29 February 2012

Catholics vs. Homosexuals: this round to the Catholics

The news today is that a Maryland woman is urging her local Catholic diocese to sack one of its priests for denying her communion during her mother's funeral on the ground that the mourning daughter was a lesbian. The padre covered the communion chalice when she approached and rebuked her for "living with a woman." This is consistent with church doctrine, but so far the diocese has apologized to the bereaved woman while refusing comment on the priest's future status. As far as the priest's immediate superiors are concerned, he erred, if at all, by making a public show of denying the woman communion instead of consulting with her privately to warn her. If they want to apologize to the woman, fine. From my perspective Christianity in general owes a lot of apologies to homosexuals. But if the woman presses the issue to assert a right to receive communion, I can't go there with her. Whether anyone is eligible to eat a wafer is entirely up to the officers of the Roman Catholic Church to determine, as far as I know. Denying people communion or other sacraments has always been a means of disciplining Catholics, whether their assumed offenses justified the measures or not. While I object to Catholics or other worshipers inscribing their notions of "sin" upon secular law, I can't object to their including sin as an actionable offense in their own by-laws. To the extent that the Catholics are a private organization, it's their prerogative to regulate their membership. So far, the aggrieved woman hasn't (to my knowledge) discussed suing the offending priest or his diocese, and I hope she doesn't go there. The First Amendment makes it the opposite of the government's business to compel churches to accommodate heretics in churchly affairs. I also hope the diocese doesn't do more than slap the priest on the wrist for his rude choice of occasion for confronting this woman about her sexuality. Maybe that would wake people up to the fact that the Abrahamic tradition really has little to offer people of modern sexuality. If such people, homo or hetero, still long for the ritual and the sense of communion organized religion provides, it's about time someone worked up a fresh revelation so that "God" can clarify his position on sex for the modern world, abrogating whatever needs abrogating and affirming whoever needs affirming, and people can make a definitive choice of where and with whom to worship, if worship they must. On their own ground, Catholics should not have to bend over backwards (not to mention forward) to accommodate homosexuals, and homosexuals should not have to torment themselves with the constant drama of an inherently incompatible relationship -- unless some of them are into that, and if so, they only have themselves to blame.

The Michigan Line: Can a candidate be too anti-intellectual for the Republican party?

Time was against Rick Santorum in Michigan. Too much time passed without a vote anywhere to sustain his momentum or distract the media from scrutiny of his sometimes-inscrutable statements. Without pandering to theories of bias, I still believe that many journalists and opinionators were happy to find in Santorum a candidate who embodied nearly perfectly -- lacking only a southern accent -- the bogeyman image of a religious-right reactionary. Too much time passed, and second thoughts were inevitable. His lead in the polls before the primary dwindled gradually until Mitt Romney eked out a victory yesterday. Did days make a difference? Could he have won if something had gone unsaid? It's impossible to say, but if any of his utterances proved a self-administered coup de grace it was probably not one of his theocratic howlers nor his comment that fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy's remarks on the separation of church and state made him want to vomit. If any gaffe did him in, I suspect it was his breathtaking outburst from last Saturday in Troy MI -- words that will live in infamy: "President Obama said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!" To appreciate how far beyond the pale this was, try to imagine Newt Gingrich with his sci-fi dreams saying the same thing. In a campaign characterized by crazed charges of "class warfare," this was demagoguery in its rawest form, and I can well imagine even Republicans being taken aback by it. Even they know that making money requires education more than ever, yet here was Santorum, thinking he had come to the defense of all those humble people who worked with their hands, trying to convince them that the President's vision had insulted them when he, the Pennsylvanian, had actually insulted the nation's intelligence. In fact, Santorum had probably judged the mood of his immediate audience right, but misjudged the Michigan Republican electorate. He won among those without any college time, but lost the state.

There was another side to Santorum's argument that more Republicans may have endorsed. That was his suspicion that colleges were out to brainwash or indoctrinate students and make liberals of them. I'm sure many Republicans fear such an effort, but bravely enroll anyway, perhaps expecting to find comfort and mutual support in a Young Republicans or YAF chapter. The fear of indoctrination or brainwashing is strong and out of control in our culture. It finds nonpartisan expression in the fear of cults and their leaders. If the paranoia often has a rightist tinge, it has a leftist pedigree going back to postmodernist distrust of objectivity. I am perhaps no less postmodern for suggesting that anyone who fears indoctrination, who sees it even in the teaching of facts, is already indoctrinated, or already brainwashed. But the moral for today is that many if not most of those who do fear indoctrination of some kind will not abandon the idea of a college education or disparage the idea of every American going to college simply to flatter a crowd or win a primary. Santorum's tirade may have cost him more votes than any commercial Romney or his friends aired against him. He may well have rhetorically shot himself in the head last Saturday, but he'll probably keep on walking for a while yet.

28 February 2012

Think 3 readers hate Rick Santorum

As we wait for the primary votes to be counted in Michigan, allow me to note a milestone. Sometime yesterday, approximately, my January post nominating Rick Santorum as an Idiot of the Week became the most popular item ever blogged here, as measured by unique pageviews. It surpasses a profoundly off-topic 2008 post about the career of overhyped MMA fighter Kimbo Slice which had held the top spot practically since Blogger first allowed me to keep track of pageviews. While I allow that the Jan. 6 post surged to the top mainly because it had video content, I also observe that two more Santorum posts have entered my all-time top ten. I don't feel that I have been more scathing toward the Pennsylvanian than toward his Republican rivals -- a post on "the Gingrich Mania" briefly flourished in the top ten a few weeks ago -- but there appears to be an appetite for Santorum-scathing that websurfers have sometimes tried to satisfy here that surpasses any demand for condemnation of Gingrich or Romney. I've probably been too soft on Paul for us to measure online hatred for him by Think 3 pageviews. On the other hand, I've been too soft on Santorum lately. The man's been on such a tear, from his rediscovered screed against Satan to his dismissal of collegiate aspirations as snobbery, that I could start an Idiot of the Day blog and then retire it in his honor. You might have believed it had Paul called him a "fake" at that debate and then produced evidence that Santorum was actually some Stephen Colbert-type comedian with the carny instincts of an Andy Kaufman hired by the Democratic party or an allied SuperPAC to make conservatism in general look menacingly stupid. It would be the ultimate joke to learn that the work was so subtle that the clown could get elected to the U.S. Senate -- but, regrettably, the truth is somewhat less funny.

27 February 2012

'Operation Hilarity' and state regulation of Bipolarchy

What's so funny about 'Operation Hilarity?' No doubt inspired by Rush Limbaugh's 2008 'Operation Chaos,' the Democratic deadender blog Daily Kos is urging Democrats in open-primary states to participate in their Republican primaries and vote for Rick Santorum so long as it prolongs the struggle for the GOP presidential nomination and drains resources from all the candidates. Democrats in Michigan are making similar plans on their own initiative, while others, with the same end in mind, plan to vote for Ron Paul instead. The tactic flies in the face of conventional Republican analysis of the motivation for cross-party primary voting. Many still blame Senator McCain's nomination four years ago on Democratic mischief in open-primary states, the presumption being that Democrats would naturally vote for the "weakest" Republican and thus chose McCain, perceived by the hard core as most "moderate." By that logic, Democrats this year should vote for Romney, already perceived by GOP extremists as the weakest and most moderate candidate. Instead, apparently, at least some will vote for Santorum, the candidate they, as liberals, might be presumed to fear the most. But many may push the Pennsylvanian not just to make life miserable for Romney but in the sincere hope that Santorum will get the nomination and guarantee President Obama's landslide re-election. While I doubt that Democratic intervention will actually prove decisive, my observation for today is that the law in many places gives the Republican party no protection from such sabotage, just as it didn't shield Democrats four years ago from the consequences of Operation Chaos. For entities that duopolize political power in this country, the two major parties suddenly seem helpless in this particular light. Why is this?

Each state in the union has the prerogative through its own election laws to decide whether political parties can hold open or closed primaries. State rather than federal jurisdiction over the selection of presidential candidates is based on the fact that primary voters don't choose candidates directly but appoint delegates to represent their states at national conventions. Closed primaries prevent opposite-party pranksters from simply showing up on primary day to make mischief, but what if they ride in on trojan horses, armed with legitimate party registration? Small-party primaries are often decided by major-party operatives getting people to register with the small party and voting for candidates deemed favorable to the major party for one reason or another. At this point the weakness of all parties vis-a-vis the government becomes most clear. When people register to vote, the government gives them the opportunity to register with a party. They aren't obliged to register with any party, but should they do so, the party is stuck with them. Parties have no power to establish or enforce qualifications for membership except where state governments allow them the power. Even then, it can be a cumbersome after-the-fact process like New York State's courtroom procedure for de-registering party members, which is used to prevent someone more often from running in a primary than from voting in it. This is how insurgencies and interest groups can "take over" a party, at least to the point of choosing its candidates. Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republicans could not tell newcomer Goldwater Republicans to take their movement elsewhere, nor could the Democratic establishment, such as it was in 1972, tell the McGovern Democrats to do likewise. For whatever reason, the government takes an interest in using the two major parties as channels for streams of voters, but has no apparent interest in the long-term ideological integrity of either party. But the government is, or has been invariably for the last 150 years, the instrument of one major party or the other. Is there any consciousness of purpose involved? People look back now to the Eisenhower administration, however inaccurately, as a golden age of Republican moderation -- at least once Joe McCarthy was cut down to size -- but did these same people give the rope to their metaphorical hangmen by condoning the infiltration of their party by Goldwater extremists? Or did someone calculate that Republican government would function largely the same regardless of the different rhetoric? The practical question is this: if the concept of Bipolarchy is meaningful, if political power is duopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, why don't they give their own leaders the power to purge their own ranks? It's not as if you have to be registered with a major party to vote for it in the general election, so what benefit do they derive from compelling themselves to welcome just anyone into their ranks in time for the primaries? If the consequence is ideological upheaval and inconsistency, and the consequence is tolerated, how important is ideology for the parties, or the government, in the long term? Is the upheaval, and the risk to any individual party leader, worth the channeling of voters into the parties through unconditional registration so long as that easy option keeps insurgent ideologues from seeking channels of their own? You have to assume that the parties benefit from the system, since they'd do away with it otherwise -- wouldn't they?

Maybe the registration-and-primary process is a fast-food model for government by parties. After all, by allowing insurgents to "take over" and impose a new ideological stamp, the major parties may simply be allowing customers to "Have It Your Way," so long as you have it with them. And isn't that more fun than making your own sandwich?...

Amoklauf in Ohio: Feb. 27, 2012

The sad thing about today's news from Chardon OH is that I can't help but think of it as a "minor" incident because it appears that no one was killed and only five kids were shot by a fellow student. Except for the maniacs who keep track of the records and see them as benchmarks to surpass someday, we should measure any amoklauf qualitatively rather than quantitatively. The terror felt by those kids in the cafeteria should be no less in retrospect should it turn out that none of them died. If anything, the nation as a whole isn't terrified enough of these events to take the steps necessary to minimize the damage a sick or angry kid can do. Americans seem stuck somewhere between fatalism and self-delusion on this issue, either believing that it can't happen in my town or that nothing can prevent it from happening anywhere. The ideal solution for too many people seems to be arming more "good" people so any amoklaufer can be gunned down early. For them, the gun is the only answer to the gun, and someone is always right to kill. The problem with that attitude is that you can't guarantee that everyone who agrees with you should agree. The entitlement to kill that comes with a constitutionally guaranteed individual right to self-defense, as currently understood by the majority of the Supreme Court, unfortunately empowers those whose imperative to self-defense is often comprehensible only to themselves. The line dividing objective self-defense from subjective lashing out may become clear in a courtroom but grows fuzzy in our individualistic culture. Some will say that's why we need more morality, but they stake much on mere exhortation when it should be a practical matter to make it more difficult for people to kill. They would rather risk an amoklauf, which they can then deplore as illegitimate killing, than limit their own right to kill, since they'd only do it for legitimate reasons -- like stopping an amoklauf, for instance. But maybe a better world is impossible, and maybe then the best option in our egalitarian society is for the state to arm every citizen so each can defend himself as he (or she) sees fit. Would there be more justice, or more amoklaufs -- and who would know the difference?

24 February 2012

Republicans in despair

Buddy Roemer's departure from the Republican presidential campaign seems to have had a psychological impact on the party inversely proportional to the success Roemer had as a candidate. On the other hand, it may just be a coincidence that Roemer has declared the need for a strong independent candidate at the same time that Jon Hunstman, who had supposedly endorsed Mitt Romney after dropping out of contention earlier, spoke of the need for a strong third party "that can put forth new ideas;" former RNC chairman Haley Barbour spoke of the possibility, if not the necessity, of a new Republican candidate; and George Will, having already given up on Romney and Newt Gingrich, appeared to have given up on Rick Santorum as well.

For Will, Santorum is too much of "an angry prophet of a dystopian future" when the nation appears to need optimistic reassurance. The former Senator "has the right forebodings," Will allows, "but might have the wrong profession."

Santorum is right to be alarmed by many cultural trends but implies that religion must be the nexus between politics and cultural reform. [While] Romney is not attracting people who want rationality leavened by romance. Santorum is repelling people who want politics unmediated by theology. Neither Romney nor Santorum looks like a formidable candidate for November. 

George Will has more or less drawn his line in the sand against the encroachments of the Religious Right.  His critique of Santorum resembles that of a religious rightist, Cal Thomas, against the Religious Right in general as a political movement. That is, while both columnists may concede the point that the nation is in a serious moral decline -- Will traces a lot of social problems to single-parent or specifically fatherless households -- they argue that the moral reform necessary to solve those problems can't be enacted through political action. On this point, Will reverts to authentic philosophical conservatism, expressing skepticism toward government's power (or right) to change people's morals. "[N]o one really knows the causes of family disintegration, so it is unclear whether those causes can be combated by government measures," he writes, "We do not know how to address this with government policies, even though the nation has worried about it for almost 50 years." Will's criticism of Santorum is pragmatic as well as philosophical. By "open[ing] multiple fronts in the culture wars," he explains, "Santorum has made his Catholicism more central and problematic in this nomination contest than Romney’s Mormonism has been" Leaving sectarianism out of it, Will compares Santorum unfavorably with Ronald Reagan, who always made sure to flatter the people in general instead of implicitly scolding them.

I can't recall whether Will has explicitly disqualified Ron Paul from consideration beyond warning that an independent run by the Texas libertarian would assure President Obama of re-election. But it would seem that, unless Will has already judged him wanting, that Paul is all he has left, having made his hatred for Gingrich very clear for months, unless he, too, wants to join the increasingly urgent search for a savior inside or outside the Republican party. Will could never endorse Roemer because of the latter's denunciations of the power of money in politics. Could an independent candidate emerge who isn't disgruntled about the power of money and thus might lure an influential opinionator like Will away from a party without a "formidable" candidate? If it can ever happen, now may be the best time.

23 February 2012

Separation of Church and ... ?

Jim Knowles-Tuell identifies himself as one of the "liberals who are outspoken about the influence of our faith on our political leanings." As such, he's a little troubled when people tell religious conservatives to keep their faith out of politics. In a letter to the Albany Times Union, Knowles-Tuell offers a distinction that would allow politicians to campaign on the basis of their beliefs, and to be judged by them, but not to govern by them. Critiquing an earlier writer, K-T charges that people often "confuse the concept of 'state' in the phrase 'separation of church and state' with the concept of 'politics.'" Politics is not synonymous with the state, in this view, but describes the process by which we appoint the state's personnel. That is, politics, for K-T, is synonymous with elections and not with governing. When governing is concerned, the restrictions of the First Amendment apply. But "If both the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion have any meaning whatsoever, then "injecting religion into politics" is exactly what should be happening." He elaborates:

Any candidate who arrives at a policy position because of his religious faith should be free to express that connection so voters can make an informed decision. Because I think his theology or scriptural interpretation is poor does not give me the right to tell him to shut up. I can, in response, tell Rick Santorum that contraception is not evil, tell Newt Gingrich that Jesus probably would support marriage equality, and tell Mitt Romney that our care for "the least of these," both as individuals and as a society, is probably a more Biblical measure of our faithfulness than our concerns for the middle class.

Of course, as believers are always glad to remind us, the phrase "separation of church and state" do not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but were coined by Thomas Jefferson, who had no role in writing that document, some years later.  The charter itself restrains Congress from "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion or to establish a state religion. A state religion existed, as they did in several of the original states, when people or property were taxed to support a particular church. For Jefferson, the "wall of separation" kept the state from persecuting religious minorities or dissident individuals." Neither Madison nor Jefferson would have seen the criminalization of any particular "sin" as establishing a religion -- though they may well have laughed a candidate for office who claimed to have detected a Satanic conspiracy against the country out of the capital. The point of this is to question whether Knowles-Tuell's distinction is actually useful. My hunch is that he thinks it would be unconstitutional for Santorum to sign a law against contraception if he cites biblical authority, or for Gingrich to sign one forbidding marriage equality on similar grounds. But the Constitution need not forbid these things unless we advance a new meaning of the word "establishment" that equates it with our modern understanding of theocracy as refined by Americans' aversion to sharia law. Even then, I'm not sure how much homophobes and anti-contraceptionists would be constrained, since the burden of proof would still be on litigants to prove that any law against contraception or marriage equality was based exclusively on religion. I'm pretty certain that there are homophobic or anti-abortion atheists out there, and in any event homophobes in particular have long known the wisdom of appealing across cultural lines to any numbers of "traditions" that hate gays. Just because may ancient faiths share oppressive "moral" traditions, the notion that modern laws based on those traditions amount to the establishment of a particular religion -- and in the Founders' time it was not so much Christianity itself but one of its denominations that usually was established -- probably wouldn't pass muster. All this means is that the only safeguard against believers "imposing their values" in any way except establishing their church or forbidding others is political agitation and electoral success. For that purpose, Knowles-Tuell has the right idea. We should know the extent to which politicians base their positions on faith or myth so we can challenge them to offer any basis for those positions beyond "God says so." Then, since they'll already have spoken their piece, we'd be entirely within our rights to tell them to shut up. We wouldn't be able to force them to shut up, except by beating them at the polls so that they can't speak for us.

Buddy Roemer: A candidate in search of a party

It may not make sense, but Buddy Roemer, the former congressman and governor of Louisiana, has probably earned more attention for dropping out of the Republican presidential campaign than he attracted while running. Roemer's was so marginal a candidacy that he was never invited to any of the televised debates, an omission he blames on the power of money -- as demonstrated negatively by his inability to raise any after refusing to take donations larger than $100 and none from PACs. If he attracts attention now, it's because of his intention to continue running as an independent candidate, either as the Reform party nominee or as the winner of the online Americans Elect process. Roemer has switched parties in the past, changing from Democrat to Republican while governor in an apparently desperate bid to keep his job. He ended up being infamously outpolled in the Louisiana's open primary by David Duke, and hasn't won an election since his gubernatorial win in 1987. Such are politics in Louisiana that when he sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination again in 1995, he lost the primary to another pol who had switched from Democrat to Republican.

Roemer clearly depends on widespread resentment of money's magnified influence over elections. He would do away with "SuperPACs" and limit mere mortal PACS to the same maximum donation that individuals can make. He would require more complete disclosure of donations than the Supreme Court now deems necessary, and would take further steps to decouple lobbying from fundraising. But what else has he got? You can examine his positions at your leisure by visiting his campaign website. In short, he is a flat-taxer, a kind of protectionist or fair-trader, an advocate of more drilling for oil within safeguards, and a critic of "Obamacare" who blames corporate lobbyists for its shortcomings. In the wider world, he eschews acting as the world's policeman, but believes in "assisting countries who choose freedom to become stronger." He regards reducing dependence on imported energy as a foreign-policy goal and would convert foreign aid from a cash basis to an educational function. Happily, Roemer hasn't heard that the culture wars are back; his issues page is free from discussions of homosexuality, contraception, or the influence of Satan on American life.

On Roemer's chosen main issue, it's fair to ask whether regulating the supply really solves the problem of politicians' apparent dependence on vast amounts of money to carry on campaigns. A more thorough if not radical reform of the entire political system may be required to minimize the corrupting potential of patronage of candidates. Readers can judge his other planks for themselves. The real question to ask before considering Roemer for the future is whether his failure in the Republican race proves his point about the power of money, or whether it only proves something about the man himself. A pseudonymous former supporter has posted a scathing assessment of Roemer as a comment here; he calls Roemer a hypocritical "windbag," on the assumption that both the Reform party and Americans Elect are backed by the same sort of Big Money the candidate supposedly repudiates, and describes him as uncooperative and a little bit stupid. Judging from the more successful Republicans, however, stupidity could not have made much difference in Roemer's fortunes. Leaving invective aside, must we see Roemer as a sore loser and campaign addict who doesn't know when he's not wanted, or as someone with at least unique credibility for denouncing the current political system? Beyond that, it's one thing to identify a problem, and another to offer an effective solution -- but now Roemer has given himself another chance to show us something.

22 February 2012

The right to lie movement

A few months ago I took notice of a George Will column rooting for the Supreme Court to strike down the so-called "Stolen Valor" Act, under which a small-time California politician was convicted for falsely claiming that he had been a Marine and had received the Medal of Honor. The Court will hear the convict's appeal this week, inspiring Berkeley professor William Bennett Turner to write an op-ed for the New York Times against the controversial law. Noting that the act makes it illegal for anyone, not just politicians, to claim military honors fraudulently, Turner questions whether the defendant's "harmless fibbing" actually harmed anyone else. Despite the Times's column header question, "Is There a Right to Lie?" Turner argues that the case should not be about whether the Constitution entitles us to lie in public.

Rather, it’s a question about the scope of the government’s power over individuals — whether the government can criminalize saying untrue things about oneself even if there is no harm to any identifiable person, no intent to cheat anyone or gain unfair advantage, no receipt of anything of value and no interference with the administration of justice or any other compelling government interest. The court should rule in favor of Mr. Alvarez. Harmless fibbing should not be a federal offense. 

The law itself doesn't claim a public interest in truth but assumes that lies about military service and honors by anyone harm the integrity of those honors. But Turner, like Will, worries that upholding the Stolen Valor Act could have a chilling effect on political discourse.

The Stolen Valor Act is also dangerously broad: it puts satire and parody at risk of criminal prosecution. The comedian Stephen Colbert could not safely perform a skit in which his blowhard patriot persona claimed to have a medal. The act doesn’t require proof that anyone believed or was deceived by the false claim.
If the Supreme Court were to accept the government’s argument, other disconcerting legislation could easily follow. Congress could enact a law that criminalized false claims by political candidates about their qualifications for office, or false claims about their opponents. Surely the government has an “important” interest in preventing voter deception. But as much as we want to encourage factual accuracy in our politicians, do we really want the government to prosecute, for example, Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who falsely stated on his Senate Web site that his parents moved from Cuba after — rather than before — Fidel Castro took power? Who among us has not said things about ourselves that are untrue? Who has not exaggerated or embellished details to tell a better story? The public humiliation that follows such exposure is punishment enough. 

In an ideal polity, a politician caught in a lie would suffer shame enough to ruin his career. Now, however, we should wonder whether any public humiliation follows the exposure of a lie. Turner's own position is unclear. Does he think that Rubio was humiliated, or should have been, when his lie was exposed? Should he have lost his election? The fact is, he did not. In fact, some people consider Rubio vice-presidential timber. Does Turner agree with that assessment? His own stance seems to draw a distinction between kinds or degrees of lying. He doesn't appear to want the people to act on an assumption that "harmless fibbing" or "embellish[ing] details to tell a better story" prove a politician's willingness to deceive the public on more serious matters.  At most, he would permit people to act on such suspicions only in the voting booth. Can they be trusted to do so -- or must they be trusted regardless of probability? I can understand a present-day American aversion to imposing eligibility tests for political candidates beyond the existing constitutional requirements, or to giving anyone the Iranian-style power to disqualify candidates. But if any test could be proven objectively immune from partisan bias, it should be a test of basic truthfulness -- or "truthiness" in the case of the theoretically imperiled Colbert. If anything, discussion of this case convinces me that the Stolen Valor Act itself is rather frivolous. It could well be struck down without sacrificing the inferred principle that so troubles an apparent free-speech absolutist like Turner. If he worries about the consequences should the law be upheld, he should also worry about the implications of his own defense of the right to lie.

21 February 2012

Theodore Roosevelt's 'charter of democracy'

One hundred years ago today, Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Ohio constitutional convention in what proved the prelude to his presidential campaign, first for the Republican nomination, then as an independent candidate. You can read the complete text here. For many 21st century observers, from this point, if not sooner, Roosevelt changed from an American hero to a sinister promoter of Big Government. Don't mistake him for a modern liberal or a modern "progressive," -- he was a priggish moralist and a warmonger for much of his life -- but judge him by his own words.

I am emphatically a believer in constitutionalism, and because of this fact I no less emphatically protest against any theory that would make of the constitution a means of thwarting instead of securing the absolute right of the people to rule themselves and to provide for their social and industrial well—being.
All constitutions, those of the States no less than that of the nation, are designed, and must be interpreted and administered so as to fit human rights.
Lincoln so interpreted and administered the National Constitution. Buchanan attempted the reverse, attempted to fit human rights to, and limit them by, the Constitution. It was Buchanan who treated the courts as a fetish, who protested against and condemned all criticism of the judges for unjust and unrighteous decisions, and upheld the Constitution as an instrument for the protection of privilege and of vested wrong. It was Lincoln who appealed to the people against the judges when the judges went wrong, who advocated and secured what was practically the recall of the Dred Scott decision, and who treated the Constitution as a living force for righteousness.
We stand for applying the Constitution to the issues of today as Lincoln applied it to the issues of his day; Lincoln, mind you and not Buchanan, was the real upholder and preserver of the Constitution, for the true Progressive, the Progressive of the Lincoln stamp, is the only true constitutionalist, the only real conservative.
The object of every American constitution worth calling such must be what it is set forth to be in the preamble to the National Constitution, "to establish justice," that is, to secure justice as between man and man by means of genuine popular self—government. If the constitution is successfully invoked
to nullify the effort to remedy injustice, it is proof positive either that the constitution needs immediate amendment or else that it is being wrongfully and improperly construed.

*   *   * 

It has been well said that in the past we have paid attention only to the accumulation of prosperity, and that from henceforth we must pay equal attention to the proper distinction of prosperity. This is true. The only prosperity worth having is that which affects the mass of the people. We are bound to strive for the fair distribution of prosperity. But it behooves us to remember that there is no use in devising methods for the proper distribution of prosperity unless the prosperity is there to distribute. I hold it to be our duty to see that the wage—worker, the small producer, the ordinary consumer, shall get their fair share of the benefit of business prosperity. But it either is or ought to be evident to every one that business has to prosper before anybody can get any benefit from it. Therefore I hold that he is the real Progressive, that he is the genuine champion of the people, who endeavors to shape the policy alike of the nation and of the several States so as to encourage legitimate and honest business at the same time that he wars against all crookedness and injustice and unfairness and tyranny in the business world (for of course we can only get business put on a basis of permanent prosperity when the element of injustice is taken out of it).
This is the reason why I have for so many years insisted, as regards our National Government, that it is both futile and mischievous to endeavor to correct the evils of big business by an attempt to restore business conditions as they were in the middle of the last century, before railways and telegraphs had rendered larger business organizations both inevitable and desirable. The effort to restore such conditions, and to trust for justice solely to such proposed restoration, is as foolish as if we should attempt to arm our troops with the flintlocks of Washington’s Continentals instead of with modern weapons of precision. Flintlock legislation, of the kind that seeks to prohibit all combinations, good or bad, is bound to fail, and the effort, in so far as it accomplishes anything at all, merely means that some of the worst combinations are not checked, and that honest business is checked.  What is needed is, first, the recognition that modern business conditions have come to stay, in so far at least as these conditions mean that business must be done in larger units and then the cool—headed and resolute determination to introduce an effective method of regulating big corporations so as to help legitimate business as an incident to thoroughly and completely safeguarding the interests of the people as a whole....

 It is imperative to exercise over big business a control and supervision which is unnecessary as regards small business. All business must be conducted under the law, and all business men, big or little, must act justly. But a wicked big interest is necessarily more dangerous to the community than a wicked little interest. "Big business" in the past has been responsible for much of the special privilege which must be unsparingly cut out of our national life. I do not believe in making mere size of and by itself criminal. The mere fact of size, however, does unquestionably carry the potentiality of such grave wrongdoing that there should be by law provision made for the strict supervision and regulation of these great industrial concerns doing an interstate business, much as we now regulate the transportation agencies which are engaged in interstate business. 

*   *   *

We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. We have only praise for the business man whose business success comes as an incident to doing good work for his fellows. But we should so shape conditions that a fortune shall be obtained only in honorable fashion, in such fashion that its gaining represents benefit to the community.
In a word, then, our fundamental purpose must be to secure genuine equality of opportunity. No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered. No watering of stocks should be permitted; and it can be prevented only by close governmental supervision of all stock issues, so as to prevent over capitalization.
We stand for the rights of property, but we stand even more for the rights of man.
We will protect the rights of the wealthy man, but we maintain that he holds his wealth subject to the general right of the community to regulate its business use as the public welfare requires.
We also maintain that the nation and the several States have the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good. It is our prime duty to shape the industrial and social forces so that they may tell for the material and moral upbuilding of the farmer and the wage—worker, just as they should do in the case of the business man.

*   *   *

 The crook in public life is not ordinarily the man whom the people themselves elect directly to a highly important and responsible position. The type of boss who has made the name of politician odious rarely himself runs for high elective office; and if he does and is elected, the people have only themselves to blame. The professional politician and the professional lobbyist thrive most rankly under a system which provides a multitude of elective officers of such divided responsibility and of such obscurity that the public knows, and can know, but little as to their duties and the way they perform them. The people have nothing whatever to fear from giving any public servant power so long as they retain their own power to hold him accountable for his use of the power they have delegated him. You will get best service where you elect only a few men, and where each man has his definite duties and responsibilities, and is obliged to work in the open, so that the people know who he is and what he is doing, and have the information that will enable them to hold him to account for his stewardship.

*   *   *

 Keep clearly in view what are the fundamental ends of government. Remember that methods are merely the machinery by which these ends are to be achieved. I hope that not only you and I but all our people may ever remember that while good laws are necessary, while it is necessary to have the right kind of governmental machinery, yet that the all—important matter is to have the right kind of man behind the law.
A State cannot rise without proper laws, but the best laws that the wit of man can devise will amount to nothing if the State does not contain the right kind of man, the right kind of woman.
A good constitution, and good laws under the constitution, and fearless and upright officials to administer the law — all these are necessary; but the prime requisite in our national life is, and must always be, the possession by the average citizen of the right kind of character.
Our aim must be the moralization of the individual, of the government, of the people as a whole. We desire the moralization not only of political conditions but of industrial conditions, so that every force in the community, individual and collective, may be directed toward securing for the average man, and average woman, a higher and better and fuller life’ in the things of the body no less than those of the mind and the soul.

20 February 2012

The Third Hope: in search of an American technocrat

Thomas L. Friedman is still looking for a savior. The New York Times columnist has been calling for a third party or independent presidential campaign for some time now, but with a passionate battle underway for "control" of the Republican party and more liberals frightened by the passions on display into abject loyalty to the Democrats, Friedman's cries have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Like a good prophet, he carries on, dropping a strong hint this weekend that one David Walker would be a viable alternative to President Obama and his eventual Republican challenger.

Who? Walker served as the nation's Comptroller General under Clinton and GW Bush and now runs a think tank called the Comeback America Initiative. CAI is a "nonpartisan" group dedicated to "put[ting] government on a more prudent, sustainable and accountable fiscal path." Walker is uninterested in running for office -- he was urged to run for Sen. Lieberman's seat but decided he could be more useful as an agitator through CAI and the "No Labels" group. Walker is the image of a centrist technocrat. He takes the seemingly self-evident position -- supported by 75% of Americans according to his own polling -- that the nation needs to cut spending and raise taxes. He loses the Republicans right there, presumably, but Friedman, at least, remains convinced that Walker loses Democrats as well on the question of cuts. The columnist has infuriated Democrats by seeming to argue that the two major parties are equally to blame for the present politico-economic impasse -- check out the comments on his Times page for some of the rage. While it should be obvious that Republicans bring more bad ideas to the table than Democrats, that doesn't necessarily take the Democracy off the hook. Even if Republicans are "99%" of the problem, as one comment claims, Friedman would still insist that the Democrats' 1% of blame is crucial. He remains convinced that, just as a fanatic base prevents Republicans from seriously contemplating tax increases, a base of some kind holds Democrats back from necessary spending cuts. Walker clearly agrees with this position.

The Democrats, argues Walker, “are still in denial about the need to renegotiate our social insurance contract.” Walker praises Obama for focusing on the right metric — our overall debt-to-G.D.P. ratio — and in offering short-term ideas to enhance economic growth and address unemployment, like investments in infrastructure. But these ideas, he says, have to be “coupled with a credible and enforceable plan to address the structural deficits that threaten our nation’s future position in the world and our standard of living at home” — and there Obama continues to fall short. “He is not talking about the fundamental reforms in Medicare and Medicaid that we need, and he is not ready to touch Social Security,” says Walker, referring to Obama’s latest budget.

"Renegotiate" is a nice way to put it, but is that what Walker and Friedman really mean? Perhaps: Walker claims to have the numbers to back his belief that the public would support a "renegotiation," if only they could find honest negotiators. But it's one thing to say that 75% of Americans accept the need for spending cuts, and another to say they agree on what should be cut. Walker and Friedman take it for granted that the Democratic base would refuse any proposal to "renegotiate our social insurance contract" and punish any Democrat who proposes it. That would leave no one in a general election to propose it -- which is why Friedman wishes that Walker, who has never held or (to my knowledge) run for an elected office, would aim right for the top. That would definitely force the question of whether a consensus exists for drastic cuts in any realm of spending. Inevitably many people would argue that the cuts could or should come from other departments, particularly defense, but Friedman and Walker clearly feel that "social insurance" is draining resources from not just defense but the infrastructure and R&D projects Friedman favors. That means "social insurance" would be the inevitable battleground for "renegotiation."  For Friedman in particular, the need for a third party is based on the assumption that the Democrats would not and could never renegotiate responsibly -- it being long ago accepted that the Republicans were hopeless. This is the argument for a centrist, or perhaps even a moderate third party, a party technocratic in principle if democratic in practice. There's certainly room for such a party in the national discussion, but there's also room to question whether that party, with someone like Walker as its ideal candidate, is the one the people really need.

19 February 2012

Against the Pagans: Santorum's false choice between stewadship and servitude

It's one of the canards of present-day Republicanism -- I've heard Mr. Right raise the point more than once -- that there's something discreditingly pagan about the environmentalist movement. On the campaign trail this year, Rick Santorum comes closest to expressing this sentiment without necessarily using the p-word. Invited to clarify his position on one of the Sunday interview shows, he attempted to draw a distinction between the "stewardship" of the planet mandated by scripture and an environmentalist ideology that reduces man to a "servant" of the Earth. The Pennsylvanian insists that "The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective." As if you can choose between the two.

I quickly found a more articulate version of Santorum's critique. The author seems to have a problem with the notion of nature as an "end unto itself" that can't be used simply as a means to someone else's objectives. Somewhere between this sophistry and Santorum's demagoguery, the idea arises that if you regard nature as an end unto itself, you elevate it to divine status -- to serve the Earth is implicitly to worship it. That may well be the belief of some actual pagans, but most environmentalists strike me as having more mundane concerns. I doubt whether they recognize the stark choice Santorum wants to force between stewardship and servitude. It's more likely that they recognize no contradiction between the interests of the planet and those of mankind. At the very least, the planet and its inhabitants have a common interest in survival. For the forseeable future, the survival of man depends on the survival of the planet. That's why most environmentalists I encounter invoke the concept of sustainability. They oppose ecologically questionable projects not because those insult their deity, but because they put humanity's long-term survival into question. To my knowledge, many Christian environmentalists feel the same way, and a similar opposition to similar projects falls comfortably within their definition of "stewardship." But Santorum seems to think that stewardship would never or should never require us to refuse a proposal for technological progress on ecological grounds. As he stated quite clearly today, man's needs -- which might mean our collective need for energy or some people's need for jobs or profits -- come before any concern for environmental well-being, such concerns being suspect on the assumption that you would sacrifice people, even if not with a knife on an altar, to the planet. But the idea that concern for the planet's survival is equivalent to worshipping it is itself equivalent to the widespread monotheist notion that any portrait of a living thing is meant as an object of idolatrous worship. The suspicion of false "worship" is often simply an advanced if not decadent form of superstition and has no place in political discourse. Of course, Santorum could be simply and cynically demagoging a job issue, telling people that Democrats are preventing job creation for superstitiously sinister reasons -- but he strikes me as too much of a true believer for me to give him any credit for lying about this.

17 February 2012

Idiot of the Week: Amine el-Khalifi?

The Washington Post makes the case better than I can:

Amine el-Khalifi, 29, was picked up while carrying an inoperable MAC-10 automatic weapon and a fake suicide vest provided to him by undercover FBI agents posing as al-Qaeda associates, U.S. officials said....Khalifi, “who is illegally present in the United States, was charged today by criminal complaint with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States,” the Justice Department said later in a news release. 

*   *   *
 U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said the complaint alleges that Khalifi “sought to blow himself up in the U.S. Capitol Building.” He said Khalifi “allegedly believed he was working with al-Qaeda and devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own.” 

I guess what I don't understand about this entrapment business is why you have to humor the poor mark to the point of allowing him for some few glorious moments to believe he's on the short track to martyrdom. The way these things work, you'd think someone was filming him so they could put the footage on some comedy reality show. Otherwise, what's the point? -- or is letting him make an idiot of himself part of our psychological war on terror?

My advice to future idiot wannabe-terrorists is this: if some nice man gives you a suicide vest for an attack on an American target -- test it first!

Gender and Disposition gaps inside the GOP

Ladies love Mitt Romney -- or do other Republicans simply scare them? Rick Santorum has replaced Newt Gingrich for the moment as the primary obstacle to Romney's presidential nomination, but the change hasn't really altered the gender dynamics of the Republican campaign observed while Gingrich was surging. Romney still leads his nearest rival by a big margin among GOP women? Are those women really so much less conservative than their male counterparts? One analysis suggests that, as with Romney vs. Gingrich, personality matters. Santorum looks like a buttoned-down guy compared to the blustery Gingrich, but his rhetoric apparently still strikes many Republican women as overly confrontational and belligerent. As Jennifer Rubin writes, " women may see his confidence as strutting and his determination as rigidity." Romney seems less aggressive and less threatening; female Republicans supposedly find his manner calm and comforting. But if this gender gap decides who gets the nomination, can the Republicans really be the "daddy" party they're often thought to be?

Meanwhile, while working my way through some back issues I was referred to a piece written for the American Enterprise Institute last summer by Henry Olsen that seems relevant right now. In weighing the prospects for a dark-horse candidate, Olsen observed that two distinct forms of conservatism coexist within the GOP. "Dispositional conservatives" are the party's pre-1980 base; they are conservative in the most basic sense of the word in their opposition to change for its own sake and their mistrust of any sort of radicalism. As Olsen elaborates:

This type of conservative was cautious and suspicious of change-- someone who trusted the collected wisdom of institutions and the past over the novelties of individual reasoning and innovative philosophies. It was in this sense that British and Scandinavian parties of the right labeled themselves "Conservative"; it was to overcome this definition that Canada's Conservatives changed their name in the 1940s to the oxymoronic Progressive Conservative Party. In America, this sentiment was well expressed in Russell Kirk's 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. It may be neatly summed up in the conservative adage that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

Beginning with the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, if not with the anti-communist surge starting in 1946, "dispositional conservatives" have had to maintain uneasy relations with "ideological conservatives," the people I label "entrepreneurial Republicans." Olsen describes them thusly:

Ideological conservatives are not, by virtue of disposition, necessarily averse to change. On the contrary: In the mold of Reagan, they are forward-looking. They embrace changes and reforms that advance conservative principles, such as the primacy of freedom and the morality of free markets, the protection of traditional moral structures and practices, and the unapologetic use of American power overseas. Under Reagan, conservatism became associated in the public eye with action, experimentation, and change. Its evolving character was best expressed in a line from Reagan's Republican convention acceptance speech in 1980, quoting Thomas Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Olsen doesn't take the American Conservative view that "ideological conservative" is an oxymoron. But it's unclear from the above paragraph whether "the primacy of freedom" or "the morality of free markets" are means or ends for this group. If there is an irrepressible conflict between dispositionals and ideologues, it may be exactly over the hierarchy of means and ends. Some of the dispositional conservatives have recognized the contradiction of a conservative embrace of free-market "creative destruction" and have denounced some of the ideologues as "radicals," particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Ronald Reagan himself reportedly expressed the tension between dispositionals and ideologues when he said that "human nature resists change and goes over backward to resist radical change." Olsen's argument is that relative moderates usually win out over ideologues in Republican primaries because enough dispositionals remain in the party to resist any perceived radicalism. In his view that's a good thing, since when ideologues manage to head the ticket, the other side usually has success portraying them to the electorate at large as dangerous radicals. Writing last Summer, when Gov. Perry was poised to enter the race and was feared as an instant front-runner, Olsen was clearly rooting for a "dispositional" candidate to win the nomination just so Democrats would not use the "radical" card against them.

Have the dispositionals and ideologues rallied behind Romney and Santorum respectively? It doesn't seem likely. As the arch-capitalist in the race, Romney ought to be the favorite of the ideologues if we understand them to be concerned primarily with "the morality of free markets." Yet Santorum seems to be the favorite of ideologues, at least outside the South where Gingrich may still have strength. The bailout issue has arguably confused matters for free-market ideologues, but Santorum has gotten his second wind just as the "culture war" has allegedly flared up again over contraception coverage for Catholic-hospital employees. When culture becomes the primary issue, the dispositionals, to the extent that they stand by definition for traditional values, may favor Santorum while the free-market faithful follow Romney -- thought the fanatics may prefer Ron Paul. But that would go against Olsen's notion that the dispositionals are a moderating influence within the GOP due to their distrust of radicalism. The problem may be with the dispositional category itself. We can all agree to a certain extent on the definition of a philosophical conservative as a matter of temperament, but philosophical conservatism is really no more than philosophical caution. Once that caution is acknowledged, any avowal of conservatism still begs the question, "conservative of what?" But Olsen's definition of "dispositional conservatism" is practically value-neutral, reducing an entire worldview or assortment of worldviews to simple resistance to change. It doesn't really tell us anything meaningful about these Republicans if it doesn't tell us what they're for -- what they actually want to conserve. If the category only becomes relevant, is only activated when another Republican is perceived as a "radical" threat, it probably isn't useful even to that minimal extent. I'm not disputing that distrust of radicalism is a real element in Republicanism, but there's probably more opportunistic flexibility to the concept -- more chance that one of many factions can slap the "radical" label on another faction, but later be labeled radical itself -- than Olsen's framework allows for. Some people may be temperamentally averse to extremism in any form, but in most cases radicalism is probably defined in the eye of the beholder on a subjective, selective basis, depending on the kind of change you fear. What we know is that many Republicans consider Romney not radical enough, while some consider Santorum (not to mention Paul) too radical. Whether that's anything more than a matter of rhetoric in either case remains to be seen.

16 February 2012

Fear of the future: reactions left and right

Writing for the Albany Times Union, Karl Felsen considers the similarities between the Tea Party and Occupy movements. Both, in Felsen's opinion, are reactionary phenomena. The Occupiers see themselves, in his description, as "the future victims of our modern economy." They long for the safeguards of the 20th century regulatory state, most of which, Felsen writes, are gone for good in the age of globalization. By comparison, the Tea Partiers suffer from a sense of cultural loss. While Occupiers seem to fear for their standing as individuals in the future economy, TPs no longer recognize the society and culture around them as the one they knew or expected. As with the economy, however, Felsen writes that the culture has changed irreversibly. In their impotence against change, each group scapegoats an imagined oppressor, the "1%" for the Occupiers and the "government" or cultural elite for TPs. Felsen's moral is that each group dwells too much on the perceived injustices of the recent past to act as guides to the future. Because their grievances are selective, both groups miss "the important contributions and messages of true conservatives (smaller government, free enterprise, open markets, and protection of individual freedoms and liberties) and true liberals (regulated capitalism, a living wage, universal health care, progressive taxation, and protection of civil freedoms and liberties)." Each presumably falls back on its preferred ideology as if it could protect them against inevitable further change. They are, perhaps hopelessly, concerned more with "where we have been" than with "where we are going."

Neither group may recognize itself in Felsen's joint portrait. Occupiers certainly think of themselves as "progressive," while Tea Parties certainly believe they could make great progress, economically at least, if unconstrained by regulatory government or a Washington-Wall Street axis. But I suspect that Felsen is at least partially right in recognizing fear of the future at the heart of both movements -- and at the heart of each the fear is probably more similar than Felsen himself acknowledges. Tea Partiers may idealize the past in a way that Occupiers can't or won't, but very probably any individual TP is worried about whether there'll be a place for him in the future, just like the average Occupier. The important difference between the two movements remains that the Tea Parties want individuals to be allowed to find or make their own places, while the Occupiers are probably more concerned with making sure there's a place for everyone, and less concerned with whether "one size fits all" solutions cramp anybody's style. Nevertheless, people in both groups feel that someone is denying them a place in the future, not to mention a place in defining the future. If Felsen is right, then both groups resent that in the recent past leading up to the present, the "future" (that is, the way we live now) was determined without their consent. Whether either group has real cause for complaint depends on how much influence you think democratic will can or should have over history. But each group is driven by a sense of powerlessness in the face of some elite which each characterizes according to its particular fears or hatreds -- as greedy corporations or power-mad politicians. Neither group might fear the future, or change in general, if everyone had more say in shaping the future. Maybe some people wouldn't be so reactionary about everything if they felt empowered to participate in progress, or wouldn't seek refuge in an idealized past if they could actually contribute to the future rather than having it dictated to them. Agree with them or not, many Americans across the ideological spectrum feel that the future is being dictated by elites. If they could ever agree on enmity with a common elite, or trust each other to make the future together, years of protesting might actually amount to something.

15 February 2012

Laying Down the Sword -- or the Book

Philip Jenkins is a historian of and to some extent an apologist for Christianity who has written a bracing critique of his faith's violent heritage. Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses is aimed at those complacent monotheists who argue that Islam is a uniquely violent religion, and the Qur'an a uniquely violent scripture. Jenkins's response to such assumptions is to warn readers against denouncing the Muslim mote while ignoring the beam in their eyes. To that purpose he spends much of his book contemplating the bloodiest books of the Old Testament -- Deuteronomy and Joshua -- summarizing what is known or believed about their origins and how they fit into evolving perceptions of both Judaism and Christianity. In Jenkins's account, these two books alone are as atrocious as anything or everything deplorable in Islamic scripture. He notes, however, that most Christians probably don't realize what's happening in these books, even though throughout Christian history, including American history, believers have justified massacres and wars of conquest or extermination by drawing analogies with Moses and Joshua's dealings with Amalek and other doomed nations. This book is most eye-opening in its detailing of how many Jews have used Amalek as an equivalent for the forces of Satan in Christian propaganda, so that any enemy -- Nazis, Muslims, Reform or secular Jews -- can be identified with Amalek and theoretically placed under God's extermination order. If anything, Jenkins may overemphasize the relevance of Old Testament violence for Christian extremism. My impression is that most such extremists, today at least, are incited more by what they expect to happen, thanks to the Book of Revelation, than by what they believe happened thousands of years ago. In any event, Jenkins finds extremist readings of violent verses to be exceptional among both Jews and Christians, the majority of both faiths having forgotten both the violence and the alleged imperative to violence. He finds this a mixed blessing, good insofar as he sees no mass constituency for religious violence among those faiths but bad insofar as it makes them unjustifiably judgmental regarding Islam. Ultimately he would prefer that believers not forget the violence of their faiths, nor censor it, but confront it by acknowledging that Joshua, for instance, must mean something different for a 21st century reader -- is presumably intended to mean something different by God -- than it did for its original audience. The urgency of such teaching seems questionable to an atheist, but as I acknowledge that eliminating religion won't eliminate violence, I suppose we should encourage believers who try to discourage others from feeling authorized to kill or make war by scripture. Jenkins himself closes with the sensible observation that religion is rarely a sufficient cause for "religiously-motivated" violence, but I wish he had made the point more forcefully more often in the book, particularly when discussing Islam -- if only to remind readers that, justly or not, most if not all Islamist terrorists believe themselves to be waging a defensive jihad and not the war of aggression Islamophobes claim to perceive. If we get to the bottom of why religious people feel threatened or besieged, we may get closer to suppressing the violent tendencies of all religions than we will by studying how to spin scripture toward peace.

Symbolic sacrifice in Greek

A quick observation: the President of Greece has announced that he is forfeiting his salary as a "symbolic gesture" of shared suffering as his country bows to the austerity demands of the European Union. Before this gesture impresses anyone, however, we should ask how much the president will actually share the suffering of many fellow Greeks. If the idea is to walk in their shoes, Mr. Papoulias might want to forfeit his savings instead. Again, I don't know how much money he has in the bank, or how much, being Greek money, it's actually worth. But I suspect that many of the Greeks who'll be hit hardest by austerity live from paycheck to paycheck, and that the president's empathy would be more authentic if he did so as well. While he's an old man, he reportedly fought Nazis as a youth in the resistance -- explaining his pique at taking fiscal dictation from Germans among others -- so frugal living shouldn't seem so tough to him. And if I seem hard on him, I should also at least credit him with the minimum of the gesture. There are some whose sacrifices might actually benefit their fellow citizens, but none are forthcoming that I know of from those quarters.

The Social Gospel debate renewed

For more than a century, American Christians have debated the viability of a so-called "social gospel." The division over this concept arguably anticipates the eventual left-right division of the body politic in general. As Cal Thomas explains in a recent column, the social gospel is "largely a creation of 20th-century Protestants who believed in applying “Christian principles” to rectify society’s problems." Specifically, social gospelers believe that Christians have an imperative duty to improve the material as well as the spiritual condition of the poor. The most radical among them argue that material aid is a prerequisite for spiritual redemption. Opponents of the social gospel insist on the priority of spiritual salvation. Thomas summarizes their critique:

 Deeds quickly supplanted faith, evolving into a “works salvation” theology, which says if you do enough good works, God will be pleased and let you into Heaven when you die. This contradicts biblical teaching that it is by faith and not works that one is saved from judgment (Ephesians 2:8-9). Some verses teach works as an extension of faith, revealing its depth and seriousness, but they equally teach that works without faith in Jesus is not enough. This is traditional Christian theology.

Thomas finds this newly relevant following the President's talk at the last National Prayer Breakfast. He believes that Obama misinterpreted Luke 12:48 -- "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much more will be asked." In Thomas's reading, or that of his pastor, it is God only who will make these demands, not "the people" or the state. To a certain extent, God may be presumed to demand the same thing the state or the people might, that the needy be taken care of. On how they're taken care of, God and man, or church and state, may differ. Thomas believes they should.

 True charity has a purpose beyond the satisfaction of physical needs. Its objective is to change hearts so that whatever is making someone poor will help them become less so. Meeting physical needs is the primary work of the church and individuals, not government, which changes no heart and does a poor job of making people self-sustaining. Government should be a last resort, not a first resource.

It may be true that Jesus never recommended dependence upon the state, but it may also be true that he disparaged the very idea of individual independence that underlies adversarial relations with the state. In his mind, probably, everyone was equally dependent upon God and thus equally responsible for fulfilling any divine mandate for justice. Apart from believing in spiritual salvation on the individual level, Jesus most likely did not espouse an "every man for himself" social philosophy. While some believers may say that he performed miracles only to demonstrate his power and prove his divinity, it could be argued that there'd be no point to his feeding the hungry or healing the sick if only the afterlife mattered to him. My own position on poverty and social responsibility has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, but it's important to remember that the "Christian right" doesn't speak for all Christians on social issues, and that the laissez-faire individualism endorsed by the American Christian right except on sexual matters is not the default Christian position. Cal Thomas presumes that, as a spokesman for a certain kind of Christian tradition, he knows what Jesus meant better than millions of other Christians. The fact that people can't agree on his meaning after 2,000 years probably reflects poorly on Jesus, but if some people understand him to demand a more humane and equitable society, who is anyone to correct them?

14 February 2012

Santorum on Intolerance

The new Republican front-runner, according to some polls, confronted hecklers identified with the Occupy movement in Tacoma WA yesterday. Three people were arrested, two for disrupting Santorum's speech, one for trying to glitter-bomb him. For the Pennsylvanian, this was just a small demonstration of the movement's radical intolerance. The Occupiers, not the religious right or any right, represent "true intolerance" in the former Senator's opinion. Here's why:

What they said was that anybody who disagreed with them [on the subject of same-sex marriage] were irrational and the only reason they could possibly agree [sic?] is they were a hater or a bigot. Now I gotta tell you, I don't agree with these people but I respect their opportunity to be able to have a different point of view and I don't think they're a hater or a bigot because they disagree with me.

Santorum seems to be constructing a sort of syllogism: if you're not a hater for disagreeing with me, then I can't be a hater for disagreeing with you. But I wonder whether Santorum's disagreements are as disinterested as he asserts. I do know that he represents a movement that presumes, as a general rule, that its opponents hate religion, Christianity in particular, and hate their own country, or at leas the ideas that define it. I haven't the time right at the moment, but this would be a good time for somebody to research whether, and if so how often, Santorum has accused his opponents of hate. Some might say he did it right there in Tacoma by calling them intolerant, but I wouldn't jump to that conclusion. My hunch is that there's probably more damning evidence out there, but it all depends on how you define hate. My own definition extends to attempting to sanction homophobia, even if you hide behind rationalizations "for the sake of the children." I'm sure they hate it when I say that, but we'll just have to tolerate that.

13 February 2012

Is bribery political speech?

In his latest column, arch-conservative George Will comes to the defense of a Democratic politician. The former governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, is appealing his conviction for having taken a bribe from a health-care businessman (who was also convicted). As Will explains, the businessman contributed money to the governor's campaign for a state lottery, which failed in a referendum. Siegelman then renewed the businessman's appointment to a state health board. In what was seen widely at the time as a partisan persecution instigated by the Bush Administration, prosecutors convinced a jury that the businessman's donation to the lottery referendum fund constituted a bribe, in return for which he was rewarded with the reappointment. Siegelman has been freed on appeal and wants the conviction overturned because the law in question violates due process by failing to "give due notice of proscribed behavior." At issue is what can be said legally to constitute a bribe in an era when, in Will's words, "seeking [political contributions] is not optional for a politician in America's privately-funded democracy." Since contributions themselves have been recognized as a First Amendment-protected form of political speech since the 1970s, it is argued that a contribution in itself can't be seen as a bribe. The fact that the businessman benefited by being reappointed to that board should not be considered damning, Siegelman contends, because (again in Will's words) "elected officials must undertake official acts [and] some will be pleasing or otherwise beneficial to contributors." By the loosest possible standard, any policy that can be seen as benefiting a contributor could be seen as proof of bribery. Siegelman (and Will) argue for the strictest possible standard, one that has been promulgated in a circuit court by the present Justice Sotomayor of the Supreme Court, that would require proof of an explicit quid-pro-quo arrangement, i.e. a recorded agreement by which a politician agrees to do something in return for (and implicitly only in return for) a campaign contribution. It seems very unlikely that anyone will ever be convicted of bribery should that standard prevail; politicians may often seem stupid when making speeches or "debating," but practically speaking they can't be that dumb.

The case against recognizing political contributions as speech shouldn't really be about the suspicion of bribery. It remains for historians to demonstrate whether the country's rightward turn since the 1960s resulted from a particular infusion of money into politics, and even if that can be proven the "bribery" will have taken place at a macro level at which individual politicians might not be blamed and voters could be just as guilty. Bribery is a tough charge to sell because many of us still think of it as an enticement with money  to do something you otherwise wouldn't. We're more likely to believe in bribery if we see money changing minds. Instead, money flows to candidates who already espouse the beliefs and endorse the desires of the contributors. If money has corrupted the political process, the damage is most likely done at the stage which determines whom the rest of us can vote for, and not after an election. The real case against unrestricted contributions is based on the harmful effect of wealth "occupying" the public sphere, so to speak, to the exclusion of disadvantaged voices. As for Alabama, the simple solution to Siegelman's trouble would have been to pass a law excluding campaign contributors from holding appointed offices. On the federal level, this would end the time-honored practice -- still honored by President Obama -- of rewarding big contributors with prestigious diplomatic posts, but who'd mourn the passing of that tradition? Of course, such a regulation would require complete disclosure of contributions -- something Republicans in particular wish to avoid out of an avowed fear that contributors may suffer reprisals for taking political stands. The real heart of the trouble is the admission that soliciting contributions is "not optional." That's virtually an admission that the process itself is corrupt, but a publicly-funded democracy probably isn't a reliable alternative so long as partisanship prevails. You may not agree, but we should agree on a need to discover the roots of this dependency on contributions and to get at the root of it in a literally radical way.

10 February 2012

Santorum: Mr. Excitement!

"We always talk about how are we gonna get the moderates," Rick Santorum told C-PAC today. In his view, you draw moderates with extremism. Here's how it works: "Why would an undecided voter vote for the candidate that the party's not excited about? We need conservatives to rally for a conservative, to pull with that excitement moderate voters, and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall."

Santorum's theory is that moderates respond to "excitement." This supports his premise that he is the most exciting Republican candidate. He supports the theory by citing the 2010 midterms. In his account, the GOP reclaimed the House because the Tea Party movement excited moderates. It's my impression, however, that turnout in 2010 was down dramatically from 2008, and it was the moderates, or swing voters, who stayed home. In any event, Santorum seems to misunderstand moderates. Almost by definition, a moderate isn't swayed by excitement. If anything, ideological excitement of the kind Santorum peddles is likely to "excite" swing voters into voting Democratic. Mitt Romney remains the most viable challenger to Obama because he's the Republican most likely to be perceived as "safe," rather than exciting, should swing voters prove dissatisfied with the incumbent.

At least Santorum has an awareness of a need to reach out to voters who don't necessarily think already as he does. Too many right-wingers talk as if there is a secret majority of pious entrepreneurial reactionaries out there who, like Santorum's moderates, will respond only to the "excitement" of hard-core ideology and rage against liberals. That's the reasoning that blames Senator McCain for his loss to Obama four years ago; he was insufficiently rabid to excite the secret majority who otherwise would surely have rejected the Democrat. That's also the reasoning behind the otherwise inexplicable sentiment that Romney is the weakest possible challenger to Obama. Santorum would no doubt agree with that premise, but not, apparently, because he believes in the secret majority. A Republican victory still depends on right-wing excitement in his scenario, but the excitement itself, if not the ideas that fuel it, will "pull" moderates who'll presumably conclude that pious entrepreneurial reaction is the next cool thing, like a viral video of someone riding a bike off a roof. The Republican base thus becomes the vanguard of excitement, like hucksters handing out free samples at a street fair -- though Santorum himself might concede that excitement in excess may not be a good thing. Otherwise, why not nominate Gingrich? Indeed, the argument for excitement threatens to rule out Santorum himself when you consider his appearance, his manner of speaking, and his past record of exciting voters in his home state when he enjoyed the advantage of incumbency. It may be, too, that the Pennsylvanian misunderstands his own constituents as well as moderates. They are reactionaries, after all, and most likely to be excited into anger rather than enthusiasm. On some level, I suspect that they'd rather rage at Romney or Obama; that way they can still use politicians as scapegoats for their personal failures in business. The idea that some force or simply someone else is to blame for their troubles is what excites them the most. Santorum won't get far by promising to take that away.

The 'pro-life' movement speaks -- against life

This report from C-PAC just about sums it up:

The battle between Fox News and MSNBC found its way to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, when conservative columnist and Fox News contributor Cal Thomas had this to say about MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “I think she’s the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception.”

Thomas extended his goodwill to the entire "crowd" at MSNBC -- meaning only the on-air personalities or the behind-the-cameras staff as well? Looking on the bright side, at least he appears to accept the premise of contraception.

Actually, Thomas's position is less inconsistent with his record than one might suspect. Just this morning, I was reading his latest warmongering column on Iran -- so there's another few million people for whom he wishes death if not retroactive nonexistence. Apart from the short-lived "seamless garment" movement of a generation ago which yoked opposition to abortion with opposition to the death penalty, the "pro-life" movement is little different from most radical movements. Instead of sanctifying life, it sets conditions: life on our terms, or death! And now you see that that's not just a notion of mine about them.

Of course, a Thomas apologist appeared almost immediately on the Politico comments page with the usual get-out-of-trouble card. " Mr Thomas was clearly joking and Maddcow [sick]is too sensitive to be the butt of the joke. Liberals are absolutely pathetic and hypocritical!!! I too wish her parents had used contraception!" wrote one "Luis Vasquez." Well, duh. In this case the point is indisputable; Thomas said what he said to get laughs from the C-PAC crowd. But let Mr. Vasquez imagine his response had Maddow said that Thomas, or Vasquez, should never have been born. Would that not seem like more left-wing hatred? After all, lefties have no sense of humor so she must have meant it sincerely, no? Republicans have no business criticizing anyone else's sensitivity, as they have the biggest collective persecution complex on the planet. I don't object to anyone defending any damning remark from a Republican as a joke. In fact, I'm happy to concede that most of their utterances are jokes, intentionally or not. But jokes are revealing, and for someone ostensibly dedicated to the "culture of life," what Thomas revealed wasn't pretty.

09 February 2012

Idiot of the Week: the Second Santorum Surge continues

Without claiming to be an expert on the pros and cons of hydrofracking, I feel entitled to denounce Rick Santorum's Oklahoma City rant in defense of the controversial natural-gas extraction procedure because of the prizeworthy idiotic attitude he expresses toward any questioning of it. For the returning conservative-alternative-to-Romney of the week, any doubts about hydrofracking are not merely uninformed hysteria but a conscious strategy of guilt-tripping waged by control-freak liberals. 

“[T]he left is always looking for a way to control you," Santorum said, "They’re always trying to make you feel guilty so you’ll give them power so they can lord it over you. They do it on the environment all the time.” Warnings against pollution and risks to public health are nothing less than a "reign of environmental terror," apparently motivated by nothing more than a lust to dominate. Contesting the common characterization of the GOP as the "anti-science party," the former Senator from Pennsylvania dubbed his "the truth party," contrasting it favorably to those environmental terrorists on the other side who "distort the truth in order to get you to give them authority."

Here is a Republican truth claim:

And they’re preying on the Northeast, saying, ‘Look what’s going to happen. Ooh, all this bad stuff’s going to happen, we don’t know all these chemicals and all this stuff.’ Let me tell you what’s going to happen: Nothing’s going to happen, except they will use this to raise money for the radical environmental groups so they can go out and continue to try to purvey their reign of environmental terror on the United States of America.

Never mind the assertions that something has already happened where hydrofracking was done. Rick Santorum says nothing will happen. I'm willing to entertain the argument that some environmentalists are excessive in their risk-aversion, but the argument that they have no cause for apprehension apart from a craving for power over other people is nothing but an insult. But having said that, Santorum may not have said anything wrong. He may simply have expressed himself incompletely. He may be perfectly convinced that "nothing's going to happen," as long as we understand that to mean nothing's going to happen that matters to him. If this year's elections are a choice between people who want to "control" us and people who don't give a damn about us, then at least we'll have a clearer choice than we usually have.

08 February 2012

What is 'Living in Truth?'

Paul Berman just published an interesting essay on Vaclav Havel in The New Republic, though you'll have to take my word for it since the article is available online to subscribers only. The late Czech author and politician is one of the great heroes of the Fall of the Soviet Empire and a role model for resistance to repressive regimes. Havel practiced what he called "living in truth," which meant, in Berman's terms, "simply to stop pretending to believe" in the lies that sustain a regime's legitimacy. He had an odd notion that rock music spoke a form of truth and defended it against censorship on the assumption, writes Berman, that "truth-speaking on any topic whatsoever was sooner or later going to lead to truth-speaking on political themes." I'm not sure about this -- it sounds like the so-far refuted rationalization that free markets must lead to free societies. More interesting and provocative than this was Havel's claim, as described by Berman, that "Truth-telling ... required a belief in something that seemed to you preferable to material things -- a more that was better than a car, therefore something for which you might willingly sacrifice your chance of getting a car." Havel and Berman's implication is that materialism reduces people to a sort of selfishness because it leaves them without any idea or ideal worth sacrificing for. Since Communists were reputedly the arch-materialists of history, "living in truth" in opposition to a Communist regime seemed to require affirming some transcendent value, though not necessarily a faith in God. As Berman emphasizes, "Your own personal dignity was something to consider. But you needed to be able to explain, at least to yourself, what was so great about your own dignity." This was important because dignity became more valuable than life itself, potentially at least, for any dissident against a Bolshevik regime. Havel was imprisoned frequently and sometimes denied medical care for refusing to kowtow; his "living in truth" had a price he was apparently prepared to pay, but it isn't clear from Berman's account whether Havel was conventionally religious. He sometimes spoke of inventing a new, syncretic religion as a necessity to compensate for the inescapable limitations of rationality, on an assumption that no one who claimed to be rational (i.e. Bolsheviks) really was. the idea implies that Havel thought belief in transcendence useful rather than believing in it "religiously" himself. What is it useful for? To facilitate sacrifice, apparently. Berman writes: "If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk." In Berman's account, Havel's "own continued place on earth was not his highest goal." The question for us is twofold. Can we formulate a concept of transcendence that isn't supernatural yet has the same motivating effect Havel apparently desired? Second, is materialism as hopelessly selfish and implicitly cowardly as Havel and Berman imply? From their own vantage, materialists exemplify "living in truth," but is it a truth that can set anyone free if it can't inspire people to risk their lives? I suspect that materialism here is being identified too closely with a certain complacency cultivated by "totalitarian" societies, and that materialism understood in a progressive context still has considerable motivational potential. After all, the one thing obviously greater than the individual man is humanity itself, while a commitment to the greatest good for the greatest number could oblige conscientious people to both risk and sacrifice for the proper cause. If you take Lenin and his awful legacy out of the equation, the real question may be whether Havel had any real cause for disagreement with materialists at all.

The Second Santorum Surge

Rick Santorum's three victories over Mitt Romney last night may be mostly symbolic, but symbolism by definition has significance. What does Santorum's sweep signify? If anything, it may be the ultimate defeat of Newt Gingrich, but Gingrich doesn't agree with this reading. It's clear enough that Santorum, not Gingrich (nor Paul) was the anyone-but-Romney candidate in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, but that still won't necessarily be true elsewhere. Although Gingrich hopes for and predicts victory in Ohio, his appeal may be geographically limited to those Old South territories (not counting more cosmopolitan Florida) where his manner is least obnoxious and Santorum may be most suspect for being a yankee. On the other hand, Santorum may have convinced voters in the three states -- with an alleged boost from Rush Limbaugh -- that he is the truest or most consistent conservative, or at least the one with the least "baggage" of questionable votes. Romney disputes the last point. His strategy remains to portray both Santorum and Gingrich as compromised "insiders" by virtue of their time in Congress. In politics, who is "inside" and who is "outside" depends on the eye of the beholder. Romney can claim to be an outsider relative to Congress, though by most standards based on ordinary life he is an ultimate insider. Gingrich can claim outsider status despite his Speakership on the ground, regularly verified by his enemies, that he didn't get along with most of the insiders. Santorum doesn't seem as interested in playing the insider-outsider game -- or at least he's less interested in portraying himself as an outsider than in debunking Romney's claim to that status. He seems the least apologetic about his time in government and the least likely, apart from Paul, to play a populist card. Those are small virtues in the larger scheme of things, but some Republicans may appreciate a candidate who doesn't, at least on one point, insult their intelligence. Still, Santorum's stop-Romney campaign is hopeless so long as Gingrich remains in the race, and the former Speaker has shown no sign yet of deference either to the social-conservative elders who endorsed Santorum last month or to the GOP voters who've rejected Newt in all but one state so far. The social-conservative Tea Party movement, supposedly based on timeless principles, seems likely to fall apart over questions of personal style, while their rage against Romney still seems likely only to help the Man From Bain in the general election. It may be costly to continue fighting these primary and caucus battles, but so long as Romney believes that neither man can knock him out, he may find it in his long-term interest to prop them up and keep them swinging rather than floor them right away. The longer he can delay the day when he is portrayed as the right-wing extremist in the presidential race, the better for him. For that reason at least, I doubt that Romney's sweating today.