30 December 2011

Occupiers, hecklers and the tragedy of the speech commons

Embittered erstwhile Occupiers in Albany continue to make their presence felt more than one week after the city evicted them from Academy Park. While continuing their legal challenge to the injunction that enabled their eviction, they've come in for criticism for one person's posting on Facebook of a "wanted poster" with personal information about the mounted policeman who pepper-sprayed Occupiers on Dec. 22. Yesterday, some members of the media turned on them, as the Times Union reports, when some Occupiers heckled Mayor Jerry Jennings.

Protesters began to shout "shame" until being chastised by a gaggle of news photographers, who noted the occupiers had not been interrupted — except perhaps by the sound of power tools somewhere in the building — during their lengthy press conference, which included a slide show of police moving in to capture their final tent.

The incident reminds me of the time a local Republican leader showed up at Academy Park for a photo op and complained that he couldn't have an actual discussion with the Occupiers, so intent were they on chanting slogans and heckling him. I've always found the resort to chanting among leftist demonstrators annoying, especially when the chanting is employed to drown out a speaker. But I can also understand the frustration that drives them. This nation is dedicated on paper to free speech. It can be argued that Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions dating back to Buckley v. Valeo have effectively commodified political speech, but I want to make a separate point. Many of our American ideas of freedom are based on a premise of infinite resources. Many self-styled libertarians (civil or otherwise) explicitly repudiate a "zero-sum" mentality that links one person's excess to another's deprivation. The realm of public discourse might seem to be one where zero-sum reasoning should not apply; everyone in this country can rant as he or she pleases, unless the ranting threatens the President or persuades theatergoers that the house is on fire. But while all of us can talk, or write, who gets heard or read? Not everyone, obviously --it's physically impossible. Inequality has to be taken into account. Some people can obviously get themselves heard more than others. In some cases, those people are entitled to some degree of precedence because they're elected officials. Others are not elected, but claim entitlement to precedence due to wealth or fame. They have resources for capturing our attention that most people lack. In theory, they have no more freedom of speech than anyone else, but in practice the facts differ. Because everyone's time is limited, the ease with which some people claim our attention causes us to neglect others whose opinions are equally if not more worthy of a hearing. Those who are ignored are presumed to have failed to sell themselves in the marketplace of ideas, while each individual's right to ignore any other individual is upheld as a matter of personal liberty. The situation is not fair and can never be made perfectly fair. Unless we were to absolutely reduce government to the village level, it would be impossible for every citizen in a polity to have equal time and equal attention from every other citizen. Inevitably, some people will earn an entitlement to a respectful hearing, ideally by establishing a reputation for sagacity. But our current social order tends toward the monopolization of attention by elites who have no such reputation, or else flaunt a spurious one. 
Dissidents might be forgiven for believing that some people, including elected officials, take up too much of our time while other opinions, not to mention other facts, need to be heard. A claque of chanting hecklers is unlikely to believe that those who disagree should never be heard; their opinion is more likely that the other side has already been heard from more than enough. That doesn't mean that heckling isn't rude, or that the Albany photographers were wrong to take offense at those who heckled the mayor. Each person has the prerogative to choose between conflicting claims on his attention. A right to be heard may be postulated, and it may even be deemed essential to democracy, but no one can presume a right to succeed in persuading listeners. My point isn't that we all must listen to the Occupiers and heed their advice or do as they demand. But democracy must allow them some leeway to assert the necessity of our listening to them, and when the time that might require seems to be monopolized by the establishment, the assertion -- the conflicting assertions in many cases -- will get messy. Ideally, it gets no more messy than heckling, which is not the same as permanently silencing anybody. A mayor can find another time to be heard easily enough. In any event, such messiness is inevitable wherever and whenever it becomes evident that people are not hearing the whole story about their polity or all sides of the most meaningful issues. It can seem sometimes as if we're not hearing all the choices, or even the original question. In such cases, free speech hasn't been free enough, or it's been too free. Freedom of discourse is what we really want in a democratic republic -- but do we have it when some can expect to be heard all the time and others can expect never to be heard? Democracy may depend on your answer.

29 December 2011

American History needs Bipolarchy Studies

The December Journal of American History features a round-table discussion on the historiography of modern American conservatism. Kim Phillips-Fein leads the discussion with a survey of writing and thinking on conservatism since the 1960s, when the movement was seen as an aberration requiring psychological explanations about "status anxiety" and so on. Over the last 20 years, approximately, historians have felt challenged to account for the late-century success of conservatism, which challenged liberal complacency about historical "progress." Some have gone so far as to argue that, rather than conservatism being an aberration, liberal success from the 1930s through the 1980s may have been the exceptional moment in American history, with deeply ingrained conservative habits of thinking slowly reasserting themselves beginning in the 1960s. Students of conservatism attempt to explain several things: why conservatives believe what they believe, how they organized to overcome apparent marginalization, and how they managed to become the dominant force in American politics from 1980 forward. The questions should raise corollary questions about liberalism: how did they lose the popular mandate, and what did they do, if anything, to alienate electoral majorities?

There have been intellectual and sociological studies of the great change in American politics between 1964 and 1980, and the contributors to the JAH round table cite a variety of different approaches and attitudes toward the subject. Few, however, consider the possibility that structural forces in the political order, most obviously the dominant two-party paradigm, influenced the ideological and demographic evolution of both conservatism and liberalism. Wilfred M. McClay suggestively describes the "symbiotic relationship" of conservatism and liberalism, calling for more attention to the "dialectical element in that relationship," but his comments seem restricted to the realm of ideas. Lisa McGirr comes closer to the mark when she argues that "more attention might be paid to the role of traditional political parties as powerful institutions in American life." She adds:

Central to the story of the Right's policy successes, after all, has been the transformation of loosely structured parties into our contemporary, highly organized, ideologically disciplined national parties. Of course, any understanding of continuity on the Right should look far more closely at strongholds of antiliberal sentiments in Congress within both the Democratic and Republican parties throughout the post-New Deal years.

Today's ideological discipline, however, might be overrated. It may be true that everyone seems eager to enforce ideological discipline within a party, but a perpetual hunt for heretics, decentralized to the point of chaos, isn't really the same thing as discipline. The Republican party in particular looks increasingly like a coalition of components increasingly uncomfortable with one another, united only in autumn by hostility to the liberal strawman. The GOP coalition always appears on the verge of flying apart, and in our recent past a Democratic coalition did fall apart -- the crack-up resulted not in a new party but in mass defections to the Republicans. Why did that happen, and why might the Republicans suffer a similar fate? Bipolarchy may provide part of the answer. Under Bipolarchy, each of the two major parties inevitably becomes an uneasy coalition, though each appears in the other's eyes, and is portrayed in the other's propaganda, as a monolithic negative. This coalition building is a two-way street. The major parties are always out to attract new interest groups, if only to prevent them from forming third parties. New interest groups seek influence within the major parties because they see no chance of success as independents. But as each party adds to its coalition, it risks alienating older coalition members. This seems to have happened to the Democrats, where New Deal progressives once worked with segregationist Southerners, but lost their support while pursuing black votes nationwide. In pursuing the counterculture vote in the Seventies, they alienated older working-class people who had been economically liberal but had always upheld traditional morality and had not questioned America's role abroad. Those older Democrats occasionally turned to third parties, but finally became "Reagan Republicans," or had gone GOP sooner thanks to Nixon's "Southern strategy." Historians ought to ask how much Bipolarchy had to do with that fateful shift, whether under different circumstances alienated Dixiecrats might have remained a third force, one potentially capable of controlling the balance of power in Congress if not capturing the Presidency, instead of throwing their lot with the Republican party. Historians with a broader view might ask how much of our political history since 1860 has been shaped decisively by the pathological imperative to have only two "real" choices. Others should be asking how that pathological imperative came to dominate our thinking, looking back to Martin Van Buren's revulsion at the four-way 1824 election and his insistence that American voters always be given the starkest two-way choice possible. It may be that historians will never be able to answer the questions they ask now about conservative ascendancy unless they understand better how Bipolarchy shapes not only our electoral structure but the attitudes of citizens. For those historians with progressive biases, the possibility that Bipolarchy makes conservative hegemony possible should make it a promising field of study. Conservatives should be interested in the subject to the extent that a conservative party may be the defining feature of Bipolarchy, and to the extent that conservative party building inevitably compromises conservative principles. A commitment from any quarter to Bipolarchy Studies would be a welcome sign, because that would mean that someone, for once, is not taking Bipolarchy for granted.

28 December 2011

The Gingrich Advantage?

For nearly a week it's been the new fad to declare the Gingrich boom over. The candidate's failure to secure a spot on the ballot for the Virginia Republican primary has been portrayed as a major setback and a reflection on his organizational skills, which had been the subject of much criticism earlier this year. The spotlight has shifted to a perceived late boom for Ron Paul and the effort to drag him down by association with his (to say the least) ill-supervised newsletter of the Eighties and Nineties. Meanwhile, a modest statistic appears that seems to distinguish Gingrich from the rest of the Republican pack. The Gallup polling organization has released its annual list of Most Admired Americans, in male and female categories, as determined by respondents to a four day poll conducted with USA Today. As is customary, the President of the United States is the most admired man in the country. That is, 17% of respondents named Barack Obama, compared to only 3% for the runner-up male, who happens to be the previous President. Gingrich places sixth on the current list, albeit with approximately 1% of respondents naming him. That places him just behind Warren Buffett and just ahead of Donald Trump. This may not look impressive, except for the fact that no other male aspirant for the GOP nomination appears on the top-ten list. Despite everything, it seems, more people admire Gingrich than admire Mitt Romney or even Ron Paul -- whose standing may have been undermined by the poll's old-school phone-survey methodology. For the record, Rep. Bachmann placed tenth among Most Admired Women, with 2% of respondents naming her, well behind Secretary Clinton, the Most Admired by a wide margin, and non-candidate Sarah Palin, whose standing fell drastically from last year.

As with any poll measuring nationwide popularity, the benefits for someone who needs geographically concentrated support are limited. But Gingrich and his supporters ought to take heart from this news, however modest it may look. It would appear that he can depend upon a foundation of mass admiration that doesn't seem to exist for any of his male rivals. Meanwhile, and by the same standard, Democrats might take heart from the massive admiration gap separating the President from his most popular challengers. Of course, this isn't the same as asking people whom they'll vote for, but you never can tell....

27 December 2011

Was Albany's Christmas Occupied?

"Just do the math," a middle-aged Albany woman explained to her fellow bus passengers yesterday, "On December 22 the city evicted those protesters from the park. The next night, somebody vandalizes the holiday lights. Just do the math."

The facts are these. Someone sneaked into Washington Park after hours on the night of December 23-4 and destroyed or defaced a number of the light displays erected there for the holiday season. It's been a holiday tradition for the park to be lit up and carloads of people to pay so they can drive through and see the colorful displays, many of them corporate-sponsored. The money goes to youth programs sponsored by the Police Athletic League. The vandals left behind signs and graffiti with anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist slogans. You can see one of the signs here; it reads "The commons are not for sale ... Stop shopping." To my knowledge, none of these tags identified the vandals with the Occupy Albany movement, yet people are drawing "mathematically" obvious conclusions, for the most part. Many people assume that the vandalism is revenge for the eviction of Occupy Albany from Academy Park, while a much smaller number make the equally predictable case against an agent provocateur seeking to further discredit the movement. The perpetrators remain at large, repairs have been made, and people can continue to visit the lights through the end of the year.

I haven't found any evidence of anti-Christmas vandalism anyplace else where an Occupation has taken place or been evicted, though some incidents of generic vandalism, usually graffiti, have been blamed on Occupiers. Vandalism doesn't seem to be part of the m.o. of the Occupy movement, but the Occupations have been a movement of movements, inevitably including people of an anti-consumerist bent. Anti-consumerism is the party line, if you'll excuse the phrase, of Adbusters magazine, the publication that allegedly inspired the original Wall Street Occupation. But not everyone who participated in an Occupation responded specifically to a call from Adbusters. Anti-consumerist vandalism predates the Occupations of 2011 by quite a while, most notoriously taking the form of arson against car lots. Vandalism in Washington Park also has an apolitical history of its own, past miscreants having massacred the flowers for which Albany's annual Tulip Festival is named on at least one occasion. This incident, however, strikes me as more than mindless vandalism. Whoever did it either sympathizes with the anti-consumerist movement or is familiar enough with it to imitate its rhetoric. I can't really see anyone feeling motivated enough to perpetrate this vandalism just to blame it on someone else, i.e. the Albany Occupiers, now that the Occupation has been dispersed. I doubt that anyone in authority in Albany feels sufficiently threatened by the movement. My guess is that an Occupier or group of Occupiers did this -- but blaming the Occupiers or the Occupy movement as a whole is probably way off base. The movement's component members are no longer bound by general-assembly discipline, as far as I know, to require each other's approval before taking fresh action. In fact, I'm actually somewhat surprised that nothing like this has happened in an Occupied city previously, and that a counterattack hasn't taken an even more drastic form like pulling or cutting down an official Christmas tree.

If an Occupier did the Albany job, he or she probably won't win any applause from the rest of the movement. The vandalism only confirms the worst impressions people have had about the Occupations -- which is why some people would like to see the episode as a frame-up. The Capital Lights were a lousy target because they entertain children for the benefit of a children's charity, no matter how infuriating those corporate logos may have been to some people. I'm tempted to close with a warning about the anger provoked by municipal repression in the perceived service of corporate domination, but I'm still not entirely convinced that the Washington Park vandalism is much more than a vicious prank, and that even the slogans were written in a pranking spirit. If a warning would prove useful, however, then be warned by all means.

23 December 2011

Will vs. Gingrich: the third assault

In his rage against Newt Gingrich George Will seems to have forgotten that the establishment's task this week is to attack Ron Paul as an anti-American appeasing bigot. In three philippics so far, Will has tried to demonstrate that the former Speaker is the "least conservative" of the aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination. In past columns, Will's evidence for that claim has been that Gingrich has: 1) ideas he wants to implement as policy to improve the national economy; and 2) criticized Mitt Romney for running a business that laid off people. Satisfied with that evidence, Will now amplifies his claim, condemning Gingrich as the "anti-conservative" candidate. That still may not be true, but at least this time Will has a potentially substantive case against the Georgian, though he comes late to it. One week ago, when Will was deploring Gingrich's supposed disrespect for the creative destruction that fuels capitalism, other writers were pointing to a white paper the candidate had published rejecting executive deference to the judicial branch of government. Gingrich's position is that the doctrine of judicial supremacy, according to which the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution and the constitutionality of laws, has encouraged an unchecked expansion of judicial power and an inevitable usurpation of legislative and executive prerogatives. He believes that the other branches have been provided with checks against the judiciary, but have been intimidated into submission since the 1950s. He does not believe that it should be necessary to draft and ratify a constitutional amendment for anyone other than the Supreme Court to reverse a Court decision.

[A] Gingrich administration will reject the theory of judicial supremacy and will reject passivity as a response to Supreme Court rulings that ignore executive and legislative concerns and which seek to institute policy changes that more properly rest with Congress. A Gingrich administration will use any appropriate executive branch powers, by itself and acting in coordination with the legislative branch, to check and balance any Supreme Court decision it believes to be fundamentally unconstitutional and to rein in any federal judge(s) whose rulings exhibit a disregard for the Constitution.

Gingrich believes that judicial supremacy can be refuted simply by having the executive and legislature repudiate it and, more practically speaking, by reclaiming their constitutional powers to check and balance the courts. Among these, according to Alexander Hamilton (writing as "Publius" in Federalist No. 81) is Congress's power to impeach judges. Hamilton appears to give Gingrich a mandate for using impeachments as a check on judicial usurpation, or on judges making unconstitutional decisions. Presidents from Jefferson to FDR have disputed the finality of Court decisions -- and Will would certainly deem "anti-conservative" Gingrich's apparent endorsement of FDR's failed scheme to pack the Court, as well as the scheme's success in intimidating Justices into compliance with the New Deal.

It becomes clear once you read the white paper that Gingrich argues for checks against the judiciary in the name of a conservative principle, whether Will recognizes it as such or not. Gingrich works from the premise that the Constitution is not simply what the current Court majority says it is, and that there can be such a thing as an unconstitutional Supreme Court decision. While Will accuses Gingrich of practicing "majoritarianism," and desiring that legislative majorities should trump judicial majorities, he fails to acknowledge that the white paper explicitly avows originalism as the basis for Gingrich's proposals. Gingrich can claim that a Court decision is unconstitutional because he believes in an analytical method that reliably determines the constitutionality of any law. That method is originalism, a reference to and reliance on the stated intentions of the Framers -- and, presumably, the intentions of the Amenders. If a President, Representative or Senator is satisfied that a Justice has ruled against the Framers' original intent, he or she has grounds for action against the Court, from impeachment to simply ignoring a decision.

Originalism is itself a conservative principle, usually asserted in opposition to the notion of a "living constitution" that should be interpreted in light of current conditions and evolving standards. Why doesn't Will acknowledge Gingrich's position as conservative? Why does he characterize Gingrich's position as "sinister radicalism" instead? Will may simply be blinded by his distaste for the candidate's "protean" mentality and supposed egomania -- if not by vicarious loyalty to his wife's employer, Gov. Perry. Despite all Gingrich's avowals of fidelity to original intent, Will clearly doesn't trust him not to interpret the Constitution according to a momentary whim. For Will, the "central conservative virtue" is "prudence," the opposite of which is impatience. For him, a Supreme Court decision striking down a law should occasion a national time-out, during which a Constitutional amendment might be proposed and thoroughly deliberated. Anything else would be an impatient, imprudent "anti-conservative" backlash against the "least dangerous" branch of government.  Of course, Will may also dispute Gingrich's idea of original intent, as might be inferred from the columnist's sneer at the candidate's overheated reaction to a ruling against the Pledge of Allegiance. Gingrich's originalism is obnoxiously traditionalist and pietistic, but those qualities certainly don't make it "anti-conservative." A liberal might say "quite the opposite!" But Will's serial denunciation of Gingrich repeatedly illustrates how much conservatism in America is a matter of attitude rather than principle, and that may help explain why so many self-styled conservatives are so hard to deal with. If they can't even trust each other, where does that leave the rest of us?

22 December 2011

For Christmas, no room at the park for Occupy Albany

For the past two weeks, Academy Park has had a vaguely ironic look to it as the city's holiday decorations glowed at night next to the diminished tent city that was Occupy Albany. The occupiers had been on borrowed time since the city had extended their permit to an absolute deadline of today. Negotiations had reportedly been ongoing over continuing the encampment -- the city has never disputed the right to hold daytime protests there -- but the Occupation's fate was probably sealed by the report from last weekend of someone sneaking into one of the tents and attacking its occupant. Given the presence of homeless people and the constant possibility of a sudden crackdown, the apparent absence of any sort of voluntary security, of even people assigned to watch in shifts, was distressing. It came out today that there had been two similar attacks recently. The city may well be making more of these incidents than they justified, but these were the circumstances under which Mayor Jerry Jennings' patience was finally exhausted.

Walking up Lark Street this morning I saw the streetlamps and telephone poles tagged with postcards and xeroxes urging people to defend Academy Park. These bore the familiar image identified either with failed historical terrorist Guy Fawkes or fictionally successful terrorist "V." I know that for many people "V" stands for generic resistance, but he was a poor mascot for people who were presumably outraged when Tea Partiers spoke of "Second Amendment remedies" for alleged misgovernment. In any event, these signs hinted that, if the showdown came today, Occupy Albany would not go down without a fight. And it didn't -- but it did go down.

So now we've had one more round of street theater and one more lesson in the parameters of "free speech," and we have a new year on the way. You can look here for a more complete story, but the moral of the story remains to be determined. Some parts are easy, and always have been. There was yet another guy on the news this evening saying the First Amendment doesn't extend to pitching a tent, but I say that if money is speech, so is a tent. If there is no limit to how much a person can spend to make his point, there's no rightful limit to how much time a person wants to spend making a point. In the U. S. Senate, there is the right to filibuster. Some people deplore this fact, but they should concede that as long as politicians have it, ordinary people should as well. Perhaps the clearest lesson learned from all the Occupations nationwide is about Americans' patience for protest in this so-called Year of the Protester. At a certain point, and quite early in many cases, protest became obnoxious to many of us, and not simply because we thought the Occupiers had no agenda or direction. It became offensive for these people to declare a crisis of democracy, to claim that the vast majority had been marginalized. Yet even if they were wrong to blame the crisis collectively and exclusively on 1% of the population, their own fate proved their point about their own marginalization. They were not allowed to claim more than an implicit ration of speech while the highest court of the land recognizes no meaningful limit on the speech money can buy. That fact alone makes further protest imperative -- but I wonder whether I'll actually see anyone exercising the privilege promised them by the city tomorrow morning. I hope I do, but that can't be the end of it. 2012 is nearly upon us, and now is the time for resolution.

20 December 2011

Post-Norquist Conservatism: Higher Taxes, Less Government?

As the Gingrich-Paul-Romney demolition derby in Iowa warns of another meltdown of "movement" conservatism, David Brooks calls our attention in his latest New York Times column to a conservative thinker who actually seems to be looking forward and beyond today's taxophobia. Steven F. Hayward writes for the Breakthrough Journal, where his piece on "Modernizing Conservatism" caught Brooks's attention. In some respects, there's nothing new about Hayward's article. As has been done for nearly sixty years, Hayward asks Republicans to concede that the New Deal welfare state is here to stay. What's different is Hayward's conclusion that the latest right-wing attempt to destroy it, the "starve the beast" strategy of denying funds by lowering taxes, has failed, that despite tax cuts government has continued to grow. The reason for this, he suggests, is that Republicans ever since Ronald Reagan have cut taxes without actually cutting government substantially, preferring to fund programs through borrowing instead of taxation. This was a matter of political pragmatism; Hayward concedes that Reagan would not have been as popular as he was in the Eighties had he actually cut programs as deeply as some Republican ideologues wanted. It was also highly irresponsible, hiding the real cost of entitlement programs from the taxpayer. "[T]he starve-the-beast strategy currently allows Americans to receive a dollar in government services while only having to pay 60 cents for it," he notes. We might expect a Republican to say that the solution is to actually cut the programs -- that seems to be the view of Tea Partiers, for instance. Hayward, however, argues that the only way to control the growth of entitlement spending -- he doesn't really even suggest rolling it back -- is to "Serve the Check," to raise taxes in order to impress upon taxpayers the real cost of entitlement programs. He believes that conservatives and liberals could agree to shield middle-class families from the increase by increasing the per-child tax credit while reducing other deductions for corporations and individuals. Raising taxes is bound to create a backlash, but Hayward expects the end result to be not a rollback of entitlements but an overdue institution of means-testing for many entitlements.

While Hayward's tax proposals are the highlight of his article for Brooks, he goes on to argue for stronger Republican commitment to infrastructure and environmental protection. Hayward exposes what he calls a "non sequitur" of the Right: "the environment has mostly become a cause of the Left, therefore environmental problems are either phony or are not worth considering" While still holding out for "free-market" solutions to environmental problems, he insists primarily that conservatives can't yield a major area of public concern completely to the other side.

Hayward displays a modesty of ambition that seems genuinely conservative, repudiating the ideologue's zeal for total victory and admitting that collaboration and compromise between parties is necessary for government to function effectively. While affirming that "the divisions between Left and Right are fundamental and unbridgeable," and that "Left and Right have conflicting modes of moral reasoning that cannot be easily synthesized or bridged," he regards the following as the more important point.

There are three dominant political facts of our age that conservative thinkers (and also liberals) need to acknowledge. The first is the plain fact that neither ideological camp will ever defeat the other so decisively as to be able to govern without the consent of the other side. This is not merely my political judgment; it is sewn into the nature of America's basic institutions and political culture.

The unbridgeable divisions are the second fact, while the permanence of the "entitlement state" is the third.  Returning to the first point at the end of his essay, Hayward makes his strongest argument for compromise:

Achieving policy compromise and the reconstruction of a "vital center" requires an end to the view of practical politics as a zero-sum game, in which compromise is regarded as a defeat by both sides....Consent does not require surrender. Liberals and conservatives do not agree about the principle of equality in American life and probably never will. Conservatives emphasize equal opportunity while accepting or even celebrating unequal outcomes. Conservatives see nothing inherently unjust about large disparities in the distribution of income or wealth, and also offer practical reasons why unequal rewards make for a more dynamic, creative, and ultimately wealthier society. Liberals strongly prefer more equal results, with many viewing disparities in income or wealth as random (Richard Gephardt once referred to the structure of America's wealth and income distribution as a "lottery"), and, as a result, favor egalitarian policies and entitlement programs. Even so, most liberals are not pure redistributionists, and generally support policies that broaden opportunity for individual advancement, while few conservatives are entirely indifferent to the importance of income mobility and social opportunity....While liberals and conservatives may disagree on the very notion of equality, they can agree on certain points -- for example, that stagnating incomes are problematic -- and can achieve policy agreement in certain key areas.

Hayward closes by addressing the challenge of ideology. "It may be that internal ideological reformation must precede bipartisan political compromise," he writes, hoping that his own call for a conservative reformation will be echoed by a liberal reformation. "[N]either movement has properly adapted to the changing fabric of modern society," he concludes, which is why pragmatic compromise leaves ideologues dissatisfied. Finally, "[B]efore the two camps can agree to an agenda truly in the national interest, liberals and conservatives must first reform themselves." Of course, it may not be necessary to wait. If the national interest is self-evident enough to non-ideologues, voters ought to be able to purge government of unreformed conservatives and liberals. It should not be up to the ideologues themselves to reform, however desirable it'd be for them to do so, if elections allow us to replace them with pragmatists and moderates. If they do not, Hayward may be compelled to reconsider whether partisanship itself, rather than raw ideology, is what Americans need to reform.

19 December 2011

Limbaugh on Ron Paul and "real conservatives"

The only reason I found myself looking at Rush Limbaugh's website today was that Mr. Peepers, who makes a masochistic habit of listening to the Limbaugh show, had told me that Rush was complaining that the Republican establishment was trying to shut him up. Since Limbaugh most likely remains the nation's leading cheerleader for Republicans, or what Republicans call conservatism, I was curious about the complaint. This excerpt from today's transcript seems to have something to do with it. It represents Limbaugh's conspiracy-theory analysis of the campaign to date for the GOP presidential nomination.

If the Republican Party weren't so afraid of conservatism and having a conservative nominee, Ron Paul wouldn't be anywhere near winning the Hawkeye Cauci.  It's just that simple...[B]ecause the Republican Party insists on insider moderates or at least gives the impression that's who they support, then it opens the door for all kinds of people to make headway because the Republican primary base is not interested in who the establishment is interested in.  It's just that simple.  I'll tell you something I've been saying here for the last couple, three weeks, maybe even longer than that, that Mitt Romney can't get higher than 30% anywhere.  Other than New Hampshire, he gets 35.  But in truth no other Republican does, either.  When you get right down to it, no other Republican is, either.  Now, the reason for that is primarily this.  The Republican establishment is trying to split the conservative vote among all the other conservative candidates, the Gingriches, Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, I don't mean to leave anybody out here, but they're dividing that vote in the hopes of securing the nomination for Romney. 

If I understand this correctly, Limbaugh is arguing that the sheer number of "conservative" candidates is proof that the GOP "establishment" doesn't really want a conservative nominee.  If that was their actual desire, I infer, they would winnow the field so that there could be only one challenger to Romney. For that matter, I suppose they could just as easily persuade Romney not to run, if that's what the problem is. But because they allow (Rush might say encourage or entice) several credible conservatives to run, their strategy stands revealed in the spotlight of Limbaugh's intellect as a divide-and-conquer plan. Wouldn't some of these reputed conservatives, however presumably acceptable to Limbaugh as individuals, have to be complicit in the conspiracy? And wouldn't that throw their conservative credibility into question? If they share an obligation to clear the playing field so that primary voters have a clear choice of Romney, a conservative, and whatever Ron Paul is, and none of the four conservatives named has done so, does that mean that no true conservative is in the running? But that should have been obvious, since otherwise the dreaded establishment probably wouldn't have let any of them run in the first place -- right, Rush?

As for Rep. Paul, Limbaugh has taken to photoshopping tinfoil hats on the Texan's head and trying to impersonate Paul's voice. Limbaugh mocks him not for any suspicions Paul has about the Federal Reserve, but because the candidate dares suggest linkage between American foreign policy, Middle Eastern hostility, and terrorist attacks on this country. In other words, for the most nearly sane part of Paul's platform, Limbaugh dubs him a nut and a non-conservative. To be a "conservative," as far as Limbaugh and some others are concerned, is to affirm the exceptional right of the U.S. to attack other countries and dominate the globe. I bet even Mitt Romney believes that, but somehow Romney isn't conservative enough for Limbaugh. It's hard to tell who would be, but I suppose it's part of Limbaugh's job never to be satisfied and always to be a gadfly denouncing any deviation from ideological purity. At the same time, growing numbers of Republicans and conservatives in general resent his presumption of doctrinal dictatorship. He may revel in their resentment, but the really scary thing for him, I suspect, is the possibility that Republican leaders might simply ignore him. What can he threaten, after all? As far as I know, nothing more than a refusal to motivate his listeners to vote. But how much extra motivation will Republicans really need next year, given the hate for the President that Limbaugh has lit up as much as anyone? Yet Limbaugh already seems to be looking ahead and positioning himself to cast blame for another Republican loss. Maybe this is inherent conservative pessimism at work, but Limbaugh also seems interested in spinning 2012, as he's spun 2008, as a repudiation of something other than his own style of conservatism. It's easy not to see yourself repudiated when you never put your own neck out -- and that may be what professional Republicans resent the most about Limbaugh. Could you blame them?

Dear Leaders

Kim Jong Il was the reductio ad absurdam of Bolshevism, the realization of the monarchic principle at the heart of vanguard partyism. If the people need an enlightened clique to guide them to communism, after all, why wouldn't it follow that a super-enlightened genius would be necessary to guide the clique? Concede that point and you may as well concede that the genius's gifts are hereditary, and that blood is the best qualification for ruling a People's Democratic Republic. To be fair, the Kims remain exceptional among Bolshevik leaders. Neither Mao nor Stalin reserved power for his children, nor is there a second generation of Castros waiting to take over Cuba once Fidel and Raul are finally gone. For that reason, some write off the Kims' eccentricity as some aspect of Korean culture, but there's a constant counter-example to the south to debunk the notion that Koreans somehow did this to themselves. At the same time, we might give Marxism in general some credit for inhibiting the Kims' ambitions. If not for Marx, I imagine, Kim Il Sung might have crowned himself king or emperor long ago -- and then, I imagine, fewer people would deplore the present transfer of power from the second Kim to his "Great Successor."

In more liberal quarters around the globe, the mourning for Vaclav Havel is supposed to be more sincere than the official outpourings of grief for the Dear Leader. Havel was a liberal's wet dream: a playwright and poet who rose to power pretty much through popular acclamation during Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution," the ideal champion of "civil society" against totalitarianism. He has died a hero, if not an inspiration to many during this so-called year of the protester. On the global left, however, he is remembered somewhat less warmly -- not because he helped overthrow a Warsaw Pact puppet, but because with the Velvet Revolution came neoliberalism -- civil society hardened into an ideology --  and an oh-so-principled commitment to humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. Havel was never the obnoxious polemicist Christopher Hitchens was, but both authors were arguably warped by their moral conviction that there was nothing else worth fighting against besides political tyranny, so that Havel, too, could encourage and applaud the invasion of Iraq. In their world, the choice was between electing a Havel and being enslaved by a Kim -- eliminate the Kims of the world and the Havels will rise inevitably. The real choices weren't quite as stark, and it remains unclear whether the people win with the Havels (or Obamas) of the world, or whenever they trust in the character of a leader rather than setting an agenda themselves. It certainly makes a difference whether you're governed by a Havel or a Kim, but reverence for leaders -- even for liberal saints -- is no substitute for a principled commitment to true rule by the people.

16 December 2011

A Divided Center?

For those who despair of Bipolarchy, the people who blame the failure of government to address the economic crisis effectively on base-driven polarization, the great hope is the "center," the place in the imaginary political spectrum where the "moderates" dwell and not just compromise but reconciliation is possible. The moderate or centrist (some writers have suggested a meaningful difference between the two) is usually understood to be someone who has already achieved a compromise or synthesis of opposing ideological claims. It is assumed that the center is where consensus exists or can be achieved easily. But what if it isn't so easy? What if the center itself is divided? That's the possibility raised by Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie in a column that was picked up by one of my local papers this week. "The truth is, the center is not a monolithic community," McKenzie writes, "When we hear about candidates appealing to the middle, which often happens in general elections when campaigns worry about voters not aligned with either party, it’s important to understand the competing players."

According to McKenzie, two significantly different groups occupy the supposed political center. For our purposes, we can label these groups the "centrists," described by McKenzie as socially-liberal economic conservatives, and the "populists," described by the columnist as mostly cultural conservatives but driven primarily by distrust of elites. For generations, McKenzie notes, the populists followed Democrats, but have gone Republican for at least the last forty years, not counting occasional experiments with third parties. Now, however, the Occupy movements have reawakened latent hostility to economic elitism alongside recent animosity toward political and cultural elites. McKenzie believes that populists of all ideological persuasions, galvanized by the Occupations, are likely to demand that government take their side against the economic and other elites. To win the populists, Republicans may have to "lose their disdain for government." Even if they fail to do so, Democrats presumably can't depend upon the populist-center vote to the extent that they are still perceived as elitists in their own right. Whether this creates a promising opening than normal for a third party McKenzie doesn't say, though he notes that the populists have embraced George Wallace and Ross Perot in the past.

McKenzie has probably described two potential voting blocs fairly accurately, but is it accurate to say that both blocs belong to the center? What makes the populists centrist, for instance? For McKenzie, it's presumably their readiness to embrace big government as a shield or sword against elites while remaining culturally conservative. They're centrists if you plot a grid based on attitudes about government rather than culture, just as the socially-liberal economic conservatives who supposedly share the center with them might be polar opposites culturally but willing to compromise ideologically on the role of government and political action in general. If these two somewhat disparate groups comprise the political center, however, shouldn't we be able to imagine a center of the center, a position synthesizing the views and demands of both groups? Since their cultural attitudes are irrelevant to their placement on the political grid, compromise on cultural issues may not be necessary -- which is probably a good thing. McKenzie tentatively breaks the non-populist centrists down along presumed party lines as "strong-government conservatives" and "reinventing-government liberals." In general, McKenzie presumes these groups to be "comfortable both with equal rights and spending reforms." An image begins to form somewhat resembling Andrew Cuomo, the culturally-liberal austerity Democrat who governs New York State. Would Cuomo be palatable to the populists? More to the point, if Cuomo is even close to the ideal McKenzian centrist, why should we assume that McKenzie has described the actual center of American political opinion? Has he really done anything more than describe two blocs of swing voters? And should we assume that anyone who swings between voting Democrat and voting Republican is by default a centrist, much less a moderate? For all we know, the true center of American opinion might well lie to the left or right of both major parties -- or it may be impossible to plot on any conventional left-right grid. Attempting to define the center according to the choices Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, force on us may be a fundamental mistake. We may only know when the true center has spoken, and the true moderates have arrived, when they ask their own questions and pose their own choices. When that moment comes, maybe no other label will be necessary.

Hitchens and His Era

One day after the United States formally closed its occupation of Iraq, word arrives that Christopher Hitchens has lost his characteristically well-publicized battle with cancer. It's a fateful coincidence, since Hitchens was perhaps the most formidable cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to the extent that he could not be dismissed as a mere right-winger. Hitchens had been a fierce leftist and anti-imperialist as well as being one of this generation's "new" or "militant" atheists. He was known for his insistence that Henry Kissinger be prosecuted for war crimes and his scandalous skepticism toward the sainthood claims of and for Mother Theresa. But something began to change with the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and with the September 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. the change was complete. Having never believed in the Communist menace, having instead cheered on Marxists in many places, Hitchens was now convinced that "Islamofascism" was the great enemy of mankind, a menace that could be ignored or denied only out of cowardice or intellectual dishonesty. He cut ties with most of the left, rejecting all "anti-imperialist" arguments against taking the war to the tyrants of the Middle East. It no longer mattered to him whether Americans or corporations benefited from the wars, so long as he could take it for granted that the people of the region would benefit when dictators were toppled and mujaheddin killed. For him, Islamofascism, and for all intents and purposes Islam itself, was such an evil that it should have mattered to no one who liberated Arabs, Afghans, etc. from its influence. If anyone questioned this, that only indicated that they put ideology before the global good.

It was never clear to me how completely Hitchens repudiated the left. To my knowledge, he never apologized for his leftist past, but he did develop a personal libertarian streak not inconsistent with his hostility toward religions of commandments. This never expressed itself in tirades against "big government." Instead, he sniped occasionally at "nanny-state" type regulations like the laws against smoking in restaurants. His was perhaps a typical decline for a self-conscious rebel. He remained eager to replace old orders with new, but behind it all, ever more obviously, was the petty protest of a permanent adolescent against being told what to do. It might be argued that he was never truly part of the left, if you accept as essentially leftist the imperative that we the people, and not just our governing institutions, must evolve -- that we must learn "what to do," even if we have to figure it out ourselves without an all-powerful instructor. What was left by the end was a still-admirable resistance to religion everywhere -- he was probably the closest thing our age had to H. L. Mencken, down to the political incorrectness -- and a hatred for tyranny that's hard to argue with in the abstract. Hitchens's folly was his faith that anything, apparently, was justified for the sake of toppling tyrants, his assumption that no greater problem faced the world than the existence of political or religious tyranny in various nations. To criticize Hitchens is not to defend tyranny. Everyone should hate a tyrant, but Hitchens seemed to forget over time that tyranny wasn't all we should protest against, and that avowed enmity to tyranny doesn't make anyone automatically a force for good. Now that I think of it, that last observation could stand as his epitaph.   

15 December 2011

The Gingrich Heresy

If George Will was already writing two weeks ago that Newt Gingrich was the "least conservative" candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, it's easy to imagine how he'd react when Gingrich dared criticize Mitt Romney's business practices. It's so easy, in fact, that Will has written an entire new column on the subject.

Will, of course, is no fan of Romney, but he is a fan of capitalism, and like Romney, he sees Gingrich's comments on Bain Capital as a confession of economic ignorance. What terrible thing did Gingrich say? Told that Romney had (in Will's word) "mischievously" called on him to return the money Freddie Mac had paid him as a consultant, Gingrich riposted that "if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain Capital, ... I would be glad to listen to him."

Knowing that Gingrich is, by almost any standard but Will's, a conservative, I might assume that the former Speaker was simply calling the former governor a poor businessman. Will reads more into it. Working from the assumption that Gingrich is only minimally conservative, if that, the columnist interprets the above snark as an indictment of finance capital of the sort Ted Kennedy presumably used against Romney in the 1994 senatorial election. That reading, and his apparent detection of heresy, provides Will an opportunity to preach the capitalist truth.

The Kennedy-Gingrich doctrine is this: What the economist Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism’s “creative destruction” is not really creative. Rather, it is lamentable and, when facilitated by capitalists, reprehensible. For Kennedy, this made sense: Reactionary liberalism holds that whatever is, from Social Security to farm subsidies to the Chrysler Corp., should forever be. But Gingrich is supposedly our infallible guide to the sunny uplands of a dynamic future. 

*   *   *

Romney, while at Bain, performed the essential social function of connecting investment resources with opportunities. Firms such as Bain are indispensable for wealth creation, which often involves taking over badly run companies, shedding dead weight and thereby liberating remaining elements that add value. The process, like surgery, can be lifesaving. And like surgery, society would rather benefit from it than watch it. 

For Will, Romney's faults have nothing to do with his business practices; it's only when he turns politician that he displeases the pundit. Will still resents an implicit swipe at Businessman Romney Mike Huckabee took back in 2008. Huckabee had said, "I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off." Will seems to consider this distinction a vicious one; no good American should resent layoffs, he implies. Rather, they should celebrate the "animal spirits" embodied by Romney and his Bain buddies in a photo Will expects to be used against Romney by Democrats. The photo shows the Bainites "feeling their oats, with paper currency protruding from their dark suits," Will writes, adding, "We should welcome such spirits and should hope for political leadership that will hasten the day when American conditions are again receptive to them. Until then, economic dynamism will not return." As far as I can tell, Will still doesn't trust Romney himself to hasten that day (Mrs. Will advises Rick Perry), but he seems certain that Gingrich will delay it. The fact that Gingrich sees himself as a sort of futurist envisioning fundamental transformations of the economy -- with perhaps some creative political destruction thrown in -- only leaves Will more certain of his unfitness for power. Indeed, the headline over Will's column, "Newt Gingrich commits a capital crime," almost openly suggests, punning aside, that the new front-runner is worthy of death. Will's ongoing polemic against Gingrich leaves me more certain that the Republican race has crossed another threshold on the road from mere stupidity to outright madness.

14 December 2011

The Gingrich Mania

Newt Gingrich is the raw nerve of the Republican party, if not for the entire conservative movement. His emergence as a front-runner reveals a stark difference between the mere lack of enthusiasm felt for Mitt Romney and the visceral hatred many Republicans feel for Gingrich. He embodies a kind of schizophrenia on the American right-wing. As the latest anti-Romney, he is presumed to be the "conservative" candidate of the moment, on the premise that Romney is still perceived by many to be insufficiently conservative. At the same time, Gingrich is being violently denounced by much of the Republican punditocracy, including some who are no fans of Romney. I've already noted George Will's argument that Gingrich is the "least conservative" Republican candidate; now Charles Krauthammer calls Gingrich a rhetorical "socialist" for daring to criticize the way Romney ran his businesses. In Newsweek this week, former congressional colleagues condemn him for his domineering ways as Speaker of the House, Joe Scarboroguh bluntly calling Gingrich a "bad person."

The odd thing about all this is that the base is embracing Gingrich, while the pundits are lambasting him, when the reverse ought to be the case. After all, the pundits are attacking him for being an intellectual -- or perhaps a pseudo-intellectual -- the sort of character the base is supposed to despise and distrust. In Newsweek, Gingrich doesn't hide this side of himself. "If you want to smear people who are trying to think, fine," he tells his critics. He describes himself as "an eclectic person of deeply conservative philosophy, who is dedicated to being effective," and commits himself to experimentation in public policy.

“So, we’re gonna help the poor?” he asks. “Truth is, we don’t know how to help the poor. We’re gonna experiment and experiment and experiment until we break through.”

This commitment to experimentation, and Gingrich's often overboard promotion of new ideas, clearly annoy many avowedly conservative opinionators -- but it should be annoying the base as well, on the widely-held assumption that the base is essentially anti-intellectual, and so far it isn't. The discrepancy makes me wonder whether the alleged "anti-intellectualism" of the Republican base has all along been merely a matter of attitude. It's clear that the pundits don't like Gingrich's attitude; they see him, in Newsweek's words, as "a voluble narcissist, given to grandiosity, and prone to intellectual faddism." They perceive a lack of intellectual modesty, an absence of the politician's appropriate deference to the private sector and the divine workings of the Market. Much is made of Gingrich's current enthusiasm for the "management-efficiency doctrine" known as "Lean Six Sigma," and the assumption implicit in the contemptuous commentary is that a politician should not act like a manager, should not assume that he can steer the economy or society in any chosen direction. It may be, however, that when the base hears the same Gingrich rhetoric they hear the voice of entrepreneurship, salesmanship, boosterism. The base has been looking for someone, it seems, who'll treat the Presidency like a radio talk show, as a bully pulpit to refute liberalism and pull no punches doing so. Gingrich would probably do that, and his gift of gab may sound little different to the base from the non-stop opining of their favorite radio talkers. I don't doubt that the Republican base is full of ideas -- most of them hare-brained, probably, -- and their supposed anti-intellectualism is probably no more than a resentment of suspect experts telling them they can't do this or shouldn't do that. Gingrich is their kind of intellectual, -- he even writes novels! -- and that fact infuriates the self-appointed intellectuals of the print punditocracy. Because he proposes to shape the country's future through policy, they call him a "big government conservative" if they consider him a conservative at all. By that peculiar standard, maybe he is the least conservative Republican -- but that would only mean that the GOP and the country could still do worse.

13 December 2011

In Europe: Amoklauf or Terror?

Here's a quick quiz. There have been two multiple-shooting incidents in Europe today. In Liege, Belgium, a man with an Arabic-sounding name and a criminal record involving marijuana and guns attacked a Christmas market with bullets and grenades, killing three people and injuring dozens more before dying himself. In Florence, Italy, a reputed neo-fascist with a hatred for immigrants opened fire on Senegalese street vendors, killing two and wounding more before dying himself. The question is: which of these stories will we see more about in the U.S. news media? Here's another: which of the two killers is more likely to be called a terrorist?  How about one more? A decade ago, Americans asked whether terrorists hated us for who we are or what we do -- but what if we define terrorists exactly by who they are rather than what they do? Won't that be the impulse behind every accusation that the Belgians are "covering up" something by denying that the Liege shooter was a terrorist? Won't some people claim that any discussion of what happened in Florence is a distraction or an evasion of the real issue?

What is the real issue, anyway? As always when we notice these stories, the base issue is the fact that too many people in the world have guns, and the base problem is that too few people can think of any solution besides letting more people have guns. It could be argued that a deeper moral issue underlies the gun question -- why do so many people feel entitled to kill? -- but the question becomes less grave as it becomes lethal. Some may claim that moral reformation should take priority over curtailing people's rights, but how long would we have to wait for the moral reformation to kick in? I'd rather not be shot before then, by a would-be killer or a would-be defender -- nor do I wish to entrust my safety to my own skill with a firearm. A moral reformation is desirable, but every practical step to ensure public safety will also help. And if that idea makes you feel helpless before the leviathan of government, you're part of the problem.

12 December 2011

Jefferson, Chomsky and corporations: a history lesson

Defending the right of corporate entities to political speech in a letter to the Albany Times Union, Malcolm Sherman disputes a previous writer's citation of Thomas Jefferson's warning against the rise of "moneyed corporations." Jefferson was quoted writing that the U.S. should "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations." Sherman claims that Jefferson never wrote this. These "violent sentiments," he claims, are a distorted paraphrase of Jefferson by Noam Chomsky.

In the past I've explored the historic record to prove that famous people had not said the words attributed to them, in most cases, by right wing bloggers and letter-writers. Some right-wingers have a hard time keeping the record straight; on this occasion, Sherman denies an actual statement of Thomas Jefferson. It can be found online on the website of the Liberty Fund, a libertarian publishing house unlikely to sympathize with Noam Chomsky's worldview. Jefferson wrote the letter to George Logan in November 1816. Here's the key section with introductory context:

England exhibits the most remarkable phaenomenon in the universe in the contrast between the profligacy of it’s government and the probity of it’s citizens. And accordingly it is now exhibiting an example of the truth of the maxim that virtue & interest are inseparable. It ends, as might have been expected, in the ruin of it’s people, but this ruin will fall heaviest, as it ought to fall on that hereditary aristocracy which has for generations been preparing the catastrophe. I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

 Jefferson's opinion, of course, doesn't refute the Citizens United decision, but it was his opinion. Where does Chomsky come into it? Sherman seems to have confused a questionable attribution to Jefferson by Chomsky with the Logan letter. In a 1994 book of interviews, Chomsky apparently amplified an authentic Jefferson letter from 1825, and subsequent writers have sometimes mixed Chomsky's words with Jefferson's. The details can be found here, and Jefferson's own sentiments are not irrelevant.

In the last year of his life, Jefferson warned of a decadent younger generation of ambitious men who, "having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and monied incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." Those are Jefferson's words, not Chomsky's. If Malcolm Sherman would like to characterize the author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States as a "far-leftist" like Chomsky -- well, it's a free country.

11 December 2011

My secular fatwa against the Florida Family Association

So a cable channel makes an effort to show Americans something resembling the real life of this nation's Muslims -- or so I'll assume, not having watched the show -- and for this sponsors are reportedly getting boycotted by some charming outfit called the Florida Family Association, with one of them, the Lowe's department store chain, actually pulling their ads as a result. The FFA boasts on its own website that Lowe's is just the latest advertiser to pull out under their pressure, though only that chain's capitulation has captured the news media's attention. The Association's main complaint seems to be that any show about American Muslims must interrogate its subjects about sharia law. To show American Muslims who don't obsess over sharia, the Floridians contend, makes the program "propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law." The TLC channel, however, is under no obligation to pander to Islamophobic paranoia. The All-American Muslim show is not an investigative report, nor need it be. Advertisers should not punish TLC for failing to fuel the Florida fanatics' hatred. Nor should those sponsors be punished who support other programs deemed immoral by the FFA vigilantes. Executive director David Caton's raving against "secular progressives" pretty conclusively brands him and his organization a greater threat to this country than all but the furthest fringe of American Muslims. Any member of FFA is more obviously un-American in his or her intolerance than the average U.S. Muslim. A Christian theocrat is self-evidently a greater threat to the United States than a Muslim theocrat, especially when he doesn't have to resort to bombs or guns to advance his agenda. Like terrorism, boycotting is a form of asymmetrical warfare, waged by people who aren't as vulnerable to the market than the institutions they attack. Pushing back in a proportionate manner against unjust boycotters is difficult, but entities like the FFA should not be immune when they can do such damage. Caton and his acolytes should be just as vulnerable, just as accountable in their pocketbooks, for such presumably dangerous opinions as the groups he boycotts. Threatening violence, as some Muslim idiots may well have done already, would only stroke these people's persecution fantasies. A way should be found to make them suffer in the way they make others suffer, through loss of trade or measures that would make it financially unfeasible for them to continue operations. Ideally, this sort of warfare shouldn't happen in a democratic republic, but until these Christians learn the Golden Rule someone should teach them a lesson.

09 December 2011

Idiot of the Week: Mitch McConell and the NPV

Minority Leader McConnell has virtually declared a constitutional crisis by denouncing the National Popular Vote campaign this week. The leader of the Senate Republicans goes against some members of his own party in opposing the plan, which frequent readers will remember as a compact among states to award all their Electoral Votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote in a presidential election. McConnell scores his first idiot points by describing this compact as "eliminating the Electoral College." Actually, there can be no NPV plan without an Electoral College, since the plan depends on each state's right to determine how it selects Electors. Indeed, the plan, whatever its other merits or flaws, is entirely about choosing Electors. If McConnell is concerned about the autonomy of Electors, then he should question the winner-take-all rules that prevail in most states, where Republican districts end up represented by Democratic Electors, or vice versa, depending on statewide popular vote totals.

McConnell brought up a common argument against NPV during his talk at the Heritage Foundation: critics of the plan fear that it will increase litigation over recount demands across the country and delay scheduled transfers of power. This is no argument against NPV, however, but a complaint against partisan litigiousness. Having made his point, McConnell yielded the idiot podium to Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who warned that NPV would encourage conspiracies of fraud on a national scale. Kobach envisions Democrats shipping disreputable voters en masse to the states with the fewest safeguards against fraud in order to run up their totals their and tip the balance in a close national race. While Kobach arguably deserves to share our idiot citation with the Senator, his speculations are more delusional than stupid.

The Heritage alarmists may deserve extra idiot credit for going against what some Republicans regard as their party's best interest in the NPV. How Republicans feel about the plan may depend on whether they're a minority or majority in their home states. In California, for instance, many Republicans support NPV because it creates an incentive for greater turnout despite consistent Democratic majorities in that state. While Democrats may take the state again next year, and still win any statewide prizes available, the prospect of helping tip the balance nationally could draw many Republicans to the polls who may have thought voting pointless without NPV. Democrats in the "reddest" states may feel the same way. My own complaint against NPV remains the same: it would make things even harder for third-party presidential candidates than they already are. I admit, however, that that doesn't rise to the level of a constitutional challenge, unless you regard Bipolarchy itself as a subversion of Founding intentions. I would sympathize more with NPV advocates if they'd acknowledge that the Electoral College isn't really the worst threat to democracy in America. But when idiots like McConnell and lunatics like Kobach attack the plan, the friends of NPV have all my sympathies.

08 December 2011

Occupy Albany: Slavery advocates get reprieve

The ultimate showdown between the city of Albany and the Occupiers of Academy Park has been deferred to December 22 after the city granted the Occupiers a permit to continue their 24-hour encampment until the start of winter. The authorities had threatened to close the encampment if the Occupiers failed to correct health and safety violations discovered in an inspection last week. A reduced and consolidated encampment sporting fewer but in some cases bigger tents passed a new inspection to earn the permit -- which Occupiers continue to regard as superfluous. After the 22nd, Mayor Jennings promises that daily protests will be allowed to continue, but that an encampment would be too great a health risk to the Occupiers themselves due to wintry conditions. The question will then become whether that's one of the risks the Occupiers will be willing to take.

Meanwhile, the local paper continues to print occasional outbursts of reactionary anger, aimed either at the district attorney for failing to prosecute the Occupiers or at the Occupiers directly. In today's Times Union, Albany paranoid William Thomas takes issue with the espousal by Occupiers of Michael Albert's "Parecon" or "participatory economics." To be specific, two economics students gave a presentation on Parecon at Academy Park back on Nov. 27. As described in reporter Bryan Fitzgerald's article, under Parecon rules "Citizens would gather for consensus decisions to be made as to how much of any given product will be consumed and produced and how resources will be allocated....[W]ages should be determined by how much time, health and well-being an employee sacrifices." To these suggestions, William Thomas responds as follows:

"Participatory economics" is nothing but a dressed-up communism in which each of us will own nothing and have no real say over what we get paid or what we may buy. Your time belongs completely to your neighbors. The products you may buy are rationed by "the voters." Your pay is set by a council. That's not freedom: it is total slavery. Who will produce the goods in such a system? Who will invent? Who will work hard? And who should work, anyway, when nothing they do is under their own control?

To review: "Consensus decisions" = "each of us...will have no real say." In effect, as far as Thomas is concerned, he has "no real say" if anyone else has any say on economic matters pertaining to him. Democracy itself, as should be obvious, is incompatible with Thomas's apparent pursuit of personal autarky. Perhaps he feels less free the more people have a say. As things stand now, presuming that Thomas is an employee, his employer has the real say over what Thomas gets paid, though Thomas retains the drop-dead option of quitting his job. As a consumer, he has "real say" only to the extent that retailers offer competing prices for him to choose from -- yet if more people than the retailers had some say in the matter, Thomas would apparently presume himself less free. Nothing is under his control, he seems to believe, unless it is under his exclusive control. Whether he so exclusively controls anything at the present time remains to be verified; nevertheless, he obviously considers himself more free today than he would be under Parecon. As for the rest of his rhetorical questions, they're just plain asinine. It's just possible, after all, that if we the people set the conditions for our labor we might be motivated to work harder, or at least with more enthusiasm and perhaps even more  intelligence, than many do now. In sum, Thomas's reaction against Parecon is disproportionate to the report, reflecting more than anything else his existential alarm -- hell is other people, after all -- at the thought of a more democratic society. The Times Union editorial page dignified this pathological outburst with the headline, "Occupy members preach slavery," as if someone had raised the Stars and Bars over Academy Park. I'd call that Orwellian if I thought Thomas were that literate. Instead, let's settle for insane.

07 December 2011

The New Republic: Let's have third parties as long as Democrats benefit

Sincere third-party advocates will find little real encouragement from Timothy Noah's TRB column in the December 15 New Republic (the full article is for subscribers only, but check out the comments). Noah is the latest Democratic stooge to dispute the need for a "moderate" third party, claiming that "polarization hasn't infected the two major parties." While the GOP "has been hijacked by its extreme wing," the Democrats have "struggled, unsuccessfully, to coax it back toward the center." The problem with this particular sentence is its uncertainty about "it." Does Noah mean that Democrats are struggling to coax Republicans or their own "extreme wing" back toward the center? That mystery aside, Noah is satisfied on the negative evidence that Democrats "aren't even asked to sign a ... pledge never, ever to cut entitlements," and are tepidly supportive of Obamacare, that they are not as extreme as Republicans and the two-party system, therefore, is not polarized. This could be a valid point if you accept that no Democratic primary voter plans to punish an incumbent for his or her efforts to compromise, and that the prospect of primaries or other forms of pressure creates no resistance to moderation whatsoever among congressional Democrats or inside the Obama administration. In any event, every self-described moderate is free to conclude that Democrats are insufficiently moderate, no matter what Democratic propagandists claim.

Noah isn't against third parties; he's just opposed to a "moderate" third party that might take votes from Obama. The more urgent need, he thinks, is for "an extremist conservative third party to accommodate the wingnuts who can't abide their likeliest nominee," i.e. the anti-Romney Republicans. Noah admits immediately that "my motive for saying so is of course impure," since "Obama could use all the help he can get." He predicts, however, that a conservative independent will emerge without Democratic encouragement behind the scenes. While he claims that no third-party candidate has statistically decided an election for one of the major parties since Teddy Roosevelt outpolled President Taft in 1912, he observes that a modern third-party campaign could do considerable damage to the major-party campaign it seeks to spoil. An independent "can divert organizing talent and, to some extent, the flow of campaign contributions. He can force a major candidate to devote scarce resources to shore up support in a particular state or region. And he can sow dissatisfaction."

To give his editors a funny headline for the front cover, Noah proposes that disgruntled Republicans draft Sarah Palin as an independent candidate if they can't stand Romney. With a bit of actual wit he suggests that Palin would see "the certainty of failure" as an incentive to run, "given her demonstrated scant interest in office-holding." But the proposal reconfirms the frivolity and cynicism of Noah's piece. It's not the business of an honest third-party advocate to say that "we" need an extreme-right spoiler candidate but not a "moderate, centrist third party," especially when the idea of a progressive, leftist or socialist campaign never comes up for consideration. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the argument that Democratic moderation renders a moderate third party unnecessary is actually an argument for the necessity of a leftist third party. Such a party might hurt Obama's chances, though Noah himself notes that Harry Truman survived Democratic insurgencies to his left and right in 1948. In any event, I doubt whether Noah would want to take any chances with even a partial repeat of 1948. On the other hand, he fails to consider the possibility that a stridently rightist third party might make Romney more palatable to swing voters, since he would then look like the default moderate, in the absence of any high-profile candidate to Obama's left. When you think of third parties only as pawns to advance the black or white king, you might end up checkmating yourself. And if you're going to call for a third party without calling for that party to win, or without accepting the need for a multitude of parties, you may as well shut up.

06 December 2011

From Lincoln to Marx?

Ever since the "Popular Front" asserted in the 1930s the "Communism is 20th Century Americanism," and probably well before that, Marxists have tried to win Americans over by emphasizing a presumed affinity between Marx's analysis and the highest values in the American political tradition. The December 2011 Monthly Review reminds us of the continuing effort by noting two recent volumes, Robin Blackburn's An Unfinished Revolution and John Nichols's The "S" Word, that strive to draw closer intellectual connections between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Blackburn's book overstates its claim to have discovered correspondence between the two men, the actual letters being one to Lincoln and a reply on the President's behalf by an American diplomat presumably reflecting Lincoln's own vaguely favorable response. Nichols notes that the two men had, in Monthly Review's words, "a number of key acquaintances in common." The magazine quotes Nichols's determination that Lincoln "found truth in notions about the superiority of labor to capital," while noting quite correctly that Old Abe never became a Marxist.

In these writings, one senses a wishful thinking, a belief that, among the other tasks Lincoln might have accomplished had he not been killed, the Great Emancipator might have rallied the Republican party to  a stronger stand on behalf of the working class than the GOP took after the Civil War. It's tempting to believe that today's plutocratic Republicans have betrayed Lincoln's legacy (not to mention Teddy Roosevelt's), but my suspicion is that, at its core, the GOP still reflects Lincoln's attitudes toward labor, if not toward capital. Lincoln's definitive statement on the subject seems to be a speech he gave in Milwaukee on September 30, 1859. It was there that he made the oft-quoted comment that "labor is the superior -- greatly the superior -- of capital," a remark that continues to inspire American leftists.

Lincoln was defending the northern labor system as a whole against the charge made by southern slaveholders that "wage slavery" was no better than chattel slavery, and the insinuation that Northern "wage slaves" might actually be better off as chattel slaves of a master responsible for their health and security than as the dispensable hirelings of an indifferent employer.  Lincoln's vindication of labor is part of his defense of the Northern labor system. The quote above is meant to refute the slander Lincoln inferred from southern commentary that " all laborers are naturally either hired laborers or slaves." The slander follows from the idea that "nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it." If this view meant that capital was "prior" to labor, Lincoln's view was the reverse; labor was prior to capital, which could not exist without labor.

The issue between the slaveholders and free-labor Republicanism went beyond the "priority" of labor and capital, however. Lincoln wanted to refute above all the idea that slaveholders shared with Marxists: that there was a permanent working class -- Marx's proletariat, the slaveholders' "mud-sills." Lincoln saw it as the slaveholders' belief that "whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life; and thence again, that his condition is as bad as, or worse than, that of a slave" Lincoln's own belief was that the northern laborer's condition was better because it need not be permanent. They were not "wage slaves" because they needn't be employees for life. Here is another oft-quoted passage from the speech:

  [T]he opponents of the "mud-sill" theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men in this assembly doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost, if not quite, the general rule. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor – the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. 

If this sort of mobility were not possible, it would seem that Lincoln would have to concede the point about wage slavery. Instead, he sets the tone for Republicans to the present day by arguing that anyone in the North who ends up a wage laborer for life probably has only himself to blame. In his own words, "If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune." This is just about the opposite of the Marxist proposition that capitalism forces working people into the position of a permanent proletariat -- not to mention the idea that the industrial system of production that requires a proletariat was the predictable consequence of large historical trends.

Marxists still have a fair right to ask whether Lincoln would have refined his views after 1865. Even in the Milwaukee speech, after all, he notes a cultural shift of potential significance in the fact of a more highly educated workforce. In the past, Lincoln observes, educated people would not expect and would probably not need to do manual labor, but the spread of public education and the needs of the economy made that expectation untenable by Lincoln's time. Would he acknowledge other sociological changes, and would he admit that they threw his free-labor ideology into question?  It makes an intriguing "What If?" exercise, but I'm not sure of its usefulness to the 21st century left.

Columnist tells Americans: Don't wake up!

To be fair, the point Kelly Candaele was trying to make in a Los Angeles Times column that was picked up over the weekend by a local paper was that, contrary to the diatribes of political malcontents across the ideological spectrum, Americans are already quite wide awake. Candaele has apparently grown sick and tired of agitators and ideologues insisting that most Americans are "asleep," -- unaware or willfully ignorant of the control exerted over their lives by manipulative, exploitative elites, be they control-freak politicians or insatiably ruthless corporations. Writing on behalf of the great majority, Candaele, a former movie producer and present professor of communications, takes offense at the notion that most people are "essentially passive recipients of elite manipulation." He finds the notion patronizing, since it "assumes that most of us are simply unable to perceive and thereby act on our own self-interest." The assumption itself is elitist, Candaele claims, since it carries the "paranoid" implication that " only those with access to esoteric knowledge can know 'what's really going on.'"

Candaele touches on a point I've made in the past about conspiracy theorists whose sense of oppression reflects their difficulty coping with complex systems and their desire to be rid of them. Candaele's distinct point, however, is that while complexity is a fact, system is not. The very complexity we all seem to struggle with, he suggests, proves the absence of any system out of the paranoid imagination. The people who seem to be asleep from the vantage point of the paranoid or the conspiracy-monger, he contends, are actually just " liv[ing] their lives as best they can, sorting through the complex claims on their time, their values and their obligations to families and communities. We weigh the costs of action in the political world against the satisfactions and disappointments of working through the dynamics of everyday life"

The problem with Candaele's attitude becomes clear when we see the sweep of his dismissal of anti-"system" thought. He reaches back in time to chide Henry David Thoreau and Eugene V. Debs, while deploring the metaphorically similar rhetoric of Karl Rove, on the right, and Cornel West, on the left. Candaele's implication is that no critique of a "system" is valid, but an even worse implication from the overall tone of the article is that those who question the "complex claims" made on them, those who dare ask who made the claims, or for what purpose, are all paranoid. Whether you're conservative or liberal, libertarian or socialist, you'll get on Candaele's bad side, it seems, the moment you ask why things are the way they are, or why they can't be different. Since the answer to such inquiries could well indict people who benefit from the status quo when things could be changed for the better, that would render you a paranoid elitist in Candaele's eyes. Even doing away with the metaphor that so offends him and saying merely that Americans take too much for granted probably wouldn't change the professor's diagnosis.

I honestly can't tell from his column what Candaele's own political beliefs are, or if he has any, but his attitude is similar to the anti-political conservatism I noted yesterday in George Will's writing. Candaele appears to object to any attempt to think politically about society, to any raising of the possibility that today's "complex claims" aren't all simply historical accidents or unconsciously inevitable trends, to any suggestion that people do more than deal with their own problems. An absolute refusal to question our conditions is really no better than the truly paranoid assumption that every "complex claim" results from a vast systemic conspiracy to make my life miserable. But the sorting out of what may be inescapable from what could be changed requires a willingness to question that is not paranoid but is opposed to the sort of complacency that could be compared fairly, or at least artistically, to slumber.  Maybe Candaele wouldn't disagree with this, but only objects to the metaphor -- but if he expects his protest to still anyone's tongue, he's definitely dreaming.

05 December 2011

If Gingrich isn't conservative, who is?

Just as Herman Cain's ignominious departure from the race for the Republican presidential nomination appeared to clarify the picture into a two-man battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, George Will's weekend column threw a grenade into the ring. Defying the conventional analysis that makes Gingrich the new Tea Party darling, following Bachmann, Perry and Cain, Will bluntly labels the former Speaker the "least conservative candidate" among the Republicans. Of course, the charge can only tell us more about Will's conservatism than Gingrich's.

So why isn't the man who retook Congress for the Republicans after decades in the wilderness, the great promoter of the Contract With America, not a conservative. For Will, it's Gingrich's personality that seems to disqualify him.

Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything....His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today.... Gingrich, who would have made a marvelous Marxist, believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how.

There's no need to infer George Will's conservatism from this. The columnist gives us an explicit definition: "Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies and Genesis deplores: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.”

In other words, Will follows the prescriptions of that Dr. Pangloss of the 20th century, Friedrich von Hayek, who argued, in effect, that the Market (i.e. "spontaneous order") was the best of all possible worlds, if only because politics could only ever make things worse. By this standard, even Mitt Romney's "conservatism as managerialism," as Will describes it, would be preferable to Gingrich's pseudo-intellectualism.

Will makes some fair hits on Gingrich's many hare-brained notion, specifically citing that embrace of Dinesh D'Souza's indictment of President Obama's apparently hereditary "anti-colonial" mentality that earned Gingrich an Idiot of the Week nod from this blog. But leaving Gingrich out of it for a moment, we're left with a peculiar anti-intellectualism emanating from a writer still widely regarded as a leading intellectual among conservatives. It isn't as much anti-intellectualism in general, however, as it is anti-politics: a rejection of the premise that politics is an intellectual discipline or field of knowledge in its own right. At a minimum, Will rejects the idea that political intervention of any kind, however motivated, can have a positive effect on the Market. In effect, he's accusing Gingrich of the same offense Gingrich himself accused Rep. Ryan of earlier this year: "right-wing social engineering." If people like Gingrich (or Ryan) believe that politics is a machine that can be manipulated to produce positive economic outcomes, Will appears to believe that the economy would be better off were the machine smashed entirely.

While Romney might be preferable to Gingrich or to "today's bewildered liberalism," Will still thinks the Republicans can do better. Given his dissociation between politics and intellect, it may be no surprise that Will asks Republicans to reconsider Gov. Perry -- whom he admits is advised by Mrs. Will. Perry's various misstatements are "not important to presidential duties," he writes, while Perry's "Southwestern zest for disliking Washington and Wall Street simultaneously" still recommends him to anti-ideologues like Will. Finally, the columnist still waits patiently for the Huntsman boom, reminding us in advance that, his moderate demeanor notwithstanding, the man from Utah has the "most conservative" program of the GOP aspirants, including a middling foreign policy poised between Rep. Paul's "isolationism" and the others' "bellicosity." If Perry and Huntsman are his favorites, then Will's conservatism still covers a lot of territory. It's the territory it doesn't cover that's the problem.

02 December 2011

Occupy Albany: Winter is coming

At long last, the City of Albany has put the Academy Park Occupation on notice: overnight encampments must end with the coming of winter, no later than December 22 but sooner if the Occupiers fail to remedy "serious health and safety" violations cited following an inspection of the park yesterday. While the local newspaper report doesn't detail the alleged violations, it quotes Mayor Jerry Jennings's concern for the Occupiers' own health as the weather grows colder and snow becomes more likely. The Occupation will be shut down for the Occupiers' own good, you see. As in New York, the mayor affirms a right of protesters to stage daily demonstrators. They may perform like good little dissidents and sit down so that everyone else can return to their complacency or private worries. The thought of dissent that does not go away is for some reason anathema to elected officials of both major parties in this country. It is an imposition on the rest of us somehow. It is obviously offensive to many. So let what will happen happen. It is probably as inevitable as the season. All the people who have supposedly been doing nothing will find something else to do, and all the people who've scoffed and shrugged will keep on doing nothing.