31 May 2013

Thomas Fleming's Disease

The book jacket describes Thomas Fleming's A Disease in the Public Mind as "a new understanding of why we fought the Civil War but at age 85 Fleming himself is old enough to know better. A prolific popular historian, Fleming has actually revived a thesis popular in his own youth. Asking "Why was the United States the only nation to fight a war to end slavery?" he blames this exceptional violence on what used to be called a "blundering generation" of misguided or incompetent political leaders. Fleming's own emphasis is on "misguided," and his interpretation of the buildup to war will strike many contemporary readers as contrarian if not perverse. Consider: if Fleming's book has a villain, it is William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist publisher. What makes this uncompromising enemy of slavery a villain? If you guessed the "uncompromising" part, you'd be right. Fleming's particular thesis is that Southerners hardened their attitudes toward slavery in the face of abolitionist propaganda from the likes of Garrison that actually amounted to hate speech. Garrison's rhetoric was particularly objectionable, Fleming claims, because The Liberator persistently equated slavery with rape while insinuating that slaveholders generally were rapists. This could not but offend the pride of Southern planters, and if you ask why we should care what slaveholders thought Fleming will be glad to explain.

Not only was abolitionist rhetoric offensive, Fleming argues, it was also insensitive. In particular it was insensitive to southerners' fears of slave insurrections and race war. Fleming describes in gruesome detail the atrocities of the Haitian revolution against France to make clear what Southerners feared. The Haitian record is meant to show that those fears weren't just some racist delusion. While Fleming never goes so far to suggest that mass murder of whites by blacks on the Haitian scale was a possibility in the U.S., he emphasizes the violence of this country's far smaller slave insurrections to remind us that slaveholders had something to fear. If you scoff at their fears, or treat them as slaveholders' just desserts, Fleming implies that you're treating them the way they treated blacks. No, he doesn't mean that you're whipping them into doing your work for you. Instead, he indicts abolitionists for not treating them as human beings whose opinions, interests and anxieties have to be acknowledged, if not taken entirely seriously. To insist on immediate, uncompensated emancipation and immediate equal rights for freed slaves, as most abolitionists did, was to willfully disregard any concerns felt by those who'd feel the immediate consequences of those decisions. That disregard wasn't just a matter of abolitionists' presumed moral superiority, but also an expression of sectional hatred. Fleming actually reaches further back into American historiography to revive an anti-Yankee or anti-Puritan theme that is rarely heard in the mainstream these days, though it can certainly be found in "neo-Confederate" literature. In this account, New Englanders saw themselves as the rightful moral, political and economic leaders of the nation, and took offense whenever Southerners won political power. Garrison was just another anti-Southern Puritan bigot in Fleming's account.

As a historian Fleming echoes the "both sides are to blame" rhetoric of some centrist commentators on present-day politics. He points out that Southerners had plenty of early opportunities to end slavery, yet botched every one. Even so, he makes a point of noting that Southerners acknowledged that they had a slavery problem and that some of them wanted to fix it. He believes that these honest efforts would have continued had not abolitionist extremism hardened Southern hearts and provoked defensive arguments that slavery was a positive good and a necessity to the section.

Despite what I'm describing, Fleming's book has a clear moral focus. Remember the initial question: why did we have to fight a war? Fleming notes that Great Britain did not, and notes further that Britain adopted compensated emancipation. He believes that the U.S. should have done likewise, and that however offensive it might seem to pay evildoers to renounce evil, it was preferable to a war that killed more than half a million men. In Fleming's words:

Compensated emancipation had psychological and spiritual dimensions as well as an economic side. It brushed aside the abolitionists' hatred of slave owners based on their religious conviction that slavery was a sin. Instead, it recognized that slavery was a system that the South had inherited two centuries ago. The current generation of slave owners was not guilty. They had not invented the system, and not a few of them admitted it was evil.

Fleming is no apologist for slavery, but he would probably dispute Spike Lee's characterization of the peculiar institution as a "Holocaust." He challenges a narrative of monotonous oppression by describing an organic evolution of the institution that allowed slaves to acquire skills and wealth and might have evolved further to a natural expiration. He goes against what I take to be the current grain by refusing the assumption that immediate, uncompensated emancipation was an irresistible moral imperative. He doesn't think slavery was worse than killing, while many today more likely see slavery as a kind of slow-motion murder. He clearly doesn't see emancipation as being worth all the lives lost in the war. When he quotes Lincoln's second inaugural address, he highlights "with malice toward none" rather than "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." In short, whatever others may feel, Fleming does not believe that slaveholders deserved death. He would not be amused by Django Unchained. That aside, if readers find Fleming's theses morally offensive, he'll conclude that they've missed his point, which is, apparently, that moral outrage doesn't entitle you to kill or even to provoke a war. One may wonder how comprehensive the argument is, not to mention whether obnoxious newspaper writers are really to blame for all the dead. But what's worth killing for is a question worth asking often, whatever the answer is. If Fleming meant his book to be provocative, he'll probably succeed one way or another.

30 May 2013

Is the NRA going down?

The New Republic predicts defeat for the National Rifle Association in its current issue. Alec McGillis contends that the rise of an aggressive, well-funded gun-control lobby in the wake of last year's mass shootings means, at the least, that the gun-control camp will take the fight to the NRA in a way not seen in a long time, if ever. McGillis believes that politicians and activists have been simply too cowardly in the face of the NRA's perceived clout and the loud anger of some gun-rights extremists. He cites Rep. Joe Manchin's ability to withstand the rage of gun nuts at a West Virginia town hall meeting as a moral model for the whole movement.

By meeting’s end, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed was a microcosm of the new gun politics. There were only five protesters, but because of their belligerence, they had nearly captured the entire discussion. Manchin, however, had realized that there were a lot of people there who weren’t shouting at him—and when he persisted, it turned out that many of them agreed with him. After all, polls had found a vast majority of West Virginians supported his proposal. If he could pull this off in West Virginia, surely his colleagues could manage it in New Hampshire or Montana.

Perhaps -- but my gut feeling remains pessimistic. Gun politics in the U.S. depends on a balance of distrust. If there's been a genuine cause for optimism over the past year, it would be an emerging consensus that Americans don't trust the gun lobby and its constituents. To the extent that the majority has looked at the people at pro-gun rallies and decided, "That's not us!" there's been progress toward reform. To the extent that they no longer trust the stereotypical gun nut not to open fire on them some day, either in a fit of insanity or as some act of political protest -- or both --  there's been progress toward reform. But distrust of government remains real, and the past month's scandals have probably given many people more cause to distrust government. We can protest objectively that people shouldn't distrust a democratic or democratically elected government, but no matter how democratic the U.S. is, most people don't wear uniforms and fewer can give commands, and to them government will always be someone else who can do something to them as well as for them.  If the gun-control debate is a zero-sum game in which people assume that less guns (or less ammo) for individuals only means more power (and more potential for abuse) for government, those people will probably side with the side they distrust less. Random events can make a difference. More scandals will heighten distrust of government; more mass shootings will heighten distrust of gun nuts and their apologists. If we're at a turning point now, it may be because many people trust neither the government nor the gun lobby sufficiently to take a definite stand with one or the other. If someone can find a way to make people see gun control a matter of empowering  themselves, rather than giving the state more power to oppress them or gun nuts more freedom to kill them, then the NRA's days as a power in the land might actually be numbered.

29 May 2013

Gov. Chafee's declaration of dependence?

Lincoln Chafee earned a reputation in the U.S. Senate as one of that body's most liberal Republicans. Despite that, he lost his seat (representing Rhode Island) in the Democratic surge of 2006. By 2010 he most likely could not have won a Republican primary, yet he ran for governor as an independent and won. Since there were seven candidates on the ballot, he needed only about 36% of the popular vote to win. It's assumed that it won't be so easy next time. According to sources, Chafee has decided that the easiest route to re-election is to preempt competition from the Democratic party. Therefore, Chafee is now expected to register as a Democrat and run in the gubernatorial primary next year. The odd thing about this is that many Democrats, or Democratic sympathizers in comment threads, are gloating about this. They act as if Chafee had only just formally defected from the Republican party, treating his change of registration as a dis to the GOP. The cynicism behind Chafee's move and the Democrats' expected welcome to him doesn't seem to register as strongly. However nobly liberal he may be, Chafee may prove a master at manipulating the party system to his personal benefit. He may expect his hard-core supporters to give him an advantage in the primary, unless establishment Democrats can unite behind one candidate. Rhode Island requires independent candidates to register early, so a Chafee primary victory could preempt a serious challenge from his left, unless voters decide to take established parties to the left of the Democrats seriously. Chafee probably does come close to many people's model of an establishment liberal Democrat, but there also has to be a reason why Democrats voted against him back when he was a Republican. If the only reason was his brand, and a change of brand only will win their loyalty, what does that say about the American party system?

Rep. Bachmann term-limits herself

Michele Bachmann bucked the Democratic trend of the 2006 congressional elections to win a seat representing a Minnesota district. From that point, she worked the talk circuit, presumably in the hope that the right rhetoric would win her a presidential nomination. For a moment in 2011 she was considered a front-runner among the Republican candidates, but she faded fast. The vaunted ultra-conservative base of her party has rarely agreed on one candidate to represent them in a primary campaign; doing so might require more deference than many in the base are capable of. However popular Bachmann may be nationwide among those who see the presidency primarily as a bully pulpit, or a pulpit for bullies, her inability to unite the right behind her has limited her opportunities for advancement in the political sphere. A statewide campaign in Minnesota, where Al Franken is one of the U.S. Senators, seems unlikely. Now, amid questions about possible misuse of campaign funds, Bachmann has announced that she won't run for her House seat again next year. Unlike some politicians of her ideological stripe, she had not promised earlier to step down after a few terms. Now, however, she tells her public that since the President can serve no more than eight years, four terms is enough for a Representative. Reporters duly note that she has not ruled out a run for any higher office, but it seems most likely that she'll find work more suited to her talent in opinion media. Her Democratic rival from last year, now the favorite to succeed her, sneers that Bachmann's district wants a representative with actual "business background," but she'll probably end up making plenty of money for herself, if not making jobs for anyone else. Meanwhile, national Democrats will have one less bogeywoman to scare potential voters and donors with. Fortunately for them, the Republicans seem to have an inexhaustible stock of such figures for Democrats to exploit. If supply and demand really determined the value of such things, people like Bachmann would go for a dime a dozen.

28 May 2013

Syrian options

The Syrian insurrection has become an international conflict, if it had not been one already, when the Lebanese Hezbollah militia took the field in support of Bashar al-Assad's government. While Lebanon is right next door to Syria, it should be plain that Lebanon, not to mention a Lebanese faction, has no more right to intervene in that country than any other nation does. Hezbollah's intervention only threatens to stir up more widespread conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as previewed by rocket attacks on Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods in Beirut, blamed on Sunni militias. For some, Hezbollah's involvement may serve as a new pretext for long-desired intervention by other powers. In the U.S., the President has been urged to intervene in the same way he intervened in the Libyan uprising -- and see where that got him, eventually. Republicans, neocons, and some liberals want the international community to step in and "liberate" Syria on humanitarian principles.  For some advocates of intervention, geopolitical self-interest is at work. The hope is that whatever replaces Assad and the Baath party will be, if not necessarily more reasonable toward Israel -- that's too wild a dream for most dreamers, this time -- than at least less friendly toward Iran and less supportive of "terrorist" entities like Hezbollah. Even if it's hard for anyone to imagine liberal democracy blooming in Syria, many people still feel that toppling a tyrant like Assad would be an objectively good thing, if not a moral imperative. Neither Assad nor his father can be said to have been good tyrants. The nationalist pretensions that come with the Baath label were belied by their disproportionate patronage of and dependence upon their Alawite co-religionists. It has been tribalism by another name, and even those who dare imagine that dictatorship is necessary to modernize some nations will concede that dictatorial favoritism defeats the purpose. The reported calls among insurgents for the extermination of the Alawites is history's verdict on the Assad policy. The cure is presumed worse than the disease, however, and idealists viewing Syria from outside will want regime change to come without revenge against a minority sect. But we may still ask whether Syria can progress without some decisive use of force against tribalism, not to mention whether the world has a right to impose that condition upon the Syrians. No great power on earth has become one entirely through peaceful evolution. Arguably, no advanced nation has become one that way. Humanitarian intervention remains a noble idea, even if no nation or group or nations can be trusted to intervene with truly disinterested benevolence. But what if humanitarian intervention, even with the loftiest intention of preventing a war to someone's finish, doesn't really change history but only blocks it? You might still save lives this generation, but you might also have to risk your own again next generation to save theirs again. Someone who believes that government, both global and national, is mainly about keeping people alive may accept that task. But I get the impression that many people who don't believe that about government are advocating intervention in Syria. Others who do have something like that positive belief about government probably should be worrying more about keeping their own people alive during hard times. People who say we can't ignore what's happening in Syria probably are ignoring things that are more properly their business.

24 May 2013

Charles Krauthammer's rhetorical hypocrisy

The syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer accuses Barack Obama of conducting an "ad hominem presidency." He blames the IRS's selective auditing of applicants for tax exemptions and the Justice Department's investigation of journalists allegedly involved in leaking on the President's "concerted campaign to demonize Fox News" and his characterization of 501(c)(4) entities as "special interest groups." Obama need not have his fingerprints on any orders to harass or intimidate dissidents, Krauthammer argues, for his attitude to have inspired government bureaucrats to make life difficult for political opponents, real or perceived. "The great rhetorical specialty of this president has been his unrelenting attribution of bad faith to those who disagree with him," the columnist claims.

A few lines earlier, Krauthammer wrote:

No one goes to jail for creating such a climate of intolerance. Nor is it a crime to incessantly claim that those who offer this president opposition and push-back — Republicans, tea partyers, Fox News, whoever dares resist the sycophantic thrill-up-my-leg media adulation — do so only for “politics,” power and pure partisanship, while the Dear Leader devotes himself exclusively to the nation, the middle class, the good and just.

Krauthammer was building up a nice argument against ad hominem or bad-faith politics until he suddenly turned the knife on himself. Do you see where that happened? Two simple words -- "Dear Leader" -- wreck Krauthammer's credibility on this issue. Whether he means to suggest that Obama thinks of himself as a "Dear Leader," or that his supporters see him as one, let's remember that "Dear Leader" was the preferred epithet for the late Kim Jong Il, the hereditary dictator of North Korea. So Krauthammer, while complaining about a Democratic tendency to presume bad motives on the part of Republicans, attributes to Democrats, possibly from the top down, the mentality of North Korean Communists. It is, after all, his bad-faith, ad hominem assumption that liberal Democrats, whether from lust for power or an irrepressible busybody impulse, want to increase government control over our lives to a totalitarian extent. That, naturally, colors his perception of all the scandals currently swirling around the Obama administration.

Ideology and ad hominem rhetoric go hand in hand. Once you decide that there is only one right way for the world to be run, it follows that anyone who disagrees is not just wrong but wicked, the more hatefully so the more they persist in error. If anything, Charles Krauthammer is more of an ideologue than anyone in the Obama administration. In fact, it's often hard to see Obama as any kind of ideologue -- though I'm sure Krauthammer would blame my difficulty on ideological blindness. That aside, when one ideologue accuses another, or anyone, of bad faith, that itself is a better illustration of bad faith at work.

23 May 2013

IRS scandal = profiling?

Farhad Manjoo, a writer for the Slate website, attempts a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu this week by arguing that conservatives outraged over the apparent targeting of Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status by the IRS should now oppose profiling as a police or national security policy. The offended TPs, he argues, now know how it feels to be profiled. They were investigated because superficial details -- the words "Tea Party" or other conservative signifiers in their organization names -- caused tax people to suspect that their claims of tax-exempt "social welfare" status were spurious. Moreover, Manjoo argues that the IRS scandal proves again that profiling doesn't work:

The [Inspector General] says that as a result of profiling, there was also a high false-negative rate—investigators were quickly approving certain groups even though they were likely to have engaged in political activity, all because they didn’t fit the profile. This is the Richard Reid scenario: Sometimes, a white guy tries to blow up a plane. Sometimes, two Caucasians blow up a sporting event. If you’re only looking for the brown guys, you’re going to miss those cases. Based on a statistical sample of applications it reviewed, the IG says there were a total of 185 cases that should have been flagged for further review but weren’t. That’s because, instead of looking at those cases, investigators were spending their time looking at groups with “Tea Party” in their names....By profiling Tea Party groups, not only was the IRS applying its rules unfairly, it was also spending a lot of time investigating good guys, and it was letting a few bad guys through without extra scrutiny. If you wanted to make a case against profiling, you couldn’t pick a better example than what happened here.

Manjoo takes the consistent position that profiling on any level is wrong, but he fears that few will be as consistent in their outrage. He expects Republicans and TP types to make a distinction between criminal profiling, which they'll continue to support despite evidence of ineffectiveness, and inherently illegitimate political profiling, which is how they might describe what the IRS was doing. From their perspective, the problem with the IRS wasn't whether or not "profiling" took place, but that any application by a dissident group for tax-exempt status was questioned. Again, the assumption is that dissent should be given the benefit of the doubt, and that anything else amounts to government harassment of dissent. It's arguably the same distinction the IRS official Lois Lerner made the other day, by taking the Fifth, between the official oversight function of a congressional committee and the politically-motivated persecution she assumed the committee chairman to have in mind. When people tasked with enforcing objective rules are not perceived as objective actors, the rule of law takes a hit. I suppose that same argument can be made in defense of profiling, against those who presume that the process is always tainted by bias. The possibility of bias is indisputable, but it's not just the bias of officials that undermines the rule of law. The bad faith of the people at large, the refusal to trust that rules are being or can be enforced objectively, is just as bad -- but the people ought to be able to take care of both problems at once.

22 May 2013

The Fifth Amendment and partisan justice

The most surprising item so far in the commentary on IRS official Lois Lerner's "taking the Fifth" before a congressional committee today is an approving citation by a Wall Street Journal blogger of a Warren Court decision in favor of an alleged Communist. From all appearances, James Taranto is a fan of neither the IRS nor the Obama administration. But he holds back from joining the bloodhounds baying at Lerner's heels on the assumption that taking the Fifth on the question of selective scrutiny of Tea Party groups applying for tax exemptions proves that Lerner has done something wrong or even criminal. Taranto's job, it seems, is to surf the internet, and in doing so he discovered Slochower v. Board of Higher Education, a 1956 decision in which the high court overturned (by a 5-4 vote) the dismissal of a Brooklyn College faculty member who had taken the Fifth on the question of Communist party affiliation. The majority ruled that the city ordinance ordering the summary dismissal of any city employee who took the Fifth in cases related to their work violated the constitutional guarantee of due process. The majority opinion, cited by Taranto via the Outside the Beltway blog, states the principle at stake more generally:

[W]e must condemn the practice of imputing a sinister meaning to the exercise of a person’s constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment.... The privilege against self-incrimination would be reduced to a hollow mockery if its exercise could be taken as equivalent either to a confession of guilt or a conclusive presumption of perjury. 

The Court cited an earlier decision in which the majority acknowledged that "a witness may have a reasonable fear of prosecution and yet be innocent of any wrongdoing." This seems to be Lerner's position, since she prefaced her non-testimony with a declaration of innocence. Precedent appears to endorse her stance, a point lost on many of Taranto's fellow conservatives, and on some liberals who have called for Lerner to resign. At issue is what it means to "incriminate" oneself, and a distinction between prosecution and the law itself.  Lerner's assumption seems to be that the House committee, or at least Rep. Issa, is out to prosecute (or at least persecute) her regardless of the law in the case. The power to prosecute -- even the power to investigate -- is a power liable to abuse. Lerner wouldn't be alone if she believed that Issa and other Republicans mean to abuse their authority by holding investigations, or worse, for essentially partisan reasons. It remains questionable whether the selective scrutiny that has so scandalized many people rises to any level of criminality. Republicans and their allies can cry "no fair!" all they please, and they'll probably get sympathy not just from their base this time but also from all those prone to give dissent the benefit of the doubt. Whether Republicans themselves give dissent the same benefit of the doubt is another matter. It seems instead that many of them equate disagreement with their views with a conspiracy to impose tyranny on the land. A similar attitude toward Communists led to the law that the Supreme Court rebuked in Slochower. Republicans in the House of Representatives have the power to interpret law according their paradigm of encroaching tyranny and their self-assigned role as the last line of defense. Slochower seems to remind us that so long as different groups can see the same phenomena so differently, taking the Fifth can't be the last word on anyone's guilt or innocence. In our world, it may mean that someone has "something to hide," but someone might have good reason to do so. That's not necessarily true in Lerner's case, but it could be, and the Constitution seems to require us to give her the benefit of the doubt until we have more reason not to.

Ahmadinejad: some dictator ...

We now know who wears the pants in Iran. While Americans tend to think of President Ahmadinejad as a personal tyrant on a par, depending on your perspective or biases, with Putin of Russia or the late Chavez of Venezuela, he is currently a lame duck by virtue of term limits. But while Putin, faced with a similar situation, could select someone reliable to hold his place until he was eligible to run again, and Chavez, dying, could simply designate a successor, Ahmadinejad is, for the moment, SOL. He has a successor in mind and made a show of escorting this person as he submitted his application to run for president, but in the Islamic Republic it's one thing to declare your candidacy and another to be allowed to run. There, your eligibility is determined, supposedly on objective grounds, by the Guardian Council, which takes its marching orders from the "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Khamenei. Under Iran's vilayat-e faqih  principle, the "faqih," the preeminent ayatollah, acts like a combination pope and supreme court. It was one thing for Ahmadinejad to be Khamenei's protege for a time, and another for him to think he could promote his own protege as his successor. This was proven when the Guardian Council rejected the candidacy of Ahmadinejad's protege, a controversial figure whom even the ayatollahs of Iran regard as a religious extremist. As is often the case with puritan religious movements, you ask for trouble when you claim a personal relationship, as E. R. Masahei's sect supposedly does, with divinity -- in this case with the Mahdi, the hidden imam many Shiites expect to return some day and reclaim his rightful rulership. Since the vilayat-e-faqih principle invests the faqih with authority in the Mahdi's absence, you can see how people who claim a direct line to the Mahdi could cause problems. Religious quibbles aside, this may simply be a matter of Khamenei and the Guardian Council wishing to prevent any personal or partisan faction from rivaling the clergy for paramount leadership.

The Iranian presidential election will be contested among eight candidates approved by the Guardian Council, though Ahmadinejad intends to continue pressing for his man's inclusion. Western accounts dismiss the eight finalists as interchangeable loyalists to Khamenei, but given Iran's social and economic divisions the candidates, if any really have personal ambitions, will find ways soon enough to differentiate themselves. It may still be a sham election if the idea of anyone exercising veto power over anyone's candidacy delegitimizes the affair in your eyes; perhaps you prefer the informal system of exclusion that prevails in the U.S., where the media simply chooses to ignore most candidates and the electorate follows their lead. You can also keep saying Iran is a dictatorship, assuming Khamenei to be the dictator. But if your view had been that you could dismiss Ahmadinejad's views on global politics simply because he was a dictator, you should review that assumption as he prepares to leave the world stage in obedience to his nation's law. 

21 May 2013

Idiot of the Week: awarded posthumously to Dominique Venner

Dominique Venner entered public life as a terrorist sympathizer, supporting the OAS organization that sought to kill General de Gaulle and topple the French government rather than concede the independence of Algeria. He eventually retreated to academia, becoming a respectable, award-winning historian; an account of the battle of Gettysburg is among his works. He remained a rightist, abhorring the influx of Muslims into his country and, more recently, advances toward equal rights for homosexuals. This spring, France legalized gay marriage. The debate preceding this action provoked mass, violent demonstrations of homophobia on a scale hardly seen even in the backwaters of the United States. Earlier today, Venner protested the change on his blog and called for "spectacular and symbolic" gestures of protest. Having talked the talk, he walked into the Notre Dame cathedral, placed a letter (contents as yet undisclosed) on the altar, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. In his mind, I suppose, this was the moral equivalent of a Buddhist monk immolating himself to protest oppression in Vietnam or China. If those gestures have seemed less absurd than Venner's, it's probably because people at least accepted the premise that the monks were responding to genuine oppression. It's hard to equate the granting of equal rights to homosexuals as oppression unless you already share Venner's convictions. While his act may seem an awkward fit, I suppose it does fit into the history of passive resistance, though if anything, his gesture would be akin to George Wallace fasting to protest school integration in Alabama. The virtue of passive resistance really does depend on what you're protesting against. It's hard to see how Venner's suicide will compel gay-rights supporters to rethink their position. The idea of passive resistance may be to make your antagonist feel responsible for your suffering, on the assumption that there must be something wrong with me if my actions drive others to mortify themselves. Yet it will not seem selfish if the gay-rights movement and its allies don't feel that way, however much they may regret anyone killing himself. Sometimes suicide is simply madness, just as homophobia is.

20 May 2013

Do Democrats hate the ACLU now?

The American Civil Liberties Union has joined this month's chorus of criticism of the Obama administration, focusing on the Justice Department's targeting of journalists. In the view of one ACLU official, the newest revelation is the worst yet. Back in 2010, we learn now, the DOJ sought and received a warrant to search the e-mails of a Fox News reporter, describing James Rosen as a "co-conspirator" in the leaking of documents received from a State Department security adviser. In the DOJ's view, Rosen, while unindicted, violated the Espionage Act of 1917. One can't help being reminded of the transactions between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, but Rosen seems to have gotten more sympathy from some quarters already than Assange ever has. That's probably because Rosen is an accredited member of the journalist profession, while Assange is an outsider by comparison. I wonder also whether Rosen will get less sympathy from some people than those people extend to Assange, if only because of his employer. If he works for Fox, the reasoning may go, Rosen must have been up to something wicked. Meanwhile, I'm sure some people who'd still like to see both Assange and Manning dead will treat Rosen as a valiant victim, notwithstanding anything they've advocated in the past to suppress leaks. Again, partisanship and cynicism will distort perceptions of this latest scandal. while those who've taken a consistent position on leakers or whistleblowers, either cheering or condemning them, will prove few and far between. If the Rosen case drives anyone to rethink their position on leaks and leakers, their original position probably wasn't a strong or objective one in the first place. An objective position on the subject should have nothing to do with "who benefits" from leaks or the prosecution of leakers -- unless the nation's benefit is your real concern.

The politics of truth and bulls**t

Supposedly, everyone longs for a politician who'll talk straight and tell the truth without spin, who'll speak his mind and empathize with everyone who's mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore. Even the President feels a temptation to do what he reportedly calls "going Bulworth." He's thinking of the 1998 Warren Beatty movie, and it's a problematic invocation for him, since Bulworth is as much about a white man acting black as it is about the same man telling uncomfortable truths for which he is killed. But leaving movie references aside, isn't Obama's urge to speak without inhibition a healthy one? Jonathan Chait, a New York magazine columnist, says no. Too often, Chait warns, the truth only annoys people. If you tell your supporters, or supposedly objective journalists, how difficult it is to get your agenda through the legislature, they get frustrated and complain about your lack of leadership. If you tell the truth, as you see it, about the opposition's obstructionist tactics or cynical calculations, you'll look mean-spirited and partisan. Chait offers a theoretical scenario:

Obama said of the IRS scandal, “The good news is it’s fixable, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together to fix it.” That is some prime-caliber bullshit. Of course it’s not in the Republicans’ best interest to fix the problems with IRS enforcement. It’s in their interest to prevent any fix and let the problems linger as long as possible. But if he had said that, there would have been a huge outcry, and probably a presidential apology.

In Chait's opinion, the "prime-caliber bullshit" was the correct thing to say. Why? Apparently because it spared Obama a "huge outcry" that would have put him on the defensive. He suggests that not just Republicans but reporters as a group are annoyed by the kind of truth-telling that assigns blame.

[M]ost political reporters and analysts don’t pay attention to the political science. They like narratives that revolve around the president as a protagonist. When you confront them with structural analysis that confounds their narratives, they just get upset with you....[T]he reason politicians don’t go Bulworth is that it doesn’t work. The truth about legislative dynamics is complicated and depressing. People don’t want to hear it.

Chait believes that Obama should employ more "bullshit," i.e. "faux-naive" rhetoric that emphasizes "good news" and the good intentions of everyone in the process. Anything else, Chait fears, makes him look weak and spiteful. Implicit here is a concession of rhetorical defeat in the long debate with Republicanism. A Bulworth approach won't work for Obama, we can infer from Chait's column, because it has become impossible to incite enough of the public against the Republicans for your agitation to do more good than harm. Only passive resistance seems possible; try to do your job without casting aspersions on others, even when they're uncooperative. Chait may think that people will figure out for themselves who's to blame for gridlock if Obama sticks to this approach, but recent congressional elections offer little reason for optimism.

On the other hand, who exactly, apart from reporters and analysts, are the people who "don't want to hear it?" And why don't they want to hear it? Could it be because they don't want to have to do anything about it?  So if the truth hurts, let's abolish it and we'll all feel better. That sounds more like the pejorative stereotype of liberalism than a liberalism that hopes to accomplish anything.

17 May 2013

The Colorado recall campaign: abuse of people power?

Gun-rights groups in Colorado are collecting signatures in hopes of forcing a recall vote on the president of that state's senate. The senator, John Morse, is gathering funds to fight the recall, should it come. Public opinion in his district seems to be against him. A recent poll indicates that once respondents are reminded that Morse supports gun control, a majority of them support his recall. However, only a small number of potential voters were surveyed. Should the opposition collect sufficient signatures, we'll see the ideological flipside of the recall campaign in Wisconsin, where labor unions targeted the governor for signing anti-union legislation. In neither case is there a claim of statutory wrongdoing, though we may assume that the Colorado activists believe their new laws to be unconstitutional. To my knowledge, however, laws allowing recall don't require advocates for recall to "show cause." They don't have to prove or even assert that an elected official has violated the laws, statutory or constitutional, or that the official is incompetent to serve out his or her term. Recall only means that elected officials may be denied their full terms because they've done something unpopular, whether they offend large numbers of liberals, as in Wisconsin, or large numbers of conservatives, as in Colorado. That seems to defeat the idea of representative government as it has evolved in this country ever since our first congressmen rejected the notion that their constituents could tell them how to vote. Since then, the assumption has been that we elect people to legislate as they see fit, so long as they or their party are accountable to us at the next election. Recall might still be preferable to those who believe that the more direct democracy is, the better. But the episodes in Wisconsin and Colorado should give pause to the people urging New York to adopt recall as a remedy for corruption. They'll learn that recall will be used to punish "corrupt" thought rather than corrupt action. If Americans can't stand being governed by ideological opposites for even a single term of office, either our entire system of representative government should be rethought, our our ideologies should be.

14 May 2013

Another day, another scandal...

The Associated Press is crying foul over the Justice Department's investigation of reporters' phone records in pursuit of a leak about a thwarted terrorist attack. The AP calls this an unprecedented intrusion, and they have no reason to be partisan about it. You can draw your own conclusions about everyone else. As Democrats have pointed out, Republicans were among those calling for the most thorough investigation of the leak at the time it was reported. Now, of course, they may be expected to join the general finger-wagging at the Obama administration. This latest incident fits their narrative of an administration inclined to persecute those who offend it. Democrats can counter that Republican administrations have bullied dissenters and leakers/whistleblowers similarly, the AP's special complaint notwithstanding. That inevitable "you're another" rhetoric doesn't help us figure out what to make of these stories. The ethical truth behind any of the current controversies should have nothing to do with what may hurt one party or benefit another. People determined to defend Obama at all costs aren't helping their real cause, whatever that might be for each person, but the truth of these matters is being amplified, also unhelpfully, by partisanship and headline seeking. We should be in no hurry either to join a Republican rush to judgment or to assume that the truth must be the opposite of whatever Republicans say. All of this month's embarrassments might serve as reasons for principled liberals and leftists to distance themselves from President Obama and the Democratic party. The best way not to be stuck defending them is to stand on our own two feet for once. The more the public comes to understand that liberalism and leftism means more than the Democratic party, the less scandals like these will benefit the other side. 

12 May 2013

An IRS inquisition against conservatives?

Let's be clear about what happened. When people report that the Internal Revenue Service was "auditing" Tea Party organizations and other conservative groups, an impression is created that the government is after evidence of tax evasion with an idea of prosecuting political enemies. What actually appears to have happened is that IRS investigators were scrutinizing claims of tax-exempt status for "social welfare" organizations that aren't supposed to engage in electioneering. This certainly inconveniences some groups, but to characterize it as "harassment," as one TP leader does, is maybe a little excessive. What seems questionable about the IRS activity, as one of the service's own higher-ups apparently realized, was its selectivity. The investigations singled out organizations identified with the Tea Party or conservatism, while presumably pro-Democratic organizations, perhaps equally abusive of tax-exempt status, didn't get the same scrutiny. Nearly two years ago, however, the investigators were ordered to broaden their vocabulary of search terms to avoid the appearance of singling out conservatives. In other words, this is old news now just happening to come to light. It'll be another black eye for the Obama administration because of the appearance or loose rhetoric of harassment, and because the American reflex is to give dissent the benefit of the doubt. If Democrats run the government, and the government, through the IRS, refuses tax-exempt status to organizations sympathetic toward the Republican party, people will automatically assume that the Democrats are attempting, in this small way, to suppress or at least handicap dissent. Rather than risk the appearance of selective, partisan scrutiny, the right thing to do might be to do away with the 501(c)4 exemption rule, which has been problematic since it was instituted. The "social welfare" category of advocacy has proven too nebulous to maintain strict distinctions between advocacy and electioneering, especially at a time when everything seems politicized and partisan. Why these groups were thought entitled to tax exemptions in the first place eludes me, and the exemption process has only enabled mischief. It's too late now to end a mistake with a minimum of embarrassment, and now's as good a time as any for everyone to take their medicine.

10 May 2013

Thinking straight about Benghazi

The attack on American diplomats in Libya last September 11 seems to have caught the Obama administration in campaign mode. The main concern seems to have been not to give Republicans a campaign issue. This looks like the most plausible explanation, to many people, for why government spokespersons tried to characterize the attack as a spontaneous (hence impossible to anticipate or prevent) outburst provoked by the "Innocence of Muslims" video when subsequent evidence indicated a premeditated attack on the auspicious day. Some administration officials appear also to have been mean toward diplomats who criticized the initial handling of the incident. It was a bad attempt at spin, presumably meant to block attempts to portray Obama as weak on terrorism, but long after the election Republicans want to keep it spinning. As a result, we've had a new round of hearings this week, with demands for more information from the White House. Some observers believe that the Republicans are playing a long-term game here, their goal being not just to keep embarrassing the President, but to discredit then-Secretary of State Clinton before she has a chance to get a 2016 presidential campaign going. I sympathize with those who feel that Republicans have no moral right to criticize Democrats for bungling on national security -- but that doesn't mean that no one has a right to criticize the government's handling or mishandling of the Benghazi incident. It's possible that people in the administration simply jumped to the conclusion that the video, then a hot news item, had provoked the attack, but a government ought to be more careful about jumping to conclusions in front of anybody. If they were spinning the incident for political reasons, they're just as bad as Republicans are when they do the same -- or when they're doing it now. And if we take the attitude that Benghazi is not worth talking about because talking about it can only benefit Republicans, then we're as guilty of bipolarchy thinking as anyone else ever denounced on this blog. The enemy can never be so bad that his enemy is always right.

08 May 2013

Is liberal populism possible?

On the Atlantic website Amitai Etzioni writes that "the liberal narrative is not working." As a liberal, Etzioni finds this worrisome. He's under the impression that the "liberal narrative" is "government is good" or "government is not the devil." Too many people are frustrated by government dysfunction and genuine waste for such a narrative to be compelling. As a result, more people identify as "conservative" than "liberal," regardless of how they vote. Etzioni worries that you can't make a "government is good" argument without appearing to look naively uncritical about government's problems. Even if many voters remain "operational liberals" who support liberal policies without identifying as "liberal," elections force them to make blanket endorsements of "liberalism," at which many seem to balk. The solution, as Etzioni isn't the first to propose, is to go populist. For his purposes, going populist means attacking "special interests," by which he presumably means mainly "big business." He recommends, however, that liberal populists acknowledge that some special interests (he doesn't specify) have "liberal feathers."

Two problems arise. First, many liberals will feel uncomfortable attacking "special interests." They tend to think that everybody is special and no one is. Some may wonder who gets to define anyone else as a special interest. Many probably have been called "special interests" themselves. The adversarial imperative of populism doesn't go well with liberals' all-inclusive impulses. Second, populism is volatile and may only grow more effective the more concentrated, i.e. the more exclusive it gets. The Occupy movement didn't go far trying to pit 99% against 1% because the 99% had little coherent identity. The danger of populism is the temptation to declare anyone whose interests aren't mine or those of my group a "special interest," which follows from the urge to see oneself as the authentic American or authentic human being, or the one who doesn't need to change. Populism might be seen as a poor substitute for Marxism, or a refuge for those embarrassed by Marxism or afraid of its implications. You needn't endorse Marxism to recognize that it brings a little more clarity to the issue by rejecting the vague, volatile rhetoric of "special interests" in favor of class struggle. Of course, Americans are probably more uncomfortable with the rhetoric of class struggle than they are with praise of government, but a little background Marxism might inform whatever populist campaign Etzioni wants liberals to launch, just to make sure that not just any old group of people is scapegoated as the "special interest" to be tamed. Leave that approach to the Tea Party.

Negative collectivism: Anarchy in the USA

The appearance of a new book by one of the intellectual stars of the Occupy movement has provoked some reflections on the state of anarchism in the latest New Yorker magazine. David Graeber, a proponent of debt cancellation, claims to have been among the first to suggest identifying the movement with the mythical "99%," taking his own inspiration from statistics showing the scandalous proportion of national wealth owned by the richest 1% of the population. If so, he helped get the movement to a bad start, since any observant observer will tell you that the country's problems are caused by more than 1% of the people, and maybe not even by the top 1%, no matter how unfair their share of wealth. Be that as it may, Graeber hopes to re-stimulate the movement with his new book The Democracy Project. According to reviewer Kelefa Sanneh, Graeber advocates "a kind of decentralized socialism" with an emphasis on local autonomy and, being an anarchist, a rejection of coercion. For Graeber, a "zone of freedom" exists "every time we come to understandings with one another that would not require physical threats as a means of enforcement." In Sanneh's summary, Graeber believes that "serious economic inequality wouldn't endure without a state to enforce it," but abundance might not, acknowledging that "a truly anarchist revolution would mean less production, and less consumption." Sanneh hears an odd echo of austerity politics in Graeber's inferred assumption that people in an anarchic society will "have learned, at long last, to live within their means." That echo provokes a commentary on the odd affinities between Occupy and the Tea Party movement. Sanneh focuses on the figure of Murray Rothbard, a self-described "anarcho-capitalist" idolized by more intellectual TPs like Rep. Justin Amash. While Graeber doesn't consider Rothbard a true anarchist, the fact remains that both major grass-roots phenomena of the Obama years take some inspiration from anarchism. For Sanneh, this illustrates "the slippery nature of anti-government arguments." In his view, Graeber "is speaking the shared language of the Tea party and the Occupy movements" whether he realizes it, or admits it, or not.

The great divide among anarcho-capitalists and anarcho-socialists, obviously, has to do with capitalism in particular and wealth in general. Seeing wealth as the product of essentially voluntary exchanges of goods, including labor, anarcho-capitalists see no incompatibility between free enterprise (and its profits) and a non-coercive polity. Some might even say true capitalism doesn't exist without one. The sticking point is whether inequality counts as injustice. Anarcho-socialists, and most anarchists since the movement was born, assume that inequality becomes unjust at some point. Unlike just-plain socialists, they believe that the state is the main force perpetuating unjust inequality. They go further to suggest that the state itself generates inequality, most obviously on the political level. This idea goes back to Mikhail Bakunin, an enemy of Marx, who predicted that the leaders of any self-styled workers' state "will cease to be workers and will begin to look upon the whole workers' world from the heights of the state."

David Graeber's attitude toward government is ambivalent. He considers himself a critical ally of liberal Democrats, but echoes the "nanny state" carping of libertarians when he complains that governments treat citizens "like children." Yet he seems to believe, at least in Sanneh's account, that anarchy can perpetuate the more benevolent functions of a welfare state, like providing health-care, through voluntary collectives. If it's all voluntary, of course, not even libertarians could complain. But the insistence on volunteerism arguably demonstrates the limits of anarchism as a means to a collective good. Anarchists and libertarians -- or anarcho-socialists and anarcho-capitalists -- may disagree about what counts as imposing on others, but Utopia for both is a universal non-imposition pact. Both might be characterized as negative collectivism, as communities united by their renunciations of coercion, "force and fraud," etc. But can we have this without an implicit renunciation of any actually collective good, or any possibility of collective imperatives?  Can anarchists recognize an imperative to preserve human life, collective and individual, that places obligations on them contrary to their free impulses? Are they capable of a sense of positive duty to a community or a species? Problem solved if so: if they can feel a sense of obligation or duty spontaneously, and act on it, everything should work out. Perhaps some anarchists assume such feelings as a matter of human nature, but "individualist anarchists" certainly don't. And if anarchism itself ultimately says that you can't force anyone to save that helpless person over there, or to save the environment, you can see how it might appeal outside its expected ideological zone. But if you believe to any extent that humanity's survival depends on people doing something together, the appeal of any ideology that boasts of what it won't do is probably limited. We readily recognize something inhumane in libertarians' prioritizing of freedom over life. Should we see the same thing among anarchists of all kinds? They may hate rich people as much as anyone, but if they hate the state more, who cares?

07 May 2013

A call for recall in New York

While the Albany Times Union reports corruption charges against yet another state senator, its editorial page features an op-ed by four Republican legislators who believe the solution to corruption among elected officials is the recall. They want New York to become the 20th state enabling constituents to initiate a recall campaign against their elected representatives. Is recall really necessary on their own level, where officials are up for re-election every two years? Yes they answer: "Why should our bosses — that is, our constituents — have to wait if enough of them believe their public servant is derelict enough to be tossed out now, and on Election Day?"

The authors have a point, to a point. But whether a public servant should be tossed out and whether his constituents want him tossed out are two different things. Too many apparently corrupt politicians have been vindicated by their constituents, who often want their representatives to keep bringing home the bacon and may believe them to be framed, for a recall option to achieve the presumably desired result of eliminating "derelict" legislators from government. Before pressing for a recall law, supporters (regardless of party) should question their own priorities. Do they want to enable constituents to recall derelict legislators, or do they want derelict legislators removed as a matter of principle? If the latter, why make it optional? Why not instead pass a law expelling automatically any legislator who gets arrested, regardless of his ultimate guilt or innocence, and rendering him ineligible to reclaim office until his case is resolved? That might serve as a deterrent against having even the appearance of corruption. The idea may seem draconian by our very liberal standards, and it might not pass constitutional muster for some reason or other, but such a gesture would have the virtue of allowing the entire state to set a rule rather than leaving any politicians' fate up to his potentially unreliable constituents. All a recall law would do definitely is create jobs for the organizers of the petition campaigns upon which recalls depend. Meanwhile, both the most successful recall campaign in recent history, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor of California, and the most dramatic unsuccessful campaign, which nearly toppled Gov. Walker of Wisconsin, had nothing to do with alleged crimes. If the object is to punish criminal legislators, why give lobbyists opportunities at the same time to reverse perfectly legal elections and overthrow perfectly law-abiding officials for ideological reasons?  Ideological objections from right or left can and should wait until the next election. Unless the bill proposed by the New York Republicans specifies that recall can be invoked only in cases of corruption or other criminality, it will end up empowering lobbyists more than it empowers the people.

06 May 2013

Climbing up the slippery slope: do we need to get angry first?

The Time magazine columnist Joe Klein was thrilled to see the President get angry about something after the failure of the recent gun-control bill. Klein believes that more Americans need to get angry, and not just at the Senate or the National Rifle Association. He hopes that Obama's outburst will spark more widespread anger at "the plague affecting--no, paralyzing--our public life: the ability of well-funded extremist groups to thwart the will of the overwhelming majority. This is a problem that goes well beyond the gun issue." He'll certainly offend Democrats by writing that the problem " has infected liberal and conservative lobbying groups alike." He has in mind anyone who opposes any cut to entitlements, as well as "public employees' unions that won't change their work rules." He typifies the "both sides are at fault" approach so despised by Democrats by damning "both sides of the abortion debate" and characterizing the "civil-libertarian lobby" as a doppelgänger to the gun lobby. But Klein's target isn't really "both sides" but a particular tendency that can be seen everywhere: a "maximalist" resort to slippery-slope rhetoric that predicts the worst-possible results from the mildest-possible reforms. In his own words:

The oil barons and financial wizards and labor unions all use the same maximalist tactics on their targeted politicians: If you oppose us, even a little bit, we'll slide the slippery slope toward socialism (or whatever)--and you will pay come election time.

If Klein is right, what seems immediately necessary isn't anger toward extremists from moderates -- by definition they're probably incapable of much anger -- than a wholesale rejection of slippery-slope reasoning wherever it's found. That may be easier said than done, since the slippery slope is the point of convergence of liberal anxiety and reactionary paranoia. Too many people seem afraid that any inconvenient measure is but the first step in a relentless march to dystopia. Is that simply because they distrust a perceived enemy, or is it a habit of mind that can be unlearned? We should hope for the latter. Slippery-slope reasoning is a form of bad faith, the antidote for which should not be an appeal to faith but an appeal to reason. It does not require blind faith in our politicians (thank goodness!) to reject the slippery-slope assumption that any reform or retrenchment is the Beginning of the End. It may require some old-fashioned short term pragmatism, a greater focus on what we need now without assuming that we'll always need it or will be stuck with it regardless. Whether self-conscious moderates already have the mental tools necessary for this approach, as proven by their apparent moderation, remains to be seen. But it might be worth trying, though it might be better done as an appeal to contempt than an appeal to anger. We might get more of a response if we identify the problem not as government by extremists, but as government by idiots. That might be cause for anger itself, but if reflexive anger is part of the problem already, more anger might only prove fuel on a fire. Wouldn't it be great if we could laugh all the fools out of office?  Wishful thinking, yes -- but it still is a free country.

04 May 2013

Idiot of the week: Niall Ferguson

Political conservatives tend to dislike John Maynard Keynes because they tend to be fiscal conservatives and dislike the idea of deficit spending under almost any circumstances. Conservative economists have theoretical issues with Keynesianism and have warned since Keynes's own time of dangerous long-term consequences of deficit spending designed to stimulate demand. Keynes himself famously shrugged off with the aphorism, "In the long term we are all dead." For some observers, an inferred refusal to think in the long term -- defenders say this is a misinterpretation of Keynes -- reveals a character flaw in the economist. Neocon historian Niall Ferguson specializes in economics, but in an unguarded or unexpectedly recorded moment this week he assailed Keynes in ad hominem terms. Though long married to a Russian ballerina, Keynes is understood to have been bisexual if not essentially homosexual. For Ferguson, this means that Keynes was indifferent to the long term because he had no interest in future generations, since he had no interest in reproduction. A magazine editor called Ferguson out for his homophobic commentary, and the chagrined historian has apologized. While retaining his prerogative to criticize Keynes's economic theories, Ferguson acknowledges that his remarks linking them to Keynes's sexuality were "stupid" and "insensitive." It may be unfair to designate him Idiot of the Week after that, since he has shown more conscience and contrition than most previous nominees, but those comments were really, really stupid, and they don't just vanish after you apologize. They illustrate perfectly the ad hominem tendency of many conservatives -- there is arguably a similar tendency on the left to attribute conservatism universally to greed -- to assume that thoughts contrary to theirs aren't just wrong but wicked, that to be other than conservative, whether on questions of politics, sexuality or economics, is a character flaw. However disciplined their intellect or rigorous their scholarship, they seem to have an irrepressible impulse to take their disagreements out of the realms of intellect and scholarship. I'd call that a character flaw if it didn't look hypocritical. But if there are such things as character flaws, that's more likely to be one than homosexuality.

03 May 2013

A conservative repudiates austerity

To be specific, it's The American Conservative magazine, and to be more specific, it's presumably the magazine's editor Daniel McCarthy. Readers of this blog know by now not to expect orthodox Republicanism from the contrarian journal; the Conservative defines conservatism as a rejection of ideology, not as an ideology itself. Austerity, or some euphemistic packaging of the concept, may be Republican orthodoxy now, but the May/June issue of the Conservative notes, in its lead editorial, that "the short-term evidence" has not borne out warnings from Republican economists against the deficit spending of the recent stimulus. Noting errors of scholarship in some predictions of severe inflation and further economic stagnation, the editorial observes that "Inflation has been modest" and that "The weight of circumstances no longer favors arguments for austerity."

The magazine remains recognizably "conservative" within an American context when it reminds readers that "there are reasons beyond those of the 'austerians' for looking askance at the burgeoning of the welfare state in this time of prolonged misery." McCarthy still worries about a "socially atomizing effect that even helpful government programs can have." What he means, apparently, is that the more individuals must depend upon the state rather than upon families or "civil society," the weaker civil society becomes, with potential consequences ranging from greater statism to cultural anomie. However, looking askance at the welfare state doesn't mean rejecting the idea at all times or under all circumstances. McCarthy understands something many that self-styled conservatives don't or won't acknowledge. While those people rail against "dependency," McCarthy writes that "the greater immediate danger is not dependency." That's because "millions of Americans are genuinely in need amid a hollowed-out working-class economy." And that's why he refers to "helpful" programs. He can see that such programs can be helpful, at least in the short term, whatever long-term consequences he fears, while too many "conservatives" talk and write as if those programs have no benefits whatsoever. Republicans may complain about dependence on government for even the short term, but McCarthy reminds them that "there are few, if any, policies in place to counteract the crowding out of the private realm by public assistance." He sees that as the fault of conservatives who give more attention to "overarching economic theories." Seen from another perspective, the problem seems to be those conservatives more concerned about minimizing both their financial obligations to the nation and the size of government than about the actual welfare (however you define it) of the people. McCarthy may be one of the rare American conservatives who recognizes, all ideological disputation aside, that those people still have to live. Isn't that what conservatism should be all about?

02 May 2013

Obama and Neo-Lincolnism

Add Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, to the ranks of the Neo-Lincolnites. These are America's Machiavellians for the 21st century, realist liberals who reject what they see as a cripplingly narrow view of politics as purely a matter of rhetorical persuasion. Abraham Lincoln was a role model for them even before Steven Spielberg's biopic appeared to serve as a cinematic bible for the movement. President Obama is the whipping boy -- if you'll forgive the metaphor -- for Neo-Lincolnites because he seems almost exclusively rhetorical in his approach to his job. Dowd notes with dismay that, during last weekend's Gridiron dinner, or whatever they call it now, Obama performed in a skit parodying Spielberg's Lincoln. How can he be aware of the film, she asks, without absorbing its lessons?

Dowd was more dismayed by the President's comments at a recent press conference. Obama told the reporters that he resented the suggestion that it was his job, as President to get legislators to "behave." He explained his options, as he saw them, when dealing with recalcitrant Republicans.

I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can, you know, rally the American people around those common-sense solutions, but, ultimately, they themselves are going to have to say ‘We want to do the right thing.'

What this means to Dowd is that "He still thinks he’ll do his thing from the balcony and everyone else will follow along below."She insists that "it is his job to get them to behave." So what isn't he doing? What hasn't he learned from Lincoln? The obvious answer, for those familiar with the film, is that Obama's list of options above doesn't include making deals with his antagonists. In the movie, Lincoln gets members of the opposing party to vote for the 13th Amendment to end slavery by offering them political patronage. Lincoln targets lame-duck Democrats who lost their re-election campaigns the previous November but are still finishing their terms by the old schedule. Government jobs and other deals look good to these people, few of whom are so dogmatically opposed to the abolition of slavery that they cannot be induced to vote for it. The other main plot point of the picture is Lincoln's insistence that radicals in his own party tone down their rhetoric to make bipartisan passage of the amendment easier. Since I don't suppose that's an option Dowd wants the present President to adopt, all she seems to be left with from the Lincoln playbook as an option Obama has supposedly ignored is the dealmaking. Is that what she wants from him? Should he be promising pork to Republicans who break ranks? Apparently he should be offering them better inducements than the "permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country," that the President himself drily suggested. This was offered as a shelter to Republicans who'd fear getting primaried for voting Obama's way, but there seems little he could do to help such people against their own base except promise them Democratic nominations. So again we're presumably left with the dealmaking. Is that really what Dowd wants to see?

Liberal constitutional democracy often seems to bend over backward to protect political minorities. Dissent enjoys the benefit of the doubt and is presumed, however paradoxically, to be the health of the state. I wonder sometimes -- and I'm sure Republicans wonder more worriedly -- whether American liberals look with any envy on those democracies where a different attitude prevails, where the reigning tone often sounds like, "We won the election, so shut up!" In more radical or populist democracies, there seems to be an expectation of submission by minority parties, or an assumption that deference to majority rule as expressed at the polls should take precedence over the rights of conscience or commitment to principles. Those elected to govern expect to govern. For however many reasons, Americans seem different. Some may recall admiringly Lyndon Johnson's arm-twisting tactics, but they don't mean to describe them literally, and in any event LBJ seems to have more often bullied people in his own party than those on the other side. Americans may want the minority party to submit, but few if any feel entitled to force them to do so. If anything, they probably presume themselves explicitly forbidden to do so. Hence Obama: "I cannot force Republicans..." Many observers have pointed out how to make it easier for majorities to govern without "forcing" minorities -- by changing the filibuster rules, for instance -- but the privileges of political minorities have been so long entrenched that any effort to make these changes still looks like "forcing" to some people. That may only mean that Americans have little idea (despite our access to global news) of what actual  "force" in political debates can look like. Regardless, the U.S. is stuck with the question of how to govern when you can neither force nor persuade an apparently irreconcilable opposition. The Neo-Lincolnite option seems cynical but has the virtue of non-violence, yet it isn't an option if the opposition is too principled for its own good. Then what? While we search for pragmatic fixes, we might also reconsider first principles, or at least seek a better balance between the right to dissent and the right to govern. As Abraham Lincoln said, "As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

01 May 2013

We can't go back to the 1950s

The President started this one. Showing his support for Planned Parenthood, he warned that the anti-abortion movement wanted to "turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century." To which columnist Cal Thomas responds: what would be wrong with that? He knows the answer already, thank you. "Like any decade, the '50s had its problems -- racism, discrimination, sexism," he notes redundantly. On the other hand, "In the '50s, for much of mainstream America drugs were something you bought at a pharmacy with a prescription; living together meant getting married first, then having babies; abortion was not legal; our culture wasn't the enemy."

In his focus on morality Thomas neglected to cite the prosperity American workers enjoyed in the Fifties, which one might think would be the trump argument in favor of that decade. In any event, there's little point in either side invoking an entire decade in a debate over present-day policy. The President implies, or at least Thomas infers from his remark, that the Fifties were some sort of dark age. For some it probably was, and for more it seemed so, but the paradox of the decade was all the railing you could read or hear against an oppressive conformity the existence of which was belied by all the railing. Thomas himself suggests that, warts and all, the decade counts as a golden age compared to our time. By certain measures it can seem that way, by others not. It was a Cold War culture, and like their counterparts in Eastern Europe Americans to some extent sharpened their minds for defense against both actual (racism, sexism, McCarthyism) and perceived oppression, striking back on all levels of culture, from Jackson Pollack to EC Comics. Thomas is perhaps most wrong about the Fifties when he asserts that the "culture wasn't the enemy;" many people at the time thought otherwise. The Fifties may have been a more dramatic time to live in, but it's "drama" of the pejorative sort to suggest that any policy change in the present day can take us back to the Fifties, for good or ill. The President himself may not have accused his foes of taking the country back in time, but enough people on his side have said such things for Thomas to jump to the conclusion. Going back entirely should be no one's ideal, but no single change that seems "back to the 1950s" would bring back everything identified with that decade. Americans with a historical consciousness should be less concerned with taking us back to any idealized time, or defending against being taken back to a demonized time, than with bringing the best of the past, some of which may be forgotten, forward into the present. The past can always offer lessons to objective conservatives (not to mention liberals and radicals) without serving as a model for reactionaries. Turning the Fifties into a unitary thing that must be endorsed or repudiated as a whole only reduces the past's usefulness for all of us.