28 February 2011

In search of conservative art

For the past couple of weeks I've been pondering an op-ed Sam Guzman wrote for The Christian Science Monitor calling upon conservatives to create more art. A conservative himself, Guzman laments the absence of "arts and culture" sections on conservative websites, interpreting the absence as an abandonment of the cultural field to liberals. He blames this in part on liberals' more romantic, lyrical sensibility, while he finds conservatives complacently committed to blunt reason. In his words:

Liberals understand that rooted deep in the human soul is a love of beauty, a fascination with story, and an intangible sensitivity to the singing of songs. That's why liberals have sought to control not only the Senate, but the symphony, the storybook, and the silver screen. Reason is a blunt instrument. It can smash with all the force of a hammer, but it is art that subtly serenades and seduces. When the conservative forms a coalition, the liberal forms a chorale, and it is the liberal who wins.

Guzman actually does historical conservatism an injustice here. Nineteenth-century conservatism drew deeply from the era's Romantic movement precisely because that movement rebelled against the perceived soulless rationalism of the Enlightenment. The conservatives of that era had a profound love of beauty and as strong a fascination with story. They had a mythic, folkloric sensibility that stressed the unreasoning "mystic" ties that linked people to blood, soil and heritage. For just this reason a lot of modern "high fantasy" literature, and J.R.R. Tolkien's work especially, is often regarded as essentially conservative in its emphasis on (admittedly made-up)tradition and hierarchy. For Guzman to say that conservatives have some kind of aesthetic handicap says more about his notion of conservatism than it does about conservatism's philosophical heritage.

So what is Guzman's notion of American conservatism. What is it that he'd like to see expressed in art, yet deems difficult to express? His long-term goal is to shore up "the foundational values -- like chastity, faith and free enterprise -- that make America both good and great." In the short term, he'd like to see a movie that "depicted a business positively, or acknowledged the progress capitalism brings."

You can see Guzman's problem. Where's the beauty in all that, after all? Art, however, doesn't have to be beautiful. H. L. Mencken, in his capacity as a literary critic, considered prose one of the highest art forms because he thought it could express tough truths in a powerful if not necessarily beautiful way beyond the capacity of poetry. But the tough-minded prose works he praised tended to share his blithely pessimistic worldview, his view that life was, at best, a cosmic joke. By that standard, there's arguably room for a great work of art that's anti-utopian, dedicated to bursting the bubbles of liberals and progressives by imagining exactly how their projects are doomed to fail. Such books, of course, have already been written, but don't meet Guzman's need. What makes Guzman's ideology problematic for any artist is his apparent insistence on affirmation. However beautiful the end product, his ideal ideological artwork must argue that chastity and faith (and deferred gratification, no doubt) will be rewarded, that business is not merely practical but a noble way of life, etc. While conservatism's authentic impulse is to accentuate the negative, and its ideal literary form is satire, Guzman, probably without realizing it, wishes for a capitalist counterpart to the "socialist realism" favored by Bolshevik despots, didactic stuff full of moral lessons simple enough for peasants to understand. Nobody called that stuff art unless there was a gun to their heads, and it'll be no more artistic if it praises CEOs instead of Comrade Stalin.

Sam Guzman, described by the Monitor as an "essayist, columnist and poet" and "a grant writer for a nonprofit organization," is a creature of his historical milieu. When he complains of the absence of conservative art, that should raise the question of whether what he believes in is even conservative.

Sports unions: role models for the future?

The way Mr. Right sees it, the problem in Wisconsin and elsewhere isn't really with unions. It's with exactly the collective-bargaining principle that's currently at stake. In his view, collective bargaining in most cases only promotes mediocrity. Pressed, he clarified that he didn't mean mediocre individuals, but mediocre overall productivity. This sort of mediocrity results, apparently, when people are paid the same for equal work measured only by the hours put in. Employers should have more flexibility, Mr. Right thinks, to reward superior productivity, for starters. Such a system was already in place in at least one sector of the economy.

"Look at professional baseball," he said, "The players have a union and a collective bargaining agreement. But they don't pay all the players the same amount."

It was unusual for someone who has joined in the general complaint against public employees earning too much compared to private-sector workers to propose as an alternative compensation system exactly the one which results, as far as nearly everyone is concerned, in even more people being grotesquely overpaid. Mr. Right has complained about that system often in the past, to the extent that it favors certain employers over others, but it seems to have a saving virtue for him. Professional sports, in theory, is meritocratic, not egalitarian. The best players, ideally, make the most money, and each player has the right to negotiate his own terms. Whether such a system would ever have come to pass had professional athletes been public employees is a subject for skeptical speculation. As it is, fans subsidize superstar salaries by paying higher ticket prices, but being fans (short for fanatics) they seem less troubled by that expense than by their share of tax that pays a teacher's wage. They may be more disturbed by the thought that the next NFL season may be delayed or cancelled by a lockout should owners and players fail to reach a new deal this year. Should that happen, they'll most likely blame players' greed rather than owners' avarice, which brings us back to the Wisconsin model. Some people just have a habit of blaming employees rather than employers whenever disagreements escalate.

While professional sports isn't an egalitarian workplace, it was my impression that the unionized major leagues at least have very generous minimum salaries. I asked Mr. Right to confirm that, but the conversation seemed to trail off at that point.

25 February 2011

Pin the Tail on the Leader: From Benghazi to Georgia

Laid up with a stomach virus the other day, I spent an evening watching the world news. CNN had gotten a crew into Benghazi, the metropolis of "free" Libya and a tumult of suddenly free expression. Everywhere there were posters and effigies of Col. Khadafi, who had been made into a one-man menagerie, here drawn as a monkey, there as a donkey. At every opportunity people counted vicarious coups by striking these effigies and caricatures with fists, sticks and shoes. There was a charm to their exuberance, but I couldn't help wondering how Americans would react today if anyone took to the streets with a cartoon portraying the President of the United States or any of our leading politicians, of either major party, as an animal -- and then started hitting it. "Hate speech," I'm sure, if not "incitement to violence." But wouldn't those be appropriate judgments? You can't compare an elected leader or an elected representative, especially one who remains subject to re-election, with a bloodstained tyrant of forty years' reign, can you? I don't know if you can't, but I'm not. The subject isn't the leaders, but the expressions of dissent. Everyone would probably agree that all the caricatures of Khadafi are justified by circumstances; they represent the deserved hate of his people. But if they're appropriate now, was there a time when they wouldn't have been? Was there a line Khadafi had to cross, by a degree of violence or duration in power, before such caricatures could not be dismissed as "hate speech?" Bear in mind that we're not talking about violence or even express incitement to violence, but mere invective, here in symbolic form. I ask because there seems to be a trend toward zero tolerance of such essentially nonviolent invective in the U.S. on the ground that it nevertheless expresses "hate." The last two Presidents have been constantly portrayed as monkeys, and the supporters of each have taken any such caricature or Photoshop product as a grave insult. But the gravity of the insult is relative. Incidents like last night's episode in Georgia, when a Republican congressman was asked during a town hall meeting, "Who's going to shoot Obama?" should put the subject of everyday invective in appropriate perspective. While the representative didn't reprimand the speaker on the spot, preferring to ignore the question, he reports now that he contacted "the appropriate authorities" afterward. It wouldn't surprise me if some Americans have felt emboldened to ask such questions by the heroic scenes shown them from Egypt and Libya and Tunis and elsewhere lately. With little sense of historical proportion, they feel as menaced by tyranny as they imagine those who've labored under Khadafi's yoke to feel, and as entitled to resist. It should be possible to affirm objectively that there is no cause today for an armed insurrection or an assassination in the United States, and a congressman should not feel afraid to give a cranky oldster the tongue-lashing he deserves for saying otherwise. But what if you just think the President is stupid, or even asinine?

Maybe if more Libyans could have gotten away with mocking Khadafi in the past the way they do now, he wouldn't be such a problem for them today. I'm not suggesting that if Americans can't mock their leaders those leaders will turn into Khadafis...but maybe I am. I suppose I am saying that part of Khadafi's lifelong problem is that he's regarded any such mockery of himself as "hate speech" that impended his violent overthrow, and I suppose I do worry a little that more Americans start to feel that way about the way their heroes are treated by their opponents. With each fresh turn in power, it seems, each of the major parties grows less tolerant of mockery, assuming a slippery slope from crude caricature to "who's going to shoot...?" Partisanship may have something to do with it, since mockery tends to mark the mocker as one of the Other Party, the Enemy. There doesn't seem to be an objective, nonpartisan basis for mockery, and that throws the objectivity of any mocker into question. In Libya, by comparison, I doubt whether anyone, even in those parts of the country still controlled by Khadafi, believes his notion that all his opponents are drugged dupes of Osama bin Laden. Outside his zone of control, there seems to be nonpartisan agreement that Khadafi has run his country into the ground. But in America, half the people, possibly, will reject automatically the premise that any given leader is running the country into the ground, and many of that fraction will assume that anyone making the charge is some kind of subversive conspirator against freedom or the common good. So where is there more freedom today?

24 February 2011

The Wisconsin Question

We're being told this week that public employees are a privileged lot. Because of their alleged symbiotic relationship with government in general and the Democratic party in particular, they can get away with demands for wages and benefits that would be rejected out of hand anywhere in the private sector. While the private sector must be ever mindful of the bottom line, politicians too often borrow money to make life more comfortable for those workers who pay them back, in many cases, with votes. There may be some objective truth to these propositions, but beneath them are some less pleasant premises. There's an implicit assumption in the statements of Republican governors, radio talkers, and reactionary rabble, that public employees should have less leeway to negotiate for optimum working conditions than their private-sector counterparts, that they have less right to demand their due when their boss is "We the People." Of course, "We the People" will still want the best quality service, if we want the service at all, but we seem to believe that we should unilaterally determine what the services are worth, and that our will on the matter, this being a democracy, should be absolute. It thus appears monstrous that public employees should defy the will of the people and the majority of their elected representatives, and assert for themselves what their fair compensation should be. But here, at least, unlike when a sports team raises ticket prices to pay for the latest superstar acquisition, we think we can hold public employees to account. We can root for governors to lay them off. We can discreetly agree when some twit tweets that they should be shot. We can accuse the teachers of betraying our children by taking a sick day to demonstrate at the state capital when we would rather have our kids taught by the low-bid and most likely least qualified contractors. With that attitude prevalent, no wonder public employees are among the most thoroughly unionized in the country today; they have the suckiest bosses. But since this is a democracy, "We the People" must rule. So what do we really want? Do we want the cheapest public servants we can hope to keep? Or do we want our public servants to be slaves?

23 February 2011

Idiot of the Week: Wisconsin and environs

The Wisconsin controversy pitting the Republican administration against the state's public-employee unions and their Democratic allies probably looks like an idiocy magnet whatever your political or ideological vantage point. From a Republican perspective, the Madison protesters are idiots, or worse, for abandoning their duties to the public in defense of indefensible privileges, while those who see Gov. Walker's campaign as a prelude to a nationwide attack on all unions probably seem just as idiotic. But at the Think 3 Institute we don't usually recognize general idiocy. We prefer instead to focus on extraordinary acts or utterances that would appear idiotic regardless of your partisan perspective. When it comes to Wisconsin, those acts are on the Republican side.

Earlier today I might have named Gov. Walker himself for allowing himself to make unguarded, impolitic comments to a prank caller who had convinced the chief executive that he was one of the Koch brothers. By any objective standard, however, Walker must take second place, at best, to an outsider who has lost his job for making even more outrageous comments on the controversy. Our winner is Jeff Cox, a former deputy attorney general of Indiana who was sacked after he was identified as the author of "tweets" advocating the use of "live ammo" and "deadly force" against the Madison demonstrators. Mr. Cox apparently believed that his suggestions were an appropriate answer to the "Saul Alinsky tactics" employed by the protesters. He was convinced that the demonstrators had threatened physical violence against Republican legislators in Madison -- and I don't doubt, passions being what they've been -- that he was right. But it's one thing, however reprehensible, for a disgruntled state worker to mutter threats, and something of another order entirely for a deputy attorney general to advocate the violent repression of a citizen protest. That I expect from Libya, not Indiana -- and since Col. Khadafi probably needs all the help he can get right now, I suspect that Cox may not go without a job for long.

Republicans vs. Unions: the conflict spreads

The Republican assault on unions has spread to Indiana, where a "right to work" bill has been introduced that would make payment of union dues entirely voluntary. The idea is that in the remaining "closed shops" where all workers are unionized, someone shouldn't have to pay anyone for the privilege of working. As in Wisconsin, however, the motive of the Republican majority of state legislatures is clear enough. Unions donate money to Democrats and their right to do so was reaffirmed in the famous Citizens United decision. But their right to the money itself is subject to challenge. Republicans imagine themselves the defenders of those workers who don't see why they should subsidize a political party they oppose -- though I imagine they howl whenever anyone suggests withholding tax payments to the government to protest against war. In a democracy, minorities must abide by majority will except when the majority proposes to violate constitutionally guaranteed individual rights. The U.S. Constitution doesn't recognize a right not to subsidize opinions with which individuals disagree. That means you have no legal grounds for protest if a majority of elected representatives spend you tax dollars on the military, or on welfare checks. Nor does a unionized worker have any legal basis for claiming that his right of conscience has been violated if his union chooses to support a political party he dislikes. Partisanship rather than principle drives the Indiana legislation, and the other party has responded accordingly. Taking a page from the Wisconsin playbook, the Democratic minority fled the statehouse to deny Republicans the quorum necessary to pass the bill.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Democrats face a new challenge from an unexpected source. A newly-minted organization called the American Recall Coalition has filed papers seeking the recall of at least eight of the fourteen senators who fled Wisconsin to prevent passage of the legislation stripping public employee unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights. The American Recall Coalition is based in Utah, and is a front for an organization known as Americans Against Immigration Amnesty. The Wisconsin standoff has nothing to do with immigration, of course, but the Utah nativists nevertheless felt moved to intervene. They deem the Democrats' behavior a "direct threat to our Republic and political process" and an intolerable form of extortion complete with "ransom demands." But while outsiders can apparently instigate a recall process, it's up to Wisconsin citizens to sign the petitions. At the same time, of course, signatures are being collected by Democrats and their allies to recall Gov. Walker. It would be interesting to compare these extra-electoral votes, though they may not give us an accurate picture of Wisconsin sentiment. Recall is arguably at odds with the principles of representative government as they've evolved in the U.S., but it may be an appropriately democratic recourse in times of political crisis. To the extent that this is a conflict between labor unions and the Republican party which now serves as their boss or CEO in Wisconsin and Indiana, however, labor action may yet be the ultimate resolution of the struggle.

21 February 2011

'A Fiercely Independent Newspaper'

Hobbyfan, an occasional correspondent here, occasionally forwards me interesting publications he gets in the mail. They're usually things he doesn't want, sent to him by pen pals who don't realize that Hobbyfan doesn't agree with the viewpoints expressed in these papers. Worse, he often finds them downright offensive, especially when writers indulge in conspiracy theory. As a result, when he got a complementary copy of the Rock Creek Free Press, an eight-page monthly broadsheet published out of Bethesda MD with a Washington DC dateline, it ended up in my mailbox.

The RCFP is probably best described as a left-leaning "truther" publication. One of the front-page articles in the January 2011 issue heralds Geraldo Rivera's alleged awakening to at least the possibility of conspiracy in the destruction of Building 7 at the World Trade Center. On the back page are advertisements for various truther resources. The left lean of the paper is apparent in another front-page piece advocating freedom for long-suffering convicted murderer/political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal and a denunciation of Wall Street bonuses.

Within that range, the RCFP tries to offer a variety of viewpoints. The January centerspread is a kind of debate on the significance of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Along with a reprinted interview with Assange and a defense of Wikileaks by Chris Floyd there appears a critique from "Eric Blair" dismissing Assange as "not a genuine whistleblower" and Wikileaks as somehow a creation of the establishment for the purpose of justifying a crackdown on the Internet. Meanwhile, Gordon Duff accuses Assange of being an Israeli agent for having allegedly censoring documents that might prove damaging to the Zionist entity. The charge seems to be based on the fact that the Wikileaks document dumps have so far included nothing to confirm Duff's apparent belief that Israel was in some way involved in the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The absence, for Duff, can only be explained by Assange's suppression of damning data that must exist.

I probably shouldn't overstate the left lean of the RCFP. While it doesn't show the anti-"government" bias that usually indicates a right lean, there's still an overall anti-"statist" vibe to the paper. Absent from its pages is any commitment to collective action to reform society or build a new one for everyone. Instead, individual writers steer the monthly in a survivalist or secular come-outer direction. Simon Black, a self-styled "SovereignMan," takes "Lessons from the Fall of Rome," the primary one being that it's better to quit a declining country rather than try to reform it. He rejects the charge that such an option is no more than "running away" from problems, arguing with subjective pragmatism that an ideological struggle at this stage of national decadence is unwinnable.

Government controlled educational systems institutionalize us from childhood that governments are just, and that we should all subordinate ourselves to authority and to the greater good that they dictate in their sole discretion. You're dealing with a mob mentality, plain and simple. Do you want to waste limited resources (time, money, energy) trying to convince your neighbor that s/he should not expect free money from the government? You could spend a lifetime trying to change ideology and not make a dent; people have to choose for themselves to wake up, it cannot be forced upon them. And until that happens, they're going to keep asking for more security and more control because it's the way their values have been programmed.

"Nobody is born with a mandatory obligation to invisible lines on a map," Black continues, while allowing that "if you really want to effect change in your home country, moving away may be the most effective course of action." Doing so would "starve the beast," you see. Whether you believe that or not, Black believes that "our fundamental obligation is to ourselves, our families, and the people that we choose to let into our circles ... not to a piece of dirt that's controlled by mob-installed bureaucrats." His article is probably the closest to "right wing" of anything in the RCFP.

Further forward, the front page announces "12 Simple Things You Can Do to Prepare for the Coming Financial Apocalypse," a list that originally appeared in a publication entitled End of the American Dream. "We all need to start becoming less dependent on the system," the author argues, "In the end, you are going to have to take care of yourself and your family." With that in mind, a dozen suggestions are offered, most of them predictable enough. People should buy land and learn to grow their own food, for instance, while developing alternative energy sources and reliable water sources. They should acquire gold and silver and learn self-defense, though the RCFP helpfully illustrates this point with a photo of martial arts. The twelfth and final point is the maybe the most surprising one in such a list and definitely the most encouraging.

Make Friends. It is really, really hard to 'survive' by yourself. Those who will thrive the most in the future are those who will have a community that they can depend on. Americans are always at their best when they work together. Don't be afraid to reach out to your family and friends. In the times ahead the world will be a very cold place, and a little love and compassion will go a long way.

While nothing in that paragraph necessarily contradicts Simon Black's every-man-for-himself directive, there's at least a greater faith expressed in collective action, if not quite the democratic faith in the collective action of the entire community. Either way, the Rock Creek Free Press probably isn't a liberal paper if that means a commitment to the survival of everyone. It's not easily labeled in any way, nor do its publishers seem to lay down any kind of party line. There's plenty of food for thought in its eight pages, though nutritional content may vary. An understandable antipathy to trutherism probably shouldn't impel potential readers to ignore everything that appears alongside the annoying stuff. All of us need to cultivate an editorial tolerance in dealing with diverse points of view. Many of us may have utterly crazy ideas about why so many things have gone wrong, or untenable ideas about what to do about it all, but with so many people arguing, however cacophanously, that something is wrong with America, democracy obliges us to give more voices a hearing.

Wisconsin: Strike or Surrender

In Wisconsin, embattled public-employee unions find themselves dependent upon the solidarity of Democratic state legislators. Democrats oppose the Republican governor's cost-cutting legislation for self-interested reasons. As some progressive opinionators have observed, the Wisconsin plan to strip the unions of most collective bargaining rights, make union dues voluntary for members, and subject unions to annual recertification votes, can be interpreted as a "union busting" measure with a larger, partisan purpose of undermining both a reliably Democratic voting base and a major source of money for political advertising. Turning the labor dispute into a partisan showdown, as the progressive opinonators apparently want to do, is only going to harden attitudes on all sides. It'll only confirm the impression among Republicans that Democrats and "Big Labor" have a symbiotic relationship, and a parasitic one with taxpayers. However you feel about the overall Republican agenda, however, let's remember that the Democratic party's future is not the main issue here. The Wisconsin unions shouldn't stake everything on Democratic support. Public pressure on the fugitive legislators to return home and do their jobs will only increase, as will pressure on teachers and other public employees to do likewise. Legislators being what they are, it should be assumed that a Democrat will eventually be enticed sufficiently through the usual horse trading to report back to Madison and betray the unions. This seems more likely than the governor compromising his bill; he's told the national media that not one provision of it is negotiable. "Collective bargaining costs money," he complained in an interview today to explain why stripping the unions of most of their bargaining rights is necessary to reduce the deficit. If the public sector in Wisconsin takes itself seriously as organized labor, they should compel the governor to recalculate the cost of his plan. If they want to retain their hard-earned rights, even in the face of a hostile majority that calls them undeserved privileges, they'll probably have to re-earn them, and that means a strike. It can mean nothing else. Party politics most likely will not save the Wisconsin unions, nor is it assured that old-school labor action will let them save themselves. Nor will the matter ever be as simple as private-sector labor disputes. There's a level of accountability to the public for public employees that doesn't apply in the private sector. At the same time, the public, like any employer, has a moral obligation to treat its employees decently. Too many ordinary people are inclined today to dismiss public employees as mere parasites, as if each one owed his job to his cousin the ward boss and was incompetent otherwise. It may prove that the people as well as the political class will need to be compelled to respect the labor of its teachers and other bureaucrats by doing without it for a time. The idea, from my outside perspective, isn't to immunize public employees from making sacrifices or from contributing a more just share to their pension funds. The idea is to test once more the premise that workers in any job, in any sector, have rights that employers, whether capitalists or taxpayers, are bound to respect. Those rights don't exist in nature; they must be asserted and fought for until those who disagree concede the point. If the Wisconsin public workers aren't thinking about a strike right now, regardless of what the Democrats do, all their demonstrations of the last week will have been a waste of the news media's time and their own.

20 February 2011

The Perils of Positive Thinking

In history class, I was taught that French generals during World War I believed that their soldiers could fight their way through No Man's Land and drive the Boches out of their trenches if they had sufficient elan. When an offensive failed, as the novel and movie Paths of Glory showed, the generals blamed it on the soldiers' cowardice. A similar psychology of rationalization works on almost every level of American society, according to Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. My local library just picked up a paperback copy and it's one of the most alarming books I've read recently, a chronicle of a real-life present-day dystopia. Ehrenreich details how a bastardized version of Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism has permeated American culture, from the enthusiasms of Christian Science to the modern-day positive thinking industry of self-help books, life coaches and cultlike seminars dedicated to keeping people motivated to function in our ruthlessly competitive society. The problem with positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues, is that it too often offers positive thinking as a substitute for practical or critical thinking. It teaches that success depends on a positive attitude. It complements the personal-responsibility ideology of the Republican party by blaming failure on personal failures of will rather than circumstances that just might be beyond individual control. It even contributed to the millennial economic bubble, Ehrenreich claims, because positive thinking discouraged caution and restraint while enabling reckless risk-taking. In its crudest form, whether spiritual or secular, positive thinking exalts mind over matter, preaching that the correct attitude can overcome all obstacles, from disease to a glutted marketplace. In its place, Ehrenreich calls for a degree of "defensive pessimism," a willingness to imagine what can go wrong at any moment, an instinctual precaution that positive-thinking indoctrination threatens to extinguish. More importantly, she insists on realism and a reliance on facts rather than faith.

The scary thing about Bright-Sided is the implication that modernity seems to require uncritical positive thinking in order to keep systems running. Ehrenreich notes that more and more Americans have become salespersons of some sort, whether they actually sell products or themselves, and have grown more dependent on the sort of motivational rhetoric that dates back to Dale Carnegie and other authors once read mainly by salesmen. The phenomenon is bigger than America or capitalism; Ehrenreich notes toward the end how the same mentality is often forced upon the subjects of Bolshevik dictatorships, where failures to meet plan quotas are blamed on intellectual sabotage and people are bombarded with optimistic propaganda. For other people, cults provide the same motivational discipline, and Bright-Sided helps us understand how cults and cultlike phenomena in the guise of business could proliferate in the last century. Does the future promise more of the same, or worse? What Ehrenreich describes seems a lot like the kind of thought control that frightens people like Glenn Beck and his counterparts on the left and off the grid. But is a positive mindset on some level necessary to accomplish the great and in some cases necessary tasks other people envision for mankind? It may be idealistic to imagine more people capable of practical critical thinking, but for many others might the only alternative to some kind of indoctrinated optimism not be some sort of paralyzing pessimism? Perhaps an appeal to duty and honor might work where optimism seems implausible or an insult to the intellect. The fact is, more people could probably stand to get motivated in their own interest, for their own sake, their nation's or the planet's. There is a kernel of truth to the self-helpers' notion that we often defeat ourselves through pessimism or fear. There should be a way to overcome those paralyzing feelings without turning people into mindless cheerleaders. Ehrenreich herself suggests emphasizing that the right thing is worth doing -- and can even be fun -- no matter what the result. I don't know how many people would buy that idea, but it has the virtue of taking us back to our liberal roots, when process mattered as much as result, and how you played the game actually mattered more, sometimes, than whether you won. Positive thinking of the debased kind denounced by Ehrenreich is arguably a product of a world where only winning matters and nothing compensates for falling short. A culture more capable of compensation or consolation while encouraging real accomplishments might prove a more positive one in the better sense of the word.

18 February 2011

The political is the personal...or is it?

Michael Lind puts his finger on a major reason why I stopped watching MSNBC some time ago. In his latest Salon column, Lind condemns that network in particular and the "progressive media" in general for focusing too much on a handful of especially obnoxious or eccentric personalities on the Right, for spending too much time snarking over the latest outrageous utterance of Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. As Lind sees it, this approach only serves to make Republicans whose policies are just as dangerous but whose personalities are less flamboyant or abrasive look moderate or statesmanlike to the average viewer. It also reinforces the stereotype of progressives as self-consciously superior intellectuals who look down on populist protest and, in populist theory, the average American. Most importantly, this purely reactionary approach to news, in which progressives spend all their time critiquing the reactionary Republican version of the news, costs progressives their opportunity to play the populists' preferred role of "village explainer." Instead of constructing their own account of the economy and the global situation, instead of offering the "right" version of reality, progressives too often seem concerned simply with proving that the "Right" version is wrong.

Lind's protests are probably in vain. Taking MSNBC as our example, the "progressive" media is often the "progressive corporate" media. It exists to make money. As numerous best-selling books prove, there's more money to be made from hating Republicans and radio talkers than there is in making the case for progressive politics on its own terms. It's simpler and, for many people, more fun to talk as if all our problems would go away if only the Republicans were eliminated than to explain the responsibilities and sacrifices all Americans are likely to face in the future. In addition, it's in the interest in both major parties, and arguably more in the interest of Democrats and their sympathizers, to personalize politics as much as possible. While Republicans have the advantage of exploiting a generic hatred of politicians or bureaucrats as entire classes of people, Democrats have to focus on hateful personalities to energize their base. To the extent that both parties focus on hateful personalities, the strategy serves to emphasize the personal appeal of each party's own candidates. Bush's folksiness is contrasted to Gore's pedantry; Obama's calm is contrasted to McCain's rancor. The parties sell personalities because doing so perpetuates the illusion that this time voters are getting something different, not just another Democrat or Republican. Exploiting personality makes voters willing to try one of the same old party yet again, while emphasizing the most obnoxious personalities of the other party convinces voters that that party is somehow worse than ever. The politics of personalities obscures the continuity of Bipolarchy by turning electoral politics into a perpetually renewable struggle of good guys and bad guys. The good guys may seem to be the solution to the bad guys, but there's no real guarantee that good or bad guys have solutions to the problems that transcend partisan conflict. Don't look to partisan media for answers to those problems any more than you'd look to professional wrestling for excellence in martial arts.

17 February 2011

Wisconsin: Union-Busting, Partisan Obstructionism and People Power

At last in the U.S. we see a mass mobilization against retrenchment of the sort we've seen in Europe, a so-far nonviolent counterattack by workers against their government on the recent Arab model. The site is Madison, Wisconsin, where a Republican governor wants legislative approval for his plan to strip non-public-safety public-employee unions of their collective bargaining rights. What this means, practically speaking, is that the public-employee unions would not be able to petition for pay raises. Instead, raises would be pegged to the Consumer Price Index; any further increase would be subject to a state referendum. While this proposal alone has been enough to spark charges of "union busting," further provisions make the Republicans' intentions more clear. Should the governor get his way, unions like AFSCME (which was founded in Wisconsin) will have to hold elections every year in order to retain their right to represent public employees in even the diminished capacity dictated by the bill. A further provision certainly dear to many Republicans would make dues payments entirely voluntary, thus liberating public employees from the intolerable burden of subsidizing in even a minimal way any political expression with which they disagree. In return, the governor promises not to lay off or furlough any state workers.

The unions have summoned thousands of people from their jobs to demonstrate at the state capital against the Republican legislation. They are powerless to change the outcome unless they can convince Republicans that they'll suffer in something other than an immediate physical way for their expected votes. Since Republicans have a majority in the state senate, however, they can claim a mandate from the people of Wisconsin to do what they will, which really should matter more than what might happen at the next election. They can't do what they will, however, unless they have a quorum present in the senate. The Republican caucus on its own is one vote short of a quorum. Exploiting the situation, Democratic senators have gone into hiding, leaving the Republican majority helpless. Republicans aren't the only ones who know the tricks of obstructionism, it seems, and Democrats aren't the only ones who cry foul when loopholes like this one appear to negate their mandate.

In theory, senators can be brought into the chamber by force and compelled to vote, but while the presiding officer has the authority, his power to do this seems vague. For now, the Democratic senators are unofficial fugitives and the bill is stalled. Meanwhile, a modest multitude by global standards, though an impressive one for America, remains on the scene. They'd like legislators to think that they represent the people as a whole, but state workers are too stigmatized a class everywhere for that claim to be convincing. Their real leverage, or the nearest thing to it, is an implicit threat to paralyze the state by taking more people out of work to join the protest in Madison. History would then repeat itself, since recognition of collective bargaining rights often came only after strikes. Strikers historically enjoyed the support of their neighbors, but since many neighbors seem to think of themselves as the employers or overtaxed paymasters of state workers rather than fellow laborers, the public employee unions may well find themselves on their own. As I just suggested, that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be helpless, but they probably shouldn't expect much solidarity from a largely de-unionized working class, though the more politicized of the remaining powerful unions may make shows of support. Whatever happens, Madison should be the most newsworthy site in the nation this week -- and it is, in fact, the first story mentioned in the lead-in to ABC World News as I write. Cairo may have taught the media that crowds make news.

The Two-Party System subjected to debate

Last Tuesday night New York University hosted a debate on the harmful effects of the American Bipolarchy. Strangely, two people I consider partisan, Arianna Huffington and David Brooks, were assigned to argue for the resolution that "America's Two-Party System is Making America Ungovernable," while libertarian humorist P. J. O'Rourke and Israeli journalist Zeev Chafets were teamed to dispute the premise. The complete debate is to be broadcast on National Public Radio and cable TV next week; for now, this is the most detailed account of the debate and the rules by which Huffington and Brooks "lost" despite 50% of the audience agreeing with them.

Huffington's reported comments look trivial but telling. She described the present Bipolarchy as a "stale marriage," perhaps unconsciously emphasizing the bond that unites the two major parties with imagery that would enrage many partisans. Brooks contended that the Bipolarchy forced otherwise decent and reasonable politicians to "behave in ways that are worse than they are." We'll have to wait for the broadcast for more details.

O'Rourke and Chafets challenged the resolution not by affirming the virtues or necessity of a two-party system, but by questioning the benefit of adding more parties to the mix. O'Rourke denied that the Democratic and Republican parties even counted as such in the (for him apparently crucial) ideological sense of the word. The absence of ideological major parties, as he presumably presumed any alternative to be, was a point in favor of the American political system in general as far as he was concerned. Chafets spoke from his experience as an Israeli living under a genuine multiparty system, and made the most substantive comments so far reported. He suggested that the desire for parties to represent every possible individual viewpoint was hopeless. Israel has a 14-party system, he noted, yet he and many other Israelis still felt that no party really represented them. But should parties subdivide further or even smaller parties emerge, that would only make any polity more ungovernable, Chafets claimed.

From these early reports, none of the debaters, except perhaps for Brooks, seems to have addressed the specific consequences of a two-party system in general terms. The debate was more likely a deliberation on the particular faults of the Democratic and Republican parties than a discussion of Bipolarchy or duopoly as an abstract political problem. The mostly superficial early reports have portrayed the debate as a victory for O'Rourke and Chafets if not as a vindication of the two-party system. That team "won" the debate based on a measurement of minds they presumably changed. A poll was taken on the resolution before the debate started, then retaken afterward. In the first poll, 24% of the audience disagreed with the anti-Bipolarchy resolution. Afterward, 40% agreed with O'Rourke and Chafets. Meanwhile, despite their reportedly lackluster performances, Huffington and Brooks increased the percentage of the audience agreeing with the resolution from 46% to 50%. The debate served to focus people's opinions, the percentage undecided declining from 30% to 10%. An approximate majority of the audience was convinced that "America's Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable," yet that side of the debate is the "losing" side in the early reports. Media bias, anyone?...

16 February 2011

Second Amendment Martyr of the Day

Resisting a government invasion of his home today, a West Virginia man wanted on "drug" and "firearms" charges defended his personal space like a free man, shooting three marshals and, as of the latest report, killing at least one before losing his own life to the power of the state. Some of you may not be outraged by this news -- and to be honest, neither am I. But there are people who insist that individuals have an innate right to defend themselves from the state's infringement upon personal liberty, and I wonder where they draw the line and why they might draw it to dismiss someone like today's perp/victim as a criminal. Aren't laws made by the state? Are some laws more lawful than others? So who gets to decide that? If one man's law, or a million people's law, is another man's tyranny, who are the million to tell the one that he's wrong? That man was just making a living, probably in the best or only way he knew how. Wasn't that his natural right? Who are you to say he was wrong, just because the government says he was? A sheep? A socialist? Well?...

In case you hadn't noticed, I was trying to be funny, but this diarist for DailyKos is not. He should probably get the booby prize for being the first to "politicize" today's incident. To clarify: a criminal may have political opinions, but those don't make his crimes political acts....unless your distrust of the state renders every law suspect and every crime a rebellion. It seems as if more people should think that way, but they don't for some reason.

15 February 2011

A world government conspiracy invites you...

A press release arrived by fax in our editorial department today outlining a plan to take over the world. It came from a Canadian NGO known as Vote World Parliament, and announces the development of an embeddable "portable ballot" that people can plant on their websites or blogs. The ballot allows visitors to vote "yes" or "no" on the proposition: "Do you support the creation of a directly-elected, representative and democratic world parliament that is authorized to legislate on global issues?"

By disseminating the portable ballot, VWP hopes to accumulate at least 2,000,000,000 votes over the next decade. In the most provocative part of the press release, the authors state: "If 67%+ of these are 'yes' votes, we will consider the global mandate to be legally binding under international law and politically compelling even if it is not generally accepted as legally binding."

The guiding minds of VWP, Jim Stark and Ted Stalets, hope that they won't have to wait an entire decade for results. "Our goal is to conclusively prove that the human race is in favor of such a bedrock political renewal, and once that is clear, we hope to hand off the global referendum to the United Nations," they write. Stark and Stalets have prepared a draft UN resolution calling on member states to hold referenda in conjunction with national elections. If nations agree, sovereign elections will supercede previous participation via the online ballot. In a theoretical example, online votes from Canadians will be nullified if the Canadian government agrees to hold a national referendum on the world parliament, the official vote, presumably, taking precedence as an authentic statement of the people of Canada. Votes in the national referendum will then be counted into the online tally. Presumably, similar safeguards will be in effect to prevent repeat voting at other stages in the process.

VWP invites opponents of world government to defy them using their own software. They expect that "our opponents will embed the voting booth on their websites and ask their friends and supporters to vote 'no,'' the authors explain. That expectation depends on anti-world government types first taking VWP seriously and then trusting the online ballot not to be malicious in some way. In any event, the opposition has some catching up to do. VWP reports that 94% of voters to date have said "Yes" to world government. This is an interesting experiment in empowerment, but I dare say that VWP may need to get more entrepreneurial about the project for it to receive the attention and the eventual legitimacy they hope for. How many newspapers will report about this endeavor this week? Time will tell, but I don't expect it to say much. I suppose I've done my bit -- and here's another; the VWP website is www.voteworldparliament.org -- but I only stumbled upon the press release through dumb luck. They probably have to start small, but even a peaceful world revolution can't be done by stealth. Of course, if they have other goals, this is probably as good a way to start as any.

14 February 2011

CPAC: too big a tent?

How conservative is the Conservative Political Action Conference? Last week's annual meeting raised the question in several ways. First, Ron Paul won the annual presidential preference straw poll. Though he got only 30% of the vote, that still left him well ahead of his nearest rival, Mitt Romney, who got just 23%. Second, many annual participants boycotted this year's gathering because organizers had invited a new gay Republican group, GOProud, to take part in the event. The gesture was consistent with recent attempts to broaden the event's appeal. Just last year, the John Birch Society, a group once excommunicated from the conservative mainstream by William F. Buckley, was admitted as a co-sponsor of the conference. I don't know if anyone bolted when the Birchers arrived, but their appearance seems like further proof that American conservatism is in a perhaps paradoxical state of flux.

Paul's persistent popularity suggests that many of the Tea Partiers who participate in CPAC retain their original opposition to the War on Terror in the midst of Republican infighting over possible cuts in defense spending. Along with the inclusion of GOProud (itself described as "pro-defense"), it also suggests that the conservative movement -- or this segment of it -- is acquiring a more libertarian character. But the boycott of CPAC by various Christian Right groups hints of a possible schism within the larger movement, the long promised split of libertarians from "social issue" moralists. Some people clearly want to force a showdown on gay rights. Even Sarah Palin has come in for criticism from the theocrats and homophobes for affirming GOProud's right to participate in the conference. This looks like a doomed campaign. The Christian Right was eventually going to force a choice between "traditional values" and "freedom." If that time has come now, I expect most conservatives, being Americans, to choose "freedom." That still leaves the question of which side would be the "real" conservatives, or simply more conservative. On economic issues there probably won't be much difference between them. If anything, some on the Christian Right might prove more "liberal" on such issues than their libertarian rivals. But if both sides would largely agree on economic issues, then those can't define conservatism if the movement splits and each side declares itself the "real" conservatives. The theocrats and homophobes would certainly commit themselves to the conservation of traditional values, while the other side would end up sounding abstract by comparison, having little to conserve, I imagine, beside "liberty." Of course, some observers might have no problem declaring both groups conservative if they assume that conservatism exists primarily in the critical eye of the progressive or the liberal. Among conservatives themselves, I expect a "there can be only one" mentality to prevail. As ideologues, it's in their nature to seek out heresy in their midst and purge it. On the other hand, it's been argued that true conservatism is the opposite of ideology, preferring moderation to extremism and experience to abstraction. If that's so, then in a solomonic way the group that proves more conservative may be the one that claims less loudly to be the true conservatives.

From Cairo to Tehran...and beyond?

The Iranian government threw its support behind the anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt fairly early in the game. It had similarly endorsed the Tunisian uprising, characterizing both events as signs of an "Islamic awakening" in the Arab world. Like many Americans, the Iranians appeared to analyze developments according to their own ideological biases and wishful thinking, remaining mindful all the while about their effect on the people at home. The government has refused permits for demonstrations of solidarity with Egypt by domestic opposition groups. Today, the opposition opted to emulate the Egyptians rather than simply sympathize with them, and the government answered with tear gas. A new round in the two-year old struggle between government and dissidents may have just begun, or may already be over.

An uprising like Egypt's, which so far looks like a largely nonviolent triumph of "people power," always raises questions about the potential for similar outbreaks in other countries. Optimists like to imagine that people power can triumph everywhere, but episodes like Iran's in 2009, or China's in 1989, are debunking counterexamples. The success of people power always seems to be decided by the character of the regime it confronts. Every time people power appears to succeed, you can argue that the regime didn't do all it could to suppress the masses. Egypt lacked a cadre of fanatical regime loyalists like the Iranian basiji, as well, arguably, as the ideological self-confidence that makes the Iranians and Chinese more willing, apparently, to crush dissent at all costs. The intervention by Mubarak loyalists looks half-assed enough, in retrospect, to justify my feeling that it was more spontaneous than dissidents wanted to believe. It doesn't compare to what the Iranians did to their dissidents.

Do such comparisons require us to revive the distinction, popular in the U.S., between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes? Applying such categories, Mubarak's Egypt was an authoritarian state that was always likely to reform itself despite the ruler's three decades of abuses, while Iran (as an "Islamist" entity) is a totalitarian state and therefore more intractable, inherently less responsive to the will of the streets. Before drawing conclusions about totalitarian states, however, we need to remember the bigger story of 1989. While China crushed its dissidents that year, several European governments just as committed to Marxist Leninism, and thus presumably just as totalitarian as China, succumbed to people power, while another, Romania, removed its Bolshevik ruler by violence. These examples suggest that the character of rulers matters more than the character of a regime. We might still have a Cold War, after all, had Mikhail Gorbachev been a different man. Arguably, Egypt might still have Mubarak were he a different man. At the moment of crisis, some people simply can't give the order to slaughter their own people, while others can. Neither ideology nor religion, I suspect, can predict what any person would do in a similar situation.

Mubarak's fall has inspired some semi-serious envy among those Americans who believe themselves oppressed by an illegitimate regime. For the sake of argument, let's ask whether people power is a legitimate instrument for forcing a delegitimzed President out of office. While answering, it has to be borne in mind that people power by its nature is an extra-constitutional force. The Egyptian dissidents clearly considered their constitution void due to Mubarak's taint. The currently ruling military commission was only fulfilling a dissident demand when they suspended the Egyptian constitution and dissolved the nation's legislature. In the U.S., by contrast, arguments against the legitimacy of this or that President are usually grounded in the Constitution itself. American dissidents, in most cases, claim to act in defense of the Constitution, but that document makes no provision for overthrow by people power, as no such document can. That doesn't mean that dissidents can't put on a general strike or a like campaign with the object of compelling the President to resign, but to the extent that they seek only his resignation on constitutional grounds rather than a complete revolution in government, their actions and motives are subject to constitutional scrutiny. If they appeal to the Constitution against the President, others may determine that the Constitution sides with the President rather than the dissidents. The Egyptian situation was less complicated because the Egyptian dissidents have apparently rejected the whole structure of government, save for the military. In an American scenario, the Constitution provides for impeaching a President who opposes it, or merely commits a "high crime" or misdemeanor. If American dissidents don't challenge the Constitution itself, they may face pressure to defer to a constitutional impeachment process before taking to the streets, though they could certainly take steps to pressure Congress to do its alleged duty. At lower or more local levels of government, of course, dissatisfaction with misrule has a proper channel in the recall process. Whether recall is a reliable constitutional substitute for street-level people power in all cases is a subject for another time.

The funny thing about this theoretical discourse, as some readers may have already decided, is that the most vehement American dissidents against the current government don't usually envision their uprisings in terms of "people power." The way some of them talk, it should have been impossible for the Egyptians to chase Mubarak out of his palace, since all the firepower seemed to be on his side, or the army's. Did anyone in Tahrir Square last Friday have a gun? Did the dissidents win because they drove off the pro-Mubarak camel jockeys with a hail of bullets? It seems not. But this brings us back to my earlier point about the character of a ruler making the crucial difference. For whatever reason, Mubarak finally made firearms unnecessary for his opponents. But wherever a nation has a more determined, ruthless ruler, it's likely that no amount of firearms in the hands of mere dissidents, as opposed to a disciplined revolutionary army, would save their cause or their lives. Any popular uprising is a gamble, armed or unarmed. It all comes down to who you're dealing with. In that case, people power should work in America if people feel a need to try it, because a President would never order troops or cops to fire on the American people....would he?

11 February 2011

John Kerry: 'Early money wins elections'

The first post-shellacking begging letter from the Democratic party arrived in my mailbox this morning. It's signed by Senator Kerry of Massachusetts, one of the few Democrats willing to boast post-November. That's because he represents the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to which he gives credit for his party retaining control of the U.S. Senate. "For the first time in eight decades," he notes, "the House switched party control without the Senate following suit -- and that's directly attributable to the DSCC and the early support it got from individuals like you."

One might argue that the Democrats' bare survival is an accident of timing, given the number of Democratic Senators up for re-election last year, while the races where Republican challengers lost may have been decided by dysfunctional or divisive GOP candidates. But it serves Kerry's purpose to credit the DSCC for going "toe-to-toe with the likes of Karl Rove," i.e. buying lots of ads in those competitive states. It serves his purpose more to emphasize "early" support.

Ask any political professional and they'll tell you: early money wins elections. If the DSCC can outraise the Republicans now, it helps us recruit strong Democratic challengers to take on vulnerable Republican incumbents. And it helps us defend our own incumbent senators and preserve our Senate majority.

Kerry has managed to make the Democratic party sound like the NBA. What did he just say? Money helps us recruit candidates. It makes one wonder whether incentives are built into the deal. Does the candidate get more if he wins by more than five percentage points? If he increases turnout? Obviously, Kerry doesn't mean that the DSCC will pay candidates to run, but he seems to have let slip an unhappy truth about political campaigns. Mere public spirit apparently isn't motive enough for professedly progressive politicians. Like LeBron James, our theoretical candidate wants to know what the team is going to do for him before he discusses what he can do for the team.

The Senator is untroubled by his admission. His letter makes it more clear than ever that voting is no longer enough for American citizens. While "Vote early and often" was once a satirical slogan for a cynical age, "Donate early and often" is a simple statement of necessity today. On your donation, not your vote, depends whether "Karl Rove and his billionaire friends" -- as opposed to John Kerry and his billionaire friends -- will "buy" the 2012 elections. Why Rove remains the fearsome face of Republicanism for Democratic marketers is a question for another time. For now, it's enough to understand, as far as Sen. Kerry is concerned, that the only alternative to Rove "buying" the elections -- the purchase consisting of purchasing ads -- is for Democrats to "buy" the election by the same means. Such intelligence surely warms the blood in every patriotic heart.

Egypt: This round to people power

About ten minutes ago, Vice President Suleiman announced on Egyptian television that President Mubarak had finally decided to resign and turn power over to a military committee. This followed yesterday's hype and suspense as the American news networks expected Mubarak to announce his resignation that night and crowds gathered in Cairo and Alexandria in celebratory expectation. Mubarak dashed their hopes by reaffirming his intention to finish his term, which would have ended in September, while delegating certain powers to other officials. On U.S. TV, some reporters predicted, and perhaps hoped for, a mob storming the presidential palace, while the more hard-boiled analysts warned that Mubarak may have desired just such an event, since it would give him a pretext for martial law and a violent crackdown on the mass opposition. If so, the people refused to take the bait. They remained non-violent, and their reticence reminded me of something Fouad Ajami said a few days ago. Ajami is an Arab intellectual and a darling of neocons. He identifies the roots of Arab problems in Arab soil and sees no shame in emulating western political institutions. He remains an unrepentant supporter of the invasion of Iraq, but on the Egyptian question he parted company with many neocons, who trembled at the thought of Egyptian democracy from fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ajami's only courtesy to the neocons on this occasion was to attribute fear and skepticism to their opposite numbers, the dread "realists." But should neocons question what has happened in Egypt, Ajami noted one very important detail in answer while on television. Here is an uprising against an Arab government -- but where are the suicide bombers? Where are the bombers of any kind? Whatever anyone thinks of the Muslim Brotherhood's intentions or opportunism, here was a movement qualitatively different from the all-too typical insurrection. If the Brotherhood has hijacked it in any way, they have not changed its character; they have not steered the people toward terrorism. For that reason alone, I dare suggest, the Brothers are entitled to more benefit of the doubt, however odious their Islamism seems to an American, than Americans have been so far willing to give them. That goes double, at least, for the Egyptian people as a whole.

10 February 2011

Thomas Frank, Glenn Beck and the limits of partisan perspective

Who said the following? A hint first; the subject is Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations.

This guy changed everything, everywhere. The reason why our kids just want more and more and more and more and more is because of the system that Bernays built. He's the guy who after World War I ... realized our industry needs to just keep making stuff....Bernays spoke to the industrial groups, and they realized we can make more money if we just keep making people buy stuff. And he said, "I can make them do it!" His cousin [sic] was Sigmund Freud. They have been playing and manipulating us for a very long time....Do you know why we all smoke? Do you know why we have this problem with so many smokers and why it was so cool for a while? It was Edward Bernays.

The tag for tonight gives you two choices. So is it Thomas Frank, the lefty critic of commodified rebellion, or Glenn Beck, the righty espouser of conservative reaction? It was, in fact, Beck, who is quoted by Frank from a November broadcast in Frank's latest lead article for Harper's.

Next question: who wrote the following?
Take a manufactured takeover, like Guatemala. We engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected president, and this guy was popular, he was going to take their land back from United Fruit and return it to the people. So he had to be demonized before he could be taken down.

Again: Beck, quoted by Frank from his novel The Overton Window. To clarify, the character speaking is a hero of the novel. Frank finds these surprising statements from a so-called conservative, and his article for this month attempts to explain the anomaly. Beck's concern with public relations, Frank observes, is more typically a concern of the left, and one that the left tends to overstate, having fallen for the PR industry's own PR about its limitless potential for influence. Conservatives, Frank claims, don't usually regard public relations as a malign force in American life. Why does Beck think differently? Why does Beck mention the COINTELPRO program so often, and not favorably?

Frank finds it strange that Beck, his presumed ideological opposite, seems to abhor some of the same things Frank himself abhors. It seems strange, I suppose, because the two men, apparently agreeing on some things, arrive at apparently opposed ideological positions. To explain these contradictions, Frank accuses Beck of ignoring his side's complicity in the power of PR. According to the columnist, the PR industry is to blame, in large part, for the reactionary assault on the New Deal order; it strove to turn people against the regulatory welfare state by "link[ing] free enterprise in the public consciousness with free speech, free press and free religion as integral parts of democracy." If Beck does the same thing, Frank suggests, he is either a conscious manipulator of PR or a mindless dupe of it.

Beck cited liberal journalist Michelle Goldberg as an authority on police surveillance in an afterword to his novel. Frank invites Goldberg to wax indignant on such appropriation of her work. "It's really common for the right to adopt paranoid visions of the legitimate complaints of the left," she tells Frank, "Beck is a master of this sort of projection." Thus inspired, Frank sums up The Overton Window as an unconscious act of projection, with Beck making his villain a thinly disguised version of himself. On this reading, the novel is a "dark and muddled" confession of "an opportunist and a predatory deceiver of the most vulnerable sectors of the public."

It's almost as if Frank and Goldberg think that Beck isn't entitled to note certain facts or raise certain questions if he doesn't arrive at the same ideological conclusions that they do. Beck and Frank can't be in agreement on anything even when they appear literally to be in agreement, because a conservative can't be in agreement with a progressive. If they see the same things but draw different conclusions, they can't be seeing the same things. All this proves that ideology of any kind messes with perceptions. It's obvious enough that Beck has only a partial understanding of the conditions he perceives. For whatever reason, he's come to identify a menacing power whose roots in the private sector he readily acknowledges with the public sector, with the political order as a cabal of power-mad people dedicated to mind controlling the masses. But doesn't Frank have his own blind spots? Despite the evidence agreed upon by him and Beck of American state subversion of foreign sovereigns and internal dissent, Frank appears to reject out of hand any suggestion from Beck that the state is a rightful object of suspicion at this time. Like many a conventional liberal, Frank most likely considers America most threatened by greed rather than lust for power, as conservatives believe. Democrats and Republicans, most liberals and most conservatives, seem to insist that this is an either-or proposition. Either those who crave wealth or those who crave power are the enemy. Bipolarchy reduces wealth and power to uselessly isolated abstractions, willfully ignoring how they intertwine in reality. Wealth seeks power. Power seeks wealth. Neither Thomas Frank nor Glenn Beck seems capable of holding those two thoughts at the same time. Instead, people like them prefer to regard each other as the real enemy, when reality itself may be staring both sides in the face.

09 February 2011

Wafaa Bilal: From First Amendment martyr to Idiot of the Week

A few years ago, a man named Wafaa Bilal became a cause celebre in my old home town of Troy, New York. A dissident refugee from Sadaam's Iraq, Bilal became a conceptual artist in this country, and as artist-in-residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute caused a controversy with his "Virtual Jihadi" installation, in which he retooled a video game to make its object the death or capture of George W. Bush. Predictably, patriotic Troylets took this as advocacy for assassination (see also the reaction to the film The Assassination of George W. Bush) and Bilal was pressured into removing his work from the RPI campus. He took it to the progressive-minded Sanctuary for Independent Media, which found itself promptly shut down for long-undiscovered building violations by a Republican city administration. Leaving aside the purported artistic merit of his work, one had to stand up for the man in the face of repressive intolerance of dissident expression.

Bilal is back in the news today, but this time he has become a national laughingstock. His latest "performance" piece involved surgically installing a camera in the back of his head so it could transmit pictures taken during Bilal's daily adventures to a Qatar museum. On this occasion, not the state but Bilal's own body has censored him, painfully rejecting the installation and forcing him to have it surgically removed. The artist, now an assistant professor affiliated with New York University, believes that a smaller camera should prove more tolerable. No political context can exempt Bilal from the contempt such a pseudo-artistic project deserves. Call me a philistine, but I still think that art has something to do with aesthetics, and I don't think something becomes "art" simply because a critic or someone with academic credentials says it is. I allow, however, that there may be real artistic merit in Bilal's latest exploit -- but it is comic, and it is unintentional.

Patriot Action: the majority and the opposition

The USAPATRIOT Act has suffered a temporary setback in the House of Representatives, where last night a "fast-track" bill extending certain controversial provisions of the notorious bill fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. The extension is expected to be resubmitted in a manner that allows a simple majority to approve it. Had that been the rule last night, the extension would have passed easily. These facts make me wonder whether the Republican leadership called the fast-track vote in order to expose those in their own ranks who were unlikely to go with the program. Those dissident Republicans are the focus of news coverage today, since their 26 votes would have put the bill over the top. They are, however, only a minority of the entire negative vote, most of which consists of Democrats defying "their" President, who favors extension. Nearly two-thirds of the Democratic contingent voted against the bill, while only 67 voted aye. Technically, then, House GOP leaders are right to blame Democrats for yesterday's defeat, though some have also grumbled about freshmen Republicans who supposedly "don't understand the Patriot Act."

Analysts have been quick to point out that last night's vote was not the well-anticipated first skirmish between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party. As this report explains, only eight of the Republican naysayers belong to the Tea Party Caucus, a strong majority of which voted for extension. The GOP dissidents are a diverse lot. Going through the list alphabetically, I found one of the youngest Representatives, who's also an Arab-American, and one of the oldest, a rabid reactionary against Obamian "socialism." If there's a common thread among the dissidents, it's more likely to be affinity with Ron Paul than with the still-inchoate Tea Party agenda, but I don't have time to verify that hunch this morning.

What about the Democrats? Some Republicans are complaining that the usual hypocritical partisanship has led many of them to oppose measures that they had supported just last year, when Democrats controlled the House? But who the hell is they? NPR notes that the attrition of retirements, primaries, and elections has left the House with fewer "centrist" Democrats of the sort who voted for extensions in the recent past. There may well also be Democrats who've changed their minds over the past year, whether because they feel the "war on terror" has wound down to the point that Patriot measures are no longer required or simply in order to make a statement on what will prove to be a purely symbolic vote.

In any event, last night's vote gives us a new picture of the House. It has a comfortable but not veto-proof national-security majority, though it's unlikely that they'll have to override a veto of a national-security measure. It also has a sizable but containable minority that converges on civil-libertarian concerns from a wide range of ideological starting points. Majority and minority alike are bipartisan in composition. Leaders can blame unreliable people in either party for what happened last night, and the vote may well have been taken in order to expose those people to various forms of pressure from both parties. Ordinary Americans who distrust the Patriot Act and the expanded national-security apparatus it sustains should learn from this episode that they shouldn't look to any one of the major parties for protection from potentially abusive surveillance. The only way that last night's victorious minority can become a majority is by drawing from both parties. More to the point, opponents of the Patriot Act need to find more congressmen for whom party dictates count less than civil liberty.

08 February 2011

'The only good conservative is a dead conservative'

I didn't say it! I'm only quoting Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist, and he's only trying to characterize, or caricature, liberal attitudes toward conservatives of the past. He was provoked by recent observances of Ronald Reagan's centennial, including allegedly belated acknowledgment of his virtues from the Democratic party and the "liberal media." Goldberg observes that liberals only discover conservatives' good qualities when they're no longer around. He's inaccurate about this to the extent that Barry Goldwater's reputation took a sharp upturn while he still lived, once he revealed himself in the 1980s as a kind of libertarian rather than a dogmatic reactionary. Regardless of the timing of Goldwater's rehabilitation, Goldberg is irked by liberals' failure to accompany their late discovery of various conservatives' good points with appropriate mea culpas for their past slanders of said worthies. He seems to think that any acknowledgment that a Republican was right about something obliges a Democrat to admit that he or she was wrong about that something. It doesn't follow, if only because liberal praise for past Republicans focuses on character rather than policy. Democrats praise Reagan for the supposed inspirational effect of his optimism, not for supply-side economics or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Republican propagandists protest that Reagan's optimism was inseparable from his ideology, but some philosophical conservatives have noted how Reaganite entrepreneurial optimism, often fueled by credit, contradicts the pessimistic essence of conservative philosophy. The Reagan of posterity, apotheosized by the media, is not an ideologue but an orator, a necessary cheerleader for America in a moment of malaise. Liberals can tentatively embrace such a Reagan without abandoning their own views, or repudiating their warnings against Reagan the candidate.

Goldberg seems baffled by the effect I noted while commenting on Cal Thomas's centennial column. The main reason Republicans look better to liberals in retrospect is that, in most cases, the responsibilities of office require them to govern in a more pragmatic manner than their electoral rhetoric threatened. As I wrote before, it's the same homogenizing imperative that makes Democratic leaders look disappointing to their base constituents while still in office. Candidates who seem like ideologues often can't govern as ideologues -- or simply won't, if you want to be more cynical about it. The responsibilities of office require a Democratic President to perpetuate a Republican war, for instance, and keep Republicans from ever cutting budgets as drastically as primary voters would wish. Partisan imperatives, meanwhile, keep either party from acknowledging this about the other while both are in campaign mode. Pragmatism can only be honored once a politician is dead, retired or, in Goldwater's case, no longer perceived as a threat to the planet. Maybe if Republicans campaigned in the manner or style in which they'd probably govern, at least in some cases, rather than in rabble-rousing vote-getting mode, they might be treated while campaigning the way they'd like to be afterward.

It's also probably true, as Goldberg suspects, that Democrats discover the virtues of dead Republicans in order to make current Republicans look less virtuous. He mentions the argument made in several places that Reagan could not win a Republican primary today, but doesn't take it seriously enough to dispute it. The argument goes that Reagan was too "pragmatic" to win among the rabid GOP base. I don't agree with it, because the premise confuses Reagan the President with Reagan the candidate. Even accepting the premise that Reagan governed more pragmatically than expected, he never campaigned more pragmatically, to my knowledge. He always promised the base the red meat that he allegedly failed, on many occasions, to deliver. If some conservatives feel that Reagan betrayed them in the Eighties, he could just as easily fool them in 2012 -- unless you accept the argument that the likes of Sarah Palin, the radio talkers and the Tea Partiers are more rabid than Reagan ever was. As a matter of pure rhetoric that may be so, but by their acts will we know them eventually -- if we really want to know.

07 February 2011

H. L. Mencken's Modest Utopia

The existence of a piece called "Portrait of an Ideal World" by H. L. Mencken came as a surprise to me. It's actually a chapter of a four-part piece called "Meditations in the Methodist Desert," published in Prejudices: Fourth Series and now appearing in the second of two Library of America Mencken volumes. I didn't take Mencken for a utopian; I've already commented here on his belief that perfecting society was futile. He only pitied "forward lookers" who strove the right the world's wrongs. But even though he doubted that society could be made just, he did seem to want people to be happy. At times, he seemed to believe that achieving personal happiness, or even momentary pleasure, was the only solace in an "insoluble" world. Unlike some of his libertarian heirs, however, he did not always think that it was each person's own business to achieve happiness. In this sub-essay, he offers his own modest proposal for spreading happiness around.

I marvel that no utopian has ever proposed to abolish all the sorrows of the world by the simple device of getting and keeping the whole human race gently stewed. I do not say drunk, remember; I say simply gently stewed -- and apologize, as in duty bound, for not knowing how to describe the state in a more seemly phrase. The man who is in it is a man who has put all of his best qualities into his showcase. He is not only immensely more amiable than the cold sober man; he is immeasurably more decent. He reacts to all situations in an expansive, generous and humane manner. He has become more liberal, more tolerant, more kind. He is a better citizen, husband, father, friend. The enterprises that make human life on earth uncomfortable and unsafe are never launched by such men. They are not makers of wars; they do not rob and oppress anyone; they invent no plagues as high tariffs, 100 per cent Americanism and Prohibition. All the great villainies of history, from the murder of Abel to the Treaty of Versailles, have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.

I don't know if Mencken ever tried marijuana, but I suspect that he'd not object if some citizens elected to get a little high rather than a little stewed. The effect would presumably be the same. Since he was convinced that many troubles of life were insoluble, he apparently believed sincerely that most people would be better off forgetting them than trying in vain to master them. However humorously he intended this recommendation, Mencken probably tells us something true about his own philosophy when he considers the public-health consequences of his plan.

[W]hat I propose is not lengthening the span of life, but augmenting its joys. Suppose we assume its duration is reduced 20 per cent. My reply is that its delight will be increased at least 100 per cent....It is my contention that the world I picture, even assuming the average duration of human life to be cut down 50 per cent., would be an infinitely happier and more charming world than that we live in today -- that no intelligent human being, having once tasted its peace and joy, would go back voluntarily to the harsh brutalities and stupidities that we now suffer, and idiotically strive to prolong. If intelligent Americans, in these depressing days [c. 1924], still cling to life and try to stretch it out longer and longer, it is surely not logically, but only atavistically. It is the primeval brute in them that hangs on, not the man. The man knows only too well that ten years in a genuinely civilized and happy country would be infinitely better than a geological epoch under the curses he must face and endure every day.

Mencken, at least in his humorous moods, is a hedonist but not a materialist. Life, it seems, was not an end unto itself for him -- or at least its maximization wasn't. He had cause in later life to wish himself dead after a stroke left him unable to read or write for six cruel years, but one suspects that even in that purgatory the old hedonist found consolations in food, music, and so on. I suppose that he believed consolation of some kind within everyone's reach, and that he did men more of a service to recommend them than to drive them into battles he deemed hopeless. He's somewhere between the Voltairian insistence that each man cultivate his own garden and the modern lumpen-libertarian contempt for "whiners" and complainers in general. He did believe that individuals could improve themselves -- he did it -- but refused to believe that everyone could do it. He believed even less that they could be made to do it. In his view, those of us who think collective improvement is possible and necessary are only making ourselves miserable. Misery and frustration probably aren't desirable unto themselves, but the question to ask before answering Mencken is whether certain projects are worth the frustrations that are bound to come with them.

The Case for Government, twice restated

Since I only watched the last quarter of the Super Bowl, I can't say for certain whether anyone ran a commercial in praise of the federal government as Thomas Frank had halfheartedly hoped. But his Harper's forum may have inspired two columns that appeared in today's Albany paper, both urging the President and his supporters to make a stronger case for government as a positive good. Both Michael Waldman and Ruth Marcus acknowledge that liberals have some catching up to do, as Republicans and other conservatives have had almost no opposition while denouncing government's inefficiency, oppressiveness, etc. Waldman also admits that aversion to government is deeply rooted in our history. Thomas Paine probably said nothing new when he declared government a "necessary evil," though the premise has never been as thoroughly scrutinized as it should be. The entire concept of "necessary evil" is subject to challenge, unless you believe that necessity itself is somehow offensive to human nature. Waldman prefers Franklin Roosevelt's viewpoint -- which I've identified with Theodore -- which doesn't flinch from necessity even when it requires an expansion of state power for the public good. Waldman also admits that government inefficiency in the 1960s and 1970s was in part responsible for the success of Ronald Reagan's "government is the problem" message, noting that Americans do seem to desire the services government provides, but seem also to deem government incompetent to provide them. The case for government, he argues, must always be a case for more efficient government rather than a mere expansion of offices. Marcus, meanwhile, calls for a more strongly stated moral argument for government. Morality, in this context, is defined by human need rather than abstract ideological notions of right and wrong. Taking cues from a recent presidential speech, Marcus sees government as an inescapably necessary supplement to families, community organizations and the private sector. In Obama's words, the object of political morality is "a caring and just society." Government should be another expression of our charitable impulses, even though Republicans see it as a coercive usurpation of individuals' charitable prerogatives. Marcus wants Obama to follow up on such statements and make citizens' collective mutual responsibility for each other's well being a moral issue. She wants the President to affirm the "lasting necessity of government as a moral matter" and thus counter the Republican argument that government is too often an immoral imposition on individual liberty. Without stating it so starkly, Marcus invites a debate between collectively-defined, needs-based morality and individually-defined, liberty-based morality. Such a debate shouldn't be a winner-take-all event. The issue shouldn't be whether we'll be ruled by one morality or the other, but how much weight each relevant moral concern should have in public life. Republicans have missed this point through their insistence that politics is a zero-sum exercise, with every measure designed for the collective good inevitably and irreparably diminishing individual freedom. It can be argued that Democrats do the same thing when they predict that the abolition of even the most redundant regulations will result in increased human suffering. But liberals and progressives don't seem to be opposed to "liberty" in essence. Rather, they'd deny that liberty as they understand it isn't compromised by regulatory government. This is another topic for debate, as is the definition of liberty itself, not to mention the definition of the public good. Before anyone can make the case for expanded government, in an ad or in a column, we need to make a case for the basics first.

04 February 2011

Democracy for Egypt -- but not for the Brotherhood?

Had people like Charles Krauthammer had their way back in 2009, the crowds protesting against the alleged theft of the Iranian presidential election could not have removed their country's government quickly enough. In Egypt, on the other hand, Krauthammer in particular says go slow. The situation there is too volatile for his comfort, because a party he dislikes might end up in power. That would be the Muslim Brotherhood, which Krauthammer portrays, implicitly, as a conspiracy to seize absolute power by any means necessary. The Republican media in the U.S. has been accusing the Brotherhood of "hijacking" the protests for at least a week now, though Republican politicians are apparently divided over what should happen in Egypt. Senator McCain, for instance, is mainly concerned with getting President Mubarak to quit the country as soon as possible, while fellow partisans, including some assumed to be running for President of the United States, accuse the Obama administration of insufficiently supporting Mubarak. Opinion seems more firmly set against change among the opinionators than among elected officials. That's not surprising, since fearmongering is the opinionators' only real job, while politicians sometimes recall that they have better things to do.

Krauthammer is afraid that an election victory by the Muslim Brotherhood would be a reprise of the classic Third World political scenario: "one man, one vote, one time." On no other evidence than that the Brothers have "organization," "discipline," and "widespread support," and that they are, in his estimate, "radical Islamists," Krauthammer assumes that, once in power, they'll never allow themselves to be voted out.

How, then, to ensure that Egypt will actually enjoy democracy? Krauthammer recommends a military coup.

The Egyptian military, on the other hand, is the most stable and important institution in the country. It is Western-oriented and rightly suspicious of the Brotherhood. And it is widely respected, carrying the prestige of the 1952 Free Officers Movement that overthrew the monarchy and the 1973 October War that restored Egyptian pride along with the Sinai.
The military is the best vehicle for guiding the country to free elections over the coming months. Whether it does so with Mubarak at the top, or with Vice President Omar Suleiman or perhaps with some technocrat who arouses no ire among the demonstrators, matters not to us. If the army calculates that sacrificing Mubarak (through exile) will satisfy the opposition and end the unrest, so be it.

How would the Egyptian military guide the country to free elections? The best-case scenario, according to Krauthammer, would require "a period of stability during which secularists and other democratic elements of civil society can organize themselves for the coming elections and prevail." In other words, if there's a chance of the Brotherhood winning a quick election, then the election must be delayed until the good guys can get organized enough to overcome whatever head start the Brotherhood may be presumed to enjoy. It isn't hard to read between the lines; what Krauthammer is actually saying is that the Brothers must be prevented from winning an election. The military must either delay the election until such time when they feel certain, for whatever reason, that the Brotherhood would lose, or else they must simply exclude the Brotherhood from the ballot. I don't think Krauthammer would object to the latter option. The viability and desirability of it is implicit in every word of his column. He takes some hope from assurances that the Brothers have no more than 30% public support, which I suppose is why he's willing even to imagine an actual election, but given his opinion of the Brotherhood, I assume that the more popular they prove to be, the less willing he'd be to see an election take place.

Krauthammer writes that Americans' "paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time. That would be Egypt's fate should the Muslim Brotherhood prevail." Let's condense this to get to essentials: "U.S. strategic interests demand that the Brotherhood not prevail." Call me naive, but the idea that my country has a strategic interest in any other country's elections, and should treat any country differently depending on who wins an election, is contemptible. That idea probably has a lot to do with why there seem to be "anti-American" parties in foreign elections in the first place. How would Krauthammer feel if any foreigner suggested that the U.S. military seize power here rather than let a Republican win the next Presidential election? I'm sure he'd sneer at the comparison and the presumption of "moral equivalence," but shouldn't equivalence be the essence of morality? If you think so, treat Egypt and all its parties accordingly.

The Reagan Centennial Weekend

Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday is this Sunday, February 6, and I'm surprised to hear so little hype about it. Some people will blame the relative quiet on the mean old liberal media's refusal to recognize Reagan's greatness, but it seems to me that enthusiasm for the Gipper has died down among Republicans themselves. It peaked a few years ago, when some groups were pushing a plan to have monuments to Reagan dedicated in every state of the Union, and some people talked of putting his face on the dime in place of FDR's. More recently, by comparison, someone as presumably Reaganite as Sarah Palin reportedly miffed the old man's remaining fans by describing him as an actor, which is only truth. More substantially, it may be that Tea Partiers, among others, have picked up on growing criticism of Reagan among the paleocons at The American Conservative and elsewhere, particularly on the subject of deficits. As President, Reagan is alleged to have betrayed conservative principles in many ways, and one charge that seems to stick is that he was one of the country's most fiscally irresponsible leaders. While it remains true that he had to deal with or defer to a Democrat-dominated Congress for almost the entirety of his tenure (Republicans controlled the Senate briefly), Reagan still gets a good share of blame in retrospect for borrowing to pay for expanded government while reducing taxes instead of ruthlessly cutting budgets or vetoing them if necessary. Meanwhile, whether you believe that Reagan "won" the Cold War or not, the evidence appears to show that he was much less of a stereotypical cold warrior than many people feared he would be. While his stubborn insistence on developing missile defense cost him a major nuke-reduction agreement with Gorbachev, the fact that such a reputedly rabid anti-Commie as Reagan was willing to propose such a drastic deal to the Soviets remains remarkable. In any event, aside from debacles like the Lebanon deployment and offenses like the "liberation" of Grenada, Reagan as a foreign-policy President looks good compared to the last Republican we had in the White House. It may be that the "responsibilities of office" that tend to blur distinctions between Republican and Democratic foreign policy made Reagan a more reasonable diplomat -- especially once he had an even more reasonable counterpart on the Soviet side. Those responsibilities of office have a funny effect sometimes, often making Republicans look more responsible in retrospect while making Democrats look cynical, deceptive or unprincipled while in office. Whatever the reason, the last two Democratic Presidents have had little but good to say about Reagan, and that may be why Republicans seem less celebratory as the centennial approaches.

Cal Thomas is a keeper of the flame for Reagan, but his commemorative column betrays a greater admiration for an idealized, rhetorical Ronnie than for the actual decider of his time. Thomas's Reagan is primarily a moral leader in the sense that he preached values the columnist values. Reagan remains a great man in Thomas's eyes, on the evidence of this column, primarily for what he said and is presumed to have believed rather than for anything he actually accomplished as President. For Thomas, the preaching is the accomplishment. Thomas himself is one of today's top print-preachers of self-reliance and Little-Engine-That-Couldism. Disgusted by the thought of the people's dependence upon government (however democratic and self-made) in the modern world, he latches onto every aphorism affirming individual capability and self-sufficiency, hoping that people will prefer to do it themselves or go it alone, regardless of whether they succeed or not, and not compel him to subsidize their lazy lives with his tax dollars. Such are the sentiments of a spokesman for the "Christian Right," and such, Thomas proposes, were the values of Ronald Reagan. Reagan's true beliefs, or at least his practices, probably differed. His centennial would be a good time for us to get closer to the truth, to determine whether Reagan's birthday is worth celebrating in the future.