30 January 2013

Sean Wilentz vs. Oliver Stone: three degrees of anti

If I expect Sean Wilentz to attack Thomas Frank for the latter's attack in the current Harper's on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the Wilentzian worldview it appears to represent, I'd better not hold my breath. It's been reported in the news for more than two months that Wilentz was gunning for Oliver Stone and his Untold History of the the United States miniseries, but his polemic has only just appeared in the New York Review of Books that reached my mailbox today. Back in November, Wilentz previewed his line of attack, calling the miniseries "ridiculous" and comparing Stone to Glenn Beck. In the same month, Stone pre-emptively dismissed whatever criticism might come from Wilentz, labelling the historian as "very much pro-Clinton, pro-empire." I haven't seen Stone's series -- I don't get the Showtime channel -- so my discussion of Wilentz's review focuses again on the role Wilentz seems to be assign himself as historian if not philosopher of a certain center-left Machiavellianism that vindicates partisan government and pragmatic deal-making to get things done. Since Stone's history, according to second-hand accounts, seems to deal largely with foreign policy, you might wonder where Wilentz would find an opening for attack. He finds it in the figure of Henry Wallace, FDR's second Vice-President, a hero of Stone's story, and an icon for the sort of leftist Wilentz despises.

For Stone, Wallace's career is a crossroads moment of American history. He and his collaborator Peter Kuznick seem to believe that the world might have been spared the Cold War had the Democratic party retained Wallace as FDR's running-mate in the 1944 election -- he would have become President upon FDR's death the following April -- rather than dumping him in favor of Harry Truman.  In Stone's account, Wallace was dumped because he was too liberal and too interested in reaching a peaceful settlement of postwar Europe with Josef Stalin. Wilentz deny these causes of antagonism, but adds that many Democrats disliked Wallace for his perceived aloofness while fearing that his spiritual seeking might embarrass the party. In Stone's account, Truman virtually provoked the Cold War, and ordered the nuking of Japan, mainly to prove he was a tough guy. Wallace's last stand came in 1948, when he ran for President on the Progressive Party line on an anti-Cold War platform. He finished fourth, trailing even Strom Thurmond, and eventually repudiated any perceived sympathies for the Soviet Union.

Neither Wilentz nor Stone would be the first historian to see 1948 as a defining moment for the American left. Wilentz follows those who see Wallace's defeat as a triumph for the principled "anti-communist left," those who, in Wilentz's words, "believed that liberalism and communism were fundamentally opposed, with respect both to social ends and political means." The party of Wallace, on the other hand, "believed that liberalism and communism existed on a continuum, with political freedom at one end and economic freedom on the other." Their heirs, among whom Wilentz includes Stone, were sometimes called "anti-anti-Communists." They are guilty, the reviewer charges, of a "Manichaeanism" that "regarded liberal anticommunism as virtually indistinguishable from -- indeed, as complicit with -- the anticommunism of the right." These groups have battled over the interpretation of Cold War history, the anti-antis tending to downplay Stalin's role in provoking it while the antis insist that Stalin's influence had to be resisted everywhere. This history might not be so controversial if both sides would agree to insert "Stalin" or "Stalinism" wherever they're tempted to refer to "communism" with a small or capital C. The "anticommunism of the right" does equate communism, as envisioned by anyone, with the inevitability of Stalin-style tyranny and indulges in its own "Manichaeanism" by forcing a choice between laissez-faire capitalism and tyranny. The anti-communist left presumably rejects such a choice -- liberals like Wilentz still champion economic regulation and the welfare state -- but can't help seeming more fearful of the threat to their left than the threat to their right. The argument obviously can be made that totalitarianism is worse than plutocracy, but it shouldn't surprise people who make the argument if others think they're siding with the plutocrats. That's the Manichaeanism of the anti-anti-communists that Wilentz deplores. Wilentz himself could well be described as an anti-anti-anti-communist. I wouldn't call him a mere anti-communist because he's not actively engaged in a polemic with actual communists or sympathizers with communism. Instead, he goes after people like Oliver Stone who seem to think that American antagonism toward communism reveals something bad in the national character.

In the end, I wonder whether Wilentz even gets Stone's core position correct. He identifies the director with a "progressive" [scare quotes are his] mindset that "has treated the cold war as the driving force of American empire." That might be backwards. Notice Stone's quickie characterization of Wilentz as "pro-empire" above. In the same interview with Salon Stone says, "We think ... that the issue is empire and we have to stop it." "Empire" is a word that hardly comes up in Wilentz's review apart from the bit just cited. But he might have represented Stone's position more accurately had he written that American empire was the driving force of the cold war. Wilentz wouldn't have to agree with it, but might have been provoked to address the perception of the U.S. as an empire and explain why, if he disagrees with it, that perception is wrong. He closes his article by comparing Stone with Dick Cheney as an intellectual "cherry picker," using only the facts that serve his interests to further his agenda. But in his narrow focus on the Wallace story as the essence of Stone's entire project, hasn't Wilentz done the same thing? However you judge, I suspect Stone and/or Kuznick will have something to say about this; we may hear from him on Wilentz sooner than we hear from Wilentz on Thomas Frank and Abraham Lincoln. Bring on the fireworks either way.

29 January 2013

Thomas Jefferson as ventriloquist's dummy

Bernie Desroches of Latham invokes Thomas Jefferson in his warning to a local newspaper against gun control. "Thomas Jefferson said 'A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.'" Desroches writes. If you know the drill by now, you won't be surprised to learn that, according to the Monticello website, the online keepers of the great man's heritage, Jefferson said no such thing. The quote comes in several forms, differing in choice of adjectives, but the word "big" gives away this spurious anachronism. Jefferson would not have written or spoken of "big government." That's a category invented as a parallel to "big business" in more modern times. Jefferson might have described an "extensive" or "consolidated" government, but "big" would have been beneath his eloquence. Monticello cites the research of one Barry Popik, who claims the phrase was first written in the 1950s, most likely by the radio talker Paul Harvey. The quote is also rather closely identified with Gerald Ford, who reportedly said it while a young congressman in the 1950s and repeated it at least once while President. Neither Harvey nor Ford attributed their words to Jefferson. Not until 2005, according to Monticello, did anyone (specifically the author of a "Quote Manual") think to put the words into the dead man's mouth.

The fact that Jefferson didn't say what Desroches attributes to him doesn't mean that Jefferson didn't believe in limited government. He did, however inconsistently, and as Monticello notes, he was a kind of classical fatalist about democratic republicanism, believing that "the natural process of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground." Why put these particular words in his mouth? While Desroches doesn't use it this way, I suspect that the quote appeals to many modern Republicans because it serves them as a warning to "dependents," those who supposedly want big government mainly so it can give them everything they want. But if their point is that whoever gives you something can take it away, doesn't it apply to any entity that has the power to give someone something. The most obvious example is the employer who can give you a job, and obviously has the power to take it away. Does that make the employing class as great a danger as a big government? Few who claim to speak for Jefferson today would say so. For them the fault really lies not with the power that gives and takes, but with those they accuse of choosing dependence upon capricious power. Jefferson himself might argue that anyone who works for wages chooses just as fragile a dependence; that's why he would have mistrusted "big business" as well as "big government." But today's self-styled Jeffersonians assume that anyone skeptical as he was toward "big government" must share their attitudes in general about religion, entrepreneurship, etc., despite the evidence. When you think you know what someone really meant, it's easy to make up things he "really" said, especially if your audience, unlike Jefferson, takes it all on faith.

Republicans, immigrants and the limits of persuasion

With a bipartisan plan to reform immigration policy developing in the U.S. Senate, one of the two parties involved faces another potential split in its own ranks. On one side are pragmatists like Sen. McCain who see a problem in their party's apparent unpopularity among Hispanics and appear to believe that the GOP shouldn't go out of its way to alienate that growing bloc of voters. On the other, for one, is Rep. Barletta of Pennsylvania, who announced his opposition to anything resembling "amnesty" in his eyes. He did so in language alarmingly reminiscent of Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" talk from last year.

Anyone who believes that they're going to win over the Latino vote is grossly mistaken. The majority that are here illegally are low-skilled or may not even have a high school diploma. The Republican Party is not going to compete over who can give more social programs out. They will become Democrats because of the social programs they'll depend on.

A dangerous fatalism is creeping into the Republican mainstream. Conservatism tends toward pessimism, but the kind of pessimism expressed by Barletta and Romney goes against the best ideals of democratic republicanism. Mass political parties that function on a national scale should strive to persuade everyone to vote for them. To write off large segments of the population while aspiring, as national parties must, to permanent electoral majorities portends the permanent exclusion from power of those segments of the population whom Republicans can't or don't want to win over. To assume that any segment of the population can't be won over to a different point of view or political philosophy is either a confession of your own inadequacy as a persuader, not to mention the inadequacy of your ideology, or a slur against the intelligence or tolerance of those who currently disagree with you. It might be argued that Democrats feel the same way about the white South, but I don't really think that any dismissal of any demographic by the Democrats is as sweeping or ominous as the Republican attitude toward the "dependent" in general.

Many Republicans have long been concerned about the emergence of a permanent class of "dependents," and some clearly believe that a historic tipping point has come or will come soon. Their contempt for "dependency" is such that they consider the dependent class hopelessly intractable and hope to ignore them if possible. They're either saying that a debate on "dependency" is now or soon will be impossible, or that the "dependent" themselves may as well be excluded from the debate since they can't be "won over" to any weaning process. Many other Republicans may share these general beliefs about dependency, but still want Latino votes. They, presumably, are smart enough not to implicitly tar all Latinos with the dependency smear, even if some wish Latinos wouldn't identify so strongly with illegal or amnesty-seeking immigrants. To put a more positive spin on it, some Republicans still believe that Latino immigrants can become hardworking, taxpaying, government-resenting Republicans, while others believe otherwise and increasingly assume a stance of permanent enmity. The pragmatists want a future majority, while the ideologues (and allied bigots) have faith in the permanent silent majority that always agrees with them. No matter what they say about voter fraud, I bet some of these people wish that the dead could vote, because then they'd always win. Or so they think. 

28 January 2013

The Zero Dark Thirty debate continues

More heavyweight personalities weigh in on the moral and political implications of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. From England, sometime film critic and fulltime provocateur Slavoj Zizek condemns the picture, rejecting Bigelow's "depiction is not endorsement" defense.

One doesn't need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

For Zizek, Bigelow's avowed "neutral" approach to the material can only result in "normalizing" torture for the audience. He attempts a reductio ad absudam on Bigelow, asking whether rape or the Holocaust could or should be portrayed in the same manner. For his sake, one might add such hot-button topics as Stalnist terror or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but to be fair, while Zizek has sometimes championed revolutionary "terror," he's never said (to my knowledge) that torture should be an integral or desirable part of it. When he argues for the potential necessity of terror, he more likely means simply the need to kill people rather than torturing confessions for show trials out of them. But it's too easy to call a self-styled Leninist a hypocrite for condemning anyone else's politicized violence, and as a Leninist he'd probably dismiss the charge easily enough by contrasting his own with someone else's "bourgeois" morals -- while denying anyone else the prerogative of prioritizing one set of moral imperatives above another. In any event, what I found more interesting, if not more annoying, about Zizek's comments is his rejection of the idea that Bigelow's film is meant to provoke thought about the value and cost of the hunt for bin Laden.

[W]ith torture, one should not "think". A parallel with rape imposes itself here: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here; I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it. The same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is "dogmatically" rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument.

Zizek simply doesn't care whether viewers leave the film questioning whether bin Laden's death was worth all the effort, including the torture. He won't grant filmmaker or audience the liberty of drawing their own conclusions, demanding an absolutist, knee-jerk response. His attitude contrasts sharply with a filmmaker who's emerged as perhaps Zero Dark Thirty's most unlikely champion. Michael Moore applauds the film in part because he sees it as a refutation of the Bush administration's approach to the War on Terror and a vindication of what he sees as the Obama administration's approach. For Moore, timing is everything. That bin Laden is not tracked down and killed until after Obama becomes President, and after changes in policy regarding "enhanced interrogations" forces Maya and her colleagues to switch their emphasis from torture to detective work.

In the final third of 'Zero Dark Thirty,' the agents switch from torture to detective work – and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture – no bin Laden. Two years of detective work – boom! Bin Laden!

And that really should be the main takeaway from 'Zero Dark Thirty': That good detective work can bring fruitful results – and that torture is wrong. 
Moore recognizes that many critics base their response to the film on how they perceive others responding to it. If you hear audiences applauding bin Laden's death, for instance -- as I did not in a crowded Albany theater -- you're more likely, unless you share the mindset of those applauding -- to feel that Zero Dark Thirty portrays torture as not merely necessary but also a positive good. Moore reports very different reactions to the film.
After I saw 'Zero Dark Thirty,' a friend asked me, "During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most – the American torturer or the Arab suspect?" That was easy to answer. "Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist."

"Yes, that's the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in 'Das Boot,' that's the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you've been told everywhere else to hate." 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture.
Between Moore and Zizek the issue is whether we should trust audiences to respond thoughtfully and thus trust filmmakers to make thought-provoking movies rather than propaganda. As a filmmaker Moore may be a self-interested participant in the debate -- he certainly wouldn't want anyone, be it Zizek or some opposite number on the right, telling him what he and we shouldn't need to "think" about. Zizek prefers that torture, no matter what the situation, be ""dogmatically" rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument."  
He puts "dogmatically" in scare quotes, suggesting that, for an unrepentant ideologue like himself, dogma is not a pejorative term, or else that some moral absolutes can't be dismissed as simply somebody's dogma. Critics of Zero Dark Thirty go beyond mere moral absolutism. Everyone can or should agree that torture as portrayed in the movie is wrong. Kathryn Bigelow says the same thing routinely in interviews. While she remains more vulnerable to the criticism that her film inaccurately portrays the effectiveness of torture in tracking down bin Laden, the debate that really matters is the one described here. Have artists moral obligations when they represent the reprehensible? Is it their prerogative to provoke thought or their duty to teach a lesson? Bloggers have it easier: if I've provoked thought today, I feel I've done my duty.

25 January 2013

Electoral College = Vote Fraud???

Jamelle Bouie's rant against the state of Virginia on the American Prospect website is a monumental example of biased Democratic whining. Bouie's irked over the Republican-controlled Virginia legislature's effort, on authority granted the state by the Constitution, to allocate Electoral Votes in future presidential elections on a district-by-district rather than a winner-take-all basis. Virginia would become only the third state to do things that way, but Bouie worries that if more states follow this example, presidential elections will increasingly reflect congressional elections. That is, just as Democrats believe that Republicans enjoy a majority in the House of Representatives only through gerrymandering, they fear that using those same gerrymandered districts to award Electoral Votes will result in GOP victories however short the candidates fall in the popular voting. This may strike Bouie and even some objective observers as unfair, but calling it voter fraud, as Bouie and the website editors have, is a childishly partisan attempt to make hypocrites out of the professed opponents among the GOP of alleged fraud by Democrats. The Constitution allows any state to do what Virginia may do. If anything, the winner-take-all system prevailing in most states violates the original intent of the Framers, if not the letter of the document, by denying each electoral/congressional district autonomy in choosing the President. The party system itself violates original intent by denying the individual electors the autonomy the Framers presumed that they'd exercise in choosing the best man in the country. Unfortunately, the Framers put nothing into the Constitution preventing state legislatures from distorting the Electoral College; they were more concerned with preserving state sovereignty over election law. That being said, what Virginia proposes is not fraud unless you consider it an offense against a "higher law" requiring that the President be chosen by a majority of the entire voting population, acting as a single bloc. That "higher law" isn't written into the Constitution, however, and it won't be binding on the states until the Constitution is amended. I've never been thrilled about the idea of making presidential elections a matter of raw majority rule on a national scale because that would only further handicap independent candidates and parties. But if that's the way Americans want to go they have two options: amend the Constitution or get your state to join the National Popular Vote compact. Democrats may regret such measures the next time they feel uncertain of their nationwide popularity, but whether it benefits or harms a particular party at this time should influence objective thinkers not at all.

24 January 2013

The filibuster endures

Majority Speaker Reid has reached a compromise with Minority Leader McConnell that will result to some changes in U.S. Senate procedure but not the result most desired by progressives: the elimination or even the significant weakening of the filibuster. Reid will not consider changing Senate rules to require less than 60 votes for the cloture that stops filibusters. He implies that the filibuster is one of the things that differentiates the Senate from the House of Representatives and states more plainly that the Senate "shouldn't be like the House." While the Framers did differentiate sharply between the two houses of Congress, it will be recalled that the Constitution itself does not mandate a filibuster and that the Framers didn't have the filibuster in mind as one of the Senate's distinguishing features. The Senate remains distinctive as the house where the states are represented on an equal basis, and it retains distinctive functions assigned it by the Constitution. Whether members' enhanced capacity for obstruction is a desirably distinctive feature is debatable.

Cynical observers suggest that Reid has considered the possibility of Republicans taking the Senate in 2014 and doesn't want to deny himself, as a theoretical minority leader, the ability to block GOP legislation with the same tactics Sen. McConnell uses now. The cynicism of this observation is not unjustified. The alleged idealism that sees the filibuster as an aid to genuine deliberation towards compromise is unjustified cynicism. The filibuster rule is a vestige of concurrent-majority theory, the belief that one interest group shouldn't have the right to run roughshod over others simply because it has a numerical political majority behind it. It has grown repugnant to many Americans in a time when numerical minorities -- in the form of political parties -- have in effect claimed for themselves the theoretical rights of interest groups. The implicit argument of filibuster apologists is that any act of a mere numerical majority oppresses the minority -- or at least that you can tell it's oppressive if the minority protests. Political minorities claim "special rights" in imitation of the last century's civil rights movements, as if their ideologies form a group identity equivalent to those formed by religious faith or sexual preference, if not to those formed by genes. Not too long ago, filibusters were identified with a particular interest group: the white segregationists of the South who used every parliamentary tactic available to block legislation against their power to segregate and discriminate. While progressives may imagine that they're dealing with essentially the same people today, the filibuster's constituency is less corporeal, more theoretical. Its idolaters see the filibuster as a fundamental tool for limiting government, even if only by slowing it down. For partisans it's a tool of convenience, deemed indispensable as long as we have political parties with equal opportunities to oppress each other. Why don't all these reservations justify a filibuster for the House of Representatives? Why shouldn't the House be more like the Senate in this regard? Are not numerical political minorities as subject to roughshod oppression, and as in need of procedural protection, in the lower as in the upper house? Or do even today's most dogmatic or pathological politiphobes allow some scope for the actual voting majority and its representatives -- the nearest thing we have to an embodied body politic -- to govern as it pleases within constitutional but not ideological bounds? If they can condone that in the House, they can only justify the different procedure in the Senate by proving that the filibuster is as essential to that body's constitutional identity as Sen. Reid assumes.

23 January 2013

Proof: U.S. = Tyranny!

Reading one of the local papers this morning, I stumbled across a typical expression of anti-government paranoia in the paper's call-in "Sound Off" column. A caller was reminding readers that "the Second Amendment was not put there for target practice or hunting. It was put there to keep government tyrants in check." You've probably seen or heard what follows hundreds of times:

When the government fears the people, you have liberty; when the people fear the government, you have tyranny.

It's just about as self-evident as you could want that many people in the United States fear the government -- some seem to fear the idea of government itself. By the rule stated above, these people's fears are self-confirming: if they fear the government, it must be a tyranny.

Someone could argue that I misunderstand, perhaps purposefully, the usage of "fear" in the old proverb. It seems to mean something like "cowed into quiescence out of respect for some dread power to punish transgression." Liberty flourishes, the proverb suggests, when politicians know that the people will deal with them if they transgress. Conversely, if the people believe that the government can and will crush them if they transgress -- in this context, the right verb would be "dissent" -- tyranny is secure. The open defiance from reactionary dissent in 2013 appears to prove that "the people" are not yet cowed, and that tyranny is not yet secure. My reading of the proverb, however, seems more psychologically convincing. A deeply rooted philosophical (or pseudophilosophical) suspicion that government is always in danger of tending toward tyranny encourages immediate suspicion that the current government actually is tending toward tyranny. Those who fear government will always see tyranny looming.

Is the remedy to reject all suspicion of tyranny? Classical political philosophy warns against that. If you find the cyclical theory of political history convincing, tyranny of some sort will seem inevitable wherever constitutional liberty prevails today. The heart of the matter, yet again, is what actually counts as tyranny. It has to be something more than "the state has too much control." Who has control of the state matters more. Those who see "government" itself as the inherent threat miss the point. They also seem to limit their own choices; the proverb allows no option but rule by fear. Can't we do better than that?

22 January 2013

Four Conservatisms -- but I'm not sure about the fourth

The American Conservative magazine has suffered another setback, reducing its publishing schedule to six instead of twelve times a year after starting a decade ago as a biweekly. Its predicament is predictable, since its writers and editors take pride in differentiating themselves from conventional Republican conservatism. As the latest issue editorializes: "The Republican Party itself, Fox News, talk radio and the old think tanks and magazines are nowadays inert; their fundraising may be prodigious, but their ideas have calcified into mere mantras." Despite this inertia, the Conservative perceives four "factions that still possess some sense of direction," each attempting to guide the mainstream in its direction.

1. The neocons -- this magazine's archvillains -- are dismissed as "hav[ing] undergone a reverse evolution" from their purportedly highbrow past to mere "sound and fury" at "an apocalyptic pitch." Their belligerence, their urge "to get Fox watchers riled up to invade Iran (or Syria, or Alpha Centauri) has betrayed their supposed "worldly and cosmopolitan" heritage.

2. The Tea Party, singled out here for its "populism" and "nationalism" and its lack of a coherent foreign policy. That makes the TPs vulnerable to neocon "exceptionalist" rhetoric, though some remain willing to listen to ideas from the third faction.

3. The "liberty movement" consists of the heirs of Ron Paul, including his son, the Senator from Kentucky. The Conservative gives this group credit for its defense of civil liberties and for opposing the "warfare state" as well as the "welfare state," but the magazine differentiates itself from the liberty crowd by more or less defining itself as the fourth faction.

4. "Countercultural Burkean conservatives" differ from the liberty movement in their distance from "the consumerism that looks so lovely in libertarian eyes." They remain suspicious of both jingoistic nationalism and dogmatic libertarianism -- "the nexus of Ayn Rand and William Kristol is their - and our - antithesis." While this group needs a better label at once, articles in the current issue give more details on what the countercultural Burkeans stand for.

The cover story on "Counterculture Conservatism" is written by Andrew Bacevich, the pundit whose opposition to the War on Terror has, arguably, done the most to bring Burkeans and liberals together. A reader might wonder what makes Bacevich a conservative when he confesses himself no fan of: Fox News; Ayn Rand; Milton Friedman; Ron Paul; Ronald Reagan, etc. Against all of the above, Bacevich urges, in seemingly oxymoronic terms, an "updated conservative tradition." It remains essentially conservative to the extent that its adherents "respect received wisdom" and agree that "the passage of time does not automatically render irrelevant the dogmas to which our forebears paid heed." Bacevich is quick to add, however, -- in fact, he writes this first -- that "this does not signify opposition to all change." Instead, counterculture conservatives should be "fostering change that enhances rather than undermines that which qualifies as true." If that last bit begs a big question, Bacevich has already tried to answer it.

As human beings, our first responsibility lies in stewardship, preserving our common inheritance and protecting that which possesses lasting value. This implies an ability to discriminate between what is permanent and what is transient, between what ought to endure and what is rightly destined for the trash heap.

Bacevich's conservatives are communitarian. They "take human relationships seriously" because "in community lies our best hope of enjoying a meaningful earthly existence." Community in its most basic form -- the family, as far as Bacevich is concerned -- is "under unrelenting assault, from both left and right." He identifies the assault from the right with consumerism and dogmatic individualism.

Emphasizing autonomy, the forces of modernity are intent on supplanting the family with the hyper-empowered -- if also alienated -- individual, who exists to gratify appetite and ambition. With its insatiable hunger for profit, the market is intent on transforming the family into a cluster of consumers who just happen to live under the same roof.

Bacevich betrays the limits of his scope by neglecting to observe how these forces harm larger communities -- how they may corrupt social rather than familial relationships. However, he does write that "although conservatives are not levelers, they believe that a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth -- property held in private hands -- offers the surest safeguard against Leviathan. A conservative's America is a nation consisting of freeholders, not of plutocrats and proletarians." That always sound good, but without "leveling," how do we get there from here? Without "redistribution," how do we achieve a more "equitable distribution of wealth?" Since Bacevich remains "wary of concentrated power in whatever form," he can deplore plenty, but can't do much about it. He thinks that countercultural conservatism can make a difference, however, and on some points he is certainly right. While he typically underestimates the cost of "collective belt-tightening ... to curb the nation's lazily profligate tendencies," he makes other demands atypical of self-styled conservatives, first and particularly:

Protecting the environment from the ravages of human excess. Here most emphatically, the central theme of conservatism should be to conserve. If that implies subordinating economic growth and material consumption in order to preserve the well-being of planet Earth, so be it.

For his Conservative readers, the key priority may be "Exposing the excess of American militarism and the futility of the neo-imperialist impulses to which Washington has succumbed since the end of the Cold War....abandoning the conceit that the United States is called upon to exercise 'global leadership,' which has become a euphemism for making mischief and for demanding prerogatives allowed to no other nation." In this context, it's worth noting that this same issue of the Conservative features a friendly interview with Oliver Stone. 

"Forget about dismantling the welfare state," Bacevich rights. His conservatism is countercultural but not counter-revolutionary. Some revolutions, he concedes, are irreversible. I suppose that counts as a kind of conservatism, too, compared to the revanchism of religious fundamentalists. When he chooses the "counterculture" label he's consciously striving to emulate the successful movements (in his ambivalent judgment) of the Sixties and Seventies -- feminism, gay rights, etc. The challenge for counterculture conservatives is "to engineer a change in the zeitgeist through patient, incremental and thoughtful action," even if that's "likely to entail decades of effort." The results may be as incoherent as those of past countercultural movements -- can he really hope to save the environment while continuing to dread concentrated, centralized state power? -- but he does invite readers to let him know if they might have better ideas. Dialogue has to start somewhere, so this may be as good a point as any.

21 January 2013

Togetherness: the Obama doctrine

The President delivered his second inaugural address today, one day after his official swearing-in. The speech had some moments targeted at specific critics. When he said, "the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias," he was making a dig at the gun lobby as well as challenging right-wing individualism. When he said, "The commitments we make to each other: through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security ... do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." he was obviously addressing the impulse to divide the population into "takers" and "makers." No doubt the targets will recognize the jabs and will have their answers ready. Some may observe that the country was made great by risk-takers well before the safety-net measures cited by the President were taken. Of course, the President's critics have often questioned when exactly he (and his wife) believe the country actually became great. While some critics will focus on these implicit zingers, I wonder whether any will address the overarching theme of the speech. Consider this section:

We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune.

"Together" and "together" and "together." Followed by this: "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it so long as we seize it together." What does that mean? Consider these elaborations: "We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship;" "while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American;" "We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity."

A different worldview persuades others that not everyone can or will "find independence and pride in their work," and that not every effort will or can be rewarded in the way the President supposes. This other worldview allows for no guarantees of these things for the sake of "a basic measure of security and dignity." It presumes that there will always be losers, as a matter of blunt fact if not in the pejorative sense used by bloggers or radio talkers, and that to tamper with a natural order of things so that no one loses will only make more of us, or everyone, lose.  This worldview encourages a suspicion that Obama's commitment to togetherness, to leaving no one behind, to everyone sharing in the achievements of the true winners as if every individual achievement were a collective one, only turns losers into freeloaders, parasites, "takers." Those who share this opposition worldview are not convinced that safety nets, much less the "hammocks" they really envision, encourage risk rather than complacent, entitled dependence upon the dole extracted from others' honest toil.

In the U.S. two distinct ideals of fairness are in conflict. The Obama ideal defines fairness as everyone sharing in national achievement, while the opposition sees everyone sharing, regardless of merit, as profoundly unfair. As expressed today, Obama's vision doesn't appear to allow for the possibility that some seek a free ride; that may be because he sees living itself as a struggle. He recalls "the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn." The opposition might answer that some poverty is deserved, while there has never been nowhere else but government for people in crises to turn. In the broadest terms possible, Obama's espousal of togetherness may be rooted in the simplest hedonism: poverty=suffering=bad. The opposition most likely still believes that some suffering, at least, may prove salutary, or that some people may only learn how to live if they suffer from mistakes. But in more practical terms, the Obama doctrine means that Americans can't refuse to give a damn, on "personal responsibility" grounds, whether or not any fellow citizens develop the skills needed to keep the country competitive or prosperous. Americans might question whether Obama's specific policies actually result in this collective skill acquisition, but Obama would presumably argue that they can't be indifferent to the prospect of millions growing up with nothing to contribute. It may just be a liberal dream that everyone has something to contribute, or the potential to contribute; harder-headed leftists may be more inclined to give up on unproductive or uncooperative people. But who really can object to that dream? The answer is all too obvious, but I'm not sure if everyone, including some who object, understand exactly what they're objecting to. As the usual suspects post their reactions to Obama's address, we may get a better idea.

What protects your family from your family?

Call it a domestic amoklauf if you like, even though the Albuquerque NM shooter who killed his parents and three siblings wasn't interested, from what we can tell, in taking people with him. He doesn't seem to have been planning to go anywhere. He must have thought, however, that life would be better without his family. So what do we know? Obviously there were guns in the house. The boy's dad was a pastor and had been homeschooling him. The kid favored military fatigues, either identifying with soldiers or supposing that they looked cool. At first glance, this looks like a family that trusted in religion to check people's violent impulses. Some armchair psychiatrists infer from the boy having been taken out of public school and educated at home that he must have had ADD or some similar disorder, but that can't be the case with every homeschooled kid. After Newtown the NRA and its allies want to frame the overall problem as a mental-health issue. They'll rush to portray every mass shooter as a nut (rather than a gun nut) that the system should have institutionalized or medicated while leaving the innocents and their guns alone. They'll look for any evidence of enthusiasm for video games, as if the "good guys" have no fantasies of violence despite everything they say in public about repelling hordes of evildoers. They'd like to say the boy needed religion, but it looks like he had plenty of that. He needed better religion, some will say. Every such tragedy has its reasons, from all of which the "good guys" demand to be presumed immune. Maybe the answer isn't just guns in every home, but guns in every room! The keep-and-bear crowd envision themselves protecting their families from outsiders -- criminals, the government, post-apocalyptic hordes, etc. -- but what happens when the enemy is within? The Albuquerque tragedy is the national tragedy in microcosm. That play won't close until we think of different ways toward peace -- and this seems like the day to do that for a moment.

20 January 2013

The Pre-Inaugural Protests

The President was officially sworn in for his second term today and will hold the public celebration of the event tomorrow. Yesterday, however, the opposition threw its own parties. Rallies across the nation gathered gun owners in opposition to legislation approved or pending across the country limiting their access to weapons. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the rally in Albany, where the state legislature has passed a law offensive to Second Amendment absolutists. Signs denouncing tyranny were everywhere, and you had the sense that the protesters didn't see tyranny as a future threat. Yet if tyranny does come, dare I suggest that the constituents of tyranny, not its opponents, were gathered in Albany and in the other cities? These people are so concerned about hordes of people coming to take their stuff -- that's why they resist limits to the ammo magazines they can use. Do you think they'd never take pre-emptive action against potential hordes if they ever got a chance. By comparison, what is this "sadistic tyranny" that one poster denounced? It seems to boil down to a desire to make less miserable the lives of people these protesters deem deserving of misery -- the same people these protesters expect to form the hordes they fantasize about -- the same people they dream about killing. And dare I suggest that the next mass shooter was in one of those crowds? It's probably not true, since the typical amoklaufer probably doesn't do political rallies. But that fact aside, why shouldn't I think that one of these people will, to reiterate the point, go pre-emptive on all the people he (or she) sees as future enemies? The suggestion certainly outrages the gun community. Why can't I trust them with their guns, they'll ask. Well, why can't they trust anyone else? They get to assume that everyone is out to rob them or enslave them or rape them. But the rest of us are supposed to trust them implicitly. We're never to question their intentions or their underlying motives; doing so proves our untrustworthiness, our malevolent intentions, our tyrannical (or servile) nature. But if it outrages them or insults them or hurts their feelings really bad, so be it: we don't trust you. We have no obligation to trust you if you feel no obligation to trust us. If I'm a tyrant, you're a murderer. Judge not lest ye be judged.

18 January 2013

A 'creative response' to individualism

The January 28 issue of The Nation is guest-edited by Antonio D'Ambrosio, an artist who's made films and written about Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer. The theme on the cover is "We Own the Future" but the theme in D'Ambrosio's own words is "creative response." He touts this concept as "the antidote to the individualism, consumerism and cynicism that now define our culture." Since "creative response" boils down to artistic expression, how does that counter individualism? The answer depends on what sort of individualism requires an antidote. D'Ambrosio is talking about the individualism of late-20th century Anglo-American conservatism, the doctrine of Reagan and Thatcher, the idea, in the latter's infamous words, that "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families." D'Ambrosio argues that this ideological individualism was intended "to establish a thoughtless conformity that bred submissiveness and an ahistorical consciousness." Creative response takes its cue from D'Amrbosio's dad, whose motto was "You're automatically part of society." Society, in the D'Ambrosio family's sense of the word, basically means collaboration and sharing. Art, of course, can be seen as a form of "sharing," and politically or socially committed art is more consciously an act of sharing. It's a contribution to the "collective mind" that the younger D'Ambrosio describes as "an expression of the human spirit." Ideally, creative response in its own individuality "is both anti-ideological and universal as it rallies us around our common humanity."

If that sounds too good to be true, at least one of D'Ambrosio's respondents, the British novelist Hari Kunzru, rains on the parade a bit. He warns that "a 'creative response' to a political situation may fall some way short of actual politics," noting that "it's much safer for global elites if potentially fractious, self-willed, highly educated and motivated people are diverted by making radical artistic gestures instead of organizing to take power." D'Ambrosio asks for this sort of critique by making the Pussy Riot band one of his models of creative response, giving the imprisoned Russians credit for "shift[ing] how we think, how we see ... lead[ing] us to feel something different about our experience and the world." To be fair, D'Ambrosio expands the scope of creative response to include plain old political activism and socially-responsible entrepreneurship -- but his respondents in The Nation are almost all artists. They are an antidote to the malignant individualism D'Ambrosio deplores only insofar as they naturally go against "conformity" and "submissiveness," but whether their non-conformity and non-submissiveness really refute the Thatcherite theses remains an open question.

Is individualism really the problem? People are tempted to think so because the right wing marches with that word on its banners, but is individualism really the essence of 21st century rightism. It's easy to think so if we identify Republicanism or Toryism chiefly with selfishness and personal greed. But individualism isn't perfectly synonymous with selfishness or greed -- or needn't be. In the past, I've pointed out how Republicanism appears to betray individualism when it sacrifices individual workers -- their jobs, to be specific -- to the theoretically collective good of a more efficient or competitive economy. If your definition of individualism includes the idea that each individual has innate value, you may question the individualism of Republicans if they seem to treat some individuals as disposable. Rather than debate the potential meanings of individualism, let me suggest that D'Ambrosio is closer to the mark when he targets consumerism as a corrosive force in society. When we're encouraged to think of ourselves as consumers first, solidarity suffers if that means we'd rather have cheaper products every time, no matter where they come from or how they're produced. D'Ambrosio's real beef is with individualism conditioned by consumerism, concerned only with what each person can get out of society or indifferent to what each might contribute to it. "Creative response" is an obvious alternative to consumerist individualism, but it's only fair to say that people need to contribute more to society than they do by singing, making films or blogging. When D'Ambrosio's dad said "you're automatically part of society," I'm not sure he meant that as an imperative to make art. What it means to be automatically part of society is one of the big questions, always complicated by whether you're automatically part of a state and the potentially "conformist" implications of your answer. The people who put Pussy Riot in prison probably believe that people are automatically part of some sort of society as well as a self-evident state, and they probably feel that Pussy Riot betrayed both in some way. Was Pussy Riot's "creative response" to the dilemma to be imprisoned? It seems that way sometimes. Creative response sounds like a good idea, but we need to do better than that.

17 January 2013

What are Americans hiding?

Fairleigh Dickinson University has released the results of a poll indicating the prevalence and persistence of conspiracy theories among Americans. The headline finding was that 36% of all Americans polled, including 64% of those identified as Republicans believe that the President is "hiding something," whether it be about his own past or skullduggery at the polls during the late elections. Fairleigh Dickinson itself headlines the alarming news that a quarter of those polled can be deemed "truthers," people who believe that the U.S. government had some specific foreknowledge about the September 2011 terrorist attacks in this country.

The pollsters seem to have revealed an important difference in the way Democrats and Republicans process information. They asked their respondents a series of questions about current events. Among Democrats, the more questions respondents answered correctly, the less likely they were to believe conspiracy theories. For Republicans, surprisingly, something opposite is true: each question answered correctly made them more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Before we draw conclusions about ideology, however, we learn that blacks -- not exactly on the right as a group -- are more likely to believe conspiracy theories than whites; a majority are truthers, for instance. One pollster suggests that a sense of alienation or exclusion from power is key:“Groups that feel more distanced from the political process are more likely to believe that sinister forces are at work. These figures tell us more about a lack of trust in the political process than acceptance of particular conspiracies.” We shouldn't be surprised in our irrational political environment if even people with considerable political power feel alienated or distanced from "politics," depending on what people mean by that term. Conspiracy theory united the genuinely excluded -- or those who succumb to the paranoia of the excluded -- and those who echo the paranoia of the excluded, perhaps because they're paranoid first.

The President will always be a focus of conspiracy theory -- G.W. Bush can certainly empathize -- but I would have like to see whether Americans believe that other prominent people are "hiding something." Partisans will most likely believe that of their opposite numbers, Republicans suspecting Democrats of schemes to increase their power, Democrats suspecting Republicans of various moral hypocrisies, from sexual deviance to taking bribes. Conspiracy theory, of course, isn't restricted to the political sphere; the truly paranoid, I suppose, imagine that everyone has something to hide. That's one of the pitfalls of pluralism. It's hard for some people to trust that everyone is in fact one of us. At the same time, some of the same people would resist seeing themselves as simply one of us. Community is an ideal and a menace to many people; an ideal that others disrupt by their otherness; a menace if it means you have to change. Those we call totalitarians strove to solve this problem and found no neat solution; that's why they're hated today. If their way isn't an option, we're left to ask not whether we can end this insanity, but how much of it our system can stand. 

16 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: the moral responsibility of artists revisited

Some people who may not have considered it their business to question whether the complaisant attitude of Chinese author Mo Yan toward his country's government made him worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature may fell more comfortable questioning whether the American film director Kathryn Bigelow deserves another Academy Award. Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director award in 2009, for The Hurt Locker, and was considered a front-runner for another Oscar until last Thursday, when her new film, Zero Dark Thirty, was nominated for Best Picture, but she was denied a nomination for direction. Since then, people have wondered whether her exclusion was an aesthetic or a political judgment. Zero Dark Thirty portrays the torture of accused terrorists during the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. As I wrote on my Mondo 70 blog, the film portrays torture as arguably necessary but certainly not sufficient to the discovery of bin Laden, and observes torture with the same ambivalence with which it contemplates the entire hunt for the arch-terrorist. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal aspire to objectivity in their portrayal of torture, but any inferred refusal to take a stand on the subject will fail to satisfy those who expect or require everyone to take a stand. The severest critics act on the assumption that everyone has taken a stand, whether they say so, think so, or not. If you're not with them in explicitly condemning torture, you're against them and a champion of it.

Bigelow has written an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times clarifying her own position as a filmmaker. On the question of fact, she writes: "I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore." On the question of art:

Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

Critics question whether Bigelow has shone adequate light on America's dark deeds. For them, setting aside the historical debate over whether torture was even as necessary as the film appears to show, "shining light" in the merely observational manner of Zero Dark Thirty is an insufficient response to a self-evident dark deed. By coincidence, the newest New York Review of Books just reached me, and in its pages is a representative statement of the critical position from the bestselling journalist Steve Coll. He notes fairly enough that Bigelow and Boal ask for trouble immediately by identifying their film in a title card as "Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events." Having done that, Coll argues, they can't dodge the historical question of torture's role in the hunt for bin Laden. Beyond that, Coll contends that the historical and moral questions are really inseparable; that people questioned the use and efficacy of torture while the enhanced-interrogation regime was in effect; that any truthfully dramatic account of the story should include this extensive and often impassioned questioning. In his own words:

There is no secret about this strain of dissent within the government about the CIA program ... None of this sort of argument is available to viewers of Zero Dark Thirty. It would hardly have undermined the film’s drama to have included such strong dissents, even in passing, in the interest of journalism that was more complete.

Dramatic license, in Coll's opinion, gives Bigelow and Boal no excuse to evade moral questions about torture. He holds their film to a journalistic standard they supposedly aspire to themselves, but in saying "It would hardly have undermined the film's drama," Coll also holds art to a moral standard. Is it a different standard from Bigelow's? She says "depiction is not endorsement," but Coll or other critics might argue that selective depiction -- a failure to depict the moral objections Coll considers essential to the story -- becomes implicit endorsement. By insisting that moral objections were part of the objective history Bigelow partially portrays, Coll seems to be saying something different from those critics who apparently believe that not to condemn is to condone. He, at least, is not complaining that Bigelow failed to editorialize the torture scenes so that everyone would see that torture is wrong. But would Coll  have any complaint against the film if it didn't boast of its basis in fact in that opening card? His closing comments suggest that he'd still condemn the movie. As if tiring of the objective debate over torture's role, he writes that Zero Dark Thirty perpetuates a "timid tautology that justifies torture by coincidence: if terrorist attacks were prevented while enhanced interrogations were used, torture must be essential to preventing terrorist attacks. Coll is finally intolerant of "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value of officially sanctioned torture" that he equates with the debate over climate change. Bigelow is guilty of "enlarging the acceptability of that form of debate." Here he is saying that not to condemn is to condone. Is such a position compatible with "depiction is not endorsement?" Is a middle ground between alleged complacency and obligatory commitment possible for artists addressing controversial subjects? The answer should be yes, but that answer doesn't exempt artists from criticism in a free society for perceived moral failings. If Kathryn Bigelow has been judged and found wanting by some, that didn't stop her film from winning the box-office race in its first weekend of wide release. What that judgment means is another story.

Update: Matt Taibbi has joined the debate in Rolling Stone, claiming to be "blown away," and not in a good way, by the "depiction is not endorsement" argument, He questions Bigelow's sincerity with this argument: "If Bigelow really means that, I have a rhetorical question for her: Are audiences not supposed to cheer at the end of the film, when we get bin Laden? They cheered in the theater where I watched it." I cite this so I can offer a counterexample. I watched the film in a fairly crowded theater on a Saturday afternoon. No one cheered the killing of bin Laden. Audience cheering has been mentioned elsewhere as a reason to deplore Zero Dark Thirty. But whether audiences cheer or not has less to do with the director's intentions than Taibbi suggests. I've seen people laugh at some of the grimmest films because some people can't help laughing about anything. Their laughter wouldn't prove that the director of the film they're watching believes that life's a joke. If people cheer when Bigelow shows bin Laden's death, it probably has a lot to do with the opinion people had of him before they entered the theater.

15 January 2013

"Our kids are in greater danger from tyranny..."

The New York State Senate approved a new gun-control bill yesterday. Outside, Tom Maerling of Ellenville, Ulster County held up his protest sign for a picture that made the front page of one of the local papers. Maerling's sign reads: "Our kids are in greater danger from tyranny than they are from school shootings." By appearing in Albany, Maerling had lived up to his vow, posted on a gun-rights website, to carry just such a sign, even at the risk of looking "like a jackass" if he stood alone. As it was, the photo shows at least one man standing beside him.

Maerling's web post clarifies the nature of "tyranny" as he sees it. Anyone in Congress who proposes tighter regulations on gun ownership is a "tyrant" who is "spitting all over the Constitution." He amplifies the point later: "If the words “gun confiscation” coming from our politicians mouths isn’t tyranny than I don’t know what it is." On his Wordpress blog he's as clear as possible: "We are now being ruled by tyrants in a communist government." Maerling has come to believe that mere "social networking" and griping isn't enough to stop the tide of "tyranny." But he doesn't think the time has come yet for armed resistance. "For those of you talking crap about let them come and try it [i.e., confiscate guns]. Well that is asinine," he writes, "Because when they send a dozen troops to knock in your door you are beat." He at least believes in giving peaceful protest a chance. "If you want to win this then let’s get together en masse and show the politicians what the 2nd Amendment voting bloc looks like," he continues, "Let’s show up like the Communist/Liberals in bus loads and see if we can put some constitutional spine back in our politicians." However, he does not rule out the ultimate necessity of more forceful resistance: "If in the end we need to take another path to replace the tyrants with a new guard, as the Declaration of Independence says is our right and our DUTY, then so be it; I will be there for that too." Give him a little credit for waiting.

Maerling's proposition -- that tyranny presents a greater danger to children than school shooters -- should be interpreted in light of his apparent belief that tyrants already exist in America, they being those who would confiscate guns. Is the danger from tyranny quantitatively or qualitatively greater? That is, does Maerling dismiss the relative danger from school shooters because such incidents remain relatively infrequent, or because he feels that tyranny -- to the extent that it consists of anything beside gun confiscation -- can do different but more profound damage to children. The most literal-minded reading of Maerling's sign would echo the opinion expressed at the Saratoga Springs gun show last weekend that "genocide by tyranny" is a greater threat than the occasional amoklaufer. Does Maerling believe that "tyrannical" congressmen are more likely to kill children than the random madman who strolls into a school. For that matter, do people like Marling believe, on the basis of 20th century evidence, that tyranny is innately genocidal -- that what tyrants do, definitively and above all, is kill their own people? Does he consider that a more imminent threat than someone going off his meds, or simply deciding that he has a right to defend himself from not just criminals but enemies, with an assault rifle in his hands? Such questions may strike Maerling as sophistry, but his protest begs them.

In his most extensive statement on the subject, Maerling challenges the "gun-grab tyrants" to amend the Constitution as that document requires, on the premise that any infringement of gun rights is unconstitutional. " If you do this," he promises, "then the citizenry of this country must comply by the words of the new Amendment to the Constitution." Should his sincerity be questioned? Perhaps not; Maerling doesn't appear to claim a "natural" right to own guns. But if tyranny means confiscating people's guns, not merely doing so unconstitutionally, wouldn't the amendment he imagines make the country a tyranny? Is Maerling a free man today only by virtue of his guns, or by virtue of the Constitution? Does the Constitution become less of a safeguard against tyranny if it no longer guarantees unlimited individual gun ownership? I'd expect Maerling at least to oppose such a theoretical amendment, but what if it's ratified? If I can't guess from his online statements, it's because the rhetoric of tyranny across the board remains maddeningly vague, some crying tyranny at the drop of a hat, others stubbornly ignoring all warnings. It'd be easy to say we know tyranny when we see it, but consensus forms, if ever, only at an advanced stage of development. Until then, we continue to argue over early warning signs. Vigilance against tyranny is an inheritance from the Founders, and Maerling is at least right to remember that guns were never meant as our first line of defense. Beyond that is when the problems start.

14 January 2013

"I Don't Have Enough Angels..." The gun debate in Saratoga Springs

The local papers over the weekend gave extensive coverage to the annual Saratoga Arms Fair, an event destined to draw a lot of attention, and a lot of it hostile, after last month's amoklauf in Newtown, CT. The national media paid a little attention as well. What we saw was gun owners on the defensive. As always, liberty itself in all its aspects was at stake, as far as some were concerned, in the debate over new gun controls. Liberty, we could learn from the pro-gun demonstrators, is never secure unless individuals can shoot rulers (or their agents) who overstep whatever bounds are laid down by the people. The debate on the street was political, not personal; the threat felt came not from criminals or madmen, but from government. Some resented the anti-gun demonstrators sentimental display of cut-out angels symbolizing the victims of Newtown. "I DONT HAVE ENOUGH ANGELS TO REPRESENT GENOCIDE BY TYRANNY," read an opposing sign. Another demonstrator attempted to clarify the point: "Guns didn't kill six million Jews, but their government did. Gun control made the Holocaust possible." One tires of reminding such people that there's no hope of citizen militias ever fighting governments on anything close to equal terms. It finally occurred to me that if these people truly were concerned about the threat of government tyranny enforced through violence, they would study the original intentions of the Founders more closely. Arming the citizenry is not in itself an effective remedy for government's potential for tyranny. In order for an armed citizenry to check government excesses, government must be stripped of its main coercive tool, its standing army. How many of our tyrannophobes actually advocate that, however? How many want to take primary responsibility for defending our borders (or national interests abroad) from attack? I suspect that many are quite happy to have their country's army the mightiest on earth, with the power to destroy humanity if necessary rather than submit to global tyranny. There may well be gun-rights extremists who see the contradiction, but most, I suspect, can't imagine doing without the very army that makes their dreams of heroic resistance ridiculous.

Another sign sported a quote attributed (controversially, of course) to Benjamin Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." Franklin appears to have thought much in terms of wolves and sheep. In better-verified quotes, he said, "Will the Wolves then protect the Sheep, if they can but persuade them to give up their Dogs?" and "If you make yourself a Sheep, the Wolves will eat you." Not dissimilar sentiments, but indulging in such proverbial rhetoric creates a conceptual trap. Second Amendment absolutists like to think in terms of sheep and wolves, but they have no business dividing humanity into these categories if by doing so they imply that these categories are innate or immutable. The gun apologists' faith is that an armed lamb remains a lamb; their antagonists' fear is that arms themselves turn some lambs into wolves. The metaphors obscure the complexity of humanity, as do appeals for blind faith in either the "good guy with a gun" or the absolute efficacy of gun control laws. No effective or useful power can be separated from a potential for abuse. Fear of guns and fear of government are not so unlike as the two sides in the gun debate may like to believe. That doesn't mean they're "morally equivalent," but it does suggest that sympathetic common ground may yet be possible, though it would require more sympathetic trust than either side seems capable of now.

11 January 2013

Where are the surrender monkeys of yore?

France is bombing the African nation of Mali today, and that's okay with Mali's government. In fact, the socialist government of the Fifth Republic claims both UN sanction and African Union endorsement for its intervention on behalf of the government, a military junta less than one year old, against Islamist rebels on the march in the northern part of the country. Because the French are supporting the actual rulers of the country, we needn't expect Russia or China to complain about this foreign intervention in a sovereign state's affairs. But imagine if Bashar al-Assad asked for military aid from his foreign friends the way the Mali government reportedly has, and imagine if any country agreed to help him by bombing Syrian rebel positions. The difference in Mali, from what I can tell, is either that the rebels there lack the public-relations skills of their Syrian counterparts, or else since the current Mali government isn't hostile to a superpower or a superpower's client state, no one (apart from the rebels) has any special desire to see it fall. Instead, reverting to reason number one, the rebels can be portrayed just about universally as fanatic monsters. There probably are fanatic monsters among the rebels. But take a second to ask whether anyone would wage an armed rebellion just so they can chop the hands off thieves, or force modest dress upon women, or otherwise adopt the shari'a as interpreted by the local imams? Here's a readily-available source on the subject; read and figure it out for yourselves. In all likelihood a lot of otherwise inoffensive people are going to get stomped along with the Islamists while the world cheers. And because the U.S. isn't involved (as far as we know) fewer people will hesitate to make this a simple matter of good guys vs. bad guys, when civil wars are rarely that simple. If a case can be made against international intervention on behalf of rebels, the reason isn't that the government in power is always right. Even if you don't grant yourself a right to intervene, you might concede that rebels are in the right sometimes, and if it's OK to intervene on behalf of government and not on behalf of rebels that's hardly different from the "Holy Alliance" days of post-Napoleonic Europe -- not a heyday for democracy anywhere. None of this should be taken as a defense of the Mali rebels, but we can't let appearances stop us from thinking about the implications of France's actions and the world's apparent acquiescence in them.

10 January 2013

Thomas Frank vs. Neo-Lincolnism

Now all we need is Thomas Frank and Sean Wilentz in a steel cage. Frank's latest "Easy Chair" column for the February Harpers is an all-out attack on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, its source in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and the political philosophy the film especially appears to endorse. While Frank doesn't mention Sean Wilentz by name, the historian and Clinton cheerleader is the leading exponent of what I call neo-Lincolnism, and Frank's essay is an attack on nearly everything Wilentz stands for. Frank reveals himself here as what Wilentz would call a "mugwump" or others would call a "goo-goo." If you've never heard that term, it's short for "good government," in a disparagingly infantile way.  In short, Frank has not reconciled himself, as Wilentz insists we all must, to the deal making and "horse trading" necessary to get anything accomplished in a pluralist representative government. Spielberg's Lincoln famously demonstrates the idea by showing how Old Abe enticed antagonistic Democrats (remember, the latter were the racists of their day) into supporting the 13th Amendment and ending slavery by offering the targeted lame ducks lucrative government jobs, among other things. In my own summary, Lincoln's moral is "You don't have to change people's minds; you just need to change their votes." Frank sees Lincoln differently.

To repeat: Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers [e.g. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens] as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed.

Frank is particularly disgusted by the contrasts shown between idealists like Stevens, who "must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective," and lobbyists (embodied in the movie by James Spader's fixer), "a class of people the movies seems at pains to rehabilitate." Frank is well aware of the movie's perceived contemporary relevance, and probably hates it even more for that reason. He quotes screenwriter Tony Kushner saying that he saw "the Obama years through a Lincoln lens," through which he saw "enormous potential now for 'rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country,'" obstructed only -- so Frank infers -- by what Kushner calls "an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising ... the kind of horse trading that is necessary."

In Frank's view, Lincoln is an insidious film because it stacks the deck (by making "corruption" necessary to "the noblest possible cause" in favor of a style of politics linked now with nothing nearly so noble. He may as well have said that the film was a vindication of lobbying -- an activity distinct from activism and protest, both of which Frank approves unreservedly. Again, Wilentz goes unmentioned in the essay, but Frank seems to go out of his way to deny one of Wilentz's core premises: that activists accomplish nothing, i.e. get no bills passed, without the help of politicians and politicians' methods. Instead, on the particular issue of concern in Lincoln, Frank writes, "Abolition was nine parts grassroots outrage to one part Washington machination." Unfortunately, that's hard to quantify, and Wilentz could easily argue that the crucial measures are qualitative rather than quantitative -- that without the one part of machination we might still have slavery today. Frank could be put on the spot if challenged to show how Lincoln could have gotten the Amendment passed, given the balance of power in the House of Representatives, without the "horse trading" dramatized in the movie. He offers no alternative, unless we infer that Thaddeus Stevens should have been allowed to harangue the nation until everyone succumbed to his moral fervor. In general, The most Frank can argue is a point Wilentz has also challenged: that the politicians would never take up the great reform causes unless pressed by activists. Wilentz has demanded that some politicians, at least, get more respect for their sincere, unprompted commitment to reform, but Frank is having none of that.

"Maybe complaining about all this is yet another hang-up of the contemporary Thaddeus Stevens set, who can't see that tremendous victories await if they'd just lighten up about reform," Frank writes, "But maybe -- just maybe -- reform is itself [emphasis in original] the great progressive cause. Maybe fixing the system must come first." While the sort of reform Frank means was not at stake in the 13th Amendment debates, the urgent need he perceives for such reform now makes Spielberg's Lincoln a poor role model for the moment. Whether horse trading is an answer for today's troubles remains to be seen -- the answer depends on whether today's politicians are too fanatical to bargain and whether any of us actually can afford horses -- but Frank doesn't really offer any alternative in this essay. He's very cogent in his many writings on what's wrong with our economy and our culture, but when it comes to doing anything about it he writes here as if we should just keep occupying and chanting as some have done for nearly fifty years until something finally happens. I'm not a big fan of Sean Wilentz these days, but I can't help fearing that if the two writers ever did debate these subjects, Wilentz would tear Frank apart ... while Frank would claim a moral victory no matter what. His kind are always the moral winners; it's the next round that's always the problem.

09 January 2013

Tyrannophobia across the political spectrum

While hearing indirectly about the controversy stirred up by conspiracymonger Alex Jones's appearance on CNN I was catching up with some reading left over from last year. In one of the book review magazines I discovered Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule. These law professors co-wrote The Executive Unbound, a 2011 publication in defense of the expanded scope of executive power. The authors criticize what they call "liberal legalism" grounded in "liberal tyrannophobia" for failing to recognize the occasional necessity in modern times for decisive and energetic executive action. Certain circumstances, they argue, require the executive, when he is primarily responsible for national security, to disregard constitutional constraints. In modern times, they claim, the real check on executive power is not the legislative branch, or even the Supreme Court, but the electorate. "The real alternative to liberal legalism is not tyranny but a plebiscitary presidency , constrained by the shifting tides of mass opinion," they write.

Posner and Vermeule's theories of executive power are a subject for another time. For today, I'm interested in this notion of "liberal tyrannophobia." Do the authors mean by this term a fear of tyrants characteristic of 21st century American "liberals," or does their adjective refer to the classical "liberal" tradition from which much of modern American "conservatism" also derives?  Insofar as the authors are academics, I suspect the latter is the case, especially since they trace American tyrannophobia to the Founders and Framers. At the same time, distinctions can still be drawn between "liberal tyrannophobia" in the other sense -- the fears of 21st century ideological liberals -- and the tyrannophobia of conservatives, libertarians or whatever Alex Jones claims to be. The most obvious difference, at first glance, is that modern liberals are more likely to focus their fears of tyranny on the figure of the executive. As Republicans will readily (and not without justice) interject, many liberals, especially those who identify primarily as Democrats, are inconsistent in their suspicion of executive power. Nevertheless, it seems accurate to say that the characteristic liberal form of tyrannophobia is fear of a President ruling by decree, under the "state of exception" theorized by Carl Schmitt and apparently endorsed by Posner and Vermeule. By contrast, and despite the personal invective often hurled at certain politicians, tyrannophobia outside the zone conventionally defined as "Left" seems less personal in nature. Even among conspiracy theorists -- the difference is obvious by definition -- there's less fear of an Evil One than of complex systems which to them are tyrannical by virtue of their complexity and comprehensive scope. People like Jones may hate President Obama, but Jones hated President Bush too, and for him Presidents are probably no more than interchangeable parts for a machine which is itself evil. Another way of putting this is that while "liberals" may grow irrational in their fear of dictatorship in the form of powerful men, some freaking out whenever a dictator appears to emerge anywhere on Earth, other tyrannophobes simply have too low a threshold of alarm about tyranny, seeing it everywhere about them and not just on top, where liberals are watching.  The message of The Executive Unbound seems to be that both forms of tyrannophobia are irrational. Their definition of tyrannophobia as an irrational fear of tyranny implies that they do believe some vigilance against tyranny may be justified -- they claim that liberals see a threat in the presidency where one doesn't really exist -- but I'll have more reading to do before I can say when they'd consider some suspicion justified, or even how they might define tyranny. We can decide these things by ourselves, however, and given the challenges coming this century, the subject deserves more than the kneejerk responses we're accustomed to.

08 January 2013

China debates media freedom

Interesting news from the People's Republic: public protests against alleged government interference with a newspaper editorial. The interesting thing about it is that the media, and by extension the government, acknowledges the issue. Once upon a time, a "totalitarian" country would tell the world that its press was perfectly free, that everyone had absolute freedom of expression. It would not be as obnoxiously honest as a paper run directly by the state, which states (in translation): "[G]iven the current state of China's society and government, the kind of "free media" that these people yearn for in their hearts simply cannot exist. All of China's media can develop only to the extent China does, and media reform must remain part-and-parcel of China's overall reform." What this means, as far as I can tell, is that the Chinese government, i.e. the Communist party, still believes in intensive regulation of all aspects of the country's "development," including the media. The argument will be rejected by anyone who believes that the development of the media isn't government's business, or that the media has no obligatory role to play in other developments. Such people will have to agree to disagree with the Chinese government. Many feel that media has a special responsibility to speak truth to power and should be as little subject to that power as possible. But this formula appropriates for "the media" what's actually the responsibility of all citizens. In the process, media itself may become "power," but who speaks truth to media? I raise the question only to remind readers that there are always two extremes in any political debate. Government interference on such a petty level as in the current Chinese case is objectionable on principle. But any law anywhere to which media might be subject is theoretically susceptible to abuse. Is the answer absolute immunity for the media, including an end to libel law? In fact, as some Chinese have noted, media is regulated everywhere. As fewer Chinese may acknowledge, media regulation in their country seems excessive. But the mere fact that we're learning about this controversy to some extent from the Chinese media itself shows that regulation there isn't as excessive as it could be or once was. This shows, however proverbially uncomfortable they may be with the idea, that these are interesting times in China.

07 January 2013

The Mo Yan controversy and the moral responsibility of artists

The Chinese novelist Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize for Literature last fall. When I first heard the news, I suspected that the Nobel people were trying to make up for their infuriating award of the Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident the previous year. As far as I knew, however, there was no questioning Mo Yan's worthiness of the honor; the Literature prize has gone to many far more obscure writers. Lately, however, Salman Rushdie --a  sore loser, perhaps? -- has denounced Mo Yan as "a patsy for the [Chinese] regime" because he wouldn't sign a petition demanding the release of Liu Xiabo, the controversial Peace laureate. In effect, Rushdie implied that some moral cowardice disqualified Mo Yan from the global literary canon. Answering Rushdie, if not exactly in Mo Yan's defense, was Pankraj Mishra, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper, whom the pop historian Niall Ferguson recently threatened to sue for allegedly accusing Ferguson of racism. In his comments on the Mo Yan controversy, Mishra made clear that he did not exactly approve of Mo Yan's apparent complacency in the face of the Chinese government's excesses. He objected, however, to Rushdie's implication that this complacency made Mo Yan unworthy of recognition for his literary work. Mishra noted that few if any critics question the worthiness of American or European writers, even if they fail to criticize misdeeds by their own nations. Predictably, Rushdie rushed to accuse Mishra of "moral equivalence." Mishra, in his first of two pieces, had written that "violence and exploitation underpin all nation-states." Rushdie described this as a "satanic view of human society," as if Mishra had suggested that there were no moral distinctions to be drawn between tyrannies and free societies."[D]emocracies are not tyrannies," Rushdie wrote, "and responses to the two cannot be this simply equated." He then renewed his attack on Mo Yan, who had clumsily equated Chinese censorship with airport security measures. In doing so, Rushdie charged, the laureate "was making a moral equivalence between dissident literature and terrorism." Responding last Friday, Mishra reiterated his main point while escalating his reproach of Rushdie's own support for the invasion of Afghanistan. He underscored his own abhorrence of China, quoting an earlier piece in which he had written that future Chinese global hegemony might make the world feel nostalgic for American dominance. His main point remained, however, that none of this had to do with Mo Yan's merits as a writer, and to act as if it did while holding western writers to no similar standard is to hold a double standard.

Whether Rushdie will continue the exchange is unclear, but he could argue that he has already answered Mishra sufficiently. For him, it seems, there is a necessary double standard -- or else the single standard has nothing to do with what nations do and everything to do with what nations are. As a nation where political opposition is not tolerated , at least in forms Rushdie recognizes and respects, China is by definition a tyranny and by definition evil. When China imprisons dissidents -- or at least when Rushdie hears about it -- everyone, it seems, has a duty to denounce tyranny and demand the dissident's release. As far as I know, Rushdie could even argue that Mishra's point about double standards is irrelevant. I don't know if Rushdie has said plainly that Mo Yan should be stripped of the Nobel. If not, the only point up for debate is whether Mo Yan is a bad person. By Rushdie's standard the answer seems to be yes. However, I'm not sure whether this would entirely dismiss Mishra's criticism of Rushdie. Rushdie's implication is that the existence of tyranny imposes an obligation on everyone, or at least upon the suddenly famous, to denounce it. But is tyranny the only thing that could force such a moral obligation on everyone with influence? Mishra's point is that observers from another vantage, while still denouncing tyranny as such, might expect influential people to denounce other outrages against human decency, aggressive war (as Mishra, but not Rushdie, sees the invasion of Afghanistan) being an obvious example. It's important to remember, however, that while Mishra suggests that there's plenty for American or English writers to denounce in their own countries, he does not think that whether or not they take a stand determines their worth as artists. As a result, he argues from a more secure position, in effect saying that no one necessarily has to denounce anything, though it'd be nice if more people denounced more bad things, while those who insist that X must be denounced while recognizing no similar imperative to denounce Y or Z are in intellectual if not moral trouble. Mishra tellingly calls attention to a tendency among citizens of "democratic" countries to assume, not that their nations can do no wrong, but that the wrongs of democracies are never as bad as the wrongs of tyrannies -- as if the attitude of the perpetrators determines the quality of the offense. I may exaggerate the distinction between what nations do and what nations are -- you might well say that a tyranny is never simply an "is," but is a constantly perpetrated crime -- but what nations "are" does seem to cloud people's judgments. In Mo Yan, Salman Rushdie and Pankraj Mishra we have, apparently, three talented writers. Maybe one of them can work up that theme into a prizewinning book.

Mentalizing amoklaufers

One of the local papers picked up an op-ed from the Hartford Courant in which Harold I. Schwartz, a Hartford psychiatrist, proposes that "theories of mind" may help us profile the potential mass shooter like the culprits in Aurora CO and Newtown CT. He suggests that the mass shooter or amoklaufer may have difficulties "mentalizing" other people. Mentalization, Schwartz explains, is "the actual psychological process through which we experience others as having thoughts and feelings that are separate from our own." While warning that the notion remains purely speculative, he implies that some people's capacity to mentalize may be genetically limited, while others' ability to mentalize may be compromised by personal or family trauma or neglect, by social isolation, exposure to violent media, etc. Where the ability to mentalize isn't fully developed, a person becomes susceptible to solipsism, the feeling that "our own thoughts and feelings are the only things that are real," while " others are merely the cardboard props that support our needs [and] can be discarded at will." A stunted capacity to mentalize may determine who kills and who doesn't, Schwartz proposes:

For every paranoid, grievance-collecting loner who has spent an isolated youth lost on the Internet or in video games and who is capable of mass murder, there are thousands who could never pick up a gun. Perhaps it is the sense of connectedness born of the capacity to mentalize and empathize with others that distinguishes those who might shoot from those who could not.

Schwartz wisely phrases the idea with scientific caution. I would be still more cautious about embracing the idea. Then again, I'm something of a cynic. It's easy to infer from one person killing another that the killer has no regard for the victim's life, that he sees the victim as just an object unworthy of consideration. But Schwartz's hypothesis, as summarized in his op-ed, doesn't take into account the possibility that a failure to mentalize could have consequences short of killing. I'm willing to believe that many people display a failure to mentalize in their everyday economic dealings with others. There are many possible transactions and relationships in which people can fail to mentalize others, if by that we mean treating the others as objects whose humanity or subjectivity need not be respected, without killing them. Schwartz may err in thinking of the failure to mentalize solely as a factor in killing rather than as a factor in exploitation or other abusive relationships. Once we recognize that failure to mentalize could have a range of results short of killing, we fall back to the main question. Given the multitude of sociopaths or people otherwise handicapped or disinhibited from treating people as objects, why do some kill while others don't? My current hunch is that amoklaufers, in particular, aren't distinguished so much by some lack or handicap, as Schwartz suggests, as by some "positive" or "active" element like a sense of entitlement. It seems less likely to me that the amoklaufer sees others as less real than himself than that he sees himself as special, privileged, entitled to transgress conventional moral boundaries. History gives us many examples of people who deemed themselves above the law, from the antinomian extremists of the Reformation era who, believing themselves the predestined elect of an omniscient God, could do anything yet remain saved, to the Leninists of modern time who felt that historical necessity rendered "bourgeois morality" irrelevant to those guided by history's inexorable laws. On a more personal level, we may not need such pretentious theological or ideological constructs to justify our feeling of entitlement to kill.  In short, the mental problem -- apart from the ridiculous availability of firearms and other death-dealing weapons -- may not be that some of us fail to see the rest as selves but that some have too inflated or exalted a sense of self compared to the rest. If so, the real solution may be to get the potential amoklaufer, not to mention many other nonlethal egomaniacs and sociopaths, to get over themselves -- whatever that may mean to you. But in our defiantly individualistic American culture, whether left or right, what will that take?