28 September 2012

The Republican ACORN

Democrats are reveling in irony and slamming the hypocrisy card on the table following reports that a company, Strategic Allied Consulting, hired by the Republican party to conduct voter registration drives in several states, has been accused of fraudulent tactics. In an obvious echo of the charges against the ACORN organization, SAC is accused of registering dead people and all the usual stuff. Like ACORN officials, SAC bosses blame the "irregularities" on "bad apples." And just as with ACORN, the SAC people are almost certainly correct. When you pay people to do this sort of registration work -- not to mention whatever additional incentives might be offered -- some people are going to find shortcuts to success, or at least shortcuts to meeting goals. When this was done by ACORN workers, Republicans saw it as a conspiracy to steal elections, but they'll certainly admit no such thing in light of the charges against SAC. This is hypocrisy no matter how sincere Republicans were (and are) in their denunciations of ACORN. I don't think that many Republicans were lying when they accused ACORN of conspiracy. They knew that ACORN had a mandate to organize poor people, and for many Republicans that's a dangerous conspiracy right there. I doubt whether something called Strategic Allied Consulting had any comparable political agenda prior to the Republicans hiring them, and I doubt more whether they had any reputation as champions of the poor.  This story doesn't really fit the Republican profile, since SAC was recruiting voters rather than suppressing them, so there's not much Democrats can do with it apart from, first above all, laugh at the Republicans, and then refute the Republican assumption that election fraud is somehow an inherently Democratic, liberal, progressive or leftist activity. On the other hand, this would be a good time strategically for Republicans to admit their error in working with SAC and also double down on their determination to eliminate fraud by making it harder than ever for people to even register to vote. It's not okay for either ACORN or SAC to create incentives for registration fraud, but there also needs to be a way to get citizens on the voting rolls easily without help from such organizations and without anyone questioning their actual right to vote. Democrats will want to laugh at the SAC story and have a right to, but I'm more interested in seeing how the two parties, and others, respond seriously to this news.

27 September 2012

Mother Jones strikes again?

If Mitt Romney loses the presidential election, Mother Jones magazine will take much of the credit after publicizing the now-infamous "47%" video of the candidate speaking candidly to donors. To their credit, I suppose, their ace reporter David Corn is not taking Romney's defeat for granted. He has been given a video taken from a Bain & Company 25th anniversary CD-Rom that includes a clip of Romney speaking to his Bain colleagues back in 1985 about the then-new Bain Capital branch of the business. Young Romney explains that Bain Capital had been "formed to invest in startup companies and ongoing companies, then to take an active hand in managing them and hopefully, five to eight years later, to harvest them at a significant profit." 

Corn considers this damning, not for what Romney said, but for what he didn't say. Judged just by the actual words, it sounds pretty innocuous, though early comments on the Mother Jones website infer something nearly diabolical from the word "harvest." Corn, however, finds it contradictory in emphasis and attitude with the rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidate. In 2012, Romney has stressed his experience as a job creator at Bain. In 1985, he seemed not to rank job creation high among his accomplishments or priorities. But this should neither surprise nor outrage anyone. Again, Romney was talking to a specialized audience -- this time, presumably, business people. The private sector does not create jobs simply for the sake of employing people. It probably would have looked ridiculous had Romney boasted of doing so or listed it among the primary missions of Bain Capital.  Nevertheless, Romney would have more reason to defend this video than he would the last one, since it has always been his position that this is exactly how jobs are created: by investing and managing, if not by harvesting. The only other way, he most likely believes, is through the instruments of an undesirable "command economy." Nor does the 1985 video necessarily belie anything Romney has said as a politician, unless another video can be found in which the politician claims that job creation was an end unto itself for him as a businessman. Were he ever to have said such a thing, his credibility as a businessman would probably be more in doubt than his credibility as a politician is today. I don't know if Corn and Mother Jones thought they'd hit another one out of the park with this video, but to me, no friend of Romney, it looks like a swing and a miss.

26 September 2012

'Respect our cultural specifics'

President Morsi of Egypt told the United Nations today, in effect, that no one on earth should insult the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims, he told the world body, cannot respect freedom of expression when it "targets a specific religion or a specific culture." They will respect "expression that is not used to incite hate against anyone." In turn, non-Muslims must respect "our cultural specifics and religious references." This is hypocrisy. You can accept the premise that Muslim nations have been oppressed and victimized by non-Muslims in recent generations without needing to deny that particular groups of Muslims, and perhaps Arabs above all, are some of the biggest haters on earth. The argument that their hatred towards Christians, Jews, etc. isn't the same thing as everyone else's hatred toward them because they don't insult Jesus or Moses is worthless. Muslims have no right to lecture anyone else about the proper limits of freedom of expression. Their doing so insults my culture. As a human being, I do not owe the Prophet Muhammad any respect. I do not owe it to Muslims to respect him. I am not obliged to affirm that he was a great or even a good man. I would owe it to them as a guest in their land not to offend them as persons, or not to go out of my way to insult their way of life. But when I am not in a Muslim nation I will speak frankly about Islam without any consideration for Muslim feelings. I am not accountable to them if I speak publicly about Islam or its prophet, either in my own nation to non-Muslims or to the world in general within their earshot. Nor do I consider it my right to take reprisal if they insult my nation, my culture, or any historical figure I may revere. Let them hate America. Let them hate Christians or atheists. Let them insult us, either with crude jokes or threats of hellfire. But let us remind them, as our ultimate reprisal, that we don't hit them back, we don't burn their mosques, we don't sack their consulates, because we are not children.  This is one case where the "Grow up!" comeback is perfectly appropriate. Muslims can no more have their own way in the world than any other nation or culture, and they have no right to take it out on foreigners when they don't get their way, or when someone other than the person they actually kill says something cross to them. Muslims: if you don't like it when someone insults Muhammad, why not try some old fashioned missionary work? Why don't you try explaining in some other way besides a take-it-or-burn-in-hell appeal to faith or violence why he is worthy of respect from people who reject his revelation and deny his god? We believe we can disrespect Muhammad without disrespecting you. If you can't agree, I don't know if there's room on the planet for all of us.

Vote suppression is relative

A right-wing conspiracy is afoot to keep people from voting in an upcoming national election. The opposition is passionately opposed, going so far as to stage hunger strikes to protest changes in election law.

Hunger strikes? You hadn't heard about that in all the hubbub over requiring voters to show photo I.D. in some states. But that's because the hunger strikes aren't taking place here in the U.S. They're taking place in Hungary, but the story's basically the same, as the opponents of the new law tell it. As far as they're concerned the government wants to keep people from voting. How will this be done? By requiring them to register to vote.

The government justifies the measure by noting that registration will enable Hungarians living abroad to vote, when previously the nearest thing to mandatory I.D. for Magyars was having a native soil address. But from the opposition point of view, as with Democrats in the U.S., any measure setting an additional precondition for would-be voters can only be intended to reduce turnout. Understandably, opponents question why people who were presumed legal voters should have to do anything extra before voting again.

In the U.S., I doubt whether anyone would consider merely requiring people to register a plot to suppress turnout. But one study, cited in the same column in which I learned about the Hungarian situation, notes that existing registration requirements depress U.S. turnout by as much as 10%. The more hurdles you have to jump before you can vote, the fewer people will bother jumping. Any one hurdle might be enough to demoralize someone, even if no one considers registering an unreasonable requirement. Victoria Bassetti, the op-ed columnist, compares the U.S. unfavorably with nations where the state automatically registers citizens to vote, presumably by using a census as a database. On the other hand, many of those countries also issue national identification cards and expect those automatically-registered people to show them if they want to vote. But since governments, in those cases, take the initiative of issuing the cards, rather than requiring people to apply for them, the objections raised by Americans to I.D. requirements wouldn't apply.

Realistically, no one should expect to walk into a polling place without any credentials and be allowed to vote. Most Americans don't consider registration burdensome, but that's because they're used to it. Will they grow accustomed to showing I.D. as well? Only time will tell, but in any country it seems reasonable to require that changes in election law not take effect in the same year that they're enacted. Politicians should not risk the appearance of trying to influence the outcome of the immediate election, and citizens should be granted adequate time in good faith to comply with new requirements. Hungary might teach us that any precondition imposed upon voters could seem unreasonable depending on past experience and present suspicions, but it should also remind us that democracy, especially in its representative or republican form, has always been a matter not just of who actually shows up, but also of who determines who will show up.

25 September 2012

Romney/Ryan's mixed message to labor

Whether Republicans believe in collective bargaining for workers depends on who the workers are and whom they're dealing with -- or it may depend on the eye of the beholder. While Mitt Romney was talking tough to teachers today, telling them that their unions should not be allowed to contribute to political campaigns because it creates a conflict of interest when they negotiate with elected officials, Rep. Ryan lapsed into the attitude of a consumer and found himself a cheerleader for unionized workers. Republicans can write Ryan's deviation off to local bias. The congressman from Wisconsin is an unhappy football fan today after the Green Bay Packers lost last night's game with the Seattle Seahawks. The game ended on a controversial Hail Mary throw into the end zone. A Seattle receiver and a Green Bay defender struggled for the ball. To the eyes of most observers (outside the Pacific Northwest, that is), it seemed as if the Packers had intercepted the pass and secured their victory. The referees ruled that the Seattle player had caught the ball for a game-winning touchdown. The referees are replacement workers -- "scabs" was the old term -- hired by the NFL after the league had locked out their regular refs after the failure of contract negotiations. The replacements' judgment has been questioned by fans, reporters and coaches through the first three weeks of the season. An indignant Ryan tried to reconcile his fandom with his partisanship, equating the allegedly incompetent replacement refs with the Obama administration, but his call to "get the real refs back" may be more difficult to reconcile with his principles as a 21st century Republican. I supposed that Republicans felt any worker replaceable when flexibility and competitiveness demand it. I'm more certain that it is not a Republican habit to give organized labor the benefit of the doubt in any dispute with management -- and, to be fair, Ryan did not say that the NFL had to come to terms with the union in order to get the real refs back. But anyone listening or reading Ryan could infer that the necessity of competent officiating in the NFL placed the burden of compromise on management. This sort of argument may not be available to every unionized workforce; too many people view teachers' unions as a conspiracy to protect the incompetent for them ever to inspire a cry to "get the real teachers back." Or so we assume when people view the question as taxpayers rather than parents. Romney today confronted a New York City school board member who claimed that an opinion poll showed that local parents trusted teachers over politicians with their childrens' interests. The Man From Bain replied: "I don't believe it for a minute. I know something about polls and I know you can ask questions to get any answer you want." Remember that the next time he claims that polls favor him and his agenda. For now, I suppose we should be grateful that the candidate concedes that teachers have a right to strike for higher wages, clarifying within minutes his statement that "I don't know that I would prevent teachers from being able to strike." Romney and Ryan, folks -- a couple of commies.

Idiot of the Week: Madonna

The singer wins the prize at the 2:00 minute mark of this clip, uploaded to YouTube by LiveShowNews. I won't need to say any more.

24 September 2012

A bipolarchy fallacy that may doom Romney

Rep. Ryan spoke to a home-state newspaper this weekend in an attempt to defuse criticism of the Romney-Ryan campaign from opponents and sympathizers alike. He shrugged off criticism from right-wing opinionators, observing that "the nature of conservative punditry is...to kind of complain about any imperfection they might see." Ryan himself feels that he and his running-mate have an ace in the hole: the incumbent's record. He credits Obama with "enormous political skills," which is more than some Democrats will concede, but sees "his record [and] his broken promises" as the President's "Achilles heel." He expects the Obama campaign to continue distracting the country but "in the closing arguments of this, when people bring their minds to bear, do they want four more years of this same stuff? Especially when we're offering specific alternatives on how to fix these problems, and (there is) just his utter failure of leadership. I think we're going to be fine."

Despite Ryan's own talk about "specific alternatives" and his ironic accusation that Obama claims there is "no alternative" to Democratic policy ("There is no alternative" is Margaret Thatcher's line, the "conservative" line), his comments reflect an irreducible Republican complacency that the campaign can't afford. Ryan shares the partisan assumption that anyone dissatisfied with Obama's record has to vote for Romney. he assumes that there is no other alternative to Obama than Romney, that every dissatisfied voter is a Romney voter. But that's not the case. None of us is locked into a choice between voting for Obama or voting for Romney. We can go without voting for President, or we can vote for third parties on the right or left. Ryan's hope is that dissatisfaction with Obama will lead to an uncritical endorsement of Romney, that if you take the Clint Eastwood view that we've got to get rid of the guy who's failed, the only way to be sure we're rid of him is to vote for his strongest rival. Republicans hope that people will vote for Romney for the sole reason of getting rid of Obama. For ideologues like Ryan, his party's "specific alternatives" are simply icing on the cake. Objectively, however, Obama's failures prove nothing about Romney's worthiness for the Presidency. You could believe that Obama is failing, or has failed, yet still believe that Romney and Ryan, with all their specific alternatives, would do worse. In their emphasis on Obama's record, the Republicans expect Americans to conclude that anyone would be better than him -- but that doesn't follow. That's why the focus has fallen on Romney and his impolitic opinions. We don't have to vote for him. We don't have to take it for granted that he'll do better than Obama. It might even be the conservative thing to stand pat with an apparent failure rather than take chances with the risk takers on the Republican side. On the other hand, there are more "conservative" candidates than Romney in the race. Republicans complain that Obama is doing nothing but tear down their candidate, but if the Republicans' best argument is Obama's record, that's just as much a case of "tearing down" a candidate, while Ryan's "specific alternatives" are really no more than the same old Republican "freedom" and "personal responsibility" rhetoric. We've all heard it all before, and we all know that they intend to sacrifice more workers on the altar of competitiveness in the hope that they'll be resurrected miraculously by the divine job creators. Whether any of us have or haven't fallen for that before, why should any of us fall for that now, just because Barack Obama may be a failure as President? Until the Republicans give up the idea that no one has any choice but to vote for them, the Romney-Ryan campaign will say in trouble until the bitter end.

21 September 2012

Do American Muslims have a right to riot?

Before going further, let me note that, to my knowledge, few if any American Muslims have expressed any interest in violently protesting the "Innocence of Muslims" film or the new Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and my purpose here is not to encourage them to do so. However, should they suddenly feel a compulsion to do so, can Americans say no? Specifically, can those Americans most likely to say no on reflex, conservative Christian Republicans, say no? It would seem more difficult for them to do so now. Many of them have asserted a First Amendment right, as part of their freedom or religion, to discriminate against homosexuals. They claim a religious duty to denounce homosexuality and resist the equalization of status of homosexuals and heterosexuals. Their right to perform their religious duty, they claim, trumps any political argument for equal protection under law. By privileging religious duty they threaten to push the nation onto a slippery slope. Around the world, Islamist preachers assert a religious duty for Muslims to protest if not to punish the perpetrators of "Innocence of Muslims." Each Muslim, they argue, is obliged to defend the honor of the Prophet Muhammad, and by extension the honor of all Muslims. If some Christians believe that their religious duty overrides any obligation to respect a national consensus (such as it is) on gay rights, how can they argue against anyone else's appeal to religious duty when that duty conflicts with the national consensus? I'd expect most conservative Christians simply to refuse to recognize the equality of religions, to scoff at the idea that Muslims have the same rights of conscience as Christians, but some may attempt to draw a distinction between the mere civil disobedience they propose to practice regarding gay rights and the violence Muslims might be presumed to perpetrate. But it's hard to say that civil considerations determine the validity of appeals to religious duty when you've already asserted that religious duty trumps civil considerations. The whole point of asserting religious duty is that God's law somehow trumps civil law. Once you've taken that step, how can you appeal to civil law to determine when obeying God's law is wrong? This really is an either/or issue. Either no one can appeal to a divine law above civil law, or anyone can. If God's law exempts you from respecting the rights of homosexuals, it exempts Muslims from respecting the property or persons of those who offend them. Some American Christians scream about the impending imposition of sharia law in their country, but one way to prevent that from happening is to not set an example.

20 September 2012

As others see us: Muslims cry 'double standards'

Many Muslims around the world feel singled out for abuse when non-Muslim nations allow "blasphemous" or otherwise denigrating representations of the Prophet Muhammad or the religion of Islam in general. They claim to be unimpressed by western nations' appeal to the principle of freedom of expression because they see that the principle isn't honored universally. In particular, they see western nations compromising the principle of free expression out of perceived sensitivity to one religion and wonder why no similar sensitivity is showed toward them.

A Gambian newspaper columnist, for instance, notes that "Denying the holocaust against the Jews has been criminalised whilst contempt of another religion, Islam to be precise, is categorized under the banner of free speech." In the writer's opinion, allowing denigration of any religion belies the west's claim of global moral leadership. In Lebanon, Hezbollah boss Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah makes a similar equation between Holocaust denial and anti-Islam expression. Noting how the U.S. seems to rebuke every instance of skepticism about the Holocaust, Nasrallah asks: “Don't the Muslims - followers of this Great religion - deserve to have the same level of presence and a similar law to be issued in their favor?”

Are these Muslims missing the point about Holocaust denial -- leaving aside the point that it is not illegal in the country where the "Innocence of Muslims" film was made? In both cases quoted here, the assumption seems to be that Holocaust denial is banned or stigmatized primarily because it is offensive to Jewish people. They might argue that the Nazi party and Nazi regalia are banned in Germany for the same reason. It should be possible, however, to argue that such measures have less to do with Jews than with Nazis. Holocaust denial, I presume, is banned in some places and deplored practically everywhere not because denying it insults the Jews but because it aims to exculpate the Nazis. In any event, Holocaust denial is something different from generic anti-semitism, which is more freely expressed, and as readily deplored, around the world. In fact, non-Muslim critics of this month's violence quickly point out that anti-semitism is probably more common in Muslim (or at least in Arab) countries than anywhere else on earth today. If they can denigrate Jews (and Christians, and others), it is asked, how dare they throw tantrums when anyone mocks Muhammad? Islamic apologists answer with a self-serving distinction between denigration of religion and denigration of prophets. They claim that, as Muslims, they revere Moses and Jesus, at least, almost as much as they revere Muhammad, and that no matter how much they may criticize Jews and Christians, they'd never stoop to insulting their founding prophets. Our Gambian writer goes so far as to boast that "of all religions on earth, Islam is the only one, which approves the Christians fundamental dogma that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin in an immaculate manner, without a father." But that's only part of the story, of course. A Christian might comment that unless Muslims acknowledge that Jesus's father was God, which they cannot do, they are denigrating his mission if not the man himself.  That point aside, this pious respect shown by Muslims to Moses and Jesus proves nothing, since Muslims revere both men as Muslim prophets, on the assumption that the revelation each man brought was essentially the same as the Qur'an, but was distorted in each case by his followers and successors. Members of the Baha'i faith tell a quite different story about Muslim attitudes toward their founder, who dared to be a post-Muhammad prophet. We should also like to know the Muslim attitude toward people like Joseph Smith who likewise fall outside the approved line of prophetic succession.

It's easy to dismiss many Muslims as hypocrites, but does that invalidate the principle they espouse -- that world peace requires an equal respect for all religions and a principled refusal to denigrate any of them? The answer depends on the definition of denigration. If a person can't say that there is no god without denigrating a group of believers, we have to side with the denigrator against the denigrated. No one on earth should be compelled to affirm the existence of a god out of sensitivity to the feelings of those who already believe. Nor should the atheist be compelled into silence out of the same sensitivity. I would probably agree with Muslims that Islam is too easily insulted, but we'd agree for different reasons. But am I wrong -- is the west wrong -- to believe that Muslims are too thin-skinned for everyone's good? Pragmatism and an interest in peace might require some degree of mutual respects among faiths, and a respect from all faiths for atheists, but the rules for respect can't be written unilaterally by any side. It can't be a matter of a Muslim ultimatum followed by more tantrums.  The world is not obliged to acknowledge Muhammad as a great or even a good man. If Muslims will not accept this without throwing tantrums, perhaps it should be they who are compelled to respect the opinions of the majority of mankind. But if it makes them feel better, they may not be the only people on earth who could use such compulsion.

19 September 2012

More tough guys mock Muslims

French diplomatic facilities in the Muslim world are on alert today after the satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo published a new set of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The paper, which seems to be an equal-opportunity offender, has already been sued, hacked, and denounced by French politicians. Its pseudonymous editor (it's a tradition there) casts defiance all around and refuses responsibility for any violence that may follow. "I'm not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs," he says. And that got me thinking. As I've argued before, the "rights" we enshrine in fundamental law are guarantees of immunity. While they promise implicitly that people won't be prevented from doing certain things, the effective promise is that people won't be punished for doing them. A truly free person will do what he pleases without fear of punishment, while a free society is one where he is free from punishment for certain acts. "I live under French law," the Charlie Hebdo editor says, "I don't live under Quranic law." By this, I presume, he means that he expects protection from the French state against Islamist retribution. From a western, secularist perspective this sounds perfectly reasonable. But how respectable is it? Just for the sake of arguments, let's ask what obligation rests on people, the vast majority of whom have no urge to insult Islam or any religion, to risk themselves in any way to protect those who have such urges and act on them. There should be some obligation of that sort in a civil society, just as we might expect the editor and other opinionators to defend those rights or interests of fellow citizens in which they have no immediate personal stake.  But should that obligation be unconditional? Can someone invoke "freedom of the press" or "freedom of speech" to compel us to his defense for having said or published anything? The stakes differ, obviously, depending on whom you offend, but Muslims are not the only people in history ever to attack the media to avenge blasphemy or other provocations. Before and during the Civil War, newspapers were attacked by mobs for advocating the abolition of slavery in a manner deemed provocative if not treasonous by angry readers. We're probably more ready to assume that those editors and publishers deserved more protection from the state, if not the people, than they received. A free society must accommodate provocation and cannot concede a right of anyone not to be provoked. We can affirm that while still wondering about such tough guys as the makers of "Innocence of Muslims" and the publishers of Charlie Hebdo who certainly see themselves as heroes while plainly resenting the risk involved in such heroism. The French paper, at least, is closer to the front lines, having been firebombed (without casualties) after a similar provocation last year. Still, something about the editor's statement rankled me, and I don't think that was because something was lost in translation. "I'm not the one going into the streets," he said -- by which he meant that he wasn't throwing stones or shooting anyone and therefore shouldn't be held responsible for those stoned or shot. I agree. But when someone goes into the street with stones and guns, someone else has to go into the streets to stop them. In a free society, Charlie Hebdo has a right to expect that hirelings of the state will protect him. But if the editor is a free man, as I'm sure he sees himself, shouldn't he feel some personal responsibility to protect his own prerogatives? The French may not equate "personal responsibility" with "liberty" as obsessively as some Americans do, but my point has less to do with any nation's politics or ideology than with what it means to be a free person as well as a citizen of a free society. In the same spirit of provocation in which the paper published its cartoons, I acknowledge the editor's disclaimer that he doesn't go into the streets with Kalashnikovs, and answer: why doesn't he?

Republicans: obviously inarticulate

Following the appearance of that candid Mitt Romney fundraiser video Republicans are trying to have it both ways. They can't deny their agreement with the gist of what the candidate said, but are desperate to explain why no one should feel insulted by it. Rep. Ryan, Romney's running mate, argues that people are misunderstanding what Romney meant because the candidate himself was "obviously inarticulate" in expressing it. Romney was apparently more inarticulate than we may have thought, since Ryan got the opposite from his talk than everyone else did. According to the congressman, Romney was decrying the fact that President Obama has caused "government dependency" to increase to a critical mass. Ryan seems to have it backwards. If anything, Romney was saying that Obama is President, and has a strong chance of remaining President, because a critical mass of people already are dependent upon government. Beyond that, Ryan ignores the other two factors Romney considers defining for that irreconcilable 47% of the population: a sense of victimhood and a sense of entitlement. It might be more difficult for Ryan to argue that Obama has caused more Americans to feel victimized -- though the Tea Party itself might be evidence for that claim -- or convinced more Americans of their entitlement to food and other luxuries enumerated by Romney. The presidential candidate was clearly looking at a larger picture than the one Ryan paints. Ryan may see himself as an Aaron to Romney's Moses, a more gifted articulator of ideas who makes up for his partner's halting speech. But his apologia for the Romney video throws his own comprehension, not Romney's communication skills, into question.

18 September 2012

The 47 per cent solution

One of the supreme laws of Bipolarchy is tu quoque. Loosely translated, the Latin means, "you do it, too." A presumption of hypocrisy is meant to preempt criticism of any individual's mistakes or gaffes. Why get worked up over what the man from Party X did or said when the man from Party Y said or did this? It was inevitable, then, that following the emergence of a candid video recording of Mitt Romney addressing hoped-for donors some Republicans would want to travel back in time to 2008 in search of moral equivalence or, something worse Barack Obama said.

As the nation now knows, sometime this year -- the date, to my knowledge, hasn't been divulged yet -- Romney delivered an opinion that may go down as the fatal "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" moment of his presidential campaign. In response to a question, he said, "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That, that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what." He added that "my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Here's more:

To be fair, Romney clearly meant it was not his job as a candidate to worry about them, since his position then and now is that is policies will benefit those people whether they like them or not. Nevertheless, the outrage Democrats and their sympathizers feel over Romney's remarks seems fairly justified. There's a contempt in his unguarded language here, especially in the bitter emphasis he places on the word entitlement. There's a sense that the 47% are hopeless if not irredeemable, and that if Romney can make their lives better, it'll be in spite of themselves.

Romney has been lambasted by several prominent Republican opinionators, some of whom note the paradoxical fact that many Republican voters are in a condition of dependence upon government, yet are not the uncritically grateful thralls Romney describes. But while that minority criticizes the candidate's manner or his choice of words, and a smaller number actually applaud both, finding the sentiments the closest Romney has come to their own, the instinctual impulse is to recall when President Obama might have insulted a lot of people. Republicans didn't have to look far, for they've never forgiven Obama for the remarks made public in April 2008, while he was still contending for the Democratic nomination against then-Senator Clinton.

Which words are worse is inevitably a matter of perspective. Jonah Goldberg, a Republican, still finds Obama's remarks "far more offensive" while finding plenty to criticize in Romney's, while Joe Klein, presumably a Democrat, finds Romney's comments "far worse," though he notes that both men were "playing to the prejudices of their funders." Prejudices aside, an objective standard for determining whether candid remarks are impolitic or not should be available. To be objective, let's leave aside the questions of whether it's worse to cling to guns and religion or to claim entitlements from government, or whether it's worse to accuse people of reactionary clinging or an entitlement mentality. Putting those aside, two distinctions stand out. First, Obama contextualizes his difficulty in a way Romney doesn't. That is, the Democrat's whole point is to explain, and not without sympathy, why people seem unreasonably hostile to his proposals or his candidacy in general. Romney attempts nothing of the sort; the implication of his comments -- as inferred by an admittedly hostile hearer -- is that the 47% who reject him unconditionally have some character flaw, possibly innate, summed up in their sense of entitlement. Romney doesn't care to speculate about why the 47% insist on this; he creates the impression that there can be no good reason for anyone to hold those beliefs. Second, and perhaps more importantly, while I assumed earlier that Romney meant that he couldn't worry about getting votes from the 47%, not that he didn't ever have to worry about whether they survive, the idea of giving up on persuading a near-majority of the American electorate is something no politician should express. By comparison, Obama notes that he can't take for granted from demographics or economic statistics that any place will support him. He might expect that hard times would make people receptive to the change he promises, but often finds skepticism instead. Obama then wins this long-distance debate with Romney with eight simple words: "The important thing is that you show up." Even if the candidate finds people's attitudes irrational, he doesn't write them off. He doesn't presume that he doesn't have to "worry" about them. That doesn't prove anything about his policies, but it may prove something about the person, both personally and as a politician. Some in his own camp may wish that Obama didn't worry about people they've written off, but it seems more presidential, even in a mere candidate, to take the other approach. As for Romney, while for objectivity's sake I've tried to put the best spin possible on his statement, I can't blame anyone for inferring that, as President, he would worry about them no more than he does as a candidate. And as for the independents and undecideds Romney does worry about, I suspect that they'll see something wrong in his remarks just as I do, whether they identify themselves with the 47% or not. Nothing Barack Obama said in the past will change that.

Update: Rush Limbaugh seems to understand part of what's wrong with Romney's remarks. While the radio talker reaffirms his agreement with most of what Romney said about the "47%," he recognizes, and claims that Romney also recognizes, that the 47% can't be written off as Romney seems to do in the video. Limbaugh wants Romney to tell them that none of them have to be part of that group, in the course of "taking the gloves off" and "explaining conservatism." Limbaugh is trying to help Romney but in doing so he has to expose the worst aspect of the candidate's remarks. If Romney was speaking his own mind and not trying to pander to his donor audience, his belief is either that he doesn't need to do this explaining to the 47% until after he's elected, or that he doesn't owe them any explanations at all. While Limbaugh himself is among those most guilty of preaching to the choir, here's a rare moment when he's more practical, or at least more pragmatic, than the man whose lack of ideological rigidity he's so often criticized.  

17 September 2012

Why Nations Fail: extraction, inclusion and creative destruction

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson are economists, the former at MIT, the latter at Harvard. Their collaboration, Why Nations Fail, proposes to explain "The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty." The hardcover features three pages of blurbs, many from Nobel Prize winners for economics. These are intended as overwhelming recommendations, but for what? Acemoglu and Robinson are too scrupulous to offer the kind of foolproof blueprint readers might hope for. While they have strong ideas about the prerequisites for power and prosperity, and the forces to blame for poverty, the authors know better than to claim that any specific policy formula can guarantee the good or eliminate the bad. They reject deterministic arguments about climate or culture and stress the importance of contingency in comparative history. But they claim to have shown that wherever prosperity has developed and persisted, there has been a "virtuous circle" of inclusive political institutions and economic structures. These are contrasted to extractive versions of the same that threaten to perpetuate a "vicious circle" of poverty and tyranny. "Inclusive" and "extractive" aren't obvious opposites, but the authors prefer "extractive" to "exclusive" because, while the bad institutions and structures often are exclusive in the plainest sense, "extractive" emphasizes the way aristocrats, oligarchs, imperialists and dictators draw resources to themselves while shutting others out of progress and its fruits. Institutions are extractive whenever a ruling clique uses its power to enrich itself at everyone else's expense. They are the opposite of "inclusive" when the rulers use their power to prevent any kind of "creative destruction." Since the authors regard creative destruction as the engine of progress, they place a priority on political over economic institutions, since tyrants are more capable of thwarting creative destruction than, say, working people.

We had better be clear about what Acemoglu and Robinson mean by creative destruction.

Economic growth and technological change are accompanied by what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. They replace the old with the new. New sectors attract resources from old ones. New firms take business away from established ones. New technologies make existing skills and machines obsolete. The process of economic growth and the inclusive institutions upon which it is based create winners as well as losers in the political arena and in the economic marketplace. Fear of creative destruction is often at the root of the opposition to inclusive economic and political institutions. (84)

There may be a tendency today to see any steps taken by the private sector to increase "efficiency" and "productivity" as "creative destruction," but Acemoglu and Robinson don't necessarily believe that. As historians, they're mainly concerned with self-evident innovations of widespread benefit, whatever the short-term cost to the Luddites of history. They have a regrettably dismissive attitude, however, toward the self-conscious concerns of workers, if only because they take for granted that the working class has never been effective, for whatever reason, in blocking creative destruction. The authors don't really take the theoretical workers' objection to any creative destruction seriously. On a more cynical level, they don't take anyone seriously who raises the topic of consequences for workers. Acemoglu and Robinson tend to see such concerns, when expressed by rulers, as smokescreens for the rulers' own interest in stability, even at the cost of stagnation. They work from the assumption that creative destruction is always a threat to "extractive" political institutions. When Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent to the inventor of an innovative knitting machine, the authors note her protest that the labor-saving invention "would assuredly bring to [workers] ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars." But they infer from this a regal suspicion that "the mechanization of stocking production would be politically destabilizing," if only because mass unemployment would "threaten royal power." It's one thing not to sympathize with a queen, but what about those workers? Centuries later, they note a Russian tsar's resistance to industrialization and quote his warning that factory workers might "turn into a class as miserable as they are dangerous for their masters." Just as with Elizabeth, the authors read this as the tsar's fear that "the creative destruction unleashed by a modern industrial economy would undermine the political status quo." Some cynicism is justified when analyzing the words of absolute monarchs, but there's a disturbing insinuation that the only real objection to creative destruction is its latent threat to political power, which isn't really to be considered at all, while the prospect of even temporary disruption of people's ability to feed themselves is even further beneath the authors' notice. I don't mean to accuse the writers of contempt for workers or poor people, since their main argument is that "inclusive" institutions that allow creative destruction have lifted and can lift multitudes out of poverty. But theirs would have been a more comprehensive work if they had told us what they believe the working person's proper attitude toward creative destruction to be. They understand that workers in obsolete or inefficient sectors will object to it, but they never really say what workers should do about it -- how they should cope with it, since they'd no more let workers veto it than they'd grant that right to rulers.

At first glance, neither author comes across as a Republican or libertarian. In fact, Acemoglu and Robinson are cheerleaders for the centralized state, believing it the only institution that can provide the rule of law that makes societies truly inclusive. Their ideal seems to be a state that has eliminated feudalism, at least to the extent that barons, boyars, daimyo, etc. are no longer laws unto themselves or constant threats to nationwide order, but one that stops short of extractive political absolutism. Neither author is a "West is best" chauvinist. Instead, they are scathing about the damage European imperialism, essentially extractive in nature, has done to South America and Africa. If Great Britain after 1688 had the perfect combination of inclusive political and economic institutions, the writers don't see that as proof of English cultural superiority but a happy historical accident. Nor are the writers knee-jerk cheerleaders for capitalism. They endorse the Progressive Era critique of monopoly capitalism, noting that the successful too often try to preempt competition. "The presence of markets," they write, "is not by itself a guarantee of inclusive institutions....Markets, left to their own devices, can cease to be inclusive, becoming increasingly dominated by the economically and politically powerful. (323)"

Why Nations Fail is a genuinely non-partisan work, which may frustrate readers looking for proof that the Obama administration practices "extractive" economic policies, or that Republicans oppose "inclusive" politics. Acemoglu and Robinson are more interested in the immediate prospects for China than those of the U.S. They predict that China may continue to grow for some time, but that so long as the People's Republic's political institutions remain essentially extractive -- so long as the Communist Party can confiscate and expropriate at will -- it will eventually stagnate as the ruling class becomes more concerned with stifling the inherent political threat of economic political destruction. They acknowledge that growth is possible and has happened under extractive regimes, but claim that there's a more immediate limit to growth under those regimes than under inclusive ones. If they have an ideology of their own, the closet thing to a convenient label for it may be "neoliberal," insofar as they clearly believe in free markets, competition, creative destruction, etc., but clearly also see a place for the regulatory state and a degree of democratic participation in it.

Acemoglu and Robinson have written an informative and thought-provoking book. It actually got me thinking creatively about creative destruction in a way that's only implicit in the book itself. If creative destruction is the proof of inclusive economic institutions, can't there be a political counterpart of creative destruction in the political sphere. The authors would probably say that there is, since they implicitly invite us to draw distinctions between revolutions that actually open societies by making them more inclusive (Britain 1688, U.S. 1776, France 1789, Japan 1867) and mere coups that only put new cliques in charge of extractive institutions. Revolutions prove beneficial, it seems, when they're waged by people who aren't interested mainly (if not exclusively) in ruling, but feel that a new order is necessary for them to make a living privately. Too many anticolonial movements in the 20th century fell short of true revolution by this standard, as too many erstwhile revolutionaries succumbed to the "Iron Law of Oligarchy" and the obvious temptations of power. He cites the Reconstruction era after the Civil War as a failed revolution because Southern landowners retained real power despite losing the war and thus managed to hold blacks down for nearly another century, until federal political power facilitated grass-roots activism during the Civil Rights movement. While the writers criticize the Jacob "Reign of Terror" as an aberration during an overall-positive French Revolution, their account of Reconstruction leaves you wondering whether something like "Terror" is necessary sometimes to consolidate a meaningful, inclusive revolution. It would only be fair. If we aren't really to worry about how any individual might suffer through episodes of economic creative destruction, how much should we worry about suffering during political creative destruction if it all works out for the majority in the end? The only note of caution Acemoglu and Robinson might sound is that you can't take anything for granted. Their understanding of historical contingency makes it clear enough that the most important thing, before any economic or political institutions, is for people to do the right thing.

September 2012 Idiot of the Month nominee: Rick Santorum

This nomination is self-explanatory: the former Republican presidential candidate nominated himself. He did this at last weekend's Values Voters summit, where he said:

We will never have the elite smart people on our side, because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.  So our colleges and universities, they’re not going to be on our side.

"Smart" people, that is, want to tell "you" what to do. Who are "you," in this case? From the overall context of his speech, Santorum presumed himself to be addressing an audience of grass-roots entrepreneurs, the people who, in his vision, build the country from the bottom up rather than from the top down, as liberal bureaucrats propose. Entrepreneurs, of course, aspire to be employers. That is, they seek to tell people what to do. But they're entitled, I suppose, because they buy the right to do so when they hire a person for wages. Santorum didn't draw that distinction, however. What he did, implicitly, was tell his audience that they weren't smart. His defenders will attempt to distinguish between "smart" and "elite smart," but while his constituents have historically distinguished between "book learning" and practical know-how, I don't think Santorum meant this. I think he, as a man of deep religious conviction, deeply distrusts intellect precisely because he fears its empowerment of people to tell others what to do, when everyone already knows what to do because that knowledge was revealed to them. In any event, hair-splitting distinctions count for little when Santorum relegates the entire higher-education system to the enemy camp. Mitt Romney must love this. Romney defeated this man decisively in the primaries, but is obliged by the nature of American party politics to encourage Santorum to speak on his behalf, on the assumption that he must have the votes Santorum won in the primaries, but can't take them for granted despite winning the nomination of their party. Such is fate when Bipolarchy forces the Romneys and Santorums into one party. Romney doesn't even get the satisfaction of silencing this idiot; instead, like the mariner who shot the albatross, the candidate must wear Santorum round his neck.

14 September 2012

Romney's double-standard on insults to religion?

As one whose own religion has come in for its share of criticism, justified or not, Mitt Romney might have been expected to sympathized with all the Muslims who've taken offense at an apparently mean-spirited movie about the founder of their faith. Those expectations would have been confirmed to an extent today, when the Republican candidate for President told a reporter that "the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong.  And I wish people wouldn’t do it." Romney elaborated: "I think the whole film is a terrible idea.  I think ... making it, promoting it showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths.  I don’t think that should happen.  I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment– the good judgment– not to be– not to offend other peoples’ faiths." He also acknowledged that "we have a First Amendment.  And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do.  They have the right to do that, but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film."

Three days ago, when the attacks on American diplomatic facilities began, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo released a statement deploring "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Romney has criticized this statement all the rest of the week and won't retract his criticisms now. He says the statement "was not directly applicable and appropriate for the setting" -- an embassy that was eventually besieged by protesters outraged over the "Innocence of Muslims" movie. It now appears that the opinion of the embassy staff toward the provocative film was the same as Romney's, and the comments attached to one report of Romney's interview suggest that the candidate himself is now being criticized for appearing to coddle angry Muslims. Such is politics in 2012.

There's nothing inherently Republican, conservative or even Mormon about Romney's apparent inconsistency. His "appropriate for the setting" comment underscores an all-too-human failing on the candidate's part. His objection to the "setting" of the Cairo statement really has less to do with its timing -- Romney feels that it should have been taken down from the embassy website while the facility was under attack -- than with who made the statement and to whom it was addressed. While Romney claims that the President's opinion on the matter is similar to his own, and that the White House distanced itself from the Cairo statement, the embassy staff clearly represents the Obama administration in his mind. The statement itself was not addressed to an American TV reporter but to Egyptians and the wider world. Everyone involved is disgusted with "Innocence of Muslims," but Romney can't seem to acknowledge the universal agreement. If people he's compartmentalized in his mind as "other" or "enemy" appear to agree with him, their reasons can't be the same as his and are probably suspect. He can take a principled stand against offending other people's faiths, but employees of the Obama administration can't help appearing to him to be coddling fanatics while saying the same thing, while Muslims may have no right to take offense, as far as he may be concerned, if they can't do so without getting violent. It's OK for a civilized American of conservative religious values to take offense on Muslims' behalf, but anyone else is either expressing mindless rage or appeasing it. That's what partisanship (or tribalism) of any sort does to us; we can't even agree on when we agree. Of course in this case the agreement is not universal, since the Americans won't acquiesce to Muslim demands for the suppression of "blasphemy." But the Americans all seem to agree on something, except that Romney seems incapable of recognizing or acknowledging that fact.

Islamic civilization in Egypt

Reuters gives us a survey of Friday preaching from Egypt, where many remain enraged, or choose to appear enraged by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula's "Innocence of Muslims." The opinions reported give us a good idea of what religious and political leaders consider appropriate and inappropriate responses to an insult to the Prophet Muhammad. Most seem to believe that Nakoula, the Coptic Christian who apparently hid behind the pseudonym of "Israeli Jew" Sam Bacile, should be tried and (if found guilty) put to death. The speakers quoted by Reuters seem unanimously opposed to the collective-guilt reasoning that drove attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, apart from some advocating a boycott of U.S. imports. Among the new establishment there seems to be agreement that this week's violence was excessive, though the anger behind it remains legitimate. The most admirable sentiments came from a leader of a Salafist party who, as usual, condemned insults to Muhammad but then went so far as to say that not even the producers of the movie should be killed. You have to applaud these small steps while pressing for larger principles. If there really can be such a thing as a universal declaration of human rights, it should include the firmest possible assertion that no one should be legally penalized, much less killed, for "blasphemy." That should be one of the minimum prerequisites of a truly global civilization. If that looks like a hurdle that would give Muslims difficulty, rest assured that some of my "civilized" suggestions would look like obstacles to Americans, too. The thing to remember whenever one is outraged by Muslims is that they're not the only people who'll need to change for the world to become truly civilized. So no one should back away from criticizing Muslims, when they've earned it, out of some suspicion that they're being singled out for bigoted reasons. Those who make a living condemning Islam, as if Islam alone prevented world peace and prosperity for all, should take the advice of one they most likely worship, albeit slightly modified. You don't have to ignore the mote in the other guy's eye because of the beam in your own -- you should ignore neither.

13 September 2012

"We won't accept mocking"

Monkey-see, monkey-do riots continue in the Middle East today as various groups use the pretext of the "Innocence of Muslims" video to vent grievances against the U.S. Protests have expanded into the wider Muslim world, with at least one demonstration breaking out in Bangladesh, where a protester is quoted saying, "We won't accept mocking of Prophet Muhammad." You wonder how someone like that can, most likely, accept a lot of other crap in his life, yet draws this line in the metaphorical sand. While the dregs of these societies riot, the president of Egypt deplores the violence in his own country, but tells reporters that his U.S. counterpart should "put an end to such behavior" -- the making of "mocking" videos, that is. The only appropriate response to such a request would be undiplomatic, but the Secretary of State has been busy representing the administration line that the video is garbage yet protected by the U.S. Constitution. While Mitt Romney attempts to exploit the issue but has apparently only damaged his cause by accusing the administration of being soft on rioting Muslims, the government has made it as clear as possible that Islam has no right to pre-empt or punish "mockery" anywhere on Earth. Diplomacy obliges responsible politicians to say little else, but more ordinary citizens ought to go further. We don't need to burn mosques or holy books, but can't we get a bunch of people together to say that we find these riots a mockery; Islamism a mockery; Islam itself, and religion itself a mockery? There's no point to saying we won't accept it, since none of us are going to go to Benghazi for payback anytime soon, but we can make plain that we hate it. We should also get to the bottom of the making of "Innocence of Muslims," since it seems from some accounts that somebody tricked the actors and dubbed inflammatory dialogue over the words they originally spoke. We can affirm Americans' right to mock Islam while calling the people behind this project cowards, insofar as they tricked the actors and obfuscating their own identities. It's one thing to use a pseudonym, as I do, to keep my political opinions immune from ad hominem commentary, another to hide your identity simply because you're a physical coward while other people are suffering for what you've done. When we deny that Americans as a group are responsible for this film, that doesn't mean that we should throw them to the wolves, but it should mean that we, as well as the rest of the world, ought to know who these provocateurs actually are, if only to diffuse the conspiracy theories that are certainly proliferating already. And if we want to call the filmmakers cowards, we should say the same for the rioters, since none of them would dare come here to find and deal with the actual people who offended them. Their tribal way of thinking gives them an easy out when their proper target is too well protected or too hard to find. They mock their own commitments by taking such cheap shots, and their own compatriots and coreligionists shouldn't accept that. Any video of the past day's violence is as much a mockery of Islam, it might be said, as "Innocence of Muslims" is -- so by their own standards, the demonstrators ought to kill themselves.

12 September 2012

"Islam is a cancer"

The American ambassador to Libya is dead after riots in that country and Egypt reportedly triggered by the hostile publicity given by an Egyptian TV cleric to a YouTube parody of the Prophet Muhammad made in the U.S.A. There's really nothing new I can say at this point. In a pluralistic world, in any civilized nation, Muslims do not have any right to make physical reprisals against people who "insult" or "blaspheme" against their faith by making images of Muhammad. Muslims have no more right not to have their beliefs insulted than any other group. However, despite whatever rage Americans may feel, the U.S. has no more right to take punitive military action against Libya than it did to interfere in the late civil war that toppled Col. Khadafy. We can certainly withdraw our diplomatic delegation and impose whatever economic sanctions Congress pleases, but Americans have no right to go above the head of Libyan authorities to punish Libyan citizens. Nor should American Muslims pay for Libyan crimes, however much any episode of this kind puts one in a mosque-burning mood. The most (and best) one can do to protest yesterday's atrocity is to remain fearless in speaking frankly about the faults of Islam and honestly about whether religion, culture or politics actually triggers these tantrums. Meanwhile, the provocateur of the hour, the filmmaker Sam Bacile, seems hardly worthy of sympathy. From his new hiding place he declares that "Islam is a cancer" while proudly identifying himself as an "Israeli Jew." But the only principled basis for criticizing Islam, or the only objective basis for determining the extent to which religion itself is to blame for the Benghazi attack, is atheism. Anything else is simply special pleading for one's own set of indefensible superstitions against someone else's. My attitude would be the same had Bacile declared himself a born-again Christian -- and indeed, the infamous Terry Jones has moved quickly to endorse Bacile and his work. But once you accept that religion is the cancer -- or at least that dogmatic monotheism is cancerous -- then neither Bacile nor Jones has a leg to stand on, and we can begin to think more clearly about whether religion or other factors explain modern Muslim tantrums. Remember: no matter how self-evidently stupid many Muslim beliefs may be, the majority of Muslims worldwide don't pull this crap. If Islam itself were the cancer, the world might be dead already. But something definitely ails much of the Muslim world; I just wouldn't trust Christians or Jews to prescribe the cure.

Update: Confusion and controversy are swirling about the filmmaker's identity. The Atlantic has interviewed a "militant Christian" activist who reportedly consulted the production and claims that "Sam Bacile" is a pseudonym for someone whose real identity he doesn't know. The activist, Steve Klein, is convinced that "Bacile" isn't Jewish but is probably an American citizen of Middle Eastern Christian descent, either a Copt or an evangelical Protestant. As long as the film's authorship is in doubt, conspiracy theories will flourish, but let's not lose sight of the truth. In an age of easy access to media, the appearance of something like "Innocence of Muslims," as the Bacile film is called, was inevitable. Islamic intolerance of insults guarantees insults. That has more to do with our culture than with Islam. Perceived "humorless" or "stuck-up" people of any background are going to be butts for leveling humor from people who resent "superior" attitudes, or from those who simply think everything is a joke. Angry Islamists will have to prove an ability to kill offenders in the U.S. before they have any hope of deterring such stuff, and the odds are not in their favor. That's true worldwide, and that may explain some of the anger we see.

11 September 2012

Eureka! Illegal voting discovered in Maryland

Wendy Rosen isn't exactly guilty of fraudulent voting; to my knowledge she never pretended to be someone else, and is a citizen of the United States. But she has confessed to illegally voting in two different states during the same election cycle. This is news not just because it appears to prove the Republican premise that people do try to vote illegally, but also because Rosen was the Democratic party's candidate for a congressional seat in Maryland, one of her home states. That's got to be just a bit embarrassing for the party most opposed to laws designed to suppress "illegal" voting and most inclined to deny that anyone votes illegally. But it doesn't refute all Democratic arguments against Republican anti-fraud legislation. As has been pointed out quite quickly, while repeat voting was once commonplace on the metropolitan level, the sort of repeat voting Rosen practiced is highly uncommon and not the sort of illegal voting Republican measures are designed to stop. Putting all arguments pro and con aside, the object of most such measures is to prevent people who lack photo I.D. from voting. The rationalization may be that photo I.D. verifies that the voter isn't fraudulent, but the immediate effect is to render those who for whatever reason, plausible or not, lack photo I.D., illegal voters. Republican proposals impose new burdens on people previously presumed legal voters, and the common GOP arguments that I.D. is easy to acquire and already required for many social services don't change that fact. To the extent that the proposed or enacted laws burden more legal voters than deter illegal voters, the effect, intended or not, admitted or not, is voter suppression. While no one should take Democratic protestations of universal innocence on faith, Democrats have every right and some good reason to continue opposing I.D. laws. But if the Rosen debacle tips the balance of public opinion further against them, the Democrats will once again have themselves to blame for their troubles. It's sad when the main opposition to a wicked and stupid party is just plain stupid.

Everyone contributes

Someone at People For the American Way knows how to get attention for their begging letters. The latest one reached me with this message on the envelope: "Thank you for your contribution to Mitt Romney."  Those on the mailing list -- the people perhaps least likely to contribute to Romney's campaign -- would only learn the friendly source of the message if they turned the envelope around before trashing it. Perhaps intrigued now, the recipient will read that, despite his denials "you have contributed to Mitt Romney ... unknowingly." The writer goes on to explain that corporate donations to candidates ultimately come from us, the consumers.

And where does their money come from? It comes from the profits generated by the purchases of consumers like you and me. Virtually every time you pay your bills or purchase gas, food, cleaning supplies, or any of the items we need every day, some of that money is now being spent to influence elections.

By the same logic, of course, you've probably already donated to President Obama's re-election campaign as well, contrary to the impression PFAW creates by omission. To be fair, however, the fact that corporations donate to Democrats as well as Republicans doesn't really change the point of the organization's message, which is that corporations -- and PFAW specifically means business corporations -- have too much influence over elections. Bowing to the constitutional reasoning of the Citizens United ruling, PFAW now sees a constitutional amendment as the only way to overturn that precedent. They'd like you to knowingly contribute to this effort by sending them membership contributions of $15 or more. But it's hard to know exactly what you're contributing to, since the begging letter doesn't include the language of the proposed amendment. We can only assume that the amendment will somehow deny business corporations the right to have contributions made in their name while somehow -- this is just a hunch -- reconfirming that right for labor unions and similar entities whose corporate rights were also affirmed by Citizens United. The language would have to be quite carefully composed, and it's possible that PFAW doesn't even have a draft yet. Maybe they don't think drafting an amendment is their business, but they want us to donate to them, so they can wage a petition campaign, rather than the people who might actually draft the amendment and get it ratified.

And just to be a devil's advocate, where does my money come from? It comes from the paychecks dispensed by the unwitting corporation that every two weeks gives me the metaphorical rope to hang it with. So it's all just a great circle of life or, if you prefer, a vicious cycle that won't be broken until we see a day when nobody has to ask anyone else for money in order to play their rightful role in public life.

10 September 2012

Assange and presumptions of innocence

There's nothing really new to the Julian Assange story, but in The Nation JoAnn Wypijewski restates the case against extradition in stark terms. "the law is no more capable of delivering justice in his case today than it was for a black man alleged to have raped a white woman in the Jim Crow South," she writes, "I am not comparing the founder of WikiLeaks, a white man benefiting from not only white-skin privilege and straight-man privilege but also class and celebrity privilege, with black men on the other side of a lynch mob. This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state."

She then goes on to compare Assange to black men on the other side of a lynch mob. "Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy....With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale."

For Wypijewski it's self-evident that any attempt to prosecute Assange after the Wikileaks info dumps is politically motivated. She believes that evidence from Sweden backs her up. In fairness, her presentation of the evidence should be quoted.

Police were so quick to initiate the arrest process that one of the women who came to them—to see if Assange could be forced to take an STD test after she’d had unprotected sex with him—became distraught and refused to give further testimony. The Swedish prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant for rape and molestation on one day and withdrew it the next, saying there was no reason to suspect rape, and that the other claim wasn’t serious enough for a warrant. About a week later, the Swedish director of prosecution reopened the investigation, and a court later approved her request to detain Assange for rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. By then he was in London, having been told he was free to leave Sweden. Assange was working with the New York Times and the Guardian in advance of launching the Iraq War Logs when the Swedes issued an international arrest warrant. He was readying the release of a cache of diplomatic cables when Interpol got involved, issuing a “red notice” for his arrest. 

Without a presumption of motive, all of this amounts to circumstantial evidence. But Wypijewski apparently thinks anyone naive who doesn't presume motive. The only alternative interpretation for her is that the sex-crime aspect of the case triggers a presumption of guilt among "liberals, and even some self-described radicals" -- but not among feminists? " If it were anything but sex, we would insist on the presumption of innocence," she protests. But is it automatically a presumption of guilt to suggest that Assange should face his accusers in court? If Wypijewski believes this, then she believes objectivity itself to be impossible in the Assange case. In her view, you can only be for him or against him. That's "partisan immunity" on the individual level, grounded on the same assumption of biased prosecution. The assumption itself is biased, since the author assumes that Wikileaks is the necessary and sufficient cause of the prosecution. However much she may deny it, the implication of Wypijewski's stance is that Assange has become untouchable. Since she assumes that the U.S. wants to punish him, any criminal charge hereafter made against him can be presumed political and denied legitimacy. She might give in if a video showed him shooting someone, but I suppose she'd also look into the possibility that the video had been doctored.

Wypijewski's regular beat is sexual politics, and keeping on topic she attempts to generalize from the Assange case.

It should be possible to imagine a resolution outside the criminal justice system for problems that arise in the course of consensual sexual coupling: dissatisfaction over the use (or ill use) of condoms, constraints that keep people from expressing their wishes or intuiting those of another, selfishness, insensitivity, confusions as “yes” slides into “no” and back to “yes,” perhaps wordlessly—all issues that seem to apply in the Assange case but exist beyond it. That will require a braver sexual politics (and at least another column), and it does not demean experience to recognize that the language of punishment is a poor substitute for the lost language of love.

But the main theme of her present column is that the U.S., its allies and clients can't be trusted to deal impartially with Julian Assange. It's sadly necessary here to acknowledge that her argument isn't entirely unreasonable. It also must be said that she doesn't begin to address the implications of her assumption. The rule of law depends upon a kind of universal presumption of innocence. Most obviously, defendants or accuseds like Assange are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But accusers are also presumed innocent, as is the state and the rule of law itself. The presumption of a defendant's innocence does not require a presumption of bias on the part of accuser or prosecutors. But Wypijewski's presumption of Assange's innocence depends almost entirely on presumptions of bias. The rule of law can't stand under that kind of presumption, and Wypijewski would seem to have bigger fish to fry than simply defending Assange's freedom. If bias has corrupted the rule of law, revolution would seem to be called for, and there actually is a revolutionary implication to Wypijewski's defense of Assange. Revolutions are almost by definition antinomian phenomena: the normal rules cannot apply and often no rules apply at all. Since Wypijewski has given us no idea of the circumstances under which she would demand that Assange submit to arrest, she may believe that the moment is here, and that Assange's mission places him above all law. If she does not believe this, then explaining what she does believe about his accountability would be a better subject for a subsequent column.

07 September 2012

Obama's American Values

Accepting the Democratic nomination for a second term last night, the President said, "Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known." Of course, his opponent can claim to be fighting for the same thing. There's a common presumption of strength, but a disagreement over the "values that built" that strength. Using his maternal grandparents -- the American side of his family -- as examples, Barack Obama elaborated on his vision.

My grandparents were given the chance to go to college and buy their home — their own home and fulfill the basic bargain at the heart of America's story, the promise that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules, from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, D.C.

Whether he meant that grandpa went to college on the G.I. Bill is unclear, though that can be inferred from the passive "given the chance" rhetoric. That Americans are "given a chance" beyond their mere accident of American birth seems crucial, as does the promise Obama mentions. Later, however, he appears to contradict himself by admitting, "We're not entitled to success." Such an admission allows that hard work may not pay off, that responsibility may not be rewarded, even if the other variables remain fair by the Democratic party's standards. But Obama may believe that work itself, not "success," is what society should reward.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.
But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

Literally speaking, I don't believe that the word "citizenship" appears in either the Declaration of Independence or in the original text of the Constitution, but Obama presumably meant that it was an idea at the heart of the Founding. For him, citizenship is a state of obligation, of "responsibilities as well as rights," based on an understanding that "our destinies are bound together." That's a metaphysical point his opponents might dispute, but to disagree, the President says, is to espouse "a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense."  Yet his opponents could accuse Obama's own party, or his constituents, of just such a selfish patriotism, on the presumption that those people are only interested in what the government gives them personally. Where is that theoretical person's own charity or duty or patriotism? The theoretical full-time dependent may not live up to Obama's standard -- and neither, obviously, does the "I built that myself!" Republican -- but Obama shouldn't be judged by anyone else's behavior. The canard of his enemies is that Obama, like all Democrats, wants to keep a large number of Americans dependent on government aid and therefore dependably loyal to his party. Obama himself draws a line -- "We don't want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves" -- but does he, as opposed to Republicans, believe in such people? He probably doesn't believe them to be as common as Republicans believe, but the real question is what he believes their obligations to be. He attempts to draw a Kennedyesque distinction: "America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together." The degree of togetherness envisioned is an implicit subject of the national debate. A Republican could agree with the words but mean something closer to the libertarian ideal of spontaneous order, with each person doing his own thing and the whole harmonized by Adam Smith's "invisible hand." The Republican would not accept that the whole works together as a team coordinated by government, and that's not necessarily what Obama envisions, either. But Democrats, at least for rhetorical purposes, seem committed to enabling everyone to contribute to "what can be done by us," including those unable to find or figure out a way themselves. Their own idea of citizenship probably falls short of a team ideal, and we could be left wondering, after reading or listening to Obama's talk, just what our "obligations to one another and to future generations" are. To define them more precisely, after all, might lead people to ask whether our socioeconomic order actually enables us to fulfill our obligations or responsibilities to each other. The Republicans have it easier; for them our main obligation is to leave each other alone -- except when we commit certain "sins." But since Republicans take such a minimal position on mutual obligation, Democrats can get away, their rhetoric notwithstanding, with not much more than the minimum, compared to what might be possible. They can always say they're better than nothing -- but is that good enough in the long run?

06 September 2012

Free people and free societies

Alan Ryan's Making of Modern Liberalism is a collection of critical essays written over a 40 year period which Ryan hopes will amount to an intellectual history. I'm currently reading a free sample on my e-reader -- to give you an idea of the size of the whole, the sample is 127 pages long -- and while that's not enough from which to draw conclusions about Alan Ryan, it has already provoked some thought in me. On the subject of "freedom," Ryan notes that the meaning of the term, of what it meant to be free, varies depending on the author, while some writers seem to contradict themselves. He's critical of Thomas Hobbes, for instance, for "his implausible claim that a man who swears allegiance to a conqueror when the conqueror's sword is at his throat does so freely." While Ryan observes that "It is, of course, true that he is not hindered in swearing allegiance," he adds that "it would be odd to suppose that he is not hindered from refusing by the prospect of immediate death. It may be true that if he were to wish to refuse to swear allegiance and so get himself killed, he would refuse; he would not be hindered in doing what he had a mind to do." However, this doesn't seem to sit well with Hobbes's (and Ryan's) contention that a man is free when he is "master of his actions," and isn't free when "another man can become the master of our actions .. by possessing the ability to make effective threats." Later, Ryan writes that "A man in jail is paradigmatically not free; a man threatened with punishment if he writes a book is paradigmatically less free to write it than a man not so threatened."

It would seem that consequences condition freedom, and that we are less free when we face consequences for our actions that may deter us from taking them. But whether we're free would seem to come down to what we actually do. If we are deterred from certain conscientious actions (e.g. writing a book) by the threat of consequences, common sense seems to say that we are unfree. But if, under the very same conditions, we act and face the consequences can we say that we are unfree because we are punished? During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, I was happy to debunk the assertion that we ought to "liberate" the Iraqi people by observing that there were plenty of free people in Iraq; most of them just happened to have been imprisoned or killed by Saddam Hussein. This sophistry was unlikely to satisfy anyone who saw killing and imprisonment as proof of people's unfreedom, but as I think back after reading a sample of Alan Ryan I think that a distinction should be drawn between free people and free societies. The Iraqi dissident was a free man even if Saddam suppressed him so long as Saddam didn't deter him, but so long as Saddam had the power to both suppress and deter Iraq was not a free society. It might be possible in such a context that someone is a free man but not a free citizen. To make that distinction makes some concept of immunity essential to the ideal of civil freedom, as opposed (regardless of whether they're considered synonymous) to individual freedom. Civil freedom, in this sense, means that we should not be punished for some acts, especially the conscientious ones. The free society is the one where you are neither executed by the ruler nor lynched by the mob for expressing a conscientious yet controversial opinion. The unfree society is the one where it's unsafe for the free person to live, whether he chooses to take his chances or not.

Like all good things, the ideal of civil freedom as immunity from reprisal can be taken to bad extremes. If there can be no agreement on people's "natural" rights, than accountability in civil society is always subject to contest. There may always be debates over the scope of accountability, or whether people should be held accountable by the state at all for certain acts. Natural rights are often asserted as a check on accountability, but if we recognize "natural rights" merely as natural prerogatives -- that is, if we acknowledge that people will do certain things rather than that they must (or must be allowed to) do certain things, then it doesn't really violate someone's individual freedom to subject it to accountability. Is it a slippery slope from there to Saddam Hussein? He may not make the best reference point to the extent that his power was arbitrary in nature, but the question remains whether the state can go too far in asserting accountability and render society unfree. My best first stab at a standard would be to suggest that a society is unfree if it ends up deterring people from useful activity, the usefulness of it not being up to the state alone to determine but not for any one person to assert unilaterally, either. A free society would be the one that allows citizens to determine in the least rigid fashion how useful any citizen has been or can be. The freedom of the society is determined not by what people do, but by what society does about it. The freedom of the individual is taken for granted since it can't be suppressed. The individual may complain that society makes him unfree, but he can't say, as some individuals often do, that it makes him a slave. That's progress, isn't it?

05 September 2012

One Party Under God?

The Democrats made some hasty yet controversial amendments to their party platform today ahead of the President's renomination. At Obama's own urging, reportedly, delegates decided, by a dubious voice vote, to restore language from previous platforms affirming Jerusalem as the one true "capital" of Israel, after its omission this year provoked criticism from Republicans who questioned the incumbent's loyalty to the Zionist state. This is the sort of show both parties have put on through their histories to win ethnic votes. It's stupid, but if you're still a Democrat at this point I doubt this is the issue you'll bolt over. Nor will today's controversy over God drive anyone away. Once again, this year's platform committee left out some language from 2008, specifically a phrase calling on government to stand up for working people -- harmless enough, so far -- and give them the chance "to make the most of their God-given potential." In 2008, this had been the only invocation of Jehovah in the entire platform. With it gone, Rep. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, was able to talk of a "purge of God" from the Democratic party. This might have been the time to recall that "God" goes unmentioned in the entire U.S. Constitution, except when the document was dated in the then-uncontroversial "year of our lord." But instead the delegates this afternoon were corralled into amending the 2012 platform to restore that important little bit of 2008 language. There was little point. The Republicans already have their talking point and won't give it up. They'll say that the Democrats only restored God to their platform in the face of public outcry, and nothing the Democrats do afterward can blunt that point. The platform committee made a mistake, and now they can just hope they don't pay any real price. I'm no well-wisher to the Democrats, but I do think the damage will be minimal.  Nevertheless, it was a mistake.

To be frank, speaking as an atheist, if someone on the committee removed "God-given potential" with a conscious purpose of purging God from the platform, that would be chickenshit. To my ears, "God-given potential" is less an affirmation of divine sovereignty or a call to worship than it is simply a synonym for "natural" or "innate" potential.  It's idiomatic, not theocratic. People who'd object to the term on atheist or secularist grounds are petty. That battle is simply not worth fighting. If someone wants to make the absence of God a key plank of an Atheist Party platform, and wants to debate Republicans and all comers on the subject, I say: go for it and kick their butts. But despite what some Democrats may say, the imminence of theocracy is not the deciding issue of this election year, and the Democratic party in particular can't afford to alienate anyone they hadn't already written off long ago. Restoring the Jerusalem reference to the platform was contemptible and really tells you where the Democrats stand on Middle East peace. Restoring "God" was just damage control.

GOP tries candidate suppression in Virginia

The presidential election in Virginia now shapes up as a four-man race, at least on the ballot, despite the best efforts of the Republican party. Yesterday, the state's board of elections announced that Constitution party candidate Virgil Goode, a former Republican (and Democratic) congressman, had qualified for a spot on the ballot, while ordering an investigation of his petitions following complaints from Republicans. Not surprisingly, the Virginia GOP cries fraud, accusing Goode of "a stunning disregard for Virginia law." Today, the same board rejected a Republican challenge to petitions submitted by Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico. According to this report, the GOP is trying to keep Johnson off the ballot in other states as well. It should be clear, then, that Republicans don't believe that Democrats or liberals alone have a proclivity to fraud. Any candidate who wants to appeal to conservatives and isn't a Republican is presumed fraudulent, while Republicans presume themselves entitled to all conservative votes, just as Democrats presume themselves entitled to all liberal or progressive votes. The Democrats will certainly have their turn to try to drive Greens or other independent progressives off ballots in different places. Why the major parties are allowed to challenge independents' ballot petitions is a mystery to me, since they are the most obviously interested parties imaginable. It should be an automatic part of the qualification process, so long as one is necessary, for an election board to screen petitions and investigate the possibility of fraud. They shouldn't need to be prompted by the major parties, and they shouldn't be prompted by them -- period. The electorate's interest in having the widest range of choices should outweigh the major parties' implicit claim of damage to themselves when the range of choices is widened. The only interests that are injured when independents make it onto ballots are those of the major parties. They can huff and puff about the rule of law, but that shouldn't deter us from asking whom these particular election laws benefit and why they are entitled to benefit. In any event, Constitutionalists, Libertarians, Democrats, etc. should make the most of the Virgina story and tell people that Republicans don't want you to vote for "conservatism" -- don't want you to vote for "liberty," -- you know, all the things Republicans claim to stand for. Their antics in Virginia prove pretty plainly that the GOP stands only for itself.

04 September 2012

A conflict of individualisms

It looks like David Brooks will be holding his nose while voting for Mitt Romney this fall. One of the New York Times's house conservatives, Brooks gives the Republicans credit for proposing necessary reforms while the Democrats, in his view, have no agenda but opposition to the Republican agenda. Brooks sympathizes with the GOP's self-description as a party representing the "strivers," the people who "who started small, struggled hard, looked within and became wealthy" in ways Democrats supposedly deplore. He agrees with Republicans that strivers are being smothered by regulations or impeded by a "labyrinthine" tax code. He agrees with them on what he perceives to be the facts, but there's something about the Republicans' attitude, as expressed at their national convention last week, that he doesn't like.

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.... These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish. 

But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.
The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. 

Republicans themselves may object to Brooks's account, denying every describing anyone's achievement as "solitary." The whole debate over who built what is about the source of initiative as far Republicans are concerned, not about whether anyone got rich singlehandedly. But it's probably not any claim to exclusive credit for initiative that damns "hyperindividualism" in Brooks's eyes.  It's the lack of the kind of "larger vision" Brooks identifies with Lincoln, the GOP's spiritual founder. Brooks's own larger vision seems to boil down to a responsibility to cultivate a society and culture that disseminates talent and inspires the right sort of ambition. The main point here is his resort to the pejorative "hyperindividualism" to note when a good quality has grown excessive. "Hyperindividualism" assumes an ideal or golden mean of "individualism." But that assumes that "individualism" is essentially one thing, when there are really multiple individualisms. If we believe that "every life is equally precious," which is a form of individualism, we could not countenance the sacrifice of any individual for a collective good, whether we use the individual as cannon fodder in war or sacrifice him to economic efficiency for the sake of competitiveness. Liberals can claim to be individualists because they claim to value every single life -- "No [blank] Left Behind" is an ideal motto of liberal individualism. Republicans are concerned with individual freedom of action in the economic realm, but less concerned with guaranteeing individual life beyond the right to be born. Which position is more "individualist?" If you can't answer except by using other terms to define correct individualism, than "individualism" itself may be a useless standard for judging policy.

But isn't Brooks himself espousing some individualism by joining in the general Republican praise of strivers? To the extent that he credits strivers with indispensable individual initiative, I suppose so, but I also assume that, for Brooks, the striver crosses the line into "hyperindividualism" when he believes himself to strive principally, if not exclusively, for his own benefit. The striver wouldn't need to give up everything to the collective to regain Brooks's good will, but he would have to affirm that he actually intends to benefit more than himself and his own, and that the good of others is a kind of obligation for him. Brooks must wonder why that seems so hard for Republicans to do today. The answer probably has a lot to do with the idea (or ideal) of competition. The Republican striver is probably motivated, at least in large part, by a belief that life is a competition with winners and losers (or between winners and losers), and that, life being a competition, everyone must strive or suffer. From such presumptions, a Republican striver may conclude that those he doesn't recognize as fellow strivers are entitled to no consideration whatsoever. Theirs may be a competitive individualism founded on the principle of "compete or die." Brooks, at least, believes that a nation has some obligation to cultivate the cultural infrastructure necessary to encourage socially-beneficial striving, but the "hyperindividualist" Republican striver may feel that it is all up to each person. That would explain Brooks's reference to "innate qualities." He seems to worry that his fellow Republicans believe that you either have what it takes or you don't, and that "government" can't give anyone "what it takes" if they don't have it already. I leave it up to Republicans to explain whether Brooks has characterized them wrongly. But Brooks himself can't fully explain how he distinguishes healthy individualism from unhealthy hyperindividualism without addressing the subject of competition, its necessity and its consequences. We should encourage him to elaborate. Philosophical disagreements within parties, rather than those between parties, are those most likely to result in something new.