31 July 2012

Randall Terry's divine terrorism

Most political begging letters are like solicitors ringing your doorbell; you expect them to turn up in a certain location. Randall Terry's begging letters are more like a panhandler on the street. A local supporter left a handful of envelopes stuffed with begging letters laying on tables in my downtown post office. The temptation to pick one up was too great to resist. Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue is running a double campaign this year. He's an independent candidate for President -- his headquarters are ironically located in Romney WV -- and an independent candidate in Florida for the House of Representatives. Whatever the race, the theme is the same: Terry proposes to save this nation from God's wrath by stopping abortions. "Until We Stop this Slaughter," he writes, "God's Punishments Will Increase Upon Us."

Terry is convinced that "there is a direct connection between national evils and national calamity." In his Congressional letter, he attempts to prove this premise by referring to scripture. Needless to say, it's not difficult to find attributions of national calamities to divine wrath in the Bible. In particular, Terry wants to demonstrate that God punishes nations for slaughtering innocent children. He hopes to persuade the devout that abortion is an equivalent sin to those for which God punished the Hebrews back in the day. Since the Hebrews made a habit of slaughtering innocents, however, it's possible, should you condescend to take scripture seriously, to show that slaughtering innocents itself is not sufficient to spark God's anger. Using only the verses Terry himself cites, you can make a contextual argument that God did not avenge the slaughter of children on general principle, but slaughter for the specific purpose of idolatry -- the sacrifice of children to foreign gods. While Terry may believe that "Obama is an evildoer, a murderer of babies, an enemy of marriage and the Church, and an ally to Islamic terrorists," it'd be a stretch even for him to imagine the President as an idolator -- unless he thinks Obama a Muslim and Islam idolatry, which we can't rule out. 

Terry is running for President because "INNOCENT BABIES and MARRIAGE and RELIGIOUS FREEDOM are more important than money and the economy." He is "NOT a Romney fan," in part because "we all know that Romney is NOT going to make babies and marriage and religious liberty key issues in his campaign." However, since his first priority is getting Obama out of office, Terry has to reassure potential donors that his efforts will not hurt the presumptive Republican nominee. He apparently intends to appear on the Presidential ballot only in three "red" states -- West Virginia, Kentucky and Nebraska -- where he should not tip the balance in Obama's favor. However, making the ballot in three states will entitle him to run a national advertising campaign. He believes that the FCC will require TV stations to run his ads, which will show aborted fetuses, in more than a dozen additional states. For the moment he needs volunteers to collect signatures in the three target states and money to run ads for his Florida congressional campaign.

The Terry campaign might not be so harmless to Romney as he wants donors to believe. Few tactics succeed so well in getting liberals to circle wagons around the Democrats as opposing abortion in tones of biblical wrath. Political advertising will get no more wrathful than Terry's proposed spots. No other politician, probably, so daringly threatens voters. "I will boldly declare that if Christians vote for Obama, they share in the guilt of his sins, and pave the way for more of God's judgment on America," Terry writes, "I will run ads in Florida to tell Christians: 'You CANNOT ethically vote for Obama. If you do, you share in the guilt of his sins against God and human life, and procure God's judgments.'" In the face of such vehemence, liberals are unlikely to make distinctions between Terry's single-issue fury and Romney's general reaction. They'll only be goaded into thinking that only Obama stands between them and repressive theocracy. Americans vote based on fear and hatred, and Terry will only remind liberals of what they hate. He could galvanize liberal (and even moderate) voters in a way that definitely could hurt Romney, especially if the ads get as wide a distribution as Terry hopes for. I've almost talked myself into donating to Terry. His views are primitive and despicable, but he at least rebels against the logic of Bipolarchy. He may want Obama out of power most of all, but that doesn't compel him to submit to Romney. "He would probably make a better President than Obama," he concedes, "If not, we'll throw him out too!" Assuming Romney will be better doesn't mean Terry has to settle for him anymore than acknowledging that Obama is better than Romney obliges anyone to settle for Obama. Terry may be a loathsome superstitious cretin in every other respect, but his approach to politics, in practice if not in theory, is one more people should emulate.

30 July 2012

Have Guns Won?

In the current Time, Joe Klein bewails the fact that "Americans have turned against gun control" in recent years, with no sign that the Aurora amoklauf has changed anyone's mind. Klein wisely expects nothing from the Republicans, but blasts the Democrats under President Obama for having "abandoned the gun-control debate" and failing to challenge the National Rifle Association. He traces the turn from the NRA's role in throwing Congress to the GOP in 1994, but he doesn't claim that lobbying alone altered public opinion. The NRA's success is merely a symptom of larger cultural troubles that gun-control alone, admittedly, might not remedy.

The violence has a lot to do with the state of our mental health, the increased mobility and atomization of our society, the time young men spend alone staring into television and computer screens, the comic-book depiction of brutality -- and yes, the availability of ever more kinetic weaponry.

As the President said [after the latest amoklauf] we need to have a conversation about these gun laws and the mental-health system -- and a larger conversation as well about how we stay coherent as a society, how we establish common bonds and maintain a sense of community in a time when all the technological signals are pointing us toward a relentless, unmitigated individualism that could slowly lapse into social anarchy.

In Klein's view, neither Obama's Democrats nor the Republicans are capable of starting or sustaining this needed conversation. But if that's because such a conversation is too electorally risky, isn't it also true that the people as a whole aren't ready for it? Individualism isn't an invention of political parties, nor is maintaining a sense of community exclusively their business. Leaving politics out of it, too many people don't trust each other. That's true for both sides of the gun-control debate. The people on one side don't trust other people not to rob them or otherwise violate their persons or property, and therefore want guns, while the people on the other side don't trust anyone with guns. Individualism alone doesn't account for this feeling, but there's clearly an absence of community feeling, of a sense of automatic, involuntary belonging and the obligations, positive and negative, that come with it. We fear one another, and for this reason the law-abiding citizen demands as his right the same power that the criminal claims without any justification. Neither sees any return for the renunciation of primal prerogatives of self-defense or self-preservation that civilization requires. Our society says that you can defend yourself while you must provide for yourself, on the understanding that you can cross a line in providing for yourself that activates the self-defense prerogative, to which there seem to be ever fewer limits. Any conversation Klein wants to have should address our positive obligations to fellow citizens, or fellow human beings, as well as such negative obligations as not shooting one another. We need to talk about what it would take to get people not to steal as well what it takes to keep them from going on amoklaufs. We need to ask whether citizens have a material obligation to contribute to social peace, or whether they prefer to take their chances suppressing poverty-driven yet increasingly well-armed crime. We should have this conversation fully aware that no policy vaccine against madness (or greed) can be perfect, but with that in mind we still must ask whether we want peace and what price we're willing to pay for it. Peace is no more free than freedom; the question is which costs more in the long run.

27 July 2012

Economy slows; market celebrates?

The economic news this morning was bad. The rate of growth had slowed over the last period to below expectations as consumers preferred to save some of their money. Recovery again seemed to be stalling. Yet as I write the New York Stock Exchange is closing with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up by nearly 200 points over yesterday. That's attributed to the latest good news from Europe regarding debt payments. It all makes you wonder what Wall Street actually invests in. It should definitely teach you not to take the stock market as any indicator of national economic health. Investors don't seem to be hurting from today's bad news. The rest of us suffer, or so we understand, when Wall Street suffers, but the reverse isn't necessarily the case. The stock market may not be the "Market," but it may give us a clue about the allegedly rational functioning of markets in general.

26 July 2012

Sean Wilentz, the American Machiavel

The historian Sean Wilentz has taken his polemic against leftist criticism of the Democratic party from the pages of The New Republic from those of The New York Review of Books, where he reviews Michael Kazin's American Dreamers in the latest issue. Wilentz has made himself obnoxious to many progressives since he vehemently favored Sen. Clinton over Sen. Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Since then, he has elaborated a passionately realist case for the kind of institutional liberalism practiced by the Democrats, for a patient, pragmatic politics of incremental reform through constant negotiation with (and manipulation of) opponents as against the leftist practice of impractical, angry and self-defeating idealism. Wilentz's particular beef with Kazin comes from his perception that Kazin has perpetuated what Wilentz considers a myth. The myth is that people in power will only takes steps toward a more fair and just society when pressured by the powerless, for whom radicals and leftists speak most faithfully. As Wilentz sums up the story, "radicals challenge the privileged; liberals co-opt them, claiming the glory. In effect liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change." Wilentz himself believes, however, that liberals are the only people to have realized fundamental political change, while radicals always complain that the changes are inadequate.

"[S]ome things about American radicals ... their inability to handle what Daniel Bell called America's 'give-and-take, political world,' their chronic penchant for self-righteous dogmatism and sectarian squabbling -- have repeatedly undermined left-wing campaigns," Wilentz writes. If anything, he suggests, liberals have accomplished much good in spite of radical carping, not because of it as Kazin supposedly argues. Pressing the point, Wilentz argues now that liberals have done much of their good on their own initiative. Disputing Kazin's account of the New Deal, he explains that the effective reformers within FDR's administration, rather than being driven into action by radicals, "had begun shaping their own ideas and goals decades earlier." Nor should they be accused of undertaking reforms simply to "placate or restrain radical labor." Without actually naming it, Wilentz seems to be defending the Progressive movement, which did begin a generation before the Depression and took a more statist, top-down approach to reform than radicals outside of power liked. He'd have leftists celebrate this tradition, since he credits it with all the accomplishments they seem to credit themselves for, but he remains perplexed over why people like the Clintons and Al Gore are not more revered by radicals.  He can only explain it ad hominem, implicitly accusing radicals of dogmatic intolerance, if not pathological impatience.

Radicalism is intolerant by nature, not in the currently common sense of the word that denotes a dislike for difference but in the most literal sense of an inability to tolerate certain things, particularly inequality and injustice. Confronted with the intolerable, the radical asks why it should be endured for even one day more. The liberal is the person who sympathizes with the radical's anger but will tell him why he should endure a little longer. Sometimes the liberal has practical reasons; the change the radical demands simply can't be accomplished at once. Sometimes the reasons are moralistic; radical change might be a cure worse than any disease under certain circumstances. Whatever the reason, the liberal assumes that any reason he offers is sound and irrefutable. His presumption is that the radical has no good reason not to be patient, that radical impatience is a character flaw comparable to intolerance in the current sense. The liberal suspects that the radical is intolerant of the conservative and the reactionary, that the radical fails to see the necessity, practical or moral, of playing "give and take" with his perceived oppressor. To keep things topical, the liberal sees himself occupying the high moral ground between Bain and Bane, the heartless reign of plutocrats and a ruthless reign of demagogic terror. In this scenario, only liberals have the wisdom to keep everyone else's impulses, radical and reactionary alike, in check. For a radical to question this worldview -- to ask why he should settle for what the wise liberal decides is enough reform for today -- is literally to not know what is good for him. That radicals resent this attitude should come as no surprise to Sean Wilentz.

Nevertheless, Wilentz is certainly correct that liberals through American history have had their own agenda of orderly reform and a goal of improving people's lives. Historically, it has been inevitable that such an agenda, conceived and pursued by a self-conscious intellectual and institutional elite, should be at odds with an agenda generated outside the sphere of power by people desirous of a share in power, even though the two agendas converge to a considerable extent. I don't think Wilentz is consciously endorsing an elitist politics -- he'd certainly argue that the political track is open to everyone, including people from modest backgrounds like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. But the "you don't understand why you can't have everything you want at once" stance Wilentz always takes toward anything to the left of the Democratic National Committee is certainly an elitist attitude. His attitude is also perfectly suited to Bipolarchy; this review closes with another angry swipe at the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. How dare anyone be dissatisfied with Gore, Wilentz rages, when George W. Bush loomed over the horizon. The "havoc" Bush wrought over eight years apparently justifies retroactively the moral obligation in 2000 for anyone to Bush's left to vote for Gore. However Wilentz feels about Gore ("one of the most experienced and creative policy leaders of his generation"), the same argument would compel votes for any hack the Democrats coughed up at their convention. It is the same uncompromising argument for settling for whatever the Democrats deign to do, and as always it is an argument for unconditional surrender, leaving no one with leverage to move the party so long as everyone lives in mortal fear of the Republicans. Yet on the simplest level Wilentz is right about history. Protests alone have done little; politics alone has realized change. Radicals really do have a problem if they really think that their role is to agitate only, while Democrats govern.  Wilentz himself doesn't say that people shouldn't agitate, but he certainly does say that we should let the Democrats govern. But is that democracy? Wilentz fancies himself an expert on the subject, but sometimes I wonder....

25 July 2012

Individualism between liberty and selfishness

Jonah Goldberg, the Republican columnist, wants to disabuse fellow conservatives of the notion that President Obama has an un-American worldview. In Goldberg's opinion, Obama's views are certainly radical, and certainly wrong, but they have a solid American pedigree. Goldberg's latest column is another indictment of the American "progressive" tradition, which the columnist identifies with such thinkers as Herbert Croly (a founder of The New Republic) and the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Progressivism's flaw, in Goldberg's view, is its failure to appreciate individualism. He quotes Croly, damningly by his own standards, as a source for the alleged progressive belief that "the individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed." For Goldberg, that means that progressives see individuals as creatures of society, i.e. the state, who can only be "free" through state action. Goldberg, by implicit comparison, believes that individuality is prior to socialization, that we are who we are to some defining degree before society does anything to shape us. Or at least we have a right to think so.

Like many Republicans, Goldberg writes in reaction to the President's recent challenge to the notion that successful people are essentially self-made. "You didn't get there on your own," has been Obama's mantra, and Goldberg actually concedes the point. "We're all indebted to others, and we all rely on government to provide some basic things," he writes, "Only the straw-men conservatives of Obama's imagination yearn for an America with no roads and bridges." But the progressive viewpoint takes this "truism" too far, Goldberg believes, in a clueless, tone-deaf attempt to deny the significance of individual agency. For Goldberg, the sense of individual accomplishment is a core element of the "individual pursuit of happiness" to which Americans consider themselves innately entitled.

Just because the word "individual" appears in there doesn't make it a selfish ideal; it means it's a vision of liberty. We each find our happiness where we seek it. For some that's in business, for others the arts, or religion or family or a mix of them all. And very often our happiness depends upon the satisfaction we feel at having conquered problems on our own. 

How do we reconcile Goldberg's two assertions: that "It's true that no man's accomplishments are entirely his own" and "our happiness depends upon the satisfaction we feel at having conquered problems on our own." It seems to go something like this: individualism is a vision of liberty. He didn't say individualism is liberty, but called it a vision. This vision is apparently linked to a feeling of satisfaction individualists crave. Their happiness depends on feeling that they've conquered problems on their own. They need to feel autonomous and self-reliant. Most importantly, they need to feel that there's a limit to what they owe others despite our acknowledged interdependence. That sense of individual accomplishment justifies the truncation of obligation. As if to prove my point, Goldberg quotes the President once more, letting the statement, "a problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans" hang in the air like a slow pitch over home plate. Goldberg's own peroration on individualism is apparently intended to refute Obama's words, or at least to explain why Goldberg disagrees with them. Why isn't Goldberg's individualism a selfish ideal? Because he says it isn't? We'd need to know what he means by selfish, but all we get in that direction is the insinuation that progressives like Obama (who has allegedly given "little attention" to poor relations in Africa) are the selfish ones because they want the state to do what individuals should do themselves for the needy. For the sake of arguments, let's concede that Goldberg isn't arguing for selfishness. It should be more obvious that he's arguing for egoism, for a need to feel that our individual contributions are necessary, sufficient, decisive and special, that we are not interchangeable and replaceable, and that some of us deserve more for our special contributions than others. But only the straw-men progressives of Goldberg's imagination yearn for an America without individuals pursuing individual ideals of happiness. That leaves Goldberg accepting Obama's most basic claim while rejecting its implications for no sound reason. The columnist complains that Obama sees an individual sense of accomplishment as a mirage, but his own arguments do less to disprove the premise than to assert an individual right to believe in the mirage.

24 July 2012

How much unity does a nation need?

One of the local papers picked up an op-ed from Cathy Young yesterday in which the Reason magazine writer (i.e., a libertarian) criticized presidents from both major parties for making misplaced calls for national unity. In Young's view, George W. Bush had no business claiming or aspiring to be a "uniter," and may as well have been asking to be called a hypocrite. The current President is likewise out of bounds, Young suggests, in his groping for a "story" that would give Americans a "sense of unity." For Young, the point isn't that unity is a bad thing, but that it's impossible in a free society -- though this depends on what you mean by unity.

Young seems to take any call for "unity" as a revival of 18th century civic republicanism, the still-disputed ideology rediscovered (or invented) by 20th century historians. Civic republicanism was all about public virtue. To the extent that the Founders or Framers were civic republicans, they believed that their experiment in republican government depended upon a virtuous citizenry whose virtue was defined by their commitment to public goods. Unity of purpose is implicit in civic republicanism, but as Young writes, the Framers understood that virtue could not be depended upon. Ideal unity proves chimerical once people start acting to advance their own interests, whether these harm the public good or not. Madison's system was designed to allow a multitude of interest groups to counterbalance each other, so that no one interest could prevail without making concessions to others. It may be because a two-party system has effectively demolished pluralism's inherent check on interest that people today decry a spirit of factionalism in tones the Founders would recognize. But if Bipolarchy represents the spirit of faction the Framers hoped to drown in pluralism, would a reversion to civic republican insistence on public-spirited unity solve the problem?

Young notes that "There is an alarming tendency today to see the other half as evil or delusional," but adds a note of historical skepticism. "It’s hard to say whether polarization is worse today than ever," she writes, "or just seems that way because the Internet has given people unprecedented opportunities to express their views and confirm their biases." However bad things have gotten, Young's preferred solution is "civility" rather than "unity." Civility is a fine thing, as is that "willingness to at least listen to the other side" that Young hopes for. Yet her apparent aversion to "unity" is misguided. I suspect she sees "unity" as an ideologically loaded term, just as some see civic republicanism as the first step on a slippery slope to totalitarianism because of its alleged preference of public to private. Unity doesn't have to be a synonym for collectivism, however, and some people's tendency to equate the two may be a big part of our civility problem right now. "Unity" doesn't have to mean that we all pull together on some huge national project, chanting slogans all the while. It doesn't mean we all have to affirm the same national ideology. What any nation needs is a sort of minimal sense of unity best embodied, if you don't mind me sounding partisan for a second, by the President's familiar talking point that "we're all in this together." The opposite stance, in his characterization, is "you're on your own." Many people may say that this contrast misrepresents what they mean by emphasizing "personal responsibility," but this is where Young's call for civility really comes in. It is important for citizens to listen to each other, but that makes it even more important for people to speak their minds clearly and honestly. Many people have convinced themselves that "personal responsibility" is just a buzzword meaning, "I don't have to give a damn whether you live or die." If that's not what people mean when they talk of personal responsibility, maybe people will listen more carefully if you skip the buzzwords and say what you really mean. At the same time, let's acknowledge the stakes. If a large number of Americans really do think that they needn't give a damn if others suffer or die in poverty, that may prove the absence of the minimal unity on which national existence arguably depends. Where such an attitude prevails, why even have a nation? Despite Young's skepticism, a certain degree of unity is not too much to ask.

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/07/22/3395291/unity-well-id-settle.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/07/22/3395291/unity-well-id-settle.html#storylink=cpy

23 July 2012

The political implications (if any) of The Dark Knight Rises

Big-budget Hollywood movies often aspire to become more than mere movies. They want to be Events, not just "the movie event of the summer" but pop-culture touchstones if not defining memories of moments in history. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was well on its way to being a kind of Event before death imitated art in Aurora CO during a midnight show on Friday morning. It could claim to be a cultural event because it concluded Nolan's trilogy of Batman films, following the reboot of Batman Begins and the epochal The Dark Knight, itself a transcendent Event by virtue of its Joker dying before the film premiered. That the Aurora shooter apparently sought to imitate the Joker, from miscoloring his hair to furnishing his apartment with deathtraps, will raise again the old issue of the corrupting or desensitizing effects of violent fantasy films. But before the suspect made his murderous contribution to the conversation, people were prepared to comment on the perceived politics of Nolan's movies. The Dark Knight invited such discussion by suggesting that Bruce Wayne had gone too far in rigging a surveillance network of all the cell phones in Gotham city, and by having Wayne acknowledge this by destroying the system after it had done its work. The Dark Knight Rises has announced itself with apocalyptic imagery of mobs bursting from prisons and storming rich houses, of plunder and terrorism. The game of political analysis has begun alongside the hand-wringing over the movies' effect on the Aurora shooter, and for the sake of arguments I want to address whether the film itself has a coherent political message. To do this, I'll discuss plot points that will spoil the film for those who haven't viewed it yet. Consider that a Spoiler Warning and leave if you don't want to know too much -- but not before I tell you, without spoiling anything, that superhero movies are never reliably translatable into partisan or ideological terms simply because superheroes, despite their protestations of fidelity to certain supreme values ("truth, justice and the American way," for example) are by definition people with their own moral codes that are no more meant to be imitated than their dangerous exploits. Now on to the spoilers....

* * * 

Christopher Nolan has said that A Tale of Two Cities was one of the major inspirations for The Dark Knight Rises. This is both the truth and a tease -- the tease if for those whose familiarity with the Dickens novel may lead them to expect a certain finish. A kind of revolution does break out during the picture, though Gotham seems to skip the liberation part and goes straight to a reign of terror. There are also some perfunctory gestures toward portraying the present as the "best of times" and "worst of times," though we don't see poverty as abject as the upper reaches of wealth displayed. The revolution, such as it is, is instigated by the film's predominant villain, the masked mercenary Bane, for whom the rhetoric of revolution is only a pretext for utter destruction. There is no revolution in the sense of reforming the redistribution of wealth and resources through lawmaking. If anything, Bane's Gotham has become a lawless place where no one feels particularly liberated. He only invites the poor to plunder the rich, it seems, to compensate for their imprisonment within the city, since he has vowed to destroy Gotham with a nuclear bomb should anyone, poor or rich, leave town. Bane is self-evidently a nihilist rather than a leftist, yet his resort to social revolution as a ploy is one element that leads people to label Rises a right-wing film, as if his abuse of redistributionist rhetoric is meant to discredit the very idea of redistribution for the audience. Yet I think people will see Bane plainly enough as an interloper and no stand-in for the mainstream "left" in the U.S. Nor does it follow that Bane's atrocities prove the justice of the existing distribution of wealth, and Nolan suggests no such thing. Rather, to the extent that Rises has a political agenda, its purpose seems to be to challenge those who advocate redistribution to decide how far they'd be willing to go. A better way to get to Nolan's theme, or to determine if he has one, is to follow the other major character to spout redistributionist rhetoric -- a bad guy who turns into a hero.

In comics, Selina Kyle -- still better known to most people simply as "Catwoman," -- has become an archetypal good bad woman. She remains outside the law, but like Batman she has a personal moral code that defines what she will or won't do. This doesn't necessarily make her a trustworthy person by real-world standards, anymore than Batman himself, but it establishes that Selina lives according to some kind of principle. The movie Selina is somewhat less principled than her comics counterpart, since she's willing to kill people -- a willingness that comes in quite handy at a crucial moment in the picture -- but she still draws a line that may be the nearest Nolan offers to the line for the audience to recognize. In the commercials and trailers, she's the one who warns Bruce Wayne that a "storm" is coming, a comeuppance for the greedy, selfish super-rich who haven't shared the wealth with everyone else. This may be no more sincere a statement than any of Bane's, since Selina is primarily interested in her own future rather than social justice. Even when threatening Wayne, however, she draws a line, telling him that she steals only from those who presumably won't miss what she's taking -- never mind that she stole Bruce's mother's pearl necklace under his very nose. You could say that her target isn't wealth per se but luxury. The mobs incited by Bane, however -- and it's unclear whether these are actually "liberated" citizens or simply liberated prisoners -- are out for everything they can lay hands on. The crucial scene for Selina comes after she's been jailed, thanks to an unlikely plot contrivance, and freed in the storming of the prison by Bane's men. She reunites with her sidekick Holly Robinson and finds herself in a looted mansion. She notices a smashed photograph of a family and seems strangely sad. "This used to be someone's house," she remarks. "Now it's everybody's house!" Holly answers. This may be the politically-correct answer under Bane's regime, but it's the wrong answer for Selina Kyle. A home is a home, no matter how rich, and she can't countenance such wholesale confiscation and destruction. Holly's comment may be the closest Nolan comes to portraying a discreditable ideology, a collectivism that denies that anything can be anybody's own. It should be noted, also, that Bane espouses no such collectivism, calling only for social inversion as a lord of misrule. 

In any event, Selina is a changed woman, the change having begun earlier when she recoiled at Bane's sadistic beating of Batman. Changed isn't the same thing as repentant, however. She pointedly refuses to apologize for having betrayed Batman that time, nor does she ever repent her thievery or killing. What she does repent, or renounce, is her own selfishness; given an opportunity to make good her own escape before Bane blows up the city, she returns to the Wall Street battle zone to save Batman's life and help him capture the mobile nuke. In broadest terms, Selina may represent all those who deplore gross inequality and propose remedies while not necessarily endorsing all means to equalization. If liberals want to salvage a positive message from the picture -- which may yet be hard to do when one of its defining images is an army of uniformed cops charging up Wall Street to attack self-styled revolutionaries -- they should look to Selina Kyle as Nolan's vote of confidence that not all the angry people, and maybe even not many, will go as far as people on the right may fear.  She's Rises's equivalent to the hulking black convict who takes possession of the Joker's detonator in Dark Knight and, instead of using it to blow up a ferry as Joker hoped, tosses it into the ocean. Selina may still be an unprincipled person from certain points of view -- and as I said already, so is Batman or any vigilante -- but she has principle enough to stand up for civilization. While a previous incarnation of Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns refuses a happy ending, Nolan's version earns one. There's your moral ... or at least there's one.

For a different perspective with somewhat different conclusions, here's Ross Douthout's comment from the New York Times website.

20 July 2012

Amoklauf at the Movies: Aurora's Reckoning

There has been a kind of madness coalescing around the release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, from the hysterical reactions to early pans -- which remain a small minority of the reviews -- to the climactic midnight nightmare in Aurora CO, where all the terrors promised by the old spookshows came to art-imitating life. A man broke into a shopping-mall multiplex theater through an emergency exit, threw some sort of explosive or gas weapon, and opened fire on the audience. He has killed at least 12 people, with more victims in grave condition and many more injured. The suspected assailant has been taken alive and police have been searching his home for explosives. He may fairly be called a terrorist -- not because he had a political agenda, but because he seemed determined not just to kill but to terrorize. Death may well have been second to terror on his agenda; his own death apparently wasn't part of the program. He has been named, but we know little more about him yet. I doubt his act was any comment on the movie or any of its supposed subtexts. The reportedly record-setting turnout for a midnight opening most likely presented a target of opportunity for a madman. The event can't help resonating, however, given the apocalyptic context of the movie and the series's focus on the disproportionate destructive power of violently-driven individuals. The Batman movies, of course, are fantasies of power in the form of wealth; even the new film's demagogic villain seems to have limitless resources for his work. The Aurora amoklauf is a tiny yet shrill echo of the movie's doomsday fantasy of urban warfare that has momentarily drowned out the quarter-billion-dollar production's promotional bombast with a reminder that a real American apocalypse may well be more modest in scale when it comes to your town, but no less lethal than what Hollywood imagines.

19 July 2012

How to write an Islamophobia test

The Nation magazine is going to get flamed as if its film critic had panned The Dark Knight Rises for running an advertisement bought by Lorna Salzman, an environmental activist and sometime Green Party political candidate, in its July 30 issue. Running alongside the journal's letters page, Salzman's ad is a "simple test" to determine whether readers are Islamophobes. The point of the piece, it becomes apparent, is that "Islamophobe," in Salzman's view, is a slur aimed at people who only want to uphold liberal values. The test invites you to check off the statements the reader agrees with. The statements include "I oppose stoning of women accused of adultery," "I favor mandatory education of girls everywhere," "I support complete freedom of expression and the press," "I oppose 'honor' killings," and so on. According to Salzman's scoring system, if you checked off your agreement with all her propositions, "you are a vile Islamophobe and deserve to be beheaded as the qu-ran [sic?] instructs." Anything less than complete agreement, or more than zero checkoffs, puts the test-taker on the path to "dhimmitude," the reputed submissive condition of non-Muslims in an Islamic state? "If you checked NONE of these, Congratulations!" Salzman jokes in closing, "you are a worthy observant Muslim and have a bright future vilifying Jews, torturing women or inshallah, becoming a suicide bomber."

When I say The Nation will be flamed, I don't mean to predict that fatwa-authorized nuts will firebomb its offices. I mean that the magazine will get the same volume of enraged letters it gets whenever it sells space to hard-line Zionist organizations. For this issue, The Nation will probably get hit in two directions, since its back cover sports an ad from The Center for Union Facts, a group promoting an "Employee Rights Act" that would allow union members to withhold dues that would be spent on political advertising the member disagrees with. This group tries to appeal to Nation readers by asking how they'd feel if they were forced to give money to Mitt Romney's campaign, then asking them to empathize with union members coerced into supporting "politicians they don't like." For now, however, let's return to Salzman. Her ad argues that you should not be called an Islamophobe simply for opposing atrocities like stoning or clitoridectomies. Taken that far, she's right. However, if I just happened to opine one day that female genital mutilation is a bad thing, would anyone automatically call me an Islamophobe? Probably not. If there is such a thing as Islamophobia -- The Nation recently devoted an issue to proving its existence -- it has to be a matter of context. It's an attitude rather than an assertion, and Salzman's questionnaire fails to isolate the true Islamophobe. A few editorial changes would fix that. Instead of inviting readers to endorse the statement, "I oppose stoning of women accused of adultery," she should have written, "Muslims as a whole condone the stoning of women accused of adultery." Make similar changes down the line and you get the idea. Salzman's point may have been that upholding liberal values is not bigotry -- and the sad fact is that some people on the left probably would disagree with her -- but if Islamophobia means anything it refers not to your own beliefs but your beliefs about Muslims. It isn't unreasonable to infer from Salzman's test an assumption that Muslims in general agree with all the evil practices and attitudes she expects test-takers to oppose. Her jokey scoring system is more persuasive proof of Islamophobia in The Nation's sense of the word, i.e. a bigoted attitude toward Muslim people rather than a critical stance toward the religion of Islam, than the test itself. It's a nice piece of work when an ad designed to exculpate or vindicate you turns into an admission of guilt. If people complain about The Nation taking the ad, the publisher should dismiss it as a parody for entertainment purposes only.

18 July 2012

Will there be a "capitalism debate?"

In the New York Times this week, David Brooks takes alarm at the President's turn against capitalism. Brooks sees this rhetorical turn as election-year opportunism, noting that, in practice, Obama has not exactly been an enemy of capitalists. The President has paid homage like most people, Brooks notes, at the altar of Steve Jobs, and has made General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt an advisor; both were arch-outsourcers. Brooks is probably right about Obama's insincerity in his campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney, though Democrats may want to draw distinctions between "good" capitalists like Jobs, who can be credited with making wonderful toys available to Americans, and "bad" ones like Romney, Bain being a less popular brand than Apple. For the moment, Obama's strategy seems to have the Republican on the defensive, with Romney childishly demanding apologies while failing, as Brooks notes scornfully, to articulate a defense of capitalist practices. Brooks also notes that Romney isn't alone in his difficulties defending the rough edges of capitalism.

For centuries, business leaders have been inept when writers, intellectuals and politicians attacked capitalism, and, so far, the Romney campaign is continuing that streak. One thing is for sure. As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has said again and again, it’s not enough to say that capitalism will make you money. You can’t fight what is essentially a moral critique with economics. 

What, then, will a "moral" defense of capitalism look like? Romney's best hope, Brooks suggests, is defining capitalism along lines that underscore the necessary role played by entities like Bain and managers like Romney. The candidate's particular selling points, the columnist claims, are "rigor and productivity," with a likely emphasis on rigor as the precondition for productivity. Rigor, for Brooks, means accepting the "downsides" of capitalism ("plant closures, rich C.E.O.’s and outsourcing") as inseparable from its benefits. Romney will have to take an "eat your spinach" approach, the columnist suggests -- an approach that is only ever forced upon a politician by his opponent. In this case, Romney will have to argue, or Brooks would have him argue, that "you need to accept outsourcing and the pains of creative destruction if you want your prosperity."

Even Romney might realize how Brooks's approach begs some questions. If he wants to sell -- or wants Romney to sell -- the necessary rigors of capitalism, he'll have to do a better, more exact job describing the benefits than calling them "prosperity." Such prosperity is inevitably selective, but the Brooksian apologist must try to argue that the country as a whole benefits even if individuals suffer adversity. I'm not sure if a Republican would actually want to defend capitalism on a "needs of the many outweigh needs of the few" or "the national economic interest matters more than individual job security" basis. Brooks will be of little help to Romney even if the candidate takes his advice because Brooks himself doesn't fully follow it. He implicitly asks for a "moral" counter to a "moral critique" of capitalism, but there has to be more to that than "this is the price somebody has to pay for national prosperity." He'll have to make a case, if he dares, for the justice of unemployment and the obligation of the unemployed individual to adapt to adversity according to the moral codes of capitalism. But even if someone attempts to articulate such a stern argument, that still leaves another question begging. Brooks would have us accept the "downsides" of capitalism to get its benefits, but who's to say that the benefits ("prosperity," etc) are actually benefits of capitalism rather than industrialization, communications, etc.? Brooks should prove that premise first before he asks us to eat our spinach.

16 July 2012

Make the private sector make promises, too

Fareed Zakaria's opinion piece in the latest Time summarizes the debate over stimulating the American economy quite nicely. One major party wants to stimulate the economy by stimulating consumer demand, through government spending if necessary. From this perspective, since the supply side (i.e. the private sector) can't expand and create jobs in the absence of demand, "the only cure is for the government to step in, spend money and create demand." The other major party assumes that the supply side (i.e. the private sector) could revive the economy itself "if they were in an environment that encouraged them to do so." Noting that many of the most successful products of recent times (e.g. the iPad) responded to no pre-existing demand, this view sees demand as less important than freedom to innovate, a freedom presumably impeded by a perceived anti-business environment in government today. Zakaria takes a "why not do both?" approach, calling (to the likely horror of deficit hawks) for both lower corporate taxes and more government investment in reviving the nation's infrastructure. I cite Zakaria not to criticize his own stance but to point out the constant implication of Republican (and libertarian) rhetoric that only an "anti-business" atmosphere is holding the private sector back from reviving the economy. We'll hear a lot along these lines this year, and my advice to anyone who isn't a Republican or free-market fanatic is: call their bluff. It follows from this line of argument that there are things entrepreneurs could do now to create jobs, if not for the mean old government and its regulations and taxes. Let's find out what these brilliant ideas are. Let's get these great leaders to tell us how many jobs they'll create if Mitt Romney is elected President. If they're being held back now, they should be able to tell us what they're being held back from. Where are the new products and the expansion plans? If the entrepreneurs can't tell us immediately, that itself tells us something. If they tell us that the economy doesn't work as simply as fewer burdens = more jobs right away, that tells us something more. If they're bold enough to make promises, then we have something to hold them to -- or more specifically their Republican minions -- at the next election. My suspicion for some time has been that free-enterprise ideologues have made "government" a scapegoat for their own failures. Any failure on the part of self-appointed spokespersons for the private sector to make plain promises about job creation in more "encouraging" circumstances would tend to confirm my suspicion. Given their feeble enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, many Republicans would like this election to become a debate between the private and public sectors. They expect to win such a debate based on the commonplace assumption of superior private-sector efficiency. If so, then the electorate has a right to know from that faction of the private sector that subsidizes the Romney campaign exactly what they propose to do -- or at least if they propose to do anything, once government presumably no longer holds them back. For good or ill, we expect politicians to make promises during election campaigns. If the private sector itself, or some surrogate like the Chamber of Commerce, proposes to be a political actor, we should expect and demand similar promises from them, and hold them accountable for how they keep them.

15 July 2012

The Green presidential nomination

The question facing every independent candidate for President is credibility. Common sense may question how Democrats and Republicans remain credible, but the hard fact remains that the two major parties effectively credential themselves by duopolizing government. That forces independent challengers, most of whom, unless they've bolted from one of the major parties, to propose different standards of credibility or different credentials qualifying someone for the Presidency. The Green Party faced a challenge of credibility within its own ranks this spring. Its principal contenders for the presidential nomination were Dr. Jill Stein, a Harvard-educated physician, expert in environmental medicine, and community activist, and the standup comedienne turned sitcom star Roseanne Barr. In theory, Barr was no less credible as a political candidate than Al Franken, though Barr lacks an equal record in politically-oriented writing. Unfairly, perhaps, it is more difficult to imagine Barr participating in dignified parliamentary deliberation than it was to imagine such a role for Franken, who made his name in part by playing a mock-serious commentator on Saturday Night Live's news segments. Unfair it may be, but it would always be difficult to distinguish the message from the messenger in Barr's case, and her persona as an abrasive, obnoxious blowhard certainly helped make her candidacy implausible for a majority of Green primary voters. She won delegates to represent her at this weekend's national convention in Baltimore, but in the end Dr. Stein outpolled her by nearly three-to-one on the first ballot. The convention then tapped Cheri Honkala, once a homeless person, as Stein's running mate.

Stein certainly has the educational credentials as well as a respectable occupation. She has considerable experience as a campaigner, but very little in governance above the town-meeting level. She may prove a familiar face to Mitt Romney, should she be allowed to participate in televised debates, since they shared a stage when both were candidates in the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, in which Stein won 3% of the vote. If administrative or executive experience in the political realm is demanded of a President, Stein must fail to meet expectations. Should those be the only expectations of a candidate? The Green campaign inevitably must be one of ideas, with Stein pitching radical new approaches to economic recovery under the rubric of a "Green New Deal." If you agree with the ideas, should you ask whether Stein actually can implement them? The Greens would help answer that question if they'd run more candidates for Congress. Still, a President Stein would have the "bully pulpit" and would probably never be accused of double standards should she need to denounce a "do-nothing" Congress. Many anti-Bipolarchy advocates would rather see independents focus on smaller, local races first and build a national movement by increments. There certainly should be more independent candidates in every congressional district, but it doesn't follow that one strategy must preclude the other. We need every reminder we can get that there are more than two choices at every level of government, and if our presidential votes are as much matters of principle as our congressional or mayoral votes, then whether the best candidate on principle can accomplish anything in a hostile Capitol isn't automatically the decisive consideration. It's too soon for this blog to endorse a candidate, but I wish Dr. Stein the best of luck in her campaign.

To read more about the Stein-Honkala ticket, visit the Greens' website and Stein's campaign page.

13 July 2012

Dependence is Empowerment, or vice versa

Today's question comes from Cal Thomas:

When people are not limited by government, they do better for themselves and the nation. Why then do so many turn to government when it consistently fails to perform better than the private sector in most categories?

The answer depends on how you define your options. For Thomas's purposes, turning to the private sector rather than government is equivalent to "do[ing] better for themselves and the nation." In other words, the choice between private and public sector is equivalent to a choice between self-reliance and dependence upon government. However, many of the "so many" don't see it that way. For them, turning to the private sector isn't opting for self-reliance, but subjecting themselves to bosses on pretty unilateral terms. They somewhat understandably see turning to democratically elected government as a form of empowerment rather than as a way of limiting themselves. They see government as their instrument for bettering their lives. That it sometimes (or often, if not "consistently") doesn't work that way doesn't prove that it shouldn't. A democratic ideal of government would seem to presume otherwise.

The next question would be why people like Cal Thomas don't see government that way.  Why don't they see a democratically-founded government as an instrument for improving their own and everyone else's lives? A number of answers are possible. If Thomas were a conservative in the philosophically pessimistic mode, he might answer that we can't depend on government to improve our lives because it's liable to failure. In a more moralistic (and more likely) mode, Thomas might say that government can only make some people's lives better by making other people's lives worse -- it can only provide benefits to the needy by taking from (i.e. "punishing") the successful or the self-reliant. American right-wingers, as a rule, don't believe that government has a moral mandate to do this. The natural corollary is that people have no right to use government for that purpose. To date, Republicans have had only limited success convincing the public of this.

The Republican and liberal worldviews are like mirror universes. One side's empowerment is subjection and dependence to the other, and the other's self-reliance too often looks like subjection and dependence to the one. I'm not sure if either side can objectively refute the other, since there remains, in theory, a self-reliant alternative to democratic "co-dependent" empowerment, and it remains possible, from a holistic perspective, to challenge the entire notion of human self-reliance. But absolute agreement isn't necessary in a democratic republic. So long as people's constitutional rights aren't violated -- and nothing in the Constitution exempts citizens absolutely from contributing to the public good -- all we need is for a voting majority to agree on one point of view, and for intellectual minorities to defer to the majority will (while exercising their prerogative to protest) until the next election. To sum up, we don't need to convince Cal Thomas that it's right (or simply our right) to turn to government. All we need to do is outvote him and his side.

12 July 2012

What Romney didn't say to the NAACP

Partisans and spin-watchers are still talking about Mitt Romney's speech yesterday to the NAACP. Romney himself has been talking about it, and in doing so apparently opened himself to the usual knee-jerk attacks. By last night the candidate had reached Montana, where he boasted of having told the NAACP the same things he's told any other group he's addressed, while admitting that he got a different response this time. The issue, for some people, is how Romney characterized his speech. He paraphrased it this way

I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy-more free stuff. But don't forget nothing is really free.

The knee-jerk response so far has been to accuse Romney of racism. You reach that conclusion thusly: Romney was booed by the NAACP; the delegates thus intend to vote for Obama; that means they want "free stuff;" and to accuse black people of wanting "free stuff" is racist. Of course, in Montana Romney was speaking of anyone who supported "Obamacare." That's stupid in its own right, since as everyone now realizes, "Obamacare" itself isn't free stuff so long as the individual mandate obliges you to buy into an insurance policy and subjects you to a penalty/tax if you fail to do so. Defenders of the new law would go further to argue that it means the end of "free stuff" for the people who go uninsured and then get treatment on the taxpayers' dime at the emergency room. Free stuff in the form of health care would be a utopian goal to shoot for, but "the other guy" running against Romney isn't offering that.

Leave aside whether "Obamacare" = "free stuff" and there's a further problem with Romney's Montana remarks. If he meant the above quote to represent what he told the NAACP, then he misrepresented himself. The closest he came to asserting that "Obamacare" wasn't "really free" in his sense of the term -- and remember that no one claims that it is -- was an impromptu citation, in response to a round of boos, of a Chamber of Commerce survey (so much for objectivity) suggesting that member businessmen will be less likely to hire people because of the obligations supposedly imposed by the new law. Speaking in Montana, Romney attempted to create the impression -- such is my impression of his remarks -- that he confronted the NAACP with uncomfortable truths about the consequences of their presumed entitlement mentality. He did no such thing. Readers will recall that I wrote yesterday to criticize Romney precisely for his failure to engage a skeptical audience in such a necessary discussion of first principles. Apart from offend the audience (so the booing is explained) by calling the Affordable Care Act by a nickname deemed derogatory, he did nothing but boast of his aid to charter schools in Massachusetts and his father's civil-rights record and promise that more free enterprise will solve all the nation's problems. His reticence is regrettable yet understandable, especially when you imagine how his "free stuff" line would have gone over with the convention.

The Montana talk is taken by Democrats as proof that Romney expected to be booed and may have provoked booing deliberately so he could take credit later for having bravely talked straight to a hostile crowd. The sad fact is that it's all too easy for a Republican to get himself booed by a black organization without having said anything really provocative, brave or worthwhile. Yesterday's episode proves this, especially if you accept the premise that NAACP delegates are offended merely by use of the word "Obamacare." Merely getting booed doesn't make you a profile in courage, no matter what Republicans may say on the subject. If anything, Romney might have gotten a more respectful hearing had he been more confrontational and critical of delegates' supposed beliefs. People are funny when it comes to criticism after all. We're all supposed to be thin skinned and hair-triggered when we debate politics. We supposedly have a hard time -- I suppose this -- distinguishing criticism from expressions of hatred. Yet evangelists make their living by telling people that they are doomed to eternal torment unless they change their ways, and when was the last time you heard of an evangelist getting chased by an angry mob of insulted listeners? Why is it more difficult to make a secular equivalent of this argument -- to tell a crowd that they will suffer and deserve it unless they adopt different political ideas? This country could probably use some secular evangelists who'll talk tough and scare people yet seem no more the enemy of their audiences than the religious evangelist is. I imagine that Mitt Romney did some evangelizing once as an obligation of his faith, but as a secular evangelist he doesn't live up to his own billing so far. But the other side has been little better, and those who damn both sides still have few hearers. Too many people are happy to preach to their own choirs -- Fox News, MSNBC, the Conservative Book Club, etc. -- because that's where the money is. Romney is running for President, however, and can't use that as an excuse. His talk to the NAACP was like dipping a toe in cold water, then running away and bragging about it afterward. The people who make exaggerated criticisms of his speech only make his brag more convincing.

11 July 2012

Romney, the NAACP and equality of opportunity

The headlines this afternoon report that hecklers at the NAACP convention booed Mitt Romney while the presumptive Republican presidential candidate addressed them. That's probably the story everyone wants to see. Democrats seem to feel good when Republicans are heckled -- they tend to see such displays as deserved rebukes from the masses -- while Republicans will consider themselves confirmed in their belief that the African-American establishment is a bunch of ignorant, intolerant boors. What interests me more about Romney's adventure today is his attempt, as a Republican, to reach out to the voting bloc least likely to support him. The transcript available from Fox News includes plenty of standard GOP rhetoric about Romney's desire to improve conditions for everyone, including African-Americans. The speech also includes some interesting comments on equality of opportunity in the U.S. Romney told the convention that despite what Barack Obama's election seemed to signify, true equality of opportunity has not become a fact in this country. In saying this, the candidate seemed to stray from Republican orthodoxy, which as I understood it insists that equality of opportunity is an accomplished fact -- the corollary being that no one ought to whine about discrimination anymore. Romney, however, pointed out that black people's disproportionate misfortune during the recession belies talk about equal opportunity.

If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.... If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life. Instead, for generations, the African-American community has been waiting and waiting for that promise to be kept. Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide – but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.

But if equality of opportunity doesn't yet exist in the U.S., what prevents it? To answer that question, Romney got back on the partisan track. He isn't about to blame white bigotry for racial inequality -- though he was happy to remind his audience about his father's good deeds for civil rights in the 1960s.  In short, he largely blamed teachers' unions, those oppressive entities that fearfully resist all innovation or experimentation in education. The former governor of Massachusetts reminded the crowd that, while in office, he had collaborated with that state's Black Legislative Caucus to defend the rights of charter schools. Union teachers and their Democratic stooges alone block real reform, he suggested. In addition, he believes that "economic freedom" will equalize opportunity by bringing jobs back to the cities and to the country in general.

For Romney's own purposes, the key passage of his speech was probably this: "The point is that when decades of the same promises keep producing the same failures, then it’s reasonable to rethink our approach – and consider a new plan." This is his appeal to pragmatism and against a presumed prejudice among the delegates to Republican ideas. He talked his usual talk about free enterprise and family values, but he was really promising results rather than promoting values. I'm not sure how successful such an approach can be -- whether Romney can hope to change black votes without challenging their values. While admitting that the Republican party's record on race relations was "not perfect," he didn't linger on the topic. But I'd think that if a Republican really wants African-Americans to vote for him, he'd have to address both what blacks believe about Republicans and what Republicans believe (or are believed to believe) about blacks. It's taken for granted that the black community in general has different ideas about society than the Republican party. There may be more convergence than is usually recognized on subjects involving personal and sexual morality, but the assumption, at least, is that blacks have a stronger sense of communal solidarity than Americans as a whole, and more commitment to a role for government in the redistribution of wealth and the provision of goods for the survival and well-being of everyone. A further assumption would be that African-Americans have heard and comprehended fifty years of Republican arguments against the regulatory welfare state and rejected them -- though Republicans may blame that rejection on an unjustified, prejudiced identification of the modern GOP with white supremacy. In short, blacks are believed to expect something else, and almost certainly something more, from society and government than Republicans either expect themselves or believe anyone else justified in demanding. If I'm correct about this, than someone like Romney, no matter how sincere he may be in his appeal, will find it hard to win over blacks with promises of results so long as his moral commitment, as a Republican, to the well-being of everyone remains in question. This intellectual or moral divide may seem starkest when a Republican confronts an African-American organization, but the honest discussion Romney would need to have with the NAACP about what Americans can or should not expect from government also needs to take place all over the country. Disputes over "entitlement" are the kind that can divide a house against itself -- and a representative of the Party of Lincoln should know well what might result.

10 July 2012

Centocracy and Primary Accountability

In the current American Conservative Leo Linbeck III, one of the masterminds of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, takes credit for bringing down incumbents from across the political spectrum, from "a mainstream Democrat in Texas" to "a Tea Party-supported Republican in Illinois." While Linbeck identifies himself as a "conservative communitarian" who favors "lower taxes [and] a smaller public sector" yet is "closer to my progressive friends" on criminal justice issues, he notes that the CPA has had nearly every possible label attached to it -- "we have been called conservatives, liberals, Tea Partiers, anarchists, right-wingers and both pro-Obama and anti-Obama." That doesn't bother him much. He is more anti-incumbent than anti-liberal. "I firmly believe that a more conservative Congress will not save America," he writes, "In fact, a conservative Congress will probably make things worse."

In Linbeck's view, a right-wing recapture of the U.S. Senate would only give a bad system fresh yet undeserved legitimacy for one group of people. For him, the important question isn't who controls Congress, but what does Congress control. He believes that the legislative branch has claimed too much power for itself at the expense of localities -- not just the smaller units of government but local political party organizations and activists. Linbeck observes that Congress was originally expected to be the more fiscally conservative branch of government, the Framers having expected the Executive Branch to have the strongest urge to spend money. He claims that Congress functioned as the Framers expected for little more than a century, and dates the legislative power grab from the point in the Progressive Era when direct primaries replaced the caucus-and-convention system for selecting party candidates. This was a reform that seemed necessary at the time because the old system concentrated power in the hands of local party bosses who proved corrupt. "Reform was needed," Linbeck acknowledges, "but primaries had unintended consequences -- one of which is that incumbents rarely lose." The movement for direct primaries may not have begun as a scheme to entrench incumbents in power, but somehow it has worked out that way in practice. Linbeck traces the rise of "Centocracy" -- an awkward synonym for what the Framers would have called "consolidated government" -- to the failure of the check party bosses used to exercise on incumbents' accumulation of power. The Campaign for Primary Accountability is meant to reassert that check by funding or otherwise supporting candidates in any party who want to challenge incumbents. Linbeck believes that "anti-centocracy conservatives" can make common cause with "progressives [who] are repelled by the growth of the national-security state and ... believe Congress has abetted Wall Street in the looting of the financial system." He wants the CPA to appeal to progressives who favor localism and are "deeply suspicious of centralized power." For those who think that centralized power defines progressivism, he reminds his readers that "there is ... a difference between progressives and progressive Democrats," just as there is a difference between "conservatives" and "conservative Republicans." Progressives and conservatives can agree to disagree on policy while combining to "move decision-making closer to the people" by restoring local constituencies' power to choose candidates.

Primaries are the only meaningful check on incumbency, Linbeck claims. Term limits, nonpartisan redistricting and campaign-finance regulations are all either inadequate or counterproductive remedies in his view. On the last option he argues that "no law will pass Congress that does adversely affects incumbents," and that wealthy interests will always find ways to influence incumbents, going "underground" if necessary. Linbeck seems to like campaign-finance reform in the long term -- it's one of the issues he claims to be closer to progressives on -- but for the time being insurgencies like the CPA "have to close the funding gap between incumbents and challengers [to] create a level playing field that will force incumbents to pay more heed to Main Street than to K Street."

Linbeck promotes an ideal while ignoring a historical pitfall mentioned in his own article. On the evidence he presents, the only effective check on incumbent self-aggrandizement in American history has been the existence of local bosses with the power to dictate who would run for offices. While acknowledging that "many local bosses were corrupt," he leaves himself room to argue that the old system in itself wasn't corrupt. But he doesn't suggest that the system could operate without bosses, though he reserves no place for bosses in his ideal future system of primary accountability. In his vision, an active citizenry, well funded if necessary, will hold incumbents to account when necessary. Despite his skepticism about term limits, Linbeck might even endorse a return to the old practice of "forced rotation," -- the system that allowed Abraham Lincoln to serve only one term in the House of Representatives before another Whig got his turn in that Illinois district. Could forced rotation be enforced without a boss's power? Ideally the answer would be no, and I think Linbeck is a sincere idealist on this subject. But just as the old system produced bosses who abused their power over candidate selection, isn't it possible, if not likely, that a system designed to check incumbency within a party structure will shift power into hands just as likely to abuse it, if in different ways? If Linbeck depends on money to level the playing field, for instance, might there not be an unintended consequence in the rise of money brokers -- including those like the CPA who are not strictly local -- whose power of the purse would determine who can run for office and who can't? Some cynics might suspect that for the CPA this would not be an unintended consequence, but even if we give Linbeck the benefit of the doubt he hasn't yet demonstrated that his democratic idealism won't succumb to the fumes of smoke-filled rooms. This might be the place for him or others in the CPA to argue that the benefit is worth the risk, or to argue from history that the nation was better off when local bosses, despite their own abuses of power, checked incumbency and prevented abuses of power at a higher level. We'd then have to weigh the historical evidence indicating that Congresses before direct primaries were quite abusive of power in their own fashion.  Linbeck worries that the system prevailing today offers no remedy to the paradox of low public opinion of Congress and high re-election rates, but hopes that he's found its weak point in the primary process. Yet he isn't really proposing to change the system; he only wants to re-activate it with citizen vigilance and enthusiasm -- and money.  It sounds good in theory, but as a proper conservative might say, practice is the tricky part.

09 July 2012

Fraud vs. Suppression in Texas

Texas is one of the states that has instituted a law requiring voters to show a photo I.D. The federal government is attempting to block implementation of the law on the authority of the Voting Rights Act, but Texas authorities claim that the federal legislation does not apply because a state's responsibility to guard against fraud should not be subject to the "pre-clearance" the VRA requires of states with histories of discrimination. The government argues, as has the Democratic party consistently in recent years, that photo-I.D. laws are discriminatory because they disproportionately burden the poor. The case that commences today in a federal court is thus not just a dispute between state rights and federal authority but a partisan legal fight. Historically, the Democratic party has been more likely to be suspected of finding ways to get ineligible people to vote. The Democrats were also historically the party of vote suppression, at least in the Jim Crow South, until the great shift of the 1960s when blacks changed their allegiance from the "party of Lincoln" to the party of LBJ. Republican regimes now rankle under the scrutiny forced upon states because of past Democratic practices. As far as Democrats are concerned, Republican intentions are as bad now as the old Dixiecrats' were, while Republicans see Democrats as the same as they ever were, always out to cheat at the polls by exploiting ineligible voters. Bad faith prevails on both sides. Democrats assume that Republicans don't really take the prospect of fraud seriously but simply want to keep poor people from voting; Republicans assume that rhetorical charges of vote-suppression simply mask Democrats' dependence on fraudulent voting. Republicans seem to think that there's no such thing as vote suppression -- except when Democrats practiced it in the bad old days -- while Democrats seem to think that there's no such thing as voter fraud for anyone to worry about. To take either view for granted is to wear partisan blinkers. Partisanship in general has made the I.D. question more controversial than it ought to be. There ought to be ways to defuse the tension, the most obvious being to minimize as much as possible, if not completely, the financial burden imposed by any I.D. requirement. The situation is ironic insofar as right-wingers are the people usually presumed most likely to want to live "off the grid," or to presume that I.D. cards are a "mark of the Beast," yet left-wingers, by American electoral standards, now seem most concerned with preserving people's right to live without I.D. Objectively, the burden of compromise lays heaviest upon Republicans advocating I.D. laws. That's simply because they seek to impose an additional burden on people who've already exercised a right to vote, and in a manner that presumes guilt of fraud. It should never become more difficult for people to vote, except if you grant government a right to disfranchise people for criminal offenses. Making it more difficult for established voters to vote, no matter what your motive, makes vote-suppression charges inevitable. Leaving questions of partisan advantage out of it, the real question to ask is whether the burdens imposed by I.D. requirements outweigh the risks of fraudulent voting. It won't do for Republicans or other advocates of I.D. laws simply to deny that such laws are burdensome or complain that there's no good reason for citizens to lack I.D.  If they want to persuade the public of their good-faith commitment to preventing only fraudulent voting -- and it doesn't follow that someone without I.D. is a fraudulent voter -- they have to make good-faith efforts to minimize the burden. Otherwise they're reasonably subject to suspicion that their true intent is to keep poor people, the presumed constituents of another party, from voting. Then the question becomes whether laws that have consequences favoring one political party over another are discriminatory in nature. I'd rather not go there, but none of us should let an aversion to partisanship divert us from a serious discussion of the rights and responsibilities of American voters in a fair electoral process.

06 July 2012

Citizens United: the Democrats' excuse

Maybe I'm just in a foul mood, but I found myself quite annoyed by Eric Alterman's column in the latest issue of The Nation. It's one of his usual rants against how corporate-media evenhandedness in political reporting results in a bias in favor of the Right -- or how any commentary is biased, in Alterman's view, if it doesn't identify the GOP and its donors as The Problem with America. That doesn't bug me too much, though it would bug me less if it didn't come with the implicit corollary that the Democratic party is The Solution. What really bugged me was Alterman's whining about the Wisconsin recall campaign which, as you'll recall, failed to remove Gov. Walker from office. It annoys him to read one report that "a record amount of money was spent" in Wisconsin, when for him the real story is that Walker's supporters spent seven times the money recall supporters did. For Alterman, that spending disparity is presumably the sole reason Walker remains in office. Nothing else matters.  He perceives an "extraordinary imbalance that lets one side drown out the other" resulting from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. This rhetoric of "drowning out" is what got to me. Can anyone honestly, objectively say that the Democratic party is "drowned out" of any campaign in which it participates? Would anyone in Wisconsin say that the recall movement and the subsequent do-over campaign of Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee was drowned out? Let me rephrase that: would anyone other than a die-hard Democrat say so?

The fear that whoever spends the most will win an election has always been one of the weakest arguments in favor of campaign-finance reform. There are simply too many cases of the richest candidate losing for that claim to be convincing or compelling. But this is the ground on which Alterman apparently wants to stand. I suspect that's because it gives Democrats an excuse whenever they lose. Democrats don't have to ask how they failed to motivate their "rightful" constituents; they can simply say that voters didn't get the message because Republicans drowned it out. Partisans like Alterman rage against Citizens United, but I wonder if they'd overturn it if they could. I suppose they would if they really believe that the the ruling gives Republicans some automatic advantage, and Democrats some automatic handicap. But such an assumption is itself part of the problem with Democrats, many of whom now seem really to believe last year's 99%-vs-1% rhetoric and assume that the 1% is uniformly against them. But the idea that the only way Democrats can lose is if Republicans and their plutocrat pals spend more money is a fallacy. It relieves Democrats from any responsibility to think about the 21st century. It allows them to rest upon their historical sense of entitlement, their presumption to be the rightful representatives of the working classes and therefore of the majority of the country. It takes too much for granted, including the Democratic party's own ponderous wealth.

Who drowns out whom is a matter of perspective. It irks Democrats to read this, but the real problem with money in politics is not the way Republicans drown them out, but they way both major parties drown out everybody else. Was there ever any thought among Wisconsin voters of replacing Gov. Walker with anyone besides the Democrat he had already beaten? If so, it was drowned out. Is there a perception in the country that Democrats are inadequate to the challenges posed by Republicans, plutocrats, the economy, foreign policy, etc., or a feeling that those constituencies historically claimed by Democrats might be better represented by other people? Those notions aren't just drowned out; Democrats hit them point-blank with fire hoses whenever they appear. If money has drawn a dividing line, Democrats may well whine with envy that it separates them from the Republican bounty, but the rest of us see a line separating Democrats and Republicans alike from any new movement or party we might want to create.  Democrats crying foul over Republican spending is like Godzilla protesting against King Kong's reach advantage. The people of Tokyo may concede the objective fact, but don't expect them to empathize with the giant lizard. They probably wonder instead how there are not just one, but two giant monsters crushing everyone in their struggle for dominance? Which one is taller matters less than how either of them got so big. Any complaint about money in politics that doesn't acknowledge that Democrats are part of the problem is just partisan special pleading. Read Eric Alterman's opinion columns accordingly.

05 July 2012

Church and state: building a wall, or breaking it?

An Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores, Hobby Lobby, celebrates Independence Day in profligate fashion annually by buying full-page ads in newspapers across the country to promote store founder David Green's understanding of the United States as a Christian nation. For the first time, as far as I can recall, the July 4 ad has appeared in one of my local papers, the Albany Times Union. This year's ad boasts citations from Founders, Framers, foreign observers, and federal judges affirming the country's devout foundations, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1892 affirmation that the U.S. is a "Christian nation." The selections may reflect input from David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders, a website credited as an associate in the production of the ad. Barton's website promotes a book in which he argues that Thomas Jefferson has been incorrectly portrayed as an anti-Christian deist. In general, the site claims an educational function, reminding readers of supposedly-suppressed facts about the country's foundation on faith. Its provocative name, taken from the Old Testament, is an ironic reversal on the secular "wall of separation" concept, since the wall Barton has in mind is a Christian foundation for the republic.

Unlike in many cases when quotes have been trotted out to prove the Founders' piety, all of the quotations in the Hobby Lobby ad look authentic to me in terms of language and grammar. Context is, as ever, another story. It might be right to note how we always talk about the separation of "church" and state, not "religion" and state. Some may think the terms synonymous, but the Founders might not have agreed. It might be one thing for individuals to deduce that there must be a Divine Providence or a First Cause to which they should show gratitude or fealty. It would be another to assume from that that any priesthood has special authority to instruct or govern humanity. As is often the case, James Madison makes a good example. He's quoted in the Hobby Lobby ad to this effect: "Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe." It's a suspiciously short quote -- the Framers didn't work in sound bites -- that should alert our context detectors. The sentence itself is authentic; it comes from Madison's Remonstrance to the Virginia legislature against "Religious Assessments" -- taxes to support an official religion. The quote used by Hobby Lobby is embedded in this clarifying excerpt.

It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. 

In effect, Madison affirms what we think of as a separation of church and state. In his view, it isn't government's business to tell people how to -- or whether to -- worship the Creator. "Religion is wholly exempt" from the cognizance of civil society; that sounds like a wall of separation to me. The larger quote also corrects an impression Hobby Lobby may have wanted to create. Standing alone, Madison's sentence might be taken to mean that subjection to the Governor of the Universe is a precondition for membership in civil society. In its original contest, it becomes more clear that Madison is actually affirming a notion of natural rights. As a "subject of the Governour of the Universe," that is, man has rights, particularly rights of conscience, that have priority over his obligations to civil society. That notion itself may be problematic to some modern readers, but it should be more problematic to Wallbuilders and Hobby Lobby because it counters the impression they mean their quotes to create. For reasons ranging from the pious to the cynical, the Founders expected people to fear God before they could live morally. They debated amongst themselves the proper relationship between people and religion, but they pretty consistently wanted to keep the state out of that relationship. The most they might do is call for days of prayer, fasting, thanksgiving, etc., but they never contemplated compelling anyone to pray, nor were they greatly concerned about the form of the prayers. If many Americans seem less indulgent of religion today than the Founders were it may be because we have a less cynical or condescending opinion of common people's capacity for reason. Even the Founders, however, would not have given political power to the churches -- they abhorred the idea. Yet that's really what groups like Wallbuilders want; they want the nation's self-appointed spiritual leaders to be its moral arbiters as well, with their will having the force of legislation or the support of it if necessary. Their ad boasts, "In God We Trust," but "In Church We Trust" is their real goal. If I'm right, I feel pretty certain that the Founders would stand against the Wallbuilders the way they stood against the King and Parliament. That would be something to celebrate.

03 July 2012

Please, sir, I want to protest!

Does anyone know what a protest is anymore? I have to wonder after reading this story about the sorry spectacle of purported "protest" groups, including the local Occupiers, participating in a lottery for the privilege of holding a demonstration in a "free speech zone" during a designated bloc of time while the Democrats hold their national convention in Charlotte, NC. Organizers have made available 78 discrete time slots for different protest groups, and the lottery apparently determines not whether anyone can speak but when, since there are more time slots available than groups claiming them. An Occupier interviewed for the story contemptuously compared the lottery to a church raffle, then contemptibly waited to learn when his turn would come. The report reveals that it remains legal to protest outside the "free speech zone," so long as you're not within the convention's "security perimeter." The real choice, it seems, is between taking a chance and taking a chance -- between playing a game of chance and risking punishment for really (rather than "formally") protesting. But what's to protest, anyway? Will any of these people dare tell the Democrats that they won't vote for President Obama, with the spectre of Romney and Republican rule looming near? What we'll more likely see in the "free speech zone," and probably outside as well, is something like the tantrum a child throws (presumably without literal throwing in Charlotte) when Dad and Mom won't let him have his way. A few such children may run away from home, but for most the rage subsides into sullen submission and social-network griping. A modus vivendi develops much of the time. The child may be allowed to put up posters of his favorite rappers or metal bands in his room, and the disaffected progressive may be permitted to vent in his room, or zone. People need to let off steam, after all, and I'm sure that was the charitable thought in mind when the "free speech zone" was invented. Democrats obviously want to avoid any revival of the spirit of 1968, when real protests were answered by what one convention delegate called "Gestapo tactics." A Gestapo, however, takes its antagonists seriously, while a drawing for "free speech zone" privileges clearly doesn't. Protesters today probably don't want to be taken as seriously as their parents or grandparents were in the streets of Chicago. But when they submit to the unbarred cage of a "free speech zone" and call it a protest, why should anyone take them seriously?

02 July 2012

Power, persuasion and manipulation: from LBJ to Obama

Robert Caro's publication of the fourth volume of his decades-long project of the life of Lyndon Johnson provides the occasion for another of Sean Wilentz's dissertations on liberalism and its discontents in The New Republic. Wilentz, a historian of 19th century America who later expanded his scope as a best-selling generalist, notoriously championed Sen. Clinton against Sen. Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries and has remained a critic of a President he clearly regards as inexperienced and naive. Caro's critical biography of LBJ, particularly his defining criticism of Johnson as a man motivated yet undermined by a raw lust for power, must strike Wilentz as a brief for the sort of "mugwumpery" that produced President Obama. Wilentz himself is less interested in Johnson's supposed craving for power than in the ways LBJ used power, both over institutions and over people, to accomplish many things for the public good, from civil-rights legislation to Great Society social programs. The reviewer unapologetically echoes Clinton's 2008 claim that the experienced political operator (LBJ) was more essential to the enactment of these measures than the eloquent agitator (MLK). The refusal of Clinton's opponents and critics to understand what she said, to dismiss it as veiled racism, illustrates the core weakness of the Obamite attitude, in Wilentz's opinion.

The reviewer draws a dichotomy between realistic political operators like the Clintons and unrealistic types, like Obama's supporters if not the man himself, who seem to feel that politics should be entirely a matter of deliberative persuasion, debates of ideas decided by objective appraisals of the merits and flaws in each argument. Lyndon Johnson, while Majority Leader of the Senate, saw speeches as pure time-fillers during which he could wheedle, twist arms or otherwise manipulate Senators into voting as he wanted. Once he had the votes he needed, he wanted a vote on the floor as soon as possible, and if anyone, even in his own party, still had a speech to make it was just too bad. Johnson's politics, deplored by Caro yet implicitly applauded by Wilentz, was an art of manipulation rather than an art of persuasion -- or else it was an art of persuasion based on something other than rhetoric or ideas. It may seem cynical to sensitive observers -- the sort Wilentz might call "mugwumps" -- but a case can be made that Johnson symbolically occupies a strategic middle ground that some progressives today can't even imagine. It sometimes seems that the progressive imagination encompasses two polar opposites only: persuasion at the exalted level of ideas or, depending on one's idea of progress, either brute force or hopeless whining. By comparison, when Wilentz reads Caro, he sees in LBJ a leader capable of clever bargaining and psychological manipulation that got men of opposing ideologies to go along with his plans. To Wilentz, the Obama apologists who only complain of Republican intransigence -- a fact he readily acknowledges -- yet can't imagine doing anything about it look helpless and pathetic. Obama was doomed, Wilentz seems to say, as long as he saw himself, in the reviewer's words, as "the latest antidote to the kind of low political scheming that an earlier generation of reform Democrats had seen and detected in Lyndon Johnson."

Whether Lyndon Johnson with all his tactics and all his ruthlessness could have made more progress against a Tea Party Congress than Obama has remains a matter of debate. We shouldn't assume that LBJ would have an easy time based on the ease with which he dispatched Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was helped then not just by his sacred glamor as the heir to martyred JFK but by a fear, more compelling than any anxieties provoked by Tea Partiers today, that Goldwater might actually destroy the world in a fit of fanaticism. Johnson also worked in an environment more trusting of government, before a trend of distrust that he did much (in Vietnam) to start, and one less microcritical and 24-7 vigilant against "big government." It's unclear whether public opinion today would let him get away with the sort of power plays he perpetrated as Senator and President. But Wilentz would probably have us pause before assuming that circumstances and opponents are more intractable now. He emphasizes how weak the Republicans looked when Obama took office after the McCain-Palin fiasco, and implies that the GOP only took back Congress because of Obama's obtuse bungling. He cites things that Obama or the Democratic congressional leaders could have done that Johnson would have done -- but that still leaves open whether today's political culture would have let Democrats get away with any of it. Wilentz suggests that LBJ would find a way to capture public opinion, while Obama gave up such opportunities in his commitment to post-partisanship. I don't know. I don't know whether LBJ can serve as an example to any politician at any time or whether he's a creature of a unique time in American political history. But the larger question Wilentz raises remains relevant in all times. Can we accept that politics is something more than debating -- and if so, can we agree on how much more is permissible within our vision of constitutional democracy? As always, we have to think about ends before we think about means, but ends don't end the discussion. Questions like these keep the study of the dead -- history -- a living, relevant art.