31 December 2012

Racing toward a cartoon cliff

From what I hear, the government will go off the dreaded fiscal cliff at midnight. Today's deals won't get done in time for the House of Representatives to vote on them until tomorrow. The delay probably also gives Speaker Boehner time to twist Tea Party arms, since the deal reported means more tax increases than spending cuts. Boehner's Speakership itself may be on the line; his prestige in the wider political world certainly is. Some Democrats are supposedly unhappy because they won't be reaching deeper into the pockets of the $250,000 earners as the unhappy ones wanted. That's called compromise. You can use the same word to describe Republicans getting less cuts than they wanted. We should expect many partisans to grumble, but the concept of the cliff may have convinced ordinary observers of the need for broader considerations than party gain or ideological soundness. Yet the cliff, as a metaphor, lacks a certain gravity. It seems that even after their feet leave land, Senators will be able to delay the sequester, the sequence of automatic spending cuts that waited at the bottom of the cliff. This cliff appears to be the kind of cliff we see in cartoons -- or else our legislators are like those cartoon characters who race blindly off a cliff and keep going straight ahead until they realize there's no ground under them anymore. At that point, after a poignant pause, down they go -- but sometimes they can race back to the cliff and cling for dear life. Such is the state of American politics today. Happy New Year.

28 December 2012

The only thing that stops good guys with guns is a bad guy

A competition is probably already under way to draw messages from today's incident at the Gloucester Township, New Jersey, police station, where a man arrested on a domestic violence charge managed to seize a gun from one of the officers and open fire. He wounded three police before they shot him dead. For some, it may prove the point Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association tried to make when he said, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." The good guys did stop the bad guy this time, but not before the bad guy took advantage of the opportunity presented by the good guys' guns. This is not an argument for disarming the police, obviously, but it might serve as a warning for other good guys out there, self-styled or otherwise. Gun-rights apologists always want to remind us that gun regulations won't deter criminals from getting guns. That's a common sense argument so long as guns are around. But stolen guns are almost by definition guns taken by bad guys from good guys. If we want to differentiate further between bad guys and good guys, today's news provides an extreme example of the audacity that often gives bad guys an advantage even over armed good guys. If a motivated person can disarm a cop inside a police station, how much better would civilians fare against such a motivated person?

Here some will pause for further information on today's incident. Since one of the wounded policemen is a woman, it may be suspected that the bad guy disarmed the weak female, turning the incident into an argument against arming female cops. If the bad guy disarmed a policeman, it may only prove that all cops need more hand-to-hand combat training against attempts to disarm them. That itself may prove that the audacious criminal has an inherent advantage -- at least until a good guy actually draws his or her weapon -- since it's unlikely that criminals undergo professional training in the art of disarming people. Whatever differences exist categorically between "good guys" and "bad guys" probably favor bad guys in most showdowns. I always think of the man who witnessed Howard Unruh's 1949 proto-amoklauf and took a shot at the killer from the safety of a second-floor window. That would-be hero simply froze when his first shot, a hit, failed to bring Unruh down. Call this "cherry picking" if you like, but I only want to suggest that the "good guy" is more likely than the "bad guy" to freeze at such a crucial moment, while the "bad guy" is more likely to be calculating his chances of taking the gun from the "good guy." How far do the rest of us have to go toward emulating criminals in ruthlessness and hair-trigger reactions before we can really be certain of our advantage against them? The cops won today in Gloucester Township only through a preponderance of force that no individual will ever enjoy. LaPierre's one-on-one ideal is too idealistic, but this moral might be overlooked during the debate over weapons. The ultimate answer to criminal individuals, or to "bad guys" collectively, isn't individual "good guys" but a vigilant and truly just community. An individual right to self-defense is no solution to social or cultural problems -- and if it puts more weapons within reach of bad guys, it may be counterproductive.

27 December 2012

Filibusters, then and now

According to Wikipedia, it was a contextual accident that led to the ancient legislative tactic of delaying votes with long speeches receiving a name that at the time -- the 1850s -- was associated with pirates and freebooters. William Walker, the American who overthrew a Nicaraguan government and briefly took over that country in the same decade, was known as a "filibuster." Since then, many people have viewed the classical delaying tactic as some kind of piratical hijacking of the legislative process. It's entirely legal, however, for between 1806 and 1917 the U.S. Senate had no reliable means of ending debate while Senators kept speaking. "Cloture" was introduced in the 20th century, but in order to prevent it from becoming a mere partisan tool it has always required a supermajority: two-thirds of the Senate initially, and 60 votes since 1975. Since the Democrats reclaimed Congress in 2006, progressives have urged another rule change -- the Senate can do this itself without amending the Constitution -- requiring only a simple majority to end debate. Republicans have resisted such reform while using filibusters more frequently to thwart Democratic plans. Justifying their resistance, George Will argues that the filibuster is one of the things that keeps the Senate from being a redundant echo of the House of Representatives. Will regards the filibuster as characteristic of the Framers' desire for limited government, although history shows that they had not anticipated what we call filibusters and that nothing of the sort occurred before 1837. He'd be on firmer ground arguing that, whether the Framers anticipated filibusters or not, the tactic is consistent with their idea of the Senate as, on some level, a more deliberative than representative body, one that existed to check the democratic impulses from the lower house. If the House represents the will of the people, the Senate, in theory, represents not just the states but also the wisdom of the nation's elder statesmen. As Will puts it, "98 percent of good governance consists of stopping bad --meaning most -- ideas." Historically, however, Senators have talked not just bad ideas to death, but indisputably good ones, delaying adequate civil rights enforcement for generations. One must be very conservative to suppose that anywhere between 51 and 98 percent of all "ideas" that take the form of legislation are bad. In Will's case, the columnist simply lacks faith in progressivism, the filibuster's nemesis. Only progressives, he argues, have a beef with filibusters, since they believe in swift rather than wise action. He does note that Republicans have sometimes practiced "situational ethics" on the subject, recalling the GOP's 2005 threat to forbid filibusters of judicial nominees. For the most part, in his account, overbearing progressives force the escalation of filibusters, which are "means whereby the minority can give an overbearing majority an incentive to compromise." Seeing things this way, Will affects surprise when filibustering Republicans are the ones accused of unwillingness to compromise.

Elsewhere in the column, Will writes that the filibuster "protects minority rights by allowing for the measurement of intensity as well as mere numbers." This is a somewhat confusing analysis, since he otherwise argues for the filibuster as a check on the intensity of progressive majorities. Perhaps there are different kinds of intensity in play, but the sort of intensity that fuels filibusters -- ideological fanaticism more than anything else in our time -- doesn't seem conducive to the compromises Will expects to result from their use. Nor does "intensity" sound equivalent to the wisdom that justified the Senate's existence for many Founders. Will is grasping for arguments in the face of an alleged threat from Sen. Reid, the Majority Leader, to use a parliamentary tactic to force a rules change on January 1 that would reduce the cloture requirement to a simple majority. On one level, Will's concern makes sense to the extent that the Senate is something besides an echo chamber for the House, though the relations between the two houses needn't automatically be adversarial, either. If, however, for reasons progressive or otherwise, you believe that the only legitimate check on the will of the people as expressed through their representatives is the Constitution -- if you believe, as a conservative might be expected to, that "intensity" is no substitute for a proper understanding of the fundamental charter -- you may wonder why, in our irreversibly more democratic age, a Senate elected by the same people as the House, whose members show no obvious superiority in intellect or experience to House members -- ask Republicans their opinion of Sen. Obama, after all -- should be deferred to when some members intensely oppose measures endorsed by multitudes more. My point isn't that one person can't be right when opposing millions, but my question is: has the Senate ever really represented wisdom? Does the Constitution really provide for wisdom's representation in any branch of government? If Will wants us to assume that Senators are entitled to some deference from the House, or that even a minority of Senators (or one of them) are entitled to deference from the majority, on a presumption of wisdom, hasn't this arch-conservative and skeptic of politics put himself in the position of ascribing wisdom, on faith, to the winner of a popular election? It's possible to argue that there's been no concrete justification for filibusters since 1913, when the election of Senators passed from state legislatures to the people. From that point Senators were no different from Representatives, except for representing larger areas and, usually, larger populations. Would Will argue that Senators are wiser because even more of the rabble vote for them? I don't expect him to, but for him obstructionism is a fetish, the necessary guarantor of limited government. For him, limited government may always be a good thing. The rest of us recognize some necessary limitations without seeing limits as ends unto themselves. The Senate should not be redundant, but if the filibuster is the only thing preventing its redundancy, perhaps the status of the Senate itself should be up for debate.

26 December 2012

Sean Wilentz's Neo-Lincolnian manifesto

It should surprise no one that Sean Wilentz has given Steven Spielberg's Lincoln a rave review in the pages of The New Republic. As I've written here and on my movie blog, Spielberg's film and Tony Kushner's screenplay are a cinematic endorsement, intentional or coincidental, of Wilentz's view of Lincoln as an exemplary politician and practitioner of what the historian now calls "all of democracy's dark but often essential arts." As demonstrated in the movie, these include "dispensing favors of patronage to congressmen and hedging public remarks to the edge of mendacity." While the latter may be regrettable, Wilentz prefers this total practice to "the sanctimonious anti-political stance that passed itself off (and still does) as righteous progressivism." For some time now, Wilentz has fiercely criticized the "anti-political" or "post-partisan" stance he identifies with President Obama and, more strongly, his supporters, i.e. those who affect to despise Clintonian Democracy. Wilentz is disturbed by a "purist" idealism that, as an idealism, is virtually a straw man for him to attack. That purism, in his account, sees politics as an art of purely intellectual (or possibly emotional) persuasion and ends up helpless when those forms of persuasion fail. As our American Machiavel for the 21st century, Wilentz wants us to understand that there are other forms of persuasion short of coercion -- though he allows for some degree of coercion in the form of party discipline. "Partisanship [i.e. party discipline] and deal-making ... are essential to success in American politics," he writes now. He puts it more starkly toward the end of his latest essay: "[I]n a democracy, baseness and trickery may be essential to achieving the highest ends." These, however, are the realm of elected politicians. Wilentz, formerly a historian of the early labor movement, has no more patience for the "reflexive assumption" of "today's academic historians [and] Hollywood populists" that "party politicians are inherently corrupt, that even the best of them do nothing unless goaded by angry ordinary Americans, and that the true heroes of our political history have been the oppressed and the pure of heart, not the wily pols." In Wilentz's history, the wily pols are the only ones who actually accomplish anything, though seeing American political history in this way is perhaps like saying that Lincoln ended slavery without the help of the army.

Wilentz makes vast claims for the Spielberg film, treating it not just as the ultimate refutation, after almost a century, of The Birth of a Nation, but also as a belated antidote to the cinematic anti-political populism most identified with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The historian suggests that he sees nothing wrong with the agenda and tactics of Jeff Smith's antagonists -- apart maybe from their running down newsboys -- arguing that Lincoln more rightly demonstrates that "if Lincoln aimed to do good like Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith, his methods were those of Claude Rains's Senator Paine." That is, Lincoln, like all the allegedly corrupt pols in movies, got things done by cutting deals. Wilentz rightly reminds readers that cutting deals isn't the same thing as compromising, and attacks "lazy writers and critics" who've claimed that Lincoln teaches the need for compromise among today's politicians. For Wilentz, it was precisely because Lincoln refused to compromise (in January 1865) on ending slavery that he had to start cutting deals and practicing other forms of "dirty" politics. Wilentz apparently would have us assume that when politicians make deals, they are acting from motives more like those of the real (and cinematic) Lincoln than those of the purely fictional Paine.

It sometimes sounds as if Wilentz is telling progressive critics of the Democratic party to shut up and trust their leaders. He seems to pose a false choice between that (presumably not blind) trust in party leaders and elected representatives, on one hand, and impotent activism on the other. He definitely hopes to impress us with a truism: politicians are not corrupt by definition. We can even go further with him and accept the premise that many if not most politicians have the public good at heart. Even a political party as a group can have the public good at heart. But that only begs two questions: what is the public good, and who gets to say what it is? In his polemic against progressives and activists, Wilentz essentially is telling those groups to defer to the definitions issued by parties and elected officials. No alternate definition that fails to take into account what representatives actually can accomplish is to be taken seriously. Again, this is an appeal to trust, an insistence that we take party politicians word for what can or can't be done. These practical arguments can't be dismissed out of hand, but Wilentz would seem less like an apologist for partisanship, or for the Democratic party in particular, if he would seriously address the potential for partisan self-interest to compromise the public good, as well as the ways Bipolarchy may exacerbate that potential. If he simply wants to say that we must never assume that parties are out for themselves, he isn't worth our attention. Meanwhile, Spielberg's Lincoln shouldn't suffer by any conceptual association with Sean Wilentz. It makes many similar points but in less belligerent fashion, without polemical axes to grind. You don't have to buy into Wilentz's worldview to agree with the film's core premise that you don't need everyone to agree with you on everything; you just need enough of them to vote your way. But whether deal-making is the answer to today's political troubles remains to be seen.

24 December 2012

The Problem of Evil, continued

As today's news brings a report of somebody apparently setting a fire to lure firemen into a fatal ambush in Webster NY -- two died and two more were wounded -- I'm catching up with Charles Krauthammer's commentary on the possible consequences of the Newtown amoklauf. Gun control is an issue that opens a little distance between a neocon like Krauthammer and the Republican base. "I have no problem in principle with gun control," he writes. However, managing to sound both conservative and radical at once, he contends that nothing short of repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating all personal firearms would accomplish what gun-control advocates hope for. There are simply too many loopholes and grandfather clauses in both existing and proposed regulations, and too great a stockpile of arms and ammo in the country already. In any event, he rejects any monocausal explanation of Newtown, insisting that "everything ... has to be on the table," not just gun rights. Perhaps predictably, he thinks the media should consider sacrificing some of their sacred rights as well.

We live in an entertainment culture soaked in graphic, often sadistic, violence. Older folks find themselves stunned by what a desensitized youth finds routine, often amusing. It’s not just movies. Young men sit for hours pulling video-game triggers, mowing down human beings en masse without pain or consequence. And we profess shock when a small cadre of unstable, deeply deranged, dangerously isolated young men go out and enact the overlearned narrative.

People have been blaming the media for crime for at least a century, but it's not as if the media invented crime, or that kids would have no crime to imitate without the media. Still, whether or not the media influence an especially suggestible "small cadre" should not be a forbidden question. As for that "cadre," Krauthammer writes from personal experience as a psychiatrist to suggest that many amoklaufers would have been committed to mental care long before they turned violent under the rules he worked under in the 1970s, without "the crushing bureaucratic and legal constraints that make involuntary commitment infinitely more difficult today" A misguided application of civil-rights principles, he argues, has left too many insane people on the streets or simmering in their homes. But strengthening "civil commitment" laws, he suggests, may be more effective than censorship or gun control in reducing the number of mass shootings.

Krauthammer's overall point is that gun owners need not be the only ones expected to sacrifice perceived rights in the name of public safety. Quite sensibly, he reminds readers that public safety always comes at a cost to individual freedom: "Gun control impinges upon the Second Amendment; involuntary commitment impinges upon the liberty clause of the Fifth Amendment; curbing “entertainment” violence impinges upon First Amendment free speech. That’s a lot of impingement, a lot of amendments. But there’s no free lunch. Increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties." The security measures taken after September 2011 may not be the  most inspiring examples, but they do drive home his point about cost, and his closing question about what we're willing to pay.

Give Krauthammer credit for recognizing the necessity of trade-offs for the public good, even if he remains less ready to recognize any necessity for them in the economic realm. You might still criticize him slightly for exaggerating the starkness of the choice between public safety and liberties. Republicans often have a hard time recognizing or acknowledging that public safety often is the prerequisite for meaningful liberty in a civilized society. Some surrender of supposedly pre-existing individual liberties can result in the sort of freedoms idealized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "freedom from fear" especially. Unfortunately, the formula isn't automatic because governments and politicians do make mistakes and succumb to temptations. But civilization depends on our dedicated belief that the formula can work. Too many Americans today don't seem to get the idea that good citizenship rather than defensive individualism can make you more free, dismissing the idea (if it occurs to them at all) as some Orwellian absurdity. When you reject such ideas, however, what keeps the amoklaufer from looking like the freest man on earth? Since I assume that no one actually believes that, we already have the beginning of compromise. The question then is how much further we have to go.

21 December 2012

The NRA's modest proposal

The National Rifle Association ended its official silence following the Newtown amoklauf with a statement from executive Wayne LaPierre. After the delay, LaPierre seems only to echo a point made by gun nuts for the past week: the amoklauf happened because public schools are gun-free zones, leaving no one with the capacity to stop a rampage killer. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun," he said in the headline quote for the event, "is a good guy with a gun." Of course, this ignores the occasions, in Tucson for instance, when the bad guys have been stopped by unarmed people who simply summoned the courage to tackle shooters. To my knowledge, no amoklauf has been resolved according to the NRA's ideal scenario, with the shooter taken down by an armed civilian. Having made his point, however, LaPierre recommended a step somewhat short of what individual gun nuts have proposed. Many of them, citing the Israeli example, want to arm teachers. Instead, LaPierre wants armed security guards, preferably policemen, in schools. He may have realized, however unpleasant it may have been to contemplate, that arming teachers probably would make amoklaufs more likely. Putting responsible, trained people in the halls is a reasonable if regrettable step that may be necessary to restore confidence in school safety. While LaPierre expects Congress to fund this, he also believes that "massive funding should not be required" to meet his goal. Can't offend the fiscal conservatives, as Speaker Boehner has learned to his embarrassment.

Of course, LaPierre was at pains to deny that guns themselves facilitate amoklaufs. He throws the blame on that alternate scapegoat, the media, citing video games and violent movies as the primary instigators. It would seem, however, that no one could imitate what they see in the most violent media without getting guns first. The NRA might want to say that the media turns guns into weapons of evil in damaged imaginations, but it seems that the media simply takes the already-established lethal efficiency of guns for granted. While we might concede that the relative influence of guns and media is a chicken-egg query, we can say more definitely that gun apologists' rhetoric of armed resistance to nebulous threats to individual liberty and their insistence upon a natural, individual right to lethal self-defense have not been fully weighed as factors in recent atrocities. If violent movies and video games may be criticized for the way they show guns being used, may not those people who want guns, and want more people to own them, not just for protection from "criminals" but for defense against "enemies" more vaguely and thus more suggestively and dangerously defined? Can't it be argued that the militant rhetoric of resistance enables (or empowers) anyone with a persecution complex to "defend" themselves by any means necessary? Does that mean that no one should propose resistance to unconstitutional acts of government? Not if "Second Amendment remedies" aren't your first response, and not as long as you realize that such remedies are unrealistic and only encourage more unrealistic imaginations. As long as the NRA fails to realize, or acknowledge, that affirming an individual right to kill is problematic, they have little more to contribute to the debate over gun rights beyond Mr. LaPierre's potentially helpful proposal today.

20 December 2012

Anti-egalitarianism in America

The new Journal of American History includes Alice Kessler-Harris's presidential address, "Capitalism, Democracy and the Emancipation of Belief." A labor historian, Kessler-Harris gave her audience a quick survey of changing attitudes toward inequality in American history. Her premise is that recent times have abandoned a traditional belief in balance between liberty and equality, influential forces favoring liberty with the least regard permissible for equality. The Founders, she notes, recalled a classical political tradition that saw great concentrations of wealth as inevitable threats to liberty. They also thought of wealth primarily in terms of land, John Adams saying "the balance of power in a society accompanies the balance of property in land," while Noah Webster called "a general and tolerably equal distribution of land ... the whole basis of national freedom." She takes the point a little too far, however, in suggesting that the Founders supported redistributionist policies. If anything, the classical tradition taught them to dread what they called "agrarian" laws designed to redistribute lands. Rather than maintain equality by taking from the rich, the Founders expected equality to result from multitudes claiming their plots of land on the frontier. Their heirs in the early Republican party wanted to block slavery's westward expansion because they feared that slaveholders would divide the west into huge plantations, shutting out the idealized yeoman farmer. Still, it's definitely worth emphasizing that the Founders -- at least some of them -- considered excessive wealth and extreme inequality problems for a republic. But as wealth grew more concentrated in industrial plants and banks, simply calling for more people to own land seemed inadequate to new, unprecedented inequality. Here the Progressives stepped in, demanding pragmatic compromises from the robber barons and captains of industry. In Kessler-Harris's summary, Progressives and their liberal descendants "sought to convince the business classes that to maximize their access to profits, they would need a peaceful and cooperative public realm," on the understanding that "capitalism could not survive without the support and cooperation of those who served it." Capitalists were to submit to regulation in the workers' interests on the understanding that it was all ultimately in their interests as well. A "liberal compromise" implemented regulations and tax-funded social programs while maintaining "a stronger commitment to liberty of the marketplace than did European counterpart plans." The U.S. still depended upon capital-driven economic growth to make life better for most people, but undertook some regulations to help make sure it did so. At the same time, while capitalists played ball, Americans constantly affirmed the value of "liberty" against the threat of communism. But by doing so, Kessler-Harris suggests, the liberal establishment of the mid-20th century allowed a seed to grow that led to its undoing. Believing herself that anticommunism "served to restrain the spread of democratic ideas," she argues that the rhetoric of liberty grew increasingly hostile to the idea of equality. Through a kind of dialectic, American ideals of liberty once thought reconcilable with at least a vague commitment to equality grew irreconcilable to the extent that equality was identified with communism, totalitarianism, and excessive state power in general. Kessler-Harris overstates this to the extent that she accuses a new "neoliberal orthodoxy" of hostility to the "public good," since neoliberals certainly thought that their policies most conducive, if not exclusively so, to the public good as they understood it. But her point stands if we agree that the "neoliberal" idea of the "public good" required less equality than was deemed necessary in the past.

Kessler-Harris closes by noting that the relationship between equality, wealth and democracy remains in flux and is under pressure from increasing criticism of the role of money in elections. Whether the U.S. can return to its midcentury equilibrium is unlikely to the extent that global competition has shrunk the size of the pie capital could distribute to loyal workers. Egalitarians will more likely have to look further back for models of action. If capital (or its most dogmatic advocates) are to be swayed, it will more likely be for pragmatic than principled reasons, as they were, arguably, in the past. Implicit in my quotations from Kessler-Harris are threats. The "need [for] a peaceful and cooperative public realm" implies no peace without compromise from capital; the need for "support and cooperation" implies that workers could withhold these with severe consequences for capital. Such compromises were certainly resented from the beginning if capitalists were convinced of the moral superiority of their own position. If anything, generations of anti-communist, anti-totalitarian and anti-statist rhetoric have probably hardened moral objections to compromises of principle for mere safety's sake. Why should they have to submit to such interference, why give up what is rightly theirs, because of implied threats? Because politics is, ideally, the prevention of any violence, not the institution of any ideology. Capitalists may prefer that workers practice reasonable submission to their management but cannot take such submission for granted and ought to have alternative plans short of violence. Some would say they've found the alternatives: outsourcing and layoffs. But these tactics simply defer a day of reckoning and may only shift the burden from the same people as employers to the same people as (equally resentful) taxpayers. Capital will have to deal with these people at some time or another, in some way or another. How much violence, if they prefer that, is principle worth? That's the argument for pragmatic compromise, and if you can put the authority of the Founders on top of it, all the better. If those Founders were right who claimed that extreme concentrations of wealth and resulting inequality subvert republics, it can be proven in two ways: by the consolidation of power under an undemocratic plutocracy, or in literal class war that results in nothing for anyone. In either case, does it matter more who's right on some moral plane or that we make the sacrifices of principle or interest necessary to prevent tyranny and violence. If anything has changed in modern times to make compromise more difficult, it may be business's faith that workers will submit short of violence, that workers are either rational enough to understand when they should submit or too stupid to resist effectively. But why take chances? One way or another, the practicality of high American egalitarianism -- the belief in a decent minimum standard of living for Americans -- needs to be reinforced for those who've grown skeptical.    

19 December 2012

The Problem of Evil

"T rying to explain an evil act like the one that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is on a par with explaining how the universe was formed," Cal Thomas writes. While Thomas may be expected to have an easy explanation of the formation of the universe, he rejects easy explanations of the Newtown amoklauf. He rejects both stricter gun laws ("Connecticut already has some of the strictest") and censorship of violent media ("people killed people long before TV and movies") as panaceas. He doesn't take for granted, as some of his loyal readers might, that armed personnel at schools is the answer. But his is a faith-based skepticism. There are no easy answers because none of those offered address the intractable element of human nature.

The way to deal with evil is to first acknowledge that it exists and that we all possess the potential for it. We don't become evil by what we do, but because of who we are. We are human beings, not God. We are not "basically good," as some claim, we are imperfect and fall far short of any true standard of perfection. Evil is a "pre-existing condition." In some it is controlled by an inner compass, or by laws and cultural constraints. When it is not, we get Sandy Hook and tragedies like it. We get what we do not understand and cannot begin to fathom. 

Conservative skepticism about human or social perfectibility is grounded in belief in some "pre-existing" handicap, though one suspects that a secular psychologist could well agree with the religious believer about the existence of something irrational and selfish at the human core while disagreeing over where it comes from. What makes conservatives conservative on this point is their belief that enough attempts have been made to perfect man to prove the project hopeless, while each generation of radicals reaffirms an imperative to keep trying. What conservatives like Thomas doubt specifically is that people can plan and carry out their own perfection. Thomas himself, however, believes, with many others, that a way has already been shown authoritatively, even if many can only affirm it through faith, and that no better option than submission to this revealed way can be found or invented.

For Thomas, the idea of "evil" is inseparable from some sort of spiritual awareness. He applauds politicians ("not usually identified with spiritual concepts") for "accurately describing what happened in Newtown" as "evil." He describes recent calls to prayer as "an important first step in combating evil." This presumes that we can only comprehend evil, let alone combat it, in the context of Abrahamic myth, that without acknowledging God you can't really understand what evil is. This already goes too far, but Thomas pushes further with the provocative "suggestion" that the "source for good" may be "offended by all of the accumulated evil we are piling up?" He claims this is "not a sermon, just a thought," but what does he want us to think? If we are to think for a moment that Newtown happened because the "source for good" was offended, then Thomas is no better for suggesting that than the crazed congregants of Westboro Baptist Church.  Thomas has criticized the Westboro crew in the past, so I suppose he must mean something else -- probably that repentance and submission are prerequisites for a world without amoklaufs, or that you won't be a better person until you appreciate that you owe it to God to be so. But were Thomas more conservative than Christian -- there is a difference -- he would remember his own reminder that people have been killing people for centuries, including all those years when Republicans imagine that Christianity had unchallenged sway. People have killed individually and collectively in the name of Christ almost from the beginning, and to dismiss the killers as "not true Christians" is no more convincing than similar apologia for the extremes of capitalism and communism alike. If modernity has exacerbated the "evil" impulses in many people, as so many assume, can the answer really be to go back to old remedies that never worked as well as their salesmen claimed? Despite all skepticism, well or badly motivated, doesn't it make more sense to respond to new phenomena, new temptations, with new answers? The ultimate answer may well be that we must be born again -- but not the way Cal Thomas would mean.

18 December 2012

Substance and symbolism in the fiscal-cliff debate

The President is keeping pressure on House Republicans, rejecting the Speaker's latest compromise offer to avert the dreaded "fiscal cliff." Rep. Boehner made a significant concession and a clever rhetorical move by proposing a "millionaires' tax." How could Obama turn down something like that? Easily, it seems. As I understand it, Boehner is now willing to see tax rates go up for millionaires, but Obama insists that the line must be drawn lower, wanting the rate raised for $400,000 and up. That, too, is a compromise, since Democrats had previously called for higher rates to begin at $250,000. Boehner's offer, which Obama has already dismissed, sets a kind of trap because it leaves Democrats pushing for higher taxes for "less wealthy" people, while the average observer can more easily accept "millionaire" as the definition of a rich person who can stand more taxes. The lines are drawn now in a way that may incline people to view those in the $250,000 - $999,999 group as a "middle class. While ideological Republicans are probably furious with Boehner for proposing a millionaires' tax, the real base of the party, the biggest donors notwithstanding, probably falls within the income bracket Boehner would protect and Obama would tax more.

How should the rest of us feel about it? I suppose many Americans may be happy to see anyone wealthier than they taxed more, but it remains reasonable to ask whether the country can tax its way out of deficits and debt, and whether there's a significant difference from the standpoint of debt and deficit between the Obama and Boehner proposals. The Republicans have been saying all along that the real fight is over cuts, particularly cuts to "entitlements," an area where they accuse Obama and the Democrats of refusing to budge. The President has proposed cuts, but just as he has dismissed Boehner's tax proposals as inadequate, Boehner says the same of Obama's cuts. It seems as if Obama would rather fight over taxes than over cuts. To an extent this is an ideological fight. If we concede that we can't tax our way out of debt, than we can assume that the President wants to make a point about wealth's obligation to the common good. The idea isn't that these higher taxes will fix the deficit, but that the wealthy, now defined as those with $400,000 or up, have a responsibility to the nation and its people to maintain a civilized standard of living. The core question is what exactly we owe to each other. Those who want more cuts tend to minimize the obligation, preferring "personal responsibility" and decrying "dependence." A philosophical argument can be made against the "small-d" democratic pretense of dictating the standard of living a society wants, but at the same time we can ask why else any nation exists but to keep its people alive. The Republicans will (or can be expected to) insist that the stakes for individuals and families are not as grave as Democrats imply, but I'd be more impressed with their arguments if they were addressed to and responsive to the people most likely to be affected by cuts. When Republicans show the courage to take their case to "blue" America and swallow their pride enough to make (to them superfluous) assurances that they won't let anyone starve under austerity, I'll be more impressed by their supposed willingness to compromise. Meanwhile, many more cuts could probably be made to the military than either major party contemplates. It may be true that more is spent on "entitlements" than on defense, but it's also true that a lot of deficit could be done away with by renouncing global hegemony and challenging the rest of the world to coexist responsibly.

Of course, if negotiations fail, taxes will go up and cuts will be made automatically, including to the military. But this is to be avoided, we are told, because it will spook the private sector and either stall the recovery or reverse it. That's why the deadline is called a "cliff." I assume this was all designed for a reason, however, and we see the reason before us. If we go over the "cliff," rich and poor and military alike are supposed to feel "pain." The current negotiations are designed to minimize "pain" for some groups, but no one, as far as I can tell, is proposing to minimize it for everyone. People are still fighting over principles, it seems, when pragmatism is called for. One can only hope that, if the country goes over this "cliff," the two-party system might finally go over with it.

17 December 2012

No Easy Answers in Newtown

The Washington Post reports the results of a poll the paper conducted with ABC News following the Newtown amoklauf. It reveals that a majority of respondents attribute the latest massacre to unspecified "broader problems in society" rather than writing it off as "the isolated act of a troubled individual." The Post finds this a significant reversal from previous post-amoklauf polling, but the result implies no necessary agreement on the "broader problems" or their solutions. Gun nuts and their ideological opposites might agree on the premise in broadest terms, since the former will want to blame broader problems rather than widespread gun ownership, and the latter will simply include widespread gun ownership among the broader problems. As well, liberals and progressives might include violent popular culture among the broader problems, while conservatives and Republicans might prefer to cite a mass rejection of revealed morality. Returning to particulars, the topic of the moment is "prepping." While the actual shooter's motives remain unknown if not unfathomable, his aunt has told reporters that his mother had become a "prepper," the modern euphemism for a "survivalist," -- one who anticipates a societal collapse and prepares for it in any number of ways, including the stockpiling of weapons in some cases. That may explain the guns in her home but not necessarily her son's use of them. Given that his mother was his first victim, the shooter may have repudiated her beliefs in the most forceful fashion, his subsequent choice of targets and his own fate suggesting all-out war on the future rather than any commitment to survival. There are few grounds yet for further speculation.

For now we can only attempt to generalize from all amoklaufs. Are they acts of compulsion or entitlement? That is, are they the acts of people who've lost control of themselves, or do amoklaufers act from a conscious conviction of their right to kill? Is there a mere urge or a will to kill? The answer could matter if we can discover something pathological under the surface of Americans' defining concern with personal freedom. That the impulse may not be purely cultural is suggested by Friday's reminder of China's strange fad of farmers invading schools to go after children with knives, but the U.S. obsession with a freedom supposedly threatened constantly by enslaving powers may exacerbate a global tendency. Is the spirit of amoklauf a genie that can be rebottled? It seems possible. How hard can it be to remind people that they have no right to kill? I suppose it depends on the argument. Some people will insist that we all be mindful of God. Others will say that social justice, however defined, is the inescapable prerequisite. Others still will prescribe a lifelong regime of therapy, or medication when necessary, and not just for the potential amoklaufer but also for all those who might provoke him. Whatever the remedy, individuality (if not individualism) has to be reconciled with equality on the simplest level: recognition of every human being as morally equivalent to oneself, no matter how they look or how they live. No one should grow so convinced of how special they are that they see others as less human because they seem less special. But all this may not be as easy as it looks on the screen if you believe that society must change for reasons beyond the menace of amoklaufers that might justify the coercion of dissidents. The utopian ideal is one in which each person is an end unto himself, not to be sacrificed for any other perceived good, but can that ideal be realized -- and if it can't be realized on the political level, can everyone be convinced on the personal level? These aren't new questions, though the amoklauf remains a relatively new phenomenon that focuses attention on the relatively new phenomena of mass media and mass gun ownership. These may not be addressable in an either-or fashion, no matter what activists or ideologues may prefer. But the broader question is how much these modern phenomena have changed society and culture: only to a point reversible through traditional appeals to human nature, or to an extent that requires changes to human nature, however discomfiting they may seem to today's humans? I promised no easy answers, so don't say I didn't warn you.

14 December 2012

Amoklauf in Connecticut

The numbers vary -- from "close to 20" to "more than 27" as I write -- but one thing is probably certain. The person (or persons) who murdered something like two dozen people, many of them children, in a Newton grade school today did not make a vow to live a life of crime when purchasing firearms. There is no way, when screening someone making such a purchase, to determine whether that person will never use the weapon in anger -- whether the person's impulse to "self-defense" will never be directed at anyone other than criminals.  People aren't that predictable. Those who argue at times like this that someone else with a gun could have saved the day assume that humanity is easily divisible into "bad guys" and "good guys," the latter always to be entrusted with firearms. Most of the time, however, bad guys are made, not born. They can be made after years as good guys. Once you assume a right to kill for self-defense, the line you draw may not be the law's -- especially if you claim a natural right to lethal self-defense above and beyond what the law may grant you. Claiming the right to kill is one instance when the slippery slope metaphor fits. That doesn't mean pacifism is the answer in a world of bullies and aggressors, but too many people plainly don't know how to draw the proper line between "I must kill" and "I can kill." On that point the apologists for gun ownership are correct: it isn't gun ownership itself but a certain mentality that's most dangerous. But those apologists never seem to appreciate their own role in cultivating that dangerous mentality, because they really don't seem to appreciate how easily anyone can snap and claim a greater (and graver) prerogative than the gun apologists (to be fair) ever meant to imply. For too many people, it seems, the prerogative of self-defense authorizes violence not just against "criminals" but also against the larger category of "enemies," the distinction between the categories being vague at best for the worst cases. We can assume that today's shooter (or shooters) wasn't a burglar or a gangster; we know the victims don't fit that description. Is the answer really for even more people to have guns in case the other gun owners suddenly go crazy? Attitudes have to change, but I don't think that attitudes toward killing can be separated from attitudes toward guns as easily as some would like.  I know gun advocates and gun apologists are tired of this sort of talk every time something like this happens -- or even in a high-profile individual case, as when the broadcaster Bob Costas offended by editorializing after a football player shot his girlfriend and himself earlier this month. But the burden of thinking hard about consequences does fall on those who affirm the personal right to kill. I wonder what they're thinking today.

13 December 2012

Occupy or Die: a rallying cry for progressive Democrats

If Republicans seem hysterical for bemoaning their imminent doom despite controlling the House of Representatives, what are we to make of Democrats, fresh from re-electing President Obama, debating "How to Save the Democratic Party?" That's what a group of writers are doing in the current issue of The Nation. The discussion is led by the pseudonymous "L.R. Runner," who charges into the topic by telling progressives: "The Democratic Party, as now constituted, is no longer an agency for realizing their ideals." The party that controls the White House and the Senate "has shown itself to be incapable of providing the moral imperatives, policy ideas, broad popular support or elected officials necessary to lead the nation" out of an economic crisis for which Democrats' own complicity is "only somewhat less than that of Republicans."

"Runner" makes the usual progressive arguments: Democrats are too willing to accommodate and compromise; they're in thrall to wealthy donors; they don't really believe in the good old New Deal and Great Society principles anymore. All true, of course, but what is to be done? Runner says "the time has come for a showdown -- if necessary, even a parting of the ways -- between the reformist and accommodationist wings of the Democratic party." This showdown should result in "a real second party representing authentic interests, as befits a democracy." This would be "an unapologetically partisan Democratic Party committed to adapting the populist, progressive, and liberal principles of the New Deal and Great Society." I'm not sure whether "populist" is a neat fit with "progressive" and "liberal," -- populism tends to be an excluding frame of mind -- but you get the idea. This "transformed" Democratic party would be committed to much of what The Nation already supports, believing quite admirably that "The overriding purpose of government of, by and for the people is to assure all citizens not an equal but a fair opportunity (since there is no equality of birth, circumstances or ability) to realize their hopes and potential....Whenever and wherever the private sector does not provide these basic human rights, a truly representative democratic government must do so."

Our mystery writer differs from recent Nation writers who've argued that the way to push Democrats in the right (that is, "left") direction is through activist pressure from the grassroots. While Runner praises grassroots movements for their inspirational effect, "they cannot play the necessary role" in transforming the Democratic party. "In a country as vast and diverse as the United States, and in the American political system, only a nationwide party -- again, not an ineffectual third party but an effective second one -- can mobilize the support to elect a president and Congress needed for transformational change."  Activism from the outside won't suffice; the Democratic party must be seized and occupied. In Runner's opinion, that is the only option. The so-called "democratic wing of the Democratic party," says Runner, "must liberate itself by occupying and transforming the Democratic Party, as insurgents have done in other co-opted parties that have outlived their historical mission -- even if this means bipartisan Democrats leaving to become Republicans or go into the third-party wilderness."

We see here how far Runner will go, and it isn't far enough. The writer's contempt for third parties on principle is plain enough. Runner is willing to risk driving "Blue Dogs" and other unprogressive Democrats out of the party, but is not willing to take a chance on a progressive exodus from an unreconstructed Democracy.  In Runner's imagination there can't be a "real second party" in a multi-party system. Readers may infer that a progressive bolt must not happen no matter how often progressives fail to take control of the party. Runner, at least, wants nothing to do with the "wilderness," even if he does implicitly accept the risk of throwing some elections to Republicans by driving moderates into the GOP embrace. If that happens, Runner would be able to blame the moderates, but Runner may be unwilling to accept blame from moderate Democrats for causing the party's defeat by bolting. In any event, the options presented boil down to victory or submission, which is where progressive Democrats have been for the last generation. The only real step forward, no matter how scary, is a step away from the Democratic party. If that isn't an option, or a threat, then Runner's recommendations are worthless. Anyone who identifies as a progressive first and a Democrat second should think less about "How to Save the Democratic Party" than about saving themselves and their country.

12 December 2012

Legislating Moral Feelings

Nothing infuriates gay-rights advocates like analogies. They're understandably offended when apologists for measures limiting homosexual rights compare homosexual conduct with other behaviors traditionally stigmatized or forbidden by communities. One such offended person confronted Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court Monday during a question-and-answer period at Scalia's book-tour appearance at Princteon. The student chided Scalia by implicitly equating homosexual conduct with other forms of morally "reprehensible" or "unacceptable" behavior rightly subject to community regulation through law.  He especially objected to analogies between homosexual conduct and bestiality or murder, and expected contrition from the Justice. He got none. Instead, Scalia explained that in past opinions he had simply indulged in the reductio ad absurdam. He had asked rhetorically whether, if communities "may not adopt moral sanctions" against homosexual conduct -- if they can't "adopt moral sanctions, moral views, against certain conduct" -- they have any right to adopt moral sanctions against murder. The point, for Scalia, isn't whether gay sex is morally equivalent to murder but whether communities can enact "moral sanctions" into law -- whether "moral sanctions" are a sufficient constitutional basis for local laws. As he told the student, "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it [sic] against murder?" He quickly added, "Of course we can," without conceding the existence or clarity of a line separating the conduct against which we can have moral "feelings" or "sanctions" and the conduct against which moral feelings should have no legal force.

For Scalia, presumably, popular sovereignty means that communities can enact "moral feelings" into law. As a Supreme Court jurist -- and here I'll presume on his behalf -- he must recognize constitutional limits on communities' prerogatives. He may disagree with other judges on where the lines are drawn, but he is bound to acknowledge that limits exist. As an originalist, Scalia apparently believes that the moral feelings prevalent in 1787, when sodomy was universally illegal, cannot be constrained today without imperiling the moral sovereignty of the people. Should the moral feelings of 2012 have similar sway? Let's imagine that a wave of moral revulsion against capitalism will continue to grow from an impetus in 2008. Would Scalia, should he live to face the issue, concede a community's prerogative to enact their moral feelings against capitalism into law? He would probably hasten to show where the Constitution checks moral feeling -- whether he recognizes this theoretical feeling as "moral" or not -- by protecting property rights. Would Scalia be more prepared to defer to moral feeling on questions of sexual conduct as a matter of moral bias -- or is the real point that Scalia recognizes in the Constitution no restraint on laws codifying moral feeling against gay sex similar to the constraints apparent to everyone against confiscation of wealth or property? If that's the core of the case, why bring "moral feeling" into it? He may do so simply because he isn't as much of an "originalist" as he claims.

Originalism can have two different meanings. A plausible meaning would be that the rights we enjoy as Americans originate with the Constitution itself -- that they come into being only with the ratification of the document. The more common meaning has something to do with the original intent of the Framers, and presumes that something outside and prior to the text of the Constitution effectively and permanently explains what it means. From this perspective, the Constitution becomes dangerously malleable if its meaning is not defined from the outside -- by original intent, "natural law," "moral feeling" or what have you. Without "moral feeling," Scalia may believe -- and specifically the average moral feeling of the Framers and the people of 1787, the Constitution is nothing but a scrap of paper, and if it's used against moral feeling, it becomes worse than that. At Princeton, Scalia gleefully mocked the idea of a "living Constitution" adaptable without amendment to evolving moral feelings." It isn't a living document! It's dead. Dead, dead, dead!" he said before stating his preference for the adjective "enduring," by which he presumably means something essentially unchangeable except through the formal amendment process. He added that it was legislators' job, not judges', to determine "the evolving standards of decency" in society, but this strikes me as an abdication of responsibility. Why does the Constitution restrain legislatures to any extent? Because it creates a standard of some sort -- of decency, perhaps -- to which legislatures are answerable. As long as the Constitution does not say that the will of legislatures is absolute, judges must expect people to appeal to them against legislation, expecting the final word on its validity from a court in the Constitution's name. Majorities may set moral standards in society, however prejudiced, but the Constitution says that majority rule, even when wrapped in "moral feeling," is not absolute. The struggle for gay rights is the civil rights movement of the 21st century -- and if some people don't like that analogy, it's too bad for them. The Court was on the right side of the 20th century's struggle much of the time; there's no good reason for it not to be in our time.

11 December 2012

Whose House is the Michigan Legislature?

Last month Michigan gave its electoral votes to President Obama, a Democrat, and re-elected a Democratic incumbent to the U.S. Senate. A majority of the state's delegation to the House of Representatives, however, will be Republicans, and as the rest of the country is now well aware, the GOP controls both houses of the state legislature, while a Republican governor is poised to sign a "right to work" law whose passage is expected this week. Labor demonstrators are protesting the legislation inside the statehouse today, chanting that "This is our house!" But as our little summary shows, that claim isn't necessarily credible if by "our house" the demonstrators mean that it belongs unambiguously to friends of organized labor. Michigan is one of the states that sends mixed messages in elections, apparently growing more "red" the more local you get and more "blue" in more general elections. That probably reflects how the population center of Detroit tips the balance toward Democrats in statewide elections -- gubernatorial votes excepted, apparently -- while many localities, left to their own devices, go Republican. If the GOP is acting against unions out of spite at Democrats, as Democrats automatically suggest, it might make more sense for them to change the law for presidential elections so that each district's electoral vote can go to the popular vote winner in the district, rather than all electoral votes going to the statewide popular vote winner, as in most states. That way, Michigan's "red" districts could actually have their votes for Romney (the son of a former governor) actually count. But while the timing of the Michigan legislation may make Democrats wonder, the Republican party's grudge against unions is a long-term thing. Going back practically to the founding days of Lincoln, the GOP has never been very comfortable with a self-conscious permanent working class asserting its interests through political action. The Republican "free labor" ideal presumed that wage labor was but a way station on an industrious individual's road to self-employment and self-sufficiency. Implicit in the presumption was a judgment that someone who remained a wage laborer all his working life had himself to blame and no business using politics to dictate better terms for himself. Republicans retain a traditional suspicion that organized labor is a conspiracy in restraint of trade, while their commitment to individual liberty (as opposed to individual well-being) leads them to sympathize with the theoretical character who wants to negotiate his own terms with an employer without being dictated to, or extorted for dues, by a union. The standard pro-union argument explaining why that individual is not better off standing aloof from his co-workers is a matter of indifference to Republicans for whom abstract freedom of choice matters more than any material calculation of a person's best interests. In our time, of course, political contributions by dues-financed unions to Democratic candidates probably make it more imperative for Republicans to try drying that stream by making dues voluntary rather than mandatory. The Republican governor is right to note that the pending legislation doesn't forbid anybody from joining a union and paying dues, but he clearly expects fewer workers to join unions upon landing jobs. He wouldn't claim a competitive advantage for Michigan if the legislation passes otherwise. Whatever his motivation, he obviously has a mandate to sign the legislation, and the legislators have a mandate to pass it. Democrats may be baffled that this can happen in a pro-Obama state, but they should remember that, the obfuscation of the Electoral College notwithstanding, the President is elected by and represents the people of the state -- and so does their Republican governor -- while the legislature represents territory. Democracy produces different results depending on how you divide the electorate. On some level, the Michigan statehouse is "our house" for any resident of the state who strolls inside, but the collective consciousness of any state is often a split personality, sometimes Bipolar, sometimes paranoid schizophrenic. Politics is ideally the voice of the people, but inevitably some individuals find a voice they expect to be their own disagreeing with them. American politics is supposed to give each of us opportunities to resolve that discrepancy by getting others to agree with us. Union people and Democrats and Michigan will have their chance, presumably -- but probably not today.

10 December 2012

What makes working-class Republicans?

As a Republican, Rob Long is surprised to find Democrats in his Southern California stomping grounds offering sympathy rather than gloating over what Long himself calls "the Great Republican Collapse of 2012." Long's another of the hysterics who see signs of doom in the GOP's failure to topple Obama, despite retaining a strong hold on the House of Representatives. Writing in Time, Long admits that SoCal is "a pretty accepting place," yet wonders: "Why is Hollywood so resolutely left wing?" That question inspires further speculation on an unlikely political divide in Movieland, where "the grips, dolly pushers, camera operators, set builders, film loaders and electricians on any movie set tend to be on the rightward side of the political discussion," while "the other folks, who tend to sit in their trailers drinking bottles of French water and eating raw food, are usually on the left." Notice that Long was careful to write "rightward" rather than "right," though one may still wonder why all those union workers lean rightward at all. Long offers two interpretations. First:

[M]ost Hollywood types never see their paycheck, which has the most effective piece of Republican direct mail ever invented, the pay stub, attached to it. The pay stub enumerates all the little ways the government squeezes you dry, and the initial shock of seeing it laid out like that is the first step a lot of people take on the way to joining the GOP. But if you're used to having your paycheck sliced and hollowed out anyway by greedy managers and grasping agents, what's another vig to pay?

This one isn't too convincing, unless Long also acknowledges that "a lot of people" doesn't really amount to much of the working class. If working people's minds worked the way Long describes when contemplating their pay stubs, Democrats would never win elections. Working in the entertainment industry himself, Long may have less empathy with the pay-stub readers than the rich lefties are presumed to. He seems to think that a disgruntled worker would only blame government if he gets a smaller net than he thinks he deserves. He seems to have forgotten that workers have traditionally blamed employers for paying out less in the gross than workers believe themselves to deserve. They may resent government taking out too great a cut, or any cut, but I still suspect that if they feel they're not taking home as much as they deserve, or need, they'll blame their bosses first. Long wouldn't even need to acknowledge that workers are right to feel that way, but he ought to acknowledge that almost universal tendency of people to feel that they're not getting their due.

Long's second point implies a correlation between types of labor and political beliefs. If all those film-set workers listed above lean rightward, while actors (the people in the trailers) don't, that "may have something to do with the archaic concept of hard work, which normally involves lifting or moving or welding heavy objects, or toiling in some airless cubicle in desperate need of money." Again, the implication is that the less financially secure you are, the more you have to work hard to stay afloat, the more you should resent government taking any of your money in taxes. But again also, while acknowledging the likelihood that the set workers lean "rightward" compared to the actors or their bosses, at least on some issues -- Long didn't say what the "political discussion" was about -- they, as workers, are most likely to blame any time they don't have enough money on a boss not paying them enough. Long may expect them to blame the government for that as well, but workers may not see how that follows, especially if they assume that bosses have sufficient motivation to deny workers their full due without the government and taxation coming into the discussion. In any event, does your mental image of the typical Republican involve someone "moving or welding heavy objects?" I suspect not, unless you remember the stereotype of the "hard hat" Archie Bunker type who rallied to Nixon back in the day. But was that about taxes? Not on the surface, from what I remember. As for 2012, my point isn't that Long is wrong when he claims that certain skilled workers in Hollywood lean rightward, but that his explanation of that phenomenon is unconvincing. Republicans like Long have been thinking hard and anxiously for the past month about why certain large blocs of Americans don't vote for them. It might help them answer that question if they could think more clearly about why other Americans do vote for them.

08 December 2012

Partisanship in Egypt

It's been a dramatic day in Egypt, beginning with rumors of martial law but ending with President Morsi apparently rescinding the controversial decree granting himself extraordinary powers while reaffirming that the country's constitutional referendum would take place as scheduled on the 15th. Morsi's opponents have demanded a delay after many boycotted the drafting process. For many Egyptians, if not a majority, any proposal identified with the Muslim Brotherhood is not to be trusted. From outside, it's easy to see this as a showdown between secularists and salafists, and Islamophobes around the world instinctively see all the bad on Morsi's side. Americans can empathize with the political paranoia rampant in Egypt today, but those of us who want Americans to transcend that paranoia should want the same thing elsewhere. There are unavoidable grounds for suspicion of Morsi's political party, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but Egyptians and outsiders need to remember that the Brotherhood still represents huge numbers of Egyptians, if not a majority, while Morsi himself represents a bare majority of the electorate, having won a runoff election. The most interesting comment I've seen today comes from the Brotherhood's "Supreme Guide," who acknowledged with a degree of maturity not normally associated with fanatic organizations that his organization is widely feared, hated and mistrusted. "Get angry with the Brotherhood and hate us as much as you like," he says (in translation), "but be reasonable and preserve Egypt's unity." Unity is to be preserved, he argues, through dialogue. He's right, of course; the Brotherhood, however odious their perceived agenda, has to be part of the Egyptian revolution. It's unrealistic for dissidents to demand that the Brotherhood or Morsi disappear, to deal with an apparently legally elected leader like he was Mubarak. But revolutions are paranoid moments. Counterrevolution is seen around every corner and in every furtive glance. Everyone assumes that everyone else is out to become the new tyrant. Revolutions are also coercive moments; to a certain extent, someone is going to be a tyrant, at least for a while. If anything, Egypt's revolution is complicated to the extent that it's been half-assed, but what else could it be when it began with an abdication and a void at the top rather than a sweeping seizure of power. Despite all the accusations it's been a remarkably pluralist revolution so far, and all the more riddled with accusations for that reason. It's been a multi-party revolution but every party is maneuvering for advantage and none want to hear that a no-party revolution might have been the better option. To the extent that all the parties are ideological, compromise may come less easily than it did in the post-revolutionary U.S.A., when only interests had to be compromised, however temporarily. Compromise and reconciliation in Egypt may still depend on a recognition of interests rather than ideologies and some good old neo-Lincolnian horse trading. If the Brotherhood and its antagonists prove capable of such horse trading, Egypt may turn out better than many people fear, as long as the revolution has something to offer everyone beside the power that can only go to a few. If the Egyptian parties can manage this feat, they may even turn out better than the U.S. in the long run. Wouldn't it be a pleasant surprise if such a supposedly benighted Arab Muslim people could set an example for the rest of us?

06 December 2012

Who's Minding DeMint?

In that panicky Time magazine article about the mortal peril allegedly facing the Republican party, consultant Mike Murphy gave Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina damning credit for keeping control of the U.S. Senate in Democratic hands thanks to "his tireless work to recruit unelectable GOP candidates." In Murphy's view, DeMint is the opposite of what the party needs, griping over an apparently electable but somehow ideologically unacceptable candidate for the 2014 senatorial candidate in West Virginia. Within the week, DeMint has criticized the otherwise intractable-seeming Speaker Boehner for proposing any sort of increase in revenue for government to avoid going over the "fiscal cliff." Now, quite suddenly, DeMint has announced his resignation from the Senate so he can claim a job opening at the Heritage Foundation, the preeminent Republican think tank. Naturally, he claims that his new role will give him more influence over the ideological direction of the GOP, but it seems more likely that he had reached the limit of his influence within the congressional party leadership and was ready to cash out. He may well have fewer fans than ever among congressional Republicans after another round of failed senatorial bids this year. Now he can damn them as political-class insiders, institutionalized establishment creatures against whom he proposes to raise grass-roots armies of primary voters and sucker money from an only temporarily disillusioned donorcracy. It will be interesting to see whether DeMint can hold Republicans more accountable to his ideology from outside the party apparatus, but it's hard to know how to root. You might want someone like him to have as little influence over national politics as possible, but absent his instinct for picking losers, might we not see more Republican Senators starting in 2015? On the other hand, if his descent into the think tank does give him greater influence over future primaries -- I suppose a SuperPAC might help -- won't that mean more hopeless GOP candidates from 2014 forward? Whatever you think of his politics, some readers may want to wish DeMint well in spite of themselves.

05 December 2012

Collectivist individualism in theory and practice

In past posts I've noted a seeming paradox in Republican attitudes toward the consequences for individuals of their economic principles. For the most part, Republicans espouse individualism, and they're nearly unanimous in favor of individual liberty in the economic sphere. At the same time, they abhor "collectivism" of any kind, apart from whatever they can fit under the more palatable rubric of "patriotism." Yet the inescapable consequence of their economic agenda is that some (or many) individuals must suffer, either from having government benefits cut or by having jobs taken from them for efficiency's sake, in order for the economy -- a collective entity if ever there was one -- to remain healthy and "competitive." All of this becomes less paradoxical as we appreciate how Republican individualism is conditioned by the concept of "personal responsibility" and their rejection of what we can call material entitlements. But I bring up the paradox again to note an apparently mirroring paradox on the other side, among Marxian communists. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describe communism as a condition in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." That seems to contradict the common notion of communism as a condition in which, to use Star Trek terminology, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." Marx and Engels seem to say the exact opposite, taking a Search For Spock  rather than a Wrath of Khan stance. Their idea of communism seems to be a system that benefits every one rather than an abstract collective, not the sort of system many anti-collectivists fear -- and in which they actually seem to live -- in which the good of a more nebulous whole requires individual sacrifices and suffering. Yet most avowedly Marxist governments in modern history have behaved in a manner confirming the anti-collectivist stereotype, treating individuals as so much stuff to be sacrificed to a supposed higher good that usually boils down to the perpetuation of rule by the Party. Interestingly, apologists for Marxist (or Leninist) regimes justify individual suffering on "personal responsibility" grounds similar to those employed by Republican polemicists. In bluntest terms, whether or not they accept the truth of Stalinist or Maoist charges against their victims, communists tend to take a "whoever isn't with us is against us" stance toward their own people. They might argue that every one has to actively committed to building communism in order for every one to benefit from it, and they definitely argued that failures on the road to communism could be traced to individual acts of sabotage or bad faith. In the final analysis, neither Republicans nor Communists are hedonists. Despite the avowed dedication of each group to individual "free development," each places a burden of performance on individuals, requiring each one to earn his or her spot by purportedly objective but essentially ideological standards and essentially dismissing individual suffering as the individual's fault for failing to follow the "party line." Since existence requires effort, it would be impossible for a political philosophy not to set conditions for individual existence within a polity. Individuals must be expected to contribute to "the free development of all" in some way, but some way should be found to keep that requirement from annihilating "the free development of each" espoused by Right and Left alike. If individuals must contribute, society should do all in its power to enable them to do so, and if individualism is valued, society should enable individuals to contribute in ways that don't obliterate their individuality by reducing them to interchangeable drones or compelling them to disproportionate drudgery. A society in which no one is dissatisfied with what they have to do is probably a utopian ideal, but no other ideal gives us a goal that lives up to the lofty rhetoric of "the free development of each" as the ultimate end of social and political life. Only if we believe that such an ideal can be realized can the moral impulses of individualism and collectivism possibly be reconciled.

04 December 2012

Islamists vs. Libertarians

While looking for Egyptian news sources for the demonstration outside the presidential palace in Cairo today, I came across an op-ed on the English-language ahram.org website by a Palestinian journalist, Khalid Amayreh, responding to criticisms from American libertarians of earlier comments Amayreh made on the "Innocence of Muslims" controversy. Amayreh focused, without attribution, on a Reason Online column by Ronald Bailey, who guaranteed that he would offend many Muslims by claiming that "an attack on free speech is a greater blasphemy than is an insult to the divine." Amayreh's response:

I know freedom of speech is a sacred value in the United States and many other countries. However, just as American libertarians insist that no other value should be more paramount than this value, we expect the same Americans to understand that other peoples in other parts of the world have equally paramount values, including religious values.

What does this mean in practice? Amayreh asserts, to libertarians' scorn, a right not to be offended, specifically not to have their paramount religious values insulted.  "The two rights need not always be in a state of conflict," he writes, "However, when a purported right has the potential of decimating the other more natural right, the right to life, there should be no question as to where our attention should be focused." He clarifies later: "In a nutshell, free speech, though not an absolute value in itself, is a positive value and ought to be protected and defended; but hate, malicious and vulgar speech is a negative value that ultimately leads to bloodshed and war." Using Nazi anti-semitism as his model, Amayreh implies that any form of "hate speech" puts the speaker on a slippery slope to violence. We can infer that, as a Muslim, Amayreh hears anti-Muslim speech -- possibly anything that can be construed as anti-Muslim, as a threat to his life. At that point he claims more than a right not to be offended. He claims a right of self-defense that cannot be trumped by freedom of speech. Americans insist on precision when indicting speech as incitement to violence, but Amayreh argues that Muslims have a right to judge according to their own standards. While (as Bailey noted), Amayreh criticized the violence provoked by "Innocence of Muslims," his latest statement on the subject amounts to "what else did you expect?"

There are, of course, those who claim that hate speech wouldn't have to lead to bloodshed. Well, this might be true if the rest of the world adopted the American value system and believed in the First Amendment as God-incarnate. But to the chagrin of our American friends, the world is too diverse to adopt the American way and adhere to the American Constitution as the ultimate religion of mankind.

In short, tit for tat: if you Americans don't have to respect our respect for the Prophet, we Muslims don't have to respect your freedom of speech -- or, more to the point, your expectation of immunity when you speak. If Muslim's don't accept "the First Amendment as God-incarnate," they can deny that "hate speech wouldn't have to lead to bloodshed." They may not say "yes, it must," but they will say that, if violence, happens, it isn't Muslims' fault -- or not theirs alone. Of course, no American would call the First Amendment "God-incarnate," though some may claim that the Constitution (or parts of it) were divinely inspired. But the typical American claim that the Bill of Rights identifies not merely the rights of Americans, but those of all human beings by virtue of their humanity, may well strike Muslim ears as an assertion of divine will. To Islamists, if not to all Muslims, human rights can only be found in the Qur'an or the Traditions of the Prophet. An impasse seems inevitable, and Amayreh himself acknowledges "how difficult it would be to legislate "respect" among heterogeneous communities let alone among diverse cultures." Nevertheless, he insists that " the present situation between Islam and the West where one group of people must be offended and insulted on the grounds that another group of people has an allegedly absolute right to free speech cannot be maintained." But if there is to be a truly global code of human rights and freedom of expression, it cannot be dictated absolutely or unilaterally by either the U.S. or Islam. The question for future reference is whether the rest of the world is more concerned about not being offended or with getting away with offending those who might otherwise have the power to silence them.

Reports of the Republican Party's demise have been greatly exaggerated -- by Republicans

Writing in Time, Republican consultant Mike Murphy may have won the prize for post-election panic." The Republican brand is dying," Murphy writes of the party that still controls the House of Representatives and for whom control of the Senate remains within reach. Murphy can't see the forest for the mountain. After losing two Presidential elections in a row, and getting a minority of the popular vote in five of the last six, Murphy despairs, dismissing the likelihood of success in 2014 as no more than a "dead-cat bounce." Only the Presidency matters to Murphy, even though the GOP, as presently constituted, is well suited for the role it currently plays, and quite possibly prefers, as legislative check to executive will.  But Murphy fears that they can't play that role much longer if the demographic trends that favor Democrats in presidential elections take hold at the district level. Like many another panicky Republican, demographic analysis frightens him, but it also leads him to misunderstand what happened last month.

Murphy believes that Republicans are handicapped at the national level by the angry old white men of the Religious Right. He anticipates a defining showdown, not between "moderates" and "conservatives," but between "a more secular and modernizing conservatism" and a conservatism that "offers steadfast opposition to emerging social trends like multiculturalism and secularization." If the Republicans are to have a future as a national party, Murphy warns, they must put aside "most social issues" (he doesn't identify the exceptions) in favor of promoting "a wide-open opportunity society that promises greater economic freedom and the reform of government institutions like schools that are vital to upward social mobility." As I said, he doesn't understand what happened last month.

Not many people do, it seems -- and that includes gloating Democrats. They especially have a lot staked on the image of Republicans as superstitious bigots, and Murphy seems convinced that growing numbers of voters perceive his party that way, young people and Hispanics especially. He hopes that, once the GOP convinces people that it isn't the party of prejudice and reactionary religion, its economic message will catch on rapidly. He doesn't understand what happened last month. Mitt Romney was not perceived as a bigot who hated people for their skin color. He was not perceived as a religious reactionary, since his own faith is still regarded as little more than a cult by many Americans. Romney lost because he was perceived as a contemptuous rich guy -- because he was thought to despise the poor, or at least those who depended on the government, for any reason, for their survival. You could not caricature Mitt Romney as a klansman or a witch burner. He stood for the rule of the wealthy, for their exemption from accountability to the rest of the people (as workers or voters), for "economic freedom" as a principle higher than human well being -- and that was what people voted against last month. But Murphy supposes that if Republicans say they love gays and Hispanics, yet still say screw the poor -- and this is what the poor hear, whatever Republicans think they're saying -- and win presidential elections. And he seems to think that without the Presidency, Republicans are powerless or irrelevant. They are far from that today, but they might well get closer to that if they follow Murphy's advice and assume that cultural issues are their only problem.

03 December 2012

Neo-Lincolnism in a House Divided

As I noted a couple of weeks ago on my movie blog, Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln, written by star playwright Tony Kushner, is virtually a cinematic illustration of historian Sean Wilentz's critique of rhetorically-based politics and the "mugwump" mentality, which Wilentz identifies with fans of President Obama and critics of the Clintons, that recoils at any means of legislative persuasion other than intellectual argument. As many moviegoers now know, the Spielberg film presents a Lincoln prepared to cut venal deals with lame-duck legislators from the opposite party in order to get the 13th Amendment approved by the House of Representatives. That approach may strike some observers, then and now, as impure, but it sped the end of slavery in America. Lincoln argues that it's less important to persuade people that you are right than to get their votes, since your goal as a political leader is not to make everyone agree with you, but to advance your agenda. Inevitably, 21st century pundits and opinionators look to the popular history play for keys to the country's current political impasse. As Joe Klein writes in the current issue of Time, the movie "resurrects the noble greasiness of politics at a perfect moment [when] we need some inspired horse-trading in Washington right now."

Is horse trading possible when at least one major party seems not to think of its principles as horses to be traded? Republicans and Democrats have embarked on a chicken run, the President's party warning that the nation will go over the "fiscal cliff" unless taxes are increased on the richest 2% of the population, the GOP protesting that only austerity on the part of government (and many of its beneficiaries) will make possible authentic economic growth, and that we may as well go over the cliff if Democrats won't cut entitlements. While some Republicans vocally resent their bondage to no-tax pledges, enough of them to retain control of the House presumably stand firm on those pledges, regarding higher taxes as an unnecessary if not absolute evil. What can you offer ideologues for betraying their ideology? Writers like Wilentz or Klein might question whether the typical Republican congressman is more rigidly ideological than the northern Democrats of Lincoln's time. Many opposed the abolition of slavery in their hearts because they were racists, but were swayed, in Spielberg's account, by personal interest, often in the form of government jobs offered to lame ducks defeated in the late elections. There aren't many lame ducks in 2012; there definitely aren't enough. But are sitting Republican legislators venal enough to be turned, and if so, by what? Klein is vague on the neo-Lincolnesque approach to (or would that be retreat from) the fiscal cliff, but his column includes a paragraph of praise for recently much-deplored congressional earmarks, which he describes as "those tiny emoluments doled out to individual members of Congress for works, good and not so good, in their districts, often in return for their votes on larger issues." In Klein's film-informed opinion, "Earmarks are a useful lubricant for the great gears of legislation." In a similar vein, he writes that "the only way great deeds are done" in a democracy, much of the time, is "via the low arts of patronage and patronization." But for as long as that's been true, a critical tradition has condemned the practice as bribery, worse from the perspective of fiscal conservatism when the bribes are funded by taxpayers. At the same time, idealists shouldn't have to apologize for wishing that debates could be settled in more reasonable fashion, though Lincoln's point about not needing to convert one's antagonists is also an important one for liberal representative democracy. It means that we'll have to get used to complaints that Republicans were "bribed" in some way should the President get his way in the current debate. The question remains whether enough Republicans can be bribed, if bribery (or "horse trading") is the answer. Democrats and their sympathizers may find themselves in the odd position of hoping that Republicans are more corrupt, though in a different way, than they already believe the GOP to be.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that Lincoln's new standing as a great compromiser, or a great inducer of compromises, would surprise many of his admirers across American history. It was his refusal to compromise on allowing slavery to expand into the territories conquered from Mexico that made his election as President intolerable to the seceding states. In the crucial months before his election and inauguration, Lincoln would not cross certain lines of principle to make himself acceptable to the fire-eaters of the slaveholding states. Should he have compromised -- should the South have offered sufficient incentives to compromise, whatever those may have been -- to save hundreds of thousands of lives from war? That debate continues today, and whether every political question can be reconciled by compromise or horse-trading remains an open one. It's reasonable to believe the fiscal-cliff debate can be resolved that way, but whether Congress has enough reasonable (or "corruptible") members to resolve the debate is the real question of the moment.


30 November 2012

Cal Thomas calls for a tax strike

He calls it a "tax revolt," but Cal Thomas stresses in his latest column that he's calling for fiscal conservatives to "creatively, but legally, withhold from the government some of the money they earn" in order to compel Congress and the President to cut spending. On the premise that "The tax system in this country is based on willful compliance," Thomas suggests that "the so-called 'rich,'" as opposed to the truly rich who often have no problem with higher taxes, limit their taxable income by shifting enough into legal tax shelters to keep them out of the highest bracket. Thomas's tax strikers are urged to do this "until we see real spending reform and policies that result in economic growth, which by itself would produce more tax revenue." This is supply-side dogma, indifferent to whether the country can wait for its prayers to the private sector to be answered with growth before getting the revenue it needs. It's also behind the times. Thomas invokes Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13 fame as the model for a tax revolt or tax strike, but Jarvis's state of California has just revolted against his legacy by voting for higher taxes by referendum. Of course, any Californian inspired by Thomas could go on a tax strike on the state level as well. Maybe some could be convinced to walk a symbolic picket line and let the people know where they stand, too.

The amazing thing about Thomas's screed is his claim that, by not cutting entitlements as drastically as he might like, Congress is "failing to put the people first." Any Democrat will argue that he or she is putting the people first precisely by demanding more revenue and resisting cuts to programs that assist the poor. As always, it comes down to how you define "the people." Republicans take a collective view of the people despite their individualist rhetoric. They often sneer at "no x left behind" rhetoric, even or especially when it comes from their own party. As long as the people in general endure, those individuals who can't hack it in the modern economy can fall by the wayside, whether or not charity has a net in place. Just as you can't have a war without casualties, you can't have a free economy without losers, or without defeat having consequences that educate the survivors. In short, for Republicans "the people" does not mean "everyone." Thomas clarifies things further. The object of his proposed tax revolt is "to keep government from constantly pilfering the assets of the productive so politicians can subsidize the unproductive, buy their votes and addict them to entitlements." For Thomas, "the productive" are "the people," or at least the people whom Congress must put first. The "unproductive," all of whom, one might infer, Thomas presumes to be so willingly, are at most a lesser category of the people, if they count at all for him. They only become "productive," one might infer further, when the "productive" rather than the government employs them. They are kept idle until the "productive" decide it might be profitable to employ them rather than foreigners, and all the while they are blamed for being unproductive and "addicted" to government, as if some change in the attitude of the "unproductive" will at once make them not only employable, but employed. Such are the premises that justify Thomas's call for a tax strike. His proposals may indeed be legal. If so, they make him a "legal" enemy of the people, for what that's worth. If he denies the charge, let him defend himself to those people, and not just his own "red" amen corner. Thomas often writes about successful people reaching out to mentor the poor, to teach them skills and good work habits. He should practice what he preaches politically and show some courage by telling the people he thinks are wrong why they're wrong, why they ought to make do with less, why the poorest have to tighten their belts, and why they should have more faith in the "productive" than in God. Cal Thomas is still thought of as a representative of the Christian Right, but I'm challenging him to go into "blue" America and preach his true religion.

29 November 2012

The contradictory voice of the people

Here's an interesting tidbit I turned up while reading an article in The New Republic. John B. Judis writes: "According to 2012 exit polls, a majority of Americans think government is 'doing too many things better left to individuals and businesses.'" If it's an exit poll, then Judis means a majority of American voters. A majority of American voters also re-elected President Obama, who was portrayed by his opponents as believing the opposite of what the exit-polled majority had affirmed. The re-election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives seems more consistent with the exit poll but the presidential election is presumably the more definitive statement of the American people as a whole. So have the American people contradicted themselves? How do we account for this? Judis himself suggests: "[T]his distrust has always co-existed with support for specific initiatives. When elections hinge on abstractions and unrealized programs, as the 2010 election partly did, Republicans fare well. When they hinge on specifics -- like the auto bailout or taxes for the wealthy -- Democrats often thrive." In addition, it doesn't follow from a belief that government does "too many things" better left to the private sector that someone believes that all things government does, or even nearly all, are better left to the private sector. In other words, one may believe that government is doing "too much" without endorsing authentic Republican doctrine or wanting government to do as close to nothing as possible. As well, while the exit poll elicits a statement of principle, it doesn't address whether circumstances may require government to do what it normally shouldn't. If the exit poll accurately describes Americans' general principles, it may indicate where the critical divide in politics actually lies. We may not be divided so much between those who would limit government's scope and those who see no necessary limit to it as between those who recognize when exceptions should be made to a general principle of hands-off government and those dogmatically opposed to any exceptions. If so, Mitt Romney wasn't defeated by a mob of willing dependents upon omnipotent government, but by a voting majority convinced that, when individuals and businesses fail, government has to step in. This presumed majority was presumably unpersuaded by the argument that we should instead affirm our belief in fairies by clapping our hands until Tinker Belle wakes up, or by throwing money at her -- excuse me: by "letting Tink keep more of her money." To sum up, it doesn't follow from a belief that government does many things we'd prefer individuals and businesses to do that we believe that only individuals and businesses can save us. The American people believe one thing, apparently, and the Republican party believes the other. If voters nationwide believed that about Mitt Romney, it helps explain why he lost.