31 May 2011

America as Rome: as if....

"The relationship between the Founders and the classical past was similar to our present relationship to the Founders," Gordon S. Wood writes in a new afterword to his recent essay, "The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution," "Just as we use the Founders, such as Jefferson and Washington, to get our bearings and reaffirm our beliefs and reinvigorate our institutions, so too did the Founders use antiquity, especially republican antiquity, to help shape their views and justify their institutions. Today this classical memory bank -- those sets of ancient meanings -- no longer exists for most Americans."

In the essay itself, Wood argues that American ambition to emulate republican Rome died out pretty quickly, within two generations of the Revolution. While it lasted, the "legacy of Rome" promised an America much different from the one we know today. Wood notes that Roman republicanism, as the Founders and the Enlightenment understood it, emphasized "positive liberty," the right of citizens to participate in government.

This kind of positive liberty was realized when the citizens were virtuous -- that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community, including serving in public office without pecuniary rewards. This virtue could be found only in a republic of equal, active and independent citizens. To be completely virtuous citizens, men -- never women, because it was assumed they were never independent -- had to be free from dependence, and from the petty interests of the marketplace. Any loss of independence and virtue was corruption.

In the 20th century, a President could say, "The business of America is business." The Founders, Wood claims, thought somewhat differently.

Classical republicanism was naturally suspicious of the marketplace, of commerce and business. Of course, commerce as the handmaiden of agriculture was considered benign and in the eighteenth century was even applauded as a source of peace and prosperity among nations. Still, classical republicanism was mistrustful of merchants as political leaders. Despite the fact that they moved agricultural goods abroad and brought great wealth into the country, merchants were thought to put their own interests ahead of those of their country and thus seemed incapable of disinterestedness.

But what were the interests of the Founders' ideal country? If they distrusted businessmen's self-interest, they also distrusted the perceived dependency of the vast majority of the population. They worried that the poor or working-class people would vote, if allowed, according to the dictation of their employers or the persuasion of ambitious demagogues. Objectively, they believed that people who had to work for a living lacked the leisure time necessary to cultivate an enlightened sense of the public interest. Classical republicanism, as Wood notes, was an ideology popular with plantation owners, but it also appealed to someone like Benjamin Franklin, who only entered political life after he felt secure enough financially to retire from business and live as a gentleman. Republicanism in the Roman sense was something different from democracy as we understand it today -- a moral principle entitling everyone to a voice in the decisions that shape their lives. It was also something different from the 20th century welfare state. Merchants were not distrusted because they were reluctant to contribute toward meeting the needs of the poor, but because their self-interest, particularly if they were involved with foreign trade, might go against the national interest in time of war. The Roman republic was a warfare state, not a welfare state, and the ideal of disinterested virtue was the man who could put aside his material interests to put his life on the line in the service of the state against its enemies. You can see its appeal to a people who saw "barbarians" just across the border and foreign empires lurking nearby.

American enthusiasm for Roman republicanism was probably doomed not to outlive the revolutionary militancy of the Founding generations. As Wood writes:

Instead of becoming a grand incarnation of ancient Rome, a land of virtuous and contented farmers, America within decades of the Declaration of Independence had become a sprawling, materialistic, and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed. Buying and selling were celebrated as never before, and the antique meaning of virtue was transformed....Far from sacrificing their private desires for the good of the whole, Americans of the early Republic came to see that the individual's pursuit of wealth or happiness (the two were now interchangeable) was not only inevitable but justifiable as the only proper basis for a free state.

It wasn't Wood's business to discuss the long-term consequences of this transformation, but we're free to weigh the pros and cons. But while Wood doesn't attempt to argue whether American republicanism was compromised by the apparent abandonment of classical public virtue, the following passage from his article remains suggestive:

Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man's desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor. In republics, however, each man somehow had to be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires, his luxuries, for the sake of the public good. Monarchies could tolerate great degrees of self-interestedness, private gratification, and corruption among their subjects. After all, they were based on dependence and subservience and had all sorts of adhesives and connections besides virtue to hold their societies together. Monarchies relied on blood, family, kinship, patronage, and -- ultimately -- fear.

If the United States proved more tolerant of "great degrees of self-interestedness, etc," had it ceased to be a republic? If the nation had actually become more democratic, did this prove that democracy is somehow more tolerant of these perceived vices than republics are? Is that because in democracy, the national interest was whatever the majority of the moment decided it was, or no more than an aggregate of individual interests, as opposed to the objective fact the Founders implicitly assumed it to be? If a national interest is an objective fact, is it something different from what the Romans or the Founders imagined it to be? And if it is an objective fact, does that limit the people's power to say it's whatever the majority pleases? This isn't the place to answer these questions, any more than Wood's essay was. But this is as good a time as any to ask the questions rather than taking anyone's answers for granted.

29 May 2011

The Egyptian Experiment: How soon should the people vote?

Writing in The New York Times this weekend, Thomas Friedman echoes the anxieties of Egyptian liberals when he warns that the nation's first truly free elections could come too soon.

The Tahrir Square revolution was a largely spontaneous, bottom-up affair. It was not led by any particular party or leader. Parties are just now being formed. If elections for the Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

What do the liberals want? "They are only now forming parties," Friedman writes, "and trying to build networks that can reach the millions of traditional Egyptians living in the countryside and persuade them to vote for a reform agenda and not just: “Islam is the answer.” Some of these liberals seem afraid that too much party building could be bad. A liberal billionaire is "urging all the liberal groups to run under a single banner and not divide their vote." Before a party system even comes into being, then, there are "lesser-evil" arguments against pluralism on the premise that a Brotherhood triumph is an intolerable worst-case scenario, since it could guarantee an illiberal constitution. Another liberal pleads against an early election, arguing that the Brothers could only win 20% of the vote in a truly free election, but that that outcome depends on people knowing that alternatives exist.

These Egyptian anxieties are rooted in fundamental problems of electoral politics. How are voters to know what their choices are? How do candidates make themselves known to the masses? Political parties have developed throughout the world to facilitate this process, but it rankles for Friedman or his Egyptian interlocutors to suggest that party formation is an essential step in democratization that should take place before elections. We had elections in the U.S. before we had parties, but we also had a preemptive favorite for the presidency, George Washington, who was not suspected of harboring dictatorial ambitions. The issue for many Egyptians is the allegedly illiberal agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. But there are obviously two sides, at least, to this story. Is it fair to the Brotherhood to delay the elections until liberals feel confident that the Brothers will lose? The desirability of a liberal victory is a separate consideration from the desirability of scheduling elections in a way that gives candidates time to present themselves to the entire electorate. At a certain point you have to decide that all the parties have had their chance and that if one wins and the others lose, they can't make the excuse that they didn't have enough time to overcome the winner's historic organizational advantage. But there should be a period of time during which candidates can be nominated, whether by party primaries or conventions or by mass meetings. If the Egyptians opt for a standardized ballot, candidates should have time to meet whatever criteria the government (in this case, the army) imposes for earning a spot on the ballot. Again, this can't and shouldn't be an indefinite process, and the object of it shouldn't be to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from winning or even to minimize its chances for victory. Electoral politics in a representative democracy requires a degree of good faith in all the participants, and the electoral process shouldn't be skewed against any party or candidate. If the Egyptian liberals can't countenance the Brotherhood winning, they may as well ask the army to ban the Brothers and then pretend to have a democratic election.

One wonders: were there a second powerful faction already in place, liberal or not, would there be such a clamor to delay the Egyptian elections? After all, in the United States it can be observed that many parties lag far behind the Republican and Democratic parties just as the Egyptian starter parties lag behind the Muslim Brotherhood. Given how many opinion polls report dissatisfaction with the two main American parties, don't the several third parties in this country have as much moral right to ask that the 2012 presidential and congressional elections be delayed until they achieve some sort of organizational or public-profile parity with the Democrats and GOP? What American wouldn't scoff at the notion? Wouldn't it only prove that those other parties are just losers? Americans could argue that their own third parties have all already had their chances to prove themselves and failed, while the Egyptian liberals need a chance to prove themselves. But if any sort of existing handicap justifies manipulating election schedules, if not election rules, to maximize opportunities for weaker parties, wouldn't any party anywhere laboring under a handicap based on massive disparities of organization, resources, name recognition, etc., be justified in demanding new rules to give them all the time (if not more of the resources) they need to make elections truly competitive? If you can't justify that, then you have to tell the Egyptian liberals that it'll be just too bad if they can't find a candidate or platform popular enough to beat the Brothers within a definite period of time. If, however, you do think that disparities in size and organization distort the election process anywhere, my advice for Americans is: physician, heal thyself.

27 May 2011

The paranoia of the prosperous or the return of the 'revolutionary syndrome?'

In 1966, the young historian Gordon S. Wood wrote:

It may be that ideas are less meaningful to a people in a socially stable situation. Only when ideas have become stereotyped reflexes do evasion and hypocrisy and the ... mistrust of what men believe become significant. Only in a relatively settled society does ideology become a kind of habit, a bundle of widely shared and instinctive conventions, offering ready-made explanations for men who are not being compelled to ask any serious questions. Conversely, it is perhaps only in a relatively unsettled, disordered society, where the questions come faster than men's answers, that ideas become truly vital and creative.

Wood, who has since become the dean of historians of the American Revolutionary era, was addressing the historiographical debate over the significance of rhetoric and ideas for the Revolution. At the time, historians led by Bernard Bailyn were re-emphasizing the importance of ideas as a motivating force in their own right, in opposition to the "progressive" interpretation that dismissed ideas, or at least dismissed rhetoric, as either a smokescreen concealing materialist motivations or expressions of unreasoning fear or suspicion of power. Wood agreed with Bailyn that ideas needed to be taken seriously, but added that historians needed to study where ideas came from in sociological as well as intellectual terms. In "Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution," his first published work, Wood considered the possibility of a "revolutionary syndrome" that could be recognized in different times and places by the "typical modes of expression, typical kinds of beliefs and values ... at least within roughly similar Western societies." But in the quote above, he allows that under certain historical circumstances, the same rhetoric might not be so sincere. The suspicions expressed by "progressives" and other skeptical historians toward revolutionary rhetoric might be justified when such rhetoric is voiced in non-revolutionary times.

If, then, we see today, or have seen over the last fifty years, modern Americans echoing the rhetoric, and in some exotic cases the costuming, of the Revolutionary era to portray the present regime as a conspiracy to corrupt or enslave the citizenry, they might be guilty of the "evasion and hypocrisy" that skeptical historians sometimes ascribed to the Founders. Wood would caution us, however, before we jump to that conclusion. The conclusion might have been more obvious when the young Wood wrote, when the U.S., despite ghetto riots and rising opposition to the Vietnam War, could still plausibly be described as a "relatively settled society." Wood may well have had the reactionaries who typified Richard Hofstadter's "paranoid style" in mind when he wrote that passage 45 years ago. But what about now? Are Americans still so settled a society in the 21st century that the sometimes-hysterical, often-excessive rhetoric circulating today can be dismissed with indifference, or is that rhetoric a sign that a revolutionary syndrome is asserting itself again? It may be too early to tell. If this rhetoric seems to say nothing new, skepticism might be justified. If it turns out to be a starting point for the articulation of ideas relevant to the time, they may yet have revolutionary potential.

Partisan Immunity, Italian Style

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire prime minister of Italy, has stirred up a fresh round of outrage among his critics after complaining to the President of the United States (and into an open microphone) that the various criminal charges filed against him have been the handiwork of a "dictatorship of leftist judges." Perhaps the Italian thought that President Obama, as a Democrat whose Secretary of State is married to Bill Clinton, would sympathize with his complaint that sex crimes had been charged against him for political reasons. He may also have hoped that the President would agree with the implicit general premise that criminal complaints against political leaders are always politically motivated. One reporter, however, observed that Obama was "visibly perplexed" by Berlusconi's venting.

In the past, I've argued that the invocation of what I call "partisan immunity" is typical of bipolarchial polities, where no accuser is assumed to be non-partisan (or sincere) and any misfortune for one or the two dominant parties is presumed to benefit the other. Italy is not a formal Bipolarchy, but its governments tend to coalesce along ideologically bipolar lines. Berlusconi is the leader of a "center right" coalition, for instance, who sees himself persecuted by the Italian "left." But I suspect he might feel the same way about his legal troubles were Italian politics more ideologically pluralistic. There is a temptation for people in political power, and many of their acolytes, to assume that any scandal is part of a political plot against them. In the 1990s, President Clinton's alleged crimes could be fit into a counter-scenario of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" dedicated to driving him out of office by any means necessary short of violence. On that assumption, many Democrats determined to defend Clinton at all costs, whether he was objectively guilty or not. It is not inconceivable that political operatives might try to frame a leader for crimes he or she did not commit, but it is also highly unlikely that such a scheme could stand courtroom scrutiny. It's more likely that, while the leader may presume conspiracy out of pure egoism, his acolytes are motivated less by any objective conviction that conspiracy is afoot than by their fear of the evil consequences should the leader fall. In the American system these fears are especially irrational, since an impeached and convicted President would be followed in office by his Vice President and fellow partisan, though the scandal may be presumed to hurt the party's chances in the next election. The real fear is that the rival party or ideological enemy would benefit in any way from the leader's disgrace. Ideology and partisanship exacerbate the leader's selfish and self-deluding interest to combat justice with conspiracy theory. If so, Berlusconi's home fans probably feel the same way about the sex charges against him as Democrats in the U.S. felt back in the Nineties -- or as some French Socialists feel now about Dominique Strauss-Kahn's legal jeopardy.

In all such cases, fear of the ideological enemy tempts politically-minded people away from the demands of impartial justice. Representative democracy is in trouble when one party becomes convinced that the victory of another, while legally permitted, is morally intolerable. That feeling results in the sort of moral compromises covered under the partisan immunity principle. Regrettably, the feeling is probably irrepressible. A party can rise, after all, whose victory could prove not only intolerable but fatal for democratic institutions. We can't tell citizens to accept the victory of any party with equanimity. What we can do, ideally, is convince them that their party or their leader is not so indispensable that it should be allowed to get away with anything. That task will almost certainly be easier when partisans can't assume that the triumph of an intolerable ideological enemy is the only possible consequence of their leader's disgrace. This is an argument for greater political pluralism everywhere, but it doesn't rule out the possibility of some partisans assuming that any alternative to their leadership is intolerable. The triumph of such a party in any setting really would be intolerable, and the remedy in such a case might be nothing short of revolution. We can only hope that a more pluralistic political environment would make such outbreaks less likely.

26 May 2011

NY26 postmortem: the '40 within 40' formula for moderate independents

The special election in New York's 26th congressional district may have been a referendum on "Ryancare," but the upset victory of the Democratic candidate in a traditionally Republican territory wasn't necessarily a vindication for "Obamacare." Republicans, of course, blame the debacle on the third-party candidacy of self-proclaimed Tea Partier Jack Davis, a former Democrat whose TP credentials are thus suspect for many Republicans who claim the TP label as their own. Because Davis allegedly confused the electorate, earning 8% of the vote in the process, Republicans argue that their loss proves nothing about the public mood. But SUNY-Albany political scientist Bruce Gyory claims that the upset proves continued volatility and dissatisfaction among those swing voters who think of themselves as independents and moderates. They form what Gyory calls the "40 within 40" cohort: 40% of the 40% of voters who call themselves "independent" also call themselves "moderates." In his op-ed for the New York Daily News, Gyory argues that moderates repudiated Republicans in NY26 precisely because they saw "Ryancare" as ideological extremism, just as they arguably repudiated "Obamacare" last November for the same reason.

According to Gyory, the "40 within 40" are essentially reactionary, seeing no alternative to voting against what they don't like when they see nothing or no one to vote for.

These moderate independents are with neither Democrats nor Republicans ideologically. Instead, defined more by what they dislike than what they like, they have swung their vote as if it were Thor's hammer: in 2006 against Republicans over Iraq; in 2008 against the Republicans over the financial collapse, and in 2009 and 2010 against the Democrats over debt, deficits, anemic job growth and the public's fears of renewed inflation, even as the Fed was trying to combat deflation. Consequently, Hochul now joins Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, another example of a special election upset sounding as a fire bell in the night to both parties.

The parties, unfortunately, are awfully slow learners. Though the polling data have consistently encouraged elected officials to come up with smart solutions for long-term unemployment, both major parties have preferred to pursue their Holy Grails - expanding health care coverage for the Democrats and transforming Medicare into a market
-based voucher for the GOP - rather than confronting the jobs crisis head-on.

Gyory claims that the "40 within 40" are interested in job creation above all, but it's unclear what he or they mean by "smart" solutions, except that such solutions are presumably non-ideological. The focus on health care itself by both major parties reportedly frustrates the "moderate independents," who presumably want a more "head on" job-creation program. That might seem to give the advantage to Democrats, who are usually more willing to create public-sector jobs in a pinch, but Gyory says that other bipartisan plans already exist, but haven't been acted on during the clamor over health insurance. Job-creation strikes the moderate independents as pragmatic, while health-care or health-insurance reform smacks of ideological utopianism on both sides.

Debunking Democratic triumphalism, Gyory warns: "Republican mistakes will not secure support for Democratic policies. There is a powerful hunger for nonideological government that yields near-term results, not ever more rhetorical and ideological locking of horns." He holds out the implicit possibility that the first of the two parties to adopt the desired pragmatic course can win in 2012. But he notes that both major parties "practice the politics of photosynthesis. They've bent away from the center and toward their political bases." Since a party candidate has to be nominated before he can run, this imperative may be inescapable. If so, the moderate independents are unlikely ever to be satisfied by Bipolarchy offerings that are tailored to win base-driven primaries. Gyory's metaphor may seem unscientific if you think of the base as a lamp and the general electorate as the sun, but that might only prove his larger point that the current party system doesn't seem to make sense. Can an alternative be built on a foundation of non-ideological pragmatism? We won't know until we try.

25 May 2011

Advice to dissidents from John Adams

From the new Library of America collection of the Battling Brahmin's "Revolutionary Writings," here's a note-to-self from John Adams's diary of October 1761, at the brink of his public career as a dissident and ambivalent about his choices:

If We move back, thro the History of all ages and Nations, we shall find, that all the Tumults, Insurrections, and Revolutions, that have disturbed the Peace of society, and spilled oceans of Blood, have arisen from the giddy Rashness and Extravagance of the sublimest Minds. But in those Governments where the People have much Power, tho the best that can be found, the Danger from such spirits is the greatest of all. That unquenchable Thirst of superiority, and Power which, in such Governments, inkindles the Lust of Popularity, often precipitates Persons of the Character I describe, into the wildest Projects and Adventures, to set the World aware of their Parts and Persons, without attending to the Calamities that must ensue. Popular orators are generally opposite to the present Administration, blaming public Measures, and despizing or detesting Persons in Power, whether wise or foolish, wicked or upright, with all their Wit, and Knowledge, merely to make themselves the Idols of a slavish, timid People, who are always jealous and invidious of Power and therefore devoted to those that expose, ridicule or condemn it. Eloquence that may be employed wisely to persuade, is often employed wickedly to seduce, from the Eloquence of Greece and Rome down to the rude speeches of our American Town Meeting. I have more charity, than to believe, that these orators really intend an Injury to their Country; but so subtle are our Hearts in deceiving ourselves, we are so apt to think our own Parts so able and capable and necessary to the public, that we shall richly repair, by our Capacity in public station any Mischiefs we occasion in our Way to them. There is perhaps a sincere Patriotism in the Hearts of all such Persons; but it must be confessed, that the most refined Patriotism to which human Nature can be wrought, has in it an alloy of Ambition, of Pride and avarice that debases the Composition and produces mischievous Effects.

As unhappy and blamable as such Persons are, the general Method of Use among Persons in Power of treating such spirits, is neither less unhappy, or blamable or hurtful. Such Minds, with a wise and delicate Management, may be made the ornaments and Blessings; but by an unskillful and rough Usage, will be rendered desperate and therefore the Worst Blemishes and Plagues of their Country.

24 May 2011

NY26: Medicare referendum or Tea Party sabotage?

The news media has called the special election in New York's 26th congressional district for the Democratic candidate in a heavily Republican territory. This story shows that the Democrat will have won the seat formerly held by the disgraced Chris Lee by a plurality, while 8% of the vote went to Jack Davis, a self-proclaimed "Tea Party" candidate who was repudiated by many TPs. Since Davis had been a Democrat in the past, many observers presumed conspiratorially that he was still aiding the Democracy now, despite his populist protest against the trade policies of both major parties. In defeat, Republicans attribute the result entirely to this interloper, dismissing Democratic claims that the election was a telling repudiation of Republican plans to reform the Medicare system. As more exit polls are released, something like truth might emerge. I'll be particularly interested in the opinions of those who voted for Davis. If they claim to be alarmed by the Republicans' Medicare plans, I'd be more willing to believe the Democratic spin on the election, because it would show that people besides committed Democrats had taken alarm. If the TP voters simply took a "more conservative" stance, or agreed with their candidates' populism, there's still a lesson to be learned by the major parties, or by future independent candidates. Eight percent might be a good start for a movement or a dead end, depending on people's expectations for the present and the future. Whether or not the candidate was to be taken seriously, the turnout should be.

Nothing Less Than War: the U.S. and the 'Great War'

What if the Central Powers -- Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey -- had won World War One? It's an intriguing topic for speculation because we can imagine much of the subsequent violent history of the twentieth century never taking place. Assuming that the Habsburg and Ottoman empires would have emerged revitalized, the world might have been spared the Balkanization of the Middle East (not to mention the actual Balkans) that has sparked so much conflict. Had the newborn Soviet Union never regained the territory it gave up to Germany in 1918, the history of Russia and international Communism might have been profoundly different. Most importantly, for many people, a triumphant Germany would have had no reason to turn to Adolf Hitler, who himself, with no grudges against the world, would presumably have been demobilized back into the obscurity from which he had volunteered for duty in 1914. Actual events would probably not prove as utopian as I suggest here, and on top of that, historians to the present day argue about the extent to which Hohenzollern Germany was an "evil empire" whose hegemony over Europe would have been an unacceptable outcome of the war. "Prussian Militarism" was a demonized ideology a century ago, though I'm not sure whether it was a distinctively dangerous phenomenon or simply a construct of hostile outsiders -- notably the British and their friends. In the schoolroom history of the war, America struggled for years to maintain principled neutrality but was finally provoked by the unprecedented barbarism of unrestricted submarine warfare and an attempted German conspiracy with Mexico to confront and defeat Prussian Militarism -- though it took another war to destroy it for good.

Justus D. Doenecke's Nothing Less Than War bills itself as "A New History of America's Entry Into World War I." Doenecke, an emeritus professor at the New College of Florida, is scrupulously evenhanded, almost to a fault, in his account of different bodies of opinion in this country and the range of diplomatic options open to Woodrow Wilson's administration. While it's important to be reminded of the American opposition to war and hostility to the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia), Doenecke's commitment to balance obscures the fact, which he does regularly acknowledge, that public opinion overwhelmingly favored the Entente, with German and Irish-Americans making up much of the minority. But while most Americans sympathized with Britain & Co., most of them still balked at the idea of military intervention until Germany's stupid provocations of 1917. Even then, Doenecke emphasizes, Wilson was driven less by any mass pressure for war, or by any inherent sympathy for Britain, than by the ultimate necessity of asserting America's right to trade with belligerents with the least possible interference by any party in the conflict. As a nation, the U.S. had profited from the European War, trading itself out of a recession as the militarized European economies became increasingly dependent on American products and, in the case of the Entente, American loans. Americans bristled when either side protested that American shippers were aiding the enemy, whether with food, munitions, or anything on an ever-growing list of "contraband" goods. But British naval superiority allowed the Allies to simply intimidate neutral shipping into compliance with restrictions, while the Germans were compelled to employ a kind of weapon of the weak -- the submarine -- to sink ships bound for Britain. Each side was trying to cripple or starve the other, but because the Germans believed themselves to have no alternative to lethal force, they gradually alienated more and more Americans from their cause. As an American diplomat told the Kaiser, if two men jumped his fence and invaded his yard, he'd be more likely to chase the one who'd killed his sister than the one who'd merely trampled his flowers.

The importance of the neutral-shipping issue raises an interesting question about what it should really mean to be neutral in someone else's war. Many Americans objected to the idea of being dragged to war to protect those who were profiting from it and extending the suffering of all the belligerents. But none of these people could generate the political will to compel the country to cease doing business with all belligerents, either because they feared the economic consequences for the U.S. or because they resented any limitation on American freedom of trade. They couldn't help moralizing the issue, lashing out rhetorically at both sides without acknowledging any American responsibility for provoking either side, and once the issue was moralized, the Germans couldn't help but look the worse of the two sides.

While Doenecke insists that Wilson wasn't driven by pro-Entente public opinion, he does make clear the extent to which many American opinion leaders had come to identify their country's interests with those of Britain while assuming an inherent conflict between the U.S. and Prussian Militarism. The buildup to war in 1917 is an important episode in America's abandonment of its historic Anglophobia, and if anything Doenecke understates this point. I would also have liked more development of the roots of American Prussophobia, but that may have been outside the legitimate scope of this book. Doenecke does touch on a related topic, the surge of what H. L. Mencken (himself a pro-German Anglophobe) called "100% Americanism," and what the author here refers to as a hostility to "hyphenates." Both Wilson, a southern Democrat with Ivy League credentials, and his opposition, most noticeably the belligerent ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, lashed out at those who disagreed with them on foreign policy as "hyphenates," people whose loyalty was dangerously split between their adopted and ancestral countries. German and to a lesser extent Irish Americans were singled out for suspicion, given the pro-Entente bias of the American majority, but why wasn't the Americanism of Entente sympathizers also compromised or "hyphenated?" There were also dissidents whose stance could not be blamed on ethnicity: socialists, pacifists and isolationists, for instance -- the latter two to be found in both major parties. They were condemned by Roosevelt in particular as cowards and traitors, and the assumptions and prejudices underlying the viewpoint embodied by TR need more explication than it gets here, because it has deeper roots than Doenecke has time to explore.

Doenecke also notes in passing, without overrating their influence, a fad of paranoid fantasy scenarios about invasions of the United States by Germany, Britain, Mexico or Japan, all such accounts emphasizing America's grave vulnerability to foreign attack. While the American military was weak in 1914, Doenecke rightly emphasizes how fantastic these books were. None of the belligerents were in any condition to divert forces to attack the U.S., and would be in no condition to attack us for a long time after the war. But a certain paranoia about American vulnerability seemed to come with our assertion of a greater role in the world. It may reflect a sense that we were being shut out of opportunities by European imperialism in general (and by Japanese imperialism in Asia) -- not just Prussian Militarism -- before we could claim what we considered our due. It may also have been simple fear of the massive military machines constructed by the imperial powers, but however misplaced they were, their roots also deserve further scrutiny than Doenecke can spare time for.

Woodrow Wilson himself, at the brink of war, worried about its consequences for American culture. He confided in a newspaper editor his suspicion that "the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of our national life," since he feared that "it required illiberalism at home to reinforce the men at the front." Wilson was in a position to fulfill his own prophecies and went a good way toward doing so. Again, the why of all this is beyond Doenecke's scope, but as readers will have noticed, he does a great job raising questions in his readers, even if that means that we may not find all the causes of American intervention within his pages. As it is, his is a compelling introductory account of the conflicting impulses and conflicting interests within the Wilson administration itself, particularly its diplomatic corps, as well as the conflicting interests and impulses in the country at large at a turning point in its history.

23 May 2011

A time for truth?

A Republican actually willing to run for President in 2012 is such a rarity lately that it's worth recognizing the appearance of another one. Today's contestant is Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, who bills himself as the teller of tough truths -- which would certainly put him outside the GOP mainstream if he keeps his promise. Let's see how he started with today's official campaign launch.

"I’m Tim Pawlenty, and I’m running for President of the United States." Truth.

"We live in the greatest country the world has ever known." Subjective, unfalsifiable.

"But, as we all know, America is in big trouble, and it won’t get fixed if we keep going down the same path. If we want a new and better direction, we need a new and better President." Broadly true.

"President Obama’s policies have failed." Subjective. While recovery isn't coming fast enough to please most people, Pawlenty gives us no objective frame of reference to show that recovery could have come faster, or if it will come at all.

"But more than that, he won’t even tell us the truth about what it’s really going to take to get out of the mess we’re in." Conditional. This depends on whether Pawlenty himself knows the truth.

"Fluffy promises of hope and change don’t buy our groceries, make our mortgage payments, put gas in our cars, or pay for our children’s clothes." True but meaningless, since no one has proposed to pay or provide for us with promises of any texture.

"Our country is going broke, and the pain of the recent recession will pale in comparison to what’s coming, if we don’t get spending in Washington D.C. under control. " Speculative on both counts. Pawlenty assumes that government spending is the necessary and sufficient cause of whatever economic disaster awaits, but austerity alone may not stave it off.

"President Obama doesn’t have an economic plan. He just has a campaign plan." Lie. The President may not have a good plan, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have one. The last sentence is pure ad hominem.

"But the truth is, since President Obama took office, massive numbers of Americans can’t find a job." Incomplete information. There was no full employment as of January 2009.

"We’re four trillion dollars deeper in debt." Truth.

"And his health care plan is an unmitigated disaster for our country." Conjectural, unproven.

"[T]he cuts we need to make – the cuts we must make – can’t just be to somebody else’s programs. The changes history is calling on America to make today cannot be shouldered only by people richer than us or poorer than us – but by us, too." Truth.

"If we want to grow our economy, we need to shrink our government." Non sequitur.

"If we want to create jobs, we need to encourage job creators." Vague. If someone has something he thinks he can sell, he'll need no encouragement from "us" to create jobs. Likewise, if he has no idea he can sell, no amount of encouragement from "us" will create a single job.

"The truth is, people getting paid by the taxpayers shouldn’t get a better deal than the taxpayers themselves.
That means freezing federal salaries, transitioning federal employee benefits, and downsizing the federal workforce as it retires." Conditional, opinion. If we replace "taxpayers" with "consumers," would Pawlenty still agree? Or is his assertion relevant only when people are paid by taxes? Even if the candidate elaborated, however, this would remain a value statement, not one of fact.

"The hard truth is that there are no longer any sacred programs." Truth, but incomplete. This was Pawlenty's preface to a round of tough talk to his Iowan audience, during which he informed them that he intended to cut their precious ethanol subsidies if elected. Leaving the merits of that policy aside, I'd be more convinced of the truth of his toughness had he said in this speech that he'd cut military spending, but he didn't say whether he would or not.

There follow numerous campaign promises, the truth of which can only be verified later, and references to his record as governor of Minnesota, verification of which must be left to the experts. Pawlenty returns to "truths" as he nears the end of his talk.

"If prosperity were easy, everyone around the world would be prosperous." Conditional. This depends on what Pawlenty means by prosperity.

"If security were easy, everyone around the world would be secure." See above.

"If freedom were easy, everyone would be free." Ditto.

* * *
A truth check on myself is in order. Since this is the first time I've done this for a campaign speech -- Pawlenty's choice of "A Time For Truth" as his slogan pretty much asked for it -- I have no way to tell you how the new candidate's truthfulness or "truthiness" compares to anyone else in the 2012 field. The Minnesotan's speech has some indisputable and even admirable points -- but if you could look hard enough, you could probably salvage something creditable from any campaign talk. I also approach Pawlenty from a stance of hostility toward the Republican party and the barely-veiled plutocratic values for which it stands. That means that I won't accept as truth certain assertions Pawlenty himself obviously takes for granted. These could be dismissed as mere conflicts of values, but many Republican claims these days are based on assumptions disguised as economic laws that should be subject to historical verification or refutation. Pawlenty's announcement blends facts and values in a dubious mix, but any Democrat would do the same thing. I welcome his call for truth, but truth, if it be told, can only be a starting point for the necessary debate on a new direction for the country, and the debate must be waged among competing sets of values -- rival visions of the individual, national and common good. It would be great if one's values could be proven correct, but none of us can depend on that -- yet the debate must go on regardless. What we need is for candidates to tell us the truth about their values: how they expect us to behave, what they think we have a right to expect or demand, etc. Pawlenty takes a few steps in that direction but, like every other candidate, he has a long way to go.

GOP: job creation by paradox

Chris Gibson represents the congressional district that neighbors mine. He wrote an op-ed that was published yesterday in one of the papers I work for. In it, the freshman Republican lays down his priorities for "Restoring America's Greatness." As Republican priorities, these are predictable enough. Mentioned first, and presumably Gibson's first priority, is creating jobs. He opens with this disclaimer: "I firmly believe that jobs are not created by an act of Congress." The congressman follows this with the standard GOP argument that maximum job creation will result from minimized government interference. "Congress should focus on fostering a business environment that allows for job creation by attacking the impediments to growth," he writes, "high taxes, onerous and duplicative regulations and spiraling health care and energy costs." Implicit here is the key to Republicans' magical thinking about the American economy. Taxes and regulations are the impediments to growth. Factors independent of government, like global economic competition or any fluctuation in demand due to poverty or market saturation, apparently have no bearing on the economy's rate of or capacity for growth. Remove those impediments imposed by government, Republicans assume, and demand, competiveness and overall job creation will take care of themselves. If the economy doesn't recover, of course, Republicans will say that the government is still overburdening it with regulations and taxes. But if it does, regardless of the factors that might actually drive a recovery, I can guarantee you that, despite his disclaimer, Rep. Gibson, along with all his fellow Republicans, will say that they created jobs. If so, which statement would be the lie -- the disclaimer or the boast?

20 May 2011

Wasting the labor of Jefferson?

Cal Thomas if fulminating against debt and dependence again this weekend, and in his latest column he drags Thomas Jefferson into the debate. Claiming that Jefferson, who died notoriously insolvent, offered Americans "the most profound remonstrance concerning debt," Thomas throws this quote at his readers.

I place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers to be feared. To preserve our independence, we must not let our leaders load us with perpetual debt. If we run into such debts, we must be taxed in our meat and drink, in our necessities and in our comforts, in our labor and in our amusements. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labor of the people, under the pretense of caring for them, they will be happy.

While this didn't necessarily sound unlike Jefferson overall, something didn't quite seem right about the quote. The last sentence sounded a little too much like a swipe at a welfare state ("the pretense of caring for them") that Jefferson probably couldn't have even imagined in his lifetime. I googled the suspicious phrase and found many links to websites and blogs sporting the same quote, but none of them provided a date or context for the quote. I finally went to official Jefferson online resources in search of clarification. As it happens, the sentence of which I was most suspicious is authentic -- but it doesn't come attached to the rest of the quote.

President Jefferson wrote a letter to Thomas Cooper on November 29, 1802. About half of the letter consists of European political gossip concerning the new Tsar of Russia and the dimming prospects for liberty in Napoleonic France. Jefferson then turns to domestic politics, boasting of "the good effects of our late financial arrangements." He claims that "our citizens are fast returning, from the panic into which they were artfully thrown to the dictates of their own reason," presumably referring to some aspect of alleged Federalist misgovernment during the John Adams administration. We now come to the quote in question; its context is revealed in the text that follows.

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism. The gripe of the latter has shown itself as deadly as the jaws of the former. Our adversaries say we are indebted to their providence for the means of paying the public debt. We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they had levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.

None of the text quoted by Cal Thomas before "If we can prevent...." comes from the letter to Cooper. It may have been and probably was written by Jefferson, but the source from which the columnist took his quote sloppily threw two or more texts together to arrive at this popular paragraph. Notice, also, that Jefferson isn't indicting deficit spending by Federalists. The issue apparently isn't a debt but a surplus. Jefferson is accusing Federalists of spending more money than the country needed, not more than it actually had, while his antagonists were apparently boasting of being the party of fiscal responsibility themselves. Cal Thomas seems to have been bamboozled by a compiler who blended Jefferson's remark about "wasting the labor of the people" with a separate (but presumably Jeffersonian) rant against debt, most likely in order to make Jefferson appear as a prophet against deficit spending on the modern welfare state. The anonymous compiler has Jefferson warning against governments going into "perpetual debt ... under the pretense of caring," and while that may be a plausible extrapolation of Jefferson's thought, it's still a somewhat shady manipulation of the historical record. If Republicans or Libertarians want to make use of the actual letter to Cooper, it could come in handy for arguments against exorbitant or unnecessary spending, but on the subject of debt, on which Jefferson was no expert, they should look for Founding arguments elsewhere.

19 May 2011

Reflections on the 'Arab Spring'

Osama bin Laden and the President of the United States agreed on at least one thing: that the "Arab Spring" popular uprisings, or at least the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, are good things for the region. In what MSNBC idiotically calls a "posthumous tape," the late al-Qaeda leader praised the region's rebels in a recording made some time before he was killed. The tape was only released posthumously; bin Laden has no supernatural powers that we are yet aware of. In any event, his comments seem to have been phrased, if we can judge by the fragmentary translation provided here, in the vague, flowery rhetoric of which many Arab orators are supposedly fond. The terrorist emir worried, however, that Muslims would not take full advantage of the opportunity of the moment. "Lack of awareness" on the part of the people threatens to turn the Arab Spring into a "great catastrophe," bin Laden warned, if the Ummah doesn't follow through and "destroy the idols and statues and establish justice and faith" by liberating themselves from "man-made laws." He feared that too many years of rulers broadcasting "the wrong culture" had handicapped or brainwashed the masses, as apparently proven by their failure to rise at his prompting and revolt in his way -- the so-called way of Allah.

The President's remarks today were more plodding and pedantic, but echoed bin Laden's in their hope that the Arab Spring would lead to something better if the Arabs played their cards right. Obama apparently buys into the premise that anti-American sentiment in the Middle East was the product of tyrannical propaganda. "In the face of [modern] challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere," he said today, "The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism." Israel, too, became a scapegoat, but while the President said later in his talk that the Jewish state was obliged to make serious compromises for the sake of peace, as far as the U.S. is concerned, "America's interests are not hostile to peoples' hopes; they are essential to them." Obama vows that America will continue to pursue its "core interests" in the region, but will no longer do so in a "narrow" way, without recognizing the needs of the region's poor or the right of its people to speak their minds. Every prior President from Carter to George W. Bush has pretty much said the same thing. While Obama emphasizes that "we must proceed with a sense of humility," let's recall that his immediate predecessor also promised a "humble" foreign policy before he was provoked out of his humility.

While the President hoped to show firmness toward Israel with his headline insistence that it retreat to its borders from before the Six-Day War, his hostility toward Iran was more convincing. He called the Iranians hypocrites for cheering on the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, not to mention the resistance among Bahraini Shiites, while allegedly aiding Syria in its suppression of the anti-Assad uprising. But who isn't hypocritical in the Middle East? Obama himself was at pains to perpetuate the story that the apparently inept Libyan army was so extraordinary a threat to its own dissident people that military intervention against Col. Khadafi was justified, while it was not justified against the still-deplorable repression of dissent in Bahrain -- nor, apparently, against comparably bloody repressions in Africa. Bahraini repression was clearly deplorable, but perhaps because Iran "has tried to take advantage of the turmoil," America would do no more than deplore it. It's clear enough that for Obama, the "great catastrophe" would be the emergence of Iran as the superpower or even the role model of the region. As a good hater of Shiites, bin Laden would probably agree with this point, too. Overall, of course, Obama and Osama had starkly different visions for the future of the Middle East and the Arab world. They were alike, however, in their insistence that Arabs play roles assigned to them by Islamism's militant imperatives or America's liberal-individualist ideology. Each will be, or would have been, disappointed if the aspiring Arabs fail to behave as religion or ideology commands that they should, but true believers in democracy should have no such reservations -- yet. We'll have as much right as anyone to criticize the results if things go wrong, but let's withhold judgment while the Arabs figure things out for themselves.

18 May 2011

The Strauss-Kahn scandal and the conspiratorial compulsion

Like many people, I can't help thinking conspiratorially about last weekend's arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund president and once-likely Socialist candidate for President of France. Unlike some of those other people, I don't feel strongly that there was a conspiracy behind Strauss-Kahn's arrest at Kennedy Airport for the attempted rape of a hotel maid, but I can't help imagining the "who benefits?" scenarios. Is it a conspiracy against Strauss-Kahn personally, or against the Socialist Party, or against France, or against the IMF itself? Is it a conspiracy by rivals in his party, or by the rival party of President Sarkozy, or by a rival faction in the IMF, or by powerful forces in Europe or the U.S.? The cynical irony of it all is that the apparently impartial exercise of criminal justice so far has probably only fueled conspiracy theory. We don't expect a powerful person like Strauss-Kahn to be treated like a common criminal, so when he is, we're tempted to assume that some arbitrary, self-interested power is behind his treatment. We assume the word is run in conspiratorial fashion normally, and we also assume that any disruption in the normal routine is also a conspiracy. We know that conspiracies actually exist in the form of cover-ups, but the fact that we know there are such things as cover-ups only encourages conspiracymongering. But because facts are still covered-up, we often think conspiratorially in terms of abstractions like "power." Because we often don't know what our leaders and representatives are actually doing, we work from assumptions of what "power" does. "Power" comes to be seen not as a tool available for anyone's use, but as a malignant entity in its own right, with its own interests. Many among us long for order without power and end up advocating the unilateral disarmament, so to speak, of some legitimate powers for the (perhaps unintended) further empowerment of others. Conspiracymongering reflects not just a fear of complex systems but an essential ignorance of how actual power is made and used in public life. Given Americans' reportedly poor performance on civics on a recent "national report card," any greater receptivity to conspiracymongering in this country should be no surprise. It's a response to powerlessness compounded by ignorance, and the remedy is not to fight "power" but to take power -- to relearn our just powers and take responsibility for them ourselves instead of entrusting them to surrogates (like the major political parties) whom we'll end up distrusting anyway. Anything short of that means living in a dreamworld of perpetual fear, or the powerless wargame of the conspiratorial mind.

17 May 2011

Libertarians sue North Dakota, ask blogger for money

NOTE: This article was originally posted on May 12, Blogger's "Black Thursday," and was only restored to me for editing on the afternoon of May 17.

You'd think that a state like North Dakota would be a hotbed of libertarianism, but the Libertarian Party of North Dakota has had to go to court in order to run candidates for office this year. That's because the state's election law imposes a threshold for participation in a general election based on primary turnout. Since the state has open primaries, the election law seems to treat Primary Day as a kind of first-round vote. According to this account, a party primary winner doesn't qualify for the general election ballot unless he or she receives at least 10% of all votes cast in all primaries that day. According to this one, the primary winner must receive a number of votes equal to 1% of the eligible population of the relevant election district. Unfortunately, the pitfall of libertarianism's appeal to the "leave me alone" mentality is a public apathy contrary to the civil engagement the Founders considered essential to liberty. In other words, Libertarian primary turnout fell far below the eligibility threshold set by North Dakota. The Libertarians are suing the state, claiming that the law imposes an "onerous" burden on all independent parties, and that primary turnout for any party, the majors included, never fully represents a party's true level of popular support. The state insists that its law sets a reasonable and legitimate viability test, and that this year's Libertarians failed it due to poor primary turnout. While my own view is that no government entity should have the right to determine a party or candidate's viability for participation in election, the U.S. Constitution, as I understand it, sets no such limit on states' right to make their own election laws, and the "onerous" effect of the law is inevitably subjective. Libertarians and other independents must find a way to convince voters to elect legislators committed to the wholesale overhauling of election laws at every level, or else push for a federal constitutional amendment establishing a uniform and fair set of election rules for the entire country.

* * *

Meanwhile, the national Libertarian Party has sent me another membership invitation. Boasting of their standing as "America's largest alternative political party," Executive Director Wes Benedict is admirably terse in his dismissal of the two major parties. "It doesn't matter whether Democrats or Republicans have controlled the federal government," he writes, "What have they done for us? Foreign wars, trillions of dollars in deficit spending, giant new federal government programs, and oppressive infringements on our civil liberties."

By contrast, Benedict explains, the Libertarians stand for "free markets, civil liberties, and peace." Two out of three ain't bad, but I wonder whether Benedict has really thought much on whether the first thing he stands for is as compatible with the other two as he assumes. As long as I can't take that for granted, I can't be a Libertarian, though I wish them success in their efforts to break the grip of Bipolarchy on the electoral process. Markets are good, and freedom is better, but the market was made for man, not man for the market.

As I noted the last time the Libertarians wrote to me, their party differs from the Republicans and Democrats in charging dues. A basic membership costs $25; in return you receive a newsletter subscription, a bumper sticker and, I assume, the right to participate in the nomination of a presidential candidate. I recall scoffing at the membership fee before, but considering what it costs taxpayers to stage the bigger parties' primaries for them, and how much the major parties regular beg for from members and non-members alike, I don't think so poorly of it now. Public primaries only seem to make it easier for states like North Dakota to impose viability tests, when the only legitimate viability test takes place in the mind of each voter on Election Day itself.

Whatever happened to the Party of Lincoln?

By now it may count as a cheap shot for anyone to note how far the Republican party has departed from the doctrines of its founding days. E. J. Dionne is the latest pundit to do this, and it probably isn't the first time he's done it, either. Writing this week, he quotes Abraham Lincoln's disparaging comments on state sovereignty to point out that no Republican today would be caught dead saying anything similar. Dionne also cites a Republican tradition of activist government (or as he calls, it "innovative national action") extending from the party's birth to the time of William Howard Taft. While Taft's term as President may mark the beginning of the Republicans' reactionary turn, given his break with Teddy Roosevelt's progressives, Dionne notes that Taft himself didn't consider his support for a federal income tax inconsistent with his own self-image as a conservative. The current columnist's main point, of course, is that, as the headline at his home paper puts it, "Lincoln would weep at the GOP's 2012 field" of presidential candidates.

That claim can be overstated. As I've written before, there's a core of consistency over the course of Republican history based on the party's founding belief in "free labor." Defending the North's factory system against the Southern description of it as a system of wage-slavery less humane than the plantation version, primal Republicans emphasized social mobility, denying, in effect, the existence of a permanent proletariat. Lincoln's faith was that any man who started out as someone's employee could end up as his own and, if he really applied himself, someone else's employer. Much of what passes for Republican thought today, I believe, still reflects this faith. It comes with a latent resistance to the notion of the working class as a permanent constituency with interests entitled to recognition and representation in government. On some level, I suspect, most Republicans assume that the worker who remains in and identifies with the working class for life is a failure or, worse, a loser. I don't think many Republicans believe this consciously, but if they confronted the implications of their core beliefs, they would probably reach the same conclusion.

While the GOP conclusively abandoned its "Party of Lincoln" heritage only in the 1960s, when Barry Goldwater put state rights ahead of individual rights and Richard Nixon pursued a "Southern strategy" of reaction, it had become the reactionary party of the Bipolarchy decades earlier. The Republicans advocated activist government as long as it benefited business, and for a long time that made them progressive compared to old-school Democrats. But they abandoned their original commitment, it seems, once it became possible that activist government could be used by labor in its own interest against employers. Not every Republican felt that way; those who sympathized with labor became Progressives and eventually, in many cases, Democrats. That left the party of "free labor" as the enemy of organized labor. Since they could not declare that enmity openly, or even admit it to themselves in many cases, they turned against activist government to limit the damage labor could do to capital through government.

The GOP may have evolved differently had the U.S. developed a strong labor or socialist party like almost every other developed nation. Had such a party emerged to seriously challenge both the Republicans or Democrats, each established party might have developed a more nuanced policy toward the workplace instead of the Republicans' antithetical reaction or the Democrats' paternalist welfare-statism. As things did develop, the Democrats became the party of labor, and later seized the mantle of Lincoln, pretty much by default. As a result, arguably, they exploited what they didn't earn, taking advantage of that sense of dependency among client constituencies that persists today. I paint history with a broad brush here, but this is just a sketch that historians will have to fill in with greater detail. It's my hunch that, when people ask whatever happened to the Party of Lincoln to turn it into the Party of Reagan, the answer has something to do with the other great question of American history -- why there was no Socialism in the United States.

16 May 2011

The 'Politics of Freedom' Reconsidered

The May 23 issue of The Nation features a number of reader responses to Corey Robin's April 25 piece on the left's need to claim (or reclaim) the "politics of freedom." In simple terms, Robin's hope is that Americans can be convinced to identify freedom with democracy rather than the market, or at least to understand that a citizen isn't truly free so long as an employer has as much control over his life as many now enjoy. Robin has a philosophical point to make, but his argument is mainly in favor of a rhetorical strategy. But reader Roger Carasso from Los Angeles questions Robin's insistence that progressives must emphasize freedom over equality, denying the writer's assumption that the two priorities contradict one another. Carasso notes that "the leftists ... have consistently viewed equality as a requirement of liberty," while "the rightists ... see freedom as requiring inequality."

Two other readers, however, confirm Robin's feeling that progressives approach "freedom" with trepidation if not distrust. Gene Giannotta of Schaumburg IL writes that "Democrats don't need to talk more about 'freedom;' they need to talk about doing what is right." He would rather see liberals "find religion -- not a church but the source of their own deeply held convictions -- and connect through that." But since Giannotta can't find a useful word to define his proposed secular church of convictions, his comment isn't of much help to Robin.

Dan Coleman of Carrboro NC attempts to fill in the blank but overdoes it, insisting on three buzzwords instead of one. "Here in Carrboro we prefer 'stewardship, caring and community," he writes, noting that "'freedom' has little to say to our day-to-day concerns." Coleman describes Carrboro as a progressive oasis, complete with a gay mayor, a surging, welcomed immigrant population, and five locally-owned coffee shops. But tailoring the liberal/progressive/Democratic appeal to Carrboro's apparently enlightened sensibility misses the point of Robin's article, which stressed the need to win over people for whom "freedom" still seems relevant to daily concerns. "Stewardship, Caring and Community" isn't going to carry a swing state. It lacks the force of, say, "Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood," and manages to sound patronizing and slightly infantilizing at the same time.

The problem with "freedom" is that, while it sounds simple and straightforward at first hearing, it isn't simple at all. Robin wants to contest the meaning of the word with conservatives (not to mention libertarians), and its meaning is eminently contestable. The right and left really do mean different things when they use the same word. For the left, I'd argue, freedom is understood in relation to necessity. A body isn't free if it labors under necessity, or if it lacks what's necessary for its survival. Freedom, for at least some leftists, is a liberation from necessity, from having to do things for survival's sake or lacking what one needs for survival. Many non-leftists, be they conservatives, reactionaries or libertarians, accept that freedom is conditioned by necessity. For them, freedom is the ability to do what you have to do to survive, within moral bounds, without arbitrary restraint from individuals or institutions. What these groups accept as freedom, leftists may not, while the state those leftists might call freedom would look to others like dependence -- to some the opposite of freedom -- depending on the circumstances. Arguably unrelated to this question is the issue of civil freedom -- the traditional First Amendment rights related to individuals' freedom to participate in government and civil society. Those freedoms have seemingly little to do with materialist considerations, though the commodification of politics definitely complicates things. Some people are satisfied that they're free as long as they can complain about anything they want, but others aren't as easily satisfied. Should they be? For some people freedom is a state of life under law; for others it's an unattainable idea but a usable standard for judging law. For some, freedom is our state before society, politics or civilization; for others, those alone bring freedom into being. It may be impossible to arrive at universal agreement, or even a workable consensus, on what freedom means -- especially when everyone is free to disagree. That doesn't mean that a "politics of freedom" for the left is pointless, but it does mean that its rhetorical or emotional effectiveness is bound to be limited, and that a more effective rhetoric for rallying people to the left might yet be found. I'd be interested in seeing Robin actually try his approach, but I wouldn't stake everything on it.

Trump comes to his senses

Like Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump feels the need to preface his withdrawal from consideration for the Presidency with a boast that he could have won had he chosen to run. By comparison with Huckabee's demurral, Trump's is more honest if not much more respectable. While Huckabee sighs that he never felt the tap of God's guiding finger, Trump affirms shamelessly that "business is my greatest passion" and that, after inflating the expectation of those yahoos to whom he projects the ideal of leadership, he would rather keep making money than serve his country.

The timing of the announcement isn't necessarily random. Hours earlier, NBC, which employs Trump as the "boss" of the Apprentice game show, issued a statement that the rabble's archetype of a businessman was "replaceable" in his role. It seems likely that Trump decided that it was better and more lucrative for him to perpetuate the myth of his decisive leadership by remaining a kind of game show host than it might be to risk his credibility dealing with elected officials and foreign powers that could not be scripted into submission to him. I certainly can't argue with the wisdom of his decision. In fact, I would consider rewarding him, had I the power, by helping him pitch a new spinoff to his network: The Republican Apprentice -- the ultimate convergence of politics and "reality" with unprecedented stakes. It's the format the Republican party deserves -- and if it goes over, Trump can do it for the Democrats as well in 2016. The Donald may yet perform some greater service for his country, but he's done plenty of good today.

15 May 2011

Huckabee chickens out

Mike Huckabee claims that his decision not to run for President next year has nothing to do with any lack of confidence in his ability to win the Republican nomination or the general election. Instead, he claims that his heart would not be in the race. Why not? I can understand the feeling that a campaign that would have to have begun today would be an ordeal for anyone, but I'd also presume that victory would make up for whatever Huckabee might have suffered -- and we know from 2008 that he would suffer some, at least -- especially if the Arkansan believed himself the indispensable man of the moment. Apparently Huckabee doesn't think himself indispensable; he has been quick to praise other potential Republican candidates and has said dutifully that any of them would be a better President than the current chief executive. If so, then he's better off not running. While it's bad form for any American politician to think himself indispensable, a candidate presumably does believe that the country needs to go in a certain direction that only he or she can see at a particular moment. American politicians arguably distinguish themselves from their authoritarian counterparts in other countries and cultures by not believing that indispensable leadership is an innate trait that qualifies some special person for indefinite rule. Our politicos see themselves as problem-solvers, not visionaries -- and in a sense Huckabee has declared himself both too visionary and not visionary enough. He said this weekend that "Being president is a job that takes one to the limit of his or her human capacity. For me, to do it apart from the inner confidence that I was undertaking it without God’s full blessing is simply unthinkable." For some of us, the idea that he might have undertaken it with the inner confidence of God's full blessing would have been even more unthinkable. The fact that he felt he needed a blessing that many Americans think could never come may have been his conclusive confession of unfitness for the Presidency.

13 May 2011

21st Century Know-Nothingism

As America comes down from the euphoria over Osama bin Laden's destruction, we should probably expect more entrapments of Islamic thoughtcrime suspects, as in the latest arrest of two men who were goaded into declaring their intention to attack a New York City synagogue. We should not expect a decline in Islamophobia. This report reveals this latest expression of American xenophobia to be still going strong. In some ways, 21st century Islamophobia is more mild than its 19th century Catholiphobic counterpart, popularly known as the "Know-Nothing" movement. No one I know of, for instance, is proposing that Muslims should have to undergo a longer naturalization process than non-Muslims, while it was widely believed in the 1850s that Catholic immigrants had to undergo such discriminatory treatment. On the other hand, while Know-Nothings accused Catholics of seeking to bring America under the rule of the Vatican, they did not, to my knowledge, accuse American Catholics of attempting to advance that agenda through violent means. In each case, a group is singled out as having cultural characteristics incompatible with democracy or civilization in general. In the case of the Catholic Irish, it was their supposed subservience to priests and their presumed proclivity to violence on a personal level, as understood by Protestants who claimed to know how Catholics think. In the case of Muslims it's an alleged scriptural mandate to lie (see also anti-semitism) and a presumed proclivity to violence on every level, as understood by Christians, Jews, etc. who claim to know how Muslims interpret the Qur'an. In both cases we find a native population avowedly committed to freedom and tolerance acting on the assumption that any other belief system (see also marxism/socialism) is a conspiracy against freedom and tolerance. There's a paradox for you: apparently there's only one real way to be free, and if you choose to live another way you have to be an enemy of freedom. It may be true that, on some level, Islam and Catholicism are enemies of freedom. But on some level -- arguably the same level -- Protestantism and Christianity in general are enemies of freedom. In a pluralistic setting, freedom is in the eyes of the beholder, and the beholder is usually looking in the mirror. I choose to limit my freedom in one particular way, and that makes me free, but if you choose a different way you're not free, because that's not freedom to me. Consider the collective image of Muslim women to see what I mean. We don't trust them to have chosen modesty freely; we assume them to be slaves of their fathers, husbands and imams. But how much of our own vaunted freedom would look like mindless slavery to an outside observer? But Protestants, Catholics and Muslims alike all think themselves free, or so I assume, and they are all equally jealous of their freedom. The freedom of which they're most jealous, of course, is the freedom of not having to change. That freedom may be the most illusory of all such freedoms, but it may also be the freedom most of us fight for the hardest. "Know-Nothingism" referred to members' vow of secrecy -- they were to tell nosy outsiders that they knew nothing -- but rarely has a historical habit of mind been better named.

Thanks, Blogger!

Blogger has just reopened for business (i.e., I can sign in and write posts, and you can comment on them) after an unscheduled shutdown that lasted approximately 21 hours. Reports indicate that some scheduled maintenance from Wednesday night went awry, forcing Blogger to erase everything anyone posted yesterday. In my case that means an article on the Libertarian Party's legal battle with the state of North Dakota, which might still be cached somewhere. Blogger promises that these posts will be restored, but right now I'm even sure that the site itself will stay up for long. I suppose I should cut my free blog provider some slack, since this is the first extended loss of service I've experienced since I started blogging in 2007. But while blogging may now seem relatively primitive within the larger online social network, I still expect to be able to blog when the mood strikes me. I've seen disgruntled bloggers talk about moving their business elsewhere, but who can say whether Wordpress or any other blogging platform is innately less vulnerable to foul-ups like this? The past day should inspire cautionary tales instead of comparison shopping. I've been reluctant to transfer much of my business online because I retain a somewhat technophobic fear that anything stored electronically can be hacked or simply lost. Blogging is a low-stakes operation by comparison, and still has great potential politically as a communications tool, but it's all dependent upon an infrastructure that can't be taken for granted. If we believe in democracy, we all eventually have to deal with neighbors and fellow citizens who won't be part of our little affinity networks. Blogger's misadventure is a warning that at some point, and perhaps inevitably, we won't be able to choose to whom we want to speak, or whom we want to hear. The blogosphere may go away, but those other people won't. So if we can't correspond with exactly whom we want to, will we be silent instead?

11 May 2011

The Positivist Evil: Another leftist attack on atheism

Does anyone else have the impression that there's been more hostility toward the "militant atheists" over the past decade on the "left" than on the "right." You wouldn't think it'd work out that way, but I expect that the "religious" part of the "right" especially just takes atheists and their inevitable damnation for granted, or at least sees the current wave of atheist best-sellers as nothing new under the sun. They survived H. L. Mencken, after all, and in his day Mencken probably had more cultural influence than Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens combined today. But 21st century atheism really seems to scandalize a lot of people who otherwise think of themselves as "progressives," including the American historian Jackson Lears. He graces the current Nation with a vast polemic against Sam Harris. In this, Lears teaches us that Harris and his atheist ilk are guilty of the sin of positivism. "More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes," Lears explains. This sort of positivism (there are others, Lears clarifies) was in vogue about 100 years ago, a period Lears regards as a dark age of American history. By extension, the neo-positivism of 21st century atheism, in the reviewer's view, is intellectual kin to social darwinism, imperialism and totalitarianism. It's also related by marriage to American neoconservatism, wedded by common enmity to Islamism, and that seems to be almost enough to damn atheism in Lears's eyes. In his view, the enemy of your enemy must be your friend; therefore Harris, as an open Islamophobe, is in a state of "comfortable cohabitation with imperial power."

Lears is only implicitly an apologist for religion. He does not attempt here a defense of faith or theology, except to take the by-now standard line that most believers aren't the literalist yahoos atheists assume them to be. Here's a sample:

[Harris's] critique of religion is a stew of sophomoric simplifications: he reduces all belief to a fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts, projecting his literalism and simple-mindedness onto believers whose faith may foster an epistemology far more subtle than his positivist convictions. Belief in scriptural inerrancy is Harris’s only criterion for true religious faith. This eliminates a wide range of religious experience, from pain and guilt to the exaltation of communal worship, the ecstasy of mystical union with the cosmos and the ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt.

On the specific question of Islam, Lears is at pains to absolve Islam of responsibility for Islamism, which he sees as the misguided expression of legitimate grievances against imperialism and oppressive governments. "Radical Islam often provides an idiom for their anger, but its centrality has been exaggerated," Lears insists. Likewise, he absolves Christianity of responsibility for the Christian Right, portraying the American movement as "the work of seasoned political players" designed to distract voters from "issues of justice and equality" and make the land safe for plutocrats. This sort of analysis shouldn't be dismissed automatically, but it should be applied universally. Lears wants to give Christianity and religion in general credit for progressive movements in American history, from the abolition of slavery to the resistance against the Vietnam war, but he can't give religion an amount of credit for good things equal to the amount of blame he refuses to assign to religion for the bad things. But it's been part of the left attack on atheism to argue that faith gives people hope, on the assumption that a more godless public will be a more hopeless public, and presumably more passive, selfish, etc. as well. This argument is often made by people who aren't especially religious themselves, and there's a note of condescension in it, an acknowledgment of the need for a "noble lie" to motivate the masses, as opposed to the enlightened elite.

What seems to irk Lears the most about Harris and the other atheists is their alleged "absolutist cast of mind," their oppressive "longing for clarity and certainty," and Harris's particular disdain for "relativism." Lears is an unrepentant postmodernist, affirming "the provisionality of scientific truth" and even, however carefully stated, the social construction of reality. Assertive certitude is not merely offensive to Lears; it's downright oppressive, not to mention, insofar as it rejects relativism, "perfectly consistent with the aims of the national security state." While the libertarian and many to his right cry, "Don't tell me what to do!" the postmodernist and many to his left cry "Don't tell that poor animist tribal person what to do!" Both sides share a visceral hostility to the idea that verifiable expertise might actually compel some degree of deference or emulation from others, or even that there are some questions so indisputably settled that further debate can only be counterproductive. They seek meaning from life either on exclusively individual terms or through a democratic consensus independent of if not hostile to objective considerations. The idea of objectivity itself is widely suspect in our age of bad faith. Lears's attack on Harris is an exemplary text of bad faith, ironically written in defense of "good" faith. I might agree with Lears on many "progressive" secular issues, foreign and domestic, but I'm left wondering whether Lears is really progressive at all.

10 May 2011

A Very Special Election: Republicans vs Tea Partiers in NY26

This month brings a special election to New York's 26th congressional district to fill the vacancy created by Rep. Chris Lee's embarrassed resignation over an internet flirting scandal. Lee won the regular election last November by a landslide, but the special election is proving more competitive. While many reports attribute the close polling so far to Democratic fearmongering over Rep. Ryan's long-term budget proposals, another important local factor is the independent candidacy of Jack Davis, a local businessman, on a "Tea Party" line. This is a Tea Party of Davis's own creation; so long as he gets the signatures required to earn a ballot line, he can give himself almost any party label he pleases. His appropriation of the TP mantle has caused controversy and is clearly hurting Republican chances. Davis had the support of 23% of respondents in one poll reported last month.

Speaker Boehner came to the district recently to shore up support for the regular Republian candidate, Jane Corwin, and presumably to verify her as the "real" conservative candidate in the race. The Conservative Party already makes that claim for her. Meanwhile, Davis has come under attack by Republicans, conservatives, and TPs who consider him an impostor. Their protests raise decisive questions about the identity of the Tea Party movement.

Davis has received a Tea Party endorsement, but the Tea Party Coalition of Western New York that gave him its nod is apparently a rump group following a bitter schism last year. He participated along with Corwin in a "vetting" event for TPs that left many attendees skeptical toward both candidates. Some critics complain that Davis has hijacked or usurped the movement name without consulting the rank and file who made it a force in American politics. But much of the complaining focuses on the fact that Davis, who is running as a "Buy American," anti-Bailout style populist, was until recently a Democrat -- in fact, a past Democratic candidate for office. The attitude of many critics is revealing; their opinion seems to be that no one who was ever a Democrat, or especially a Democratic politician, should have anything to do with Tea Parties. But it was not my impression when Tea Parties were first assembling in 2009, that endorsement of the Republican platform was a prerequisite for participation. Dissatisfaction with both major parties was implicit in the metaphorical call to arms. The Tea Parties were assumed to be essentially populist in nature: hostile both to an oppressive or ineffectual political class and to plutocrats unjustly shielded from the consequences of their shipwreck of the American economy. But while some Davis supporters credit their candidate with "learning," opponents assume that Democrats can't "learn" and that no erstwhile Democrat can be trusted to play a leading role in a populist movement.

Given the circumstances of the special election and the paranoid tendencies of American political consciousness, it's understandable if many locals assume Davis to be some sort of operative whose main purpose is to throw the election to the Democratic candidate. Both major parties have long histories of exploiting divisions in each other's ranks that way. It's less understandable, intellectually if not historically, if voters assume that there's no room in a political campaign, or political discourse in general, for a third voice (or a fourth; a Green candidate is also running) beside the monolithic Democratic "liberals" and Republican "conservatives." The worst part of it is that so many Tea Partiers seem not to want to be the third or fourth voice. At most, they want to snatch the sacred megaphone of "conservatism" away from establishment Republicans in order to shout the same slogans more loudly. By comparison, Jack Davis may represent what the Tea Parties might have been if they had actually been capable of thinking outside the bipolarchy box.

09 May 2011

Exactly $741,549

The figure above is the very precise goal -- albeit rounded up to the nearest dollar -- set by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for its current fund drive. As Executive Director J. B. Poersch explains in a begging letter I received today, this exact amount of money is needed "to finalize [the DSCC's] planning for the summer and fall. The Committee needs this money by June 27; if you wait any later to donate, "it could be too late to fund the 2012 Victory Plan." Democrats must build their war chest early because "the playing field is tilted -- and corporate special interests will have a bigger advantage than ever." It's not that corporate special interests won't be giving to Democrats, of course, and Democrats certainly won't refuse their money, but, well, ... you know. On top of that, "Third-party groups now have a full election cycle to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash under the Citizens United ruling." Again, many "third-party" groups -- the term doesn't mean what we'd hope it would -- will be raising and spending potentially unlimited amounts on behalf of Democratic candidates. "Third-party" groups who support Republicans reportedly spent more last year than their Democratic-leaning counterparts, but that may be because the Democratic Party hustles harder than the Republican Party does. That is, liberals and progressives may simply be more likely to give directly to the Party, while conservatives and reactionaries prefer to give to groups that appear more ideologically reliable. Whatever the facts are, I feel pretty certain that the DSCC would rather your hard-earned piece of democracy went to them than to anyone else, however much anyone else sympathizes with the cause. I'd still like to see an itemized budget to see how they came up with that remarkable figure.

Interestingly, Poersch's letter seems to continue a trend toward de-emphasizing partisanship that may have been signalled by a begging letter I received from the President last week. Seeking to fund his own re-election, Obama managed to make his pitch without mentioning either Republicans or the Tea Party by name. In Poersch's letter, the are just three instances of "Republican," "Republicans" or "GOP." And instead of accusing Republicans by name of bad intentions, Poersch notes austerely that "some of today's politicians" wnat to "bring us back to the past." It's not as if no one will know who he means, but compared to last year's begging letters, Democrats seem to be soft-pedaling the enmity this year, as if some focus group had advised them that blatant partisanship was a turn-off to potential donors. This may reflect growing confidence, at least in the President's own prospects next year if not in the party's congressional chances overall. While Poersch warns that "some of today's politicians" want to do mean things like privatize Medicare or abort health care reform, there's an overall lack of fearmongering in the current begging literature that's almost refreshing. I wonder how long that tone will last.

05 May 2011

Habeus Corpus: Bin Laden's body and the age of bad faith

Should the world see Osama bin Laden's corpse? The President of the United States has decided that there's no need, and a number of Republicans agree with him. Speaker Boehner has endorsed Obama's decision, while the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee notes that the corpse, or the photos of it, should not be treated as a trophy. Republicans and Democrats alike have made the usual argument that such a display of the dead terrorist would inflame his surviving followers and endanger Americans in and out of uniform. An apparently smaller number of Republicans are disappointed by the President's decision. Sarah Palin, for instance, thinks that the photos might have a deterrent effect and should be shown to warn would-be terrorists of the risks involved in attacking America. It's worth noting that Palin doesn't seem to consider the photos necessary as proof of bin Laden's death, though she may speak indirectly for others who are more demanding. Meanwhile, Sen. Graham of South Carolina thinks that not releasing the photos defeats the purpose of Sunday's operation. If we did not intend to recover a body that would then be identified for all the world to see, he suggests, why didn't we just bomb his compound instead of sending in Navy SEALS at greater personal risk?

Does anyone doubt that bin Laden was killed last weekend? I'd be surprised if no one did, but I'm also surprised to see so few on the Islamist side expressing doubt. The Pakistani Taliban are reportedly denying the kill, but the impression I've had is that much of the Muslim world, apart from the protests of HAMAS in Palestine, has responded to bin Laden's death with a collective shrug. If there is widespread doubt about what happened in Abbottabad, it's probably more likely to be found in the West than in the Dar al-Islam. The refusal to release the death photos, added to the decision to dump bin Laden's body in the ocean, will only strengthen some skeptics' conviction that the "Geronimo" operation was a big lie. But as the Intelligence Committee chairman noted, many conspiracymongers would still doubt the story even if the photos had been released. Photos can be faked, after all, and power has motive to fake things. Advances in science and technology have only fueled a surge of superstition in its modern form -- conspiracy theory.

Skepticism becomes a kind of credulity once it assumes that everything is a trick and that everyone is out to trick the skeptic. This reflexive skepticism defines our present age of bad faith. You see it in "birthers" and "truthers" and in many previous phenomena. The historical fact of cover-ups leads to the suspicion that everything is some kind of cover-up. Every complex system becomes a kind of conspiracy that can only be hostile to the observer who sees himself excluded from it. Everyone seems out to enslave or at least con everyone else. Does this describe an atomized late-capitalist society actually existing today, or dystopian fears of a depersonalized, hyper-networked future? Even if the answer is both, the only remedy is for people to learn to trust each other in general. It's easy to say that we need a generation of trustworthy leaders first, but trust will have to be extended before anyone can have a chance to justify it. It may be, after all, that people are untrustworthy because they don't trust anyone -- consider how often cover-ups are justified by the assumption that ordinary people will misunderstand or misinterpret whatever they might find out. What can be done to correct that assumption, or all the other assumptions of bad faith? Whatever your answer, you'll have to trust someone to help you do it. The object isn't to instill blind faith in people or institutions; free societies will always require a degree of vigilance against ambition or corruption. But vigilance has grown indiscriminate in many quarters, with skepticism about bin Laden being just a relatively trivial instance of it. Only a sounder understanding of our own place as individuals in society and government can restore a moderate balance of vigilance and trust -- but that, too, will require trust if we hope to reach that understanding together.