29 March 2013

Where has the lone hero gone? Cowboys, capitalism and the future of conservatism

One of the movie blogs I follow called my attention to a piece by the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm, excerpted from his last book, published earlier this month in the Guardian newspaper. Hobsbawm's subject was the "myth of the cowboy." His comments seem relevant to yesterday's post on anarchism and capitalism. The global popularity of the American cowboy, Hobsbawm wrote, was "due to the built-in anarchism of American capitalism."

I mean not only the anarchism of the market, but the ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority....Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can't, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man's right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don't think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: "I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn't my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it's all ironed out, I never get any money reward."

In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man, whereas to be Don Corleone or Rico, let alone Hitler, you have to imagine a collective of people who follow and obey you, which is less plausible.

I don't know when Hobsbawm wrote this, but I wonder what he, as a Marxist, would make out of the apparent decline in popularity of the lone hero in American pop culture. Back in the golden age of TV westerns, one of the most common formulas was to have the lone hero ride into a new community every episode, set some injustice right or simply help a worthy person, and move on. The formula fit other genres, too. In our generation you hardly see it. Ours is the era of "shipping," A show without ongoing relationships would almost literally be a show about noting for many modern viewers. Most of us are so thoroughly connected to friends and family by our cellphones and like devices that the lone-ness (rather than loneliness) of the oldschool hero is empathically incomprehensible. It's no longer an appealing fantasy -- and since Hobsbawm links the appeal of the loner hero to an anarchic streak that provided emotional support to capitalism, may we not link the declining appeal of the loner hero to the declining appeal of Republicanism -- as perceived by many Republicans -- among younger people. Thoughtful Republicans have tried to trace this to an image of bigotry that the more libertarian among them consider dispensable, but what if the problem is deeper and more than ideological. What if one of the major capitalist innovations of our time --the promotion of social networks through portable communications devices -- has gravely undermined the individualist mentality on which capitalism has long appeared to depend? We shouldn't try to exaggerate this point; social networks don't make socialists in most cases. But what they may do is make the insistent rhetoric of individualism espoused by Republicans and libertarians less relevant and compelling to people who prize their connectedness above all. So long as political individualists still think of individualism (not to mention Americanism) in cowboy loner terms, they may as well be speaking a foreign language to greater numbers every year. If they keep that up, maybe they'll follow their old heroes into the sunset.

28 March 2013

Anarchism and capitalism reconsidered

The April 2013 issue of Reason, the libertarian monthly, has a critical but sympathetic review by Aeon J. Skoble of Anarchy and Legal Order, a new book by Gary Chartier. When libertarians and anarchists confront one another, on friendly terms or otherwise, the inevitable question arises: what's the difference? Historically, what's distinguished anarchists from libertarians is a hostility toward capitalism as well as the state. Anarchists trace their heritage to a specific moment in history, and to specific parts of the world, where the state made itself obnoxious by taking the side of capital against organized labor. Libertarians have a broader frame of reference, looking further back to periods when the state impeded free enterprise and technological innovation and forward to periods when the state has taken a more adversarial stance toward capital, at least in the eyes of capitalists. Chartier complicates the issue needlessly, as far as Skoble is concerned, by dubbing himself a socialist as well as an anarchist. For libertarians this does not compute, since to them socialism means the state above all else. As Skoble realizes, definitions count. That's even more crucial when it comes to Chartier's discussion of capitalism.

"Isn't capitalism a system wherein people are free to make voluntary exchanges of their property?" Skoble asks. He finds that Chartier approves of such a system, but means something else when he writes about capitalism. Author and reviewer can agree on their opposition to "crony capitalism," defined by Skoble as "the quasi-free economy we live in now, which is famously riddled with market distortions caused by state interference and political cronyism." Leftists might define it as an economy in which the market and the state alike are distorted by the influence of concentrated wealth, but that's mostly a difference in emphasis. But what makes "capitalism" itself, as Chartier understands the term, ultimately unacceptable is its connotation (as summarized by Skoble) of "domination of the many by a small number of people -- capitalists -- who control resources."  As Skoble notes, Chartier sees domination and "subordination" as morally wrong. The state, in Chartier's anarchist account, is an engine of domination and subordination because it relies inherently on aggression, coercion, etc. The state isn't the only such engine, however, but Chartier's answer to what Skoble calls "non-governmental problems" isn't anarchy as such but a small-is-better philosophy towards which anarchy is most conducive. Skoble himself, however, is "agnostic as to whether an anarchist society would be one without bosses and large corporations." Implicit in his agnosticism is a deeper skepticism toward Chartier's premise on the immorality of subordination. A libertarian most likely can't accept the premise, since libertarians make a fetish out of freedom of contract. In more philosophical terms, they see no contradiction between freedom and necessity and no degradation of someone's freedom if necessity compels him to take a miserable job. The libertarian utopia encompasses wage labor and a hierarchy of employer and employed, while Chartier's anarchist ideal, as described by Skoble, is one "where the 'boss' figure is minimized or avoided altogether." By contrast, Skoble takes Chartier to task for espousing socialism when Skoble understands socialism to be something other than the "voluntary" society both anarchists and libertarians claim to prefer. While Skoble understands that Chartier prefers to define socialism in voluntary terms -- rather than Leninist terms, presumably -- he thinks that the word "socialism" has so many bad connotations that a proper anarchist should reject it as decisively as Chartier rejects "capitalism." If you're "anti-capitalist" because "capitalism" means bad things to many people, shouldn't you be "anti-socialist" for the same reason, even while promoting a voluntary egalitarian society without hierarchy or bosses? That may be a fair point, if only because so many socialists despise anarchism that Chartier may as well cultivate his own brand.

Skoble recommends Anarchy and Legal Order as "an impressive contribution to libertarian thought generally," an acknowledgment of persistent affinity between libertarianism and anarchism despite the significant differences exposed in his own review. Since I've read Skoble but not Chartier, all I can say is that the reviewer seems to have summarized the book's strong points while making his own criticisms clear and distinct. I'm just left wondering how anarchy actually prevents domination. According to Skoble, who seems to approve of this part, Chartier believes that "a stateless society will have mechanisms for resolving conflicts and rectifying injury that do not depend on relentless government aggression." Both writers seems to believe that "there is no contradiction in opposing the state and supporting a system of legal rules." But rules depend on enforcement, don't they, and both anarchists and libertarians have problems with force. Skoble hints at a considerable body of literature addressing the possiblity of "polycentric legal order" and rectification without "aggression." I may have to read some of those works someday before I can take this argument seriously.

27 March 2013

Devil's advocacy for Hugo Chavez

Maybe it was just a rhetorical device, but if was funny to see author Greg Grandin change his mind in the middle of a eulogy for the late Hugo Chavez in the April 1 issue of The Nation. Taking a self-consciously "perverse" stance in defiance of Americans who denounced Chavez as a strongman or authoritarian, Grandin wrote that "the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chavez was authoritarian, but that he wasn't authoritarian enough. It wasn't too much control that was the problem but too little." What he meant was that Chavez, like many strong leaders both democratic (FDR) and undemocratic (Hitler), allowed a good deal of redundant institutional competition. "Rather than forming a single-party dictatorship with an interventionist state bureaucracy controlling people's lives, Chavismo has been fairly wide open and chaotic ... comprising at least five different currents: a new Bolivarian political class, older leftist parties, economic elites, military interests and the social movements....Everybody got to do what they wanted: the moneyed interests got to be corrupt, the social movements got to build something approximating an anarcho-democratic republic." Then Grandin decides that "perhaps more authoritarianism wouldn't have been a good thing," since "it would have co-opted the grass-roots into the state." It was worth some inefficiency to prevent that outcome, so as far as Grandin is concerned that's another point for Chavez.

Otherwise, Grandin makes a more coherent case for the Venezuelan. He's at his best when he points out how exceptional Chavez was in continuing to risk his power in closely contested elections. Compared to other military populists from the region, Chavez "never turned on or repressed his base,' i.e. the working class. In part, that's because he always needed their votes, but based on most people's hostile analysis of Chavez, he should have turned violently dictatorial long before he died. "For decades now social scientists have been telling us that the kind of mobilized regime Venezuela represents is pump-primed for violence," Grandin notes, "that such governments can maintain energy only through internal repression or external war. But despite years of denouncing the oligarchy as squalid traitors, Venezuela has seen remarkably little political repression" compared to other leftist regimes -- or, as Grandin adds provocatively, the United States.

Grandin reminds us that Chavez was popular because he empowered people -- or at the minimum, because millions of Venezuelans felt empowered by him, either because of increased state services to the poor or because of their own participation in the grassroots organizations created or inspired by Chavez. To dismiss their opinion, Grandin argues, is to take Mitt Romney's attitude that any distribution of wealth to the poor is basically a bribe. The eulogy gets most interesting when Grandin challenges conventional wisdom on the subject of the "resource curse" that afflicts not only Venezuela but Russia, Saudi Arabia or any country where state control over a valuable natural resource allegedly distorts both economic and political development.

"Over the years, there’s been a lot of heavy theoretically breathing by US academics about the miasma oil wealth creates in countries like Venezuela, lulling citizens into a dreamlike state that renders them into passive spectators," Grandin writes. While he notes that "oil wealth has much to do" with Chavez's exceptional career, and that it "gave Chavez the luxury of acting as a broker between these competing tendencies," he rejects the idea that Venezuelans responded only to "free money," reminding readers that Chavez's opponents promised in 2006 to let citizens draw a monthly allowance from an oil-bloated treasury, and that a majority of voters spurned the bribe. In any event, while economists might question legitimately whether state dependence on oil revenue discourages economic innovation or diversification, or leaves citizens extremely vulnerable to variations in global oil prices, the "resource curse" argument too often rests on an assumption that it's always wrong, in principle if not in practice, for the state to have control over oil and use it to improve the lives of the poor. At the least, the "resource curse" theory should be argued pragmatically and with an understanding that oil and similar resources may rightly be seen as the birthright of all the people living in a country blessed (or cursed) with such stuff. Grandin has taken a lot of abuse on the Internet for accepting the "useful idiot" label applied to idealistic supporters of strongmen like Chavez, but his insistence on a point of view other than the liberal slippery-slope suspicion of power and leadership is useful, if not for idiots, for anyone who wants to keep an open mind about the world.

26 March 2013

Herbert Hoover's three alternatives

As the last post hints, I've been looking into Herbert Hoover again. The local library has a new biographical study focusing on Hoover's post-presidential years. It's no shock to learn that he was no fan of the New Deal; we expect that of Republicans. But we make a mistake if we assume that, as a Republican, Hoover was the same as the Republicans of the 21st century. He was not. He was too influenced by Teddy Roosevelt to be that, but too hostile to Franklin Roosevelt to be more progressive. Teddy was too progressive for today's Republicans, however, and while Hoover consistently criticized the New Deal in fiscal-conservative and free-enterprise terms, he was careful -- at least in the early chapters of this book -- to steer a middle course between Democratic excesses and an extreme Republican attitude he had already perceived and mistrusted. His biographer, the late Gary Dean Best, paraphrases a speech Hoover gave in 1936.

There was, he told his young audience, three alternatives before Americans: unregulated business, government-regulated business, and government dictated business. Government-regulated business was the "American System," whereas government-dictated business was the New Deal method, with its ideas "dipped from the cauldrons of European Fascism or Socialism."

Hoover was nearly as willing to dub the New Deal "fascist" as he was to see it as the slippery slope to communism. He wasn't alone in that. FDR came to power at a point when people openly questioned whether constitutional democracy was adequate to solving the country's economic crisis. Some looked to Mussolini as a model, others to Stalin. For Hoover any hint of dictatorship meant nothing but tyranny. Nevertheless, he drew a distinction between "government regulation" and "government dictation" that seems lost on his Republican descendants, who have mostly chosen the other alternative of "unregulated business." What difference did Hoover see between "regulation" and "dictation?" The distinction may seem a fine one because what he called "dictation" probably was what we call "regulation." My guess is that, to him, "government-regulated business" meant holding business accountable when it broke the law. Hoover's own scare term for "government-dictated business" was "regimentation." For him, there clearly was a big difference between making sure that businesses didn't break the law and trying to tell them how to run their affairs at every level, as he believed the New Deal sought to do.

Hoover appeared to agree with Teddy Roosevelt that changing times required government to change its role in American life, but he saw a line that government should never need to cross. "We realize that life is different in 1935 from 1776," he said, "The functions of government must always be expanded [emphasis added] to restrain the strong and protect the weak. That is the preservation of liberty itself....But there are things that must be permanent if we would attain these purposes. The first of these is liberty." Liberty was synonymous with individual initiative for Hoover, and thus antithetical to a system that appeared to dictate in advance how one made a living for oneself and contributed to national prosperity. A small d or large D democrat might argue that popular sovereignty includes the making of rules, not merely laws, for doing business, but Hoover assumed that political will defied the laws of economics at its peril, and at risk to a common good that could not be defined (or calculated politically) solely in terms of gratifying short-term needs. Like many fiscal conservatives, Hoover can be accused of a certain insensitivity to short-term needs, an attitude that seems common among contemporary and historical critics of the New Deal, many of whom appeared to believe that the poor should have waited patiently for the market to right itself. Many believe that to be the correct approach to our current economic troubles, and they may take comfort from Hoover's statements. They may take less comfort the more they know about the man, as has been the case with various radio talkers and pop political authors. The more I know about him the more interesting Hoover seems, not as someone we should heed today but as the sort of person, capable of comparatively undogmatic debate on the issues, conspicuous by their absence.

Fear in the Information Age

Who said it?

One thing always stands out in these economic experiences of the last five years -- that is the part which fear plays in the whole system. The growth of instantaneous communication, the interdependence of every segment, have given it an importance in economic life never hitherto experienced or appreciated. Any policies which create fear will submerge every other effort. Today fear of unstable currency has paralyzed the capital goods industry. This same fear has turned the minds of the people from prudent investment to speculation in equities. Fear of the mounting public debt induces still other reactions. And in it all these things paralyze employment and bring more misery to new firesides.

Herbert Hoover said it. From our perspective, the scariest thing about it may be that Hoover saw this effect and commented on it in eighty years ago.

25 March 2013

Republicans court popular culture; does that make them unfaithful?

According to Time magazine, Republican party chairman Reince Priebus has told his fellow partisans that "We have to stop divorcing ourselves from American culture." That sets the tone for an agenda of inclusiveness, based on the idea that "Our 80% friend is not our 20% enemy" and summarized in Time's paraphrase, "Stop attacking popular culture and start becoming a part of it." Priebus appears to recognize that his party suffers a handicap in its attempt to court popular culture: the prevalence of a stereotype of Republicans as "narrow minded ... stuffy old men ... out of touch." Worse, in Time's words, "the current GOP message of small government and low taxes is not enough to attract more than minimal interest among minorities and the young." That's likely to remain a problem no matter how much Priebus's Republicans strive to appear hip and tolerant, since the self-reliance the party preaches seems unhip if not intolerant (of human frailty, etc.) to many people. Time notes that Tea Party types are already starting to circle the wagon, perceiving both Priebus's proposed inclusiveness and his proposed primary-season rules changes as an attempt to exclude them from their rightful share of influence. In their eyes, Priebus may be pandering not just to decadent youth but to "well-funded establishment candidates" and "the GOP's wealthy elites." That's probably just the beginning of the challenges Priebus faces. Time doesn't even mention one difficulty sure to be faced by any Republican who talks about embracing popular culture. Priebus is making that appeal at a moment when one of his party's most loyal and fanatical constituents, the National Rifle Association, is trying to make popular culture a scapegoat for the latest wave of mass shootings. Since it's heresy to suggest that more guns alone means more killing, the NRA would rather rave against violent movies and video games. This is a big problem if you believe that many young people who enjoy violent media might be temperamentally inclined toward Republicanism. A judgmental attitude toward their entertainment may be as much of a turn-off for these characters as a judgmental attitude toward sexuality turns off others. For Priebus, the question is: does your embrace of popular culture include contradicting the NRA -- not even necessarily to admit that guns are the real problem, but just to deny that movies and video games make people kill? It may not be rational, but there are probably millions of Americans who happily partake of violent media yet stereotype Republicans as narrow minded, out of touch, stuffy old men ... with guns. As much as some people on the left may see gun culture and pop culture as two faces of the same enemy, Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between one culture and the other.

Russophobia and the death of an oligarch

Boris Berezovsky, an exiled erstwhile oligarch of Yeltsin-era Russia, died over the weekend in the United Kingdom. The circumstances of his death are considered suspicious by many simply because Berezovsky was a powerful figure who fell out with Vladimir Putin, whom he'd helped get elected back in 1999. From exile he remained a bitter critic of Putin, recently calling for his ouster in a "bloodless" coup. The immediate assumption of many who, like John McCain, look into Putin's eyes and see "KGB," not to mention those who see Russia as a hopelessly authoritarian culture, is that the monster of the Kremlin has reached out again to strike down a distant enemy. Putin's treatment of people like Berezovsky helped cement his monstrous reputation in the West, but the reaction also hints at a blind spot in the eyes of Putin's critics. All many of them know, or want to know, is that Berezovsky was a media mogul who was forced to give up his media empire, which ended up under state control, because his TV station spoke out against Putin. The narrative is freedom of the press being crushed by a statist thug, with dissent given nearly unlimited benefit of the doubt. The state is just about always the bad guy in such narratives, while "oligarch" merely strikes many as a cute or cool name for the abused vanguard of Russian entrepreneurship. Oligarchy is the blind spot in much liberal commentary on conflicts abroad between public and private power. Instead, there seems to be an assumption that free enterprise is the same thing everywhere on earth, that every nation has had the same minimal equality of opportunity that the United States once boasted of, and that any successful businessman on the planet is as virtuous a success story as we believe our own entrepreneurial heroes to be. We deplore "crony capitalism" but often fail to recognize its ubiquity worldwide. Worse, we lack the ancients' understanding that extremes of anything are bad and thus underestimate both the negative political consequences of oligarchy and the justice of efforts to break it down. That doesn't mean that the state is always right in conflicts with the private sector, but too many people assume that the private sector is always right, except when businessmen blatantly violate the rules businessmen themselves have agreed upon. Wealthy liberal countries with relatively egalitarian traditions fear the state above all because of its power (and right) to kill, without considering how oligarchies around the world have preempted egalitarianism while making everyday life miserable if not unbearable for multitudes of people. I don't claim extensive knowledge of Berezovsky's career, but my impression is that his feud with Putin can't be boiled down to a simple good guy vs. bad guy struggle -- especially when you recall that he backed Putin's first election, presumably on the assumption that someone like Putin in power would be good for Berezovsky.  What happened after may prove one or the other a backstabber, but if your main concern is Putin's threat to freedom and his support for tyranny (e.g. Syria) elsewhere, even then you can't really sympathize much with Boris Berezovsky, and your time spent speculating on Putin's possible motives for killing him at this late date is most likely wasted.

21 March 2013

Was China's famine the tombstone of communism?

A superficial reading of Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 could confirm anyone's fears of communism, at least as it was practiced in the 20th century. Yang, a Chinese journalist whose father died in the famine, did his research on the mainland but had to publish his book in Hong Kong, where greater freedom of the press is allowed. He'd probably agree that communism, at least as a political system, was to blame for the deaths of at least 36,000,000 people during the famine. He blames both unrealistic policies on the part of Chairman Mao and a totalitarian bureaucracy that made every official the slave of those above him and a despot to those below. Since the famine followed a Chinese decision to collectivize all farmland in a rush to implement communism, mass starvation is now seen as a likely if not inevitable result of communism. Mao definitely made some stupendously stupid decisions at this time, but to what extent can the famine be blamed on him and his stooges personally, rather than the system they created or the ideal they hoped to realize?

For many people, Mao stands alongside Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and the Kim dynasty of North Korea as the worst-case scenarios of communism. Worse, he has come to represent the type of leadership many believe a communist country inevitably will have. It's hard to deny that Leninism increases the danger of such people getting power, since the Leninist idea of a vanguard party appeals to those whose idea of a social revolution is getting the chance to tell the whole world what to do. The reliance on a party that never really stops seeing itself as a revolutionary conspiracy requiring  a certain ruthless obedience also seems to encourage the kind of insecure and dishonest servility that made the Chinese famine worse for everyone.  Mao's particular problem was that he abhorred doubt and took it as a lack of faith in or loyalty to himself. You never wanted to tell him that something couldn't be done, much less that it wasn't worth trying. He was ideologically convinced that communism would unlock unlimited human potential; he really believed that under the right leadership the Chinese people could work wonders. Yang's account makes clear that Mao wasn't impervious to facts, but it took testimony from his own relatives -- people he presumably wouldn't see as rivals or untrustworthy subordinates -- to convince him that the disaster in the countryside was real. Until then, he had happily set unrealistic goals and made a commitment to fulfilling them a test of loyalty to the revolution. Paradoxically, he would not trust party members if they'd dared tell him that certain things couldn't be done -- he'd interpret their skepticism as "right deviationism" or some such heresy --  but chose to trust them when they lied about surpassing the production quotas set for them. The root of the trouble, in political terms, was Mao's expectation of optimism within the party and his willingness to punish people for insufficient optimism. It led to party members telling Mao what they thought he wanted to hear, rather than the truth, in order to advance their careers or simply save their own necks. He has to be blamed for creating incentives for people to lie to him.

Lies weren't told to Mao alone, of course. Propaganda had convinced much of the peasantry that collectivization would mean unprecedented prosperity. Many believed that prosperity had come to pass as soon as communal kitchens opened across the country. Yang suggests that the peasantry in many places contributed to their own later suffering by gorging themselves in the early months on the abundant free food initially supplied in these kitchens, but no one in the government discouraged them from doing so. Rather, the party wanted everyone to believe that abundance was an already accomplished fact. Later, dependence on the communal kitchens doomed millions, since they had given up their own cooking equipment as part of collectivization. When communal kitchens closed for lack of food, families were left with no means of preparing (not to mention acquiring) their own food. Many resorted to cannibalism. Party members pressed to meet quotas blamed shortages on hoarding and subjected scapegoats to often-fatal torture, then lied about surpassing their quotas. That only guaranteed higher quotas next time. It was Mao's own natural impulse to blame the shortages he heard of on people somehow hoarding grain or otherwise refusing to cooperate. Maoism was an innovation in Leninism because of Mao's reliance on a peasant rather than proletarian base, but once in power he treated peasants like crap. He took their food to feed the cities. He took it for export, to exchange for industrial products. That is, this arch-communist treated food like a commodity. He diverted labor from crops to dig canals or forge useless pig-iron in a forlorn attempt to surpass the U.K. in iron production, leaving the weakest people, the oldest and youngest, to try to bring the crops in. As with Stalin, the good of the poor was secondary, at best, to making the country into a superpower. It all looks like exploitation to me, but I thought Communists were against that.

We can distinguish between small-c communism as the absence of private property and Capital-C Communism as vanguard-party tyranny, but we should also note a persistent tension within anti-capitalist movements between what I call, using American terminology, populist and progressive tendencies. Leninism and Maoism are perhaps the ultimate expressions of the progressive tendency, which is arguably more revolutionary yet less democratic than the populist tendency. There's a reactionary core in populism that often takes the form of cultural conservatism or chauvinism, but the general point of conflict with progressivism is over society's need for change. Populists may recognize the need for revolution to overthrow capitalism, but while they resent capitalism for exploiting them they also object to hours, discipline, etc., and to boss-dictated changes to routine that disrupt their lives. Populists aren't really looking for the change in management progressives propose, and they sometimes find progressive stewardship more obnoxious and more intrusive than the mere rule of bosses in the workplace, to the extent that progressives expect both society and its people to evolve. In simpler terms, populism seeks revolution for the benefit of the here-and-now, while progressives expect to bring better people into being. In Mao's terms, populism would be right deviationism if not the capitalist road, but communism needs a populist element to check its progressive element if its purpose is to any extent to prevent exploitation -- in this case the exploitation of the present for the sake of the future. It can certainly be argued that society and the people in it must evolve, but shouldn't that -- both the need and the conditions for evolution -- be for the people, rather than a self-appointed vanguard, to determine? Mao's Communism was all top-down; it only qualifies as communism if you accept his Leninist claim to represent the masses and know their interests better than they did. No truly communist revolution should produce a Mao, either as a person or as a Great Leader to be idolized. A revolution that results in a Mao having the the power he had may already be judged a failure, but as Yang shows it could escalate into a catastrophe. Some Communists still idolize Mao, but they'd be better off figuring out how to prevent him.

20 March 2013

Bargaining for life with Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas supports the death penalty even though he's skeptical about its deterrent effect. In his latest column, he writes that the deterrent effect of capital punishment "can’t be proved, any more than it is provable that abolishing it will encourage some to kill, knowing the worse they will face is life in prison without parole." He's inspired to write by the Maryland legislature's decision to abolish the state's death penalty. The fact that six states have done that in the last six years confuses him a little. Maryland especially confuses him because its governor supports the repeal while supporting abortion rights. How can the governor, in supporting repeal, profess a "respect for human life" while leaving the abortion question to "the individual conscience of women?" As Thomas sees it, "abortion may not involve the strapping down of a convicted felon, but it takes a life." He questions whether one can consistently oppose capital punishment yet support abortion rights. It could be asked just as readily how Thomas can take the opposite positions consistently, but as it turns out he's not so dedicated to the death penalty that he wouldn't cut a deal with the other side.

I have often proposed a deal for my liberal friends who are anti-death penalty but pro-choice: I will surrender my position in favor of the death penalty, if pro-choicers support laws that protect the unborn. It seems like a fair deal to me, but so far I’ve gotten no takers. This seems ideologically inconsistent, if they argue all human life is valuable.

Why don't liberals take his deal? It's most likely because they distinguish between the value people may place on life morally and the state's right to intervene to protect life. It shouldn't be hard for an advocate of limited government like Thomas to appreciate an argument that government control should not extend to a woman's body, even if the body harbors a theoretically autonomous consciousness. The pro-choice argument is like the argument for property rights. A communist might argue that the natural resources of the planet rightfully belong to everyone, and that no individual has an exclusive claim to any of them, but most people, or at least most Americans, reject that argument for a range of reasons. What could be more private than a woman's body, Thomas might be answered, regardless of humanity's claim on the resource it carries? Of course, Thomas could counter that the humanity of the property in question makes this argument analogous to the defense of slavery -- though we should note that no woman claims the right to forbid the fetus from leaving her body. We don't have to embed ourselves too deeply in this sophistry, however, since in this same column Thomas effectively surrenders any claim of fetal equality with citizenry. He starts by explaining his own support for capital punishment:

Respect for human life should mean a murderer ought to forfeit his or her own life as payment for the life taken. Life in prison is unequal punishment. It is not fair to the victim, to the victim’s family or even to the killer who has not received his or her “just deserts.”

We can dispute whether respect for life dictates retribution in the terms Thomas suggests, but that's a question for another time. What matters for now is the very next sentence.

In the case of abortion, obviously there can be no sentence of death or life in prison for the “murderer.”
Very rarely are anti-abortion people willing to characterize a mother who gets an abortion as a murderer. Why is that? If fetal life is equivalent to citizen life, abortion is murder and Thomas's own standard of justice demands death for the murderers: the mother and the doctor. Fail to do this and you surrender your argument for the equivalent value of fetal and citizen life. Thomas still thinks that states should "exercise an equivalent respect for life through laws that restrict abortion," but by refusing to hold mothers to a mortal standard he gives the states no reason to show the fetus that equivalent respect. No one who advocates the universal criminalization of abortion need be taken seriously unless they propose provisions for punishing mothers, and legislators ought to pressure them into taking the proper stand by amending any anti-abortion legislation to include the severest penalties for mothers. If that tastes like a poison pill to the "pro-life" people, whose fault is that?

My own offer of a bargain to the anti-abortion people still stands. It may be presumptuous of me to do this as a male, but I'd be willing to see abortion banned as comprehensively as its opponents want, though what I want in return is something more substantial than the abolition of the death penalty. Simply put, the price I ask for consenting to the abolition of abortion is definitive acquiescence in a cradle-to-grave welfare state. If the state has an interest in seeing every viable fetus born, it should take an interest in maximizing the lifespan, not to mention the quality of life, of every newborn. If people like Thomas feel a moral responsibility to ensure that these babies are born, they should accept a moral and material responsibility for their welfare thereafter. No more of this "personal responsibility" stuff when the baby doesn't ask to be born and the mother doesn't ask to deliver it. If an anti-abortion advocate will take that deal, then I might believe that they're committed to life rather than their own moral superiority. Let's see if this deal gets any takers.

In the gun debate, neatness counts!

The lively debate over gun control on newspaper letters pages has raised the question of whom people trust with power and weapons. Opponents of gun control clearly don't trust the state with a monopoly of force, but it's become clear that some advocates of greater gun control don't trust their opponents. There's some good reason for that mistrust, especially when the opponents reserve a right to rebel against the government and remain alarmingly vague about their standards for provocation. In response to a letter-writer who questioned whether gun fanatics could be trusted, Bob Bernhard of Delanson proposes a novel standard of trustworthiness.

About 10,000 law-abiding gun owners met in Albany at a Feb. 28 rally in support of the Second Amendment. There was not a single arrest. The police were greeted with handshakes and thanks for doing their job. The garbage was picked up, and plans are under way to reseed the grass where the rally was held. That seems like responsible and trustworthy behavior. Compare that to the much smaller Occupy Albany protests of last year in which there were reports of arrests and the garbage left behind.

About the grass: ever since the rally in question the grassy areas of West Capitol Park have been cordoned off by yellow police tape. To be fair, this isn't because of deliberate vandalism, but the sheer numbers of people who attended the rally there stomped the grounds into quagmires of mud. When Bernhard writes of "plans ... to reseed the grass," he may mean that the gun people themselves will pay for it. Good for them if that's so, but while we wait the park is an eyesore when it isn't covered by snow. By comparison, even though Occupy Albany was evicted by force from Lafayette Park, within 24 hours of the action you could believe that the grounds had never been occupied. The city did the cleaning in that case, but it must be admitted that the Occupiers did not leave the, er, footprint that the gun nuts have. That leaves the two groups' attitude toward police for comparison. Bernhard makes much of the handshakes shared by his people and the police as proof of the civility of their protest, though their friendly attitude may belie their avowed suspicion of state power. Maybe he assumes that they and the cops are actually on the same side or share common enemies -- the sort of people who participated in Occupy Albany, perhaps, despite their never claiming (to my knowledge) a right to take up arms against the state. In any event, I'd guess that the signs the gun people carried and the tone of their speeches made a greater (if less positive) impression on most observers even then the impression their boots left on the otherwise untrashed ground. Whether they can be trusted as Bernhard wants us to trust them depends less on their deportment while they still think civil dissent practical than on what they intend to do when they no longer deem it so, and when they think that will be. If someone intends to start an uprising just because his taxes are too high, or he doesn't like being told what to do, I really don't care how neat he is (or thinks he is) at home or in public. It's a fine thing that a newspaper publishes Bernhard's opinion, but let's not mistake it for an argument.

19 March 2013

Ralph Nader on Democratic 'Defeatism'

Perhaps the biggest news in Ralph Nader's latest critique of the Democratic party, which appears in the current issue of The Nation, is that some Democrats still speak to Nader. I had thought that the party line was that Nader and the dissident progressivism he represents were the sole and sufficient cause of the election of George W. Bush as President and all the disasters that followed.  As far as loyal Democrats are concerned, Nader is a heretic and scapegoat, embodying all who dare demand more from the self-styled party of the people than the party bosses deem practical or permissible. Yet here are "a number of high-ranking House Democrats" freely giving Nader evidence to damn them further. He writes that in an attempt to account for "defeatism" within the party he asked them, “If you believe that on their record this is the worst Republican Party ever, why aren’t you landsliding them?” The most candid answer, he reports, was, “Because we’d raise less money.” Nader thinks he knows what this means, but another interpretation is possible.

How you interpret that cryptic remark depends on what you (or Nader) mean by "landsliding." We can all agree that Nader means "beat Republicans by landslides," but for Nader himself that also means doing what is necessary to ensure a landslide. If Democrats haven't been able to reclaim the House of Representatives from Republicans with landslide victories, Nader assumes that there's something Democrats can and should do that's not getting done.

In other words, the Democrats are so beholden to their own big-money contributors that they can’t fight on issues that they know have overwhelming public support. Plainly, the House Democrats raised enough money. They benefited from their gerrymandering, too. On the issues, the Democrats had a huge advantage. Yet instead of confronting Republicans in district after district with the vicious Ryan budget and the Boehner Band’s voting record, the Democrats displayed open defeatism.

In Nader's account, Democrats won't run a real rabble-rousing social-justice campaign -- the kind that Nader thinks would assure them landslide victories -- from fear that corporate donations would dry up during that very campaign. This is not an implausible interpretation, but as I said, another reading is possible. What if Democrats are less concerned about the consequences for a particular campaign or candidate of the kind of aggressive campaign Nader wants than they are about the long-term financial consequences of actually landsliding Republicans?  While Nader presumes that Democrats maximize campaign donations by playing it safe on economic issues and not offending corporate donors, what if the Democrats themselves believe that they maximize donations by stressing the perpetual imminence of the Republican menace in a way that'd no longer be possible were the GOP landslided into irrelevance? Nader's notion may be consistent with a critical analysis of Democrats' ideological limitations, my alternative interpretation may better reflect the reality of recent campaigns. Does anyone believe that Democrats didn't campaign by demonizing Republican celebrities and hyping their threat to the well-being of middle and working class Americans? I think we know better. If anything, Democrats would probably prefer to campaign entirely on the level of personality, using the Republicans and their more obnoxious allies like Rush Limbaugh to scare people into voting Democratic, rather than pitch policy promises they don't expect to fulfill. Rather than talk about Ryan's budget, or Boehner's voting record, they simply want to talk about Ryan and Boehner and make them look and sound as mean as possible -- not exactly a major challenge, to be fair. Muting their own commitment to social justice may help maximize donations to Democrats, but what really keeps the money flowing, probably from across the wealth spectrum, is the viability of the Republican threat. If Democrats are more concerned about maximizing donations than governing the country, then naturally they wouldn't want to eliminate Republicans from power as completely or permanently as many Democratic voters might like. A reader who calls himself "Silly Rabbit" expresses this viewpoint more sharply on the comments thread for the Nader article.

The Democrats--and especially Obama--WANT a strong Republican Party.  Why?  Because a strong, vocal, organized, intransigent and committed Republican Party gives the Democrats cover and an excuse for not accomplishing the ideals they publicly posture as wanting to accomplish, but in truth don't want to accomplish at all.  In short, without strong Republicans, the Democrats would have to do the things they present themselves as wanting to do, but in reality (for fear of offending the monied interests they are also a part of and/or aligned with) really have no intention of accomplishing.

None of this greatly contradicts what Nader assumes. We seem to agree that Democrats aren't very interested in an intensely progressive and/or populist campaign or program. We differ in that Nader seems to blame this on cowardice while I suspect cynicism at the root.  Before the Sean Wilentzes of the world jump on me, I'll happily concede that many Democrats see themselves sincerely as compassionate stewards of the public good. I don't doubt that many if not most Democrats want to help people with a fervor alien to Republicans. The problem with Democrats, and the difference between the Democratic party and democratic rule, is that the party always wants to help on its terms, while telling the rest of us that those are the best terms we can get. Those who accept those terms and tell us the rest of us to accept them unconditionally are the real defeatists.

18 March 2013

The invention of Judeo-Christian values

The latest Journal of American History has an interesting piece by K. Healan Gaston on the mid-20th century intellectual Will Herberg. Gaston is a historian of the American "New Right," the anticommunist and anti-liberal movement that emerged in the early Cold War years. One of his theses is that the "Judeo-Christian" values so often invoked by Republicans and others are a kind of invented tradition, conceived as the core of a religiously-based democracy and promoted to encourage ecumenical action against "godless" Communism. Gaston distinguishes between "Judeo-Christian pluralists," who were mainly interested in promoting tolerance, and "Judeo-Christian exceptionalists," among whom he ranks Herberg. The exceptionalists "regarded belief in a Judeo-Christian God as democracy's indispensable foundation, and deemed secularism the greatest threat to democracy in the modern world." From Gaston's account, the exceptionalists defined "democracy" as "limited government." Monotheism was conducive to "democracy" in this view because it discouraged people from thinking of the state (not to mention its leaders) as their god  and reminded leaders that they remained accountable to somebody, ultimately. Abrahamic monotheism -- whether Islam would work as well wasn't considered back then -- importantly emphasized human imperfection (our "fallen" nature) and supposedly discouraged efforts to perfect life in this world. This was a good thing since such efforts typically became coercive and made life more miserable for most people. Herberg himself was a collegiate Marxist but rejected Stalin. Gaston ascribes to him an "intense dislike of centralized institutions," Herberg believing that excessive bureaucratization only enhanced a tyrant's control over everyone. He became convinced that "the tendency toward bureaucratic centralization stemmed from human nature," and that "no purely structural solution could prevent socialism [in inevitably bureaucratic form] from devolving into totalitarianism." This was because, absent faith in a transcendent God, secular people would regard themselves as "the supreme power in the universe" and act accordingly with no sense of limit. Somehow a belief would result in the omnipotence of the state and its ownership of all people. Only by asserting God's claim on each individual could people hope to check the state's inevitably absolute claim on them.

I remember reading Herberg's most famous book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, for an undergraduate sociology course. It popularized a now-discredited generational theory of assimilation according to which third-generation immigrants, i.e. the grandchildren of the actual immigrants, would reassert their ancestral identity not by embracing ethnic chauvinism but by re-embracing a religion they could share in America with other ethnicities. Believing this, Herberg saw religious loyalties as crucial to the defense of American "democracy" against Communism and the secularism that softened resistance to it. In the 1950s, he strove for greater harmony between Jews and Christians -- in practice, at that time, between Jews and Catholics -- in defense of "democracy." Toward that end, he participated in the Foundation for Religious Action in the Social and Civil Order (FRASCO) and joined the staff of National Review, the conservative journal edited by the Catholic William F. Buckley Jr. It's interesting to see in Gaston's account how much anticommunism in that era was identified with Catholicism rather than Protestantism. Herberg himself was influenced by the Protestant theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and promoted it among his fellow reactionaries, but Niebuhr himself resisted the "conservative" label. Meanwhile, Herberg criticized Jewish conservatives for withholding cooperation from Catholics on suspicion of Catholic anti-Semitism while encouraging Catholics to scale back the theological litmus test they proposed for FRASCO membership -- its Catholic co-founders wanted members to affirm that Communism was "diabolical." But as Gaston notes, Herberg's own requirement that members avow loyalty only to "a democracy, in short, that explicitly or implicitly recognizes a majesty beyond itself" was "a distinction without a difference." It was true, however, that peculiarly Catholic phraseology (does "demoniacal" count?) might alienate otherwise sympathetic Jews or Protestants.

Also interesting is how little economics seemed to matter to Herberg. Gaston observes that "free-market ideals played little role in Herberg's conservatism," which seems to have been all about fear of the state based on his encounter with Stalinism. Herberg was one of those who assumed that if you didn't worship God, you'd only find something else to worship; he also assumed, as did many like him, that the most likely candidate for worship would be the state or its leader. This idea may have rang true for him because it mirrored his own course. Refusing to worship Stalin, he had to worship the God of Abraham. Many people today still refuse to accept the premise that other people don't actually "worship" anyone or anything, and thus are never as abject slaves to their causes or leaders as critics suspect. But if Herberg offered no defense of free enterprise that Gaston tells us about, it's an easy step from his distrust of the state's presumed demand for worship to the "don't tell me what to do" attitude that defines Republican conservatism for many unschooled in economics and makes it the perennial champion of the entrepreneur against the regulator. There's the slightest hint that Herberg's suspicion of bureaucratization -- an attitude typical of lapsed Leninists -- extended to the private sector along with the public sector, but since no corporation seemed to demand worship the way Stalin did -- they just wanted your money -- corporate America probably loomed little if at all as a threat to Herberg, except to the extent that it contributed to secularization. Of course, if being made to worship something or someone was the worst thing Herberg could imagine, he was probably even more out of touch with ordinary Americans than his flawed scholarship suggests. I don't mean to say that other Americans wouldn't mind genuflecting to some Great Leader, but just as some people fear having their house broken into more than being shot at randomly in the street, some people may reject the idea of worshiping a person without feeling the existential dread someone like Herberg did. Is that fear reason enough to leave everyone to the mercies of the Market? Men, not God, must judge.

17 March 2013

St. Patrick's: a day of rest, healing and hangovers

The feast day for Patrick of Ireland falls on a Sunday this year and probably has been a day of rest for many people, if only because of all the revelling and rioting done in the saint's honor yesterday. For some, today is certainly devoted to the licking of wounds. I'm thinking of the people whom I saw getting their asses kicked outside an Albany pizza parlor last night. It started with drunks in line trying to figure out what kind of slices they wanted. Then somebody thought he was being disrespected, and then somebody else thought he was being threatened. Thanks to modern communications technology, he called in some buddies. About a minute later they all spilled out the door. One group clearly outnumbered the other but the outnumbered ones (including one young woman) got some shots in -- punches, not drinks or bullets -- before numbers told. The winners put the boots in a little and left the losers laying, but it looked like not too much damage was done. Maybe no one really felt anything.

Earlier in Albany ...

I know the new Pope has a lot on his plate, but maybe if he lives a year he can spare some time next March to explain to Americans how to celebrate a saint's day, if you believe in such things.

15 March 2013

If This Be Treason ...

The past month has seen a blistering exchange of letters in the editorial pages of the Albany Times Union on the subjects of gun violence, gun control and the right to bear arms. The hottest point of controversy, inevitably, is over the right of rebellion inferred from the Second Amendment to the Constitution. That the necessity of militia for "the security of a free state" and the uninfringed "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" implies a right to rebellion is strongly disputed. If you believe the amendment does authorize you to rebel, it seems that nothing offends you so much as a critic calling your theoretical rebellion "treason." From distant Michigan, Jim Kress's response to such a charge is typical (See also Patrick O'Connel's closer to home). He asks rhetorically whether it would be "treason" for the subjects of Stalin or Pol Pot to rise up against their ruler, as if "treason" exists only in the eyes of tyrants. The answer to Kress's rhetorical question depends on whether you see "treason" in moral or statutory terms. If the former, then of course no uprising against an unjust despot is "treason," but in the eyes of sovereign law in the country in question, of course it is! That was the point of the statement attributed to Patrick Henry at the time of the Stamp Act. According to legend, at least, when his denunciation of George III was called treason, Henry didn't duck the charge but said, "If this be treason, make the most of it!" If he did say this, he probably spoke from an understanding that treason is ultimately defined in historical terms, as the old poem says: "Treason never prospers; what's the reason?/For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Those in the U.S. who reserve their right to rebel, whether they claim (as Kress does) a "natural" right to do so or not, act as if their presumed moral superiority preempts the verdict of history.

Intellectually, there ought to be a test that determines whether an uprising against the government is treason in any sense of the word. By their own standards, potential "traitors" would need to prove that the government had in fact become a tyranny. While some factions propose a kind of commonsense standard -- the Oathkeepers, for instance, would need to see a flagrant violation of the Constitution, too many people set the bar of provocation dangerously and vaguely low. I've seen too many people argue that they should rebel if the government taxes them too much or tells them what to do too often, without arguing whether the taxing or telling is constitutional or not. The more that people depend on an assumption of "natural right" to rebel, I fear, the less need they'll feel to prove their case by an appeal to the Constitution. However, even those who depend upon their reading of the Constitution to determine whether a government has become a tyranny should recognize some hurdle's they'll have to jump before they can even begin to justify an armed uprising. Most importantly, they can't expect the rest of the population to defer to their own reading of the Constitution. It may seem like a dangerous waste of time to the zealots, but the Supreme Court should be heard from on any alleged breach of the Constitution before anyone considers taking up arms. If the Court rules against the Executive or Legislative branch and is ignored, relief might still be had at the next election. If the next election doesn't take place, then all bets are off. Some may worry that it'd be too late by then, but the issue at hand isn't the effectiveness but the justice of rebellion. If you want to rebel and not be called traitors by anybody, these are the steps you'll have to take and like. Or you could just shoot anyone who calls you a traitor. Then none will dare question you, and the old poet will be proved correct.

Full-Spectrum Conservatism vs Pauline Libertarianism

It's CPAC time again -- time for more alarmed introspection from Republicans and either shudders of horror or sneers of contempt from everyone else. The big story this year was that the Conservative Political Action Conference did not invite Gov. Christie of New Jersey to attend. This is a big snub for a leader whose conservatism is unquestioned by objective observers yet remains popular in his own otherwise-blue state and is considered a credible contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Christie was too heterodox or perhaps too ready to cooperate with and compliment the President following a natural disaster for the CPAC organizers, who were lambasted for their intolerance even by hard-right types like Cal Thomas. I don't read enough Republican or conservative media to have found anyone defending CPAC's decision, but I'm sure some must approve or else CPAC wouldn't be the big event it is every year. This year a tug-of-war between purists and pragmatists was probably inevitable, but as the annual straw poll approaches we have a new storyline. At least one Fox News blogger suspects that Sen. Paul of Kentucky will continue his father's often-unwelcome winning streak in these polls. Even without Christie, it seems, CPAC is far from pure, or at least far from unanimous, and as far as Brad Todd is concerned the problem is libertarianism, at least as defined by the Paul family and their acolytes.

Todd strikes a condescending tone throughout his anti-Paul piece, dismissing libertarians as an ideologically limited and thus necessarily subordinate element in the Republican/"conservative" coalition. He compares libertarians unfavorably with the "full-spectrum conservatism" presumably (or desirably) prevalent at CPAC. The implication is that something's missing in the libertarian appeal, and Todd explains explicitly that the missing elements are "social issues," otherwise known as "family values," and a "muscular foreign policy." Without these, Pauline libertarianism is "a one-note kazoo song," good only for leading troops for "intra-party guerrilla purges" and inadequate for national elections. The Paulines' apparent disinterest in family values and foreign policy risk alienating the GOP from the voters on whom its depended for generations, Todd warns.

While many Republicans and conservatives are paying close, concerned attention to demographic trends and worrying over how to appeal to a changing electorate, Todd remains convinced that the electorate hasn't really changed. The problem with the Paulines, he writes, is that "They’re not motivated by two-thirds of the cause that animated the Reagan coalition." Many of his comrades concede by now that the "Reagan coalition" of the 1980s was a specific historic phenomenon, and many recognize (or at least fear) that it has expired and may be irreproducible. Not Brad Todd. His criticism of the Paulines and his insistence on the primacy of family values and a hard-charging foreign policy presume that the Reagan coalition is still out there. As far as he's concerned, it may always be out there. For Republicans like Todd, the "Reagan coalition" may be the same thing as the "silent majority" that Richard Nixon credited for his election victories. Since Nixon did win elections, he could point to something real, but he was probably smart enough to see that his silent majority was no less contingent a phenomenon than the later Reagan coalition. But Republicans from Nixon's time forward have thought of the silent majority in transcendent, essentialist terms. For them, the silent majority -- to be specific, the silent Republican-voting majority -- is what must exist for America to be America. It is the salt of the earth, the repository of tradition, the saving remnant. If you assume that Republican values made America great, there must always have been, must always be a critical mass of people who live by those values, since America could not have grown great otherwise. The more pessimistic or pragmatic Republicans and conservatives of this decade may believe the same thing on some level -- they may fear that the emergence of a majority without those values will doom the nation -- but they, at least, recognize some need to adapt and address the majorities they can see, i.e. those that elected Barack Obama President twice. The Paulines, presumably, have made a choice about what really matters to them, or what they think can be conserved, and want to tailor their case to the audience in front of them. They share space at CPAC uneasily with people like Todd who believe victory will come by performing the ghost dance and pleasing the great spirit. But for all I know, the only reason the libertarians show up there is because they know they can always win that straw poll for someone named Paul. What would happen is CPAC shuts them out the way they shut out Gov. Christie? I'm not sure anyone in the GOP really wants to know.

14 March 2013

Lighten up, Francis

The new Pope is apparently no great believer in the gospel of works. Sure, charity is nice, but as Rev. Bergoglio said today, "We can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO and not a Church which is the bride of Christ....When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly." 

My understanding is that Bergoglio has to some extent lived up to the personal austerity of the saint whose name he has taken, and has been a champion of the poor in Argentina by his own lights. But given the package that comes with proclaiming Jesus Christ, at least as far as Bergoglio is concerned -- rejection of abortion, homosexuality, "liberation theology," etc. -- I imagine that many of the poor would take the "worldly" NGO, all else being equal. 

By the way, expect to see that headline more often from American bloggers, especially when Francis gets around to criticizing American foreign and economic policy in the manner of his two predecessors. He's not the same sort of "conservative" you usually see here, and he'll be resented for that sometimes.

13 March 2013

Is the GOP a war casualty?

Daniel McCarthy, the editor of the American Conservative, disagrees somewhat with the diagnosis of the United States as a Bipolarchy. He writes in the March/April issue that ours is a  cyclical "one-and-a-half-party system," in which one party retains at least a small share of power but "isn't trusted by voters to run the country." It's been that way since 1969, McCarthy claims, once the Republican party began to dominate Presidential elections while Democrats (until 1994) held on to Congress. The situation is reversed now, with the Republicans clinging to control of the House of Representatives yet increasingly hopeless, it seems, in presidential elections. McCarthy believes that this cycle is driven by war. In broader terms, he writes, "foreign policy is not just about foreign policy; it's also about culture." During a failed war, he contends, there are also casualties on the cultural front. Vietnam is his first example.

President Johnson seemed to have started a war he couldn't win or even end. It split his party and transformed the American left; until then, labor muscle and social-democratic brains were the left's principal organs. They tended to support the war and oppose the cultural upheavals that coincided with it -- positions diametrically opposite those of the student movement and nascent New Left.

Ideology aside, McCarthy argues that wartime experience itself discredits ideology. "There were concrete connections between the conflict abroad and increasingly radical social movements at home," he writes, including increased alienation among blacks who questioned the national cause amid race riots and increased drug use among soldiers in general. Most importantly, civilians reacted, especially the young, against the war as the product of a particular political (and moral?) culture that they repudiated. In sum, "the war and its failures put the lie to everything."

Republicans took advantage of a "Democratic war" while the New Left failed to take full advantage of public discontent. Rather, Republicans from Nixon through Reagan exploited a patriotic reaction against the New Left -- but McCarthy stresses that the GOP cinched its grip on power by not living up to its own warmongering stereotype.

Instead the Republican Party, for all its anti-Communist rhetoric, adopted a conflict-averse Realpolitik exemplified by Nixon's opening to China and Reagan's negotiations with Gorbachev -- maneuvers that cemented the GOP's reputation for adult leadership among centrist voters. The long-remembered excesses of the New Left and the reality-based policies -- especially foreign policy -- of the Republican Party reduced Democrats to the role of half-party for almost a quarter of a century.

Republican hegemony depended on its image of competent management of foreign relations in McCarthy's account. That this didn't guarantee victories, however, may be proven by the defeat in 1992 of George H.W. Bush, who may have been the GOP's most convincing poster boy for foreign-policy competence. McCarthy implicitly attributes this to the diminishing relevance of Vietnam-era culture wars by the time of Bill Clinton; Democrats no longer suffered so much from seeming unpatriotic, despite efforts at the time to red-bait Clinton. But just as Clinton's supporters then said, "It's the economy, stupid!" so we should take McCarthy's account of recent Republican decline with some salt. He wants to blame it on the War on Terror, as you might expect from the leading anti-war conservative journal. Chronologically he may have a point, since the Democrats reclaimed Congress in 2006, before the economy really nosedived. His main point is that the war cost Republicans their reputation for competence in foreign affairs. He also argues that the 21st century Republican party was as ill-equipped as the 1960s Democratic party to deal with the contradictions of its commitment to war.

The raw numbers aren't similar -- the antiwar right is not as numerous as the antiwar left once was -- but the philosophical depth of the divide is as great. And it's a generation gap. [Baby] Boomer Republicans are still fighting old wars ... Yet even the younger evangelicals -- let alone Ron Paul's youthful supporters and the neo-traditionalist 'crunchy cons' -- don't buy it. The GOP never learned to talk to the post-Vietnam generation in the first place; over the last decade, it compounded the problem by launching wars that, far from resolving the unfinished business of the Vietnam era, only made clear that those who are refighting the conflicts of that time are oblivious to today's realities.

By analogy with the Vietnam experience, Republican incompetence in wartime discredits the whole party agenda. "The party and the ideology soaked into it have lost their reputation for competence, and they've lost the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America: victory, prosperity, normality." McCarthy fears that the GOP will be scarred by the era and end up identified for at least a generation with "resentment, recession and insecurity." It can't depend on culture war as a rallying point anymore, since fewer people embrace pre-1960s traditional values and the popular reaction against this war hasn't been as abrasively countercultural as the Vietnam-era opposition. If anything, McCarthy may give President Obama too much credit for "keeping the country out of quagmires," though he notes that Obama left Iraq "reluctantly." I suspect that many Americans believe us still embedded in a quagmire that transcends national borders, continuing in Afghanistan if not in parts unknown. That perception may help explain dissatisfaction with both major parties today, but McCarthy's account still underplays the role of domestic economic factors in shaping people's political attitudes. There's some truth here, but not the whole truth -- and that means that, like it or not, the Republican situation isn't as hopeless as McCarthy assumes.

*   *   *

McCarthy's original article isn't available online, but he posted a follow-up piece on the Conservative website, going into more detail on how countercultural antiwar protests can be counterproductive and offering some objective advice to the antiwar left. The article and the reader comments are worth a look.

12 March 2013

Howard Zinn and an American Historikerstreit

For Germans, the Historikerstreit is the long running debate among historians over whether the crimes of Nazism are best understood in a comparative context or should be treated as a uniquely evil phenomenon. At stake was whether something was fundamentally wrong with German culture itself. Something similar seems to be at stake in arguments among American historians. In the U.S. there actually seems to be a three-way war, as implicitly mapped out by David Greenberg's review in the current New Republic of a biography of Howard Zinn. The conflict will seem familiar to those who've followed the recent career of Sean Wilentz, a historian of the center-left who spends more time firing polemics at antagonists to his left than at whoever may be an opponent to his right. His dispute with Oliver Stone over Stone's Untold History of the United States is echoed in Greenberg's account of Zinn, the author of the bestselling People's History of the United States. Zinn's actual biographer is Martin Duberman, apparently a more radical historian than Greenberg yet still a critic of Zinn. The popularity of Zinn's writing made him a target on two fronts, one ideological, one academic. Duberman, while reportedly sympathetic to much of Zinn's leftist political agenda, reportedly faults the late author for a lack of academic rigor. That is, after an early point in Zinn's professional career he rarely engaged in primary research. Worse, Zinn didn't appear to take seriously the distinction may leftist academics draw between political commitment and objectivity in historical research. Like Stone, who was quite likely inspired by him, Zinn boasted of his bias in favor of the poor and powerless and his hostility toward wealth in power. As a result, Duberman notes that Zinn's work "sometimes ... lacks nuance" in its division of humanity into "villains or heroes" and its portrayal of U.S. history as "mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit." Greenberg amplifies Duberman's criticisms, finding the biographer "too indulgent" of his subject and suggesting that Duberman remains too much a writer of the Left to judge his subject as Zinn deserves.

Professional academic historians can be dogmatic about objectivity and the importance of primary research, but it's impossible to rule out envy, regardless of whether the reviewer is left, center or other, of someone like Zinn who got wealthy writing "popular history," i.e. storytelling, without answering to academia's rigorous standards. Envy, however, shouldn't obscure the widespread perception that something was wrong with Zinn's historiography. Many political comrades, broadly speaking, found fault with his perceived tendency to turn history into a good-vs-evil struggle. Greenberg sums up their attitude, paraphrasing a leftist critic of Zinn to the effect that "historians are obliged to explore the viewpoints of elite actors, however unattractive, not to parcel out sympathy in proper proportions, but to show, in a faithful account of the past, the interconnectedness of the rulers and ruled, and of all strata of society, and how one group's experiences influence others." He describes my own habit of mind. I'm reading a recent book about the Great Leap Forward in China and the resulting mass famine under Chairman Mao, and I find myself struggling to figure out how decisions that seem insane and imbecilic could make sense to the man. I don't want to jump to the conclusion that Mao was just an inhuman megalomaniac -- even though that might be the best way to salvage Communism of a permanent taint by association with him -- but I also wonder what good is really does to insist that everyone must have had his reasons, even for the worst atrocities of history. This seems to be the point of departure for "popular historians" like Zinn and Oliver Stone's partner Peter Kuznick. Critics like Greenberg and even reportedly more sympathetic critics like Duberman avow loyalty to an objective ideal of history as the totality of people's lives and opinions. Their commitment to objective truth requires them at least to report that everyone has his reasons -- that no one (except the Nazis, maybe) were huddled together conspiratorially cackling with pleasure at the harm they meant to do people. By comparison, writers like Zinn are essentially moralists. What matters to them is that people have suffered while others were indifferent or else actually exacerbated human suffering. Whether they were actual sadists who did what they did specifically to cause suffering wasn't the point, I presume, for Zinn -- as an academically trained historian I've never bothered reading him. What most likely mattered was whether you did anything to alleviate the suffering of your contemporaries. If you didn't, you were a bad guy.

Greenberg is clearly more of a centrist than Zinn or Duberman, so he can't leave the subject without taking a swipe at leftism in general. Like Sean Wilentz, Greenberg resents the Left's perceived tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good (i.e. the Democratic party?). While complimenting American radicals for "bringing greater equality and justice to the political sphere," Greenberg complains that "there have been times, too, when some radicals -- political and intellectual -- have embraced zealotry and maximalism, or betrayed their own ideals, and allowed their impatience with the imperfections of those in power to lead them into deluded and destructive movements." But if impatience with imperfection is a sin to Greenberg, indifference to suffering (or injustice) was one for Zinn and remains one for Stone. Too often it seems as if American intellectuals and activists are asked to choose one or the other. It's true that in extreme cases (like Mao) impatience leads straight to indifference, but in most cases it should not be as oppressive as Democrats so often feel it is for people to demand a better world, however "simplistically" they describe it and however persistently they demand it.  Intellectuals may be annoyed by the alleged Manicheanism of leftist "people's history," but they should be careful not to sound as if they don't want anyone saying that something is wrong with the world -- at least when Democrats are in charge.

11 March 2013

The gun debate: choose your fear

Just as one of the local newspapers started a two-part series of interviews with people on both sides of the debate over gun control, it occurred to me that we really have a debate between two kinds of fear. The people who want more gun control fear random gun violence; they worry that they'll be caught in a public place in the middle of an amoklauf or in the crossfire when a beef breaks out of nowhere. The opponents of gun control, as their constant affirmation of their right to self-defense makes clear, fear that they will be the specific targets of crime: muggings, home invasions, assault by a tyrannical government, etc. These fears seem mutually exclusive, or else each side accuses the other of indifference to its particular fears. Are these blind spots real? While you can suppose that pro-gun people do consider the possibility of random violence but believe themselves capable of stopping it, can it be true that gun-control advocates don't fear being mugged or having their homes broken into? This isn't a question of whether one side or the other is paranoid, but maybe more a matter of what different groups of people take for granted.

The Saratogian gave one day to "gun enthusiasts, " the next to gun-control supporters. The pro-gun side is represented by a mother with school-aged kids who empathizes with the bereaved parents of Sandy Hook but can't help seeing "a gun-free zone [as] a sitting-duck zone," with New York State's SAFE Act only restricting "law-abiding people." She assumes that some "they" out there wants "total confiscation," though for what purpose she doesn't say. A father with two teenage sons, whom he's trained on gun ranges, keeps his weapons under lock and key and considers himself an "unduly targeted" and "responsible gun owner." He emphasizes that he plans to comply with the SAFE Act, but he participated in the February 28 protest against it in Albany and hopes that the law can be "changed or improved." Another interviewee learned to fire guns as a young hunter and Boy Scout. He believes that gun purchasers should undergo background checks and take mandatory training courses and is less bugged over the SAFE Act's limits on magazine capacity than the previous subject. However, he does seem concerned about a slippery slope, noting that "it is difficult to draw a line in the sand" while worrying that "I don't want someone to tell me how much I can protect myself." Gun violence today, in his opinion, is "a symptom of a larger societal problem," but like many gun-control opponents, he believes that the entertainment industry is more to blame and "more dangerous than assault weapons."

A Presbyterian pastor echoes a concern about the larger culture, but he roots a perceived "social pathology in our country" to a love of guns rather than the media that express it. This gun-control supporter makes what may sound like an ad hominem argument against the other side, asking "what goes on in [their] minds that makes possessing weapons so important to them" and questioning a tendency for "insecure individuals [to] purchase guns to make themselves feel more secure." But this may be a debate where ad hominem arguments are unavoidable, if you agree that it's a conflict of different sets of emotions and fears. The gun enthusiasts themselves are quick to say that the other side's emotions are overriding their intelligence or objectivity, so their own emotional state is a fair subject for discussion. Another gun-control supporter interviewed is a current member of the NRA who changed her views after moving from the country to the city, where "there are a lot of people who own guns who have no business owning guns." Like the pastor, she hopes for a more rational and comprehensive gun-control regime. So does another interviewee who happened to have been one of President Reagan's nurses following the 1981 attempt on his life. A longtime member of the Brady Campaign founded by Reagan's wounded press secretary, she argues that critics of the SAFE Act "show a lack of empathy and compassion," but as I've suggested, that lack appears to be mutual. Gun-control advocates may disagree, arguing that their answer to the other side's fear of crime (diplomatically ignoring its fear of the government) is to make sure that criminals don't have guns. But one of the fundamental assumptions of the opponents of gun control is that the "bad guys" will somehow always have guns or other lethal weapons, and that no measures taken by governments can truly disarm the criminal element. The pastor protests that the other side's "false division between the good guys and the bad guys" is "theologically bankrupt," not to mention intellectually insolvent by secular standards, but I wonder whether the true source of the gun enthusiasts' defining anxiety isn't so much that there'll always be "bad guys" than that someone out there might always have an advantage over them. There may be a competition in them, as Daniel Plainview might say, the absence of which may explain why some people don't share their fears and why those who don't share their fears are often thought of as docile "sheep." We might get a step closer to a solution to this national dilemma if the gun-control would address more decisively the other side's all-too-personal fear of crime, or show how people can live without that fear of crime dominating their lives or their political thinking.

08 March 2013

American 'Indian givers' and a 'woman of courage'

Here's a little story that may give an idea of the Obama administration's global priorities. A little while ago the government wanted to honor an Egyptian activist, Samira Ibrahim, with the "International Woman of Courage" award. Ibrahim's particular agenda is to end the Egyptian government's harassing practice of performing "virginity tests" on female protesters who happen to get arrested. Having been subjected to one herself, as well as getting manhandled by soldiers, Ibrahim looked like a natural heroine to progressive-minded Americans. Time magazine ranked her among the 100 most influential people on earth in its annual bout of wishful thinking. Honoring her looked like a relatively unprovocative way of promoting civility in Egypt. The administration was then shocked to learn -- it learned this from a writer for the neocon Weekly Standard -- that as an Egyptian Muslim, Ibrahim doesn't like Jews very much, and likes the state of Israel less. Just as surprisingly, she isn't even really that great a fan of the United States -- or so some "tweets" credited to her suggest. She supposedly celebrated the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. on their most recent anniversary and quoted Adolf Hitler favorably to the effect that Jews have a hand in everything bad. To be fair, and as Fox News reports, Ibrahim is claiming that someone hacked her Twitter account, presumably to make derogatory comments in her name, but really -- should it have surprised anyone in the American government to learn that a politically conscious Egyptian dislikes Israel and the U.S? Taking this for granted, the question becomes whether the alleged insult to the U.S. and its "ally" matters more than the work Ibrahim was doing for women's civil rights in Egypt. If the issue is to encourage civility in that country, Ibrahim's opinion of other countries or religions, no matter how obnoxious some may see it, should not be relevant. But I suppose the last thing the President and Secretary Kerry want to see are headlines in American media saying that their administration is honoring an anti-Semite who approved of "Nine-Eleven." So now the award is "postponed" (according to the Washington Post) or "revoked" (according to Fox). Regardless of whether someone hacked her account to smear her in American eyes, you can imagine the message this sends to someone supposedly advocating, at her own risk, greater democracy in Egypt. That the message was received can be inferred from her statement refusing to apologize to the "Zionist lobby" for anything. If the tweets are hers, do they prove her less courageous? Or did American liberals only think her courageous because they mistook her for one of them? Real courage on the part of those giving the award would have included saying, "it doesn't matter what you think of us." But when was that ever true?

07 March 2013

Rand's Stand

Some people say you can judge a person by his enemies. In politics such judgments have limited value since alliances are always shifting, but it probably does help us judge Sen. Rand Paul's authentic he-man filibuster -- he actually stood and spoke -- against the confirmation of the next CIA director that two of the biggest warmongers in Paul's own Republican caucus, Senators McCain and Graham, have denounced him for daring to ask whether the President assumes an authority to kill noncombatant domestic "enemies" with drones on American soil. For Sen. Graham, the question is "offensive" and doesn't deserve an answer from the President or his director-designate. Admittedly, the scenario is a kind of reductio ad absurdam, as was Paul's already-derided analogy with firing a missile at Jane Fonda during the Vietnam war. But if it takes examples like that to know where the government draws the line, then they're at least a start. Paul is not out of line to want to know where the President ultimately draws his line on the discretionary use of drones and missiles against "enemies" and "threats." While some of the Republicans who supported Paul in his filibuster -- one Democrat also took his side -- can be dismissed as hypocrites if they raised no similar questions during the Bush administration, Paul has only just arrived in the Senate and his attitude toward the War on Terror has mostly been that of his father. His filibuster may be a bit of personal grandstanding to help him establish a national identity out of his father's shadow, but based on McCain and Graham's contemptuous outbursts it can't be called a partisan ploy. Paul's domestic policies are abominable, but the filibuster might be one of his broken-clock moments. Even those are right sometimes; whether it's more or less often than Rand Paul you can decide for yourselves.

06 March 2013

The specter of Hugo Chavez

Liberals were never going to be comfortable with someone like the late Hugo Chavez. They aren't really comfortable with revolutionaries in general, since revolutions are always acts of coercion to some extent. Social revolutions often offend liberals when they seem to take the form of ex post facto law. It seems unfair to some people when something that had been thought right, or at least legal, is abruptly declared wrong and illegal, especially when wealth gained by once-legal means are taken from formerly law-abiding people by revolutionary power. Whether the revolutionary appeals to a higher law to argue that past practices were always wrong or cites changing circumstances to claim that they're wrong now, it can't help striking some people as essentially arbitrary. It doesn't help when people presume that the revolutionary, of all people, has a special obsession with telling people what to do. Sure, the capitalist tells a bunch of people what to do, but he doesn't get to tell everybody what to do, and not even with his employees (so the idealists insist) does the capitalist get to enforce his will with lethal force. When a revolutionary is as in love with the sound of his own voice as Chavez obviously was, it only reinforces the impression that he has a lust to dictate, or at least a lust for attention unseemly in a constitutional politician. But the premises by which liberals disdain revolutionaries are not exempt from scrutiny. Their abhorrence of coercion may be deemed superficial, focused more on the obvious incidents of goons clubbing dissidents than the systemic coercions that subjugate multitudes of free-on-paper people worldwide. Their abhorrence of ex post facto law, at least with regard to property, may force them into an untenable defense of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds or, in Churchillian terms, the worst of all except for all the others. Liberals believe in reform, of course, but prefer that to be a matter of pure moral suasion and voluntary conversion. They can justify redistributing wealth by inferring wealth's consent to taxation enacted by duly elected, constitutionally constrained representatives, but they find it much harder to justify the revolutionary preference for confiscation or nationalization because the consent is obviously missing in some cases. The liberal ideal of government is always consensual and contractual, while the revolutionary often asserts more compelling imperatives and assumes obligations that override at least some of the consent requirements liberals demand. This may be because many revolutions assume the state to be the ultimate expression of the human will to survive both individually and collectively, an apparently hypocritical resort to mass murder in some cases notwithstanding, while some liberals, at least, share with their conservative cousins an assumption that the state was never meant for that. For many observers the state becomes dangerous when it assumes that responsibility, especially when it asserts both collective and individual obligations toward realizing its goals, the opposite ideal being the utopia of personal responsibility where everyone is autonomous and no one resorts to force or fraud. By now we're probably getting beyond Hugo Chavez's own agenda, but since liberals believe in the Slippery Slope above all, if you recognize Chavez in any of the above some people probably saw all of it and more, and demonized him accordingly.

In retrospect, Chavez had no business running for re-election last fall, depending on whether he realized his cancer was terminal or not. Looking further back, some will say Chavez had no business ever running for president given his past as a coup plotter, but it's probably to Venezuela's credit that its political system saw fit to integrate him into electoral politics rather than leave him a prowling outsider. You could still argue that people had no business voting for a man who'd been willing to topple his government through a coup -- and you could also refuse sympathy when President Chavez was in turn beset by an attempted coup. History can mix you up sometimes. It seems clear that for Chavez electoral politics was but one means toward his end of socialism or simply social justice, and not the exclusive means envisioned by classical liberals. In his elections he probably cheated as much as anyone running a political machine based on dispensing patronage to supporters, but in politics we should presume no party innocent, no matter what Venezuelan or American partisans, left or right, insist.  He probably pushed dissidents around in petty ways, but that practice is more widespread than it seems when you focus only on the explicitly political realm. Like other "strongmen" disdained in the U.S., Chavez probably didn't share the American liberal bias toward giving dissent the benefit of the doubt, but I don't know whether he differed significantly from his predecessors in power in that respect. His record as a leader rather than as a politician seems mixed, the mix depending on the biases of the observer. He seemed to benefit, or the country to suffer, from the "resource curse" that allowed him to win loyalty by distributing petroleum profits Alaska-style while neglecting other urgent economic needs. Whether the Venezuelan economy as a whole is better off or not after a generation of brain drain and capital flight, you can still make a case that his handling of the oil money was the right thing to do for the people and the nation. Chavez and his heir tend to scapegoat imperialism for any shortcomings or misfortunes, but while the U.S. share of the blame may be exaggerated by Bolivarian propaganda it's unlikely that Clinton, Bush and Obama are absolutely blameless. Any honest appraisal of the Chavez Administration is going to more complex than the instant homages or anathemas pronounced this week, especially if you don't take for granted that certain responses to his policies were inevitable, much less correct. Chavez himself was a big believer in the importance of Great Leadership in history -- hence his idolization of Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, etc. -- but an objective assessment of the Bolivarian experiment must look past his personality, perhaps to a degree that argues that Bolivarismo's true test has only just arrived. Now that we're past the usefulness of speculating about Hugo Chavez's compulsions and eccentricities, we can ask with clearer minds whether any leader should be allowed by his people to do as he did; whether any people should be allowed to choose a course like his for their nation; whether any state should be allowed to take the form he intended for Venezuela. You can't judge Chavez without judging the essence of politics itself.