31 August 2012

Romney's Success

Clint Eastwood must have been a hard act to follow, if only because many were still trying to figure out the point of the auteur's presentation while Mitt Romney accepted the Republican nomination for President of the United States. While Eastwood's purpose may have been to refute once and for all the claim that his Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler had been an endorsement of the Obama administration, Romney's was to convince voters to return the White House to Republicans four years after George W. Bush slunk out. Proving that President Obama had failed the country would not be as difficult as proving that the GOP had once again become worthy, even though Americans tend to think in terms of people rather than parties. They must still remember that Bush was a Republican, governed as one and that Republicans think and govern alike on most issues. Romney, however, meant to present himself as something different from Bush, without seeking comparisons with him. So he portrayed himself, as everyone expected, as a successful businessman, whether or not people recalled that Bush was famously unsuccessful in business. At the same time, the nominee injected a note of realism about his vocation, mainly to rebuke a supposed ignorance or naivete on his opponent's part.

That's what this President doesn't seem to understand. Business and growing jobs is about taking risk, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving. It is about dreams. Usually, it doesn't work out exactly as you might have imagined. Steve Jobs was fired at Apple. He came back and changed the world. It's the genius of the American free enterprise system – to harness the extraordinary creativity and talent and industry of the American people with a system that is dedicated to creating tomorrow's prosperity rather than trying to redistribute today's.

It was unclear what Romney thought Obama didn't understand about this. Does he suppose that Barack Obama doesn't understand striving and dreaming? In fact, Romney may assume just that, given his belief that "experience in a business," which Obama notoriously lacks, is a "basic qualification" for leadership of any kind in this country. Of course, depending on what one means by "business," many a Founding Father might appear similarly disqualified, many of them being farmers or self-employed lawyers. To get at what Romney may have been thinking, we should probably cast a wide net. He most likely assumes that Obama, and liberals in general, don't understand the inevitability of failure and the necessity of resilience. In Romney's mind, I suspect, his own side stands for "If at first you don't succeed, try try again," while the other side vainly tries to forbid losing, or else assumes that the first failure entitles someone to permanent government aid. Romney may suspect that the liberal stupidly finds it all unfair and wants to change immutable rules. Such an assumption may explain the popular Republican charge that Democrats hate "success."

"[T]he centerpiece of the President's entire re-election campaign is attacking success," Romney said in Tampa, "Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don't apologize for it." What does Romney suppose that Obama thinks the successful have to apologize for? He doesn't say, of course, and can't explain why anyone would do something so strange as "attacking success." The nominee himself certainly can't imagine the President thinking to himself, "I hate success!" So what does Romney mean by accusing Obama of attacking it? On the most literal level, he may be recalling Obama's infamous "you didn't build that" speech and assuming that any failure to maximize the credit given to original individual initiative, to the entrepreneur or the idea man, is to attack that worthy's success. Beyond that, the most obvious "success" under attack by the Obama campaign and its surrogates is Romney's at Bain Capital, which Romney himself admitted was and could only have been partial at best, since "no one ever is [always successful] in the real world of business." Romney wants us to appreciate his record at Bain as an overall success, yet finds it under attack. This he characterizes as "attacking success." Since the Obama camp isn't attacking the Bain record as a "success," we're left with two possible interpretations of Romney's protest. First, and most faithful to his own intentions, is the assumption that Obama is misrepresenting success as something else out of ignorance or malice. The other option is to assume that whatever Obama is actually criticizing (or "attacking") counts as "success" in Romney's mind. The difference may seem subtle but could be significant. It really depends on how we are to appraise objectively Romney's or anyone else's business practices, whether "success" as defined by the entrepreneur or his political advocate trumps any other interpretation of those practices. Romney has now told us, in effect, that we cannot criticize his practices, or question his "success" simply because some of his risks were unsuccessful and people lost their jobs. A case can be made for that position, since I suppose no one can feel entitled to having one job for life these days. But I also suppose that people who lost jobs under the stewardship of Bain Capital can demand more of an explanation than "them's the breaks," and have a right to determine whether there was good reason for them to lose their livelihoods. It's one thing, after all, to admit that adversity in life is probably inescapable. But to the extent that adversity is man-made, even within the "natural" environment of the Market, there ought to be a principle of accountability that is not dismissed as an attack on success. That principle wouldn't presume the boss guilty when people are laid off, but it wouldn't presume him innocent, either. I don't know if Romney recognizes such a principle, or a standard separate from business standards of "success." I'm more certain that he can't or won't imagine business being held accountable to such a standard. Consider his exercise in sympathy with the downtrodden of the last four years:

[D]uring these years, you worked harder than ever before. You deserved it because when it cost more to fill up your car, you cut out movie nights and put in longer hours. Or when you lost that job that paid $22.50 an hour with benefits, you took two jobs at 9 bucks an hour and fewer benefits. You did it because your family depended on you. You did it because you're an American and you don't quit. You did it because it was what you had to do. But driving home late from that second job, or standing there watching the gas pump hit 50 dollars and still going, when the realtor told you that to sell your house you'd have to take a big loss, in those moments you knew that this just wasn't right.
But what could you do? Except work harder, do with less, try to stay optimistic. Hug your kids a little longer; maybe spend a little more time praying that tomorrow would be a better day.

What could you do? All you can do is sacrifice, think positive and work harder, while it's up to the entrepreneurs and the politicians -- or preferably a mating of the two -- to make your life better. These people Romney's imagining can't even start their own businesses, apparently. More to the point, they certainly can't assert any control over the resources of the nation so that they (the resources and the people) can be put to more productive use. They can't prevent price hikes. They can't prevent layoffs. And, as Romney says, they can't quit. But the problem with the country today isn't anyone quitting. It may be that, in some respects, the American people haven't even gotten started.

30 August 2012

They should have nominated Paul Ryan's mom

Rep. Ryan, the Republican candidate for Vice-President, told an inspiring tale about his mother at the national convention last night.

My Mom started a small business, and I’ve seen what it takes. Mom was 50 when my Dad died.  She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison.  She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business.  It wasn’t just a new livelihood.  It was a new life.  And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past.  Her work gave her hope.  It made our family proud.  And to this day, my Mom is my role model. 

Sounds like not a bad role model, but I wish Ryan had been less vague about the nature of his mother's business, since people will ask and it isn't easy to tell from a google search. That vagueness also contributes to an impression that Ryan actually may have wanted to make. Without the details -- and I'm not talking about whether she got any government assistance or not -- her success looks, in this account, like a triumph of pure will. Ryan might have scored points for his cause had he explained why (or whether) Democratic policies have made it more difficult for a middle-aged person to follow in Betty Ryan Douglas's path. But I suspect that entrepreneurial Republicans are at cross-purposes when they think about these issues. On one hand, they want to argue that certain policies can make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to succeed. On the other, they tend to refuse to acknowledge the existence of insurmountable obstacles to success. Here's Ryan from the same speech:

Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate. 
It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio.  When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life.  I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself.  That’s what we do in this country. 
There's no such thing as a circumstance beyond our control -- Republicans won't hear of it. Opportunity always exists, no matter how many jobs are outsourced, no matter how many potential consumers are deterred by debt. Acknowledging systemic obstacles isn't the same thing as saying, as Ryan insinuates, that poor people are stuck in some kind of dependent caste. But Ryan has no more to offer to people to whom obstacles do seem insurmountable than "I think I can, I think I can." It's a comfortable philosophy, since it can dismiss any failure as a failure of will. Nor is he much of a role model, compared to his mother, since he was on a political career track from an early point -- with Mom's encouragement. He probably has a small fraction of the practical experience his mother acquired; as a politician he probably can't help offering platitudes instead of practical advice. I'd rather hear from Mrs. Ryan Douglas about her experience and whether the politicians or the corporations are to blame if she deems it more difficult for people to emulate her. Since she's tagged along on the campaign trail already, and the Republicans want to sell themselves as the party of entrepreneurs, not the party of a "political class," it should be obvious that Mitt Romney has tapped the wrong Ryan as his running mate.

29 August 2012

Anti-Colonialism: sometimes people miss the real thing

So is there such a thing as anti-colonialism? As we noted yesterday, Dinesh D'Souza, the person most likely to use the word in current discourse, seems confused about its meaning. In his opinion, as far as I can tell, it's okay for a colony in the western world to go anti-colonial so long as they don't go anti-western in some way, while it's presumably anti-western automatically, and therefore bad, if a non-western nation takes an anti-colonial stance. For D'Souza, it's especially bad for an American President to take an "anti-colonial" stance on purely domestic issues, but colonialism and capitalism tend to blur in the scholar's mind. After dealing with D'Souza, you might be excused for thinking there's no such thing as anti-colonialism, as long as you depend on him to define it, but then you run smack into Thomas L. Friedman, who seems determined to deny the existence of anti-colonialism in perhaps its most obvious and commonsensical form.

Friedman's latest New York Times column takes Mohamed Morsi, the new President of Egypt, to task for attending the latest international summit of the Nonaligned Movement. It bugs Friedman that this event is taking place in Tehran, the capital of Iran. The location throws the nature of the whole movement into question.

By the way, what is the Nonaligned Movement anymore? “Nonaligned against what and between whom?” asked Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy specialist at Johns Hopkins. The Nonaligned Movement was conceived at the Bandung summit in 1955, but there was a logic to it then. The world was divided between Western democratic capitalists and Eastern Communists, and developing states like Egypt, Yugoslavia and Indonesia declared themselves “nonaligned” with these two blocs. But “there is no Communist bloc today,” said Mandelbaum. “The main division in the world is between democratic and undemocratic countries.”

Is Morsi nonaligned in that choice? Is he nonaligned when it comes to choosing between democracies and dictatorships — especially the Iranian one that is so complicit in crushing the Syrian rebellion as well? And by the way, why is Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, lending his hand to this Iranian whitewashing festival? What a betrayal of Iranian democrats. 

Friedman and Mandelbaum forget that back in 1955 the typical American opinionator would likely have perceived the original Nonaligned Movement little differently from the way they perceive the present one. To have been nonaligned between Communism and capitalism, in American eyes, was morally equivalent to being nonaligned between dictatorship and democracy. Dictatorship, from the American perspective, was the essence of communism, and not to oppose the enemy under either name was a confession of moral bankruptcy. The columnist and the specialist miss a main point of the Nonaligned Movement then and now. With the notable exception of Yugoslavia, a Communist state that refused allegiance to the USSR, the Nonaligned nations were "Third World" nations, most newly independent and appropriately wary of the influence of the west in capitalist or communist form. They might experiment with socialism or communism, but hoped to do so in a manner that didn't make them as dependent upon the Soviet Union as they were with any other European power in the past. Nor did they wish to be locked in any political model dictated on alleged moral grounds by the United States, or to be restrained from taking measures considered necessary for national development, national security or social justice by American objections on behalf of individual or entrepreneurial liberty. For that reason in particular, a Nonaligned movement defined by any critical distance from the U.S. will be vulnerable to characterization as apologists for tyranny. But Friedman and Mandelbaum are simply ignorant, shockingly so given their intellectual standing or maliciously so depending on their ideological agendas, to make any proclivity toward authoritarian rule the defining characteristic of 21st century Nonalignment. I can understand many reasons for people around the world to despise the current regime in Iran, but none of these should mean that the Islamic Republic can stand for nothing internationally other than its leaders' own license to rule, or that no nation can agree with Iran on anything without implicitly agreeing with the Iranian leadership on everything. It kinda goes with the concept of Nonalignment that members are bound by no necessary ideological ties -- apart from anti-colonialism. The fact that a nation doesn't want to be dictated to by the U.S. or NATO does not make that nation itself a dictatorship nor its rulers apologists for dictatorship. 

Friedman may feel that Morsi, as the democratically-elected product of Egypt's "Arab Spring" uprising, has some special responsibility to support those people Friedman deems his Iranian counterparts. Again, however, Nonalignment requires no ideological conformity among the Nonaligned. The whole point of the movement is to resist subjection to one power, be it ideological, economic or other. They are perhaps more likely than Americans to recognize ideological proselytizing as self-serving cant, and if they err in assuming that it is always cant, we err in assuming that it never is. Your homework for tonight is to figure out whether Friedman is guilty of error or cant this time.

Update, 30 Aug. As it turned out, Morsi created a bit of a tumult by using the bully pulpit provided by Tehran to call for a "peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule" in Syria and affirm his solidarity with "those seeking freedom and justice" there. That was taken as a slap by Syria's foreign minister, who left the meeting in an understandable huff, and an indirect slap at the host country, Iran being an ally of the Baath regime in Syria. That may warm Friedman's heart a little, but some will see it as a Sunni slap at the Syrian Alawites and their Shiite friends, and it will encourage those who suspect the Syrian opposition of being as dangerously "Islamist" as Morsi himself and his Muslim Brotherhood party. The question now becomes whether or to what extent Morsi is guilty of cant; answering that question should prove enlightening for anyone who tries it.

28 August 2012

When is anti-colonialism un-American?

It's always news in the entertainment business when a documentary does well at the box office, so the story of the week so far has been the opening-weekend success, by documentary standards, of Dinesh D'Souza's movie 2016, an expose of President Obama from a Republican perspective and a warning, needless to say, against his re-election. The numbers don't compare with those for Michael Moore's films, but they're still impressive. Success has brought scrutiny, of course, and many observers are understandably confused by D'Souza's condemnation of the President's "anti-colonial" mentality. Isn't this country anti-colonial in origin? goes the typical objection. Helpfully, D'Souza has clarified what he means by "anti-colonialism" in an interview with Katie Pavlich at the Republican website TownHall. Since D'Souza isn't ready to say that some countries have a right to rule others -- he isn't willing this time, at least -- it becomes obvious that "anti-colonialism" must mean something different from its most obvious meaning for the author. It even turns out that there is a good anti-colonialism as well as the bad kind allegedly espoused by Barack Obama.

[T]he core idea of anti-colonialism is that wealth is acquired by stealing, by theft. So anti-colonialism developed in the third world in the 20th century. And it was an attempt to explain why the west, particularly Britain, dominated the world, and had a better standard of living than other countries and actually ruled many countries in Asia, and Africa, and South America. The basic idea was that the west became rich by invading and occupying and looting everybody else - so rich countries got rich by stealing.

From this it would seem that the American revolutionaries of 1776 could not be "anti-colonial," not just because of a presumably different attitude toward wealth but because "anti-colonialism" didn't exist in the 18th century. But here's where D'Souza cracks under challenge from perhaps the most sympathetic interviewer he'll encounter this year.

Pavlich: Well that’s interesting, considering obviously America fought its revolution against Great Britain for a reason – it’s interesting that Barack Obama doesn’t really necessarily believe in the Founding Fathers considering they fought against that in a certain way.

D’Souza: Right, America was an anti-colonial country, but America was an anti-colonial country first of all within western civilization. It was not a repudiation of the west. In fact, the American founders believed they had found a new recipe with in [sic?]the west, for how to create a new kind of society, better than European society. Also America’s free market anti-colonialism, the core right in the American constitution is property rights. And, the right to patents and trade, and so there’s free market anti-colonialism and then there’s collectivist anti-colonialism.

In that case, is the "core" idea of bad 20th century anti-colonialism the idea that wealth is theft, or is it "a repudiation of the west?" For that matter, is the mindset described in the first excerpt correctly described as "anti-colonialism?" Notice, again, that the core idea of bad anti-colonialism is not "one nation doesn't have a right to rule another." In D'Souza's account, anti-colonialism is more a matter of attitude than a matter of principle. It's an expression of resentment. His anti-colonialists say, "Those Europeans don't rule over us because they're better than we are, [Is this what D'Souza thinks they should have thought?]  but because they're cheaters and bullies." Worse, perhaps, from his standpoint, they seem to say "We don't have anything to learn from Europe," as opposed to the American Founders, who in this account sought to improve upon rather than repudiate Europe. Notice, however, that D'Souza doesn't really answer Pavlich's implicit question: why did the American colonies revolt? Answering might force D'Souza to consider whether, to an extent, the Founders did believe that Great Britain had stolen from them. He could have answered without compromising himself simply by sticking to the "free market anti-colonialism" label, by arguing that the mercantilist trade regulations imposed by Britain did amount to a kind of stealing. But that might beg the question of whether the "theft" the bad 20th century anti-colonialists complained against also took that form -- whether, despite D'Souza's attempted distinctions, the 18th century Americans and the 20th century Africans, Asians, etc. really opposed the same thing.

What has this labeling question have to do with 21st century domestic politics in the U.S.? You'll notice that D'Souza's so-called "anti-colonialism" is not a critique of colonization, of the invasion and occupation of one country by another, but a critique of wealth creation. As such, it has crucial relevance for the author in purely domestic contexts.

[T]he same idea that extends to how do people get rich within countries, and the answer is that they don’t earn their wealth, they don’t get it through hard work or creativity, they get it because of their greed and exploitation. They essentially steal it from the society.

In other words, "property is theft" -- an idea with an impressive European pedigree, by the way, though more anarchist than (as most TownHall readers may suspect) socialist. Back to square one, then: why call this belief "anti-colonialism?" If he must tie it to international politics, why not call it "anti-imperialism," a term still strongly identified with leftism? Perhaps because D'Souza did not want to imply that, by opposing "anti-imperialism," he endorsed imperialism. So does he endorse colonialism? I suspect he does endorse a kind of intellectual colonialism, a mentality that would, presumably find a nation ruling his own against his people's will worthy of emulation for that fact alone, rather than deserving of resistance. The implicit argument of the first quotation is that one country's rule over others is proof of some sort of praiseworthy superiority. If it's wrong to say that conquest and colonization are crimes, what else can you conclude? It might be more fair of me to say that D'Souza can countenance resistance to unjust colonization so long as it doesn't come with a knee-jerk repudiation of all the colonizing power represents. Such a repudiation seems definitive for him as far as the bad 20th century anti-colonialism that supposedly influenced the Obama family is concerned. And that may be why he insists on this label, even though it may mean more to him than to his audience. By definition, the "anti-colonial" person is the foreigner who refuses to be assimilated into the higher culture, who insists on his foreignness to rebuke both the erstwhile or would-be colonizer and the assimilated among the colonized. He is everything Dinesh D'Souza, an India-born Catholic born again into evangelicalism, educated at Dartmouth, and a champion of plutocrats and rednecks, is not. Therefore he cannot be right, or else D'Souza isn't right. It may be just that simple.

Solidarity and double standards: What do Assange's defenders stand for?

Since the government of Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange, who remains in the nation's London embassy, President Rafael Correa has been accused of a kind of hypocrisy. To the extent that he claims to defend Assange's freedom of speech, the argument goes, Correa is a hypocrite because his leftist government has allegedly taken steps similar to Hugo Chavez's in Venezuela to persecute dissident media. Correa's assumption seems to be that the Swedish rape charges are only a pretext; he believes the ultimate plan is for the United States to prosecute Assange for the Wikileaks disclosures. In an interview with the British Guardian newspaper, the Ecuadorian makes clear that he wants to defend an individual against a powerful state. Is this a "freedom of speech" defense? It's interesting to note the distinction Correa makes between Assange, a private citizen, and the media outlets that published Wikileaks material but are not being prosecuted because they "have power." This seems to be his objection to some media entities in his own country. "The Ecuadorean and Latin American press is not like the European or North American press, which has some professional ethics," he told the Guardian, "They are used to being above the law, to blackmail, to extort. I am sorry about good people on an international level who defend this kind of press." More bluntly: "We won't tolerate abuses and crimes made every day in the name of freedom of speech. That is freedom of extortion and blackmail."

Correa thinks that the actions taken by his government aren't much different from those taken by governments whose motives are less suspect. Or so I infer from: "Do we have an unwritten law that we can't sue a journalist? Since when? So nobody should sue Murdoch and his partners in crime in Britain?" Some confusion of terms may creep in here. Correa refers to the phone-hacking scandal involving Murdoch-owned newspapers. Few if any observers see the ensuing legal action as a crackdown on dissent or freedom of the press. Few would call Rupert Murdoch a "journalist," either, while many might concede a "unwritten law' that protects "journalists" but not "moguls" like Murdoch. The implicit ideal of a "journalist" may come closer to Correa's picture of Assange, while Correa's own image of a "journalist" may amount to something closer to a mere stooge of a media mogul. A distinction probably exists in Correa's mind between a citizen journalist and a corporate journalist. He clearly believes that the latter have too much power; his communications adviser has described his country's media as "weeds that need to be cleaned." Whether or not such a conclusion can ever be reached objectively, a partisan government's perceptions can't be presumed objective. At the least, Correa must resign himself to a persistent suspicion of self-interest, as must any politician who attempts to regulate the news media. Perhaps any such regulations must be enacted in the preferred manner for a political pay raise; let it take effect only after the next election, or after the people who enact it have left office. If there's to be a debate over the excessive power or influence of corporate media, it will probably be inseparable from the more familiar debate over the power and accountability of government itself. It would involve asking whether mere individual citizen journalists can effectively blow the whistle on power without the scale and reach corporate media makes possible -- whether Assange could accomplish anything (or, before him, Bradley Manning) without the major media outlets to publicize his material. All power comes with the risk of abuse; people must ask whether the benefits of corporate media are so unique as to justify the risk.

The most simplistic attack on Correa assumes that he would arrest an Ecuadorean Assange without a second thought. The Guardian itself notes that his government has sued an editor whose paper accused Correa's brother of some sort of profiteering. But Correa has not said that Assange should enjoy any sort of immunity for his Wikileaks work; he simply claims that Assange isn't being treated fairly, and would not be tried fairly, by the British, the Swedes and the Americans. Why should that matter to the president of Ecuador? The main reason, officially, is that Assange sought asylum there. But the perception of Assange as some anti-imperialist (or anti-American) crusader most likely made his case interesting to one of the many Latin American leaders who resent U.S. hegemony in the western hemisphere. While we should take seriously (without automatically affirming) the distinctions Correa might draw between Assange's role and that of those journalists assumed to be his counterparts, the main factor behind the grant of asylum may have been the simple perception that Assange and Correa are on the same side of some great global struggle. Whether that makes either man guilty of a double standard may depend ultimately on whether you think all struggles and all sides involved are equal. Once more, none of this puts Julian Assange above the law of Sweden or any other country, but asylum is a fact of international law and there, like it or not, the matter rests.

27 August 2012

Romney on Creative Destruction

"IT TAKES A LEAP OF FAITH for governments to stand aside and allow the creative destruction inherent in a free economy, but it's a leap that has been successfully made by every advanced economy in the world....Creative destruction is unquestionably stressful -- on workers, managers, owners, bankers, suppliers, customers and the communities that surround the affected business. The pressures these groups put on political leaders to block game-changing innovations can be intense....

"Despite the benefits to the country, the consumer and the overall workforce from productivity-enhancing innovations, they often face considerable opposition. Managers of corporations that are disadvantaged by a competitor's productivity-enhancing innovation may lobby to prohibit the innovation or the competition....Unions as well often oppose productivity innovations that will lead to reduced employment; understandably, they aren't persuaded by arguments that workers will eventually find employment in new enterprises. And they may worry that even if new jobs are created, these jobs will not be in their union. Typically, they work to block such innovations in two ways. First, they threaten to strike a company that wants to adopt a productivity-enhancing new technology. Second, the exert their considerable political clout to convince government to impede the innovation....

"There is no intrinsic reason why unionization must reduce productivity, of course. Some unions go to great lengths, in fact, to provide their members with training and skills that make them more efficient and productive. Forward-thinking unions look for ways to make their employer become more competitive. Unfortunately, some union CEOs are less concerned about an industry's competitiveness than they are with how many of their union's jobs they can protect, how much they can increase wages, and how they can impose even more favorable work rules. In some cases, this mind-set has contributed to companies or to entire industries falling so badly behind their competition that they lose market share or fail altogether, resulting in even greater job losses....The decline in unionization in the private sector reflects a recognition by working people across America that continual improvement and innovation are required in order for an employer to survive in the global marketplace....

"Some years ago, I served as a lay pastor....I cannot count the number of times I consoled or counseled a person who had lost a job. Not one of them, of course, saw their unemployment as 'a good thing for the national economy.' It was indeed a deeply traumatic personal experience. The resultant stress caused a few people to gain weight, but most lost quite a lot. When the unemployment lingered, people often aged. Sometimes problems in the marriage or the home developed....For some, when they found new jobs, they received better or at least equal opportunity and pay. For many, that was not the case....

"Given the beneficial effects for the economy, for the nation and for the average citizen, we should not restrict trade or burden productivity. But as a nation we must do everything we can imagine to help the affected people transition to new and more productive employment....Personally, I don't like to see America lose any good jobs. But when I see an American company challenged by a foreign competitor, I don't look for protectionist policies as an answer to the company's problems. Instead, I look to see how that company can become competitive once more, drive off its foreign foe, and propel its own products into foreign markets."

-No Apology: The Cast for American Greatness, pp 110-116.

For Mitt Romney, global economic competition is the moral equivalent of war, and war requires sacrifices. Whether you agree or not with his premises on the benefits of creative destruction and "productivity-enhancing innovations," observe that the Republican candidate for President, the presumptive champion of individual liberty against socialistic regulation, justifies creative destruction and other competitive measures entirely in collective terms. Individuals suffer, but the economy, the nation and the abstract "average citizen," presumably a consumer rather than a worker, all benefit. Note also how Romney notes that the union man is "understandably" unpersuaded by appeals to faith in future re-employment. Does he believe that they should be persuaded, that they should have faith -- or does it really matter to him one way or another. In his book, Romney goes on to discuss the need for retraining programs, citing a program he undertook while Governor of Massachusetts to compensate employers for the cost of on-the-job training of people who were unemployed for more than one year. He writes, "For all the benefits that productivity improvements bestow on the many, we need to make sure the cost is not borne by the few." An admirable sentiment, even if we question the proportions of benefit and cost he assigns. But can everyone really win -- can even survival be assured for everyone -- when competition is taking as an irremovable fact of social life? "[Y]et there are few things as beneficial for an economy and its citizens as competition," Romney continues. If innovation is only possible, as Romney seems to assume, under competitive conditions, then creation will always carry an element of destruction. For the Man From Bain, the implicit opposite of competition is complacency. That begs a question that is philosophical rather than political or partisan. If philosophy has another answer, that will be the beginning of the real opposition to what Romney stands for.

24 August 2012

Liberty and Security: a zero-sum choice?

The text for today comes from a Reason magazine interview with libertarian constitutional scholar Randy Barnett.

The thing I tell libertarians generally ... is you can't make your happiness contingent on getting a libertarian society. The struggle for liberty will never end because there are always going to be statists. There are always going to be people who enjoy security over liberty, because that's another part of the natural instinct that people have. And so the best that we can ever accomplish is keeping liberty alive.

Whether Barnett means national security or, as I assume, a personal desire for stability and minimal comfort, he assumes the classical tradeoff most famously formulated by Benjamin Franklin. While Franklin qualifies the terms of the tradeoff, warning against exchanging "essential" liberty for "temporary safety," Barnett appears to assume an innate tension between human desires for liberty and security/safety. On some level this makes sense. On perhaps the simplest level our desire for safety from violence curtails our liberty to do violence. Barnett presumably has no objection to that sort of tradeoff, though that particular yearning for security is as "statist" as any other. But the crucible of "statism," for him, puts security and liberty in conflict on more levels than he's comfortable with. But perhaps his discomfort results from an impulse to label tradeoffs in more dramatic or portentous terms than they deserve. Ultimately both "liberty" and "security" are labels. Neither exists in nature. Philosophers and ideologues may speak of natural liberty, but most if not all acknowledge the necessity of political power, which doesn't exist in nature, to secure it. To assert a tension or tradeoff between "liberty" and "security" is inevitably subjective. It would be no less objective, nor any more "Orwellian," to assert that liberty and security are one -- that liberty exists only where there is security. Of course, such an assertion begs the definition of "security," but it's always up to a body politic to define both that term and "liberty" to the satisfaction of its members. Barnett may be right, however, to suggest that no polity can ever agree fully or permanently on the terms, and that the struggle for both liberty and security will never end. It certainly must go on so long as some feel that others' desire for security of some sort impinges on their own rightly inalienable liberty, and others feel that someone else's claim of liberty makes their own lives less secure. Indeed, many feel that perpetual insecurity deprives them of liberty, while many others fear that statism makes their liberty insecure. It's probably a natural feeling in either case, and if that strikes you as sophistry, so should Barnett's words. It certainly is a zero-sum game, after all, when the terms of the debate are empty.

23 August 2012

Obama: an American Coriolanus?

CORIOLANUS: Well, then, I pray, your price o' the consulship?
FIRST CITIZEN: The price is to ask it kindly.

-William Shakespeare, Coriolanus

Yesterday I rented Ralph Fiennes's film version of Coriolanus from the library. The same day, I read Jane Mayer's report, "Schmooze or Lose," in the current New Yorker. The Shakespeare play tells of an old Roman soldier at odds with democracy, resentful of the necessity of flattering the undeserving in order to get their votes in a consular election. He resents the flattery more than the democracy, though the two concepts may be inseparable in his mind and a contempt for civilians, if not for common people as a whole, is constant with him. Throughout the history of Western civilization, part of the case against democracy has been its supposed dependence upon such flattery of the rabble. The demagogue, product of democracy's decadence who sometimes became a tyrant, was one who didn't scruple, having no principles, at flattering the mob. He did it eagerly to get power for himself. Consistently, it is the mob, the masses, the poor, the presumably ignorant and ill-informed, who are presumed to want flattery. That craving inspires disgust in Coriolanus. "He that will give good words to thee will flatter/beneath abhorring," he tells a crowd protesting grain shortages. At his most benign, he is almost apologetic about having to curry favor with such people. "No sir, 'twas never my own desire yet to trouble the poor with begging," he says during a campaign appearance in the Roman Forum. There's the shame of it for him: campaigning is flattery and begging at the same time. You have to flatter those people because you need their votes. Why that requires flattery, or seems to, raises more questions about the Roman Republic than its historians or future dramatists cared to ask or answer.

"Schmooze or Lose" is a warning signal that President Obama may lose the fundraising race with Mitt Romney because he has gradually alienated many of his past donors, not because of his policies in office, but because of his attitude toward the donors. Mayer quotes an anonymous attendee at an Obama fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the rate was $30,000 a plate.

“Obama is very meticulous—they have clockwork timing,” one of the attendees says. “After a few minutes at each table, a staffer would come and tap him on the shoulder, and he’d get up. But when people pay thirty thousand they want to talk to you, and take a picture with you. He was trying to be fair, and that’s great, but every time he started to have a real conversation he got tapped.”

The attendee appreciates that such events must get tiresome for Obama. “Each person, at each table, says to the President, ‘Here’s what you have to do . . .’ At the next table, it’s the same.” Even so, he noted that Bill Clinton—who set the gold standard for the art form known as “donor maintenance”—would have presided over the same event with more enthusiasm: “He would have stayed an extra hour.” After that Four Seasons dinner, the attendee adds, “people were a little mad.”
Mayer notes that Obama is conscientiously constrained from pursuing donors with the same ardor that Clinton did because he has so often spoken out against the influence of large campaign donations in politics and against the Citizens United decision in particular. She also reports the observations of donors and supporters who notes that Obama is simply a different personality type from Clinton (or Romney). One big donor observes: "Obama is not a lover by nature. He is so private, and so emotionally and intellectually honest. He doesn't like to stroke people." Yet he must.

Here's the risk Obama runs: that too many otherwise likely Democratic donors will echo the attitude of this one.

“There’s been no thanks for anyone!” the major Democratic donor says. He adds that in 2008 he gave “multiple millions” to groups working to elect Obama. But, he notes, although he has attended various White House functions, and has met Obama on several occasions, “I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.” He says that he has been introduced twice to Jarrett, “and neither time did she remember who I am.” Instead, he says, “she seemed to think she was blessing me by breathing in the same space.” Despite repeated pitches, he has not yet given money to Priorities USA. In his view, the Obama White House has not followed the fundamental rule of donor maintenance, which he himself has practiced while fund-raising for other causes: “You have to suck up!” With Obama, he says, “I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, an ego thing, or an intellectual thing. I just don’t get it. But people want to be kissed. They want to be thanked.” Obama, he says, is “so interested in doing the right thing that he thought other people would be interested in him for doing the right thing, and he thinks that’s all that’s needed.”

The President's unconventional background and unusually rapid political rise may have made him less conscious of his presumed dependence upon big donors and less reverential toward wealth than his fellow pols of our time. His much-noted choice to become a community organizer rather than chase the big bucks may be telling in this respect, if not in the ways Republicans have claimed. He may not see that the rich are people, too, with the same yearning for recognition, for flattery. Even as supposedly principled a liberal as George Soros has not given this year as Democrats feel he should, and some observers feel (whether Soros himself does or not) that Obama "pissed on him" in some way or another by failing to show the proper courtesy. "He didn't want a fucking thing!" a Soros confidant says, "He just wanted to be taken seriously." Whether it's granting someone like Soros a private audience or posing for a photograph that someone can flaunt at home, Obama can't satisfy what so many seem to demand. But the demands, no matter how petty or emotional, just as completely belie the whole idea of campaign donations as acts of disinterested benevolence as would any proof that a politician had fixed policy to benefit a major fundraiser. If you donate to a candidate, a party or a PAC out of disinterested benevolence you should expect nothing in return but good government. Any greater expectation, or any expectation for yourself, is corrupt -- not necessarily in a criminal sense, but still corrupt in terms that the Founders would have understood. They worried that democracy was susceptible to corruption through flattery of the poor, as political thinkers in the West have always worried. But now the rich -- even the liberal rich and the progressive rich -- must be flattered, and the ambitious politician must play the demagogue even in the Four Seasons Hotel. They demand that Obama listen to their notions and think of them as his friends, and without crediting any sense of superiority the President might feel I could understand if he rankles as much under this necessity as Coriolanus did during the consular election. The Roman would have been wrong if he felt he didn't need to give any account of himself to the people, but he probably would recognize "schmooze or lose" as an opposite extreme, whether he had to beg for votes or money. The happy medium would be an informed public, none of whom felt a need for a personal relationship with elected officials or candidates for office, and all of whom could be reached through reason without resort to flattery. But if we accept democracy as a moral imperative and agree that every adult has a voice in how his or her country is run, there'll always be a danger that voters will prefer being flattered over being informed. Recent history seems sadly to refute the ancient assumption that only the poor crave flattery. But if the rich crave flattery still more, can any politician afford to flatter everyone? And can the country itself afford the flattery?

22 August 2012

Legitimate Rape from a Left perspective

In the United Kingdom this week's counterpart to Todd Akin is George Galloway. Like Akin, Galloway is a legislator in the lower of his nation's two houses. Unlike Akin, Galloway is a man of the "Left." Americans may remember him as one of Britain's bitterest opponents of the invasion of Iraq, and some, depending on their partisanship, may still think of him as an apologist, or worse, for Saddam Hussein. He has more recently come to the defense of Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange, who currently sits in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, having been granted political asylum by that country. The British authorities have threatened to arrest Assange should he step outside the building, as they remain determined to extradite him to Sweden, where he must answer accusations of rape. This is an old, ugly story that has brought out the partisan-immunity instincts of Assange's sympathizers, who assume that any criminal charge against a political figure must be essentially political and therefore less than, to use Rep. Akin's terminology, "legitimate." Such is Galloway's position. He questions whether Assange is guilty of anything more than "bad manners" for supposedly having sex with a sleeping woman. For his trouble Galloway has lost his job as a columnist for a Scottish magazine, and has received severe criticism within his own Respect party. Whether the party will let him stand for his seat again is uncertain at this time.

Rape, when politicized, changes the polarity of politics. At its most polarized, the rape question pits people who believe, more or less, that no woman's cry of "rape" is ever to be questioned against people who, for whatever reason, assert an objective definition of rape in order to distinguish between "legitimate rape" and mere instances of "bad manners" or cases when the motive behind a cry of rape should be questioned. For one side, it's arguably an instance of one-way accountability: men must answer when women cry rape, but men may not question the cry. With the other, the intellectual line separating objectivity from misogyny is often hard to perceive. People on both "Left" and "Right" discover occasions to question whether every cry of rape is "legitimate," though leftists are perhaps more likely to question specific accusations they suspect to be politically motivated, and rightists are possibly more likely to question rape charges more generally. You might expect, or want, leftists to show more consistent solidarity with women claiming victimization, but so long as leftists play the politics of personalities or idolize indispensable persons they may sometimes identify with the accused more than the accuser. To the extent that feminism presumably gives every accuser the benefit of the doubt, instances like the Assange case demonstrate that the integration of feminism with the broader left is not as thorough as some might hope and others may fear.  To the extent that rape is a political issue, there may not be coherent "left" or "right" positions. If so, that's at least one proof that "left" and "right" as generally understood don't have all the answers between them, and may not even ask all the questions.

21 August 2012

The Todd Akin controversy and the relevance of gaffes

The clock is ticking for Rep. Todd Akin and the Republicans of Missouri. There is pressure on Akin to quit his campaign for the U.S. Senate before 5:00 p.m. today, which is supposedly the latest point at which the GOP can run an alternate in Akin's place and get Akin's name off the November ballot. His campaign is mortally wounded in many observers' opinion because of the comment he made last Sunday about rape and pregnancy. For those not following the story, Akin attempted to downplay the frequency of rape-induced pregnancies to justify his opposition to post-rape abortion. In doing so, he asserted a dubious medical premise: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." Akin here draws upon folk "knowledge" dating back to the Middle Ages and still popular, the New York Times claims, among Republican politicians. I'd be greatly surprised if not a single registered Democrat believed the same thing, however. Possibly the most offensive idea in that sentence is the insinuation that pregnancy disproves the occurrence of "legitimate rape," the word "legitimate" in this context meaning "actual." With that comes a corollary insinuation that women seeking abortions on the basis of "rape," are probably lying about their sexual encounters. So this is a pretty spectacular and offensive gaffe by modern standards, but let's step back for a second to ask a relevant question: does any person's ignorance of reproductive science disqualify him for political office?

Further exploration of Akin's background and political record reveal a person I'd probably never vote for. If not an all-out Religious Rightist, he has gotten into trouble in the past for appearing to say that American liberals hate God. He backpedaled from that claim to make his stand against a perceived desire by liberals to eliminate religion from public life. None of this follows automatically from Akin's notions about reproduction under duress. A person could be a secular humanist or militant atheist and still show profound ignorance about such matters, and as far as I know this bit of folklore has no religious source. Meanwhile, reproductive issues are a small fraction of a U.S. Senator's responsibilities. Fair-minded people should not assume that proven ignorance in one field of knowledge proves general ignorance in all fields of knowledge. However, that's the logic of the politics, or the spectator sport of gaffe-watching. Ever since the Ford-Carter presidential race of 1976, when I first heard the word "gaffe" in a political context, the news media more than any other group has dreamed of bringing down candidates by reporting some supposedly revelatory misstatement. The quest for the killer gaffe may date back to 1884 when a supporter of the Republican presidential candidate allegedly ruined his man's chances by calling the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," costing the GOP the Catholic vote. But no one statement can possibly define a political candidate or determine his worthiness for office, except perhaps if he or she utters a universally-deplored slur against another's race, religion or gender. None of this is meant as a defense of anything Rep. Akin said. Missourians may find that one sentence reason enough to vote against him in November. But unless Akin's fellow Republicans are absolutely convinced of that themselves, that sentence is no reason for them to bum-rush Akin out of the Senatorial race. A reason not to vote for someone is not automatically a reason to disqualify that person from running for office unless you claim the same sense of certitude about people's fitness for office that an Iranian ayatollah enjoys. Missouri's Republicans would be within their rights to repudiate Akin, but it would be a rush to judgment that says more about the trivialization of politics than it does about one man's mistake.

Update: Mitt Romney has joined the Republicans (and some powerful conservative PACs) urging Akin to drop out but with less than an hour to go before the presumed practical deadline for his withdrawal, Akin has grown defiant, telling longtime supporter Mike Huckabee that there's been a big overreaction to his "get[ting] a word in the wrong place." Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh appears to be using the Akin issue to distinguish himself from Huckabee, a new rival in the radio-talker trade. On his show, Limbaugh notes dispassionately that Akin's position is "the kind of thing that people who do nothing but talk amongst themselves will conjure up, a belief system like that, and they’ll grab on to anything they can to support what their empirical [sic?] belief is." While insisting that he doesn't mean to criticize passionate pro-lifers like Akin, Limbaugh adds that Akin's idea that "a woman's body shuts down in rape" is "just absurd. It's not intelligent." Akin's distinction between "legitimate rape" and whatever else he had in mind is also lost on Rush. When he emerges as the voice of reason in the Republican camp, you know it's not a good week for anyone in the party.

20 August 2012

Obama and the fatal center

Thomas Frank believes that President Obama will be re-elected this November. In a heavily-edited interview clip posted to the Current TV website, the Harper's "Easy Chair" columnist argues that Obama's likability will lift him over the top. Frank himself doesn't like Obama very much. His latest takedown of the President for the September Harper's closes on an almost conspiratorial note. Having hoped that Obama would find his "inner FDR" to fight Republicans with, Frank now suspects that "a second New Deal is precisely what Obama was here to prevent." He now finds the President a practitioner of "dialectical centrism" dating back to Obama's "salute to consensus" in The Audacity of Hope.

Again and again, the president-to-be tells readers how he originally supposed one conventional thing, but was challenged by some other really important idea, then eventually concluded that his original, trite position was correct, with a few modifications. In other words, his platitudes are hard won from the comfy clash of thesis and antithesis. It's the sort of dialectical centrism that not only confirms the base prejudices of the Chevy Chase set but also makes them feel sophisticated in the bargain.

What bugs Frank about Obama's thinking, it seems, is the exclusion of any sense of priority for the interests of labor. It's a big, sad joke for Frank that such a person is called a galloping Socialist by the Republicans. It's hard to tell, however, whether Frank would be happier if Obama could refute such charges once and for all or if he took a "if you really think we're the devil, then let's send you to hell" attitude. Superficially, Frank echoes objections from such people as Sean Wilentz and Eric Alterman over Obama's failure to fight, politically and rhetorically, for his positions. Frank elaborates on this by hinting that Obama has no real interest in fighting or, worse, that the President has no real sense of what the fight is about.

In effect, Obama's greatest failing in Frank's eyes is that he's not an ideologue. The centrist who hankers for "bipartisanship" tends to see politics more as a clash of interests rather than a clash of values, and tends to presume that interests can always be compromised and reconciled. That Frank thinks differently is implicit in his account of Obama's political instincts.

The president is a man whose every instinct is conciliatory. He is not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it. He simply cannot imagine a dispute in which one antagonist is right and the other is wrong. No, there is always something honorable about both sides, some concession to be made by each. His presidency has been one long quest for a 'grand bargain,' as he has sometimes put it, between red and blue. (emphasis added).

American history, of course, has one grim example of a clash of values that could not be reconciled through a compromise of interests. The true ideologue may be the one who sees every conflict of interests as a clash of values which must have a winner and loser -- who believes that in every meaningful political dispute there is one side that must win. World history has many grim examples of the consequences of that approach, taken to an extreme. We need not label Frank an extremist, however. He may feel that the Republicans must lose, but for now all he wants is a leader who can effectively and forcefully tell the electorate why that's so, while playing to win, not tie, with the enemy. Obama, as far as Frank is concerned, is ill-equipped for that job, though it seems, from the critic's own analysis, that the President will be stuck with the job for some time to come. But if things continue as they have, the real question for the future is whether opinionators like Frank will more frankly address the implications of their own beliefs.

17 August 2012

Pussy Riot: or, the accountability of dissent

The conviction of members of the Russian punk band "Pussy Riot" for "hooliganism" in the form of an impromptu performance in an orthodox cathedral will most likely serve as further proof to self-styled liberals around the world that President Putin is a mean guy and a tyrant at heart. The song the band performed was not only political but sacrilegious, and the impression I get from people sympathetic to the prosecution was that the sacrilege counted more than the politics. That won't change the opinion of civil-libertarians, for whom dissent is always given the benefit of the doubt, while "authoritarian" governments are not. Any time that dissidents are accused of violating any ordinary criminal law, as opposed to explicit laws restricting speech or assembly, the criminal law is presumed to be only a pretext for the true purpose of silencing dissent. This was so even in a non-"authoritarian" regime like the U.S. under the Obama administration during the 2011 Occupations. As long as dissidents don't become violent, liberals and civil-libertarians assume that their civil rights (however derived) trump other considerations of government. They may be able to make a compelling case for their position, but my point today isn't to defend either Pussy Riot or the Russian government. Today's point is that this benefit of the doubt extended to dissidents is a bias, justifiable or not, typical of liberal cultures. Liberalism, defined as broadly as possible to include much of the American "conservative" position, takes a certain view of the relation of power to government that encourages such a bias. As opposed to radicals or authoritarians, liberals see politics as the never-ending effort to check the powers that be in society prior to politics, rather than the means to create power and apply it in society as thoroughly and effectively as possible. For the liberal, the quintessential political act is "speaking truth to power." The power in question can be political or pre-political; it can be the government or it can be the wealthy, the employers, the churches, etc. Accountability in the liberal mind often seems to flow one way. The powerful are accountable to the powerless, the rich to the poor, majorities to minorities, and so on. For America's self-styled "conservatives" the public sector is accountable to the private sector, though liberals may disagree on where the power really lies and how accountability should flow between the two. In a democracy, however, accountability should flow in all directions. Everyone should be accountable to everyone else. But class bias, among other things, compromises mutual accountability. If you have no problem calling Republicans "greedy" but consider them calling anyone "lazy" tantamount to hate speech, you have a bias. It may be a bias you can back up by appealing to facts or moral principles, but it's still a bias. Republicans are just as guilty of bias if they consider it wrong to call anyone "greedy" or a "hater" while disparaging any criticism of their own judgmental rhetoric as "political [hence illegitimate?] correctness." Democracy is doomed if everyone takes an "I can judge you but you can't judge me" attitude. Just such an attitude keeps left and right, not to mention many others, from listening to each other. Ironically, it's such an attitude that seems to say that Orthodox worshippers have to listen to Pussy Riot, when the mood strikes the band, without consulting the law. In my ideal world that band wouldn't be prosecuted, but Russia, needless to say, isn't my ideal world, and in any event prosecution doesn't necessarily equal persecution, as many of the band's defenders seem to assume. Accountability isn't always a mask for oppression -- and doesn't it become oppressive, in a different way, if you grant immunity to accountability to anyone who can claim "free expression" in the name of "dissent?" Do you really want to say that, unless they grab a weapon or damage property, that "dissidents" can get away with anything? Most people don't actually believe that, anyway, based on attitudes toward dissidents from the "far right," but a lot of people are acting as if they do in their reactions to the Pussy Riot case. But just to be fair, I'll let the band have the last word.

16 August 2012

The hate that 'hate' produced: the National Organization for Marriage's non sequitur of the week

Since the news broke yesterday of the wounding of a security guard in the thwarting of an attempted amoklauf at the Family Research Center it has become more clear that the shooter meant to make a political statement. He is reported to have worked for a gay-rights group and is said to have made a denunciation of the FRC, a "family values" group opposed to gay marriage rights, before firing on the guard. The gay marriage controversy -- including the trivial tempest over the opinions (rather than the policy) of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain president -- apparently contributed to driving the shooter off the deep end. It would be fair to describe him as a hater, whether he believes himself to have acted dispassionately and according to some political necessity or not. What did he hate? It's too soon for most of us to know for certain, but we can guess that he hated the "Christian Right" to an ultimately violent degree. If so, why did he hate them? In attempting to answer this question, Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group allied to the FRC in opposition to marriage equality, presumes too much for plainly self-interested reasons. In a press release issued after the incident, Brown blames the aborted amoklauf on the specific fact that the FRC had been dubbed a "hate group" by such usual suspects as the Human Rights Campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

 "For too long national gay rights groups have intentionally marginalized and ostracized pro-marriage groups and individuals by labeling them as 'hateful' and 'bigoted' -- such harmful and dangerous labels deserve no place in our civil society and NOM renews its call today for gay rights groups and the Southern Poverty Law Center to withdraw such incendiary rhetoric from a debate that involves millions of good Americans,"Brown writes, "Today's attack is the clearest sign we've seen that labeling pro-marriage groups as 'hateful' must end."

Brown vests too much power in a label he clearly resents. It seems unlikely that the "hate" label specifically triggered yesterday's would-be rampage, and more likely that the shooter would have chosen the same target and done the same thing had the H-word never been used in the debate. Without suggesting that the actions of groups like FRC or NOM justify attempted murder, I still have to conclude that those actions, or the gunman's own perception of them, rather than any label placed on them by activists or propagandists, provoked the attack. The "hate group" label was neither necessary nor sufficient to do so. In fact, when was the last time you heard of a "hate group" targeted for attack in this manner? There have been no amoklaufs or "domestic terror" incidents to my knowledge at Ku Klux Klan rallies, Nazi party meetings, etc. Had such incidents occurred, would it follow that the Klan or the Nazis should no longer be deemed "hate groups?" I don't think Brian Brown would go that far, however he feels about himself and his allegedly exaggerated hatred. "Hate" may be a rhetorical amplifier for people who like to yell or blog, but for yesterday's shooter the simple fact that the FRC opposed his own agenda made its people worthy of death. The people who call the FRC haters or homophobes have no more share in his guilt than any of our public Islamophobes would accept if someone shot up a mosque.

My point isn't to say that Brown has no business criticizing other people's rhetoric. Hatreds on the left are real -- whether the shooter proves a genuine leftist or not notwithstanding -- and no party in political debates is automatically exempt from criticism for irrational extremism. My problem with Brown's press release is his exploitation of an act of violence in order to constrain his opponents' rhetoric. If Brown wants us to accept that his opposition to marriage equality doesn't make him a hater, he should concede that those who call him a hater don't (all) hate him, either. The real problem today isn't simply that we hate each other, but that we presume that those who disagree with us hate us. By suggesting that calling his side haters provoked a potentially lethal hatred in one nut, Brown is only perpetuating the rhetorical hatefest he claims to deplore.

15 August 2012

Amoklauf (or terrorism?) thwarted in Washington

Just because a security guard did his job doesn't mean we should take a failed amoklauf at the headquarters of the Family Research Center in Washington D.C. any less seriously than the incidents in which people are actually shot. In this case, the guard alone was wounded, yet managed to take down the intruder -- by tackling him -- before he could unload on more people. In the latest suspect we would seem finally to have a shooter who can't be tagged instantly as a Muslim or a right-winger. From early reports, he seems to have had some statement to make about the Chick-Fil-A controversy, since promotional materials for the restaurant chain were found on his person. In any event, his choice of target -- the FRC is a leading "family values" think tank and lobby -- should mark him as some sort of leftist if he doesn't prove a more idiosyncratic lunatic. His target was a political one, his motivation presumably political -- though why he didn't take up his beef with Chick-Fil-A is a mystery unless geography made doing so prohibitive. Is this preliminary amateur profile holds up, the thwarted amoklaufer will stand as proof, for whoever really needs it, that American violence is not the exclusive realm of the right wing or the religious fanatics. That would have been obvious to any observer 40-50 years ago, when groups like the Black Panthers were the ones pressing for easier access to guns. Such demands may well have started a cycle that resulted in the rise of the National Rifle Association as tribunes for Americans determined to protect themselves from armed leftists and/or armed minorities. The pacifist turn of the American left since the 1970s may be more difficult to explain, but it's probably only a matter of time before the cycle is complete and more leftists feel entitled to shoot and kill in "defense" of self or something else. Whether we'll then see unexpected people demanding greater regulation of guns makes for a good guessing game, for now.

The ACLU's 'non-partisan' stand on vote suppression

On the same day when a Pennsylvania judge denied petitioners an injunction against a new photo-ID requirement for voters I received a begging letter from the American Civil Liberties Union warning that "America stands on the verge of a terrible outrage." The ACLU wants my money so it can "stop widespread and insidious efforts to deny people the right to participate in the 2012 elections" through "voter suppression legislation ... that would block the voting rights of African-American, elderly, young and disabled voters." Without naming it, the mailing describes a multistate conspiracy to suppress voting "in the very same states that experienced high rates of minority voter turnout in 2008." These efforts extend beyond photo-ID requirements to encompass stricter regulation of voter-registration campaigns and the curtailment of early or absentee voting opportunities. "Left unchallenged, these laws could take the right to vote away from people who've been voting in elections all their lives," the letter warns, "Every single person who loses the right to vote takes our nation a giant step backwards."

The letter reminds readers that "the ACLU is a non-partisan organization" and "we never take sides in elections." While I'm sure the organization has never endorsed candidates for offices, the latter quote doesn't prove the other. Republicans probably haven't believed the non-partisan claim for some time; their propaganda often portrays the ACLU as part of the enemy camp, domestic or global. The stand taken by the ACLU on "voter suppression," though well within its civil-liberties mandate, is sure to throw their non-partisan assertion further into question. Given the almost universal assumption that passage of the controversial "anti-fraud" measures will benefit one party and harm another, and given the barely-concealed assumption that the main intent of all such measures is to reduce the vote for President Obama, is it plausible, or honest, for the civil-liberties union to maintain its non-partisan pretense?

In a way, the ACLU may manage paradoxically to salvage its non-partisan image by completely ignoring the other side of the current dispute. The word fraud appears nowhere in the four pages of the begging letter. At first glance that may be the smoking-gun proof of the letter's partisan bias, or at least a damning failure to take seriously the principal stated concern of photo-ID proponents. It's just possible, however, that by steadfastly refusing to recognize the Republican party's rationale for alleged vote-suppression the ACLU absolves itself of partisanship in opposing GOP measures. At the very least, the group can avoid echoing the Democratic talking-point that there ain't no such thing as voter fraud. Whether executive director Anthony D. Romero believes in voter fraud or not becomes irrelevant. As well, by strictly refusing to identify "voter suppression" legislation as Republican in origin, the organization can deny that it's trying to protect one major party from the other. The denial won't be very convincing for some readers, given the letter's emphasis on 2008 as a reference point, but the ACLU's legal eagles can at least say that the letter doesn't accuse the Republican party literally of trying to rig or steal the 2012 elections. Instead, the civil-liberties union can fall back on the apparently objective position from which ID requirements and other measures look like vote suppression. That is, if you make it more difficult for anyone who has already voted to vote in the future, you can't help but look like you're curtailing people's voting rights. From that admittedly simplistic perspective the burden of justification for making voting more difficult for anyone becomes greater than some proponents want to acknowledge. That doesn't make the case for ID laws impossible; the Pennsylvania judge determined that the new requirement wasn't unreasonably burdensome, claiming that remedies are provided for people who are eligible to vote under state and federal law yet lack ID and that all such people have ample time between now and November to get ID or take advantage of other options. Critics can still decry any additional burden imposed on an established voter, and partisan critics have a right to continue questioning the motives behind the imposition of those burdens. The ACLU falls somewhere in the middle between partisanship and an abstract if not objective commitment to making as easy for presumed-legitimate voters as possible. If it can't help appearing partisan to question the timing of legislation, as the letter does, then let's not go so far in our aversion to the American Bipolarchy that we deny that on some questions one party can be right about another. In the current case, it may even be true that both parties are right about each other. But until the Republicans can make a civil-liberties or individual-rights case for making it more difficult for some people to vote this fall, they should not be surprised if the ACLU, again, appears biased against them.

'We have to have regulation:' Has Romney lost the libertarian vote?

Still on the defensive under relentless rhetorical attack from the Obama re-election campaign, Mitt Romney is trying to stay on message, the message being that the attacks from the Obama campaign disgrace the Presidency and prove that the President is trying to stir up hatred (i.e. class envy) in order to keep power. The problem with Romney's approach is that he can't resist answering the specific attacks. The latest was the Vice-President's strange charge from yesterday that Romney, by deregulating "Wall Street," would put ordinary Americans "back in chains." There is a justification for such rhetoric available, though I'm not sure if Biden availed himself of it -- ideologically motivated deregulation, should it occur, would be a shackling of the citizenry through its denial of the people's right to regulate the market. Biden didn't need to say this, however, since Romney, in the midst of his daily indignation, denied any deregulatory intentions. Specifically, the Republican said: "Of course we have to have regulation on Wall Street and on every street to begin with." That's from a Republican source, the Washington Times. CNN revises and extends Romney's remarks, reporting the candidate as saying: "Of course, we have to have regulation on Wall Street and on every street to make sure our country works well." It may not have been Biden's plan, but his attack provoked Romney into wandering off the ideological rez again. The Republican will have ample opportunity later to distinguish between necessary and oppressive (or "job-killing") regulations, but his presumed electoral base is less likely to make such distinctions; they seem never to have met a regulation they didn't hate. Some, at least, may have their suspicions reinforced that Romney is just another big-government hack at heart. Who knows whether more potential Romney voters are turned off by such statements than potential Obama voters are dissuaded by Romney's protests against negative campaigning? The ferocity of the attacks on Romney does Obama no credit, the plausible deniability provided by campaign-finance law notwithstanding -- though Democratic hardcases like Sean Wilentz might argue otherwise. But if there's any chance of Romney exploiting whatever outrage exists at the most extreme attacks, he hasn't yet figured out the right way to take advantage. He'd be better off staying above the fray and leaving the scolding to surrogates and strategists, but we shouldn't expect anything different from a reactionary, I suppose.

14 August 2012

What is Entitlement? (are we entitled to ask?)

In an ideal polity, Rep. Ryan would not have to wait until he was nominated for Vice-President to convene an "adult conversation" about "entitlement." Whether one can happen now is still open to question. Geoff Nunberg of National Public Radio has tried to kickstart the conversation by discussing the multiple meanings, political and pejorative, of the E-word. In short, the problem with entitlement seems to be that it wills ends without willing means. An entitlement claim asserts something as a person's due by virtue of some kind of group membership -- it's your right as an American, or as a human being. It's a value judgment rather than a philosophical assertion, a declaration that certain conditions should exist rather than a proof that they must. It's bad enough from the perspective of a penny-pincher when people claim entitlement to things that neither the individual or collective can afford, but it grows worse for those of a certain moralistic bent when people claim an entitlement to things that have not been earned, according to the moralist's standards, and can only be earned. Someone who claims entitlement is willing the end but not the means if he demands something as his right without really caring where the thing comes from, whether it's acquired by borrowing or by taking from someone else's earnings. For the conservative moralist, a "civilized" way of life can never be claimed as an entitlement; to do the latter is, from this perspective, no more than an entitlement to steal.

While I have often asserted that civilization itself is an entitlement claim, the conservative moralist might answer that civilization itself can only ever be earned. That's where we end up when we restrict the discussion of entitlement to the assertion of entitlement to things -- to the right to have things, or to have them given to you. But entitlement doesn't end there, and if we expand the scope of the discussion we begin to put the conservative moralist on the spot. If he denies that civilization is an entitlement claim he may concede that politics is one. Through history, politics has been grounded in a different kind of entitlement claim from the one associated with welfare-state liberalism. Politics to a large extent has been founded on an entitlement to keep what one has rather than an entitlement to have. Those who have are presumed entitled to initiate politics and create governments in order to protect what they have from those who have less or none. Classical politics assumed a pre-existing state of inequality and erected safeguards against "leveling" to perpetuate it. By what right did the haves of history create this mechanism for their protection and the restraint of the rest? The reasons had something to do with presumptions of "right" ways and "wrong" ways to acquire things, and with presumptions that the haves are entitled to recruit police forces and armies to protect what they have because they got theirs the right way, while simply taking theirs from them by force is wrong. The further back we go in history, the less persuasive such distinctions may seem, depending on whether you believe primitive property was based on honest effort or primitive force. In any event, the claim on resources beyond your own for the protection of what you have is no less an entitlement claim than the claim on resources you didn't earn specifically or individually for your own survival. The fact that the haves of history have been more able to will the means as well as the end than the have-nots doesn't really change the nature of the claim. Anything other than a raw trial of strength is an entitlement claim, and the absolute absence of entitlement in a society might best be described as anarchy.

 All this may only prove that anyone can come up with an entitlement claim and stick to it even when it has no chance of becoming a reality. Whether there's a consistent basis for rejecting certain entitlement claims and accepting others is another question. It may be easier to frame the present debate in different terms, since what really seems at issue is whether some people deserve to suffer for not being competitive enough in the modern economy, or need to suffer as an incentive to become more competitive or productive. Debating on a relatively abstract plane about entitlements spares some people the necessity to argue for suffering as some other people's just desserts, though you will find plenty of people eager to make that argument online. But if we need to have an adult conversation about entitlement, we should also have one about how much misery a civilized society should be able or willing to endure. We probably can't have one without the other.

13 August 2012

Is Ryan relevant?

Unless Ron Paul has any objections, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin will be Mitt Romney's running mate on the Republican ticket for the presidential election. Romney's selection of the budget hawk came at a moment when his campaign seemed to need a boost, since the candidate had been put on the defensive by Majority Leader Reid's wild charges about his failure to pay taxes. Tapping Ryan is a move clearly intended to energize the base, since the congressman's avowed commitment to deficit reduction and balanced budgets has endeared him to the Tea Partiers, who may continue to believe, despite demurrals already uttered by Romney, that Ryan's budget proposals would be adopted and fast-tracked by a Romney Administration. As ever, the Vice-President will only have as much power as the Constitution enumerates and the President chooses to delegate. Meanwhile, the overall short-term consequence of Ryan's selection may be a wash. The selection of a Republican from Wisconsin, the fount of evil in the eyes of progressives and union diehards across the country, should be a red flag for the Democratic base, who'll also be invited to believe, like the TPs, that Ryan will have more power in a Romney regime than is actually likely.

The columnist Kathleen Parker is probably right when she writes that Romney's choice of Ryan puts the economy back to the forefront of the campaign. As far as I can recall, Ryan hasn't staked out any controversial positions on social or cultural issues, apart perhaps from repudiating Ayn Rand after having once recommended Atlas Shrugged to subordinates. Maybe that will annoy Dr. Paul's followers, but overall Ryan doesn't strike me as a yahoo theocrat. Parker is hot to defend Ryan against the charge that he's no more than a boring white guy. Whether her comments are aimed at Democrats, who are probably glad that Ryan was chosen, or at disappointed Republican enthusiasts for Marco Rubio, Condoleezza Rice, etc., is unclear. It depends on whether Parker perceives the main objection to Ryan to be that he is white or that he is boring. If Ryan is seen as boring, Parker notes that Rubio can be rather boring as well, though their sort of "boring" isn't necessarily a bad thing to her. Her counter-model of a non-"boring" candidate is the hated Sarah Palin ("how's that winky-blinky thingy workin' for you?" Parker snarks), though she regrets that Palin has probably poisoned the well of women candidates for Republicans for the immediate future. If Ryan is seen as white, and if that is seen as a negative, Parker deems you a "superficial moron...check-boxing our way to idiocracy." Her perception, presumably, is that, post-Obama, the parties don't need to concern themselves with demographic ticket-balancing, and that a lily-white ticket doesn't mean that nonwhites are being excluded systematically from power. Unfortunately for her, a perception persists, despite the prominence within their party of people like Rubio, Gov. Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Haley of South Carolina, Republicans, as conservatives, want to keep power in the hands of an established group. You can't call yourself conservative in America and not expect your enemies to think that way of you. You may consider those enemies morons, as Parker plainly does, but when did name-calling ever decide an argument. The question is moot this year, since one candidate on the GOP ticket is indisputably a "minority," whatever his complexion.

Parker feels that dogmatism rather than bigotry is her party's major handicap this year. "The problem is that the party has allowed itself to be defined by a certain faction that insists on purity pledges that preclude the kind of flexibility shifting circumstances sometimes warrant," she writes, "Change isn’t always good, clearly, but rigidity can be equally damaging and alienating." She doesn't follow up on that observation to show that Ryan has that desirable flexibility. Doing so would have been helpful considering that Ryan was chosen in part to please his party's purists. Instead, Parker hopes that, however boring he may be, Ryan could help Romney win not just the election but alienated demographics ("'boring' African Americans, Latinos and even young voters") by presenting " a cogent, comprehensible plan to improve the lives of broad swaths of Americans who have little faith in the future." She may be right about that, but unless Ryan, Romney and Republicans in general can overcome their ideological aversion to promising improvements for everyone instead of insisting on individual opportunity with its swim-or-sink implications, I can't see them inspiring much faith in the people most skeptical toward Republicanism. If any of the party leaders could do that, some faith might be justified, since it would be a miracle.

10 August 2012

Springsteen debunked, Marcuse vindicated?

A highly amusing takedown of the Bruce Springsteen cult by Leon Wielseltier appears in the latest New Republic and on the magazine's website. While Wielseltier's description of latter-day Bruce as "Howard Zinn with a guitar" may not seem like a putdown, or even inaccurate to some people -- but I thought that was Pete Seeger! -- his dismissal of the great man's credibility as a protest singer is persuasive. That's not because I think the writer is right about Springsteen's current music or his ideas -- I don't really listen to the stuff anymore -- though I would question how truly someone of the musician's vast wealth and global mobility can empathize with the common people he claims to sing for. He could well be an American Bono by now, for all I know. What struck home for me was Wieseltier's invocation of the seemingly-forgotten Herbert Marcuse and his assertion that rock 'n roll music in general "prove[s] that Herbert Marcuse was right." Marcuse, a German emigre who taught in California,  was a popular radical thinker of the Sixties and Seventies; you can find plenty of paperback copies of his One Dimensional Man in the older used bookstores. His big idea was that capitalism flourished in a culture of "repressive tolerance." As Wieseltier summarizes the idea: "There will be no revolution in America. This society will contain its contradictions without resolving them." Tolerance undermined militancy in Marcuse's view. It gave the deprived and the oppressed the solace of personal freedom and self-expression. The concept seemed plausible to me even if you didn't buy much else of what Marcuse was peddling. Wieseltier departs from Marcuse by writing "Marcuse's mistake was in believing that this is bad news. It is good news, because we will be spared the agonies of political purifications." Such is the sentiment of someone incapable of imagining, or refusing to imagine, the necessity of some sort of purification -- a conventional sort of liberal who accepts a messy pluralism out of fear of all alternatives. Some apprehension, to say the least, is always justified; when some mighty force rises up to cry "NO!" it may refuse more than is strictly justified. But is it really a healthy society or culture where no one or no group is indignant enough to rise up so? Is it not somewhat panglossian to presume that there are or can be no circumstance in your society, apart from an invasion or a blatant, violent usurpation of power, that could rightly compel such a rising -- one presumably different from what Springsteen sings about? In any event, Wielseltier's invocation of Marcuse inevitably reminded me of the controversy back in the 1980s when Springsteen complained about Republicans using "Born in the U.S.A." at their rallies. It's certainly stupid of them to think the song a patriotic anthem simply on the strength of its chorus, but the easy co-optation of would-be protest music by establishment interests who simply liked the beat and the few words they could make out clearly illustrates both Wieseltier's point about rock -- pop rock, at least -- and Marcuse's overall observation about the inadequacy of "freedom of expression" in the face of certain injustices. My point isn't to recommend abandoning freedom of expression as an ideal or an existing thing worth defending. But we should bear in mind that any uprising against injustice is going to be accused of actually or potentially violating somebody's freedom. Maybe someone should write a song about that.

09 August 2012

Is 'black America' missing a President?

A small controversy has been stirred up among African-American opinionators by the President's statement in an interview with Black Enterprise magazine that "I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America." He went on to argue that his policies have been a "huge benefit" for blacks because they've targeted "those folks who are least able to get financing through conventional means, who have been in the past locked out of opportunities that were available to everybody." Nevertheless, his interview proved controversial less because of what he said than because people hear or read it through semantic filters of inclusion and exclusion. The obvious implication of the President's quote was that "black America" was included in "the United States," though it was also a reassurance, I presume, to readers outside the black community that his policies were not designed to benefit "black America" exclusively at the expense of the nation as a whole. Non-black readers probably understood what he was trying to say, whether they chose to believe him or not. But some black readers don't take the inclusive implication for granted. The opinionators who've criticized the President this time (here's one example; read the comments for more) see his statement as a fresh if not redundant illustration of Obama's failure -- or, worse, his refusal -- to acknowledge blacks as a specific constituency with specific concerns to be addressed. They compare Obama's attitude toward blacks unfavorably with his solicitude towards homosexuals, in his promotion of marriage-equality and equal rights in the military, and undocumented immigrants, in many forms. His endeavors on behalf of these groups don't seem to force a choice on his own part between being President of all the people and being "President of gay America" or "President of immigrant America." Yet critics perceive, though most understand his reasons, an unjustified reticence on Obama's part in publicizing persistent injustices faced particularly by blacks and or promoting remedies to them. In short, those who criticize Obama believe that "black America" still has claims on justice of equal urgency or priority to those pressed by the constituencies the President seems less embarrassed to embrace. For some of these critics, the idea that Obama is addressing those claims in some stealth fashion seems disrespectful. Others may believe that economic policies have little to do with the justice issues that the President has seemed not to raise. Either way, they feel excluded, taken for granted, etc., just as they do when the Democrats show them a white face. Dr. Boyce Watkins gets to the heart of blacks' dilemma in terms familiar to any reader of this blog.

The saddest thing about the experience of the black political orphans in America is that when you ask them why they support the Obama administration, a large majority of them can only say "they're better than the Republicans." That's like a wife saying "I'll never divorce my husband because he's better than the man who used to beat me."... The very same broken, two party political system that the Obama Administration complains about is the one that's keeping them in power. The black vote is held hostage with fear of a Republican presidency, not hope for a better future. Rather than being able to point to any evidence that black quality of life has improved over the last four years, they simply win the black vote by default. There is not much to celebrate about that and more should be expected from any politician who asks us for so much.

According to Watkins, Bipolarchy allows Obama to exploit black voters -- the "so much" Obama asks "us" for is votes --  without having to earn their support. But despite what black critics may see as their typically unique mistreatment by a politician, almost every constituent group within a major-party coalition can make similar complaints, albeit with different degrees of vehemence. As long as they all play the two-party game there'll always be a moment -- except perhaps for the money powers -- when the party tells them that they have to settle for what the party deems sufficient, or else take their chances with the unendurable rule of the Other Party. You can almost certainly find people within the constituencies blacks take to be Obama's pets who feel that he could do more for them and is cynically manipulating them, or taking their votes for granted. If some blacks think they can get a better deal by breaking the Bipolarchy, they'd be wise to recognize the dissatisfied expectations of other groups, even if they feel that none can be as dissatisfied or as rightly expectant as they. If they have no other platform than "blacks first in line for justice," I won't like their chances of winning elections. They're not the only people demanding justice, nor the only ones who see themselves neglected by the establishment, and they won't change American politics demanding only justice for their own, on their own. If their criticisms of Obama are grounded in a commitment to justice for all, and not in some sort of justice-envy, they might have the makings of a movement not just for the good of black America, but for the good of the United States of America.