28 February 2013

Sean Wilentz vs. Oliver Stone: Round Two

As expected, Oliver Stone and his collaborator on the Untold History of the United States miniseries, Peter Kuznick, have responded angrily to Sean Wilentz's scornful review in the New York Review of Books. In their response, published in the March 21 edition, Stone and Kuznick find Wilentz guilty of imperialism by association with Hilary Clinton. "Perhaps it is here, over the question of empire," they close, "that the battle between our interpretation and Wilentz's should be drawn." Wilentz's supposed imperialism supposedly explains his disdain for Henry Wallace, the hero of Untold History, and his dismissal of the miniseries's premise that the Cold War could have been prevented had Wallace remained Franklin Roosevelt's Vice-President after 1944 and succeeded him in 1945. For Stone and Kuznick, the question of empire and the question of Henry Wallace converge, insofar as Wallace or anyone with a different attitude may have changed history. Implicit in both Wilentz's original review and the filmmakers' defense -- I still haven't seen their show -- is an argument that American imperialism has at least a nearly equal share of blame for the Cold War and all its related hot wars as does the Soviet Union's geopolitical ambitions. They apparently reject the fundamental Cold War premise that Soviet Communism -- not just Stalin -- was "utterly evil," a judgment Wilentz applauds Henry Wallace for making eventually but the Untold team treats as if made under McCarthyist duress. Wilentz presumably sees a moral imperative in thwarting any expansion of Stalinism's utterly evil influence, while the Untold team may find Soviet evil and its geopolitical aggressiveness deliberately exaggerated by American imperialists. As I said the first time, the historiographic jury is still out on the question of the origins of the Cold War. As a Bolshevik, Stalin was bound to want as much of the world as possible to go Communist, but how far he was willing to go to influence events, and how much of actual aspirations toward Communism in postwar Europe can be traced to his influence, is still disputed. In retrospect, it's easy to say you wouldn't want one more person in the world to have lived under Stalin's sway, but such moralism has a price in blood and treasure that is itself subject to moral questioning.  Wilentz himself has raised the question in his own work -- he convincingly refutes Stone and Kuznick's attempt to portray him as an apologist for Ronald Reagan's Central American policy -- but the Cold War is such a defining event for the self-styled "anti-communist left" that the room for objective inquiry seems to shrink, especially when someone like Oliver Stone seems to suggest that the opponents of Stalin were bad guys to any extent.

In his rejoinder, Wilentz basically denies acting as an apologist for anyone or anything. He rejects the Untold team's assumption that "the hidden motive behind my criticism of their book and television show must be ipso facto to defend American imperialism." His argument remains that Stone and Kuznick are poor historians, shockingly so given the latter's academic credentials. In academic terms, he makes a strong attack. He quite nicely defends his own Age of Reagan from an attempted smear, and harshly highlights Untold's apparent dependence on a single newspaper editorial source, hostile to both Wallace and Harry Truman, for the claim that Wallace's independent candidacy in 1948 compelled a not merely reluctant but reactionary Truman to adopt more liberal domestic policies. But Wilentz himself seems to realize that such fine points of attack miss the main point. Stone and Kuznick no doubt see all such criticism as nitpicking or cherry-picking. Their defense is that everyone does it and that the truth will out. They boast of a bias in favor of the downtrodden and a commitment to "focusing a spotlight on what the United States has done wrong -- the ways in which we believe the country has betrayed its mission." They aren't out to tell "all of US history," and that makes Wilentz's protests meaningless except to the extent that his rejection of their premises about Cold War and empire prove him wicked. As described by Wilentz and themselves, theirs seems like an exercise in moral judgment, the exact facts perhaps being less important than the observation that the results were wrong. The Cold War was a bad thing; therefore there had to be an alternative -- and if there was a road not taken, there has to be a reason why it wasn't taken. Hence a conspiracy against Henry Wallace at the 1944 Democratic convention. As a historian by vocation, I can empathize with Wilentz's dismay at this approach, but I'd disagree with his choice of "cynical" as the word to describe what Stone and Kuznick are doing. Wilentz sees them as cynics because, from his perspective, they treat history as "little more than propaganda." For him, it's cynical to use history selectively for partisan or ideological ends. For them, that's what everyone does, and what matters is who's right and who's wrong. Wilentz seems to treat "cynical" as the opposite of "objective," but that's just another way the two sides talk past each other. True objectivity might split the difference, and seem truly cynical doing so, by determining that some things were wrong but necessary or unavoidable. Stone doesn't seem to want to concede the necessity, and Wilentz doesn't seem to want to concede the wrong, at least sometimes. I'm not sure I'd want either person to write the history of our time.

Jefferson's dangerous freedom

Another gun rally at the state capital this morning: burly bearded guys all over the park, snake flags flogged by the drizzling wind. Nothing new to see here, but persistence is the point, I guess. They want to remind Gov. Cuomo that they're here and not going away. They demand the repeal of the gun-control law recently passed here in New York; failing that, some want Cuomo impeached, presumably for violating the U.S. Constitution. The motto of the moment is molon labe, whether in the original Greek, transliterated or translated. "Come and take it," according to Plutarch, is what Leonidas of Sparta (and 300 fame) told the Persians when the invaders ordered his army to surrender their weapons. Whether Sparta is the best analogy for American gun-rights activists to adopt is a question for another time. On this particular morning, my eyes were drawn to a sign inscribed with a quotation from America's enigmatic oracle, Thomas Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello was here said to have said, "I prefer dangerous liberty to peaceful slavery."

This particular sign holder got it at least half right. According to monticello.org, the authority on Jeffersonian sayings, the lines on the signs were used but not coined by Thomas Jefferson. He was translating an apparently anonymous Latin proverb: malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium. Monticello cites a 1787 letter to friend James Madison in which Jefferson describes "dangerous liberty" as a condition of democracy itself. He specifically identified it with "governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one....The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has it's [sic]evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem." This is the same letter in which Jefferson wrote that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

Jefferson identifies liberty with a danger of "turbulence," which he then virtually identifies with rebellion. He may have discovered the Latin quote in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, where the words are put in the mouth of a Polish nobleman. Rousseau himself raises the stakes that come with liberty. "[T]here is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government," he wrote, "because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is." If anything, Rousseau more than Jefferson gives figurative ammo to the gun-rights movement, since he continues: "Under such a constitution above all, the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life, what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium."

What does an NRA sympathizer mean by "dangerous liberty?" The more extreme sympathizers may say that we have to be prepared to fight to defend that liberty, to rebel or wage civil war if necessary? It's also possible that sympathizers who aren't so extreme politically intend a more heartless message. Since the other side, presumably, is the one that wants "peace" above all -- understood by both sides in this context to mean freedom from anxiety over random gun violence -- might the sign's message to the other side be that you have no right to expect it?  That you have no right to expect that you'll never be caught in a crossfire, because the price of such a guarantee would be too high -- to somebody?  How you interpret it and how you respond really depends on how you define freedom, or how high a priority it is to you. Many on the left would probably equate freedom with peace or at least question whether freedom without peace is truly freedom for most people. Peace itself may depend too much on self-denial or some sort of submission for many people to be comfortable making it the highest goal. But peace itself need not be seen as a kind of slavery any more than actual slavery should be presumed peaceful somehow. Politics ought to be the art of reconciling freedom with peace. Those who think that impossible probably have no faith in politics and no more trust in people, individually or collectively. Some of them, at least, have made it clear that they trust guns more. That's dangerous liberty, all right.

27 February 2013

The Voting Rights Act and temporary constitutionality

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The petitioner seeks the discontinuation of the "preclearance" rule enacted in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The section in question requires certain states, counties, and districts with particularly bad histories of racial discrimination as of 1965 to get preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to local voting laws. While this creates some understandably obnoxious nuisances when the changes are minor, the object is to allow the federal government to consider whether certain changes might have a discriminatory impact on voter turnout. Congress claimed the power to do this under the Fifteenth Amendment, but Section 5 was a temporary measure subject to renewal by Congress itself. It has survived constitutional scrutiny since then, but the Court is now asked, in effect, to declare that the section is no longer constitutional because it is no longer needed.  The petitioners further protest that Section 5 has become unjustifiably discriminatory. Under normal circumstances -- the extraordinary circumstances originally justifying the Act being generally conceded -- no states, counties, etc. should be treated differently from others by the federal government based on past conduct, in the petitioners' opinion. At issue now is whether it's the Supreme Court's place to tell Congress to stop renewing Section 5. Excuse a layman's confusion, but the essential question seems to be whether a measure acknowledged as constitutional can become unconstitutional without an amendment to the Constitution, due to changing circumstances. It would seem that, to strike down Section 5, the Court would have to argue that its discriminatory aspect has always been unconstitutional. Attorneys for the Justice Department (i.e. Holder), along with the "liberal" Justices, argue that the Court would trample on Congressional authority by striking Section 5 down merely on the ground that it's no longer necessary. Justice Kagan sarcastically commented that the petitioners sought to give the Court a "big new power." Justice Scalia, however, seems to believe that the governments subject to Section 5 are owed a remedy when Congress seems unwilling or incapable of acknowledging reforms that appear to justify an end to those governments' probationary status. During the oral argument, Scalia described Section 5 as a "racial entitlement" that legislators could not end without grave political risk and many simply would not for any reason. But my impression was that the high court doesn't question motives when deciding whether people or politicians have particular rights of action. Don't some people believe that we can't question individuals' right to keep and bear arms on the suspicion that some people want them for murderous or seditious purposes?  By analogy, the "conservative" Justices can't act merely on a perception of unfairness, but only if Section 5 exceeds the mandate claimed under the Fifteenth Amendment.

It might not be a bad thing, however, if the Court struck down Section 5. If you believe in a national standard for election law, you might agree that Section 5 is unfairly discriminatory on the assumption that every state and every jurisdiction in the country should be subject to the same scrutiny. The petitioners and their sympathizers will gladly point out cases of apparently discriminatory voting laws in states unaffected by Section 5. If you believe that any law requiring voters to present photo I.D. will have a discriminatory impact on voter turnout, you might ask why only the areas covered by Section 5 are presumably exempt from such schemes. The demise of Section 5 might spark a national movement for a national election law, but some people will prefer the status quo of Section 5 because they lack confidence in the electorate. But if Section 5 isn't obsolete already, as the petitioners and their Republican friends claim, it ought to be eventually. The challenge is how to ensure that its obsolescence would actually benefit Americans.

Amoklauf in Switzerland: 27 February 2013

Occasionally the world gives us sad reminders that mass shootings at workplaces, among other locations, are not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Switzerland has seen its second mass shooting this year, two victims dying this time along with the shooter while seven others were injured. This was a workplace shooting, possibly motivated by expected layoffs -- a reminder that work issues were once the stereotypical cause for someone "going postal." According to this British account, the apparent shooter experienced some mental or psychological deterioration recently that may be the proximate cause of today's violence. Switzerland would seem to be an NRA utopia. It depends upon militias rather than a standing army for its defense, though thanks to its famous neutrality it has no great need for national defense. Voters recently rejected greater gun control in a national referendum, and militia members keep their weapons at home. The country's worst mass shooting took place in 2001, when a nut opened fire on his local [canton] legislature and killed 14 people. In general, widespread gun ownership in Switzerland creates a greater risk of suicide than mass shootings, but two a year (the other killed three people in January) may be too many for some Swiss. Opposition to gun control fears for the future of the country's militia tradition, but it's unclear whether new regulations would compel the country to adopt a standing army. For an outsider, it's more unclear whether the Swiss see their militia as a bulwark against domestic tyranny, or if any defend it with the same paranoid vehemence familiar to Americans. The repercussions of this latest amoklauf should be interesting to see and may be instructive to the rest of us.

26 February 2013

If Wayne LaPierre isn't a gun nut, what is he?

The current New Republic has a small item on NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre that opens with a jolting quote from a former NRA president. Warren Cassidy told reporter Julia Joffe that LaPierre had no "gun interest" that he knew of, while a former media-relations person with the Association said that he'd "run like hell" if LaPierre had ever joined his buddies on a hunting trip. The implication is that LaPierre is not particularly interested in shooting guns. Instead, he is a lobbyist by vocation, entering the business directly from college, where he'd been a political-science major. According to Joffe, LaPierre reflects the viewpoint that has prevailed within the NRA since the so-called "Revolt in Cincinnati" of 1977, when a clique of what she calls "young radicals" took over the venerable sportsmen's group. A Washington Post piece from last month elaborates on this youthful radicalism. Taking the radicals' leader, Neal Knox, as representative, the Post reporters see them as essentially paranoid, driven above all by a fear of gun confiscation as the prelude to tyranny in America. Since the 1960s, the NRA had defended the interests of gun manufacturers and dealers from post-assassination calls for tighter regulations of gun sales. The radicals transformed the Association into a "populist" movement of gun owners, but if gunplay was never a big thing for LaPierre, as his erstwhile colleagues now claim was the case, at least at the start of his NRA career, what was in it for him, apart from the money? He may not have been very worried about the government taking his weapons away, but we can infer a concern for others' weapons founded on a core distrust of the state. He's the man, after all, who made "jackbooted thugs" a catchphrase back in the Nineties. While that attitude may have been shared by many NRA members before 1977 -- and one NRA supporter responding to the post article complains that gun-control activists had started stereotyping members as far-right fanatics back in the Sixties -- it doesn't seem to have been an institutional bias until the Cincinnati revolt made it a safe haven for an ideologue like LaPierre. Ideology has driven an often-ignored wedge between the NRA as a lobby and gun owners as a group, with half of the latter, according to a poll cited by Joffe, claiming that the Association doesn't represent their views, though most still regard it favorably -- presumably in the abstract. That same poll says that 22% of respondents who don't own guns nevertheless feel that the NRA represents their views, so LaPierre, if described accurately in Joffe's article, isn't alone in caring less about having guns himself than in guns' presumed value as a deterrent to criminals or the government. Whatever the truth about LaPierre, those 22% may fairly be described as cowards so long as they expect the NRA, figuratively or literally, to fight their battles for them. Fear of government certainly isn't the only complicating factor in the gun-control debate, but it even more certainly makes any reasonable solution more difficult to enact. If that's what LaPierre stands for above all, his work at the NRA has been a disservice to responsible gun owners in particular and the country in general.

25 February 2013

Gun rights and phony constitutionalism

When the Albany Times Union highlighted an excerpt from Lloyd Constantine's op-ed piece for last Sunday's edition, it made Constantine sound more pro-gun than he actually is. The quote read, "There is a respectable argument that Americans have the right to protect themselves with firearms without reference to a phony interpretation of the Constitution." Most of Constantine's article addressed the "phony" interpretation, which happens to be that of Justice Scalia and the majority in Heller v. District of Columbia, the case that identified an individual right to gun ownership in the Second Amendment . In Constantine's opinion, Heller belies Scalia's pretensions of strict constructionism. He relies on Robert Bork, whom he deems a real strict constructionist, for the opinion that the Second Amendment was not intended by its framers to confer a "private" right to keep and bear arms. Constantine himself follows the popular reading of the amendment, according to which the militia cause sets the conditions under which gun rights may not be infringed. That is, he interprets the amendment to protect people's right to form militias, not to keep their own arsenals unconditionally. Scalia's Heller opinion described the militia clause as a "preamble" that did not set conditions for the right to keep and bear arms. Constantine isn't the first lawyer to declare himself unimpressed by Scalia's reading. There's more to Scalia's opinion than that dismissive exegesis, of course. He made a practical argument about militia formation, noting that individual members would most likely be expected to provide their own weapons and to already own them. More significantly, and more dubiously, he propounded a natural-law interpretation of the Second Amendment that allows him to read an assumed original intent into the amendment's language. Scalia says that the amendment "codified venerable, widely understood liberties," but that's a matter of inference, whereas a positive-law reading permits no such inference, taking a more literal if not "fundamentalist" approach to the language of the amendment. We may think of so-called originalists as constitutional fundamentalists, but the distinction drawn here should make us think again. Jurists like Scalia are more like constitutional gnostics, since they claim special knowledge (via ideology) of what the text really means. Thus, in Constantine's account, Scalia and the Heller majority can topple generations of precedent for essentially ideological reasons. Constantine sees Heller as a moral equivalent of Plessy v. Ferguson and looks forward to the gun-law equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education to overturn it -- though Scalia's fans and the NRA may see Heller itself as the Brown of gun law.

Constantine may be working toward the Roe v. Wade of gun law. What did he mean, after all, when he mentioned "a respectable argument" for an individual right to bear arms? "This asserted right is similar to many personal freedoms that are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution," he writes, "Our right of privacy comes to mind." Constantine won't get very far with Republicans with that argument, since they've always been skeptical about the right of privacy, at least with regard to reproductive rights, since the Warren Court more or less discovered it in the 1960s. At first glance there seems little to choose from between Constantine and Scalia, since the privacy right itself, while more acceptable in practice to liberals, is hardly less a matter of inference than Scalia's natural-law interpretation of the Second Amendment. But since liberals have affirmed a right to privacy since the Sixties, it would be interesting to see them explain how that right covers forms of birth control but not self-defense. Meanwhile, Constantine's privacy-rights approach may at least be more amenable to regulation than the (already not absolutist) stance vindicated by Heller. "There has always been a rough consensus in America that certain firearms are appropriate for certain purposes in specific settings," he writes, "Laws enacted by elected legislatures at every level of government have reflected that consensus while adapting to new technologies like rapid fire rifles with 30-bullet clips — not your great-great-grandmothers' muskets, are they?" If Constantine can formulate an approach that balances an understandable anxiety over the police's inability to be everywhere at once with an understandable anxiety over some people's assumed right to defend themselves against the entire human race -- more power to him.

22 February 2013

Labor Pains and Party Poopers

The latest Nation magazine forum asks its participants, "How Can Labor Be Saved?" It's a sadly familiar question with sadly familiar answers. There seems to be a common recognition that labor needs to merge itself with a larger movement of the unorganized working class and the poor in general, but somehow the most obvious idea keeps getting missed. Karen GJ Lewis notes that "The Democratic Party has taken us for granted for too long," and argues that "It is time for some self-reliance. Identify, train and support union members as candidates for elected public office," but that's as daring as anyone gets here. Larry Cohen's contribution is headlined, "Build a Democracy Movement," but Cohen seems to confuse the thing to be built with the Democratic party that exists today. While insisting that labor should "build political organizations at the state and federal levels that link economic justice to democracy," he adds that "We need a caucus inside the Democratic party that exposes the role of big money and holds elected officials accountable to our issues, including launching primary challenges at every level." That's a very familiar answer; we've been hearing it for close to a century now, and the frequency with which this need is reiterated should show the futility of trying to fulfill it the old way. Is it impossible to imagine an actual labor party in the United States? If so, perhaps the Republicans should rewrite their old script about Democrats kowtowing to "Big Labor," since reality actually seems to work the other way around. Unions, meanwhile, should ask whether their continued alliance with or complacency toward the Democratic party lives up to the imperative articulated most forcefully by New York Taxi Workers Alliance founder Bhairavi Desai.

Unless we become a movement with a membership that recognizes its historic responsibilities -- rather than just a set of institutions answerable only to our own members -- we will lie under capital's feet. Labor must embrace its role as the movement of the oppressed, animated by progressive ideals and an unapologetic militancy....Traditional labor has to move away from a National Labor Relations Board-dependent (and -deadlined) organizing approach, which is dismissive of the real potential of workers to build power. Laws are necessary to keep the other side in check, and so we need to fight for better ones. But we don't have to wait for the law to tell us whether we have a right to organize, or to define who we as unions and union members are. Workers alone do that.

Until Desai recognizes the necessity of a political organization by, of and for the workers -- with whom other interests can ally -- she too will remain dismissive of the real potential of workers to build power. If laws are necessary to keep the other side in check -- that is, if there is to be a rule of law in the workplace that respects workers as well as property, contrary to "capital's" apparent preference -- workers need to not just fight for but make those laws. Desai seems to recognize this in her implication that workers can define their own rights, but as far as I can tell she'd still leave the law-making to the self-styled experts, as if the Democratic party were the skilled legislators' union. It may still seem unrealistic to imagine a labor party supplanting the Democrats, but a persistent failure of imagination within the labor movement would only prove that you can be realistic without really being serious about your situation and your options. To be serious in this case might mean acknowledging that the odds are and will remain against you -- that your only real chance is a small one -- yet you must act. It all depends on what you think your historic responsibilities are.

21 February 2013

Violent entertainment: if it's the disease, what's the cure?

Thomas Frank has a problem with Hollywood. The Baffler founder and current monthly Harper's provocateur followed up his attack on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the corrupt politics it allegedly praises with a more sweeping attack on the movie capital's contribution to America's "massacre culture." It was something of a sneak attack, since Frank opened with a more predictable rant against NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre, only to note that "I also think [he] got something right" when he denounced "media conglomerates [that] shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes." Frank was quick to add that LaPierre was a hypocrite, though he was so, as far as Frank was concerned, because, as Frank sees it, Hollywood sadism "follows the line of none other than the National Rifle Association." The columnist goes on to blast Quentin Tarantino for denying any causal relationship between violent media and violent acts and applaud wire-service movie reviewer Mick LaSalle for urging his colleagues to speak out against cruelty and nihilism and cinema. You can't read Frank's piece in full online, but Salon columnist Andrew O'Hehir has started a rather angry debate over the merits and implications of Frank's opinion, focusing on the supposed moral responsibility of reviewers.

Frank writes, "To insist on a full, pristine separation of the dramatic imagination from the way humans actually behave is to fly in the face of nearly everything we know about cultural history." He admits that "I carry around in my head a collection of sights and sounds that I will never be able to erase, no matter what I think about Hollywood. To this day, those bits of dialogue and those filmed images affect the way I do everything from answering the phone to pruning my roses." He doesn't claim ever to have acquired an urge to kill from movies, of course, but he implicitly takes a consistent zero-tolerance stand in favor of what civil libertarians and reactionaries would characterize as punishing the innocent majority for the acts of the guilty few. For all that Frank hates the NRA, he appears to have given up on seeing "effective gun control" enacted, while seeing Hollywood as a more vulnerable point of attack on "massacre culture." He does summon critics to the front line, encouraging them to follow LaSalle's resolution to combat "nonstop cruelty and destruction" in print, on TV and online. Almost charmingly, he thinks, or at least hopes, that such a concerted rhetorical assault might make a difference.

Something annoys me about Frank's line of argument, but I'm slightly uncomfortable with my own annoyance. As I've mentioned elsewhere, people have been denouncing violent cinema, or movies that allegedly glamorize crime, just about since cinema began. As one person commenting on Salon notes, the demoralizing effects of the arts in general have been debated for more than 2,000 years, dating back at least to Plato's argument for the suppression of poetry portraying the gods in an irresponsible manner. No matter how far you go back, you can almost certainly argue that there was violence in life before there was violence in art. But as other Salon posters note, the fact that the argument has gone on so long doesn't make it pointless. You can't say absolutely that violent art has done nothing to make real violence worse or the real world more violent. But what if it does contribute, however slightly? If I say the media hasn't made me more violent, and claim it never will, am I any better than the gun-rights zealot who demands from everyone else an unquestioning faith that he'll never become a murderer?  While one important distinction should be made right away -- guns themselves kill, the famous bumper-sticker disclaimer notwithstanding, in a way movies can't -- are free-expression absolutists similarly irresponsible in ending the discussion about art's (or the mass media's) responsibility with affirmations of their personal innocence?

The part that really annoys me about Frank's column is one I really read into it. While the columnist himself calls only for a form of moral suasion from critics, no one can debate the potential violent influence of media without raising the specter of censorship. That subject gets a lot of us defensive in a sometimes irrational way. What gets me defensive is more a matter of my inference than Frank's implication. I feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that, by denying me my occasional screenings of  (for me) harmlessly violent movies, Frank would compel me to watch other kinds of movies by limiting my choices. I'm probably not the only reader who impulsively asks whether Frank wants all movies to be about hand-holding, hugging, kumbaya, etc. If so, I hope I'm not the only one who instantly questioned that impulsive response. Thinking back to my favorite movies of 2012, I find such films as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, in which (arguably) the most violence is inflicted on the furnishings of a jail cell, and the essentially unviolent Moonrise Kingdom from Wes Anderson. I might also mention Michael Haneke's Amour, for while its climactic murder might strike some viewers as something the director insidiously advocates, its degree of violence, as opposed to its degree of emotional distress, is far below the Hollywood standard. With such films in theaters, do I need Django Unchained or Zero Dark Thirty or The Dark Knight Rises? I might want them, but would I need them -- do we need any kind of movie in a way that justifies our threatened feelings when someone suggests that certain kinds of movies shouldn't exist? That "lure of the forbidden" thing that keeps the Garden of Eden story resonant without religious feeling is probably in play here, as may be an all-American yearning for the maximum freedom of choice and resentment of limits. Ironically enough, our liberal tradition has something to do with it, too, since it inspires us to value means (choice) over ends (the good). For many reasons, that aspect of the liberal tradition may be a luxury we can't entirely afford anymore. But I can't help still seeing Frank's campaign against Hollywood as a matter of spite, a taking out on the movie business of his frustration at the left's failure to conquer American gun-culture. On the list of things that have to change in this country, it's hard to rank Hollywood very highly. But this is a free country, so it's Thomas Frank's prerogative to pick a fight against freedom of expression wherever he pleases.

20 February 2013

Opponents of fracking have blood on their hands?

Not only are the people who oppose hydrofracking partly to blame for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq, argues Bill Van Slyke in an Albany Times Union op-ed piece, but they're cowards as well. In what may be a new rhetorical low in the debate over the risks and benefits of fracking, Van Slyke accuses the anti-fracking camp of being not just risk-averse, but indifferent to the risks they impose on others through their resistance to fracking.

"Any extraction of fossil fuel is going to involve some environmental impact and risk," Van Slyke admits, "But while there may indeed be some risks involved in fracking for natural gas in New York, to honestly assess these risks, we must weigh them against the risks of continuing our dependence on imported oil." The risk that comes with dependence on oil includes the danger of further war as well as environmental impacts of its own. As far as Van Slyke is concerned, there's no third option between fracking and war.

Sure, I want energy to power my home, office and car that is generated without risk of war or pollution. Who doesn't? But we're not there yet. Not even close. There are not, and for the foreseeable future there will not be, nearly enough wind turbines, solar panels and other non-petroleum alternatives to meet current or forecasted energy demand. So as we transition to renewable and cleaner technologies — a process that will take decades — let's not be so foolish as to ignore the value of comparatively safer resources and strategies like domestic fracking.

People who refuse to accept fracking as an option during that transition are guilty, in Van Slyke's eyes, of the common sin of "making the perfect the enemy of the good." Or, like the driver who has anti-war and anti-fracking bumper stickers on his car, they want it "both ways." Van Slyke's unspoken premise is that you can't have it both ways unless you're willing to make lifestyle sacrifices until "non-petroleum alternatives" can meet energy demands. He most likely suspects that most people are no more willing to make such sacrifices than they are to take risks. It's more likely still that he's unwilling to make such sacrifices -- and to be fair, it may well be that the 21st century economy can't operate at all on existing non-petroleum alternatives. In that case, Van Slyke would make his case more credible if he proposed fracking as a limited-time option concurrent with a high-priority conversion to non-petroleum alternatives. Since you can infer that he has done that, let's say his case would be more credible if the people who actually plan to do the fracking made such a proposal. 

Meanwhile, Van Slyke smears all opponents of fracking by attributing to them the ultimate NIMBY argument. As he sees it, they'd rather see American soldiers die than take the slightest risk of polluting their own communities. In his own words, "Banning fracking carries the greatest risk for the young Americans deployed to protect our oil interests abroad. Allowing fracking, on the other hand, carries actual risk for you and me. And that's when we get to the root question of our energy dilemma: how many more young soldiers are we willing to sacrifice to avoid our share of the risk?"
If dependence on oil imposes risks on American lives, and no pollution-free alternative to oil is currently feasible, Van Slyke deduces a duty to accept the risk of pollution in order to reduce the risk of war. What he really means is that we must accept risk of some sort to keep the industrial economy going, and that the risk of pollution is more acceptable than the risk of war. That may be, but in the military the risks are taken by volunteers. Perhaps it should be likewise with pollution. Some people may already accept the risk by advocating fracking in their own communities. Maybe the rest of the pro-fracking people should join them in the risk zone after a simple exchange of property with the more risk-averse elements. Van Slyke may think he has a winning argument for fracking -- he doesn't even bother with the usual "we need jobs" argument -- but his deadly analogy fails if he intends to draft any Americans into taking the risk.

19 February 2013

Is Republicanism a white ideology?

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley. He may be naturally inclined to make large claims for Buckley and his magazine, National Review. In the current New Republic, Tanenhaus echoes the warning heard with increasing frequency that Republicans are likely to find themselves ethnically marginalized in the future, unable to appeal to nonwhite voters. Seeking a reason for this, Tanenhaus picks up an obscure intellectual trail leading from National Review to the 19th century slaveholding ideologue of minority rights, John C. Calhoun. To an extent this is a familiar story told from an unusual angle, an attempt to define the intellectual origins of the GOP's ultimately successful "Southern strategy" of the 1960s. Tanenhaus notes that Republicans supported civil rights as late as the Eisenhower administration, but began to change its tune with the advent of Barry Goldwater, aided by Buckley and National Review. These elements added a strident libertarian note to traditional Republican conservatism, particularly a fresh hostility to centralized government that led self-styled champions of liberty, in their resistance to federal civil-rights legislation, to rank state rights above individual rights. Here Tanenhaus sees Calhoun's influence. Calhoun argued that each state retained inviolate sovereignty over social relations within its own borders, and that the rights of individuals within states, except where enumerated in the Bill of Rights, were none of the federal government's business. That is, Calhoun denied federal right or authority to mandate racial or gender equality throughout the Union. Perhaps more influentially, Calhoun challenged the sovereignty of "numerical majorities" on the national level, fearing that their tendency toward absolute power inevitably trampled on the rights of sovereign communities or economic interests. He believed that the country would be best governed by "concurrent majorities" in which each recognized interest was equally represented and retained a right to veto government action. If Calhoun retains much influence today, however, it's an influence the man himself might have repudiated. He never reconciled himself to party government, believing political parties the forces most likely to use numerical majorities to tyrannize the states or other core interests. Yet 21st century Republicanism seems to be tending toward seeing parties themselves, or the ideologies parties seem to represent, as rightful members of an ideally concurrent majority. At least it seems as if they believe that the rights of "conservatives," for instance, are violated in some unacceptable way when conservatives are shut out of political power. They may also believe that democracy itself, at least as expressed in votes for the Democratic party, inevitably violates individual (economic) and group (cultural) rights unless adequately checked. But what is "white" about this, apart from its historical parentage? Why does the anti-statist, pro-local, individualist stance of 21st century Republicans seem to be a nonstarter with most nonwhite (and many nonmale) voters?

Tanenhaus joins many other observers in assuming that Republicans envision the "takers" or the "47%" as darker people than themselves. You can't hear Mitt Romney say that, of course, but Tanenhaus blames both Romney and his running mate, Rep. Ryan, for expressing patronizing attitudes during their rare appearances before black audiences. He finds it patronizing, for instance, for Romney to tell back students to form two-parent families when they grow up, or for Ryan to recommend "good discipline and good character" to another black crowd. This might be enough evidence to show that Tanenhaus may be half right. Republicans like Romney and Ryan may have an irrepressible contempt for groups they perceive as constituents and clients of the enemy party, but I've always been reluctant to accept that Republicans feel that way only about "minorities." White people still form 72% of the American population as of 2010, and thus must form a good portion of Romney's despised 47%. I understand, however, that Tanenhaus and others are trying to account for the demographic concentration of Republican voters in the white South. Voters are inevitably less intellectual than politicians and propagandists, and bigotry is probably a bigger motivator of Republican votes than Republican leaders care or dare to admit. But that's only half the equation. Republicans boast of being a party of ideas and values. Those ideas and values may be tainted by association with racism, but are they themselves inherently bigoted. Do blacks or Hispanics have some cultural antipathy toward the ideas of limited government or laissez-faire capitalism? Or is the perpetuation of class hierarchies that are also often racial in nature the original motivation for those ideologies? Tanenhaus's brief account seems to make bigotry the driving force, but Joseph Crespino's recent biography of Strom Thurmond (mentioned only in passing by Tanenhaus) argues a subtler point about class rather than race. Crespino writes that Republicans began to grow sympathetic toward a South long seen as impenetrably Democratic when they discovered, not necessarily a common hatred for blacks, but a shared antipathy toward federal interference with business, and specifically with hiring practices. The South appealed to increasingly reactionary Republicans not so much because it was racially segregated but because it was the region most resistant to organized labor. Republican contempt for the working class persists today, the party's avowed desire to accelerate job creation notwithstanding, and that alone could explain increasing antipathy toward the GOP everywhere but in the South. Maybe they don't believe in solidarity or equality down there, but that might be more a "South" problem than a "white" problem. It's a Republican problem either way, and the GOP's challenge is to reach back beyond the South without alienating the South, or to take the same risk of losing the region (to whom?) Lyndon Johnson took when he came out for civil rights. We can't test whether racial minorities will ever embrace conservatism until more conservatives are willing to take that risk in whatever form.

18 February 2013

Hispanic visions of community.

For some Republicans, Senator Rubio of Florida is the great brown hope: a Hispanic who articulates "traditional" American values, i.e. the Republican party ideology of the 1960s to the present day. For some Hispanics, Rubio is a sellout: a powerful Hispanic politician who sides with the Republican party ideology of the 1960s to the present day.  Paul Ortiz, a professor from Rubio's own state, recently wrote a rebuttal to Rubio's rebuttal of President Obama's annual message to Congress. Ortiz caricatures Rubio's position somewhat, noting that the Senator "acknowledged that his own family had benefited from government programs" while "attacking the premise that government can help individuals and families address problems of economic inequality." In fact, Rubio said that government "plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life." What he attacked was the ideological straw man Republicans use as an effigy for liberalism: the notion that liberals, or Democrats, believe that government has the solution of first and best support for every problem. Thus he caricatured the President's position as a belief that "our problems were caused by a government that was too small." Caricature is the art of partisanship, so it shouldn't surprise us even if it still offends us. But is Ortiz guilty of caricature when he writes that "Rubio avoided even a mention of community in his address" and accuses the Senator of not actually believing in community? This is a crucial question for Ortiz, since he asserts that Hispanics prefer Obama because the President invokes "the idea of community or communities" so often.

What does community mean to Ortiz? He writes: "In Hispanic cultures, the idea of community and mutual aid is held in high regard." You'll find no explicit rejection of the idea of mutual aid in Rubio's speech. Instead, addressing the President, Rubio noted that he lived "in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in," and said, "I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors, hard-working middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class. [emphasis added]." We may not want to make too much of this, since it would be blatantly impolitic had Rubio said that "I want to protect myself" and left it at that. There's clearly some space between the implicit community that includes Rubio and his neighbors and the community Ortiz writes about. The most obvious difference is an implicit one. For Ortiz, we can infer, government is part of the community, while Rubio sees some essential distance between the two entities. The Senator might well praise the idea of "mutual aid," but he'd probably see dependence upon government programs as a contradiction of the principle. Haunted by the specter of the Cuba his parents fled, he most likely idealizes a form of "civil society" that must retain some independence from the state if society is to be civil. As a Republican, Rubio may see a threat to "community" or civil society from the state where Ortiz doesn't. We shouldn't belittle anyone's concern for civil society just because they're Republicans; civil society is the embodiment of a freedom of association that tyrants despise and the rest of us ought to take for granted. The problem with Republicans is their reluctance to acknowledge that politics is the same freedom of association in another form and just as essential to community. They live in a utopia -- a nowhere, that is -- where we're all free to associate yet can't be trusted to make rules of association beyond a bare minimum, because that'd ruin it somehow. It might be fair to ask someone like Ortiz if he envisions a point where government ceases to be synonymous with community and becomes a threat or hindrance to it, but it's just as fair to ask whether Rubio has picked a point and drawn a line far too early. The fairest question is whether there really is a "Hispanic idea" of community. We should ask that one before we judge whether Ortiz or Rubio comes closer to it.

Gun control: profiling for white people?

Read a letter in a local paper today: the writer complains that editorial cartoons stereotype NRA members as "fat, sloppy, loud-mouthed Archie Bunker types" when the reality seen at anti-gun control demonstrations is more diverse, more normal. He finds the cartoon image "sad and insulting and only contributing to a false image." Further up front the paper ran a story about the NAACP demanding an end to New York City's "stop and frisk" program, widely seen as another form or racial profiling. The coincidence of the article and the letter gave me an insight about the objections to gun control. Opponents really resent what they see as a presumption of their guilt; for them, it seems, being subjected to firearms regulations is psychologically equivalent to black people (or any demographic group) getting profiled. It may be the closest many white people come to the experience and humiliation of being profiled. As always, individuals expect a presumption of innocence and see their subjection to profiling (or regulation) as a still more insulting denial of their individual innocence, if not their very individuality.

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, please note that any moral equation of profiling and gun control is a matter of subjective perception. While a stereotype of the gun owner or gun apologist may prevail (and if it looks like Archie Bunker, that's because the "gun nut" is presumed to be a reactionary), what's really being "profiled" through gun control is the weapon, not the person. No one can complain of being accused of "carrying while ---" the way some are supposedly accused of "driving while black." Carrying itself is the cause of suspicion, which is what the NRA objects to. But you have to wonder whether their presumption of gun owners' innocence is truly universal. I'm not sure whether they'd recognize the resemblance of their feelings to those of people subject to profiling, but whether they do or not, the resemblance does make me wonder what the gun people think of profiling, whether of blacks, Muslims, or whomever. If they don't object to any of that, can they object when they seem to be profiled, albeit in a manner not so immediately insulting? There are probably libertarians in that throng who would take a consistent stand against any form of profiling, but many more may well perform profiling themselves when they imagine themselves defending theirs against hordes of marauders. Is that a stereotype? If so, then if it makes them feel any better, at least I don't think they're fat.

14 February 2013

Inside the mind of a gun nut

The opposition to gun control is divided, though not impermeably, into two main camps: those who believe in their absolute right to use lethal force against crime in the presumed absence of police, and those who affirm a constitutional entitlement to resist illegitimate measures by government. David Welch of Scotia, whose letter to the Albany Times Union was published today, is of the latter group. He tries to answer a widely-held skepticism toward the prospect of small-arms warriors successfully defying the armed forces of a modern state. Welch claims historical precedents that should be familiar to Americans.

I direct them to the Vietnam War. A nation of people armed mostly with AK-47s managed to fight us to a military standstill. Consider Iraq as well. Only a few thousand terrorists, armed with little more than assault rifles and jury-rigged bombs, gave the most powerful military in the world the runaround for five years. 

Assuming that Welch is a right-wing reactionary, as he'll prove shortly, isn't he going off message here? My assumption was that right-wing reactionaries believed that North Vietnam prevailed only because the Johnson and Nixon administrations lacked the political will to bring all the force available to a superpower to bear against the enemy -- and I'd imagine they feel the same way about Iraq and Afghanistan. But Welch's unspoken premise may be that, once the military arm of a presumably liberal Democratic tyranny meets armed resistance of any kind, a similar failure of will or nerve will happen, especially when Welch envisions "what 80 million American gun owners would be capable of doing should some politician decide the people's rights are optional."

Should the worst happens, Welch expects the Democratic party to start it. That's because "the Democrats are the party of big government, turning to it to solve every problem. But they exist in a nation where government was specifically and not purposefully not given a monopoly on force." Resenting this, the brutal, bloodthirsty liberals wish to disarm American civilians so they'll be helpless against crime. They want us disarmed and helpless, Welch presumes, because they want us "compliant" above all. Whether the Framers assumed the adversarial relationship between "well regulated militia" and government that people like Welch read into the Second Amendment is highly questionable, but that's not the worst of Welch's argument.

We all understand that many people assume a right to resist government when it crosses certain lines. Some have thought more carefully than others about how to demarcate that line and recognize a genuine breach. Welch may write for a less careful majority:

Should the people get sick of politicians trying to tell them what to do, they retain the ability to prevent government from forcing them to comply.

Does something seem missing here? It should. Welch's letter is variation on a Freudian slip, revealing what he means by what he forgets to say or write. Usually his kind are more conscientious about invoking the Constitution as their standard for determining when they might need to rise up against the government. Welch himself cuts to the chase: the "people" can rise up whenever they "get sick of politicians trying to tell them what to do." I see no qualifiers there. 

Welch is a textbook case illustrating why, perhaps to his own dismay, many Americans fear people like him. Welch certainly sees himself as a defender of American values and, properly prompted, a defender of the Constitution. But people on the other side will read his letter or others like it, or hear people like him in the media, and assume that, for all that some of them go on about the Constitution, they really reserve the right to take up arms because their taxes are too high, because some questionable group of people is getting too much power or too much of something, or for another utterly subjective reason. The suspicion is that people like Welch are potential enforcers of their own ideologies or prejudices rather than enforcers of the Constitution. Welch himself does nothing to dispel that suspicion, and if he thinks that suspicion is unfair -- tough! If he has no constitutional obligation to trust the government -- which is true to an extent -- then the rest of us have no constitutional or other obligation to trust the "militia." Theirs is the ultimate double standard: they reserve the right to distrust everything and everyone in their jealous regard for their own rights,  but expect everyone else to trust them with weapons as blindly as they accuse others of trusting the government. That fact needs to be thrown in their face every time they rally and posture like the nation's moral champions: we don't trust you! If they ever care to find out why, then a genuine dialogue might begin.

13 February 2013

State of the Union: do redundant rebuttals recognize a three-party system?

Someone leaving a comment on Salon.com's transcript of Senator Paul's rebuttal to the President's Annual Message to Congress raised a valid question: why was the Kentuckian given air time to represent the "Tea Party" when the Republican party, on whose ticket he was elected, already had air time for a rebuttal from Sen. Rubio of Florida? If Paul gets recognized on behalf of an entity that isn't even a real party, why didn't the news networks give rebuttal time to the Libertarians, the Greens, etc? The writer perceived media bias in favor of the "Repugs," who thus got "two bites at the apple." Yet it wouldn't surprise me to see people denounce the news networks for showing their bias in favor of the Democrats by encouraging divisions within the Republican camp. The assumption here would be that the "liberal media," presumably in league with the Democratic establishment, is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy, encouraging TP pretensions of independence that could only hurt the GOP in the near future. Meanwhile, agreement seems possible across the ideological spectrum that it was unfair somehow that Obama was rebutted twice from his right and not once from his left. I'm sure that omission leaves someone feeling suppressed. For the moment, however, let's see whether two Republican rebuttals to the Annual Message were really necessary.

Both Rubio and Paul pushed back against the perception that the Republican Party (and the Tea Party) favors the rich at the expense of the poor. Rubio went to great lengths to establish his empathy with the working class, noting that he had only finished paying off his college loans a few months ago. On that issue, he reaffirmed his support for federal financial aid for students, while insisting that aid programs not discriminate against "programs that nontraditional students rely on, like online courses or degree programs that give you credit for work experience." This is one point of differentiation, since Paul, speaking for the TPs, didn't really address the student-loan/debt issue but was concerned only with school choice at the elementary level. Overall, Rubio strove more than Paul to downplay antagonism between public and private sectors, while accusing the President of exacerbating whatever antagonism exists with "false choices" and class-baiting rhetoric. "The choice isn’t just between big government or big business," he said, "What we need is an accountable, efficient, and effective government that allows small and new businesses to create more middle-class jobs."

Rubio and Paul both claim to have the interests of the poor at heart, the former more emphatically. Both claim that Obama-style big government will hurt the poor and middle class.

Rubio: The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. So, Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors, hard-working middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class.

Paul:  Contrary to what the President claims, big government and debt are not a friend to the poor and the elderly. Big-government debt keeps the poor poor and saps the savings of the elderly.This massive expansion of the debt destroys savings and steals the value of your wages.Big government makes it more expensive to put food on the table. Big government is not your friend. The President offers you free stuff but his policies keep you poor.

Taxes and regulation throw unreasonable and unjustified obstacles in the path of economic growth as far as both senators are concerned. In short, just about anything that makes life more difficult for small business entrepreneurs is wrong. Eliminate these handicaps, both men say, and jobs will be created. This you must take on faith, though both men (Paul probably with more certainty) probably take the idea as a matter of natural law. Republicans themselves may not recognize this as an appeal to a faith that many Americans have lost. If many Americans feel that the Republican party or certain of its candidates don't care about them, how many more feel the same way about "business?" Too many of us have seen jobs outsourced to take for granted, as Republicans would like, that business's first priority is giving jobs to Americans. When Republicans do acknowledge this, they blame government for the taxes, regulations, etc., but labor costs are a sticking point as well, and that puts the apologists for business at odds with the working class or would-be working class. The GOP talks as if it's guaranteeing job creation when their own philosophy accepts the risk that all the steps taken to coddle entrepreneurs could result in few if any good jobs in this country. Until Republicans can make more concrete promises, like for instance getting some of their donors actually to pledge to create a certain number of jobs in a period of time, their rhetoric will do little to bridge the class divide, while their ideology will keep convincing them that it's up to the poor to build and cross the bridge.

On domestic policy, then, Paul is little more than an echo chamber rather than a distinct voice. The Kentuckian distinguished himself only by promoting the "Penny Plan" to achieve deficit reduction by cutting one cent out of every dollar spent by the government. He claims that this would result in a balanced budget (which he believes should be mandated by a constitutional amendment) in seven years. Overall, Paul differentiates himself only by his stridency on these issues. More substantive differences with the GOP mainstream (apparently represented by Rubio) emerge on foreign policy, as one might expect from the son of Ron Paul.

Rubio: On foreign policy, America continues to be indispensable to the goal of global liberty, property, and safeguarding human rights. The world is a better place when America is the strongest nation on Earth, but we can’t remain powerful if we don’t have an economy that can afford it.

Paul: [I]t is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.Where would we cut spending; well, we could start with ending all foreign aid to countries that are burning our flag and chanting death to America.The President could begin by stopping the F-16s and Abrams tanks being given to the radical Islamic government of Egypt.

Senator Paul is less absolutist in his opposition to American interventionism than his father, and probably couldn't have won his current job otherwise, but he's still more opposed to it, and to the whole system of foreign aid and other entanglements, than the typical jingo or neocon Republican. Whether he can even be said to speak for the relatively amorphous Tea Party on this issue, or whether a difference in foreign policy sufficiently justifies a second Republican rebuttal to the President, is debatable. By that standard, it would certainly seem appropriate to give air time to a representative of the Green party or the larger anti-interventionist (or anti-imperialist) left. I imagine the White House and the Democratic party would take more offense had any news network done that than they may have been by the networks giving time to Rand Paul. They'd certainly prefer a de facto three-party system in which they monopolized the center and the left while the opposition was split between right and far right. Whether that works better for the rest of us is another story.

12 February 2013

Rebranding Republicanism with Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jonah Goldberg the syndicated columnist is ambivalent about calls to "rebrand" the Republican party. He agrees that the GOP needs to communicate its message better, arguing that the party's problem isn't "a lack of principle" but "a lack of persuasiveness." He also warns that Republicans have to be careful about "caring" for people. "Obviously, Republicans should care about what is best for the country and the voters -- and they should demonstrate that concern," he writes, "but they will never beat liberals at the game of whose heart bleeds the most." In his mind there seem to be at least two kinds of caring. The liberal kind, in his view, emphasizes the gratification of "immediate desires" -- note that Goldberg says "desires" and not, as a liberal might, "needs." If liberals show caring by giving, "even when all we have in the checking account is IOUs and cash on loan from China," Republicans ought to care, Goldberg suggests, through teaching. Predictably, his is a rather paternalistic form of caring.

Children often think their parents are being mean when they tell their kids to do their homework. That doesn't make the parents mean, it makes them responsible. Eventually, the lessons of life persuade children their parents were right all along. Voters aren't children, but too many of them have the childish notion that the best policies are those that pander to their immediate desires. The challenge for the GOP is to persuade them to put away childish things.

This is a popular if not instinctual metaphor for Republicans, as it has been for all those through history who've considered themselves entitled to govern their more "childlike" fellow humans, whether it means keeping the lower classes in line at home or governing the "lesser breeds without the law" abroad. But it's an odd metaphor for 21st century Republicans, since parents self-evidently have a  responsibility to their children that most Republicans, I'd guess, don't feel toward their fellow citizens. Republicans are sometimes thought of as the "daddy party" in contrast to the alleged "nanny state" aspirations of liberals, but actually embracing that "daddy" label as your new brand would be disastrous in its patronizing stance toward millions of voting-age Americans. Still, there should be a way to make the "giving vs. teaching" distinction without striking Goldberg's paternalistic note. In fact, you hear the idea expressed all the time in less patronizing form in the popular proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." You can dispute the premise, as well as Republicans' sincere commitment to such teaching, but at least it doesn't have the same demeaning, "I'm the adult, you're the child" implication of Goldberg's comments.

What has all this to do with Ralph Waldo Emerson? Before the bit quoted above, Goldberg had quoted the 19th century transcendentalist, who wrote: "There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact." Goldberg believes the same to be true about the parental "meanness" of Republicanism: hard truths, tough love and all that. For once, a Republican propagandist is accurately quoting a famous American. Emerson wrote that sentence for an 1841 lecture, "The Conservative." Is the whole lecture as supportive of Goldberg's worldview? Might Emerson become part of the rebranding of 21st century Republicanism? Let's take a closer look.

The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. This quarrel is the subject of civil history. The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the most ancient world. The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor, reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battle-fields, in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom with opposing advantages every hour. On rolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities. 

Sounds familiar -- though Emerson will later press his particular point about the conflict within individuals of the two impulses with more insistence than we normally hear today. Before we get to that, let's have the sentence quoted by Goldberg in its fuller context.

There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds. Its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet.

This isn't quite the vindication of conservatism that self-described conservatives in the Republican party might have hoped to find in Emerson. There's worse to come: "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory." But Emerson is philosophical enough to see the flaws on both sides. He follows up at once with: "Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry." He isn't particularly flattering about either impulse, but emphasizes again that every person has both of them.

It makes a great difference to your figure and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing or receding. Conservatism never puts the foot forward; in the hour when it does that, it is not establishment, but reform. Conservatism tends to universal seeming and treachery, believes in a negative fate; believes that men's temper governs them; that for me, it avails not to trust in principles; they will fail me; I must bend a little; it distrusts nature; it thinks there is a general law without a particular application, -- law for all that does not include any one. Reform in its antagonism inclines to asinine resistance, to kick with hoofs; it runs to egotism and bloated self-conceit; it runs to a bodiless pretension, to unnatural refining and elevation, which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction. And so whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine.

Speaking of childishness, Emerson argues that the two impulses are "so united that no man can continue to exist in whom both these elements do not work," but recognizes that few will acknowledge the fact because "men are not philosophers, but are rather very foolish children, who, by reason of their partiality, see everything in the most absurd manner." Lest he put on airs, he reminds us that "There is even no philosopher who is a philosopher at all times" His main point, however, is that there is no innovator, no reformer, who is innovator or reformer at all times. Even as we seek reform or revolution we are products of what we seek to overthrow. "You who quarrel with the arrangements of society, and are willing to embroil all, and risk the indisputable good that exists, for the chance of better," he writes, "live, move, and have your being in this, and your deeds contradict your words every day." If you yourself with your beliefs and desires are a product of this social order, he asks, how bad can it really be? More importantly, perhaps, no one is committed to perpetual innovation or experimentation. At some point, Emerson suggests, everyone becomes conservative.

The past has baked your loaf, and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven. But you are betrayed by your own nature. You also are conservatives. However men please to style themselves, I see no other than a conservative party. You are not only identical with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my conservatism, but it is to build up one of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealousy of the newest, and that the seceder from the seceder is as damnable as the pope himself. 

Having made the point, Emerson now elaborates on the supposed "meanness" of conservatism as a matter of perspective.

[W]hen this great tendency [toward conservatism] comes to practical encounters, and is challenged by young men, to whom it is no abstraction, but a fact of hunger, distress, and exclusion from opportunities, it must needs seem injurious. The youth, of course, is an innovator by the fact of his birth. There he stands, newly born on the planet, a universal beggar, with all the reason of things, one would say, on his side. In his first consideration how to feed, clothe, and warm himself, he is met by warnings on every hand, that this thing and that thing have owners, and he must go elsewhere. Then he says; If I am born into the earth, where is my part?

Emerson's ultimate answer seems to be that no one in a civilized society is so deprived as this "universal beggar," for there's at least the culture to draw upon, and opportunities for self-improvement. That answer may have less appeal now as more people see themselves shut out of opportunities. Beyond that he offers a hopeful paradox. Society, he claims, has always been conservative, yet never fully; it has also always been changing, in many cases improving. Emerson, an early idol of Nietzsche, believes that improvements come not from systematic revolutions but through the acts of heroic individuals.  "A strong person makes the law and custom null before his own will," he writes. Lest that sound like a recommendation of crime, he adds: "Then the principle of love and truth reappears in the strictest courts of fashion and property. Under the richest robes, in the darlings of the selectest circles of European or American aristocracy, the strong heart will beat with love of mankind, with impatience of accidental distinctions, with the desire to achieve its own fate, and make every ornament it wears authentic and real" The strong person can change things without changing all the rules. If anything, Emerson seems to mistrust the rule of law, if not the lawgivers. In language that anticipates Nietzsche's dystopia of "last men" while appealing to those modern Republicans who can work their way through the 19th century rhetoric, Emerson the champion of "self reliance" expresses contempt for dependence.

[I]n peace and a commercial state we depend, not as we ought, on our knowledge and all men's knowledge that we are honest men, but we cowardly lean on the virtue of others. For it is always at last the virtue of some men in the society, which keeps the law in any reverence and power. Is there not something shameful that I should owe my peaceful occupancy of my house and field, not to the knowledge of my countrymen that I am useful, but to their respect for sundry other reputable persons, I know not whom, whose joint virtues still keep the law in good odor?... [I]f I allow myself in derelictions, and become idle and dissolute, I quickly come to love the protection of a strong law, because I feel no title in myself to my advantages. To the intemperate and covetous person no love flows; to him mankind would pay no rent, no dividend, if force were once relaxed; nay, if they could give their verdict, they would say, that his self-indulgence and his oppression deserved punishment from society, and not that rich board and lodging he now enjoys. The law acts then as a screen of his unworthiness, and makes him worse the longer it protects him.

How you interpret this depends on who you think Emerson may be talking about. A 21st century reader might guess that he means anyone who depends on handouts from the state, but Nietzsche and other intellectual contemporaries would have recognized a broader indictment of bourgeois society ("a commercial state") in general, where many perceived a failure of human potential in a dependence not simply on "welfare" but on the rule of law itself. Read the whole essay and draw your own conclusions; a blog post can't do even this fraction of Emerson justice. You've probably seen enough to conclude that Emerson may not have endorsed "everyone must live" as a moral imperative. But you may also have seen enough to suggest that latter-day opinionators like Jonah Goldberg should be more careful about what they start by quoting random sentences from philosophers.

11 February 2013

Does a mob bargain? Frances Fox Piven on activism and coercion

What's the difference between liberals and leftists? Maybe this: liberals believe in institutions while leftists distrust them so long as those institutions aren't controlled by them or by "the people." Some leftists distrust institutions under all circumstances, fearing that self-interested institutional mentalities develop inevitably unless institutions are kept under constant vigilance and discipline by the people. This difference in attitude may inform the simmering debate in the broader anti-GOP camp over the relative influence of activists and elected politicians. The debate in its present form goes back to the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, and the sides might be defined, not as Clintonian and Obamian, but as Clintonian and anti-Clintonian, "Clinton" embodying a certain style of glad-handing, deal-making, horse-trading politics that the family's critics on the left appear to hold in low regard. Advocates and apologists for the Clintons -- Sean Wilentz being the one most often cited here -- resent an apparent contempt for politics (as they define it) among activists who seem, from a hostile perspective, to know how to do nothing but make impossible demands and whine when they're not met. The Clinton/Wilentz/"Neo-Lincolnian" position (the last is my attempted coinage) is that activism, understood primarily as making demands, can only get people so far, while actually accomplishing anything requires skills or behavior repugnant to absolutist activists. The classic modern formulation of this idea was Sen. Clinton's when she credited Lyndon Johnson with first realizing Martin Luther King's activist agenda, noting that "it took a President" to get it done and implying that nothing King himself might have done from outside the zone of political power could get his agenda across the finish line. In the February 18 issue of The Nation, Frances Fox Piven, that female bugbear of Glenn Beck's nightmares, looks at history differently, and indulges in a little film criticism in the process.

There would be no founders to memorialize without the Revolutionary-era mobs who provided the foot soldiers to fight the British; no films about the quandaries of Abe Lincoln during the Civil War without the abolitionists and the thousands of runaway slaves.

Piven rejects what she and many before her see as an "elitist" view of history that gives too much credit to "great men." She apparently takes the view that Sean Wilentz has explicitly rejected, which assumes that politicians are essentially conservative or reactionary and will not take major steps to improve the lives of ordinary people unless those same people prod them into action. Against the contention that activism only takes you so far, Piven insists that "the great movements that changed the course of our history accomplished more than spectacle and communication: they actually exercised power. They forced elites [emphasis mine] to inaugurate reforms that they otherwise would have avoided, as when the writers of the Constitution bent to popular enthusiasm for direct democracy and ceded to voters the right to elect representatives to the lower house, or when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed during the Civil War ending chattel slavery." She traces a history of movement power through the 20th century, climaxing with the movement against the Vietnam War. That may look like a long time ago to some, but Piven believes that movements can still exercise power -- they can still use force.What exactly is their coercive power?

Movements are powerful when they threaten to disrupt major institutions....Most of the time, all of the contributors to these institutions do what they’re supposed to do. But this cooperation does not eliminate the conflict between those who boss and those who (usually) obey, those who get more and those who get less—maybe much less. When institutionalized and cooperative activities become contentious, the basic relationship of cooperation can become the locus of conflict. People can and do withdraw cooperation, or in the formulation of Gene Sharp, they refuse. They refuse, that is, to perform their normal rule-bound roles in institutional life. They strike—against the factories, or the schools, or the traffic system, or the warehouse contractors, or Walmart. It is the actuality or threat of this mass refusal and the disorder it threatens that constitutes the distinctive power of protest movements. 

If anything, this concept seems more relevant, not to mention accurate, now than during the Founding era or the Civil War. Piven promotes a potent idea proposed by the Occupy movement: a strike against debt payments. She admits that deliberate default is a risky, scary idea, but her assumption is that the Powers That Be only do the right thing when they are scared. What the right thing is today remains to be determined, Occupy being notoriously vague on that point, but Piven herself encourages a radical if not utopian vision of social transformation, arguing that an environmental crisis makes such radicalism imperative.

Clearly, Piven sees history differently from many people who may otherwise share many of her goals. Sean Wilentz, for one, might question whether any major political measure for social reform was taken under the sort of threat Piven describes approvingly. More likely still, liberals like Wilentz by definition abhor the sort of tactics Piven privileges, because they recognize as readily as she does how essentially coercive they are. Liberals want coercion to have as little to do with politics as possible. They turn bargaining and horse-trading into heroism because its the only alternative they can see -- or permit -- between the sort of futile rhetorical politics some identify with President Obama and the coercion implicitly or explicitly advocated by those to their and Obama's left.  Liberals are not idealists; in calling Wilentz an "American Machiavel" I acknowledged his own admission that political conflicts can't be resolved simply through a deliberative exchange of ideas. For liberals of his stripe, bargaining is the alternative that keeps liberalism, understood as a refusal of coercion, a viable option, on the understanding that you don't need to change a person's mind to get his vote. Bargaining appeals to liberals because it isn't coercion. It can be argued that the sort of coercive activism Piven proposes is also a form of bargaining, but there's an obvious "or else" aspect to it that rubs liberals the wrong way. It's easy to prefer "horse trading," of course, when you can take for granted that both or all sides have things to trade. Piven more likely writes on the assumption that her people have nothing to bargain with but their compliance, but that point may be lost on anyone who assumes that those people can simply vote for the Democratic party and trust a better world to happen. In any event, if you believe in any kind of compact or contract theory of government, the real questions are whether the terms under which people (or other constituent entities) consent to government, or to perform their roles in society or the "market," are subject to renegotiation, and whether such negotiations always have a fundamental "or else" element to them. How you answer may determine the legitimacy of any of the tactics proposed in this debate.


I'm only kidding, Herr Ratzinger. Pope Benedict actually deserves credit for setting a decent example, having decided while he still has his reason that he no longer has the stamina, going on age 86, to maintain a modern schedule of duties for the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He thus becomes the first Pope in almost 600 years to resign his office -- and the last one did so by prior agreement in order to resolve a schism within the Church. While it may be believed that the College of Cardinals, when choosing a Pope, acts on divine inspiration, so that for believers the Papacy is a life appointment unless God says otherwise, a medieval Pope who wanted to quit decreed, apparently on his own authority, that Popes had a right to do so. The present lame-duck Pontiff may have taken a more recent example to heart. It's amusing to imagine Benedict taking advice from Fidel Castro, whom he visited last year, on stepping back from the burdens of day-to-day despotism while remaining an eminence grise with an undoubted right to make his opinions known to the new administration. Ratzinger was a theological enforcer before his election and, given his age, has always seen himself as a caretaker Pope. By resigning on short notice -- he steps down at the end of this month -- he's certain to have a good deal of control over the selection of his successor, almost certainly a man of his own intellectual mold. For all we know, resigning may be Benedict's best means of dictating the succession. If you think he won't influence the conclave you have more faith than even Catholics really need. After that, Ratzinger will have to reconcile himself to being remembered far less fondly than his predecessor. John Paul II may look like the worst case of a Pope who clung to the office beyond all capacity to fulfill his duties, though my understanding is that his latter infirmity was physical rather than mental, but it's also possible that Karol Wojtyla, who started out acclaimed for his middle-aged vigor, truly endeared himself to his flock by carrying on as his health and voice deteriorated and showing himself a powerful yet vulnerable man under a mighty burden. It doesn't necessarily make sense, but John Paul may still be compared favorably with a successor for whom surrendering power may be a last attempt to maintain control. Benedict may be judged by comparison with his predecessor, but perhaps he'll be best judged by what follows him.

08 February 2013

Making monkeys out of politicians

This story is a few days old but it picks up a theme we've heard before. In a Twitter post credited to him, Senator McCain took a poke at President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who in applauding his country's latest space feat expressed a desire to go to space himself. The space feat, disputed by skeptics, was the launch and recovery of a live monkey in an Iranian space capsule, a precursor to manned flight. So when the McCain tweet asked, "wasn't he just there last week?" the Arizonan had gone on record calling the Iranian a monkey. That annoyed a fellow Republican, Rep. Amash of Michigan, who called the tweet a "racist joke." Amash is of Arab descent and thus a disinterested defender of the Iranian. The McCain account replied that Amash and other critics should lighten up....and to an extent they should.

It's certainly undiplomatic for an American senator to call a foreign leader a monkey, but that's not what bugged Amash, who is certainly no apologist for the Islamic Republic. The congressman clearly acted on the assumption that it is "racist" to call any person who isn't "white" a monkey. This point is made more often whenever someone attempts to portray President Obama as any kind of ape. I've felt an unhappy obligation to defend such slanderers on "turnabout is fair play" principles, recalling all the times that George W. Bush was rendered as a monkey by his enemies. To argue that it means something different depending on who is made a monkey is to presume motive, not to mention guilt. Why did people see Dubya as a monkey? Because he was believed to be stupid, and because many perceived a certain "simian" idiocy in his facial features. No charge of racial inferiority was implied or inferred, yet the charge is inevitably inferred whenever anyone gives the same treatment, rhetorically or pictorially, to a "non-white" person. If you portray Barack Obama as a monkey, it's presumed that you do so because you consider him not merely intellectually but genetically subhuman. The same rule apparently applies to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at least as far as Justin Amash is concerned, despite a certain idiocy in the Iranian's face, whose slight resemblance to Dubya in dimness of expression is obscured by the same beard that may make him more apelike in some eyes. From his comments on a variety of topics, homosexuality for example, it's fair if not objective to conclude that Ahmadinejad is in many ways a stupid man despite his professional standing as a teacher and thus deserving of McCain's implicit verbal caricature. Isn't it possible that some people think the same way about President Obama without attributing his alleged idiocy to his race? Given American history, I can understand why some people will always be offended by the portrayal of any black man as a monkey, but if the offense is the dehumanization of a human being shouldn't we all be offended equally whenever any person is monkeyfied? Something isn't right if the rule is that it's OK to make a monkey of a white person somehow, that in such a case you're presumed to be reproaching the individual only, but not OK to do that to anyone else. Maybe Rep. Amash can show us the right direction. As a Republican, he was presumably offended when his President was made a monkey a decade ago, and I should hope that if he'd denounce the simianization of a foreigner he would also denounce the similar treatment of the current President. Perhaps Amash would have credibility if he told the world that no human being should be portrayed as an ape. Until then, he's just flinging poo.

07 February 2013

Asymmetrical warfare in California

The "manifesto" of the ex-cop accused of a shooting spree over the past week is probably just what you'd expect of someone gone berserk. He makes epic threats, promising to wage "asymmetrical" warfare with all the skills he learned from the police and military, but also offers himself as a cautionary case proving the need for stricter gun control laws. He quotes Thomas Jefferson on the need to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, then explains that he isn't referring to the federal government but to the LAPD only. He claims never to have been a bully yet boasts of his brutal attacks on anyone who every used the "N-word" on him, dating back to childhood. He wishes the first President Bush a full recovery from his recent ailments and regrets that he (the shooter, not Bush) will probably never get to see the next Hangover movie. He gloats over Mitt Romney's defeat but adds that he didn't vote for Obama because his favorite candidate had been Jon Huntsman. The manifesto is a loose baggy monster, an epic unburdening of one man's life and opinions. It's easy to assume that he at once has legitimate grievances with the police and is legitimately nuts. He was taught by the people who are supposed to enjoy the monopoly on the use of force in this country, and then was let go while his resentments festered and his arsenal apparently grew. It would seem that he crossed the line from "good guy with a gun" to "bad guy with a gun" sometime before he embarked on his current rampage, while his arsenal remained intact. The man himself seems to recognize that something's wrong with this picture. What might the sane conclude?

06 February 2013

The GOP search for a great communicator

Some Republicans take Ronald Reagan's nickname, "the Great Communicator," a bit too seriously. Following two straight losses in presidential elections, many in the GOP feel a need for a great communicator now, or at least in time for the 2014 congressional elections or the 2016 presidential race. As Ford O'Connell explains, the party needs someone who can communicate sound, winning ideas in a way that doesn't alienate or offend possible voters. You can see the problem once you realize that O'Connell believes that the party already has the winning ideas, or at least the necessary, compelling idea of this generation: fiscal responsibility. Mitt Romney didn't exactly oppose that idea, but O'Connell faults him, and not just retroactively, for too often resorting to "hard" rhetoric that "may play well in the primaries, but ... becomes a problem when less-involved voters begin to tune in." O'Connell can claim some battle scars, having been lambasted by Rush Limbaugh at least once last year. The difference between the two is instructive. O'Connell claims to agree with Limbaugh most of the time, but implicitly lumps the radio talker with Romney as people more interested in denouncing those they believe to be wrong or wicked than in trying to win them over to Republican ideas. When that attitude prevails, O'Connell warns that Republicans risk turning off those voters who want a President to "care about people like me."

To cut to the chase, O'Connell wants Republicans to figure out how to make their winning argument for fiscal responsibility in a way that leaves uneasy voters convinced that the GOP cares about them. O'Connell himself demonstrates the challenge Republicans face. He believes that all they need to do to convince people that they care is " Change the tone to a debate over conservative proposals to address our fiscal problems." Isn't that what Republicans are already doing? It may seem that way, but O'Connell argues that the GOP needs to "regain the rhetorical high ground" without getting "reckless." We can infer that this means Republicans should skip the "makers and takers" rhetoric that's increasingly assumed to be their default position. In simplest terms, O'Connell wants to preach fiscal responsibility without chastising anybody, as Republicans are too often tempted to do. That sounds reasonable, but here comes the hard part. At some point, presumably, Republicans will need to convince large numbers of Americans that they should have to make do with less. That is, they'll have to explain why those people should have to do with less. O'Connell may believe that all he needs to say is, "We can't afford it." I'm not so sure some people will be that easily convinced. "Why can't we afford that, but we can afford this?" they'll say, pointing at any number of extravagances. Things could get trickier if O'Connell wants Republicans to challenge the idea of "entitlement," which to an extent they must if they're to persuade people to make do with less. Can you tell people that their sense of entitlement, however modest it might seem, is mistaken -- can you tell them that your idea of a decent standard of living isn't quite as decent as theirs -- without seeming not to care as much for those people as they might think you should? It's not a bad idea for Republicans to attempt to prove that they care for ordinary Americans, but doing so will only beg the question of what they mean by caring? O'Connell may hope that a new Reagan will emerge to answer the question, but there's always a chance that he'll get someone more like Reagan's successor, whose blatantly hollow statement, "Message: I care," proved him the opposite of a great communicator. For the sake of argument, the idea that a leader cares for his people isn't irreconcilable with asking or making them make do with less -- some leftists of an ecological bent would try the same thing given a chance, but Republicans start with a handicap on this point. They argue now that the modern welfare state is unsustainable, but for too long they argued simply that it was undesirable, and they can hardly be surprised if people listen to them say, "we can't" but hear "we don't want to" or "we don't care." Until O'Connell or other Republicans figure out how to answer these objections, his expectations are far too optimistic.