular broadcaster or demagogue, but with an entire mentality, including people who might want someone like Piven dead without being prompted by anyone. But this may prove a momentary phenomenon. Forty years or so ago, Piven's readers were probably the ones more likely to be provoked into violence, or more likely to espouse a right to revolution. That might be so again some day, and history may eventually reveal a cyclical pattern according to which initiative shifts periodically from right to left. That possibility should be considered carefully by both those who feel a need to regulate rhetoric and those who want as many people as possible to have guns. Rhetorical and missile weapons alike fire in both directions.

21 January 2011

Ironies of Free Speech in Tucson

Republicans and their tea-drinking acolytes have been in a self-righteous uproar over the two weeks since the Tucson amoklauf, convinced that the liberal rush to judgment that blamed the shootings on right-wing rhetoric portended a campaign against freedom of speech. The right wing will be silenced, many seem to fear, on the ground that forcefully expressed anti-statist rhetoric is an infallible incitement to violence. Much of the narcissistic defensiveness voiced over the last fortnight insists on the right to state one's mind as bluntly or harshly as the situation and principles dictate, without fear of reprisal.

One of the first to offend the rightists was the sheriff of Pima County, who within hours of the amoklauf had blamed it on talk-radio "vitriol" and an atmosphere of bigotry in Arizona. Strong words, those, and sharply stated, albeit highly debatable. And now the local Tea Partiers want to recall him from office. For "politicizing the shootings" and offending reactionaries in the course of speaking his mind, the sheriff should lose his job. So the people who say that the right should be held to account for what they say should be held to account, but the right shouldn't be held to account. Do I understand this correctly? As the tag says, there's an irony here, but there are also stronger words to describe it.

Homophobia and the First Amendment

A gay-rights group is conducting an advertising campaign in my neighborhood with funding from the State Health Department. In bus shelters and on billboards, individuals declare that "I Am Gay and This is Where I Worship/Play/etc." Inevitably, the ads have offended local homophobes for whom bigotry is a duty of conscience. A representative specimen is Maureen Callahan of Waterford, who has nailed her theses to the letters column of the Albany Times Union. Her comments follow in full:

I object to funding of the "I am gay" billboards by the state Health Department. It is a violation of the separation of church and state when taxpayer money is used to promote lifestyles that are contrary to our orthodox beliefs. Our government has also crossed this line by using taxpayer funds for abortions. Religion is most certainly being "trampled underfoot"
now. It is such a shame and so very intolerant.How can a state hope to
prosper in such conditions?

Suddenly, someone on the Religious Right has discovered the "wall of separation" which, under normal circumstances, they fail to perceive within the language of the First Amendment. From Callahan's perspective, apparently, it's a one-way wall, or one with a door built in that opens only one way. There is no wall at all, as far as such people are concerned, when religion wants to influence politics, but if politics even appears to menace the prerogatives of faith, the wall is manned with archers and equipped with boiling oil.

But how, exactly, has the ad campaign breached the wall of separation? According to Callahan, the wall is breached "when taxpayer money is used to promote lifestyles that are contrary to our orthodox beliefs." The offense appears to be twofold, the crime of promoting unorthodox lifestyles being compounded by the requirement that taxpayers subsidize opinions contrary to their own. The promotion itself is a grave breach; it is a "trampling underfoot" of "Religion" and self-evidently intolerant in its rejection of intolerance.

The First Amendment dictates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Secularists have read this section expansively to forbid any legislation that appears to reflect the biases of a specific sect; in their view, the amendment is violated when governments make laws against homosexuality, homophobia being presumed to be an essentially religious (or merely superstitious) phenomenon. The Religious Right appears increasingly concerned with "free exercise," particularly when gay rights are at issue. Many in that faction consider it a duty of faith to denounce homosexuality and oppose efforts to ban discrimination according to sexual gender preference. Empowered by a few lines of Scripture, they must insist that homosexuality is sin and discourage people from practicing it.

This is an expansive reading of the "free exercise" clause. It reminds me of a similar evolution of politicized Islam. Not so long ago, the prevailing opinion throughout the Muslim world was that anyone who performed the "Five Pillars" of Islam (pilgrimage, almsgiving, daily prayers, etc.) was a Muslim of good standing. As well, any government that allowed the "free exercise" of the Five Pillars, including European-ruled colonial regimes, was widely considered worthy of Muslim loyalty. More recently, "Islamists" have insisted that a believer's Islamic credentials depend upon adherence to the customary regulations of shari'a, and some have gone further to insist that jihad against infidels is a sixth Pillar of religion. In many countries where Muslims are immigrant minorities, Islamists have risen up to assert that their right of "free exercise" should extend to having shari'a courts in their ghettos in place of secular law. Maureen Callahan is a spiritual counterpart to these Islamists; she insists that her "free exercise" of religion must extend to upholding her customary taboos and defending them against secular overrides. If she is not allowed to be homophobic, or if the government fails to endorse her homophobia, her freedom of religion has been violated.

I prefer a more minimal reading of the First Amendment. Government cannot absolutely forbid acts of religious worship, though it can regulate them when certain worshipful practices violate existing zoning laws. It can rule where chickens may be sacrificed, for instance, but can't ban chicken sacrifice outright. Free exercise means freedom of worship and a respect for the integrity of sacred spaces. Inside your house of worship, you can sacrifice a chicken or condemn homosexuality to your heart's content. You can even condemn homosexuality to your heart's content outside your house of worship, again thanks to the First Amendment. You can say that homosexuality is sin just as you can say that greed or violence are sins. But you're not entitled to have the secular government reflect your faith's customary preferences and prohibitions, and you're definitely not entitled to protest that your freedom of religion has been violated if your customary prohibitions have been vetoed but your freedom of worship hasn't been. Since no one religion can rule in a pluralistic society, "free expression" can only mean freedom of worship in your respective sacred spaces. Everyone has a right to pray. Beyond that, you take your chances with politics. If you lose, but can still worship as you please, you have no more right to complain than anyone else who loses a political fight. You definitely have no special right to complain because your political beliefs are based on faith. All you get then is people calling you a bigot.

20 January 2011

A Liberal Unrepentant

One reason why Republicans won't let the questions raised after the Tucson amoklauf about political rhetoric drop, even as their protests make them look increasingly like whiners, is that their sense of honor demands an apology that will never come. They want Democrats and other liberals to admit that they were wrong in their initial impulse to blame the shootings on "hateful" right-wing rhetoric. Some may even entertain a dim hope that liberals will admit that they lied deliberately for political advantage. They shouldn't hold their breath. While I believe that the "blood libel" began with an almost unconscious impulse rather than with willful indifference to facts that weren't yet publicly known, I still think that liberal libellers have almost unwittingly maneuvered Republicans into a rhetorical trap. At least it's my perception that Republicans must suffer eventually in public opinion for a volume of indignation that sounds as if the "blood libel" is a worse crime than the amoklauf. To the extent that liberals realize the opportunity, they'll stiffen against pressure to recant or repent in order to keep Republicans mad and sputtering.

Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker may be playing according to just such a strategy. His lead article for this week's "Talk of the Town" section tries to have things both ways, admitting readily that everyone was wrong about the shooter's political orientation but refusing to apologize for anyone having guessed wrong. Instead, with what must look like absolute insolence to a Republican readers, he suggests that the rush to judgment was Republicans' fault.
[I]t is also the truth that, when the news broke of the Tucson shootings, no one’s first thought was that some unhinged leftist was responsible. From the outset, commentators of all persuasions assumed something like the opposite—assumed it openly if their instant impulse was accusatory, implicitly if it was defensive. And no wonder.... [Militant outbursts during Rep. Giffords' re-election campaign] took place amid a two-year eruption of shocking
vituperation and hatred, virtually all of it coming from people who call themselves conservatives—not just from professional radio and television propagandists but also from too many Republican officeholders and candidates for office. The portrayal of the national government as a sinister tyranny and President Obama and his party as equivalent to Communists and Nazis—as alien usurpers bent on destroying the country and the Constitution—spawned a rhetoric of what a Nevada candidate for the Senate approvingly referred to as “Second Amendment remedies.” During the same period, there has been a sharp, sustained rise in death threats against the President and against (mostly Democratic)
legislators. And there have been real victims: according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, at least fifteen people had already been killed by practitioners of “insurrectionist” violence since the middle of 2008. These realities, and not the malevolence of liberal opportunists, were why, in the immediate aftermath of the crime, the “national conversation” focused on the nation’s poisonous political and rhetorical climate.

For the final insult, Hertzberg adds: "That conversation, which was worth having before, is not less worth having now because the connection between the crime and the climate is so murky—and it may well turn out to be more productive." His moral seems to be that, if so many people assumed that a right-winger had committed mass murder in Tucson, that means that right-wingers must have done something wrong, somewhere, at some time. The readiness with which so many people blamed Republican rhetoric or propaganda, Hertzberg implies, obliges Republicans to do some soul-searching.

Change the context and some of the names and Hertzberg's reasoning seems more offensive. Let's say that, for one reason or another, the rumor raced from Tucson that the shooter had been a Muslim. Had that rumor caught fire, would Hertzberg after the fact have been as eager to remind American Muslims that their fellow citizens had good reason to jump to conclusions? What if, as my Instant Conspiracy-Mongering Device wrongly anticipated, people assumed that the shooter was either a Mexican or a hitman for one of the Mexican crime cartels? Would Hertzberg be so averse to contrition in either case? An ironic suspicion that Republicans themselves were more likely to jump to any of these conclusions doesn't dispel the feeling that Hertzberg is playing more dirty here than he would otherwise because he ha--er, strongly disapproves of Republican policies and personalities.

So the Tucson controversy continues to show both parties at their worst, exposing each side's deepest, most pathological fears of the other. The truth of the story and the true scandal of the ease with which a madman could get his gun are small matters compared to the continuing debate over which party is more mean. It would be grimly amusing if it wasn't also sad. I'd really like to believe that partisan leaders on both sides stoked the rhetorical fires purely for cynical reasons; the problem of Bipolarchy might be more easily solved if that were so. But times like these remind us that, however much they appear to collude eagerly against outsiders or independent activists, they really, really hate each other. Hertzberg himself opines idiotically that the President's talk at last week's Tucson pep rally will prove a calming moment; "The atmosphere smelled cleaner" in its aftermath, he raves, and "perhaps the memory of it will leave us all in a better place than where it found us." Something sure smells, but I won't say what.

P.S. If you're curious about those "insurrectionist" murders Hertzberg was referring to, here's the timeline from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence -- and Tucson is on the list.

19 January 2011

Republicans against 'brotherhood'

Republicans don't hate anybody, so Republicans claim. They get accused of "hate speech" all the time because other people are simply too thin-skinned to take criticism in the constructive spirit presumably intended by Republicans. In their own minds, they probably think of themselves as exasperated parents of perpetual adolescents who think you "hate" them if you won't let them do whatever they want or make them do what they don't want. The exasperation is perpetual, too. Another round is being served-up today as Republicans have to answer for comments made by the freshly-inaugurated governor of Alabama in the insufficiently confidential confines of a church. Speaking at the "King Memorial" Church in Birmingham on King Day, Governor Bentley said that whoever has not accepted Jesus as a personal savior is "not my brother." While the executive was generous enough to state that he'd like everybody to be his brother (or sister, presumably), the conditions he sets for siblinghood have alarmed some Jews and Muslims, and should alarm any non-evangelical Christian, Bentley's subsequent insistence that he'll be "governor of all Alabama" notwithstanding.

Bentley was endorsed by Alabama Tea Partiers during his election campaign last year but does not seem to belong to the movement himself. His controversial statement refers back to disputes within Protestant Christianity that well predate the secular Tea Party phenomenon. As a student of the subject, when I hear something like Bentley's remark I recognize it, whether Bentley himself does or not, as a repudiation of the "Social Gospel" that flourished about a century ago, during the Progressive Era, and its ecumenical offshoots. It's specifically a repudiation of the idea of "the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God," the notion that the entire human race forms a moral community toward which we all have obligations. The convergence of ecumenical ideas that downplayed the priority of doctrinal orthodoxy and social consciousness that emphasized service to and empowerment of the poor inspired a reaction among American evangelicals, the fundamentalists among them especially, for whom fellowship was conditional upon adherence to orthodoxy. For them, fellowship was reserved for the saved, and the saved had to be "born again." The implication, especially in response to the social gospel's leftish tendencies, was that Christians owed nothing but the Gospel to people outside the communion. This didn't mean that fundamentalists would refuse charity to the unsaved, but the implication was that charity and other forms of fellowship weren't as compulsory as social-gospel advocates seemed to believe. Given the historical political context of the social-gospel controversy, it is fair to inquire about the political implications of Bentley's disavowal of "brotherhood" with the un-"saved," but judgment should be withheld until the governor clarifies exactly what "brotherhood" means to him compared to "citizenship."

The Alabama brouhaha is an interesting follow-up to a story out of Texas that I only learned about this week. Down in the Lone Star State the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives recently beat back an attempt by fellow Republicans to depose him. Religion became a factor in the contest when one of the Speaker's critics declared that a "Christian Conservative" should lead the legislature. The incumbent Speaker is Jewish, and his supporters saw anti-Semitism in the comment, while the critic, claiming that he didn't even know the Speaker's religion at the time he made the comment, insists that he opposed the incumbent because he was insufficiently conservative, not insufficiently Christian. At the same time, the critic reiterated his belief that "Christian Conservatives" should lead the state, which pretty much nullified all his disclaimers. While the outcome in Texas appears to show that religious chauvinism is a minority phenomenon within the Republican party itself, it remains a substantial and unseemly element within the GOP that seems to belie the claim that there's no "hate" within Republican ranks.

18 January 2011

Tucson, Madness and Freedom

Across ideological lines, one consensus forming after the Tucson amoklauf is that, an individual's abstract right to self-defense aside, it ought to be more difficult for mentally ill or unstable people like the Tucson assassin to acquire firearms. Right now, it seems all too easy for people as crazy as the Tucson suspect seems to be to pass the tests that currently exist. This article tells a troubling story; the government can only keep guns away from mentally ill people if they've already been determined to be "defective." Unless they've already committed a crime, or have somehow otherwise proven themselves threatening to others, people can't be compelled to receive the tests or treatments that would determine to a court's satisfaction that they're unfit to own guns. The article includes an embarrassing list of cases when applicants for much less dangerous permits must answer far more revealing lists of questions regarding character and attitude. In all those other cases, presumably, constitutional rights aren't at stake. But if our subject is the tension between mental health and individual rights, the usual gun-nut suspects must share some blame with a "liberal" bias, generations old, in favor of the maximum freedom for the mentally ill. That bias is fueled in part by memories of atrocity stories from the old mental institutions, in part by a postmodern notion that "madness" is a social construction from which those deemed mentally ill, most of them probably harmless, should be liberated, and in part by a liberal faith in every individual's equal capacity for personal if not economic autonomy. It's supplemented by slippery-slope suspicions, shared across ideological lines, that greater government regulation of mental health will inevitably become a tool of social or ideological control on the model of the Soviet institutionalization of dissidents. But if liberals want every American to be healthy, if they presumably want to maximize everyone's lifespan, why should they balk at a comparable optimization of the mental-health sector? I have no idea at this point what a system would look like that would detect and treat the mentally ill early enough to minimize public danger, but to say that we shouldn't discuss even the possible necessity of such a system would seem to confirm at least partly the supposedly-cynical suggestion of Russian reporter Andrei Sitov (see Monday's post) that America's susceptibility to violence correlates with the nation's ideological bias in favor of individual liberty at the expense of every other social good.

Palin Unrepentant

The former governor of Alaska, as if to prove herself not a quitter, refuses to, shall we say, "refudiate" her own characterization of the "liberal media" attribution of the Tucson amoklauf to right-wing incitement as a "blood libel." Noting,as others have, that other commentators had used the term days before she had, with the same emphasis, without the same shitstorm of criticism, she feels unfairly singled out. While the criticism she received from Jewish groups last week looks at first glance like a knee-jerk of political correctness or a territorial growl of paradoxical ownership of unhappy history, Palin prefers to see it as personal first and partisan second, the product of people determined to find fault with anything she says or does.

Let the process continue. While I defended Palin against the frankly stupid outrage directed at her "blood libel" comments -- no group can own history so completely that they can forbid its use as metaphor -- her latest outburst confirms that she doesn't understand the real damage she's suffered this month. However much you want to legitimately deplore liberals' impulsive labelling of the Tucson shooter as a right-wing hater, if you're a Republican or a Tea Partier it's a temptation you should have resisted. The facts so far are proving the liberals wrong. Had the right left well enough alone, Democrats and their auxiliaries might have ended up legitimately shamed before the public. Instead, Republicans' persecution complex -- arguably the subconscious context of all the "blood libel" rhetoric -- compelled them to protest so loudly that their own outrage over the actual shootings seemed muted by comparison. Since 8 January Republicans' righteous indignation at the "blood libel" has made them seem like narcissist whiners, more concerned for their own reputations than for the victims of Tucson. Worse, they can't help sounding as if they think a greater crime was perpetrated against them by liberals than by the shooter against his targets. Probably without thinking about it much, liberals set a trap for their enemies, who jumped into it with all the nimble grace of the Incredible Hulk. Every new protest of innocence is a rhetorical shovel with which Republicans dig themselves deeper into the pit.

17 January 2011

Tucson through foreign eyes

Kathleen Parker's latest column alerts me to an interesting exchange that took place during a White House press conference last Thursday. The Tucson amoklauf was still the topic of the moment, the President having just returned from the Univ. of Arizona pep rally that passed for a "memorial service" the previous evening. The press secretary took a question from Andrei Sitov, the correspondent for ITAR-Tass, a Russian news agency.

This is America the democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government. And many people outside would also say the quote-unquote 'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also America. How do you respond to it?

Sitov went on, suggesting that the amoklauf as a phenomenon represented "the reverse side of freedom," preventable only through "restrictions" and "a bigger role for the government." The press secretary responded sharply in what Parker deems possibly his "best moment" in his job. She quotes him:

There is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American.

Parker certainly isn't congratulating the secretary on his eloquence. The official seems to have meant that neither the Constitution nor the statutes of American law confer a right on anyone to perpetrate an amoklauf. Therefore, presumably, the Tucson atrocity shouldn't be seen as a consequence of American freedom. Sitov seems to see things differently. From his Russian perspective (one admittedly not exactly congenial to individual liberty) Tucson most likely looks like a consequence of, or as he told another reporter, the cost a country pays for freedom from preventative measures that elsewhere might have kept a gun out of the shooter's hand.

American opinionators like Parker were quick to make ad nationem attacks on Sitov. Since ITAR-Tass is a "state-run" agency, Sitov must be a bootlicking lackey of Putin and Medvedev if not a coward for asking an American a question he'd dare not ask a Russian official. Alleged state intimidation of more independent Russian journalists -- and the allegations probably have some truth behind them -- presumably disqualify Russians, and especially state employees, from casting aspersions on American liberty. Parker takes the attack to an ad hominem level, suggesting that Sitov "found some perverse release in speaking out against the freedoms he was enjoying in a place he obviously felt safe."

Can the opinions of the wider anglophone world, where "freedom" is a general cultural birthright, be as easily dismissed? Here's a short summary of questioning similar to Sitov's from Australia, England and New Zealand. With the focus on American gun culture, the question remains whether freedom from prevention makes violence more likely and bloody. Are these English-speaking editorialists implicitly questioning the First as well as the Second Amendment, as Americans seem to think Sitov was doing? Was Sitov even doing that? Parker thinks so, writing that he had described the amoklauf as "just an extension of American free expression." It depends on what the Russian meant by the "'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way." Because he's a Russian and a presumed hireling of the government, he's presumed also to be contemptuous toward free expression in general, and not just gun ownership. If America is his beat, however, Sitov is probably aware of the linkage between gun ownership and liberty in many minds here, the presumption that the First Amendment depends on the Second. We shouldn't rule out that he had a broader cultural critique in mind, just as Americans shouldn't rule out that their culture is open to question from outside perspectives. Is the idealized American refusal to defer to politicians, not to mention the related, Supreme Court-endorsed belief that individual rights are prior to the Constitution, a guarantee of a violent society? On a day devoted to non-violence, it's a question worth asking. How free are we, after all, if we can't?

16 January 2011

Idiot of the Week: Tragic Irony Department

The bare facts of the matter make any embellishment from me redundant: a wounded survivor of the 8 January Tucson amoklauf is being held for involuntary psychiatric observation after apparently threatening the life of a local Tea Party leader at a "town hall" television taping. What a country!

14 January 2011

In defense of 'journalistic savagery'

Cal Thomas covers a lot of ground in his latest column. Having already dismissed the notion that any exterior stimulus could have influenced the Tucson amoklaufer, he proceeds to a history lesson that he hopes will discourage any attempt to censor or regulate political discourse. After scorning the "Left" as hypocrites for desiring to censor inflammatory speech but not TV sexuality, gangster rap or flag burning, Thomas takes us back to the late 18th century and the beginnings of American journalism. "Compared to 18th-century journalism in America, today's media are tame," he claims. His guide is historian Eric Burns, who described some Early Republic reporting as "journalistic savagery." Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans freely slandered each other, Thomas notes, making no distinction between straight news and partisan opinion and brazenly lying about each other. Despite such beginnings, "Journalism survived, even displaying responsibility on occasion." The moral, Thomas informs us, is that "The public can sort out the good from the bad and ugly. They don't need politicians doing it for them."

Like many Republican sympathizers, Thomas has wandered away from the immediate subject of the inflammatory potential of political rhetoric to make his preferred stand against the usual "left" conspiracy to suppress the "right." Once we remind ourselves of the original context, however, the example of the 18th century proves less reassuring than Thomas thinks it is. If we're concerned with possible links between political rhetoric and violence, the Early Republic showed the most obvious connections. It was the era of dueling, climaxing with the murder by the Vice President of the United States of a former Treasury Secretary who was also one of the most important Framers of the Constitution. If the era is different from our own, it's because it was less likely then that rhetoric would inspire an assassin, but more likely that it would get the actual author shot. But Thomas's implicit claim is that the hair-trigger discourse of 200 years ago, though less "tame" than today's rhetoric, was still acceptable by proper American free-speech standards. Somehow, dueling and other forms of reprisal typical of the period don't figure in Thomas's history. Should we assume that those were acceptable to him, so long as "journalism survived" without government interference? Should we infer that he'd accept such practices today as an alternative to censorship? I suppose it depends on whom he assumes would get shot first.

13 January 2011

When does ideology become thoughtcrime?

At first glance, the news of an arrest by the FBI of a man who made threatening phone calls last month to his Democratic congressman seems easier to blame on the sort of political rhetoric that's still alleged by many to have motivated the Tucson assassin of last Saturday. This person allegedly left messages on Rep. McDermott's answering machine informing him that he and the President would have been "shot in the head" by the Founding Fathers, had they all shared any moment in time, and that the caller himself would be happy to kill the representative and his family if McDermott conspired to steal his money, so to speak, by opposing the extension of the current relatively low tax rates. The suspect thus shows two characteristics of the far right: taxophobia, most obviously, and the assumption that current politicians, Democrats especially, have so far departed from the principles of the Founders that those elders would sanction violence against them.

The suspect is at the least guilty of a guileless and perhaps admirable honesty, having facilitated his arrest by giving his real name and phone number while leaving his threatening messages. While I still believe in the virtue of anonymity in political discourse as a shield against ad hominem argument, I suppose I have to give credit to people who are willing to stand fully behind their opinions -- particularly those that will get them in trouble. His honesty or guilelessness is probably all that's creditable about this fellow. He clearly is what many people assumed and still want the Tucson amoklaufer to be, minus the actual violence. In that case, who if anyone is to blame for his incriminating outbursts? The usual suspects will come to the usual minds, but an impulse to name names or denounce specific devils obscures the real issue.

Accusers may dispute amongst themselves the relative influence of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck on any violent rightist, but all seem to agree on the implicit premise that a certain set of opinions and beliefs encourage political violence. In crudest terms, some liberals seem willing to accept that any belief in limited government increases the likelihood that the believer might shoot a politician someday, just as some seem to think that any reduction of government spending will cause someone to die. A more nuanced suspicion focuses on those who equate expanding government with "tyranny." In this case, anyone who warns against tyranny is suspect on the assumption that the perceived imminence of tyranny would provoke them to drastic, violent action. Even the most suspicious among liberals would concede that not every person who opposes "big government" or sees it as incipient tyranny is a likely assassin or insurgent. The real question becomes whether enough believers have violent potential to make the opinions themselves suspect and subject to surveillance. But once you concede that not every believer is a menace you have to ask whether political opinions or more personal factors make the difference. If someone kills or even threatens a politician, to what extent is the act political, and to what extent is it insane or merely stupid? I don't raise the question to offer an easy answer. Republicans now cry that personal factors are primary if not exclusive; I doubt any of them will defend the man arrested in Washington yesterday. Instead they will probably say that he's only insane or stupid -- though they've proven themselves less likely to dismiss Muslim terrorists that way. Think of our debates on the root causes of terrorism and you'll realize that the current debates on causation and influence aren't as easily dismissed as Republicans would like, yet aren't as cut and dried as some Democrats would want. Even though partisanship has compromised the objectivity of the discussion, cooler minds probably ought to keep the conversation going.

12 January 2011

The virtual martyrs of Tucson: More Republican self-pity

Today will be a day of high-profile mourning in Tucson as the President arrives to make a speech, no doubt with thoughts of Bill Clinton in Oklahoma City on his mind. I'd be surprised if he doesn't "politicize" the crimes of last Saturday, even if only to the minimal extent of making himself look more "presidential" by playing the national mourner. Congress wants attention, too; I've been told as I came into the office this morning that the lower house will "debate" a resolution condemning the amoklauf. Despite it all, remembrances of the victims and the actual crime are increasingly drowned out by the howls of Republicans who seem to consider themselves the true victims of a conspiracy between the accused shooter and the "liberal" media. Sarah Palin has unburdened herself of (for her) a long-form video denouncing a "blood libel" perpetrated against Republicans and Tea Partiers by Democrats and their media auxiliaries. Meanwhile, George Will's latest column is rolling off presses across the country. Like Palin, he deplores a general failure to focus on the assassin's personal and exclusive responsibility for his action. Will attributes this failure to an intellectual failure of the "progressive" mindset that amounts to a character flaw.

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

Will finds it ironic that past assassins with more explicitly or comprehensibly political motivations that the Tucson suspect were dispatched summarily without efforts to find others guilty by association with them. His irony is somewhat misplaced. It is true, to my knowledge, that no one attempted a purge of the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican party after Charles Guiteau, upon assassinating President Garfield, declared himself a Stalwart. But Will's claim that Leon Czolgosz, the professed anarchist who killed President McKinley, was "executed, not explained," falls short of accuracy. In fact, Czolgosz's identification of himself as an anarchist specifically influenced by the writings of Emma Goldman led to government persecution of Goldman and a kind of "red scare" during which the nation contemplated banning anarchist writings, deporting known anarchists and forbidding immigrants dumb enough to declare "anti-government" sentiments from entering the country. Since this happened under Theodore Roosevelt's watch, and with some support from him, Will might want to blame it on the "progressive" impulse, but his is a broader narrative of the left's persecution of the right, so this particular chapter probably makes a poor fit with his mythos.

A growing irritation with Republican whining shouldn't blind us to the fact that there certainly is an impulse among many self-described liberals and progressives to "blame conservatives first" when something like the Tucson amoklauf takes place. Just as some Republicans defensively assume that the shooter must be some sort of leftist once they're convinced that he isn't a rightist, Democrats and their allies assume that someone who shoots a Democrat must be a rightist and to some degree sympathetic with the Republican agenda. Both sides are guilty of Bipolar thinking, and both sides recognize an equation of conservatism with "hate," the Republicans regarding it as a deliberate libel and the Democrats as a fact. Unfortunately, Republicans are too contemptuous toward their opponents (that contempt is something different from the "hate" Democrats perceive) to make any real effort to refute the libel, while a moralistic streak among liberals and progressives makes the association seem irrefutable. With each side typically content to preach to its own choir, Republicans and Democrats never really seem to try to change each other's minds. Instead, the fact that the old charge has come up again only reinforces Republican assumptions of Democratic wickedness. The voicing of that assumption only reconfirms Democrats' impression that Republicans hate them and may even wish them dead. The Tucson assassin's intervention hasn't really disrupted the vicious loop through which Democratic hysteria hardens Republicans' hearts and vice versa. If so, all of today's pious platitudes and pleas for peace are in vain.

Update: Poor Palin can't seem to catch a break. As I was tempted to predict earlier, her use of the phrase "blood libel" has gotten her in trouble with some Jewish commentators who feel that the term should be used exclusively to refer to the anti-semitic myth about the use of gentile blood in the making of matzoh. They should ease off. Today's climate seems increasingly intolerant of metaphor and allusion the more people assume that some exterior media stimulus must have immediately provoked the Tucson amoklauf. At the same time, I'm intrigued by the frequency with which Republicans have used the controversial term this week. Does it tell us something about their self-image? Do they see themselves as a persecuted minority targeted for extermination by unreasoning haters? Don't many progressives see themselves the same way? Aren't they the ones who see their enemies as "Nazis?" If neither side can see its opponent as anything less than a Nazi, the two parties may be even less capable of compromise than we thought.

11 January 2011

Tucson: Did guns save anyone?

As early reports arrived from the massacre scene in Tucson on Saturday afternoon, viewers were led to believe that someone in the crowd who had gathered to meet Rep. Giffords had taken out a concealed weapon and opened fire on the assassin. With casualty figures still inconsistent, this unconfirmed detail raised the question of whether some of the victims might have been shot by someone other than the Representative's attacker. It now seems clear that no one tried to shoot the shooter, who was subdued only when two men tackled him. However, at least one man was on the scene with a concealed firearm on his person, as is allowed by Arizona law. He has told reporters that he nearly shot an innocent person, having run to the crime scene in response to the original gunfire to find the shooter's weapon in the hand of one of the two unarmed men who had tackled and disarmed him. Fortunately the interloper restrained himself; his hand was also stayed by the reasonable fear that, had he drawn his own gun, he might have been mistaken for the assassin's accomplice and shot.

The moral: Arizona is one of the states where the scenario dreamed of by gun-rights extremists should have played out. A brave, cool-headed and well-trained marksman should have picked off the assassin amid the chaos and minimized the body count. It did not happen. The gun-owner's testimony suggests that he might not have used his weapon even if he had arrived while the assassin was still shooting. The heroic scenario that posits good guns as the remedy for bad guns doesn't account for such details; it may be implausible in both practical and psychological terms. In 1949 a would-be hero opened fire on Howard Unruh in the middle of the first modern American amoklauf. He wounded Unruh, but when the shot didn't stop the killer, he couldn't bring himself to fire a second time. I won't claim that it's impossible for a hero to shoot down an amoklaufer cleanly, but I suspect that it's never going to be as common an event as some people hope, and I doubt more strongly whether the possibility would ever deter someone like the present shooter. It may be impossible to predict whether such intervention would cause more casualties in a crossfire, but the possibility of that result may outweigh the likelihood of a hero gunman saving lives. One thing seems certain: the liberal (in the old sense of the word) gun-rights regime in Arizona made it easier for someone to shoot twenty people. It didn't make it any easier for anyone to stop him.

Post-Tucson Partisanship and Pathology

From the way some Republicans write and talk, you might think that they were the victims of Saturday's shootings in Tucson. Their outrage over the attempted assassination of a Representative and the murder of six other people is dwarfed by their horror at the thought that anyone is blaming them for what happened. As a result, columns on the Arizona amoklauf become but more occasions to condemn Democrats and liberals, this time for their alleged cynicism and opportunism in politicizing the crime for partisan advantage. This backlash only perpetuates the partisanship, of course. In our office, Mr. Right has been predictably defensive against the admittedly misplaced attempts to hold Republican opinionators responsible for the killings. But he can't make a reasonable defense without making an unreasonable charge himself. If the accused shooter was not a creature of the right, then he must be a creature of the left. Mr. Right assumed him to be a "Marxist" because he had read or heard that the suspect's favorite book was The Communist Manifesto. He seemed to step back from that when I called up the accused still-standing YouTube channel and read through his complete list of favorite texts, which includes both Mein Kampf and Ayn Rand's We The Living as well as the Marx-Engels tract, Brave New World and numerous children's books. Later, however, Mr. Right was again insisting that the suspect was a leftist. Anyone who examines those YouTube postings will realize that this character can't be plotted anywhere on the conventional partisan political grid, but people like Mr. Right have a bipolar view of the world that requires them to conclude that if someone isn't one of "us," he must be one of "them."

David Brooks is a more subtle thinker and writer than Mr. Right, but while he doesn't attempt to link the suspect to the left he still condemns liberals' "opportunistic" response to the Tucson massacre in his newest column. He condemns "a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leans toward political explanations" of events like this one. Two separate ideas seem to be grappling for supremacy in Brooks's article. On one hand, liberal opinionators are opportunistic, which presumably means that they're consciously calculating the political gains to be won by associating Republicans with the suspect's likely guilt. On the other, their impulse to blame Republicans looks like a knee-jerk reaction predetermined by their partisan and ideological biases. So is their blaming of Republicans a premeditated strategy or a pathological outburst? What about Mr. Right's insistence that the suspect must be a leftist?

In the near future, psychologists will debate whether the accused assassin acted reasonably upon a set of premises or merely responded impulsively to a mental disorder. Right now, politicians and pundits are debating whether the suspect was persuaded to kill by partisan propaganda or driven by impulses to which party ideologies were irrelevant. Republicans argue that theirs is a reasoned discourse that couldn't drive even an unreasonable person to kill, while Democrats would have us infer that theirs is a more reasonable discourse than the "hate" or "intolerance" that must have inflamed the suspect. But given how little reasoned discourse has emerged from the partisan camps since Saturday, shouldn't we question any distinction that privileges partisan ideology as rational in order to exempt it from association with the accused's mania? To put it differently, both factions of the Bipolarchy insist that the suspect isn't one of them because he's not a rational person -- but who says the Bipolarchy itself is rational? The Bipolarchy itself does: each side gives the other the benefit of the doubt by attributing to it opportunistic cunning or dark powers of persuasion. The conditions of their enmity set the terms of reasonable political discourse. While it'll be difficult to argue that the suspect himself is a product of partisan bipolar disorder, our readiness to refute his alleged syllogisms should be extended to the syllogisms of the Bipolarchs who've tried to blame each other for the terror in Tucson.

10 January 2011

The Great Fear of 2011

The President has postponed a trip he had planned to take on Tuesday to Schenectady, one of the towns neighboring mine, while Congress is suspending normal business in the aftermath of the Tucson amoklauf/assassination attempt of last Saturday. It is apparently assumed that the suspected would-be assassin's near-success (the Representative isn't yet out of the woods medically) and the publicity given his "conscience dreaming" (including by me) may embolden other malcontents or inspire imitators across the country. For some observers, Tucson is the confirmation of fears held against the populace, or one segment of it, for the past two years. There is a strong gut-level impulse, or else a cynical instinct, to declare the suspect a product of the Tea Party movement or of reactionary conservatism in general. The Sheriff of Pima County has tried to link the suspect's mania to the "hate" and "intolerance" directed against immigrants, liberals, etc., while investigators are still trying to link him, on imperceptible evidence, to the anti-immigration American Renaissance organization. There have also been still more cynical, trollish efforts to portray the alleged shooter as a man of the left, as one person who knows him claims that he formerly was, presumably because Rep. Giffords is a "blue dog" Democrat and thus a traitor to progressivism from the perspective of Daily Kos. All of this is silly. To the extent that I can venture an interpretation of the suspect's YouTube texts, he seems to have been monomaniacally focused on the question of the currency, the "mind control" he accuses the government of practising being a matter of convincing people to accept what others call "fiat" money not backed by gold or silver. A belief in the gold standard, however fanatically or incoherently expressed, isn't necessarily a "right wing" or "anti-government" viewpoint. While his reservations about the "second constitution" and its "ratifications" remain contextually unclear (does he prefer the Articles of Confederation or does he believe that some usurping charter has supplanted the 1787 document?) he doesn't appear, at least on YouTube, to have echoed the typical reactionary talking points. In any event, the inquisitors trying to trace his madness to ideology probably have it bass ackwards. If anything, reactionary "anti-government" sentiment is probably in many cases a subset of the sort of paranoia or other mental disorder that seems to plague the alleged gunman.

As a colleague in my office reminds me, what really should outrage people is not whatever the suspect believes but the ease with which a person whose public writings prove him a madman was able to pass the background checks required by the state of Arizona before he could acquire his Glock. The Supreme Court of the United States says that the Constitution recognizes this person's individual right to self-defense, but I'm not sure it's made clear what exactly he has a right to defend himself against. I suspect, however, that the strict-construction justices would not endorse his deed of Saturday as an exercise of self-defense, though he most likely saw it as a necessary act. "Tyranny" exists exclusively in the eye of the beholder so long as it doesn't exist in fact, and the interpretation of the Second Amendment as both a safeguard against encroaching tyranny and a mandate for individual gun ownership is a recipe for recurring disaster. While I think that no justice has ever meant to make it so, Second Amendment jurisprudence can be inferred all too easily by laymen as an authorization for assassination. I doubt whether any of the Founders considered either the militia or the armed citizen as the first line of defense against encroaching tyranny, but it seems that some Americans today do feel that way. More than the shootings of Saturday, which are crimes, that is the tragedy of the moment.