30 April 2012

The secret origin of political polarization

On the strength of James Kalb's review in the May American Conservative, Jeffrey Bell's book The Case for Polarized Politics delivers less than it promises. Bell appears less interested in vindicating the two-party system, a prerequisite for polarized politics, than in explaining Why America Needs Social Conservatism, which we must infer to be the essential ingredient for polarization. It seems likely that Bell simply accepts polarization as the consequence of that social conservatism he deems vital, or that where social conservatism flourishes, polarization is inevitable. According to Kalb, Bell regards social conservatism as an aspect of American exceptionalism. The author contends that no other country has the sort of social conservatism the U.S. enjoys -- or endures. Bell blames this on history. Because the American Revolutionaries had an easier time of it -- they didn't have as long a struggle with "blood elites and religious authorities," -- they embraced what Bell calls the "conservative Enlightenment" while the rest of the West adopted a "left Enlightenment." I'll let Kalb explain the difference.

Like all political expressions of the Enlightenment, [the conservative Enlightenment] emphasized equality; unlike the left Enlightenment that has won in most of the West, it based itself on God and natural law. That feature made it conservative in some ways but radical in others. It limited the demands of equality by tying them to traditional religious and moral conceptions, but also made them far more specific and peremptory. Since it viewed rights as readily knowable and established by God, it saw them as immediately applicable to daily life and not subject to political review.

The opposing movement, the left Enlightenment, believed that equality and other rights arise out of human progress rather than divine law....Emancipation, therefore, means progressive overpowering of social authorities....for the left Enlightenment the lack of self-evident answers rooted in the nature of things makes decisive leadership and an elite vanguard necessary.

The key to Bell's history is the assumption that whatever religious establishment America had circa 1776 did not oppose the Revolution and thus didn't drive enlightened radicals in an anticlerical direction. On a related note, the lack of a powerful Loyalist establishment (in retrospect) meant that enlightened Americans never had to turn toward conspiratorial vanguardism -- though the Revolution of 1776 and the Founding of 1787 could just as well be seen as vanguards at work. Bell's most questionable premise is that the "conservative Enlightenment's" reliance on God and natural law made it more pluralistic, innovative and "trusting [of] ordinary people," while the left Enlightenment encouraged a "paternalistic [system of] command and control" based on the special, exclusive wisdom of vanguards. In this reading, the left Enlightenment becomes a kind of gnosticism while the conservative Enlightenment, grounded in the easily availability of divine revelation, becomes a kind of priesthood of all believers.

Kalb isn't quite as enthusiastic about the conservative Enlightenment as Bell. Kalb raises the objection that tribalism, implicitly present in America as elsewhere, "destroys social trust and makes the conservative Enlightenment unworkable." While Kalb wants to blame this on immigration, you could just as easily blame nativism for the flaw. In general, Kalb doesn't seem as keen on pluralism, individualism or egalitarianism as Bell. Here's Kalb's critique of American conservative weakness:

Social conservatism seems unable to develop stable, articulate, and effective elites and even undercuts them through the insistent concrete egalitarianism Bell praises. Without such elites, however, it suffers from the populist inability to maintain stable and articulate principles or effective tactics and strategy.

In other words, Kalb isn't as keen on anti-vanguardism as Bell is, either. We tend to think of vanguards as characteristic of radicalism, but Kalb reminds us that conservative regimes may depend on vanguards -- and probably have through history -- as well. In addition, Kalb isn't as confident as Bell about the accessibility of conservative Enlightenment. Kalb observes that while American religious leaders may not have stood in the way of  conservative Enlightenment, "major religious thinkers have generally not been adherents" of it, either. Less optimistically, Kalb argues that "it is hard to explain from general principles why conservative Enlightenment positions are correct or why they imply socially desirable results." He blames this on the current absence of "an intellectually satisfying understanding of God and natural law that yields liberty, equality, and the pursuit of self-defined happiness as the central principles of politics, and also yields conservative results on social issues." Kalb closes his review with the claim that "some basic change is needed in the understandings on which our politics are based that gives us more substantial goods to aim at." He might take his own advice by considering the other sort of "social" relations: those between wealth brackets and inside the workplace. It seems absurd for Bell or Kalb to argue about the evolution of leftism or conservatism without taking into account the demands made by the industrial working classes or their (often self-appointed) spokesmen. It seems self-evidently fallacious to argue that "social conservatism" in the sense shared by author and critic -- we don't expect "social conservatives" to talk about labor issues nowadays -- is the force that determines political polarization in the U.S., whether you find that a good thing or not. Bell and Kalb seem to belong to the Ivory Tower Enlightenment; they take abstract ideas -- not to mention divine revelations -- too seriously for their own good.

26 April 2012

Idiot of the week candidate: Will Cain on the politics of climate change

Will Cain is a Texas attorney, sometime digital media entrepreneur and "contributor" to CNN. In that last capacity, his job seems to be to represent the Republican party line in crossfire-type exchanges with "contributors" who represent the Democratic line. I'd never seen or heard of him before today, when I saw such an exchange with Democratic contributor Roland Martin. The immediate subject was an interview the President gave in which he said that it had been hard to focus on climate change because people were mainly concerned with jobs, but that he hoped to refocus on the subject in a second term. As you will see, Martin elaborated on this point, arguing that "jobs" was conversation-killing "kryptonite" whenever climate change was the subject. Cain, who remains skeptical about man's role in climate change, thought that Martin had revealed a weakness of the side demanding action to limit or reverse climate change. Following up on that thought, he actually confirmed what Martin really meant. Martin's own YouTube channel uploaded the clip right away. I wonder if Cain is as eager to publicize the conversation. Watch and judge for yourselves.

24 April 2012

Demographics aren't destiny: Mia Love and the irrelevance of personal perspective

The Republican party may have found a future star in the form of Mia Love, a nominee for a congressional seat from Utah held by a reportedly vulnerable Democrat. If elected, Love will become the first female black Republican ever to serve in the House of Representatives. She is a second-generation American, her parents being Hatian immigrants. Like many Utah residents, she is a Mormon, though I don't know whether that's by birth or conversion. What Republicans are sure to like about Love is that, despite her background as a black woman descended from immigrants from a poor Third World country, she appears to be a perfectly conventional Republican conservative. Her issues page on her campaign website hints at no individuality or idiosyncrasy whatsoever; it consists entirely of talk-radio friendly sound bites. Presenting herself to the public, Love explains her perhaps unexpected political stance by citing her parents' work ethic. Haitian-Americans are almost stereotypical hard workers, if you can judge from the evidence of the old In Living Color TV show, despite coming from what Love's site calls a "socialist" country. Love's parents seem quite old-school in their abhorrence of dependence. She recalls them warning her not to become a "burden on society" while reminding her that they took no handouts and received no assistance while putting her through college. As a result, and presumably after refusing to examine any of the implicit premises critically with that college-educated mind, she espouses the personal-responsibility line -- which I'd have no problem with if those who espoused it didn't so often presume that a limited-government ideology follows from it. Love's case is worth noting because it refutes any notion anyone might have about demographics determining political identity. It's a good thing, really, that you can't predict a person's ideology on the basis of their birthplace and background. Looking at it another way, however, Love proves that no one is immune from the appeal of reactionary entrepreneurial Republicanism. In her case, her parents may well have instilled in her not just a work ethic -- though she seems to have shaken off some of the teaching by becoming a career politician -- but a contempt for those who can't hack it the way they did, those for whom dependence, implicitly, is a fate worse than death. In a culture of life, however, living itself should not be shameful, and people shouldn't be ashamed of wanting to live. You may disagree with some of these premises, but I'm just saying that one party in the U.S. claims to represent the culture of life despite ample evidence to the contrary, prominently including partisans' unchristian contempt for dependence. If they really did represent a culture of life they wouldn't begrudge everyone's survival as much as they seem to and they wouldn't show such hostility to a politics with human survival as its highest priority. They can try to argue that welfare states are unsustainable and that competition without a "hammock" is still everyone's best chance -- and they may well get more people to listen by having someone like Mia Love make the argument. I only ask, as I've asked before, that they stop insulting our intelligence by calling theirs the case for the culture of life -- and Love is unlikely to change my mind.

22 April 2012


I'm not sure if Francis Fukuyama or Thomas Friedman coined the word, but "vetocracy" is the word Friedman uses in his latest New York Times column to describe what Fukuyama fears that the U.S. has become. Vetocracy might be described as the decadence of a constitutional system based on checks and balances. In Friedman's words, it's what happens when democracy devolves "from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all." It results from what Fukuyama calls "a crisis of authority" in which citizens forget “that government was also created to act and make decisions.”   Friedman contends that there's been less incentive for interparty compromise since the end of the Cold War, while the information age makes old-school behind-the-scenes compromises nearly impossible. He closes with the usual recommendations; unlikely surrenders of senatorial prerogatives and more delegation of power to technocrats. He warns scoffers: 'I know what you’re thinking: “That will never happen.” And do you know what I’m thinking? “Then we will never be a great country again, no matter who is elected.”'

There's always been a tendency toward vetocracy in American politics. The Articles of Confederation allowed any one state to veto amendments to it, a handicap that obliged the Framers to do an end-run by getting states to ratify an alternate Constitution. Nearly from the beginning, the concept of concurrent majorities encouraged the belief that geographic interests, for starters, should be able to check government when its action seemed to benefit one interest at another's expense. The great expounder of the concurrent-majority idea, John C. Calhoun, actually looked favorably upon the constitution of the Kingdom of Poland, with its infamous liberum veto, despite Poland's helplessness in the face of dismemberment. Pop culture made the filibuster that Friedman and Fukuyama deplore into a heroic gesture by giving Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith a noble reason for using it. Many Americans today might dispute Fukuyama's commensensical-seeming statement that "government was created to act and make decisions," while believing what Friedman describes as "the fantasy that America’s economic success derives from having had a government that stayed out of the way." Even liberals and progressives may accept the premise of Jefferson's apocryphal saying, "that government is best which governs least," disagreeing with conservatives only on what constitutes minimal government. Much of this derives from our particular revolutionary heritage. The U.S. differs from the major revolutions of subsequent history because our revolutionaries really didn't want to take over everything and rebuild society from the ground up. While it's common, for that very reason, for historians to question whether ours was a real revolution, it could be argued that America's is the truly permanent revolution to the extent that our system is designed to prevent that consolidation of power dreaded by the Founders. It's not unreasonable to assert that throughout our history, many Americans have never conceded any common purpose that could justify greater government power except defense of the homeland. The one thing Fukuyama and Friedman are probably right about is that Americans are more suspicious of each other, and hence of democratic government, than ever -- less willing to recognize common interests than to see interest groups conspiring against each other and the "political class" or "1%" conspiring against all. The most obvious reason for any political entity to exist -- because everyone must live -- is not conceded by everyone. Before we reform our political system to make government run more smoothly, perhaps we should return to fundamentals, starting with a national discussion of why we are or should remain a nation in the first place. Vetocratic notions ought to be incompatible with true national feeling, but that should be up to the American people to decide.

20 April 2012

'The best that can be elected'

Gary Younge's column in the latest Nation tries to hold a middle ground between a disgruntled left and die-hard Obama acolytes who can't stand criticism of the first black President. He credits Obama when credit is due but calls the President's record "clearly a mixed bag" from a progressive perspective. "The man is not a radical, He never was," Younge writes, "Nor did he say he was." The Presidency itself, he contends, "is no vehicle for radical reform. While advising progressives to "make no excuses for him," Younge closes on an all-too-typical note of resignation. Obama was "the best that could be elected the last time. And this time. And that's the problem."

I'm glad that Younge concedes that this is a problem, but whose fault is it? Part of the answer depends on the pool from which Younge selects whom he'll vote for. If he means only that Obama was the best of the two major-party candidates of 2008, then he's right and wrong at the same time: right about the choice between Obama and McCain, wrong in the assumption that there were no other options -- wrong even if he meant "the best that could be elected" in a purely realistic sense. Another part of the answer can be found elsewhere in the same magazine. A few pages ahead of Younge in the print edition, Ari Berman sounds the quadrennial alarm about the Supreme Court. In Berman's representative opinion, you could be even less sanguine about Obama than Younge, yet you would have to vote for him to prevent Romney from appointing more right-wing justices to the high court, or to make possible the appointment of more progressive justices. By voting for President, you're implicitly voting for any number of future justices, none of whom were meant to be elected -- a situation that could only arise in an environment of irreconcilable ideological conflict that the Framers failed to anticipate. The same calculation presumably dictates our votes for U.S. Senate; ideologues want someone who'll confirm the right people and reject the wrong people, even though the logic of constitutional law would seem to suggest that only the justices themselves, or the pool of specialists from whom justices are recruited, can say certainly who is right and who is wrong. In effect, only party-line voting can guarantee the "correct" result; only a President and Senate of the same party can secure that degree of control over the Court that ideologues want but the Constitution supposedly denies them. In short, it's the usual reasoning that only the Democrats stand between us and Republican devastation -- or vice versa. It would seem that no one really believes in the separation of powers any more -- and under such circumstances, only the parties really have power. The need to control the Court that apparently compels people to vote for one party or another is glaring proof of the decadence of our political system. Ideologically driven partisanship is the real problem, one for which Younge offers no solution and his Nation colleagues only exacerbate. We shouldn't be asking "who started it?" but striving to figure out a solution. Shrugging one's shoulders and settling for Obama as "the best that could be elected" seems increasingly like a dereliction of duty.

19 April 2012

Rule us, o Billionaire!

The Founders believed in man's potential for disinterested benevolence -- the ability to act or deliberate in the community's best interest without any consideration or expectation of personal gain. For the most part, they also assumed that only the "gentleman," -- the financially secure individual who had retired from everyday business -- was capable of disinterested benevolence. The poor, they presumed, would use political power to take wealth from the wealthy, while the active businessman would try to manipulate laws to enrich himself or immunize himself from fair competition. Never mind that disinterested benevolence was transparently a matter of self-styled gentlemen protecting their position and prestige from the mob and the ambitious capitalist alike -- the belief persists today. In the 21st century the ideal of disinterested benevolence is the billionaire who calls for higher taxes. The idols of disinterested benevolence are the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates -- and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire "independent" mayor of New York City.

In his latest New York Times column, "radical centrist" Thomas L. Friedman once more begs Bloomberg to condescend to run for President of the United States. Although Friedman concedes that it would be practically impossible for Bloomberg to win after entering at such a late point, he believes that the mogul could do the country good if he chose to "give the two-party system the shock it needs."  As readers of this blog and Friedman's columns will recall, he believes a "radical center" third party necessary because neither of the two major parties is committed to the entirety of the "grand bargain" Friedman deems necessary to "weatherproof" the country. The grand bargain, in short, consists of austerity plus tax increases. You can see why it appeals to neither Democrats nor Republicans. If austerity, why tax hikes? If tax hikes, why austerity? Friedman's answer is that we need "hard choices, smart investments and shared sacrifices." Besides raising more revenue to meet deficits or pay debts, the country needs to invest in education and infrastructure while retrenching on entitlements. The government must raise more money than Republicans want and spend it differently from how Democrats want it spent. But at least Friedman doesn't kid himself on the current constituency for such a policy. His best-case scenario for Bloomberg is 20% of the popular vote -- right around Ross Perot's total in 1992. But why does he think Bloomberg is the best person to make the case for radical centrism?

I still believe that the national debate would benefit from the entrance of a substantial independent candidate — like the straight-talking, socially moderate and fiscally conservative Bloomberg — who could challenge, and maybe even improve, both major-party presidential candidates by speaking honestly about what is needed to restore the foundations of America’s global leadership before we implode...

 Bloomberg doesn’t have to win to succeed — or even stay in the race to the very end. Simply by running, participating in the debates and doing respectably in the polls — 15 to 20 percent — he could change the dynamic of the election and, most importantly, the course of the next administration, no matter who heads it. By running on important issues and offering sensible programs for addressing them — and showing that he had the support of the growing number of Americans who describe themselves as independents — he would compel the two candidates to gravitate toward some of his positions as Election Day neared. And, by taking part in the televised debates, he could impose a dose of reality on the election that would otherwise be missing. Congress would have to take note. 

Friedman is old-fashioned not just in his belief in disinterested benevolence -- people like Bloomberg and pundits like himself are routinely accused of lust for power these days --  but in his quaint faith in Americans' shared capacity to be swayed by reasoned arguments. You have to believe in a silent majority of radical centrists or principled moderates not to assume that most voters are already immovably convinced by the propaganda of one major party or the other. Friedman isn't exactly a voice in the wilderness -- his books are best-sellers -- but have his efforts changed anything? Why should Bloomberg do better? He presumes, or at least hopes, that the mayor is capable of "offering an inspired vision of American renewal that might motivate such sacrifice" on the part of rich and poor alike. But running for office and winning in New York City is no proof that Bloomberg, a moderate Republican turned independent, can best a dogmatic conservative in debate or persuade a viewer to rethink conservative dogma, while as a billionaire, however philanthropic, he embodies the "1%" who already rule and ruin the country in the minds of many liberals and progressives.  If many in the Republican party consider Mitt Romney too "elite" for them, why should they listen to the apostate Bloomberg, who could probably buy Romney, on any subject? I can't help but think that, no matter how congenial Friedman himself finds Bloomberg's notions, he expects others to be impressed by his wealth and the implicit disinterested benevolence of his policies. Americans are no respecters of class in this ideological age, however. Friedman wants to convince Bloomberg of a patriotic duty to run for President. The real question may be why Friedman doesn't run himself?

18 April 2012

The right to keep and sell arms

Jill Lepore's New Yorker essay, "Battleground America," an update with historical perspective on the politics of gun rights, drops some telling clues that appear to add up to an explanation of what, or who, fuels the current debate. Lepore reminds us that the National Rifle Association supported gun-control laws fairly consistently through the 1960s. Today, she notes, 69% of NRA members support mandatory background checks for people who purchase firearms at gun shows. That's less than the 85% of non-NRA gun owners, but still a decisive majority. Nevertheless, Lepore writes that "the modern gun debate began" with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the attention paid to the ease with which Lee Harvey Oswald bought the murder weapon through a magazine ad.  NRA leaders supported subsequent legislation restricting mail-order rifle sales, but things have gone downhill from there. It becomes clear as you read the whole article that the problem with gun control isn't so much the individual gun owner as it is the gun seller, particularly the under-regulated gun-show vendor. Forty percent of guns purchased in the U.S., Lepore writes, are purchased from gun-show vendors or "private exchanges" like classified ads in ways exempt from the regulations applied to retail gun stores. There are more guns in the country than ever, she reports, but the percentage of Americans who own guns is actually shrinking. More guns are concentrating in fewer hands. Are those people militants preparing for an uprising? Are they collectors? It's more likely that they're people who trade in guns in some way or another -- though the militants may expect to make their livings that way, too. While the NRA itself may be driven increasingly by ideology, that ideology itself is quite likely grounded in members' self-interest in gun commerce. Their main interest isn't in liberty or bloodlust, but in making a buck rather than shooting one. When they protest that when guns are illegal only criminals will have guns, what really bugs them is that they might be missing out on that trade. Keep that thought in mind. Don't listen to the high-flown rhetoric of self-defense, whether against criminals or tyrants. Don't stigmatize all gun owners as "gun nuts," either. Focus on the people who want to make money by making amoklaufs more likely. Are they the NRA? Maybe not exactly. Are they the enemy? Maybe more likely.

Plan Colombia: will the Secret Service scandal spread?

Objectively speaking, everyone should be in agreement on the need for a thorough investigation of the Secret Service antics in Colombia during the recent regional summit. Any dealings with prostitutes by the people charged with protecting the President have the potential to compromise his or national security. Republicans have no less reason than Democrats to demand an investigation, though I see no special reason for the news media to make news of comments from Mitt Romney -- whose position is influenced by the fact that he now enjoys Secret Service protection as well. Yet while I want the matter investigated as much as anyone does, I can't help suspecting the motives of some people in the Republican party and the news media. I can't help believing that people in both groups are waiting, if not hoping, for another shoe to drop. While the scandal seems to boil down to the agents themselves having a wild party, it's easy in our conspiratorial age, and given how power worked in the past, to imagine that not all the hookers involved were intended for the agents' pleasure, if you get my drift. Wouldn't it be somebody's dream come true if the prostitutes could be linked directly to the President? It may be terribly unlikely, but we live in an age when irrational hopes are encouraged. At the least, I'm sure that Republicans will find a way to blame the President for the lax morals or lax discipline the agents apparently displayed. If some are hoping for more, it's fair to say that Democrats would feel the same way had this happened during a Republican administration. Probably no one will admit to hoping that this scandal will grow, but everyone remembers the fate of Gov. Spitzer in New York -- a rising star seemingly destined to run for President whose political career was ruined by his dalliances with prostitutes. I prove my own cynicism by bringing this up, I suppose, but I'd rather be a cynic than a prophet in this case.

17 April 2012

Anders Breivik: Evil or Idiot?

On trial for murdering 77 people in a terrorist rampage last year, the self-described Norwegian "Knight Templar" Anders Breivik has admitted the killings but refuses guilt for them. In a manifesto read as an opening statement today, Breivik insisted that he had acted from good, not evil motives, above all the desire to preserve Norwegian or European culture from the menace of Muslims and multiculturalism. He established his eligibility for the idiot competition by equating the multiculturalist Norwegian Labor Party, whose youth camp he massacred, with the Hitler Youth. He may have meant to underscore supposedly similar practices of youth "indoctrination," but to equate anything multicultural with anything Nazi is supremely stupid. However, I'm reluctant to dub a mass murderer as the Idiot of the Week, no matter how stupid he is, since his problem seems to go beyond idiocy. His reported disclaimer, as translated and paraphrased in the English-language media, raises the old question of the nature of evil. Some people have argued that, to qualify as truly evil, you have to know that your actions are wrong, immoral, "evil," and do them anyway in a conscious spirit of transgression or spite. Evil, on this view, is all about intentions, not so much about consequences. Breivik apparently believes himself to be on the side of good, as do most people who commit atrocities. It's that belief, in most cases, that entitles people to go beyond the usual moral constraints, a noble end justifying awful means. A culture that condemns murder but condones war often finds itself splitting hairs when trying to label something Evil, while a truly moral culture might be expected to ignore ends when considering whether means are wrong. Whether Breivik is evil or not is not under consideration in the Norwegian court. Whether it's useful to label his crimes and his beliefs as Evil is subject to debate. I've dismissed the word in the past, believing it, when employed by certain American politicians, no more than an excuse for refusing to negotiate with obnoxious or otherwise difficult antagonists. But if you believe that there are some beliefs or interests in the world with which it is impossible or improper to negotiate, and you have respectable reasons for thinking so, "evil" might make your point pretty well.

Taxes and Freedom

At Independence Hall yesterday, in an effort to woo Tea Partiers, Mitt Romney said, "Taxes by their very definition limit our freedom" On one level, this is obviously true, since a tax is a compulsory contribution for public purposes. You could just as easily say that government, by its definition, limits our freedom -- and many people do say that. Does that end the discussion? It depends on whether you equate the state of nature with freedom. In one sense, you can do that, on the assumption that, in nature, you are not constrained by anyone else's will. At the same time, and in another sense, your freedom in nature is constrained by the resources available to you, and by the constant imperative of simple survival. You can still call that freedom if by freedom you mean, as many seem to, that no one can stop you from doing what you have to do or make you do the wrong thing. Since Marx, at least, the "left" has drawn a distinction between the "realm of necessity" and the "realm of freedom," implying that if you have no choice but to do certain things in order to survive, you aren't really free. Others disagree with this premise, but they may accept another: that you are more free to do the things you really want to do if it's easier for you to survive -- if you have an infrastructure to facilitate making a living and a rule of law that relieves you of responsibility for your own security. If you concede that premise then you might admit that as government expands, at least to a point, so does your freedom. And since no effective government can run without taxes -- and the distinction between taxes and the fees for services of libertarian dreams is mere sophistry if the fees are charged for public purposes -- it must be conceded that taxes, too, at least to a point, can increase our freedom. Even Romney accepts a minimal level of taxation "to do things that are absolutely vital."  Would he say that those "absolutely vital" imperatives still "limit our freedom?" If so, the question becomes how vital freedom itself -- understood here as economic freedom -- is compared to those other imperatives. Meanwhile, the question of what actually may be deemed "vital" for civilization, absolutely or otherwise, is the constant stuff of politics....and so the debate continues....

16 April 2012

Has Obama made race relations worse?

From the moment Barack Obama was elected President in 2008 intelligent observers should have guessed that any harmonizing effect his election would have on race relations would only emerge over the long term. Despite the surprise affected by two Newsweek reporters over the findings from their poll, which show that most Americans feel that race relations have gotten worse since Obama took office, it was inevitable, given the ideological polarization of the country and the partisan solidarity of most black Americans, that racial tensions would grow in some way or another during his term. It was inevitable not only because the Republican party carries the legacy of the 1960s "Southern Strategy"but because blacks are more likely to reduce all criticism of Obama from the opposing party to racist backlash. Some go so far as to attribute all liberal or progressive criticism of Obama to racism as well, at least one black apologist complaining that white leftists aren't holding him to the same standard they judged Bill Clinton by. Prejudices aside, Newsweek acknowledges persisting differences in experience that result in differences in attitude. Perhaps the most relevant difference is the finding that "Blacks are four times more likely than whites to say they have been unfairly stopped by police." In essence, the "racial divide" may simply separate the profiled from the (supposedly) unprofiled. And that's where the late Trayvon Martin and his alleged murderer, George Zimmerman, come in.

One instance in which Newsweek finds that Obama himself, rather than the fact of his election, has exacerbated the race divide is his intervention in the Martin case. The reporters claim that public opinion was universally on Martin's side, with Republicans condemning the shooting across the board, until the President made his infamous utterance, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." At that point, the reporters write, "conservatives pulled a 180" and whites in general (Newsweek doesn't break down white responses along party lines) expressed disapproval of the President. Why should this be? The authors write off the Republican aspect of it to knee-jerk partisanship, but that doesn't account for all of it. It's not as if whites didn't know that Martin was black before Obama spoke -- but it is as if they were willing to sympathize with him and condemn Zimmerman as long as they could see the incident in terms of an idiot with an itchy trigger finger, but grew less willing once anyone suggested that race had anything to do with Zimmerman's alleged conduct. It's also as if whites can't concede that some of their number (not necessarily including Zimmerman) still hate blacks without feeling profiled in their own particular way. Whites resent the charge of racism nearly as much as blacks resent actual racism. Unfortunately, this is a vicious circle, since the assumption that a black person will automatically resort to the "race card" to defend himself against objective criticism is itself sort of racist, and we shouldn't be surprised if blacks see it that way -- while whites could just as well assume that an assumption of racism on their part by blacks is itself bigoted. Obama may well have made things worse if you presume that the occupant of the White House should have no race -- that Obama should no more speak as a black man while President than John F. Kennedy, for instance, should have spoken as a Catholic, or Mitt Romney, should he get the chance, as a Mormon. But your skin color shouldn't determine whether you can speak against racism, no matter what institutional identity you assume. The most one can say in the Martin case is that public figures should avoid statements that might prejudice jurors for or against Zimmerman, on the assumption that any mention of Martin's race as a cause of his death automatically implicates Zimmerman as a hate-criminal. But by that standard no one should speak about it, and while I could see why this shouldn't necessarily be a national news story, I can also understand why it is. Martin's death itself doesn't prove Newsweek's point, but everything afterward seems to. Realistically, one can't expect a dead halt to racial animosity and racially-charged polemics. But a day has to come when a black person's Americanism is not questioned, and he doesn't blame Whitey in some way when things go wrong in his life. Why can't he just blame the rich like everyone else?...

13 April 2012

Double standard? Freedom of rumor in free and unfree societies

The Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, a moderate Republican by today's standards, is outraged over the minor tempest generated when a blogger posted what apparently proved to be an unsubstantiated rumor about Gov. Haley of South Carolina, a Republican woman of Sikh descent, facing an indictment for tax fraud.

Some twit apparently thought it would be fun to start a rumor and see what happened next. We all know what happens: Indictments spread like wildfire; corrections couldn't roast a marshmallow. The damage took only a couple of hours. And Haley, a rising star in the Republican Party and a possible vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, is all too aware of the potential cost to her reputation. She's been through this before. While she was running in the Republican primary for governor, two men stepped forward to claim sexual dalliances with the married mother of two.

Meanwhile, what Haley experienced as a target of the rumor mill should be of more general concern to everyone... What is abominably clear is that this sort of thing can happen to anyone at any time. And much worse things can be said that can't easily be disproved. 

We used to recognize rumors for what they are, but in the era of insta-everything, rumors get to enjoy enough time in the sunlight to make an imprint on the community psyche. Most disappointing during this particular cycle was the failure of legitimate news organizations to turn the rumor over and examine its underbelly before repeating it. What happened to a minimum of two corroborating sources before a story is posted?

I don't reproduce this to take it apart, because I don't really disagree with Parker's points. Nor will I accuse her of a double standard, because I don't know whether she's expressed an opinion on the story that came to my mind as soon as I read about Gov. Haley's trouble. I was reminded of Bo Xilai, the reputedly reactionary Communist Party boss of Chongqing, China, who has been purged amid rumors about his wife's involvement in the killing of a British businessman. Bo's story has been of interest to China-watchers in the U.S. news media mostly because of its repercussions for social media. Rumors have been flying online ever since Bo was sacked, but the Chinese government has been doing everything in its power, reportedly, to stamp them out. The implicit import of most American reports is that these attempts to suppress rumor-mongering are par for the Chinese course, part and parcel of the regime's systematic suppression of free political speech.

Again, the problem isn't with Kathleen Parker, since she didn't advocate a legal crackdown on the South Carolina rumor-monger. My point is that, with the names changed, her comments about the consequences for Gov. Haley of irresponsible rumor-mongering could probably be adapted by the Chinese Communists as an explanation for their efforts to censor rumor-mongering about Bo Xilai. Yet I'm sure most of Parker's readers wouldn't accept such an adaptation as justification for censorship. In the American case, like Parker, they would most likely emphasize the personal responsibility of news and social media players to check their facts and seek corroboration. But would they place any such burden of responsibility on Chinese bloggers and rumor-mongers? The temptation for Americans is always to see such people as truth-seekers or freedom fighters of some sort, on the assumption that the Communist regime, as a kind of dictatorship, is always wrong vis-a-vis freedom of speech. Were a Chinese state-media commentator to use the same language toward her native rumor-mongers that Parker used toward the South Carolina blogger -- she charged the "twit" with seeking the "idiot's delight" of buzz for "whatever little virtual temple he had erected for himself" -- most Americans who bothered to care would probably be outraged at the state's abusive language toward a citizen. Whether there could be a role for the state to play in halting the spread of slanderous rumors would not be considered unless Gov. Haley chose to sue the blogger. But an objective observer might conclude that both the Haley and the Bo case raise questions about the rights and responsibilities of social media, and the regulatory obligations of institutions and governments, that shouldn't be dismissed automatically on ideological grounds. Sometimes double standards are simply a matter of seeing similar phenomena as essentially different based on prejudices. Seeking similarities may be harder work, but doing so may steer us toward an objective viewpoint from which to seek the best interest of individuals and communities alike.

11 April 2012

Should government be 'the ally of business?' A conservative says no

Despite his knee-jerk opposition to regulations and taxes, Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg has had some interesting things to say on the subject of crony capitalism since the financial panic of 2008. It was from him that I first learned the proverb, "the problem with socialism is socialism; the problem with capitalism is capitalists." Goldberg still thinks capitalism the best possible economic system but recognizes its potential for abuse by capitalists through the political system while predictably decrying the abuse of capitalists by politicians. He was probably unusual among Republicans this month when he took alarm at Mitt Romney's claim that the government had to become "an ally of business" rather than its "opposition." To most Republicans, I assume, that statement is unproblematic. Goldberg considers it one of the biggest gaffes to date of Romney's campaign. He thinks it might provoke another populist backlash if it's assumed, as Goldberg himself seems to assume, that Romney means that government should be an ally of "Big Business," Wall Street, etc. He also thinks that President Obama could plausibly claim to be a better "ally of business" in the worst sense of the term. Goldberg would prefer Romney to be pro-"free market" rather than "pro-business." What's the difference?

When government takes it upon itself to be the ally of business, certain biases often take over. For instance, existing industries have a huge advantage over ones that haven't been created yet. A more obvious bias is toward big companies over small ones. Big companies create constituencies and can afford lobbyists to make their case. Moreover, big business becomes a tempting vehicle for other policies like, say, providing health care. And why not: When government is scratching business' back, why shouldn't business return the favor?

A conscious alliance of government and business inevitably results in cronyism and obstacles to innovative competition, Goldberg believes. Rather than playing the ally or opponent of business, government should take a hands-off approach; its only interest in markets, Goldberg claims, is "to keep [them] free and fair." As a free-market idealist, he presumes that government can best play that role by exerting the least power and influence over markets. The libertarian remedy for crony capitalism is to deny capitalists the political leverage they would likely abuse by denying government leverage over the economy. Without government tipping scales by "playing favorites," the market will operate as idealist economists always expected. As I've written before, this would still require considerable vigilance on the part of citizens to keep business from expanding government for its own benefit, but government itself, to the extent that it's a creature of the people rather than the economy, has priorities that arguably take priority over any alliance with "business" defined as a clique of cronies or with the "free market" itself.

Goldberg isn't saying that Romney endorsed crony capitalism outright. He remains convinced that the Man From Bain is more faithful to free markets than Obama, and even applauds Romney's record of "creative destruction" at Bain. But Romney's problem all along, even as he goes from victory to victory in the primaries, has been that people have a hard time figuring out what side he's really on. Goldberg continues to grope toward an understanding that such ambiguity is inherent in capitalist politics, while such ambivalence toward a candidate like Romney is inevitable. Goldberg wants government to be neither "ally" nor "opponent" of business -- but shouldn't that really be up to business? Business interests change, but government's concerns are constant. Which should accommodate itself to the other is one of the fundamental questions of politics -- and "pass" is not an answer.

10 April 2012

Gingrich's Last Chance

With Rick Santorum suspending his campaign, apparently determining that the futility of it was not worth the time away from his daughter's bedside, Newt Gingrich at last has his shot as the sole alternative to Mitt Romney for warmongering Republicans. For those hard chargers who find Ron Paul's non-interventionism unpalatable or unmanly and aren't yet resigned to holding their noses for Romney, Gingrich is now their only hope unless they want to leave the Republican Party. We will see now whether a certain spirit of resignation that would seem characteristic of true conservatism will set in among the Republican base, or whether there is an element of the base so irreconcilable that they will fight Romney to the last and possibly beyond. From another perspective, we should see now how much some Republicans hate Romney compared to their hate for President Obama. The depth and breadth of their hatred will determine whether there will be another Gingrich surge, whether it's too late or not.

Thoughtcrime in Major League Baseball

A Major League baseball manager with a world championship to his credit has been suspended without pay for something he said in a magazine interview. Did he insult women? Did he insult homosexuals? Did he advocate beaning opposing batters? None of the above. Instead, Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen put his job in jeopardy by saying, "I love Fidel Castro....I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have tried to kill Fidel Castro for 60 years, but that motherfucker is still here." It's a self-styled tough guy respecting another supposed tough guy. The problem is that Miami is thick with Cuban exiles and their descendants. The Marlins' stadium is located in "Little Havana." For many of its denizens, and for many of their representatives in city government, unconditional hatred for Castro is mandatory. Castro's survival is something to be regretted rather than admired on any level. Guillen's apologies and excuses (he claims to have been thinking in Spanish without translating himself into English properly) seem insufficient to politicians and rabble rousers who want him fired for a virtually apolitical comment. A Miami sportswriter considers those comments equivalent to the manager of the New York Yankees showing any sort of respect to Osama bin Laden. I concede the point, if only to observe that neither the theoretically obnoxious New Yorker nor the actually obnoxious Miami manager (who has insulted women and homosexuals in the past) deserves to lose a job coaching baseball for comments that are neither relevant to baseball nor capable of being characterized as bigoted or harassing. This country goes sixty years backwards if Guillen gets fired over this idiocy -- it's already backslid if he can get suspended for it. I should make clear quickly that everyone else has every right to slam him for saying what he did about Castro, but those who dish it out should be prepared to take it, too. Let's start with: if Guillen gets fired, I hope Miami loses 100 games this year, at least. I curse the Marlins if they can Guillen: may they go as long as the Cubs without a title if they give in to this Red-baiting garbage. Baseball fans believe in curses, so I hope they take this seriously. Let's call them the Miami Batistas or Miami Mafia if it happens -- because if people don't like Castro that must be what they stand for, right? Do I jump to conclusions? Then as Ernest Hemingway, another friend of Cuba, used to say, "How do you like it now, gentlemen?"

09 April 2012

Popper's Criterion and negative politics

From Freeman Dyson's review of a book by David Deutsch I found my way to a sort of philosophical justification for negative campaigning. Deutsch's book is The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. According to Dyson, Deutsch depends on two core propositions: "problems are inevitable" and "problems are soluble." For Deutsch, these propositions have political implications. In Dyson's words, "In recent debates over the choice of rulers, people have usually asked the wrong question. They asked, who are the best rulers? They assumed that if this question were answered, then we should allow the best rulers to rule and the problem of good government would be solved." This is a fallacy as far as Deutsch is concerned, because (in Dyson's paraphrase) "There are no best rulers, because power corrupts and circumstances change." For that reason, the object of democratic elections should not be to choose the best rulers, but "to get rid of the worst without bloodshed." Referring to Deutsch's own website, this principle is identified as "Popper's Criterion," invoking Sir Karl Popper, the philosopher best known for The Open Society and Its Enemies, an attack on Plato's malign influence over intellectual history. Popper wrote that "a state is politically free if its political institutions enable its citizens in practice to change a government without bloodshed when a majority wishes such a change." In Deutsch's paraphrase, " Good political institutions make it as easy as possible to discover whether a ruler or policy is a mistake, and to remove mistaken rulers or policies without violence."

Whether "politically free" institutions are synonymous with "good" ones shouldn't be taken for granted,  -- majorities are no more infallible than rulers -- but let's do so for now. Granting that premise still begs a question. While Popper and Deutsch entitle citizens to vote based on a negative appraisal of the incumbent, they propose no criteria, at least in this sound-bite format, for replacing the failed ruler. Do you replace the ruler with just anybody? Bipolarchy takes the proposition to an undesirable extreme by effectively requiring voters to choose one specific candidate, regardless of qualifications, in order to get rid of an unsatisfactory incumbent. But what if there are several alternatives? Would Popper or Deutsch give us a better standard for determining their comparative viability than the current system? Or does their ideal oblige everyone to "go negative," emphasizing the flaws in each candidate so that voters, in the best-case scenario, can reasonably choose a least-worst candidate? If politics as well as science is founded on a proposition that "problems are soluble," shouldn't we want our candidates to identify the problems most in need of solutions and propose solutions from which voters choose the best? If we grant the point that no politician is or can remain qualified to solve all possible problems, term limits might insure fresh perspectives based on new circumstances without the sort of negativity widely thought to demoralize people about politics in general, and without leaving voters a worst-case either-or choice between the incumbent and a sole viable opponent. I should not be thought unreasonably idealistic or ideological for not wanting elections to be conducted on a purely reactionary basis. If Popper's Criterion comes with safeguards against that possibility, there isn't really much wrong with it on paper. Accountability is exactly what we want in politics, after all, and we certainly don't want rulers to be immune from it. But if Popper's Criterion, as applied by Deutsch or others, proves no more than an excuse for not thinking progressively as citizens, it may be that certain open societies are their own worst enemies.

06 April 2012

Is 'Social Darwinist' a smear?

Normally Republicans are the ones reflexively accusing Democrats and liberals of hypocrisy, but this time it's a libertarian, David Boaz, who makes the charge. He's irked over the fact that few in the news media are as offended by the President's recent labeling of Republican economic policy as "social darwinist" as they are when Republicans call the President "socialist." As far as Boaz is concerned, "social darwinist" is the worse insult, because it is an exclusively pejorative term. That is, no one actually claims to be a "social darwinist," according to Boaz, while many still call themselves "socialist." That somehow makes it more okay to call someone "socialist" who isn't, or who refuses the label, than it is to call someone "social darwinist." This misses the point that "socialist," when used by Republicans or libertarians, is just as pejorative as "social darwinist" is in the mouth of anyone on the "Left." Boaz would dispute that point. He suggests that calling someone a "social darwinist" is synonymous with calling that person a racist or a Nazi. Even the minimalist definition of the term, labeling someone who believes in "survival of the fittest" in modern society, is insulting to Boaz. For rhetorical purposes, he assumes that anyone using the term agrees with the entirety of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry, which would mean that a "social darwinist" believes that "the poor [are] the 'unfit' and should not be aided." Presumably, Boaz would not dispute the other half of the proposition, that "wealth [is] a sign of success." He would most likely argue that nothing Darwinian follows from that belief; after all, many Puritans believed the same thing. He'd certainly reject any suggestion that anyone's impoverishment follows from anyone's success; social darwinism, as he understands it, assumes the sort of "zero-sum" conditions that libertarians dogmatically deny. He may also deny sincerely the notion that the "weak" deserve to perish. If any libertarian or Republican believes in charity, in voluntarily aiding the poor or weak, they wouldn't be social darwinists in the Britannica sense of the term. But while many liberals, progressives, etc. probably understand social darwinism in the terms of the old chanting refrain, "You don't care if people die!" it would remain descriptively valid as a label for anyone who prefers competition to cooperation or rejects any alternative to "just desserts" as a principle for distributing wealth. If you believe that a "natural order" requires that successful people earn as much as they can get and keep as much as they can earn; if you reject "entitlement" as a basis for civilization; if you find the premise "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" not merely impractical but abhorrent -- you might fairly be labeled a "social darwinist" whether you accept the label or not. It need not come with any implication that you're a racist or an imperialist, but no one has to make or prove those charges to use the "social darwinist" label. Does that mean that libertarians and Republicans have as much right to call the President a "socialist" despite Obama's denials? Absolutely not. As Boaz himself writes, "social darwinist" is an exclusively pejorative label -- no professed social darwinist can point to David Boaz or Paul Ryan and say, "he's clearly not one of us!" -- while plenty of actually existing socialists of just about any sect or denomination will gladly (or angrily) explain why Obama isn't one of them. But if Boaz still wants to argue that "social darwinist," because of its pejorative nature, is a smear unfit for political discourse, let's have that argument. Let's have people explain what they mean by "social darwinism" and have alleged social darwinists explain why the label doesn't fit them. If they don't believe, not just in survival of the fittest but in their unconditional winner-take-all victory, regardless of the fate of the losers, I think people would be glad to hear it.

05 April 2012

Idiot of the Week Candidate: Mitt Romney, Harvard man.

Even pro-Republican websites like Daily Caller couldn't pass this one up. Earlier today, addressing supporters in Pennsylvania, Mitt Romney dismissed the President as a "nice guy" who had "spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps." The video is here. And as everyone has duly pointed out, Romney spent four years at Harvard to Obama's three. I've seen one apologist defend Romney, inferring from the candidate's comment that Obama has spent too much time at Harvard in some figurative sense after receiving his law degree, while Romney has done his thing in the private sector, working "real jobs" and so on. Maybe Romney should embrace that defense, but it won't help him much. He'll still get the nomination -- something like this wouldn't stop him -- but it's just another of those little things that people will remember in November, and not in any way flattering to Romney.

Did Obama cross a line?: judicial independence vs. judicial deference

When a dependably liberal columnist like Ruth Marcus spends a column criticizing President Obama on domestic policy, something has clearly gone wrong. As far as Marcus is concerned, the President did wrong last Monday when he urged the Supreme Court to eschew "judicial activism" and not overturn a "duly constituted and passed law," i.e. "Obamacare." Marcus is most disturbed by Obama's insinuation that the Supreme Court, as an unelected body, should defer to "a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress." She seems especially disappointed to hear such words from a former instructor in constitutional law. For the record, Marcus believes that the notorious "individual mandate" is constitutional, and she worries that the Court will overturn it on a "party-line" vote that 'would not be a healthy outcome for public confidence in the court's integrity." However, her loyalty to the Constitution obliges her to defer to whatever decision the majority renders, on her understanding that the Court has ultimate authority in questions of constitutional law. For the sake of argument, she puts the best face on the justices' conduct during oral arguments, characterizing them as "a group wrestling [presumably sincerely] with a legitimate, even difficult constitutional question." It would be an insult to the Court as an institution, Marcus charges, to condemn a ruling against the individual mandate as "conservative justices run amok." But if she believes the mandate constitutional, how could she see an opinion to the contrary any other way, unless she sees a middle ground between an ideologically biased and a merely wrong opinion. Even in the latter case, however, she believes herself constitutionally obliged to defer to a right-wing majority purely on its authority as the Supreme Court of the United States.

This is the latest round of a struggle that has lasted for at least 100 years. In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt, standing as a "progressive" Republican, rejected deference to courts whose dogmas had not kept up with changing circumstances and changing needs for political power and action. He was not the most radical critic of judicial supremacy. While some on the "far left" proposed giving constituents the power to recall judges, Roosevelt went no further than proposing a kind of popular veto of high-court rulings. If enough people supported particular legislation, but a court overturned it, Roosevelt wanted the people to have the option of holding a referendum to override the court's verdict and declare the law constitutional. Unsurprisingly, Roosevelt's position was sharply criticized by conservatives in both major parties. In their view, the former President would put the law in the hands of "temporary majorities," rendering it inconsistent and subject to whims and irrational enthusiasms. The presumption behind such criticism is that judges were consistent and immune to whims and enthusiasms. Today's right-wing justices and their supporters no doubt see themselves that way, especially if they espouse "originalism." For such people, the issue of changing circumstances raised by Roosevelt and later progressives is irrelevant, since they understand the Constitution to embody a political philosophy valid for all time and impose an obligation to live according to the best values of the Framers, no matter how much society changes, unless the law is amended by the rules the Framers set.  Such a mindset is inevitable whenever you have a constitution based primarily (as many understand it) on what government should not do. Just as inevitably, a belief evolves in a "living constitution" founded on a more fundamental belief in what government must do. If a constitution was simply a set of rules for conduct, the designation of a referee with final authority to interpret the rules would be less problematic than the Court has become. But both "strict construction" and "loose construction," to use the original terms of the dispute, have both become means to ideological ends outside the experience or interest of the Framers. Since each side's first loyalty is to a kind of ideology, neither readily concedes the objectivity of the other. This may only prove that we've really needed a constitutional convention for at least a century, but the originalist notion of "limited government" has served too many vested interests for those interests to risk those limits getting revised at a convention. The originalist can just as easily challenge his opponents to amend the Constitution if the people want new rights so badly. -- and then they'll argue that new rights are unsustainable.

It's most likely that the President was simply being snarky in claiming that right-wing justices would be practicing the "activism" they so often decry by overturning the individual mandate. If so, the joke fell flat. While "activism" is often characterized as "legislating from the bench," its real meaning for critics is "inventing rights that don't exist in the Constitution." By that definition, striking down the individual mandate wouldn't count as "activism," nor would it be activism whenever our theoretically objective judges strike down legislation that plainly violates the fundamental law. For other observers, however, it's "activism" whenever justices interpret the Constitution based on extra-constitutional ideologies, and it could be argued that everybody does that now. If judicial activism is undesirable, then its current omnipresence, all disclaimers notwithstanding, again proves the actual obsolescence of the Constitution and the need for a new one that is either ideology-proof or embodies one ideology or another once and for all.

04 April 2012

Tribal instinct vs. species instinct

Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson paints a demoralizing portrait of human nature in the latest Newsweek, no matter how much the magazine's editors try to make something cute out of it with illustrations of "tribal" cliques of music fans and their fashions. Wilson contends that the current election campaign has stirred up furious passions, even before one of the major parties has chosen its candidate, because "everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags." Tribalism provides "visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship" and, for individuals, "a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world." In the 21st century, Wilson perceives a more complex "system of interlocking tribes" that nonetheless remains tribal, as people find more ways  to form "eusocial" groups -- eusociality meaning membership that is pleasurable in some way for the members. What I find demoralizing about this is the apparent inability of human beings, from what Wilson tells us, to naturally form bonds of solidarity based on simple common humanity. He argues that the tribal impulse is to some extent instinctual, people tending to favor their "own kind" as defined by language or pigmentation, while sports fans and other fandoms are presumably more voluntary -- ideologies may also fall into this latter category of voluntary eusocial enthusiasms. Implicit in this analysis is a hierarchy of signifiers according to their priority for individuals. In such a hierarchy such common human traits as walking on two legs, distinctively human faces, etc., clearly count for less than skin color and language. Perceiving humanity as a common unit is apparently intellectual rather than instinctual, but even ostensibly intelligent people find it easier to transcend superficial prejudices on the basis of selective shared likes and dislikes (fandoms, ideologies) than on the basis of a shared destiny as a species. No such solidarity exists in the animal kingdom, either, I presume, but I would expect that the increasing interconnectedness of human societies and increased population density would encourage the equation of humanity with one big tribe. There is little evidence for such a hopeful view. Even the movement arguably most based on such identification, the socialist movement, too easily succumbed to a tribalism that replaced humans with proletarians and their class enemies.When a time comes when humanity must act as a species for its own survival -- and it would be delusional to assume that no such time can ever come -- will people be up to the challenge? Wilson doesn't give much cause for confidence, but we can hope that his isn't the last word on humanity's potential for humanity.

03 April 2012

If we can't trust government, who can we trust?

The April 9 issue of The Nation is a special issue dedicated to the question, "Can We Trust Government Again?" Guest editor Jeff Madrick decries trends that have left people thinking of government less as "we the people" than as "they the bureaucrats," as well as a skepticism or pessimism about government's potential that has infected even the Democratic party. While contributors blame these attitudes mostly on Republican propaganda, Madrick argues that government "can and must do its tasks more efficiently" to help win back public faith. From the combined contributions we can sum up a threefold approach to restoring that faith. One step is reasserting the necessity of government and political action, as James Lardner does in the realm of "setting rules for business" and Rinku Sen does on the question of ending discrimination and related privileges. Sen particularly tells a useful story about his conversation with a libertarian student who asked whether racial discrimination could be ended without expanding government; his answer is that changing minds can't happen in every case without organized pressure -- though he actually throws government's ability to change minds by changing institutions into question by conceding that "whether we win a change in the rules at City Hall or in the boardroom, we will always have to defend it." On a related note, Dorian T. Warren notes that black Americans trust the federal government much more than whites, and trust local governments less. In both cases the reasons are fairly obvious -- and all over the world you'll probably find more enthusiasm for powerful central governments wherever local governments enforce discrimination against minorities. You'll probably also find it even in more homogeneous places where class distinctions are stark and insulting and state power alone seems capable of humbling the haughty. Whether that's a good reason for people to want stronger government is another matter, but for Americans the Nation contributors also propose to make government, including regulatory bureaucracies, more responsive to ordinary people -- if necessary by minimizing or eliminating the conflicting influence of concentrated wealth wherever it exists. A related step, and an essential one if you want people to think of government as "we," not "they," is K. Sabeel Rahman's idea of democratizing the regulatory process instead of deferring to "experts" who aren't immune from money's influence. To sum up further, one would like to say that the easiest way to restore faith in government is to make it more democratic. Even then, however, Dianne Stewart reminds us of the difficulty involved in getting people to see the common benefit in policies perceived initially as benefiting "someone else." Her own answer, an appeal to local pride, doesn't necessarily address the problem of faith in federal or national government, but there's no reason that approach couldn't be adopted on a national scale.

As I've written recently, however, distrust of government may really be but a part of a more sweeping and culturally crippling general distrust of all by all. That feeling may be fueled partly by ideological delusions of self-sufficiency, but it may also be a backlash against an increasing complexity of society too easily seen as oppressive. The same issue of The Nation has a belated memorial essay on Vaclav Havel in which Caleb Crain considers Havel's critique of "automatism," defined by the rebel playwright as "the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power -- the power of ideologies, systems ... bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans." As Crain contends, the phenomenon against which Havel rebels "speaks as much to the managerial nonsense and social blackmailing of capitalism as to those of late socialism....it would be equally effective as a satire of American businessmen." Where automatism prevails, Crain writes, "it becomes a struggle to conduct oneself with integrity even in aspects of life that have little or nothing to do with politics [or, presumably, business]." What if Havel's automatism is a condition of modern (or postmodern) complex systems, private or public, political or corporate? Havel's own answer was to cultivate an "existential revolution" by recognizing and denouncing the "absurdity" of the automatist environment." The object is to live a life capable of the sort of "meaning" that automatism allegedly makes impossible -- in effect, to drop out of the automatist culture and create an "antipolitical politics," a politics presumably purged somehow of automatist tendencies and animated by authentic humanity. Is this how people restore faith in politics and government?  Is our collective mutual distrust a product of automatist momentum that could be reversed or overthrown? Or is the critique of "automatism" an unreasonable backlash against a complexity we all have to get used to, albeit without the abuses of power that so often flourish in corporate or political hierarchies? Globalization and social networking are changing the meaning of society and with it, inevitably, the meaning of politics. Will that process leave us more open, more trusting, more tolerant of others, or will it leave us more convinced that "Hell is other people?" Asking whether people can or should trust their political representatives, or the political process itself, may only be the start of hard thinking about the future.

02 April 2012

Amoklauf in Oakland

News networks and wire services are piecing together the details, but the word at the moment is that a former student strolled into a Christian nursing school today and killed five people while wounding an unknown number of others. He fled the scene but reportedly has been captured alive. The presumed perp apparently flunked the "Thou Shalt Not Kill" part of the curriculum, but the basic idea has proven a stumbling block for plenty of secular humanists, too. I'd like to claim that this sense of entitlement to kill is utterly alien to me, but it does seem to be essentially American rather than Christian or secular. People do commit murders and mass murders in foreign lands, but I imagine that elsewhere murder is usually a means to an end, either profit from crime or service to some larger political or religious cause, while here it's too often an end unto itself, a matter of pure self-indulgence. I'd guess that this American impulse is older than the modern gun-rights movement, but the implied affirmation of an individual right to kill in self-defense that comes with modern gun-rights jurisprudence certainly does nothing to suppress the impulse. All it can offer is deterrence, which arguably works better with nations than with individuals, especially when individuals feel they have nothing to lose and expect death anyway. If we can figure out why so many Americans feel that way we may begin to answer the mystery of the amoklauf, but encouraging more people to arm themselves doesn't even begin to answer that question. If people claim to feel safer when they assume more people are armed, their feelings are not to be trusted.