30 October 2012

A passing glance at Superstorm Sandy

Unlike last year, Albany got off easy. My neighborhood got hit hard by heavy rains and flooding when Tropical Storm Irene plowed through in August 2011, but the region was in an anomalous sweet spot that minimized rainfall from "Post-Tropical Superstorm Sandy" and kept the winds at bearable speeds. Downstate fared much worse, as everyone knows, and the relatively easy time we had from Sandy up here was an exception to the rule. But we worried with everyone else through the hype that built up from Thursday on. I noticed an odd trend in the online coverage -- not from the reporting but from the commentaries. Typically, on the sites I read, the first comment would be from someone linking Sandy to climate change and global warming, usually in a snarky way to reproach the skeptics. One of the first replies would then reproach the former writer for politicizing the impending disaster. There is an element of bad taste in using an event that was expected and as it happened did kill people to make a political point. But at a certain point the discussion of climate change must cease to be "political." From what I've read, scientists are understandably uncertain of whether climate change did factor in Sandy's atypical origin -- it's not their job to jump to conclusions. But Governor Cuomo's content that no one should be shocked by unusual weather after Irene and Sandy points to an awareness that there has been an important change, or that one is under way. If the point is politicized, the people to blame are those whose skepticism, if you can even call it that in this case, has always been tainted with conspiracy theory. The issue has been politicized by the people who presume that others have politicized it to justify some massive power grab. Those who've politicized the climate question see the looming imperative to change their lifestyles as politics rather than practical necessity; so long as it threatens to leave them less "free" than they are now, the response to climate change can only be an evil plot, and if that, why not an outright lie? But storms like Sandy aren't hoaxes, although for the moment, perhaps a moment soon passing, they can still be dismissed as freak events. There are such things as freak events, but two in two years allows us to at least consider the possibility of a trend.

Whether Sandy will influence the election, or even change minds, is hard to say. It seems like the sort of event that would remind people of the desirability of "big" government and leave them unconvinced of the private sector's competence to solve all the resulting problems. But I don't know if anyone will actually think in terms of Republicans making it more difficult to deal with major storms, and Republicans themselves are unlikely to claim that storm relief is something the private sector could do better. They'll have to add that to waging war on the list of things that the public sector does better -- if the public sector actually does better over the next week. For now, you have an exceptional state of affairs in which Gov. Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, unconditionally compliments the President, a Democrat, for the federal health extended to his state. But few people will think of the President -- the job, not the man -- as someone whose primary job is to save us from storm damage. Strangely enough, Republicans as well as Democrats have encouraged a view of the President as steward of the economy, and how the federal government handles Sandy probably won't change anyone's opinion of President Obama. Some may say that President Bush's perceived poor handling of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans changed people's opinions toward Republicans, but people are more likely to punish incompetence than reward competence. The only real political consequence of the storm, apart from the effect it may have on early voting, is the welcome lull it gave us, and the two principal candidates, from the numbing routine of stump speeches and negative campaigning. Surrogates have still been squabbling over some pro-Romney commercial's claims about car jobs going to China, but Obama and Romney themselves have gone above the fray for the time being. Just as in Albany there was something almost refreshing about the spritz of rain and the stiff breeze Sandy sent us, even as many more people suffered from the storm, so this pause in the campaign routine has been a calm reprieve before a final weekend storm about which all predictions are certain.

25 October 2012

Discovering Strom Thurmond's America

About a decade ago, Sen. Trent Lott had to resign his leadership position in the Republican caucus because he had been too fulsome in his praise of the finally-retiring centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond had run for President back in 1948, and Lott said 54 years later that "if the rest of the country had followed [his] lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years." As Joseph Crespino notes in his new biography, Strom Thurmond's America, Lott had said pretty much the same thing back in 1980, when both men were stumping for Ronald Reagan. Since Thurmond had been the States' Rights or "Dixiecrat" candidate for President, it was assumed that Lott could only have meant to endorse the old man's past views in favor of racial segregation. While Crespino's biography is not at all sympathetic to Thurmond, it seems designed to suggest that Lott could well have meant something else by his praise.

Crespino wants to complicate the currently prevailing view of the evolution of the modern Republican conservative movement. In most accounts, the reactionary social conservatism of erstwhile southern Democrats like Thurmond is a separate strain from the pro-business, small-government conservatism that emerged with Barry Goldwater from the west. The strains merged during a courtship that extended through Goldwater's siding with the South against civil rights legislation in 1964 through Richard Nixon's adoption in 1968 of a "Southern strategy" widely seen as a betrayal of the heritage of the "Party of Lincoln." In the long view, this version of history sees Thurmond's 1948 conservatism as something significantly different from the conservatism that supposedly started with Goldwater, triumphed with Reagan, and largely prevails today. This version of events makes the Goldwater/Nixon Republicans seem more cynical, since it sees them sharing very little with the likes of Thurmond who had been New Deal Democrats. Crespino offers an alternate reading of history by emphasizing the extent to which Thurmond and the Dixiecrats anticipated Goldwaterism and actually shared many of its ideas before Goldwater himself gained prominence.

According to Crespino, the key to Thurmond's conservative turn after years of conventional Democratic loyalty to FDR was not race, but labor. In Strom Thurmond's America, what China is now, South Carolina was then. The Palmetto state aggressively strove to lure businesses away from other parts of the country, and one of South Carolina's competitive advantages was the region's low rate of unionization. Working to promote his state, Thurmond increasingly opposed government efforts to regulate labor markets and promote unionization and collective bargaining. Government regulation of labor struck two nerves at once, since Washington also sought to stop racial discrimination through the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Anything the government tried to do on the labor front threatened South Carolina's competitive advantages. Thurmond thus became an enemy of intrusive centralized government, and was willing from the start to defend his stand in ideological terms. While many fellow Dixiecrats of 1948 merely meant to spoil the Presidential election by taking Southern states from Harry Truman and forcing the election to the House of Representatives, when they planned to cut a favorable deal with Truman, Thurmond seems to have honestly seen himself as a national figure offering an alternative vision of politics. Because he increasingly saw things from an entrepreneurial point of view, he came to many of the same conclusions Goldwater supporters would. While he still felt the New Deal had been helpful by providing aid in an economic emergency, the government had no business under normal circumstances telling employers who to hire or how to run their businesses. By 1948, Crespino claims, Thurmond was virtually what we recognize as a Republican conservative now.

Crespino's account isn't meant to downplay or minimize Thurmond's racism. Race-baiting remained an important element in South Carolina politics at least until the 1970s, when Thurmond realized that the easiest way to keep blacks from voting, once you couldn't force them not to, was to be as inoffensive as possible. Crespino's main point is that the "conservative" ideas identified with Goldwater and Reagan were not alien to the Dixiecrats like Thurmond who eventually became Goldwater and Reagan Republicans -- that the southerners didn't bring only racism to the party.  If anything, racism only made them the front-line troops in the resistance to intrusively regulatory "big" government, while Republicans who didn't share the southerners' racism could believe, as Goldwater apparently did, that forcing integration was a threatening assertion of government power over vast areas of life long deemed private and immune to political interference. Crespino makes a distinction between Goldwater's position on civil rights and Thurmond's, noting that Goldwater didn't oppose voting rights measures but balked, as some libertarian-minded people still do today, at anti-discrimination measures that appeared to impinge on private, individual prerogatives. The point of convergence for Goldwater and Thurmond was opposition to government telling employers whom to hire and on what terms. Modern American conservatism takes its stand there: whether from cranky individualism or a superstitious reverence for markets, they resist the idea that the relations of employers and employees are subject to laws made by the people and their representatives.

Strom Thurmond's America is a persuasive portrait and consistently critical of its subject. The illegitimate daughter Thurmond fathered with a black woman back in the 1920s is a constant thread in the narrative, a reminder of Thurmond's hypocrisy in his defense of racial purity as well as some vestigial decency in the monetary support he provided the still-living daughter throughout his career. I appreciated the in-depth account of politics within a Southern state and its reminder that segregationists didn't spend all their time thinking about race. The other topics aren't exactly pleasant, but they helpfully round out our view of some often cartoonish-seeming villains of modern history. Republicans themselves might embrace Crespino's book to the extent that it allows them to whitewash, so to speak, the "Southern Strategy" by emphasizing the ideological affinities between Thurmondism and Goldwaterism, but they shouldn't expect to make much of an impression upon those, including Crespino himself, who find both Goldwaterism and Thurmondism wrong.

24 October 2012

Vote fraud AND vote suppression in Virginia

My headline exaggerates slightly. Video provocateur James O'Keefe has not proven that a Democratic congressman from Virginia was conspiring to commit vote fraud this fall, but a video O'Keefe shot clandestinely shows the pol, Rep. Jim Moran telling a volunteer campaign operative to "look into" a plan the operative suggested to cast votes in the names of registered but inactive citizens. Moran can say that he only meant to blow off the operative, who turned out to be O'Keefe's operative within the Moran campaign, but in this day and age all that excuse will get you is an Idiot of the Week nomination. If you're a public figure of any sort, you ought to assume that a recording device might be anywhere near you at any time. On that assumption, if you're a politician, the only acceptable response when someone, no matter how trusted, suggests electoral dirty tricks is zero tolerance. Moran should have booted the operative from his campaign. In fact, given the current partisan environment, it would be wise for a Democratic to assume that someone proposing dirty tricks is a plant from O'Keefe or someone like him. Not to assume that is almost to concede, despite all public denials, that fraud is a common topic of discussion among campaign strategists. Moran deserves to lose just for being dumb, whether you decide he was dishonest or not. If his district doesn't have another candidate for liberal voters to rally around, whose fault is that?

Meanwhile, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports a request from Virginia's board of elections for an investigation of an employee of a firm contracted by the Republican party to register voters after the employee, one Colin Small, was reportedly seen throwing completed registration forms in the trash. Whatever the motives of the man, the contractor or the GOP, that's literal vote suppression. Small may have acted entirely on his own eccentric initiative; I don't know who saw him dump those forms, or where, and for all I know a fellow employee may have ratted him out. At some point Small will have to tell a court what he was doing, if not what he thought he was doing. Unless he can prove that the forms were faulty and invalid, he's as much evidence for the case against Republican vote suppression as Rep. Moran is for the case against Democratic fraud. My attitude on the whole subject remains bipartisan: the fact that one side may be cheating doesn't prove that the other is innocent.

Campaign 2012: Allred vs. Trump

The war of the surrogates has escalated after the presidential debates failed to put significant distance between the two major candidates. After much anticipation, Donald Trump has made the President an offer Trump imagines that Obama can't refuse. Trump has promised to donate $5,000,000 to the charity of Obama's choice if the President will release more records that Trump hopes will confirm beyond doubt (or, in his paranoid imagination, disprove) that the incumbent was born in the United States. The logic at work here assumes that Obama would only deny Trump's charity to a worthy cause because he, the President, has Something To Hide. If someone contends that Obama owes no more information to the Birther paranoids, and that only politically crazed idiots still doubt the President's legitimacy, the idiots can still ask what he has to lose by complying with Trump's generous request. But bribery does not legitimize paranoia, and paranoia alone, if not partisan cynicism, drives Trump's demands. In any event, Trump's stunt is sure to disappoint those who expected an actual revelation from the cartoon billionaire, Obamaphobes and news junkies alike.

Trump had already been upstaged by the celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the ex-wife of the founder of the Staples office-supply store chain, one of Bain Capital and Mitt Romney's great success stories. In most sweeping terms, the implication of their "surprise" is that Romney committed some sort of perjury during the couple's divorce trial. Specifically, they claim that Romney poormouthed Staples, claiming that the chain was overvalued and not a good long-term investment -- presumably to minimize the husband's potential wealth and the amount the wife could demand of him. If this is correct, I doubt whether it counts as criminal perjury, but given how Romney now points to Staples as one of the proofs of his savvy in capital investment, it seems profoundly dishonest. And as one analyst suggests, if Romney's opinion back then was honest and authentic, his lack of faith in Staples would belie his current image as a brilliant investor.  Allred's blow may have struck more truly at its target, but I doubt whether either incident will change many minds at this late point. There can't be a body of "undecided" opinion on Birtherism at this point to be impressed either by Trump's offer or Obama's certain refusal of it, while Allred's revelation can be dismissed as trivial and will be dismissed as partisan. The official campaigns will most likely ignore both stories, but neither story started with an official campaign, so they may not end here either.

23 October 2012

Was there a foreign policy debate?

Morning after analysis suggests that the President cleaned his challenger's clock at their final debate, but the proof of that will be if Republicans concede the point as quickly as Democrats did Obama's failure in the first round. The theme for the third round was foreign policy, but in substance it seems to have been a debate on military spending more than anything else. On this subject Romney apparently made his preference clear: he would cut nearly everything else from the federal budget but spend more on the military; he would choose guns over butter. The decisive moment came, for those who judge these contests by their zingers and gotchas, when the President noted Romney's failure to distinguish quality from quantity. The Republican had complained that the U.S. Navy had fewer ships than it did nearly a century ago. The incumbent answered that the military as a whole also had fewer horses and bayonets, making a point any Republican should have appreciated about innovation encouraging economy so that the country can do quite well with fewer naval vessels than it had in 1917. But I'm sure there are big Republican donors who depend on military contracts, so the usual imperative of efficiency goes out the window.

Romney was also characterized as being repeatedly cornered into endorsing Obama policies, conceding that sanctions on Iran, for instance, had been effective in stalling the Islamic Republic's alleged nuclear weapons program. The Man From Bain was reduced to the usual chauvinist grumbling against Obama's supposed proclivity toward "apologizing" for American conduct abroad. His best line in this line was his remark that it was not dictating to other countries to remove their dictators. The line is a lie, of course, but at least you can see some aspiration to cleverness in it. Overall, a foreign-policy debate between Democrats and Republicans is more a matter of attitude than a meaningful difference in policy. The basic contrast is between a Republican arrogance that demands affirmation of American moral superiority from the entire world and a Democratic diplomacy that tries to refrain from adding insult to injury while applying the boot just as vigorously. The absence of a real anti-interventionist alternative, whether from the "anti-imperialist" left or the "isolationist" right, renders the third encounter of the major-party candidate the lamest excuse for an actual debate of the three. As ever, the media and the people have only themselves to blame for that. 

22 October 2012

The voter-fraud question and the conflict of myths

So much for objectivity: A New Yorker profile of political activist and author Hans von Spakovsky identifies him as the principal inventor of "the Voter-Fraud Myth" through his advocacy of photo-I.D. requirements for voters. Jane Mayer justifies the label with evidence indicating that the specific type of fraud that Spakovsky supposedly most fears, that which will allow one person to vote by impersonating another, is infinitesimally rare. Showing a narrow range of historical awareness, Mayer appears to endorse without comment a critic's claim that Spakovsky's co-authored book Who's Counting has made a belief in Democratic cheating at election time "has become part of the Republican orthodoxy," as if the possibility had never occurred to a Republican before Spakovsky went to work. The truth is, Republicans have presumed Democrats guilty of cheating for as long as there have been Republicans. But Mayer writes of "sordid episodes from the American past" as if she can identify a point in time after which elections must be presumed unimpeachably honest. When this happened exactly is unclear. Call me a cynic, however, but my presumption is that both major parties will cheat whenever possible. On that assumption, I share Mayer's basic suspicion that Republicans are waxing hysterical over the likelihood of fraud in order to suppress Democratic turnout by inconveniencing presumed Democratic voters through photo-I.D. requirements. As I've written before, no matter how you spin it, making it more difficult for past voters to vote in the next election objectively counts as vote suppression, even without taking partisan motives into account, unless you presume, as not even many Republicans do, that all voters lacking photo I.D. today are fraudulent. The burden of proof remains upon the GOP to show no intent to suppress turnout by making photo ID as easy as possible to acquire, including making it free to avoid the appearance of a poll tax. But if Republicans are guilty of mythmongering as a matter of degree -- of arguing that fraud is so pervasive that it has actually decided recent elections and might decide future contests -- Democrats are also guilty of mythmongering when they demand to be presumed absolutely innocent. History doesn't allow such a sweeping assumption, nor does it allow us to take a "We aren't like that any more" claim on faith. I've seen cases of monkeying (or alleged monkeying) with absentee ballots on the local level that throw Democratic pleas of purity into question. The only thing you can say for the Democrats is that they don't seem interested in stopping Republicans from voting -- as far as I can tell. Republican readers of this blog might have different stories. In any event, the perpetuation of the two-party system, the American Bipolarchy, for 150 years despite the cyclical discrediting of each major party -- and the cycle seems to be accelerating -- is proof enough that the American electoral system is rigged in some way that benefits both major parties. The only difference may be that the system is rigged unconsciously through some collective insanity, or at least a collective failure of imagination, and not consciously through an illegal conspiracy. Republicans may cry fraud and Democrats may cry suppression, but the real crime is that the nation is still stuck having to choose between them.

21 October 2012

George McGovern (1922-2012)

The Democratic candidate for President in 1972 and a landslide loser to Richard Nixon at least had the satisfaction of outliving his usefulness to the Republican party. For a generation after his run, "McGovern Democrat" was a label applied to candidates whom Republicans wanted to appear to liberal in domestic affairs and too defeatist in foreign affairs. From the centrist perspective, "McGovern Democrats" were at the opposite extreme from Goldwater Republicans, but McGovern himself was more creature than creator of a movement, compared to Goldwater. The Senator from South Dakota benefited from party rules changes that gave more clout to youth and minorities, the presumed constituents of McGovern Democracy, but McGovern himself was no fanatic ideologue and left no long term stamp on his party, as Goldwater did. To say the least, McGovern doesn't figure today in Republican demonology the way Goldwater continues to for Democrats. If people remembered McGovern before reading of his entry into hospice last week and his death today, it was for no more than his wish to speed our withdrawal from Vietnam, an objective few in either party object to in retrospect today. The defeated Democrat has been reappraised favorably, if not apologetically, by the post-Cold War, anti-interventionists at the American Conservative magazine, and I suspect that he will pass more admired than condemned across the board, even without appearing to recant any old views or surprise his enemies, as Goldwater did by showing a tolerant libertarian streak late in life. Posterity can't help but encourage some buyers' remorse among the multitudes who voted Nixon back while the Watergate scandal simmered beneath the surface, and common sense has most likely shown that McGovern was never the liberal bogeyman Republicans cried about. It may even serve GOP interests today to claim that McGovern was a centrist compared to today's Democrats, though the reverse is probably the sad truth. George McGovern was arguably the first Democrat to suffer from a perception on the part of his party's core blue-collar constituents that the party had abandoned them for new idols, and after his defeat that constituency withered, many of them sacrificing themselves to Republicanism on the altar of culture war, many more still blaming Democrats for every job sacrificed to the bottom line. Many self-conscious working-class people today complain that Democrats don't represent them. McGovern's death is an occasion for them to ask whose fault that is.

18 October 2012

Romney and the middle class: friend or foe?

Had a chat the other day with someone who actually runs a business. He was feeling sympathetic toward Mitt Romney, not out of any strong faith in the man's virtues but first because he feels that President Obama has had his chance, and second from profound skepticism toward some of the charges made against the Republican. In particular, he simply could not believe that Romney intended to destroy the middle class, as some Democrats seemed to be saying. Why would any politician do such a thing, he wondered.

If Democrats or their sympathizers had told the shopkeeper that Romney had a deliberate, conscious plan to destroy the middle class, that would be a self-evident falsehood. It comes naturally for Democrats to attribute Republicanism to malice, but I doubt strongly whether the candidate has any thought of even harming the middle class. I'm sure, to the contrary, that Romney sees himself as the champion of that class. But if someone said that Romney and the Republicans simply would destroy the middle class, whether they meant to or not, there's a chance for that person to justify the charge. That's the point I tried to make with my friendly retailer. Republicans now seem to believe that there should be no limit whatsoever on how much wealth the successful can accumulate, and they consider it a moral imperative that the wealthy keep as much of their wealth as they can, since anything else is "punishing success." If you believe that the American middle class has been sustained or fortified to any extent by redistributionist policies, or by the power of organized labor through collective bargaining to extract concessions from employers, it must be evident that 21st century Republicans oppose those means -- not from a perverse desire to shrink the middle class, but from a belief that state action or collective bargaining actually have nothing to do with the flourishing of a middle class, and actually inhibit its growth. Entrepreneurship alone created the middle class, in their view, and the middle class's only hope lies in the most complete and faithful deference to the entrepreneurial, "job-creating" class.

Our shopkeeper has a pretty simple standard of national progress. He told me that he just wants to see working people make more money. It's hard to argue with that desire. The argument will start when we ask how they can make the most money. Republicans appeal to blind faith in the job creators and warn against making any unsustainable demands of them. Through history, that class has always complained that the demands made of them by their employees, or by the state, were unsustainable, but history tells us not to take those complaints as gospel, on faith. For Republicans, middle-class prosperity requires submission to the job-creators. It you question that recommendation, there are other candidates to vote for.

Newsweek (1933-2012)

The proprietors assure us that the once-great weekly newsmagazine will live on digitally as a subscription-based website, but out of sight -- the newstand, that is, -- out of mind is what I say. In its death throes Newsweek suffered the indignity of serving as a print subsidiary of the Daily Beast website. I subscribed on the cheap a couple of years ago but gave up despite the bargain-basement price because it had become a very flimsy affair compared to its great rival, Time. There were times in the past when Newsweek was arguably Time's superior, but the point is moot now. After the last print edition appears at the end of the year you'll still be able to do a search for Newsweek or download it onto your tablet, I suppose, but plenty of people will be out of work and we'll be further on our way to losing the art of enticing the casual shopper with an attention-grabbing cover and a promise of meaningful content inside. Getting a digital-only Newsweek will be more like having your alarm clock set to a specific radio station, automatic and easy to take for granted. The Beast may be happy to cut costs, but I can speak from some experience when I warn them that a "digital first" marketing strategy is not the revenue torrent many have hoped for. Meanwhile, forgive me if I sound like a fuddy-duddy or Luddite when I say that the magazine on the newstand clamoring for your attention was, however obviously commercial, part of a public sphere that continues to dwindle as digitalization encourages an accelerated privatization of existence -- or when I wonder whether digitalization will prevail to such a degree that someday a generation of popular culture will leave no trace in history like Newsweek did for eighty years.

17 October 2012

A treatise on political craft

[T] he mystery of State-Craft abounds with such innumerable frauds, prostitutions, and enormities, in all shapes, and under all disguises, that it is an inexhaustible fund, an eternal resource for satire and reprehension; since from this grand fountain of corruption flow all those little streams and rivulets, which have spread themselves through every part of this kingdom, and debauched all ranks and orders of men: it shall therefore be my chief business to unravel the dark secrets of political Craft, and trace it through all its various windings and intricate recesses.

-The Craftsman, 1726

The English Whigs whose opposition to the government of Robert Walpole set a precedent for American resistance to parliamentary rule later in the 18th century called one of their journals The Craftsman because they sought to expose and denounce "State-Craft." They thought of "craft" not so much as the practical work of a skilled laborer, but as in "crafty," in a pejorative sense. In 21st century America, David Brooks proposes that the ideal politician be a kind of "craftsman," defined above all by pragmatism. Brooks doesn't equate pragmatism with moderation, as some might, implying that only the person of strong beliefs has anything to compromise, when compromise is necessary. Compromise itself Brooks defines bluntly:

[T]he craftsman has to betray his side. It is relatively easy to cut a deal with the leader of the other party. It is really hard to sell that deal to the rigid people in your own party. Therefore, the craftsman has to enter into a conspiracy with the other party’s leader in order to manipulate the party bases. The leaders have to invent stories so that each base thinks it has won. 

Collegiality makes for better conspirators. "[T]he craftsman has to be socially promiscuous," Brooks writes, "Deal-making is about friendship. The craftsman has to work on relationships all day every day. It’s not enough to talk to your adversaries in negotiations. You have to talk to them when nothing is happening. You have to talk to them when they are up, when they are down. You have to celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays." All of this, one infers, is a rebuke to the allegedly aloof President Obama, a vindication of the gregarious Clinton, and a warning to the Tea Party.  

One one point, Brooks, from the moderate right, converges with Sean Wilentz from the moderate left on an apparent key point for the aspiring American machiavel: it is never enough to be right about something.

[T]he craftsman has to avoid the trap of thinking that right makes right. He has to avoid saying to himself: My position is objectively the correct one. Therefore, all I have to do is get the facts out there, win the debate and then I’ll get everything I want. The craftsman has to accept the hard reality that the other side also believes these things. It is extremely unlikely that one side will convince the other, or the country.

Brooks leaves unstated whether he believes an objectively correct position possible or even desirable in politics.   The statement as it stands is damning enough in its presumption that partisan Americans are unreceptive to facts, or at least to politically or ideologically inconvenient facts. The main point, from the viewpoint of the would-be craftsman, is that politics is never rational, or certainly never a pure art of intellectual persuasion. On some level, wherever the debate involves values more than facts, that's indisputable. But one would hope that values are themselves responsive to facts, since otherwise values may as well be pure fantasies. However, once we concede that persuasion through a shared commitment to objectivity is impossible, the pragmatist's only option is craft. Today's political craftsmen see politics as a psychological wargame in which, when reasoned persuasion fails, various forms of personal manipulation or outright trickery are necessary to advance an agenda. Rivals and allies alike are to be cajoled, flattered, bullied (if you take Lyndon Johnson as a model) or just plain lied to as the ends justify. Advocates of this approach may say 'twas ever thus, but if you worry that facts will assert themselves regardless of our values or our willingness to acknowledge them, you might be justified in questioning whether the old ways are adequate in response either to today's ideological polarization or tomorrow's existential imperatives. I'm less interested in whether our representatives in Washington or the several statehouses are buddies than in whether American civilization can be preserved. A pragmatist might think himself ideally suited to that purpose, but if Brooks's craftsmanship defines what pragmatism is, we may be in big trouble.

Is partisan 'virulence' contagious?

As centrist Democrats with neocon leanings in foreign policy, the editors of The New Republic are probably more ambivalent about Barack Obama the leader than are the progressive liberals who run The Nation, but if anything the New Republic's endorsement of President Obama's re-election is less ambivalent than The Nation's. The most obvious difference is the absence from TNR of any rallying call for street activism to pressure or persuade Obama in a more progressive direction. On the domestic front, the editors are quite happy with Obama's technocratic approach, praising him for "us[ing] New Democratic means to achieve Old Democratic ends" toward health-care insurance reform. If anything, they chide Obama, as The Nation might, for not pushing through an even-bigger stimulus to spur recovery. Criticisms aside, TNR affirms that there is "a new foundation to defend" against Republican revanchism. In the face of that revanchism, there seems little more to do than defend a foundation, whether Obama builds on it or not.

"At times, Barack Obama has failed to appreciate the virulence of the modern Republican Party," the editors say. That virulence has corrupted the former "rigorous empiricist" Mitt Romney; "six years of pandering to Republican primary voters and donors will apparently distort even a first-rate mind," leaving Romney with "a libertarian vision filled with substantive and rhetorical hostility to the poor." With that threat looming, while the Democrats may lack "a poetic rallying cry," the editors insist that "there is human suffering to be minimized" by re-electing Obama, having noted that even Obama's tepid stimulus had "prevented untold human suffering."

Should I be surprised to find the philosophical hedonism at the heart of 21st century liberalism expressed more nakedly in the centrist New Republic than in the progressive Nation? The Nation is by no means not hedonist; the attitude is implicit in everything that paper publishes. But somehow it comes across in TNR as some kind of admission of political bankruptcy. Is there no more we can hope to do than defend a foundation and minimize suffering? In the face of Republican "virulence" that would seem to be the case. I can empathize with this sort of hedonism, but "suffering" may be too sweeping a label, if not now then later, should the nation itself (and not just a greedy or selfish faction) need citizens to work harder and make sacrifices. A feeling that no "suffering" is acceptable, on top of the more general skepticism toward anyone asking people to work harder or make sacrifices, isn't necessarily the ideal attitude for a challenging future. Yet Democrats seem forced into a crude hedonism, or else are enabled to resort to it, by their diagnosis of GOP virulence. Because of the state of the Republican party, the Democrats hope to get by on simplistic fearmongering. Bipolarchy lets them get away with it because of the GOP's standing as the official opposition, the only legitimate alternative to Obama. Worse, because they are the official opposition, while Libertarians, Constitutionalists and other "right" alternatives remain prejudicially marginalized, there's no limit to how "virulent" the Republicans can become, in fact or perception, except whatever limit they place upon themselves for self-preservation. Democrats benefit from Republican virulence because it allows them to set the terms of any election. People may want something better -- maybe even something more radical -- but Democrats can always tell us to settle for what they offer or else risk a Republican terror. Does it seem like something is wrong with our political system when one of two major parties is considered unfit ever to take office -- that's the rhetoric on both sides now -- but is always allowed to run? But despite all the laments you see or hear for the collegiality of the past, each major party seems to prefer that the other appear as unacceptable, if not literally intolerable, as possible, because doing so allows each to choose how responsive it wants to be to its base, or to the people as a whole, while offering them the most hopeless choice at election time. Bipolarchy looks increasingly like a Gordian Knot that blocks progress, encouraging the worst tendencies of both parties with no hope of correction in sight. Can it be unraveled in time, or will we wait for someone to slice it apart?

16 October 2012

A frivolous presidential candidate ... for a frivolous election?

Compared to 100 years ago, when socialist candidates for political office got plenty of attention and actually won some elections in the U.S., it's rare to see an avowed socialist candidate get any press coverage in daily news media. Today, however, the Albany Times Union saw fit to report on a local campaign tour by Peta Lindsay the presidential candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. The report instantly discredited Lindsay, but that's not the newspaper's fault. It could only tell the truth: Lindsay is only 28 years old and therefore not of presidential age according to the Constitution. After that, it almost isn't worth noting that her running mate, Yani Osorio, is also ineligible to become President since he was born in Colombia to Colombian parents and is only a naturalized citizen. Lindsay is well aware of her handicap and scoffs at it. Hers is a protest campaign anyway; she doesn't expect to win and doesn't plan to take office -- which is a good thing, since she can't. She suggests, however, that the age requirement for the presidency -- which hasn't changed since the Founding -- not to mention age requirements for Congress, creates an age divide that alienates the people who make decisions for war or peace from the people who'll have to fight when the decision is for war. Lindsay hints at constitutional amendments that might change the age requirements, noting that she would have been doubly ineligible for political office as an black woman if not for previous amendments.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation sees the Lindsay-Osorio campaign as a consciousness-raising exercise rather than an immediate bid for power. The following comes from the PSL campaign website.

The PSL’s entry into the 2012 elections gives workers, students and oppressed people the opportunity to vote for and work with candidates from a party that is already fighting in their interests. The PSL is not a party of professional politicians. We are a party of professional revolutionaries. Our candidates—Lindsay and Osorio—are different because they do not serve the interests of big capital. Quite the contrary, they have spent their lives fighting against it. The PSL’s campaign provides a true alternative for workers. Our program is rooted in fundamental working-class interests: peace, not war; jobs and people’s needs; equal rights for all; and socialism. We want to speak to the tens of millions of working-class and oppressed people who desire real change but will not get it through the capitalist electoral process. We want to fight shoulder to shoulder with our class—the working class—in every struggle against the profit system. We want to be a catalyst to raise working-class consciousness in every arena.  Most importantly, we want to spread the ideas of revolution, of true change. We know that change is possible; we know that it will happen. We also know that it takes an energetic struggle. 

Lindsay is happy to refute the Republican charge that President Obama is a Socialist, blaming him for bailing out the banks and perpetrating "the largest transfer of public wealth into private hands in U.S. history, which is the exact opposite of socialism." Obama himself is probably happy to have candidates to his left show him as a centrist, but as Lindsay is aware, even her hopeless campaign is condemned by die-hard Democrats and self-styled Progressives for breaking the anti-Republican front. The PSL has its answer ready.

[N]early three years into Obama’s presidency—things have not simply stayed the same, they have gotten worse for working and poor people. Millions more working-class people are unemployed, over five million more people lack health insurance this year than in 2008, millions of homes have been foreclosed and union busting is on the rise.
We cannot wait around for the “change” that will never come. As people are occupying Wall Street and cities throughout the country, cries for real change—revolutionary change—are building. The PSL is running to push that hunger for revolutionary change into the forefront of this bourgeois electoral campaign cycle.
Put simply: We want to take away the capitalist candidates’ votes. We want to expose the Democratic and Republican Party leaderships as the frauds, bigots and warmongers that they are. We want to shine a bright light on the criminal character of the system and its political representatives. We aim to recruit more working people to the movement for socialism.

At a moment when some opinionators demand votes for Democrats for no better reason than to minimize suffering (see a future article), Lindsay may seem cynical or even heartless for suggesting that the Great Recession benefits here movement. “Part of the reason that capitalism has been able to maintain its traction, its hold on the public is that working people could always say, ‘My life is very hard, but I know my kid’s life will be better.’" she tells the Albany paper, "But that is coming to an end.” But it has always been a Marxist tenet that there must be a breaking point, that instead of starting another boom-bust business cycle capitalism must finally immiserate or alienate the working class to a point where workers will assert their rightful leadership of humanity. Someone like Lindsay doesn't want the poor to suffer, but expects them to do so under an unjust system until they do something about it. Doing something may itself require risk-taking and sacrifice, by comparison with which a mere appeal to minimize suffering may seem complacent if not cowardly, though it should be noted that Peta Lindsay's activities this fall don't strike me as particularly risky.  A party that can do no better than her as its national standard bearer should not be surprised or offended if it isn't taken seriously, or if Lindsay's is seen as little more than a vanity candidacy. There are other ways to protest against Obama from the left and candidates that can be voted for who can actually take office if elected. Lindsay's constituency would seem to be those who agree with her that not only the Democratic party but the entire electoral process is a sham for which they can show a proper contempt by choosing an ineligible person to leas the nation. Linday wants to create a constituency for revolution rather than reform anyway, and she can't help having a better chance at that than at becoming President.

15 October 2012

The Fairness Doctrines

No one is ever going to run for office promising to be unfair to people. Some Republicans scoff at an idea of fairness that they attribute to liberals, but when they say "life is unfair" all they really mean is that it isn't fair in the way liberals want it to be. In the current Time magazine Jonathan Haidt tries to sort out not two but three different ideas of fairness at play in our political debates.  The closest thing to an objective, non-ideological idea is what Haidt calls "procedural fairness," defined as the state when "honest, open and impartial rules are used to determine who gets what, but what counts as "procedural fairness" is conditioned by ideological considerations. Liberals, Haidt argues, claim that procedural fairness is impossible without government efforts to "level the playing field" and rebuff efforts by the wealthy to "rig the game in their favor," while Republicans (Haidt uses "conservatives" but I try to maintain a distinction) see liberal efforts as rigging the game in a different way "to enforce equality of outcomes despite inequality of inputs." Republicans, Haid writes, believe above all in "proportional fairness," which ensures that "people get benefits in proportion to their contributions." Hence their hostility to the Marxian formula "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs." Needs don't determine your claim to benefits under the reign of proportional fairness; "inputs" justify "outputs" instead. Anything else is mooching. Liberals equate fairness with equality. Haidt distances liberals from mainstream Democrats by noting how President Obama "never talks about redistribution anymore" while "many liberals do." In one of his surveys, Haidt found people identifying themselves as "very liberal" were most likely to agree with the proposition, "Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money." While Haidt doesn't make the point in his op-ed, it seems clear that the liberal idea of fairness is needs-based. We all need the same things to survive, so everyone should get at least what they need, while those with much should give up some of what they have should their accumulation leave others without the necessities. It looks like the refusal of Republicans to base their notions of fairness on need is the crucial difference between the different ideals. For them, everything has to be earned or else you're a moocher, while the liberal or progressive sees preserving life as a societal and political imperative that overrides Republicans' less compassionate sense of fairness. I can't attribute that attitude to the "Left" in general because many radicals and Leninists are less compassionate about individual life. Republicans could make a logical argument against that liberal imperative if a liberal concedes that he would not require someone to do anything in order to survive, but most liberals (if not all) envision a society in which everyone contributes to the general good. The vision is either utterly idealistic, based on the assumption that everyone will just naturally find their special way to contribute, or it is necessarily statist, on the assumption that government, if necessary, will find a way for people to contribute, or allow them to contribute should other factors (e.g. discrimination) handicap them.  Neither alternative is likely to impress Republicans for whom the original sin of politics is the quest to get "something for nothing" -- even a job, I suspect. A more meaningful distinction between liberal and Republican ideas of fairness would recognize that Republican fairness is eternally rooted in the state of nature, whether they talk about the need to earn survival or the "natural rights" of those who've earned it, while the liberal idea is consistent with an idea of civilization itself as a necessary improvement on the state of nature based and depending upon a new idea of fairness. In short, liberal fairness is based on a premise that everyone must live, while the Republican idea is based on something else. Judge accordingly.

14 October 2012

A Koch brother speaks

The Wichita Eagle newspaper scored one of the year's big journalistic coups by getting an interview with Charles Koch of Koch Brothers fame. He complains of all the threats he, his family and his businesses have received since their support for the opposition to President Obama became widely known, and he quite predictably denies the charge that they want to "plunder or exploit people, exploit our employees, exploit our customers." He claims that if fighting Democrats were "the easy way to make money," more big companies would be spending as much as his family is. That doesn't necessarily follow for a number of reasons. Many corporations may be contributing on a proportionately equivalent level to the Kochs, and you can't infer motive from the amount of money spent. It seems self-evident that corporate donors expect to do better with Democrats out of the way. Charles Koch naturally sees his own calling as more high-minded. He's out to preserve "liberty" against "the growth and intrusiveness of government," and in that cause he sees his alliance with the Republican party as a temporary one. Once the Democrats are defeated, the Kochs expect to alienate Republicans with their next big campaign targeting "corporate welfare." The brothers apparently endorse the Tea Party critique of "crony capitalism," complaining that too many corporations (but presumably none run by them) don't want to play by true free-market rules. Here's Charles in his own words:

Businesses, rather than focusing on finding what products and services will add value for people, will improve their quality of life, go to the government and get subsidies, mandates and other things, so the economy is no longer directed by individual consumers, but it’s directed politically. And we’ve seen what happens to societies that go there. And so that’s happening to this society.

As I've said before, this is a legitimate but incomplete criticism. The weakness of the Koch position is its presumption that businesses will behave themselves and play by market rules once the country "starves the beast" of government and eliminates the perverse incentives government creates for anti-competitive practices. This presumption begs the question of where those perverse incentives came from in the first place. Libertarians might say they are unintended consequences of government's self-motivated impulse to regulate the economy. It seems just as likely, to say the least, that business influences have shaped the evolution of government, and that just as property calls government into existence for its own protection, so will corporations. Presuming the Kochs, for the sake of arguments, to be sincerely principled opponents of crony capitalism, how will they prevent corporations from influencing government into promulgating anti-competitive policies for their own protection, when they have no interest, as far as I can see, in keeping government free from corporate influences? The fallacy behind their reasoning is the assumption that governments will generate the sort of rules the Kochs deplore only due to some drive for power on the part of a "political class" of elected officials and bureaucrats. But it seems to me that when corporations have sufficient power, they have sufficient motivation on their own to generate the kind of competition-suppressing government that the Kochs affect to abhor. In that case, however, the only safeguard against corporate corruption of government would be a government immune to corporate influence. But I suspect that the Kochs at least affect a faith in the ability of both principled politicians and principled corporations to resist the temptations that, to their mind, characterized the last century. That is, they expect men to suddenly become the angels Madison warned us not to expect back when he drafted a government of laws, not men.

It isn't Charles Koch but one of his flunkies who makes the interview's most audacious claim. His employers, Rich Fink says, are the moral equivalent of the Founders.

This is going to sound wrong, but what do you say to the Founding Fathers? There was a very small group of people that were a minority that changed the whole country. You say George Washington had too much influence? We shouldn’t allow them to do that?

Fink is right about one thing: it does sound wrong. That whining about the threats they've received somewhat undercuts the analogy, considering how many of the Founders actually put their lives on the line to change the whole country.  But that's capitalism for you. The Kochs clearly think that money is equivalent to heroism, and they're clearly heroes in their own minds.

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/2012/10/13/2528807/the-kochs-quest-to-save-america.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/2012/10/13/2528807/the-kochs-quest-to-save-america.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/2012/10/13/2528807/the-kochs-quest-to-save-america.html#storylink=cpy

11 October 2012

Obama and the dream of progressive persuasion

The editors of The Nation are clearly worried about apathy. Why else would they need to run a "Why Obama?" issue a month before Election Day? For the staff of the progressive weekly, the reasons are obvious enough, the main one being the existential threat presented by the Republican party. "A victory for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in November would validate the reactionary extremists who have captured the Republican Party," the lead article warns, "It would represent the triumph of social Darwinism, the religious right, corporate power and the big money donors who thrive in a new Gilded Age of inequality" But The Nation has been saying this all year, and they say it for every national election. The more interesting part of the article is intended not to scare people but to answer critics from the left who complain of how little Obama has accomplished, as well as the implicit criticism -- one I try to make explicit as often as possible -- of an unconditional dependence upon Democrats that inevitably gives the party little incentive to take the steps its constituents most want.

"[W]e have no illusions about the audacity of hope," the editors write, "no faith that the re-election of President Obama alone will accomplish the radical change this magazine has championed." Apart, then, from preventing the predicted Republican reign of terror, what's left to motivate progressive skeptics into voting Democrat again? The answer combines a complacent endorsement of Obama with a call to arms, of a sort.

For America to be on a different path in 2016 from that of 2012, progressive movements will have to “occupy” all the levers of power—in Washington, in the states and in the streets....More important, progressive movements can’t be lulled into complacency once the election is over and expect elected officials to make change from above.

The Nation exhorts progressive to put pressure on a re-elected Obama. The editors claim that progressives have already done this successfully during his first term. Since 2008, "activists were able to expand the limits of possibility by seizing the opening presented by the historic 2008 election and pushing for the change they believed in." Gay-rights and immigrant-rights activists are cited as successful examples of this approach. the LGBT community "cajoled, educated, applied pressure from the inside and protested from the outside, creating the conditions for Obama’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage." Immigrant activist "dreamers," meanwhile, "dreamers succeeded in persuading the White House that a political directive halting deportations of young, undocumented immigrants was both good policy and good politics." Progressive "push and pull" has been used on other fronts, from gender equality to environmental activism, extending at an extreme to civil disobedience outside the White House to get the Keystone XL pipeline postponed. Such efforts should be repeated and redoubled, the magazine insists, once Obama is safely returned to office.

Or else what? How exactly did these groups get their way with the Democrats? Arguments about "pressure" are unconvincing given liberal intolerance for anyone threatening even to sit out the next election. With Republicans always looming as a worst-case scenario, and with Democrats always the easiest way to stave off the GOP, what kind of "pressure" can progressives exert on a Democratic government? Taking the Keystone case as an extreme, activists must be willing at least to "embarrass" a Democratic White House by holding demonstrations, though they should be reticent about further steps. But that sort of "embarrassment" is really part of an extra-electoral "persuasion" process that Nation-type liberals clearly see as their best option for dealing with Democratic officeholders. Just as Obama himself allegedly prefers intellectual persuasion to the bargaining or manipulation old-time hacks urge upon him, so progressives, The Nation insists, should trust in their ability to persuade the President, with numbers on the streets if not entirely with reasoned words, rather than issue threats to withhold their support for the perpetual crusade against GOP evil.  This is an appeal to faith, built on the assumption that activist persuasion is the actual cause of any policy the White House takes. The credit given activists begs the question whether they actually made an elected official do something he actually didn't want to do. I don't rule out that a leader can be persuaded by reason, but that doesn't prove that any of the activists cited by The Nation actually did the persuading. The claims will be most credible, I suspect, when the persuasion is tied to pressure in the form of threats to "primary" an incumbent. How much credibility can even that threat have, however, in an environment where such primary challenges are discouraged because they may weaken the winner for the general election? My point is not to discourage all efforts at persuasion, but simply to remind people that the power of persuasion is limited in the face of any resistance without some sort of "or else" option, and that any commitment to the Manichean (or Bipolarchial) struggle between good and Republican, which Republicans must never be allowed to win, inevitably limits activists' options. As long as the Republican party exists in its present and presumably intolerable form, those progressives who fear Republicanism would seem to have no choice but to settle for whatever Democrats choose to do for them. So it has been for some time, and so it may be for some time yet -- but it seems like something's gotta give. I just wonder what.

10 October 2012

Hope is the thing with big yellow feathers

Ever since last week's Presidential debate, liberals have latched onto Mitt Romney's vow to cut federal funding for PBS, despite his avowed love for Big Bird from the Sesame Street show, as predictable proof of the Republican's meanness. Now comes a backlash from observers who feel that the Obama campaign has gone too far presenting itself as Big Bird's protector. The Children's Television Workshop itself has asked the campaign to stop using Big Bird, insisting that it and its products are essentially nonpartisan. On the Time magazine website Michael Grunwald makes now-familiar arguments against subsidies for PBS -- and he's an Obama supporter. The main argument is that PBS doesn't need the government money, considering that only 12% of its revenues come from that source. Grunwald notes that Sesame Street itself, as well as other PBS programs, are formidable money-making ventures that would have no problem surviving in a competitive commercial environment. He adds, with a flourish of reverse-snobbery, that "the right to watch commercial-free TV does not strike me as a basic human right." Defending PBS, Grunwald concludes, makes Obama look like the pettiest sort of big-government dead-ender, unwilling to do without the slightest thing for the sake of the budget.

When I was growing up the contrast between PBS and its only rivals, the three commercial networks, was more stark than any comparison that can be made today. Since then, the proliferation of cable and premium cable has made possible a wider range of alternatives, including channels with commercial-free programming. The only difference between PBS and HBO, it might be said, is that you opt for commercial-free programming on the latter by paying your cable provider a good deal more than however few cents of your compulsory taxes go toward the former. But for many people the choice, not the cost, is all that counts, and those people resent the diversion of any of their money without their consent toward something they don't watch and which some, no doubt, see as a liberal propaganda machine.  I don't watch PBS much myself these days. I don't exaggerate much in guessing that the local station is in pledge-drive mode every other time I turn it on, and that pledge-drive mode means lowest-common denominator programming like concerts of geriatrics performing pop hits of 50 years ago and marathons of ancient British comedies. As a kid I thought of PBS as the "educational" channel, and it might have been thought of more broadly as the "cultural" channel, but in that latter role my impression is that PBS has dropped the ball in recent years. They still run the Metropolitan Opera  and the mixed bag of Masterpiece Theater, but my mental image of PBS is more like a montage of Antiques Roadshow, pledge drives, old people singing, and Are You Being Served? My point is that PBS isn't really ambitious enough to deserve its federal subsidy, but that any perceived failure of PBS doesn't discredit the idea of high culture subsidized by government. We shouldn't assume that anything of "worth" can pay its own way in the world, and we shouldn't accept that everything of worth has to "sell" itself. Big Bird may not need a subsidy, but others might, and others still might benefit from the subsidy someone gets that allows them to inspire someone far away. The state should be able to act as a patron of the arts without appearing to impose an "official" culture on unwilling or uncomprehending people or imposing political conditions upon artists. It should also be able to set a higher (and perhaps more inclusive) standard than seems to apply at PBS and its member stations today. Finally, Grunwald may be right that we have no "human right" to commercial-free television, but something like that -- not something on a pay-to-play basis like HBO  -- is a mark of a civilized society. Or is that too much to ask of America in 2012?

09 October 2012

Words are not facts: ideological resistance to truth

The cover story of this week's Time reports on the 2012 presidential "Fact Wars," and reporter Michael Scherer informs us -- certainly to universal surprise -- that the Obama and Romney campaigns have persistently misrepresented the achievements and agendas of each other's candidates. To be more blunt about it, both Democrats and Republicans are lying like mad, with no one but magazine journalists really seeming to care. Scherer sees something more than the usual cynicism about politicians at work here. He worries that partisan or ideologically minded people simply don't care about the truth, or don't believe it when it's told to them. He refers readers to the research conducted by Brendan Nyhar and Jason Reifler on "the persistence of political misperceptions" in the face of corrective facts. Their tests of politically-committed subjects revealed what Scherer describes as "resistance to factual information" among both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. They had test subjects read claims made during the 2004 presidential campaign by George W. Bush and John Kerry, followed by statements refuting each man's claims. Bush was shown to be wrong in his assertion that his tax cuts had actually increased government revenue, while Kerry was shown to have wrongly accused Bush of banning stem cell research. In each case significant numbers of sympathizers resisted the information contradicting their party or candidate's position. In the worst cases, the researchers perceived a "backfire effect" as the contradictory information provoked the most committed subjects into doubling down on their original beliefs.

It seems obvious that the worst test subjects simply refused to acknowledge contradictory information as true. Addressing resistance among Republicans, Nyhar and Reifler acknowledge widespread Republican suspicion of the news media but found that they didn't significantly alter the results by attributing the contradictory information to Fox News rather than the New York Times (another survey cited by Scherer suggests that changing the brand name can generate a different response). However, they got less resistance to contradiction among Republicans when they presented Bush's original disputed claims (about WMD in Iraq as well as the revenue-enhancing effect of tax cuts) as anonymous assertions rather than crediting them to Bush himself. That suggests that resistance to contradiction is to some extent a matter of loyalty (or faith) as well as a matter of suspicion of the media. Nyhar and Reifler think fear is also a factor; another of their surveys showed subjects to be more receptive to contradiction after performing a "self-affirming exercise." Nevertheless, polls cited by Scherer show distrust of the media at 21st century highs. It seems likely that distrust in general is at historic highs in this country. Distrust is the postmodern condition, the consequence not only of ideological accusations of bias but also of academic skepticism toward all claims of objectivity and (I'm sad to suggest) the popular repudiation of any concept of faith by the best-selling "New Atheists"). Why drag them in? Because they say you can't trust what's in writing (in one case, at least) without checking the facts. But where do we usually encounter "facts?" In writing. But as skepticism toward the factuality of writing grows more widespread, we have an epistemological crisis on our hands in which some people won't credit information that challenges their beliefs unless they can verify it by (sometimes unlikely) direct observation. Unless they can go to Iraq (perhaps in a time machine) and inspect every acre, or dig it up, they won't be satisfied that the WMDs aren't there, that someone isn't lying to them about their absence solely for partisan advantage. I use a Republican example but Democratic counterparts should come to mind easily enough. An actual Republican describes the situation quite nicely. Quoted by Scherer, the partisan pollster Frank Luntz says, "It used to be that we disagreed on the solution but agreed on the problem. Now we don't even agree on the problem." We seem to be abandoning the conceptual common ground necessary for anyone to respect the objectivity or integrity of anyone else's claims.  Is that because each side wants the world to be different from what it actually is, or can be? There seems to be plenty of blame to go around. The postmodernists are considered people of the left because they seemed to oppose "power" and the way "power" crafted appeals to objectivity in order to impose its will on others. Now nearly everyone, it seems, sees some unwelcome "power" trying to impose its will in the guise of truth. If truth and objectivity exist, perhaps it's time for them to actually fulfill people's fears and impose themselves on everyone else. I suspect that'll probably happen anyway, whether truth and objectivity take a human form or not.

08 October 2012

An obituary for Baathism: "Resistance" is futile

Paul Berman is a self-appointed scourge of Middle Eastern radicalism. A political liberal, Berman since 2001 has been what you might call an anti-anti-neocon. He has waged a polemical campaign urging liberals not to let hostility to neoconservative Republicans turn them from a necessary struggle against dangerous ideologies emanating from the Arab world. He has most often and understandably focused on Islamism, stressing its bigoted and totalitarian elements, but with Syria's civil war in the global spotlight he has penned what he hopes will serve as an obituary of the Baath ideology upon which the Assad dynasty is ostensibly based. Baathism is an easy target for liberals. It has only resulted in tyranny and wherever it rose to the top, as Berman notes, it has taken a clannish, conspiratorial form that concentrates power in localized minority cliques: the Sunnis of Tikrit in Baathist Iraq, the Alawites in Syria. In Berman's account, Baathists never intended to take power in elections, but always favored seizing power through coups d'etat. Veering from leftism to anticommunism (depending on the eye of the beholder) and from piety to secularism, Baathism would seem never to have stood for much besides broad appeals to national chauvinism and a self-appointed vanguard's lust for power. Neither is Baathism's most defining characteristic for Berman. What defines Baathism, as well as most of what Berman abhors in the Middle East, if not the Third World in general, is what makes it a political dead end: the "cult of resistance" at its heart.

Surely this is Baathism’s most destructive trait of all. The cult of resistance leads to a culture of hysteria. Once you have spent 35 years or 50 years manning a machine gun and vowing resistance to the end, your ability to work up more thoughtful habits of mind is bound to become a little circumscribed. A capacity to weigh evidence, a feeling of curiosity about other people’s views, a spirit of tolerance, the traits that are necessary for a liberal alternative, in short—these traits are not likely to survive. We have seen the results in Iraq, and we will see them in Syria.

Berman asks the question this begs -- "resistance to what?" and comes up with the obvious answers: Zionism and "imperialism."  But his dismissal of resistance, beyond the arguable point that resistance can become a self-defeating end unto itself, itself begs questions. Shouldn't "imperialism," at least, be resisted wherever it threatens a nation? For Berman, however, "imperialism" is a chimera that may as well be in scare quotes even if he doesn't use them. He may feel that no one on Earth today has a legitimate beef against imperialism. Given his equation of "resistance" with intolerance, he may also feel that self-proclaimed anti-imperialism simply and skimpily masks xenophobia or raw bigotry. The point Berman wants to make is that "resistance" blinds people and nations to more pragmatic concerns. An official, enforced commitment to resistance, he argues, prevents places like Baathist Syria from seriously addressing such basic questions as "how to become prosperous." It also seems to suppress "a liberal willingness to evaluate the real-life results" of policies and ideologies. That's not wrong: all over the world, people are reluctant to change "their" way of doing things just because it doesn't work. The radical Japanese emulation of Europe and the U.S. during the 19th century remains an exceptional historic event that met much resistance, initially, in Japan itself. But what comes of labeling such resistance as "resistance," as if resistance was an ideology (or a cult), rather than calling it reaction or xenophobia? Berman, I think, is actually saying something of importance and relevance beyond the Middle East. He seems to be saying that "resistance" as an attitude is antithetical to liberalism. That may seem uncontroversial. In the U.S., liberals regularly denounce conservatives for their resistance to change. But isn't Berman also saying that liberalism is antithetical to "resistance?" And might we not say more strongly that Berman's sort of liberalism is intolerant of resistance? Perhaps not. We first need to know whether Berman acknowledges a middle ground where resistance (if not "resistance") is legitimate. The answer depends on the scope of resistance. We could assume that Berman would admit readily a nation's right -- or its people's -- to resist an invasion ... though the example of Iraq may throw his acknowledgment of such a right into question. Beyond that, what? The key question is whether Berman recognizes a sphere of resistance that is not simply military self-defense but is also not simplistically "intolerant." Liberalism can become dangerous -- this may be what is meant by "neoliberalism" or what is inherent in Republicanism's descent from "classical" liberalism -- when it presumes that all resistance is intolerant, irrational, and essentially unacceptable. Do people ever have a right to resist "progress" -- not just to dispute whether something is progress, but to know it as such but refuse it, for whatever reason? The actual reason probably should matter in our appraisal, and some progressives might concede that if people have sufficient reason to deny progress, it isn't really progress. But the question for today -- the relevance to Columbus Day is up to you -- is how willing liberals are to listen to reasons for resistance rather than dismiss them as reactionary unreason. Resistance isn't always right, of course -- but what is?

05 October 2012

Romney apologizes, sort of

After refusing to apologize for anything more than clumsy phrasing ever since his now-infamous candid remarks about "47%" of Americans were made public, and after weeks of hardcore Republicans cheering those same remarks and urging him to "double down" on them, Mitt Romney swallowed his pride and told an interviewer yesterday that his comments were "completely wrong." To an extent, it was an act of political courage, because the interview was on Fox News, where the viewership was most likely to be disappointed if not disgusted with any apology for sentiments resembling their own. But while he might deserve some credit for admitting error, it still should be asked what part of his remarks he actually considers completely wrong. Given his statement last night that he "care[s] about 100 percent," Romney seems specifically to be repudiating his earlier comment that his job was not to worry about the "47%." I had given him the benefit of the doubt about that, more so than some other commentators, because it seemed clear in context that he meant that as a candidate he could not bother worrying about winning over the intractable 47%. Now, however, Romney may mean to suggest that he isn't writing anyone off during the campaign. That's nice of him, I suppose, but we should note that he did not actually recant his description of the 47%, which was probably the most offensive part of his original statement. He did not renounce his belief that nearly half the population has an unjustified entitlement mentality and an actual aspiration to dependence upon government. He did not, at least in the sections of the interview I've seen quoted, contradict his assumption that he can never convince those people to accept personal responsibility for their lives. So until Romney elaborates further on what he feels was "completely wrong" about his unguarded comments, we're basically where we already were. His basic position is that his policies will benefit 100% of the population whether the 47% believes it (or likes it) or not. That summation isn't inconsistent with his private remarks to donors and it's not inconsistent with what he told Fox News last night. Nevertheless, Romney's latest remarks do seem consistent with a move toward the center that some observers of last Wednesday's debate noted. Of course, his fellow Republicans can always be depended upon to make Romney look like a centrist. Consider his response to this morning's report that the unemployment rate had fallen below 8%. While some GOP extremists (and corporate cranks) accused the White House of cooking the books to make the President look good -- regrettably, that idea probably shouldn't be rejected automatically -- Romney was content to be unimpressed with the numbers, as is his prerogative. We can all be unimpressed or dissatisfied with the slow movement back toward full employment without believing that Romney can do any better or even as well than Obama. It'll be interesting to see whether some intrepid reporter challenges Romney to endorse or repudiate the conspiracy theories of Rep. West, Jack Welch and others. That may not be fair, but it's his party, so we can make him cry if we want to.

04 October 2012

The debate continues

A consensus of opinion indicates that Mitt Romney won last night's debate with President Obama, both substantially and superficially, though much of the post-game talk focuses on the incumbent's alienating mannerisms and his perceived lack of enthusiasm for the event. Had I any faith that either candidate could come out of his ideological box and say something interesting and truly relevant, I might have watched the contest. Despite my neglect, I see no reason to dispute the opinionators' analysis, especially when Democratic flacks concede their man's defeat. The funny thing was that both candidates were poor-mouthing themselves, more or less, leading up to the show. Or at least they were talking each other up in a way that suggested that neither man takes the debates seriously. Since neither will be challenged by truly unorthodox opinions, with independents excluded and moderators chosen from the mainstream, the major candidates shouldn't be expected to say anything different from what they've been saying all along. Romney will say that Obama's four years prove that he should be replaced. Obama will say that George W. Bush's eight years prove that we should not turn back to the Republicans. This leaves Romney some room to maneuver should he want to convince viewers that he isn't George W. Bush. Romney could do a lot more than that in a real effort to reach so-called "persuadable" voters, but he most likely lacks the imagination to do so or the courage to say anything that might alienate or even confuse his base. The President has less room to maneuver, but his own liberalism is partly to blame for that. Despite all the paranoia surrounding him, Obama clearly doesn't have the radicalism in him to shake up the debates. If either man seemed vague that probably shouldn't be held against him. If anything, the country needs a broader, deeper debate on general principles before any ideological reconciliation can happen. We need to debate all the implications of the Republican theory of entrepreneurial vanguardism, and whether liberals and progressives can assert a civilized standard of living against the pull of perpetual competition or the inertia of limited resources. I know I'm not going to see that from Obama and Romney, but I hope I hear it from somebody soon.

03 October 2012

Selective outrage and the 2012 video wars

Republicans are outraged that no one else seems as outraged as they are over remarks made by Sen. Barack Obama back in 2007. While those remarks were not uttered in secret -- Obama being already a presidential candidate, they were reported at the time -- Republican sympathizers clearly hoped that this old news would somehow counter the negative impression of Mitt Romney created by the video of Romney's candid "47%" remarks from this year. As ever, Republicans blame the "lame stream media" for some sort of biased neglect of the alleged revelation of Obama as a practitioner of divisive racial politics. The rabid wing of the GOP has complained about Obama getting a pass from the "LSM" since 2008. The feeling is that perceived evidence of the Democrat's extremism deserves more scrutiny from the media and the population as a whole. The implicit belief is that any insinuation from Obama that Republican policies are racist in their intentions or implications should be as offensive to the general public as whatever they think to be Romney's opinion of the 47%. Whoever doesn't feel that way, Republicans argue, must be guilty of double standards or selective outrage. But there is no double standard unless Obama's remarks and Romney's are judged to be essentially the same in character. It doesn't follow that someone outraged by Romney's comments will (much less must) be outraged by Obama's, whether in the 2007 speech or the 2008 remarks about "bitter" people "clinging" to guns and religion. In fact, it's more likely that someone easily outraged by one politician's comments will agree with the other's. As for the news media, it might be argued that each man's comments are equally "divisive," but those arguing for equal attention to Obama's supposedly-damning comments would first have to concede that Romney's remarks were actually divisive. The only other option would be to insist that if one group of Americans is as outraged by Obama's words as another was by Romney's, both sets of outrage should receive equal attention from the media. That case, if made by Republicans, might be more compelling were they to allow that outrage felt by other groups over other offenses (Muslims, anyone?) is also worthy of attention. Instead, their argument always has been that their particular outrage is ignored systematically by the "LSM." Republicans are setting the "LSM" to be their scapegoat should Romney lose this year just as it was after McCain lost in 2008. To this day, the GOP complains that Obama's ties to controversial radicals did not receive the media attention Republicans felt they deserved, even though Obama was compelled during the 2008 Democratic primary season to deliver a major speech on race relations due to the media's discovery of Rev. Wright. The Republicans actually have a simple standard for judging such things: if a Democrat wins, then the media didn't subject that candidate to an adequate amount of scrutiny. Republicans assume that the media can make the rest of the public see things the same way they do, and when the public doesn't see things the same way, they blame the media. The possibility that the public knows quite well what any Democrat and any Republican stand for -- even if they're sadly ignorant or ignorantly dismissive of alternatives -- and chooses a Democrat anyway is probably too frightening for Republicans to contemplate.

02 October 2012

Telling Romney's fortune with a race card

George Will is another victim of this year's Bipolarchy Fallacy: the assumption that an objective conclusion that President Obama is a failure must result in the election of Mitt Romney. Given Romney's stagnant standing in opinion polls prior to tomorrow's first debate with the incumbent, Will is forced to grasp at irrational explanations for Romney's apparent failure so far. Unable to acknowledge the most obvious possibility, that most voters actually have memories and don't want to entrust the country to Republicans again so soon after the W years, no matter how badly Obama seems to be doing, the columnist pulls a Romney of his own and insults a potential majority of voters, accusing them of a quasi-racist patronization of the First Black President. His conclusion:

That Obama is African American may be important, but in a way quite unlike that darkly suggested by, for example, MSNBC’s excitable boys and girls who, with their (at most) one-track minds and exquisitely sensitive olfactory receptors, sniff racism in any criticism of their pin-up. Instead, the nation, which is generally reluctant to declare a president a failure — thereby admitting that it made a mistake in choosing him — seems especially reluctant to give up on the first African American president. If so, the 2012 election speaks well of the nation’s heart, if not its head.

Nothing can be wrong with the Romney campaign -- though Will regrets a lack of risk-taking ideological audacity -- or with the candidate himself, so something must be wrong with the American people, or at least with their heads rather than their hearts. If the Democrat is failing the Republican must win; why can't people see this? Can Americans actually prefer to muddle through with Obama and all his faults rather than take Romney on? It must be some sort of white guilt, even though most whites probably will vote for Romney. Those saps must be afraid that repudiating Obama is akin to repudiating the idea of a black President -- or so Will assumes. Addressing that presumed mentality, the columnist tries to apply reverse psychology. The way to prove you're not racist is to repudiate Obama. There's a historical precedent.

A significant date in the nation’s civil rights progress ... was Oct. 3, 1974, when Frank Robinson, one the greatest players in history, was hired by the Cleveland Indians as the major leagues’ first black manager. But an even more important milestone of progress occurred June 19, 1977, when the Indians fired him. That was colorblind equality. Managers get fired all the time. The fact that the Indians felt free to fire Robinson — who went on to have a distinguished career managing four other teams — showed that another racial barrier had fallen: Henceforth, African Americans, too, could enjoy the God-given right to be scapegoats for impatient team owners or incompetent team executives. 

Wait a second! Was that a Freudian slip? Isn't Will saying, by analogy, that if Obama loses, he'll be a scapegoat for the impatient or incompetent analogues of baseball personnel in political or economic life? In effect, Will has been saying that Obama, as the President and not as a black man, should be the scapegoat for persistent economic stagnation. It economic recovery has been unsatisfactory, we have to replace the man at the top, and as Will sees it the only possible replacement is Romney. According to this particular Bipolarchy Fallacy, Romney must win by default. But Bipolarchy is increasingly driven by fear and hatred rather than any rational analysis -- not that a preference for Romney over Obama is necessarily rational. We've reached such an extreme of polarization, as Romney indelicately acknowledged in his "47%" speech, that many Americans can never imagine voting Republican, just as many others can never imagine voting Democratic, under any circumstances. The primary factor in this is not some psychological attitude about race or some belief in entitlement, but each side's perception of the other. If people are voting for President Obama this year, there are two possible reasons. They either think that he has done a good job, given the circumstances, or they do not trust the Republican party with the White House. Had the Democratic President been a white man, and done the same things as Obama, the polls would most likely look the same as they do now. What writers like Will have to explain to their like-minded readers is this widespread hatred of the Republican party. If all they can come up with are ad hominem explanations that damn the haters -- if they can't even imagine approaching people with an explanation of why their image of the GOP is false -- they'll do no better than Romney's doing now.

01 October 2012

An unrepentant communist. Why not?

There's some interesting commentary in the British and global news media today following the death of the historian Eric Hobsbawm. A longtime contributor to the London Review of Books as well as a revered writer, Hobsbawm wrote the Age of Revolution, Age of Industry, etc. books that you'll still often see in old-style pocket book size in used bookstores. In the Guardian, Niall Ferguson praised this series of books as "the best introduction to modern world history in the English language." Ferguson's tribute to Hobsbawm, whom he considered a friend, is noteworthy because Ferguson, a modern-day best-seller, is a neoliberal if not neocon thinker, while Hobsbawn, as every obituary observes, was a lifelong Marxist. Ferguson apparently can forgive communism, if not anti-imperialism -- but that's another story. He honors Hobsbawm as "an example of how civilised people can differ about big questions while agreeing about much else." The two historians found much common ground despite Ferguson's disappointment in Hobsbawm's apparent lack of remorse for his espousal of communism during the Stalinist era (the older man died at 95) and a fundamental difference in sympathies. "[H]e sided with the workers and peasants," Ferguson writes, "while I side with the bourgeoisie."

What did Ferguson mean by that? What does it mean, in other words, to "side with the bourgeoisie" rather than with, if not against the "workers and peasants." There are two possibilities. In the more benign reading, Ferguson may mean to say that the bourgeoisie should not be seen as the oppressors of the workers and peasants, as someone like Hobsbawn presumably saw them, but as their benefactors. In this case, to "side with" the workers and peasants presumes an adversarial relationship that someone like Ferguson, to be generous, denies. The other reading would imply a choice of who should rule, with Ferguson favoring the bourgeoisie, Hobsbawm the workers and peasants. Either way, Ferguson would appear to believe that workers and/or peasants have no rightful veto on bourgeois action, while Hobsbawm presumably believed differently.

Timothy Snyder is a historian of 20th century Eastern Europe, and no more a fan of Stalin than Ferguson. Writing for CNN, Snyder asks the question that Ferguson steers away from: why did Hobsbawm never renounce Marxism despite all its historical failings. I might answer that Leninism, which did fail, is not the essence of Marxism, but to be fair, I don't know whether that was Hobsbawm's own opinion, and I have a feeling that the question wouldn't be raised had Hobsbawm ever clearly renounced Leninism. That leaves us with Snyder's speculations. He notes that Hobsbawm came of age at a time when young people believed that the world's choice was not between communism and "freedom," but between communism and fascism. He goes on to equate Hobsbawm's faith with Americans' faith in their own institutions and ideology.

Communism also offered, as perhaps no non-religious ideas do today, a sense of community. To belong to the Communist Party was to have a sense of conspiracy, a loyalty to friends who had suffered and would suffer more, and a collective sense that the struggle was not in vain, for a more glorious world could and would come. Like religion for Americans, who repeat that "things happen for a reason," communism offered a logic of pain and progress. Every arrest, every sentence to a concentration camp, every execution was not just a moment of horror, but further proof of capitalism's decadence and weakness....The story had a logic, but it also required an element of faith. The faith and the logic had to work together, and in a mind such as Hobsbawm's, one of the great minds of the 20th century, logic could keep faith in the shadows. But it was always present, and perhaps in the end it was dominant. Communists could be great historians (fascists could not), because communism provides history with a plot. But because communism in the 20th century was not just an idea but a political reality, its story slowly transformed from one of prophecy to one of retrospective editing.

By implicit analogy, Snyder seems to say that Marxists like Hobsbawm weren't the only ones retrospectively editing history. Snyder then goes on to state the obvious: Wrong as Marxism was, at least in its Leninist form, "it did embody certain virtues. There is something to be said, after all, for defending the weak, even today, especially today." That generous comment puts Ferguson's choice for the bourgeois rather than the workers and peasants in a different light. Objectively speaking, we can admit that the weak aren't always right, but despite the missionary hopes of people like Ferguson, or the dismissive estimates of people like Mitt Romney, the "weak" are probably still the majority on earth, if not in every country, and that has to count for something when we ask who was right or wrong in history.