30 December 2013

Does denying evolution prove it?

Democrats will have a field day with a new survey from the Pew Research Center that shows an increase over the last four years in the number of respondents identifying themselves as Republicans who dispute the theory of evolution. But honestly -- have Republicans really become more superstitious in so short a time? You could say that only if Pew had contacted the very same people it had surveyed four years earlier to verify that specific individuals had actually changed their minds on the subject. Of course, the two samples were equally random -- and for what it's worth it included cell-phone users, so that the result can't be dismissed as a consequence of limiting the sample to old fogies with land-line phones. The new figures that indicate an increased hostility to science may simply have been a matter of the luck of the draw. It's also possible that we're seeing the consequence of an evolutionary process of selection. What if, as the Republican party grows more identified with the Tea Party and its reactionary traditionalist views, and the as Republicans are increasingly expected to be reactionary traditionalists -- as opposed, for instance, to libertarians -- people who might otherwise have identified themselves as Republican, or at least as "conservative," refuse to be identified with the GOP if that means identification with reactionary traditionalism? If so, Pew's findings may not reflect a dumbing-down of the Republicans of 2010, nor their doubling down on points of cultural contention, but a change in the cultural identity of the Republican party, so that the party as a whole has become more reactionary and traditionalist through attrition, with erstwhile Republicans who retain some intellectual scruples or some sense of cultural sophistication, becoming Libertarians or other sorts of independents. Libertarian opinions aren't measured by Pew, but independents as a whole fall only slightly behind Democrats in their belief in evolution, and too many Libertarians take a "Darwin Awards" view of life, I suspect, to have much doubt about the evolutionary process. The Pew survey simply offers another way to measure the increased cultural marginalization of the Republican party, and may give further comfort to Democrats and others if the new stats on evolution prove that many from the GOP are abandoning ship.

The battles of Russia

A second battle of Stalingrad may be underway as the year ends, though they call the city Volgograd now and they'd like to call the enemy al-Qaeda. For two days in a row terrorists reportedly affiliated with Chechen separatists have exploded suicide bombs in the southern city. The thought behind the attacks may be not just to terrorize but to embarrass the Putin government, since every attack this winter will raise concerns about security at the Sochi Olympics. If the terrorists hope to hurt the Olympic box office -- some have threatened the Games directly -- it puts them on the same side, if only in a negative sense, as the Pussy Riot band, members of whom emerged unrepentant from prison following Putin's holiday amnesty. By continuing to denounce Putin, the band members play into his hands without realizing it. Had they emerged contrite and quiet, the rest of the world, or that part that really cares, might have concluded that their release had been conditioned upon their silence and treated them as victims still of his repression. Since they've resumed their rhetorical attacks, if not their allegedly sacrilegious antics in Orthodox churches, Putin appears magnanimous, as he surely wanted to. Meanwhile, if Chechens or other separatists or terrorists hope to embarrass Putin by attacking the Olympics, they may not reckon on the rest of the world, since many would see an attack on Sochi as an assault not just on Putin or Russia but on the entire civilized world. The terrorists may not care; they may be interested only in seeing Russians or anyone who "endorses" Putin by going to Sochi suffer. Nevertheless, there probably would be no better way to turn the whole world against you than by attacking an international event like the Olympics -- though inevitably crackpots in and out of Russia would accuse Putin of staging a "false flag" attack for just that reason. Putin bugs a lot of people around the world not just for what he has or may have done but because, perhaps more than anyone now, he embodies the idea that the state should be bigger and more powerful than any other element in a nation -- that a government has a mandate to govern while minorities, defined politically or otherwise, should not have unlimited veto power. Someone like Putin is always at least a potential tyrant in the classical liberal (or American "conservative") imagination, while for centuries, under many forms of government, Russia has been perceived as an inherently tyrannical force in the world by virtue of its size and the supposed mentality of its people. Pussy Riot and al-Qaeda should be mortal enemies on their own terms but unite in their hatred of Putin, if not hatred of the entire (Russian "conservative") culture behind him. To suggest that fear of Putin is to some extent irrational is not to absolve him of anything. But there's always something active and not simply reactionary involved in fear focused on an individual or specific institution -- something we, rather than the object of fear, bring to it. For the terrorists, it's probably pretty simple; they see Putin as the foreign oppressor of their people. For Pussy Riot, something else is clearly going on, and for the international gay-rights movement, something else again. But no one should try to set policy for dealing with Putin before coming to terms with the reasons why they fear him that may have little to do with him at all. If some irrational fear has anyone rooting for the suicide bombers in Volgograd because the bombings are bad for Putin, something is probably more wrong with that person than with Putin or the bombers.

27 December 2013

Duck Dynasty Redux

After a week of free publicity, A&E has reinstated Phil Robertson to the Duck Dynasty program. The cable network, whose initials once stood for "Arts and Entertainment" suspended Robertson after various homophobic, religiously bigoted and otherwise insensitive comments made to a GQ magazine interviewer. A backlash followed as Robertson's fans, and politicians pandering to those fans, declared the Duck Dynast the real victim of intolerance, the real victimizers being those who can't stand to hear that their lifestyle might be wrong. Once the remaining Robertsons threatened to end the channel's most popular show, A&E's surrender was inevitable. It's just business, anyway, and you can't blame A&E for making the call. Their taking the initiative only made Robertson the victim of corporate suits and a nebulous cultural elite. If people out there are still so outraged by his comments that they want to drive Robertson and his family off the air, it's their turn to show their strength. If they care that much, let them boycott A&E or the sponsors of the Duck show. The channel, at least, has proved itself spineless, so you never know what might happen when pressure is applied. Actually, I can see the future a little bit. Anyone advocating a boycott will be called intolerant the way A&E itself was and all critics of Robertson were. And they may as well fess up. Nothing wrong with being intolerant of something that shouldn't be tolerated. Does that mean you want to make Robertson's views illegal or forbid them from the airwaves. No to the first and probably no to the second, but if he claims a right to speak his mind (or the "word of God") than he should hear what others think of him. Judge not lest ye be judged, the saying goes. Judge, and prepare to face judgment.

'Capitalism is mostly ideas'

Republicans in the U.S. are still stewing over Pope Francis's recent critical comments on capitalism and "trickle-down" economics. For many on the American right, apparently, to criticize capitalism is to be either a Marxist or a fool, though the categories tend to blur in their minds. Into the fray steps Michael Novak, a right-wing American Catholic, who wants to reconcile Republicans to the new pontiff. While he won't endorse all the Argentine's opinions on economics ("bishops aren't trained to do economic analysis"), he chides Americans like Rush Limbaugh who don't understand "the Catholic part" of Francis's critique. This Novak summarizes as "Love, care for the poor, humility, kindness." In other terms, the Pope is presumably concerned with the immediate needs of the poor as opposed to the theoretical benefits of capitalism. But Novak is hopeful that Bergoglio will "get his feet on the ground, get his arms around the questions of globalization," and recognize that capitalism is something other than the inegalitarian oligarchy he knows from South American experience. Capitalism, Novak insists, "is mostly ideas." He seems to mean that the essence of capitalism is something qualitatively different from the practice of capitalism where Francis used to live -- if Novak recognizes such practices as capitalism at all. Perhaps the Pope needs to recognize, as some capitalist apologists admit, that "the problem with capitalism is capitalists," but the idea, somehow, is still good.

The "idea" Francis's American critics want him to get is that, whatever his beef with inequality or the suffering of the poor, capitalism remains the best vehicle for poor people to improve their lot. They want him to share their faith that any poor person can improve his lot simply by working hard, and that capitalism as an "idea" presents no impediment to advancement through hard work. These may be leaps of faith that a Pope can't make. At a minimum, Republicans would like Bergoglio to acknowledge that, whatever capitalism's flaws, all alternatives are worse. A certain Protestant premillennialism, with its contempt for the "social gospel" and its pessimism about the prospects for a Christian utopia in this world, informs the American critique of the Pope -- perhaps even among Catholics.  We know that pessimism in its political form as the constant pressure from Bipolarchy to settle for what Bipolarchy deems possible, to stop making "the perfect the enemy of the good," to stop demanding what they say can't be done and definitely don't want to do. Whether you think the Pope has any moral authority at all on such questions, he has as much prerogative as any person on earth to demand better from society when it is self-evidently possible.

26 December 2013

China: the mote and the beam

China is officially pissed at the Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, as it is whenever a government official visits that Shinto memorial to the Japanese dead of World War II. Because Yaskuni memorializes the country's war leaders, including convicted war criminals, as well as ordinary soldiers, China and other Asian nations treat any visit to the shrine by a Japanese politician the way Americans would treat one of their own raising a Confederate flag. There's nothing new about this, except arguably for a more unrepentant stance from a Japanese government grown weary of an international code of political correctness and perhaps as defensive toward its "heritage" as some American southerners are. But for me, what made the day interesting is that China's leaders went on to celebrate the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong. Granted, no foreign country has as much cause to complain about China honoring Mao as some countries have when the Japanese honor, let's say, General Tojo. Unless one persists in thinking of Tibet as a separate country from China, Mao at least refrained from spreading his terror beyond his own borders. But if China complains about the commemorations at Yasukuni because the Japanese killed a lot of Chinese, some may argue that Mao killed more. He at least shares the blame for the dead of the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek, and gets it all when we count the victims of purges after his victory. Many want to blame him for the millions of deaths from famine resulting from his Great Leap Forward policies, while the Chinese government itself notes that his Cultural Revolution was a "serious mistake." The official Chinese statement on Mao's birthday distances the government and party from the old cult of personality while suggesting that he remains an indispensible historical figure without whom China's current power and prosperity would have been impossible. They cannot condemn Mao as much as some historians (or ideologues) would like, it seems, without discrediting the entire revolution and their current form of government. The rest of the world would have little difficulty characterizing Mao as a mass murderer; some might take offense at China's refusal to recognize him as such. When the Chinese take the trouble to explain why they refuse, they might think about being more indulgent when other countries behave similarly -- or else they might set a precedent for moral consistency worldwide by making no excuses for atrocities anywhere.

Meanwhile, South Korea also protested the Yasukuni visit. I've no problem with that, though the North Koreans might.

The fallacy of South Sudan

Remember a few years ago when the Sudan was the humanitarian crisis capital of the world? It wasn't so long ago that the word janjaweed became a synonym for evil as we learned of the oppression of Sudan's "African" southerners by its "Arab" nomads with the connivance of a government dominated by the north of the country. Autonomy, or rather independence was the only remedy, and the world rejoiced when the new nation of South Sudan was born. Now this nation threatens to become the humanitarian crisis capital, as the tribes once oppressed by the north oppress each other. If the world had an illusion that "South Sudan" was a people united by resistance to northern oppression, this month's news of mass killing has dispelled it. It's more likely that a refusal to be governed by "northerners" or "Arabs" was the only thing uniting the tribes who formed South Sudan. Now it turns out that the tribes, or their leaders, can't share power or resources with each other. No sense of national identity trumps tribal loyalties or self-interests. There probably never was a nation there, and there won't be, whether one is a good idea or not, until one tribe, one party, or one man crushes the others. Of course, the international community doesn't want a fight to the finish because that would make the humanitarian crisis worse. A certain liberal mentality always hopes that tribes can be convinced to cohabitate within national borders, but that sort of privileged pluralism is implausible wherever individuals depend on tribes to survive and tribes trust no one to distribute resources fairly. It may be that no culture can graduate from tribalism to nationhood without the sort of oppression, or at least coercion, that liberals always deplore. Progress may require giving up one identity in favor of another, whatever "violence" that may do to someone's psyche. Idealists may still hope that tribalism can be transcended without coercion through appeals to humanity, logic or enlightened self-interest. But absent any compelling opposing force, tribalism may persist for the same reasons that it evolved in the first place. Tribalism persists in the form of nationalism as well, and arguably in the more abstract if not most advanced form of ideology. Communism, for instance, appealed to universal humanity but too often has made full humanity conditional upon submission to the scripture of Marx or to some Great Leader. But if identifying with a universal humanity requires us to overcome tribal habits and actively transcend a former sense of self, there may be no way to that goal that doesn't look "totalitarian" to somebody -- though there really should be some way that does without the ego of a Great Leader. If identifying with universal humanity requires "indoctrination" and "propaganda," is it worth the trouble? It might be if people stopped comparing the process to some ideal of "freedom" (i.e. each person's unmediated development toward what each is "meant to be" as defined by each person at any given moment) that most likely never has existed and definitely doesn't in places like South Sudan. It's clear now that the path to that country's birth was paved with the same good intentions seen on a more familiar road.

24 December 2013

Santa Claus has been shot

This just in from Washington DC. Footage from station WJLA:

Of course, this wasn't really Santa. As some people have said very insistently this season, Santa Claus is white. Still, c'mon man!

An American cultural revolution

Everyone's had their say on Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty by now, and the debate, such as it is, boils down to what's still subject to debate in the U.S. That's why Robertson's defenders can portray him as a victim of gay-lobby or cultural-elite intolerance; they want to perpetuate a debate over homosexuality that the other side presumes or wants to be closed. This isn't politics as usual; the subject isn't gay marriage but homosexuality itself, which Robertson declared not just sinful but illogical. That was a rhetorical shot fired in an ongoing cultural revolution. This sort of revolution is a closing of debate; it doesn't allow for counterrevolution. When the stakes are higher, counterrevolutionaries get shot, while Robertson faces little more than a temporary halt to part of his livelihood. But in one respect he's as much a "victim" of revolution as anyone dumped in a gulag, because the revolutionaries will allow no going back. The goal of the revolution is a world where it's unacceptable for anyone to say that homosexuality is wrong in any sense. From the revolutionary standpoint, it should be no more acceptable for anyone to assert the wrongness of homosexuality than it is for anyone to assert the inferiority of another race. To this day, you can find people who'll say that that taboo is oppressive, that it sacrifices scientific inquiry to political correctness, etc. Resistance to a similar cultural revolution against homophobia may grow more entrenched because so many homophobes deem it their duty to denounce "sin." Such resistance, should it persist, may provoke an anticlerical backlash of the sort this country hasn't seen since the days of H. L. Mencken, because this revolution rejects the characterization of homosexuality as a particular sin, and will not accept the right of conscience or religious expression as an excuse for homophobia. If the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong, the revolution says the Bible is wrong and will tolerate no contradiction. The moral neutrality of homosexuality (if not its positive good) simply isn't subject to the sort of debate the Robertsons and their apologists want to keep going. If some liberals feel that Robertson's been harshly treated by A&E, or unfairly vilified by fellow liberals, that's because their instinct is to keep debates going forever rather than compel anyone's silence. But revolutions by nature are radical, not liberal, and the passions stirred by Robertson's GQ interview acknowledge this. How long this cultural revolutionary war goes on most likely depends on how much the old regime, so to speak, feels is at stake. Perhaps I'm optimistic during the holiday season, but my gut feeling is that unless many reactionaries really feel that the revolution courts the wrath of God, they'll find other issues to make a stand on in defense of a social order that'll need more than a cultural revolution to topple it.

20 December 2013

'Go live in Russia!'

That's what you used to hear in this country whenever anyone criticized the capitalist system or the American government. As readers well know, Russia remains an "evil empire" in many minds for a variety of reasons, but President Putin has launched a charm offensive this weekend by pardoning a number of high-profile prisoners, the best-known being the former oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a figure widely regarded in the west as a victim of political persecution. Some Kremlin watchers feel that Putin wants to build global good will in advance of next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, after months of hostile publicity focused on Russia's recent law against "gay propaganda." President Obama continues to stick it to Putin over this issue, snubbing the Olympics by refusing to send any of his family with the U.S. delegation while pointedly including openly gay athletes in that group. For the first time, possibly, we're seeing something like an American style "culture war" on a global scale over gay rights. Flashpoints break out around the world. India has reportedly recriminalized the homosexual act, while Uganda now punishes it with life in prison. During Ukraine's current political crisis over the country's geopolitical and economic orientation, demonstrators favoring Russia warned that homosexual influence would spread with that of the European Union. Things seem so bad sometimes that gays seem overeager to include the Pope on their team for his "who am I to judge?" remarks from earlier this year. In the U.S., of course, we're seeing a farcical echo of this global culture war in the controversy over the Duck Dynasty program and its homo neanderthalis patriarch. This has brought us to an ironic reversal of the old terms of debate. Now, it seems, the people who used to tell American dissidents to "go live in Russia" are the ones who really need to go live there.

19 December 2013

If It Talks Like a Duck; or, the difference between Jerks and Twerks

The governor of Louisiana has come to the defense of persecuted Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson. Looking out for the interests of a constituent, and no doubt hoping to win favor with the Republican primary base, where Robertson's views are likely to be popular, Gov. Jindal has denounced the A&E channel for suspending Robertson from his program. He described it as "a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh and Phil Robertson gets suspended."

The governor appears to propose a moral equivalence of offensiveness. In the most charitable reading, Jindal means that no one find Robertson's sayings more offensive than the former Hannah Montana's buttheaded exhibitionism. A less charitable reading might infer that Jindal considers Cyrus more censurable than Robertson. For the sake of arguments, let's concede that Cyrus's recent TV appearances have driven standards of taste to a new low. Does that make her a moral equivalent of the Duck Commander? Some people may well feel more offended after watching one of her performances, either morally or aesthetically, than after reading the Robertson interview in GQ magazine. But whom has Cyrus insulted? Whom has she attacked? I don't have to endorse A&E's action to insist on a qualitative difference between offenses that renders Jindal's opinion trivial.

Robertson's defenders may claim that he, too, has attacked no one and insulted people only unintentionally, in the course of exercising his right to speak his mind. His suspension, from this perspective, looks like an Orwellian crackdown on thoughtcrime by the ever-dreaded "PC" police. Worse, because homophobia is now seen by many as essential to their religious identity, A&E's action is taken as an insult to civil liberty on two fronts. But between the time the GQ interview appeared and A&E's action these same champions had already declared their intolerance of anyone who dared say their hero was wrong. While my post from last night was meant to remind readers that Robertson offended more than homosexuals, this debate boils down to whether people can say in public,without fear of punishment, that homosexuality is "wrong." For one side, homosexuality remains a behavior as liable to criticism as any behavior; for the other, criticizing homosexuality is equivalent to asserting the innate inferiority of an entire race. If we could all agree to disagree on this topic I wouldn't have a post to write right now. We can only wait for public opinion to follow the path trod fifty years ago, when it became unacceptable in public to assert racial inferiority. It never became illegal to do so, but a form of private-sector censorship arguably took effect and will most likely take effect again against homophobia, unless the Supreme Court affirms sometime that the Fred-Phelpsification of Christianity is protected by law.

18 December 2013


After a day's media firestorm Phil Robertson has been suspended from his own TV show, Duck Dynasty, as punishment for offensive comments published in GQ magazine. The headline version of the story is that Robertson, the "Duck Commander" and patriarch of the duck-call family business, has been punished for what he said about male homosexuality. Other interesting comments have been reported, but one wonders whether these alone would have sent him to the corner. Moreover, I wonder why anyone is shocked to hear such things from someone who looks like Phil Robertson. Usually I only see that type at gun-rights rallies, but I guess that shows the sort of hopeless city folk I am. Anyway, judge Robertson for yourselves. Here are quotes from his GQ interview. Which do you find the most offensive?

On homosexuality:

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.
*   *   *
Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

On the history of race-relations:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

On the positive influence of Christianity, proved negatively:

All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

The sad part of it all is the certainty I feel that with some people Robertson will emerge from this more popular than ever.

17 smoking guns in Ohio

While Democrats insist that there's no such thing as voter fraud, or nothing on a scale to justify Republican-favored voter-ID laws, the Republican secretary of state in Ohio has concluded an investigation that appears to reveal that a whopping seventeen non-citizens voted illegally in the 2012 presidential election. These aren't the first cases of voter fraud discovered in Ohio; Fox News reports that one woman is in jail for voting under her comatose sister's name and those of other people. While Fox ominously reminds us that President Obama took the state by "just 2 percentage points" last year, today's news only throws the result into question if you assume -- as some more loyal Fox viewers certainly will -- that the seventeen confirmed frauds are but the tip of a fraud iceberg.

Unless you refuse absolutely to believe anything a Republican says, the Ohio story shouldn't surprise anyone. While it hardly demonstrates that Obama stole the 2012 election, it's still an embarrassment to Democrats who, in their hostility toward voter-ID laws, have insisted that fraudulent voting is a myth. No one who knows American history could buy such a claim. If there's a myth about voter fraud, it's that only one major party ever practiced (or practices) it. Democrats have grown so obsessed with the idea that Republicans want to suppress voters and reduce turnout that it's become difficult for some to imagine that Republicans, too, would cheat to increase their numbers. Does anyone really believe that Republicans are so morally or ideologically opposed to fraudulent voting that they'd never do it even when they could get away with it? If anyone makes that assumption, Republicans have won a victory; they will have claimed some moral high ground that they probably don't deserve.

There's truth to the charges the major parties make against each other at election time. I take it for granted that oldschool big-city machine politics is not extinct and that Democrats will find ways to cheat at the polls. I also take it for granted that the main reason Republicans push for voter ID is not their principled opposition to fraud but their expectation that implementing such laws will reduce Democratic turnout. But as long as people assume that voter suppression is the Republicans' only tactic the GOP can continue to defend their efforts on anti-fraud grounds and look like the party of principle. If Democrats really want to take charge of this issue, they need to start digging wherever they can in search of positive proof of Republican vote fraud. It shouldn't be as hard to find as some may think. The impulse to cheat is not peculiarly Democratic -- at least not in the capital-D sense of the word.

17 December 2013

Gingrich, Mandela and the American Right

South Africa under apartheid worried many Americans. Many recognized the apartheid regime as a form of tyranny, but feared that whatever might come under black rule would be worse. Back in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich was no less opposed to international communism than any other young Republican, but he didn't let any fears about Soviet influence over the anti-apartheid movement or rumors about the Communist ties of then-jailed resistance leader Nelson Mandela get in the way of his outrage over apartheid. As liberal op-ed columnist Cynthia Tucker reported, Gingrich was a consistent supporter of sanctions against the apartheid regime, despite resistance from President Reagan. This month, Gingrich noted Mandela's passing by calling him "one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime." For this, Tucker reports, Gingrich was flamed by the right-wing internet. The nearly-universal praise of Mandela hasn't sat well with some on the right who believed him a Communist or else felt that Mandela had never renounced Communism or Marxism to their satisfaction. The man had, after all, shaken hands with the Castro brothers far too many times in his life. For these post-mortem party poopers, Gingrich's tribute was only further proof that Newt was committed less to ideological orthodoxy than to his own opinions, whatever they might be. Gingrich had an interesting answer for them: in Tucker's paraphrase, he challenged fellow conservative Republicans to "consider what they would have done had they been in Mandela's place." This, too, was heresy, since the place you're in should not determine what you do when unchanging moral principles dictate a correct course. A hanging judge might well have found the former Speaker of the House guilty of "moral relativism" if he said anything like what Tucker writes.

Cal Thomas addressed the Mandela dilemma, without mentioning Gingrich, in a recent column. Thomas had the opportunity to interview Mandela when the leader was still in prison, back in 1985. He recalls that Mandela denied being what we'd call a card-carrying Communist, but insisted that communism was preferable to apartheid, on the understanding that communism meant "equal opportunity to everybody." Thomas cites scholarship pointing to an early Mandela affiliation with the South African Communist Party, and can't help gently chiding Mandela's 1985 assumption that under communism, "everyone would be living better." The fact remains, of course, that Mandela did not carry out a communist revolution in South Africa, and for that Thomas gives Mandela the credit he deems due. A note of ambivalence remains:

Many violent revolutionaries became peacemakers once their oppressors were removed from power. Whether Mandela experienced a “conversion” after we met him, or simply adapted a more pragmatic path to his goals, I cannot say. Let us charitably assume the best about a man revered by many who ended an evil and gave his country an opportunity to build something better.

It's clear that Thomas would be more sanguine about Mandela had the late leader thrown Thomas and his kind the bone they wanted: a comprehensive repudiation of Marxism.  Thomas closes on a curious note, calling a memorial tribute to Mandela from F. W. de Klerk, the white leader with whom Mandela negotiated the end of apartheid, the highest praise the black leader could receive. From the context you can tell Thomas means that de Klerk's actual words -- Mandela was one of South Africa's "greatest sons" -- were the highest praise, but it couldn't help seeming as if de Klerk's praise was necessary to help validate Mandela in Thomas's eyes.

Mandela and South Africa may help us differentiate types of conservative Americans. Some seemed to want to stick with the apartheid regime back in the day on the assumption that at least some people were free, while under communism no one would be. A degree of (to be euphemistic) cultural conservatism probably factored into anyone's support of white rule in South Africa, if not into enduring reservations about Mandela's place in history. Other conservatives, like Gingrich, seemed to recognize that apartheid was a system of state-mandated and state-enforced segregation in which no one, regardless of race, really was free. I suspect that conservatives of a more libertarian bent were more likely to oppose apartheid for that reason, if "cultural" issues didn't distort their perspective. It just goes to show that some people may see things more clearly the further away they are.

16 December 2013

The Libertarian pledge

An invitation to join the Libertarian party came in the mail today. Actually, "invitation" may not be the right word since for the Libertarians it's one thing to register as one of them with your local board of elections, and another to be an actual member of the party -- and for that you're expected to pay. Rates range from the $25 Basic rate to the $1,000 Lifetime rate. As an additional formality, you're asked to sign the party's membership pledge. It reads:

I certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.

If you think about it, everything that comes after "initiation of force" is a question-begging qualifier. You might ask whether it's OK to initiate force to advance goals that are neither "political" nor "social" -- perhaps "economic" goals? For that matter, what do the Libertarians mean by "political" or "social?" We know that they don't believe in "social justice," while they seem to identify "politics" directly with the initiation of force, as an instrument people use to get by force what they can't earn otherwise. But unless libertarians are also anarchists -- unlikely on the assumption that anarchists still believe that "property is theft," while libertarians believe that politics is theft -- they must reject the state completely, since the making of law is an implicit initiation of force if you assume that the law will be enforced. As usual, libertarians make a show of renouncing the initiation of force, understood as direct physical harm to a person, while worrying far less about other forms of coercion that might be considered no more just. For a libertarian it's terrible to say, "Do it my way or I'll hurt you," but no problem, it often seems, if someone says, "Do it my way or starve." Wouldn't a pledge to oppose that sort of coercion be equally principled? I suppose the Libertarians imagine their pledge to be a succinct model of moral clarity, but as I've pointed out there are too many words for it to be other than an act of political obfuscation.

13 December 2013

Thomas Frank: Gerrymandering is no excuse

Thomas Frank is tired of hearing Democrats and liberals whine about gerrymandering or the intractable bigotry of Republican voters. His "Easy Chair" column in the January 2014 Harper's is a blast against a kind of liberal fatalism that is sometimes complacent (when expecting demographic trends to assure future victories) and sometimes helpless (when blaming their failures to retake the House of Representatives on gerrymandering, etc.). "Why haven't Democrats made the G.O.P. pay for its widely despised views?" Frank asks, "Why aren't they threatening to run up monster victories in even the safest red districts?" Why, instead, have we seen an "unprecedented right turn that so many have taken as a response to the economic disaster that began in 2008"? Neither racist backlash (that explanation "simply doesn't do it") nor gerrymandering ("similarly incapable of explaining the whole mess") can excuse Democratic weakness, except indirectly, since for Democrats "each of them is an excuse for doing nothing." Frank's thesis of the month is that sins of omission by Democrats have mattered more than any sins committed by Republicans and Tea Partiers. In his view, the persistence of the Right has less to do with any attempts to suppress the vote than with "positive actions" that Democrats (or the left in general) should emulate. Republican conservatism "must be entrepreneurial in order to succeed; it must organize, proselytize, demonize" because "these are people who do not count solely on demographics to deliver their results -- they can't, since they're defending a system that truly benefits only a few." But they keep finding ways to convince people otherwise, while Democrats do little more than denounce Republican meanness. "Being on the left is about good taste and personal intellectual rectitude," Frank writes, "The idea is to summon the right answers for the Big Exam and to castigate the dunces who get them wrong." Instead, to sum up Frank's argument, the left should be out there making promises to people.

I can't help but think that a higher minimum wage might sound good to people toiling for pennies, or that a massive public-works program might appeal to the unemployed. So would an expansion of Obamacare that covers everybody as a matter of course....Organize a movement around these issues; make them ubiquitous; then let's see how well gerrymandering protects those Republican stegosaurs.

Apologists may immediately cite their favorite Democratic pol or progressive talker who does advocate for some or all of these things, but Frank is convinced that "Democrats aren't really interested in such an effort." He seems to suspect that most Democrats are technocratic deficit-hawks who may be more compassionate than Republicans but don't really identify with, or even trust, the people whose votes they need to reunite the government under their control. He almost seems to concede a truth to the case Republicans make against liberal cultural elitists ("the model for progressives today is academia"), even though he's always denounced (and still does) their argument (however truthful it may be) as a distraction from working people's real interests. He accuses Democrats, in short, of simply waiting for Republican voters to die, since they're convinced (so Frank supposes) that they can never change those people's minds. Although he doesn't raise the point in this column, it may also be true that liberals have simply heard too many Republican and conservative arguments, and being liberals have taken some to heart. Many Democrats may now sincerely believe that we can't make the sort of promises to people Frank calls for, much less deliver on them. They may remain the more compassionate party, for all the good that does them, but they may have given up on the old ideal of an easier life for everyone, whether it is "earned" or not. They definitely seem to have given up on the idea that poor people have a moral right to demand an easier life, believing instead, I suspect, that the Market is the ultimate judge of what we can expect, if not the divine force Republicans and libertarians worship. How progressive, finally, can anyone be who no longer believes in demanding a better, easier life constantly? How much progress would we have made since the 19th century if people didn't believe that an easier life -- more pay for fewer hours, social security, etc. -- was their due as human beings? Every step on that way, reactionaries protested that such demands were not sustainable; their descendants think themselves confirmed in their historic skepticism. If today's progressives don't have the same faith in progress, how progressive are they, really? If someone can renew that faith in progress understood as  an easier life for all, Frank may be right to believe that no amount of gerrymandering could stand against it. But he's probably also right to believe that today's "progressive" politicians can renew the faith.

12 December 2013

Vladimir Putin, conservative

President Putin gave Russia's equivalent of the "state of the union address" today, and in much of the western media the headline quotes concerned Putin's stand in favor of conservative values --  particularly homophobia. While Russia claims not to discriminate against gays, the country has been targeted by gay-rights activists for its law against "propaganda of non-traditional relations." Putin considers this a measure of cultural self-defense against "so-called tolerance" that "equates good and evil."

You wonder what American conservatives make of Russia these days. Putin himself is still distrusted by many who see him as a would-be if not de facto dictator, but some cultural conservatives see him as a rightful ally, presuming the U.S. to be culturally conservative, against Muslims and other bad elements in the world. Not every self-styled conservative in America is a libertarian, and one's opinion of Putin may be shaped less by how much power he seems to have, or how he may abuse it, than by where and when he applies state power or the moral influence of his office. To some, Putin may be a secular counterpart to the African clergy whose opposition to homosexuality leads many Americans, even in the South, to treat them as spiritual leaders. To others, he remains a menacing statist. Whether one conservative recognizes someone else as a fellow conservative depends on what you and he seek to conserve. At the same time, the American and global left may feel tempted to treat Putin as more of a bad guy in all fields of politics than he really may be. The question for everyone is the extent to which the gay-rights question should decide who's a good guy or bad guy politically. A case can be made that the battle for gay rights is the great global civil-rights struggle of the 21st century, the indisputable moral equivalent of past struggles against anti-semitism, apartheid, etc. Whether it's the only necessary struggle of our time, or even the most important, remains subject to debate. A nation's attitude toward homosexuality may properly decide whether individuals will do business with it, but other nations have more to take into account. Americans across the ideological spectrum like to perceive Putin as a bad guy for one reason or another. It will be history's prerogative to decide what he really was, but it's diplomacy's obligation not to make such judgments lightly now. In short, Putin's stance on homosexuality may make the American left more Russophobic now than the American right, but it should no more be a deal-breaker when our nations have common interests, or when he has just criticisms of our policies, than it should make him an unconditional hero to homophobes or those who strangely find him a more macho leader than his American counterpart.

11 December 2013

The Republican crack-up continues

Little more than a year ago, Paul Ryan created whatever excitement existed among self-styled conservative Republicans over Mitt Romney's presidential bid. Now, from the way some talk on the air and online, the Wisconsin congressman is a RINO fit to be primaried. That's because he appeared to behave responsibly this month, quietly negotiating a spending deal with Sen. Murray that would prevent another government shutdown next month. The idea obviously wasn't to take big steps toward cutting debt or deficit, but to keep the government running. For the GOP base, this is compromise, capitulation to "Washington." More taxes continue to be levied and more money spent by the government than base Republicans can justify, and not enough people are suffering either to motivate them to become useful or to satisfy the moral sense of the base. There can be no normalcy (to use a good old Republican word) while such conditions prevail. The question now becomes whether there are enough people of this mentality in the House GOP caucus to scuttle Ryan's deal or threaten Speaker Boehner's authority. Boehner put a target on himself today by rebuking the extremists in his own party for attacking the deal. It remains to be seen whether the opposition to Boehner is the extreme or the mainstream of the Republican party today.

10 December 2013

Missing the point of a handshake

Predictably enough, Republicans are up in arms because President Obama shook the hand of Raul Castro while attending a memorial event for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.  It's the usual complaint: Obama has somehow given extra prestige to a tyrant, if he hasn't also shown his true leftist leanings by greeting the Cuban leader. I'll concede the point that Castro, like his brother, is a tyrant -- or at the very least a dictator, since a distinction can be made. As Americans and as human beings, we should not like tyrants and ought to be wary around dictators. But let's remember the occasion. For starters, it was a memorial service, arguably an inappropriate occasion for the sort of snub Republicans would have preferred. More importantly, it was a memorial for Nelson Mandela. If Mandela was regarded before his death as the greatest man in the world, let's recall again that it was because he was seen as a peacemaker. At least metaphorically and most likely literally, he shook hands with the representatives of the apartheid regime in his own country, when he had more reason to snub them than a President of the United States has reason to snub one of the Castro brothers. But Mandela presumably was less interested in moral posturing than Americans in general and Republicans in particular. He had more practical and principled goals. Republican protests over the Obama-Castro handshake may be meant as moral posturing, but only prove yet again how petty Republicans are.

09 December 2013

The Egyptian Example: democracy in Thailand and Ukraine

This year, Egypt offered the world an alternative form of democracy, detached from long-entrenched concerns with elections and the rule of law. A multitude arose in the nation's capital and incited (or enabled) the military to overthrow a duly-elected president. This month, protesters in the capital cities of Thailand and Ukraine are trying to do the same thing. A multitude in Thailand demands the departure of the head of government, seeing her as the puppet of her hated brother, an exiled former leader. A multitude in Kiev hopes for the fall of a government they accuse of looking the wrong way, towards Russia rather than Europe. This is their second showdown with Viktor Yanukovich, the first being the famous "Orange Revolution" of a few years ago, when he was accused of trying to steal an election with Russian help after poisoning his main opponent. After finally winning an undisputed victory, Yanukovich has opted for stronger economic ties with Russia, Ukraine's main gas supplier, over greater integration with the European Union. Ukraine appears divided geographically and culturally between those who identify with Russia and those who not only identify with Europe but also hate Russia. Kiev identifies with Europe, or at least many Kievans do. Thailand seems more divided along class lines. The Shinawatra family caters to the rural poor with social programs, and the people of the cities, Bangkok most notably, resent that. In both countries, of course, the opposition warns of tyranny. Ukranians fear that Yanukovich may become a dictator to his own people and a puppet of Vladimir Putin; Thais fear that Yingluck Shinawatra will clear the way for her brother to return as the de facto head of government and resume his alleged authoritarian tendencies. The prime minister has called for early parliamentary elections in response to the protests, presumably confident that her rural supporters will reaffirm her party's claim to power and her mandate to govern. In Kiev the latest reports have turned ominous and a crackdown by the government seems more likely. Who really represents democracy in either country? Each country's government claims the legitimacy derived from elections, while metropolitan protesters claim the legitimacy of raw numbers. As in Cairo, the idea is to show that millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of people, are The People. Democracy is never that simple -- witness the suspicion of cities that persists in American politics -- but in history democracy has often been reduced to rule by whoever shows up, with the real power belonging arguably to whoever determines when and where people should show. Yanukovich's supporters presumably can't outnumber the opposition in Kiev, nor can Shinawatra's supporters outnumber the opposition in Bangkok, even though both groups may outnumber their opponents nationwide. What does either case prove? No more than that any theory of practical representative democracy must address the threat to electoral legitimacy presented by a hostile metropolis. The easy answer should be to not pit urban against rural, though Ukraine's troubles in particular don't come down to that alone. The Egyptian example itself is no easy answer to the problems of democracy, but it serves, as do its imitators, as a reminder that the meaning of democracy itself remains subject to debate -- and that debate, too, may be decided by whoever shows up.

06 December 2013

Mandela: the last heroic statesman?

If Nelson Mandela was thinking of his legacy on his deathbed, he might have thanked providence for Robert Mugabe. Because of their nation's proximity, Mandela (who died yesterday after a long deathwatch) and Mugabe will stand in history as antithetical examples of liberation fighters turned political leaders. Especially outside Africa, I suspect, Mugabe's rotten record burnishes Mandela's, so that the South African will less often be criticized for things he didn't do, or didn't do adequately -- most notably reducing inequality -- than he'll be praised for a different set of things he didn't do. Until yesterday, Mandela may have been regarded as the greatest man living because, unlike Mugabe, he didn't descend to thuggish politics as President; didn't think of himself as an indispensable man (Mugabe, only six years Mandela's junior, jealously clings to power); didn't use power to take revenge on his oppressors or their ethnic group. Mugabe fulfilled nearly every fear, bigoted or otherwise of what black Africans would do upon taking power from whites; Mandela refuted them. Objectively, not everything Mugabe has done has been wrong on principle, but he seems to have done everything from the primary motive of self-aggrandizement, and done most of it poorly. It need not follow that confiscating land from whites will drive your economy into the ground; that such has been the case in Zimbabwe only reflects more poorly on Mugabe as a man and a leader. Likewise, if whites praise Mandela mainly because he spared them, they may miss part of the point. Clearly, though, Mandela envisioned a future in which whites participated fully in South African prosperity. The African writer Mahmood Mamdani recently held the South African transition as a better model for post-conflict "justice" than the "Nuremberg" model that inspires the International Criminal Court. For Mamdani, the South African model is appropriate for countries where everyone still has to live together, where eliminating one "criminal" portion of the population or permanently separating conflicting groups is not an option. Rather than prosecute the perpetrators of apartheid, South Africa opted for public truth-telling under the cover of a peace arrangement that guaranteed everyone's safety. Mamdani sees this as the best way to stop cycles of revenge, adopting the provocative viewpoint that war should not be seen as a criminal activity but in the Clausewitzian way as an extension of politics by other means. The solution to war in that case is politics, which for Mamdani means recognizing that all sides have interests that need to be addressed, not deciding which side is "guilty." That might not be a good model for all cases -- at least some wars in history might still be seen as criminal conspiracies -- but it makes sense if peace, more than revenge or even justice, is the primary goal. That's what remains to be determined. Mandela gave South Africa at least one generation of peace. The country needed that, but what more does it need? As people answer that question, we'll have a better sense for posterity of Nelson Mandela's legacy.

05 December 2013

Randy, Sandy and the Constitution

In the current New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin talks to constitutional scholars to figure out whether the U.S. Constitution remains viable, has become obsolete, or was hopelessly flawed from the start. Two of his interlocutors are Randy Barnett, a conservative waging a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act while advocating the enshrinement of the principles of the Citizens United decision in the form of a constitutional amendment, and Sanford ("Sandy") Levinson, once a champion of the Constitution who has more recently decided that its frame of government is too undemocratic to function properly.

Both scholars agree on the Framers' intentions. Levinson, the critic, says, "The republican form of government imagined by Madison and his friends was extraordinarily fearful of any kind of rule by the people." He used to think that the American system worked to the majority's benefit in spite of that founding handicap, but over the last quarter-century he's decided otherwise. Barnett is on a first-name basis with "Sandy" but they've clearly agreed to disagree about a lot. The problem with Levinson, Barnett thinks, is that he's a "majoritarian" in a way the Framers never were. In turn, Levinson believes Barnett is a minoritarian in a way the Framers never were. The distinction becomes clear in their discussion of majority rule. For Barnett, the problem with majority rule is that "California and New York get to run the country [and] screw the people in the middle of the country." For Levinson, Barnett's objection goes beyond the Framers' mistrust of citizens in general. "What Randy finds himself defending is a veto by small, basically rural states, who ought not to be subjected to majority rule by people who live in cities." It would be wrong, however, to say that the Constitution wasn't molded by the mutual suspicion of urban and rural folk. Jefferson thought cities decadent, partly because he expected a landless majority to be hopelessly dependent upon a wealthy minority of employers. Contrary to the e pluribus unum ideal, the persistence of and insistence upon differences between the cultures of the several states has been a constant theme in American politics. The Framers, however, probably underestimated the extent to which each particular group would try to identify itself as the truly American people, and the others as somehow un-American. They did anticipate considerable diversity, and depended upon it to prevent the emergence of a potentially tyrannical majority. But partisanship has homogenized the American people far more than the Framers feared, and more than many of today's conservatives appreciate, so that a tyrannical majority, taking the form of the Democratic or the Republican party, always appears imminent. Leave partisanship out of it, and what do California and New York have in common, or the entire "middle of the country?"

The ultimate problem, however, may not be that partisanship has nearly fulfilled fears of the tyranny of the majority, but that the Framers, so committed to balance in government, failed to balance safeguards against majoritarianism with safeguards against minority obstruction. Their presumption that majorities could do great mischief by forcing their agenda through wasn't counterbalanced by a suspicion that minorities could do mischief by blocking the majority indefinitely. There may be a simple explanation for this; the Framers probably believed that they had defeated the threat of "minoritarian" tyranny by defeating King George and his oligarchic parliament and instituting a representative form of government. They may not have conceived that a determined minority could paralyze government in a manner detrimental to the public good. Strangely, they may not have believed that a minority in a representative government could be wrong in the same way a majority was often presumed to be wrong -- at least until the sectional crisis of the 19th century convinced a northern majority of the menace of a southern "slave power." There remains an impulse to give the minority, the presumptive dissident, the underdog, the benefit of the doubt -- on the assumption that majority rule is somehow essentially coercive. Toobin quotes Orrin Hatch's opinion that in the Senate, as opposed to the House of Representatives, "you have to make a real case," as if majority rule doesn't require that of anyone. The majority, presumably, wants what it wants because it is what it is, not because anyone in the majority has thought objectively about anything. But there's no reason not to make the very same assumption about any stubborn minority, and a sound frame of government should be as capable of limiting a minority's ability to do harm through delay as it's capable of limiting a majority's ability to harm through haste. At the very least, that means no individual or minority should be able to delay indefinitely any government initiative, whether it's legislation or a nomination. The minority should not be able to tyrannize in order to prevent anyone else from tyrannizing. If the Constitution can meet that simple standard, it should still have life in it.

03 December 2013

Is Obamacare Iraq for liberals?

Jonah Goldberg proposes a provocative analogy in a recent column:

In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, many Republicans are growing more skeptical about the national security state and foreign interventions. If Obamacare continues to unravel, it will be interesting to see if Democrats undergo a similar readjustment, and stop overpromising and underdelivering. 

A decade ago, Goldberg reminds us, George W. Bush promised more than he delivered in invading Iraq. As a result, he claims, many Republicans are disillusioned about "neoconservative" foreign policy. On his proposed analogy, Democrats, not to mention liberals and progressives in general, should be disillusioned by the clumsy launch of the Obamacare website to the point that they "downgrade their expectations of what government can do."

The analogy doesn't follow for a number of reasons. Foremostly, despite the assumptions of Republicans, the obvious failure of many individuals involved with Obamacare doesn't prove that the goals set by Obama can never be realized. It doesn't follow that the website was fubar because it was initiated by liberals. Secondly, there is, to my knowledge, no dynamic within the Democratic party similar to what has happened among Republicans since 2001. If Republicans have grown more skeptical about interventionism, that didn't happen in a vacuum filled only by Bush's failures. Those failures appeared to vindicate a minority within the GOP that had argued since 2001 that Bush's "freedom agenda" in Afghanistan and the Middle East not only couldn't be done, but shouldn't be done. That is, people like Ron Paul and his followers weren't arguing that the invasions were overreaching, but that they were wrong on principle. Regarding health insurance, the only people on the "left" arguing that Obamacare is wrong on principle are those who, against Goldberg's expectations, want a larger government role in health care as a whole. Once Republicans saw Bush's bubble burst, they were ready to listen, to an extent, to erstwhile Cassandras like the elder Paul.

Amid Obamacare's continuing trouble, a constituency among Democrats opposing government involvement in health insurance, either on principle or for practical reasons, has yet to emerge. Instead, as more critics on the left blame the new system's shortcomings on its compromised, hybrid nature, progressives are more likely to double down on their demands for "single-payer" and similar statist reforms. That has a lot to do with a further failure of Goldberg's analogy. He hopes that the Obamacare debacle will wake liberals up to the limitations of "what government can do." But Obamacare has been driven by a belief in what government should do. A conservative might argue that our belief in what should be done should be conditioned by our understanding of what can be done. It's not unreasonable to argue that we sometimes make unreasonable demands because of a irreconcilable discrepancy between should and can. Obamacare's problems don't prove such an irreconcilable discrepancy, just as the Bush administration's incompetence doesn't in itself prove the impossibility of Bush's objectives. Goldberg may be on to something, however, when he implicitly links a decline in Republican enthusiasm for war to the American people's current low tolerance for mass casualties, intrusive security measures, etc. There remains a good possibility that the public will repudiate Obamacare on the assumption that it causes more trouble than it's worth. "Culturally, Americans want all the upside and none of the downside," Goldberg observes. If Americans do repudiate Obamacare without demanding something better from the state, it may prove less about what government can or should do than it proves about American democracy's will to do anything difficult.

02 December 2013

Who Do You Trust?

By now it's not news that people don't trust the government or politicians in general to serve the national interest. It may be news that ordinary Americans trust each other far less than they used to. Are these trends related? The new survey highlights distrust in commercial transactions, e.g. the fear that a clerk will steal your credit information or that you'll be ripped off in some other way. In politics, it's more likely that people fear that politicians are simply incompetent, or that they put their parties or personal ambitions before the common good -- but anxiety over corruption is probably also a factor. These anxieties may combine in a deeper, fundamental fear that despite our common citizenship, our neighbors are too often strangers to us who don't really share our interests. Ideology and partisanship magnify these fears: the Democrat sees the Republican as someone who doesn't give a damn whether anyone else lives or dies and will kick anyone to the curb for the sake of the almighty dollar; the Republican sees the Democrat as a freeloader at heart who will try to get away with anything to avoid the honest if unpleasant toil that is his and everyone's obligation. Part of the trust problem is that we're in the middle of an incomplete and contested revolution in values, the welfare state challenging the wilderness, to put each side in the other's pejorative terms, and the wilderness pushing back. Conservatives, whether they're Republicans or not, hope to go back to a time when people did not shirk their basic responsibilities to themselves and their families, as they accuse many Americans of doing, while progressives, whether they're Democrats or not, wait for people finally to recognize their basic responsibilities to the community as a whole, as they assume many Americans still refuse to do. Each side is seen imposing responsibilities upon the other while abandoning their own: the Democrat accuses the Republican of saying "sink or swim!" while outsourcing jobs; the Republican accuses the Democrat of saying "we're all in this together" while making excuses for not pulling his just share of the weight. All the while, many Americans who are neither ideological or partisan see error if not stupidity in the two parties and thus trust no one. I'm not sure whether a republic has been so divided over fundamental values in the past, and it's an open question whether liberal democracy as practiced here can facilitate a reconciliation of those values. Some hope that a "radical center" will emerge to carry out that task, but impatience for its emergence would seem justified by now. It may be that no one in the potential radical center trusts anyone else to take the lead, and it may be that the radical center is just a myth. Where would that leave us? Circumstances may force a pragmatic reconciliation of values or tip the balance one way or another -- more likely toward the wilderness. Do we want to wait for that? Would we rather trust fate than each other? There may be no easier way to seal our fate as a nation and a people.

29 November 2013

Anti-communist literature as atrocity porn

Recently I took a new book, Frank Dikotter's The Tragedy of Liberation, out of the library. After a few chapters I wondered why I had bothered. Dikotter's book is a history of the early years of the People's Republic of China, starting with the post-World War II revival of the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Dikotter is a professor in a Hong Kong college, and I suppose it's a tribute to the integrity of China's "one nation, two systems" policy regarding the former English colony that a man so hostile to the current system of government on the mainland can keep his academic post. He's out to destroy any notion that there was a "good" period of Mao's rule before he went crazy during the Great Leap Forward (result: mass famine) or the Cultural Revolution (result:chaos). The evidence seems to be on his side: the first decade of the People's Republic saw indiscriminate terror as party leaders were given quotas of people to kill in their districts. No surprise, really; I wasn't exactly expecting Mao to have been enlightened or comparatively liberal at any point of his career. Dikotter's point is made convincingly very early in his book, yet the book goes on and on until you could believe the only point was that someone got or was expected to get a kick from all the tales of humiliation, torture and slaughter. The author's deeper point seems to be that communism, or at least Maoism, is little more than an ideology of hatred. He tries to demonstrate, first and more convincingly, that the gap between poor and "rich" wasn't very great in many parts of China, and then, perhaps more on faith, that there was little in the way of class animosity in many peasant communities. Dikotter's contention is that the Communists sought to implicate the masses in the violence of the revolution -- so they could be threatened with blackmail??? -- by inciting a hatred for supposed rich oppressors that wasn't really there in the first place. Dikotter might well believe that communism is no more than the scapegoating of the successful by vicious, stupid thugs, but I'm not sure that historical accuracy is achieved by writing under that assumption. I'm not accusing him of making stuff up; his stories are documented by Chinese sources. Nor do I doubt that there's psychological truth in his account of Chairman Mao as someone who basically got off on mass mobilization and mob violence. But I worry that we begin to lose track of what was happening when we take for granted the popular ad hominem interpretations of communist motives rather than engaging, preferably critically, with what they thought they were doing and why they thought they had to do that. You get none of that in Dikotter's book, or at least the part I read. That the Chinese communists were evil is a given there, but he goes too far in assuming that their evil is somehow distinctive. In an early chapter he describes the horrors in a city besieged by the People's Liberation Army, where hundreds of thousands of people died. Yet he can't possibly mean that siege warfare is some distinctive communist tactic, or that the Red generals were motivated by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought above all to let people starve. He quotes someone on the subject who described the siege as a slow-motion Hiroshima, as if to suggest that the starvation caused by the siege was an atrocity comparable to dropping an atomic bomb. The argument is not unfair when you look at the numbers, but couldn't someone else describe Hiroshimas in even slower motion if they want to denounce the deaths and suffering caused by capitalism, western imperialism, etc? It may seem absurd to many, but for generations many people saw the capitalist economic order as intolerably cruel to its subjects, a long-term crime that demanded nothing short for redress than a complete overhaul of the social order. The sincerity of such feeling wouldn't excuse atrocities carried out in the name of communism, but I fear we've reached the point where many believe that communists committed atrocities for no reason, but out of the basest impulses. I think instead that you can only take communist atrocities seriously if you take communism seriously. If you can't or won't do that, all your research amounts to the literary equivalent of a snuff film.

26 November 2013

Papalnomics: the Apostolic Exhortation

Here's Francis I on the global economy:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

The English text comes straight from the Vatican, so at least one report finds it telling that the Pope uses (or implicitly approves) the phrase "trickle-down," which is usually regarded in the U.S. a partisan pejorative term for the "supply-side" economic theories favored by Republicans. If the particular language has raised eyebrows, the line of argument is really nothing new. The Catholic Church was driven to lie with strange bedfellows (e.g. fascists) by its hostility to communism, but its great objection to communism has always been to its godlessness, not to its economic theories, and to my knowledge the church has never felt compelled by its hostility to communism to endorse capitalism unconditionally. Needless to say, Catholicism and Christianity in general are not about "freedom," and Popes have never been very susceptible to the rhetoric of freedom as an end unto itself emanating from the U.S. The sad thing is that people might listen to a Catholic Pope, who has practically no credibility in his actual realm of expertise, -- the realm of expertise itself has practically no credibility -- when he speaks on socioeconomic subjects, by virtue of the authority he carries in his realm of expertise. When someone says virtually the same thing, yet doesn't claim to speak for God, people either refuse to listen or presume the worst motives from the speaker. Maybe that's why Bolsheviks try to make themselves into gods.

25 November 2013

Merry War on Christmas, Charlie Brown!

The Christmas hype seems to start earlier every year, and so does the annual renewal of hostilities in the so-called "War on Christmas." Usually the defense opens fire first, and the honor this year apparently falls to Sarah Palin, who has just published a book dedicated to "Protecting the Heart of Christmas." In turn, Palin has drawn fire from the syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker. As you'll recall from previous years, self-consciously Christian Republicans take offense when store clerks and other customer-service sorts wish people "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," usually at the instruction of their managers. This policy is blamed on crabby atheists or chauvinists of other faiths who have allegedly taken offense at the sound of "Christ." It seems self-evident, however, that "Happy Holidays" is meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This point is lost on those people, presumably including Palin, who interpret the policy as censorship of Christianity. Critics of "Happy Holidays" threaten to become self-fulfilling prophets. While the majority might criticize those who may be so thin-skinned as to take offense at "Merry Christmas," the majority feeling is almost certainly based on an assumption that "Merry Christmas" is a harmless phrase, little more than a way of saying, "Have a Nice Specific Day." But when the Defense of Christmas rushes in to defend specifically a shop clerk's right to proclaim the name of Christ, they imply that the very word "Christmas" is a form of proselytizing, which isn't how most people see it. The more people like Palin make "Merry Christmas" a matter of affirming (or asserting) one's faith, the more people will resist its use in shopping malls, and the Defense of Christmas will be as much to blame for that as any grumpy atheist.

Where does Cynthia Tucker come into this? She rightly recognizes a Christian chauvinist agenda on Palin's part and refutes it with the usual proofs that the U.S. is not a "Christian nation." But then Tucker tries to enlist Palin and all her followers for a war from fifty years ago. It's been almost that long since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, and like Charlie Brown and Linus, Tucker rails against the commercialization of Christmas. She actually applauds those "committed Christians" who "struggle to keep sacred the meaning of the season," though Tucker's approved form of resistance is to stay away from shopping malls. Perhaps it's no accident that it's in the malls where reactionary Christians are offended by "Happy Holidays." What Tucker (or Palin) fails to recognize is that it was the commercialization of Christmas -- a phenomenon that has made Christmas a popular shopping season even in non-Christian countries like Japan -- that has rendered "Merry Christmas" harmless. If atheists are to take no offense at "Merry Christmas," it can only be because Christmas has been utterly secularized, so that the greeting might be translated as "Merry Shopping!" In missing this important point Tucker is little better than Palin. After all, what's Linus's answer to the commercialization of Christmas? It's to read from the Gospel of Luke. Yet there will be another commercial break before the kids spruce up Charlie Brown's miserable Christmas tree and sing their hymn. A Charlie Brown Christmas itself is welcomed with little or no fear of its religious message because it has been embedded from the start in the very commercialization it decries. That wonderful jazzy score makes up for all the hypocrisy. Christmas itself -- the day and the word alike -- will give no offense once everyone recognizes that it no longer belongs to the Christians. The real war on Christmas was won long ago, but many Americans, not just on the Christian Right, don't care to admit it.

22 November 2013

Hey Hey, JFK ...

Americans worship John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated fifty years ago today, because his untimely demise allows them to believe that history could have been different. The conspiracy theories that continue to flourish, immune to refutation (Vincent Bugliosi would have better luck dropping his massive anti-conspiracy tome on some people's heads), enable us to blame people rather than larger historical forces for American decline. What Kennedy may have done in a second term, presuming his victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, can never be more than conjecture. Many conjecture the best: no Vietnam quagmire; no riots in ghettos and no white backlash; no Nixon in 1968; Bobby and Dr. King spared, etc. If conspiracy theories grow more resilient -- Oliver Stone pretty much calls Bugliosi a liar in USA Today -- it's because Americans find more reasons to wish something different could have happened in the past, and more desire to blame someone for where we are now, just as Vito Corleone vowed to blame someone even if Michael gets struck by a bolt of lightning. Obviously history would have been different had Kennedy lived and been re-elected. The question is whether history would have changed significantly. There are two kinds of speculation. One is based on Kennedy's actual record. On that evidence, people on the right (like George Will in a recent column) and to the left of the Democratic party (Noam Chomsky has long been a Kennedy iconoclast) presume that JFK would have carried on a Cold War course, presumably all the way to Vietnam. Unless one has reason to believe that he would have waged war more effectively, with the same generals, than LBJ did, history might change only so that protesters chanted, "Hey Hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?" On the other side, great inferences are made from a few statements from Kennedy's last months, while a more plausible case is made that the Cuban Missile Crisis tempered the President's enthusiasm for confronting Communism. For the most part, however, an assumption is made that Kennedy would evolve as these believers wanted the country to evolve, or as the older folks in this group believe themselves to have evolved. Because Kennedy died, their speculations and assumptions can never be proven wrong. He will always embody the America that could have been, and because Kennedy died by violence the assassin will always embody a force that did not want that America to be. If this country ever gets to a point where we don't see ourselves in decline, and those who lived through decline are gone, then at last the conspiracy theories can be laid to rest alongside Kennedy and Oswald....assuming, of course, that either of them is actually dead.

Postscript: The following was overheard in a shopping-mall bookstore on November 23:

"You wanna know why they killed Kennedy? Because things would have never been the same again, and they couldn't stand that. They have to have control...."

21 November 2013

The Senate goes 'nuclear'

After years of threats from both parties, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate has pushed through a rules change that eliminates the ability of a minority party to block confirmation votes on a wide range of executive-branch and judicial appointments while allowing the old rules to remain in effect for Supreme Court appointments. That exception is the majority's concession to the probability of a Republican takeover at some point; Democrats thus reserve their prerogative to filibuster against appointees of future Republican presidents. Some Republicans have responded to the vote and the exception made with a promise to end the exception when they regain control. That would be fair. Democrats have characterized Republican obstruction of appointments by the President as either fanatical or unprincipled; future Democratic obstruction of Supreme Court nominations will be seen  the same way. If today's vote is a victory for "small d" democracy, the exception makes that victory incomplete. The majority's right to govern through its representatives doesn't depend on the "importance" of a post to be filled. The President's democratic mandate is the same whether he's filling a Supreme Court vacancy or a vacancy on one of the lower courts. If Democrats are afraid of a Republican mandate to pack the Court with reactionaries, the remedy is to win presidential and senatorial elections. Faith in democracy cannot be conditioned by partisanship or a fear of partisanship. If you seek to thwart a democratic mandate at any time because they may get into power, then you're no better than the Republicans whose obstructionist tactics provoked today's vote. Democratic republicanism means that anyone who can win an election can and should be trusted to govern within constitutional bounds. If that trust doesn't exist, the democratic reform carried out today only raises the stakes of elections while reconciling no one to their results. It should still be hailed as a win for democracy, despite the predictable Republican cries of power grab, but you can always depend on "Capital D" Democrats to dampen our enthusiasm with half measures.

20 November 2013

Drugs and Republican hypocrisy

Whenever a Republican is caught in any sort of morals scandal, Democrats gloat. It's true the other way around, too, but while a morals scandal involving a Democrat tends to confirm the Republican view of Democrats, a Republican morals scandal always provokes cries of hypocrisy, as if Democrats and their sympathizers really expect Republicans to conform to the stereotype that portrays them as joyless, bible-bound ascetics. It might be argued that each new scandal, like Rep. Radel of Florida's arrest for buying cocaine, confirms a view of Republicans as essentially hypocritical instead of fanatically moralistic, but hypocrisy is nearly universal in politics. Marxist-Leninists vow to liberate the working class, but have tended historically to subject them to forced labor. Democrats claim the champion the little guy but curry favor with Wall Street. It comes with politics and the difference between what you have to say to win popular support and what you have (if not want) to do when you have power. With the North American right wing -- counting Rob Ford of Toronto in the discussion -- it's arguably more a case of double standards than one of hypocrisy. Drugs are bad if you're a damn lazy hippie or a ghetto welfare cheat, but if you're a hard-charging go-getter, as Republicans (and their Canadian counterparts) presume themselves to be, then neither drugs nor booze should be a problem. A case often made against drugs is that they turn people into losers, but a Republican may not be deterred by that rhetoric because they know they aren't losers. There's something almost antinomian about this attitude, if it exists; if you're of the elect, you can get away with things that mere sinners can't. Rep. Radel isn't going to say any such thing right now, though you never know what Ford might assert, but I suspect that, at bottom, people like them feel they've earned a right, or have a justified need to indulge that others, who might call them hypocrites, haven't. That mentality doesn't automatically make you a Republican or a right-winger, but you can see why those groups may find that attitude agreeable. The fact that other forms of hypocrisy exist elsewhere doesn't excuse this particular kind. If Republicans want to cry double standards today, that's fine. Let's criticize everybody, and maybe we can work toward a single standard by which we can judge everyone equally without ideology or ego getting in the way.

19 November 2013

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago...

Today brings the first of the week's big anniversaries: the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Initially criticized by many for an unbecoming brevity, Lincoln's speech is now widely regarded as the greatest of American political orations, rivaled only by his Second Inaugural Address and Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington. It should be easy, given that brevity, to appreciate what Lincoln said. Dedicating a burial ground for the dead of the great battle, the President described the Civil War as a test of the endurance of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." At first glance, that would appear to confirm the belief that the war was fought, if not initiated, to end slavery. But since Lincoln never explicitly advocated complete civil equality for blacks, his meaning may not be so simple to comprehend. In closing, he declared the stakes of the war to be "government by the people, of the people, for the people." In short, democracy. Lincoln himself may not have been prepared to embrace democracy in the fuller scope that emancipation would require, but the word still meant something real to him -- something worth fighting for. If the war for the Union was a war for democracy, than Secession was a blow against democracy. How so? Not only the act but the theory behind it violated Lincoln's idea of democracy, which arguably was inseparable from his idea of Union. In practice, the Confederate states seceded to protest the result of an election, most of them doing so before Lincoln was even inaugurated and thus before he had a chance to violate their constitutional rights in any way that might have justified secession. In theory, the Confederacy violated a defining tenet, for Lincoln, of both Union and democracy: a commitment to be bound by the will of the voting majority of your fellow citizens. He did not believe that this commitment was conditional, though he did believe that it was regulated by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There were things that the majority could not do to the individual or the minority, but the frame of government itself provided the remedy should the majority attempt to do any of these things. Lincoln would not have taken slaves from their owners, and probably would never have supported a constitutional amendment to end slavery, had secession not provoked war. He had faith that limiting the expansion of slave territory would put the peculiar institution on the course of ultimate extinction until the South forced more immediate measures by rejecting that destiny. You might argue that, for Lincoln, the combination of Union and democracy set that destiny on its course. Where does equality come into it? Lincoln may have hesitated at including blacks fully into the body politic, but for those already in it, the ultimate expression of equality was majority rule in elections. As far as he was concerned, slaveowners may have enjoyed constitutional safeguards, but that didn't mean that their interests counted for more than the interests of anyone else. To refuse majority rule is to say that my will counts for more than their will, my interests more than their interests, and that I need never bow to the majority, whether the Constitution backs me or not -- that I, not the Constitution, am the judge of what the majority may not do. The U.S. may not have a strictly democratic form of government, but it is a democracy in the sense Lincoln understood -- and though the smoke has cleared it's still being tested today. This anniversary is a timely one.

18 November 2013

Poverty Denialism: 'there are plenty of jobs for the taking'

A brief piece in the current Nation by Michelle Goldberg on alleged "Poverty Denialism" had a familiar ring to it for me. Goldberg defines "poverty denialism" as the premise, expressed by some Republicans, that few people, if any, are really suffering in the current economy. These Republicans don't infer from that observation that the economy is in good shape. Instead, they complain that the poor have it too good as dependents upon the state and thus have no incentive to get real jobs. As Goldberg writes:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

The part about "plenty of jobs out there" is the point most likely to be disputed by non-Republicans. I heard that very point asserted by a co-worker recently. He leans Republican but is probably more of a libertarian at heart, having little use for the cultural issues important to many Tea Partiers. We talk politics occasionally, and he's a far more civil conversationalist than my old sparring partner Mr. Right, whom I see little of since I was moved to another floor of our office building. Politics doesn't really come up too often in our talks, but one day he observed that there were jobs for the taking, but many supposed poor people weren't taking them. I always like to challenge people who make such claims to prove not that there are jobs, but that they actually know people who do as they described. He claimed that he did. His current job at our office was a step up for him; at lower rungs of the job market, he claimed to know people who would readily quit if they got dissatisfied for any reason, on the assumption that they could collect as much money, if not more, from the state.

One can assume that this was a very low rung on the job ladder. How you interpret this story depends on whether you're ideologically inclined to see the glass as half-full or half-empty.  A liberal might say that this is the employer's problem; if he wants workers to stay, he should pay them better or treat them better. Viewed from the right, the problem is that the government gives the disgruntled worker a perverse incentive to take himself out of the workforce. From this perspective, both the person and the nation would be better off if he stayed on the job, or found something better in the private sector.

My co-worker isn't the most dogmatic person; I've gotten him to acknowledge an unfairness in the way employers can leave employees behind by outsourcing, etc., without accountability to anyone else. I wonder whether he recognizes a similar unfairness in the situation he describes, or in the way he interprets it. The implicit assumption is that the employer is always right; that it's not up to him to give employees incentives to stay on the job; that the state should not force him to pay more to compete with the dole. That last point could be argued objectively -- if the workforce functioned more fairly than it seems to now. Once you start talking about fairness, however, many Republicans stick their fingers in their ears and start singing loudly. What a liberal, progressive or leftist may think of as fairness strikes the Republican as dictation by the poor to the rich. On the other end, Republicans have a hard time thinking of the rich dictating to the poor, because the conditions others might describe in those terms are just the Market at work, and the Market is the opposite of any kind of dictatorship. That blind spot may explain more of Republicans' peculiar perception of things. Because they can't imagine the Market as a kind of dictatorship, they assume that everyone, or just about everyone, has found his level in the economy based on the decisions he has freely made -- has gotten what he deserves. They look at the Dow Jones average breaking the 16,000 barrier and assume that anyone who isn't getting ahead has himself (or the government) to blame. With no offense to Michelle Goldberg, the problem isn't that Republicans deny poverty, but that they define it differently -- as a behavioral rather than a systemic problem for which the state can provide no solution apart from getting rid of incentives to idleness. They miss the old days when poor people were ashamed to go on "relief" and refused to do so as long as possible. But they shouldn't hold their breath waiting for those days to return. The power of shame -- our sense of accountability to the opinion of others -- depends on a sociocultural consensus that no longer exists. Who cares what X thinks of me if X is nothing but a Y? Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, keep trying to shame each other in vain. Until all the country's factions can again agree on a good they envision for everyone -- on some material standard of fairness -- perceiving poverty differently will be one of the least of our problems.

13 November 2013

Chris Christie: the front runner always wears a target on his back

Gov. Christie of New Jersey was the one Republican hero of the last Election Day. In a season of widespread anger at the GOP and a gubernatorial defeat in a southern state, Christie was re-elected in a landslide victory that instantly raised his credibility as a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination. The moment he was so anointed, there was a tense pause as Republican pundits held their collective breath, praying that the Tea Party would not immediately attack Christie. The danger persists, and opinionators on the right are clearly fearful that they may have created a monster in the TP movement. I've seen preachments from unlikely quarters lately about electability and pragmatism, not to mention some touting of Christie as a Reaganesque figure. A stretch? That loud fat guy a Gipper for the 21st century? But here's what Republicans think they know about Ronald Reagan now: the wisdom of the moment is that Reagan prevailed by reaching out to people rather than alienating them.  His is perceived as a positive message, defined by the man's characteristic optimism, rather than the fire and brimstone some brew into their tea today. Christie could not win in a blue state, it's assumed, if Democrats and independents feared him the way they fear the Tea Party poster boys and girls. By any American standard he remains well to the right of center, but he doesn't inspire the fear and loathing his likely rivals do. Forward-thinking Republicans see this as possibly the difference between victory and defeat three years from now. Christie has a secret formula and they want it. More importantly, they don't want Tea Partiers ruining it for them.

What is the secret? Writing from outside New Jersey, all I can judge Christie by is his response to last year's "superstorm." Some on the far right will never forgive him for saying anything positive about President Obama's federal contribution to storm relief, having convinced themselves that he gave aid and comfort to the ideological enemy at a crucial moment close to the presidential vote. But the important thing about Christie's conduct isn't that he played nice with the President or affected nonpartisanship. The crucial thing is that he did not do what many Republicans dream of doing in such circumstances. He did not revert to the principled indifference of a Calvin Coolidge, who infamously resisted giving federal aid to victims of severe flooding in 1927. Instead, Christie reassured people that he would not leave them to their fate (or their just desserts) as a matter of ideological principle or a test of their fitness for survival. In short, if Christie is the Republican front-runner right now it's because he's given proof that he would govern, at least in some respects, like a human being. And that's why some Republicans hate him.