28 June 2013

Democracy in Egypt: will we know it when we see it?

A volatile weekend is expected in Egypt as opponents of President Morsi gather throughout the country to call for his resignation or, at the least, early elections to bring in a new government, while the president's supporters plan demonstrations of their own and vow not to give in to a malcontent minority. The comment thread on the Guardian newspaper's Egypt coverage makes interesting reading as participants, Egyptians and outsiders alike, opine on what democracy should mean. For Morsi's supporters, the meaning is obvious: their man won a fair election and has a right to rule until the next one. His opponents argue that democracy is more than voting. They contend that mass protests are necessary to keep elected leaders accountable to the people. They have sympathizers in the west, of course, where Morsi's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood make him suspect. Millions of Egyptians have their own reasons to distrust or simply disapprove of Morsi, but the man does have a mandate, and electoral democracy depends on extending elected leaders some benefit of the doubt during their terms in office. Arguably, Egypt is still in a revolutionary state, and many Egyptians still feel entitled by those circumstances to withhold the deference to elections taken for granted in stable democracies, especially when they suspect Morsi of seeking to betray democracy at his first opportunity.

Suspicion of power is typical at times of nation building; you see it throughout the debates over the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Egyptian case is exacerbated by a partisanship that did not yet exist when the American Framers drafted their constitution. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison would become partisan rivals later, but at the Philadelphia convention and as co-authors of the Federalist Papers they were allies in framing what they considered an effective and accountable government. It seems unlikely that their ideological disagreements only became obvious to them later; instead, we can assume that Madison and Hamilton were motivated by something more than personal advantage. We can also assume, despite the heated rhetoric during the ratification debates and afterward, that the Framers, be they Federalists or Anti-Federalists, Hamiltonians or Madisonians, did not see their experiment in republican government as an all-or-nothing game. Whatever they might have said publicly, neither man assumed that the other would make himself a dictator, while both could regard George Washington as above the fray, though Madison began to have his doubts.

In Egypt, it can be argued at the same time that Morsi has not earned the trust a republic requires, and that an equally necessary degree of trust has not been extended to him. The problem may be that what happened in Egypt has been less of a revolution than a simple revolt against an individual, Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians may have agreed on very little apart from their desire to be rid of Mubarak, but there may need to be more positive agreement on ends and means for a revolution to have real results. The real need is for some sort of unity of identity, if not of purpose, that an already-polarized Egypt seems incapable of at the moment. Egyptians don't need to have a totalitarian moment, unless you think the U.S. had a totalitarian moment in 1787. What Hamilton and Madison shared was a belief that everyone -- or at least everyone involved in the process -- would benefit from the constitution they created. Egyptians shouldn't have to copy the U.S. Constitution to get a result similarly satisfactory to everyone. But if there are elements in Egypt, either among the Brotherhood or in the opposition, who simply can't accept the idea or sharing or taking turns in power, then we can expect the mass demonstrations to continue, since the revolution won't be over yet.

27 June 2013

United States v. Windsor: Scalia in dissent

Justice Scalia believes it wasn't the Supreme Court's business to rule for or against the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in the case of United States v. Windsor. The case itself had no business in the Court, he contends, because a federal government that opposed DOMA only chose to appeal a lower-court ruling against the controversial law in order to force the higher court to rule on its constitutionality. Under those circumstances, Windsor's case was not an authentically adversarial proceeding, and only when there is an actual dispute over a law, according to Scalia, does the Supreme Court have a right to rule on the constitutionality of the law. In his view, judicial review is only an "incidental" function of the Court, something it does occasionally in the course of adjudicating a legitimate legal dispute. By comparison, because of the circumstances that brought Windsor to the high court, Scalia accuses the majority of a usurpation of power, of claiming for itself a veto power prior to its jurisdiction in legal disputes. In short, Scalia believes that the Court has no right to declare a law unconstitutional on its own initiative, yet exploited an artificial dispute to do so in Windsor.

For the sake of argument, Scalia consideres DOMA constitutional. "As I have observed before," he writes, "the Constitution does not forbid the government to enforce traditional moral and sexual norms." Since he has made that argument before, his Windsor dissent focuses on the ad hominem attack on DOMA waged by the majority. He objects to the claim that DOMA was motivated primarily if not solely by "malice" toward homosexuals. Thinking this to be the majority's primary argument against DOMA, he regards the majority opinion as a break with precedent, citing a 1968 opinion that "this court will not strike down an otherwise constitutional statute on the basis of an alleged illicit legislative motive." The Windsor majority, Scalia suggests, now argues that illicit motive itself renders legislation unconstitutional. As far as he's concerned, the charge of malice, however irrelevant, is also "quite untrue."

To be sure (as the majority points out), the legislation is called the Defense of Marriage Act. But to defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean or humiliate other constitutions. To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution.

Whether the effect of a defense of traditional marriage demeans or humiliates anyone appears to be irrelevant. The question of intent or effect is itself irrelevant to Scalia's ultimate line of dissent. In the absence of a constitutional amendment placing the rights of homosexuals beyond the reach of legislation, the Supreme Court has no right to place the claims of homosexuals beyond the reach of democracy.

Few public controversies touch an institution so central to the lives of so many, and few inspire such attendant passion by good people on all sides. Few controversies will ever demonstrate so vividly the beauty of what our Framers gave us, a gift the Court pawns today to buy its stolen moment in the spotlight: a system of government that permits us to rule ourselves. Since DOMA's passage, citizens on all sides of the question have seen victories and they have seen defeats. There have been plebiscites, legislation, persuasion and loud voices -- in other words, democracy. Victories in one place for some ... are offset by victories in other places for others....

It is hard to admit that one's political enemies are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle. Too bad. A reminder that disagreement over something so fundamental as marriage can still be politically legitimate would have been a fit task for what in earlier times was called the judicial temperament. We might have covered ourselves with honor today by promising all sides of the debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide. But that the majority will not do.

Scalia closes by claiming that everybody lost in Windsor. In a truly democratic debate, he says, the winners have the satisfaction of an "honest victory" while the losers at least enjoy "the peace that comes from a fair defeat."  This may be the time to emphasize the extent to which the gay-rights movement is revolutionary. Its activists are likely never to be satisfied with the peace that comes from a fair defeat. The idea of a fair defeat is most likely alien to their aspirations, because homosexuals really are making an absolute demand that their rights, particularly their civil equality in matters of property sharing and family rights, should be placed beyond the reach of legislation or democracy, that those rights should no longer be subject to debate. In effect, they demand the recognition of something equivalent to a natural (hence inalienable) right to their sexual identity and an equivalent immunity from discrimination based on their sexuality. This revolution is still not yet a popular one in the most practical sense; national opinion polls show growing support for civil equality for homosexual families, but legislation or referenda enacting that equality still go down to defeat in some places, and it remains very uncertain whether a gay-rights constitutional amendment could prevail in enough states to make it the supreme law of the land. In the meantime, liberal and libertarian jurists seek shortcuts through inference that rarely convince conservatives focused on the radical novelty of the gay-rights demand.

I suspect that Scalia, for all his snarky erudition, sees all cases touching on gay rights as attempts to affirm a core right to gayness he can't find in the Constitution. For him, it is probably an amendment or nothing, and as a person rather than a judge he would probably fight the amendment every step of the way. For people more sympathetic toward gay rights yet skeptical toward natural rights, it's necessary to ask what it would take to place homosexual equality beyond the reach of democracy or legislation  -- not to mention whether anything, absent natural rights, can be placed permanently beyond that reach. Scalia takes the side of democracy on this question, at least partly because he thinks democracy is still on his side. His confidence should make us ask whether democracy really is the best guarantor of individual rights, especially when what seem to be new rights are asserted. It may be necessary in some cases for the people as a whole to be less free in order for individuals to be more free. Some may claim to know when the balance should tip toward individuals, and when it should tip toward the people. Should those distinctions be subject to votes? Is democracy an end unto itself or a means to an end that conditions it? It's easy to dismiss Scalia's dissent in the Windsor case as another outburst of repressed homophobia, but it should be somewhat less easy to dismiss the implications of the gay-rights controversy for our ideas of democracy and justice.

26 June 2013

Obstructionism in Texas

For once, Democrats are applauding a filibuster. It happened yesterday in the Texas state senate, where a Democratic member held the floor for something like ten hours -- under more stringent rules than prevail in the U.S. Senate -- to block a vote on a bill imposing virtually preemptive regulations on abortion providers. When the lieutenant governor finally ruled the senator out of order, her fellow Democrats sustained the delay by appealing the ruling. Then the spectators took over. Pro-choice activists in the gallery shouted and chanted with such volume that further stalled the old-fashioned roll-call vote. In the end, the Democrats "won" by delaying the vote past the deadline ending the legislative session. The Republican majority failed to rule.

Talk of double standards is inevitable. At the federal level, Democrats act as if the filibuster is the antithesis of democracy, but Senator Davis has become a hero overnight for her filibuster. Some commentators will echo the gallery activists' boast that they embodied democracy in action ... but if a bunch of Tea Partiers used similar tactics to disrupt a vote on a gun-control bill the same commentators more likely would describe them as "storm trooper" tactics or something along those lines. It's fair to bring this up because liberals ought to learn a lesson from it. They're always open to the hypocrisy charge because liberals themselves so often insist that ends never justify means. They reject the "by any means necessary" ethics of radicalism, but when the chips are down few liberals, I suspect, will sacrifice principle to procedure in the way liberalism sometimes seems to dictate. That doesn't mean that liberals should ride the slippery slope all the way to where the end justifies all means. Instead, it should mean that they ought to be less dogmatic about decrying "obstructionism" when the opposition has a clear right to obstruct and liberals themselves enjoy the same right when they need it.  While more radical or populist small-d democrats can object to obstructionism on principle, the liberal objection when obstructionist tactics are employed against them shouldn't be that obstructionism is wrong unto itself, but that the opposition obstructs for the wrong reasons. Merely criticize Republicans for obstructionism and they can answer that they're just doing their jobs representing their constituents. Explain why they're wrong to obstruct specific legislation -- and the explanation has to include more than "we won the election" -- and you may get somewhere with undecided observers.

Not all obstructionism is equal, of course -- and I'm not making a partisan distinction. I'm not really keen on the idea of a partisan mob disrupting a vote by duly elected representatives of the people. There may yet be a place for "mob rule" in the life of any polity, but if a mob is going to show up at a capital building, they probably should have more to do than interrupt a single vote.

25 June 2013

Shelby County v Holder and the flaw in the Voting Rights Act

By the typical 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court has struck down one of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The provision in question sets the criteria for subjecting specified parts of the country to "preclearance" of any changes proposed to local voting laws. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts takes a position that at first glance seems atypical for the Court's conservatives: a law was once constitutional but now isn't, without amendment to the Constitution. What Roberts actually means, as a closer reading will show, is that an exception to the constitutional rule was justified in 1965, but isn't justified today. He concedes that the exceptional scope of the Voting Rights Act was justified by the exceptional violations of civil rights prevailing in some places at that time. Exceptional legislation was justified (i.e. "constitutional") to correct such offenses as poll taxes, literacy tests, and worse. The conservative argument now is that the success of the Voting Rights Act should result in its eventual retirement. The communities originally subjected to preclearance have not practiced discrimination in decades. To keep them in a probationary condition long after the fact is to violate the constitutional principle of equal sovereignty. To argue, as a minority of the Court did, that the provision in question remains necessary as a deterrent to the communities reverting to old practices is to render the provision, in Roberts's words "effectively immune from scrutiny." Such an exceptional provision as the one struck down, he argues, should not enjoy such immunity, while to assume a permanent necessity for a deterrent provision is implicitly to reduce the targeted communities to permanent second-class status.

On a constitutional level, I think Roberts hit the bulls eye. The well-meaning authors of the Voting Rights Act brought this decision down upon their descendants because, in typical American fashion, they went about things in a half-assed federalist manner. 1965 was the moment, when the prestige of Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights movement, not to mention the power of the former, were at their heights, to push through, by legislation or amendment, a single federal standard for election law. By not doing so -- whether because they chickened out or because of cynical double standards -- they left their legislation vulnerable to some eventual equal-protection or equal-sovereignty challenge. Common sense should have dictated that an exceptional-conditions justification for constitutionally questionable measures would have a limited lifespan. Of course, a limited lifespan was written into the original legislation, which has been renewed periodically with minor tweaks that failed to address the ultimate constitutional problem. The drafters of the 1965 act may not have expected it to remain even partially in force now. It has endured in part, as Justice Scalia observed cynically during oral arguments, because a vote against renewing it was bound to be portrayed as voting against voting rights for minorities. Even now, the fact that an Alabama county sued the Attorney General , with today's result, begs the question: what do you actually want to do so badly that you feel you can't now? If you don't trust Alabama, that's fine; there may well be good reason not to trust Shelby County. But I think the Roberts Court isn't being unreasonable -- apart from Justice Thomas, who wants to whittle away at the VRA even more -- in insisting that the remedy for any potential offense not be applied selectively. Instead of griping over the evil intentions of the Chief Justice and his Republican sponsors, Democrats, liberals, civil-right activists, and the "left" in general would put their outrage to better use by starting a push for a constitutional amendment setting a single standard for voting rights and elections in general everywhere in the country.  

24 June 2013

Libertarianism and slippery slopes

The long term struggle for ideological leadership of the American conservative movement -- "conservative" being understood in the peculiarly American sense as a commitment to limited government -- pits libertarians against "cultural conservatives," aka the "Christian Right." Shikha Dalmia is a libertarian who writes for Reason magazine, but her name alone might alarm some cultural conservatives. In Reason's August/September double issue Dalmia challenges the Christian Right's core premise that state regulation of sexual morality is necessary to keep the nation from sliding into depravity and decadence. The conservative argument is a slippery-slope argument: allow this, they cry, and something worse is implicitly permitted. Polygamy and bestiality will spread inevitably if we don't hold the line against homosexuality. Dalmia rejects this premise.

The assumption driving such worries is that individuals are inherently hedonistic and, absent the threat of punishment in this world and damnation in the next, they'll seek only their own pleasure and ignore family and community, ripping the social fabric.

But life doesn't work that way. Individuals don't simply discard an old order in favor of no order. They look for a new order that better accommodates their personal goals and social needs. 

Citing the holy writ of  F. A. Hayek, Dalmia refutes the slippery-slope assumption of declining sexual morality. Hayek wrote: "Flexibility of moral rules ... makes gradual evolution and social growth possible, [allowing] experience to lead to modifications and improvements." Dalmia herself contends that the diminished radicalism of 21st century feminists, compared to the extreme demands of their mothers or grandmothers, results not from religious exhortation but from practical experience. Women supposedly have learned what works and what doesn't, what demands are reasonable and which are impracticable or simply undesirable. Examples like these prove that "removing government from the business of enforcing morality doesn't mean that individuals will celebrate their liberation by smoking crack and throwing orgies. It means that they'll become active agents in choosing their own morality," -- without assuming a right to steal or kill, either.

The weak point of any slippery-slope argument is its assumption that people can't reason themselves off the slope, that a downward spiral of rationalizations is inevitable. Dalmia deserves credit for hitting one such argument at the weak point. I only wonder whether she recognizes the similar weakness of slippery-slope assumptions closer to the libertarian heart.

Libertarians share with most American conservatives an assumption that "dependency" upon government saps our vitality as our people, that our economy will inevitably stagnate if not collapse if millions of people keep on the government tit. The slippery-slope assumption here is that people who receive long-term government assistance in the absence of jobs will lose the desire (or "incentive") to improve their lot by working. If the cultural conservatives worry that "individuals are inherently hedonistic," libertarians worry that many are inherently lazy. If cultural conservatives believe that the social fabric depends on "the threat of punishment in this world and damnation in the next," libertarians believe it depends on the threat of starvation or some kind of deprivation in this life. Only that, it seems, will drive some people to make themselves useful to society.  But by analogy with Dalmia's argument against the slippery slope, shouldn't we expect an effective welfare state to evolve in the same way as the new sexual order, with people defining a new order based on practical choices instead of succumbing to self-indulgence? As a group, libertarians appear to reject the old assumption of human depravity that justified the recourse by moral (or "cultural") conservatives to punitive state power. Dalmia, at least, explicitly rejects the assumption of depravity in the realm of sexual morality? Does she also reject the assumption of depravity in the realm of social welfare? She could still argue the unfairness of "robbing Peter to pay Paul," but to be consistent about human nature, she should not assume that Paul will be nothing but an indolent parasite all his life, or that his example will encourage Peter to become one as well. It's more likely that Dalmia or like-minded libertarians would attempt to explain why the sexual-morality and social-welfare scenarios are fundamentally different. It'd be an interesting argument to read, but I'm not sure how convincing it would be.

21 June 2013

Two kinds of authority: a democratic dilemma

The demonstrations in Istanbul's Taksim Square are widely perceived to resemble the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square less than they resemble the Occupy protests in the United States. In Turkey, dissidents (perceived as leftists by both domestic and global media) have used the planned destruction of a park as part of an economic development project as a pretext for more expansive protests against prime minister Erdogan. Usually described as a "moderate Islamist," Erdogan has won several elections but is accused of developing an authoritarian streak. Inevitably, he is accused of abusing the country's laws to suppress dissent. He seems to fall into the same category as the late Chavez of Venezuela, the departing Ahmadinejad of Iran (though his is a more complicated case), and the reigning Putin in Russia, as well as the neophyte Morsi in Egypt. All could or can claim democratic legitimacy, and all are accused of abusing it. Unlike the others, he isn't seen as an enemy of the U.S., except insofar as he, like the others, represents an idea of democratic politics at odds with American ideology.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman weighs in on Turkish politics by borrowing a distinction drawn by an adviser to CEOs between "formal authority" and "moral authority." For some readers, it may tell all they need to know about Friedman that he learns political science from a CEO adviser, but the distinction made helps clarify widespread American distrust of foreign forms of democracy. In Friedman's opinion, Erdogan has done considerable good for his country, from an economic standpoint, but risks ruining his legacy through perceived authoritarian tendencies. Friedman lets his adviser, Dov Seidman, speak for himself:

There are essentially just two kinds of authority: formal authority and moral authority, and moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority [wherever] power is shifting to individuals who can easily connect and combine their power exponentially for good or ill.... Moral authority is something you have to continue to earn by how you behave, by how you build trust with your people. ... Every time you exercise formal authority — by calling out the police — you deplete it. Every time you exercise moral authority, leading by example, treating people with respect, you strengthen it....In this age, the only way to effectively lead is to generate power through people, in a way that earned their trust and enlisted them in a shared vision.

What Seidman says about moral authority unto itself is unobjectionable. It becomes problematic when he suggests a contradiction if not a zero-sum relationship between moral and formal authority. In Friedman's paraphrase, Seidman argues that "You don't get moral authority from being elected," but this seems to go against a core idea of democracy. Replace "authority" with "legitimacy" and the problem may be more apparent. All the democratically-elected leaders mentioned above would probably argue that elections do confer some degree of "moral" legitimacy upon the leaders. What does this quality consist of? Another synonym for it, if this helps, would be a "mandate." An election is an authorization to act, a grant of authority. What seems to baffle outside observers about democracy in America is that Americans seek to minimize the authority implicitly granted as much as possible. The Bill of Rights is the most obvious expression of the American tendency. Beyond the letter of the Constitution, however, many Americans seem to reject the idea that elections, no matter how impeccably fair, confer upon winners the right to command. As Friedman and Seidman say, "Any leader who wants to lead just 'by commanding power over people should think again,'”

To my knowledge, none of the countries where we accuse leaders of abusing democracy are entirely lacking in constitutional safeguards against abuse of power. In all those countries, however, elected leaders probably have a greater sense of entitlement based upon their democratic mandate, their combined formal and moral authority, than American leaders claim -- in public, that is. If "authoritarian" democrats abroad are elected to do something, they seem to assume a right to do it that overrides the privileges or prerogatives of dissent. There is, on the part of the leaders if not among the people, though the leaders' constituents probably share it, an expectation of deference to the democratic mandate. An election means we want this done, so it should be done. If that goes against a country's constitution, presumably it's up to a court to overrule the government, and not up to opposition parties to obstruct the majority will. Why have elections, people might ask, if elected officials won't be allowed to do what the people want? If what the people want is unconstitutional, one could ask, why let the candidate run on an unconstitutional platform in the first place? Without such restrictions in place, leaders and their constituents most likely feel entitled to have their way once they win an election. Such sentiments inevitably sound authoritarian wherever dissent gets the benefit of the doubt, but which side is more democratic?

For most people in the world, I suspect, the democratic ideal is that candidates win an election and get to do what constituents voted for them to do, without obstruction, after which they submit themselves to another election or yield to fresher faces.  The opposite viewpoint is summarized in the skeptical motto: "One man, one vote, once." Among many democrats suspicion of power persists; it may well be the hallmark of what we call liberal democracy. The great suspicion is that the leader who claims unobstructed power after an election will use that power to rig subsequent elections in order to perpetuate his personal power, or else use his power to declare an "emergency" in order to do without elections thereafter. All the authoritarian democrats are accused, with varying degrees of credibility, of rigging elections in their favor. This suspicion is difficult to address. On one hand, history shows us that people often abuse power. On the other, is it fair to assume that everyone will abuse it? In other words, should suspicion of power be built into a democratic system, and if so, can it be done without compromising electoral democracy to the point, seemingly near in our own country, where people see the system as hopelessly gridlocked and as such, however representative it may still be, ultimately undemocratic and thus illegitimate?  In the true ideal, perhaps, the electorate entrusts leaders to govern as they were elected to while entrusting to themselves the means to deal with leaders who abuse power, whether those means are regular elections or more extreme measures, depending on the degree of abuse. Whether that would work would depend on whether abuse of power, by the time the people perceive it, has already put a preponderance of power in a leader's hands. It might be a good idea, in such a case, not to make the elected leader commander-in-chief of the military, though checks should exist against whoever fills that office as well. Details can be debated indefinitely. It may be more urgent for us nail down the general principle. Can the people -- the electoral majority acting through their representatives in behalf of the people as a whole -- be entrusted with effective power without the polity degenerating into indisputable tyranny? For decades, liberals have scorned the distinction made by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan's UN ambassador, between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" states. There was cause for scorn, since her distinction boiled down to whether a dictator was right, and authoritarian, or left, thus totalitarian. But what if there remains a salvageable distinction between "authoritarianism," the offense of which many democratically elected leaders are accused, and outright tyranny. Might a more effective democracy -- even a more effective republic, for the quibblers out there -- look more "authoritarian" if it tolerates less obstruction on the American model, yet remain a free and even liberal society?  Americans might not be so tolerant as we like to claim if we refuse to ask the question.

20 June 2013

The opposite of hope

Lois: What's the S stand for?
Clark: It's not an S. On my world it's a symbol of hope.
Lois: Well, here it's an S. 
- Man of Steel (2013)

Commenting on the recent passing of three people he disliked -- Margaret Thatcher, the conservative activist Howard Phillips and USA Today founder Al Neuharth -- Thomas Frank gives all of them credit in his July Harper's column for aggressive commitment to their goals. From there, inevitably, he turns to lament the utter absence of similar aggression in the modern American left. Noting that Neuharth once described his newspaper as "the journalism of hope." Frank lashes out at liberals' preoccupation with hope as a theme or slogan.

Here was the empty word for the age, the perfect virtue for an era of false promises and no alternatives, and a mandatory element of Democratic campaign-speak ever since (think of Jesse Jackson's "Keep hope alive," Clinton's touching faith in "a place called Hope," John Edwards's "Hope is on the way," and Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope). What "hope" came to mean in those days was: be credulous. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Have faith that things might just work out, even though they never do and nobody in power has any intention of reversing the neocon tide.

Democrats don't mean it that way, but Frank sees "hope" as the opposite of action. To illustrate his point, he writes: "We no longer discuss nationalizing the steel industry, say, or enacting any sort of full-employment proposal. Changes like that are off the table." So is ultimate political victory. While Thatcher and Phillips were open about their desire to destroy the left as a political force -- Neuharth was a centrist whom Frank credits for opposing the invasion of Iraq -- Frank sees no equivalent commitment on the left. He perceives a liberal hope that everyone will eventually see reason where there should be more aggressive confrontation, more demands, etc. A historian of the "conquest of cool" through which corporate culture co-opts all counterculture, Frank longs to see an uncompromising attitude on the left to match what he's seen on the right for the last thirty years. News that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit of punk fashion, including punk-inspired haute couture, disgusts him, proving his thesis yet again.

Can there be positive change in the absence of "hope?" Is hope as passive a quality as Frank charges? It is when it's no more than a campaign slogan, as it has been under Obama. As Republicans who deride Obama as a "messiah" would readily note, the last two presidential campaigns have been more about hope in Obama as a charismatic leader than about hope in the people's ability to make their own will reality. Liberals still put their trust (or faith) in leaders while seeming to share the general lack of faith in the capacity of political will (not to mention the general will) to reshape the world. Americans too quickly reject the old notions that we can make the world a better place for everybody simply because we want to; that we have a right to make demands, even when someone says we want "something for nothing;" that a better life for everyone is an end unto itself that doesn't need to be justified to skeptics by proving that people have "earned" it. But we seem to live in an era where no one believes that "property is theft," -- not that that was ever true -- but many seem to take for granted that politics is theft. That belief will inhibit people. Too many today ask: what right do I have to demand anything? We seem in danger of forgetting that the perpetuation of life is really the highest value, and quite enough to justify plenty of demands -- even those that may seem impossible to satisfy right now or right away. At a certain point, surrendering the right to demand might mean surrendering the right to live. But I like to believe -- I was gong to write hope -- that our instinct for self-preservation will kick in before that point. If it does, we may see more of the politics Thomas Frank is looking for.

19 June 2013

Local mad scientist arrested

The local press reports that a federal investigation has resulted in the arrest of a Galway man who works for General Electric for "providing material support to terrorists." That material support consisted of a "weapon of mass destruction." To be specific, the suspect built a death ray -- in the FBI's words, "a radiation emitting device that could be placed in the back of a van to covertly emit ionizing radiation strong enough to bring about radiation sickness or death."

The terrorist angle is interesting. As the Albany paper reports, investigators first became aware of the suspect after he offered his invention to Israel, albeit in the unorthodox manner of walking into a local synagogue. The suspect's desire, at least initially, was to kill Muslims. It's not clear, however, whether this offer alone fit the description of "material support to terrorists." But someone at the synagogue obviously talked to the feds about the inventor's proposal, and the feds apparently decided that he shouldn't run around loose conducting experiments. It became necessary, apparently, to entrap him. This was done by having agents express interest in the suspect's device on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan. The suspect is supposedly a Klansman himself, which fact would make his apparent Zionist sympathies somewhat surprising. Since its reappearance in the early 20th century the Klan has usually taken an anti-semitic stance, but I'd suppose that Islamophobia is the higher priority now and the enemy of their enemy can be their friend, or at least the suspect's customer. Maybe he just assumed that Jews would have money to spend on his fancy. If we assume that the suspect is primarily an Islamophobe, and that his fake-Klan correspondents (how can you tell behind the hoods, after all?) proposed to use the weapon against Muslims rather than against the Klan's traditional foes, this story may prove that one way to criminalize militant Islamophobia is to link it with the Invisible Empire. What does it tell us, however, when putting on such a show was the only way to stop a rogue individual peddling a death ray? Why wouldn't the information provided by the Albany synagogue be enough for the FBI to swoop down on the suspect and his alleged collaborator, a control-device manufacturer? There are probably good technical reasons that law-enforcement experts can explain, but it still looks to me that linking the suspect to the Klan was just an easy way to make the man a bad guy when his intent to murder Muslims might not have done the job for many observers. It's most likely too early in the case to draw more definite morals from it, but this is definitely a story to keep an eye on.

18 June 2013

A flimsy argument against libertarianism

A lot of people are getting worked up over a column Michael Lind wrote for Slate earlier this month. Lind offends people in two ways. First, he opposes libertarianism -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Second, he makes what strikes even this sympathetic readers as a dumb argument. Simply put, he argues that libertarianism doesn't work because there are no libertarian countries in the world. In Lind's own words: "If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?"

On one level, I understand the idea behind the question. Given how libertarians have made the case so often for their ideals, why has no country chosen a libertarian course? Lind's own answer, on this level, is that people understand that libertarianism comes with a trade-off: you get more economic freedom (whether you personally can take advantage of it or not) at the expense (or maybe just the risk) of reduced quality of life. But this is really an argument for why libertarians lose elections, when they actually run. Let's agree that elections are subjective. Elections no more prove that libertarianism doesn't work than they would prove that Marxism doesn't work. Marxists can give you plenty of reasons why that assumption is false. Meanwhile, Lind goes on to use the example of Marxism for his own purposes.

Lind recalls that for much of the 20th century Marxists could maintain some degree of credibility by pointing to the supposed successes of countries governed by "really-existing socialism." The mere existence of professedly socialist or communist countries proved that Marxism or Leninism was minimally viable in a way that libertarianism, Lind contends, hasn't yet proven itself to be. Libertarians can't point to "actually-existing libertarianism" anywhere. This is a dumb argument because all "actually-existing socialism" ever proved was that certain kinds of socialists were capable of taking power and holding it for a while. Lind presses forward, however, to make the comparison even dumber.

Libertarians have often proclaimed that the economic failure of Marxism-Leninism discredits not only all forms of socialism but also moderate social-democratic liberalism. But think about this for a moment. If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world? Communism was tried and failed. Libertarianism has never even been tried on the scale of a modern nation-state, even a small one, anywhere in the world.

If Communism is discredited by failure, how can something that's never been given a chance to fail be discredited? So far, libertarianism's only failures, as mentioned already, have been political. The most Lind can show otherwise is that some countries ranked by libertarian think-tanks as having more "economic freedom" than the U.S. (while not being considered truly libertarian) have lower quality of life in some categories. Lind implies that "economic freedom" automatically means that the state spends a lower percentage of GDP on education, health care, hence the poor quality-of-life results in someplace like Mauritius. Leaving other factors that may shape quality-of-life in that small nation, Lind implies a correlation between government spending and literacy or infant mortality, but I suspect that the amount of money thrown at a problem isn't the only factor in its persistence in some cases.

In the end, Lind falls back on his "if it's so great why hasn't anyone tried it?" argument, suggesting that your average voter may know by a hunch what Mauritius seems to prove. The analogy with the electoral fortunes of Marxists remain valid, however. Does the failure of Marxists to win elections in the United States prove that Marxism is tyranny? Of course not. Likewise, all the electoral failures of libertarianism prove is that people don't want it. In both cases, ideologues can argue that objective conditions generate false consciousness. If workers vote for capitalism, the Marxist argues, it proves that they don't know their own best interests or even understand their objective situation. Libertarians can say the same thing. In fact, they can go further. Just as the American Maoists you see in college towns will tell you that the American working class is more-or-less bribed into acquiescence in the capitalist order with the plunder of the planet provided by imperialism, so a libertarian can say that too many Americans are too dependent on the dole to see how they and everyone else could do better with more economic liberty, or how living on the dole is ultimately unsustainable and will leave them more helpless than ever eventually. Ideology requires a change in consciousness among the people before systems can change, though ideologues often have tried to do things bass ackwards by using state power to engineer human souls. None of this is a defense of libertarianism, as there remain plenty of reasons for nations not to want it.  But it remains an objective fact that the failure of countries to go libertarian proves only that libertarianism is unpopular, not that libertarianism isn't viable.

Lind has developed his one viable conclusion elsewhere, warning that libertarians themselves recognize that their ideology is incompatible with democracy -- with political liberty, that is. That should be a strong enough argument against libertarianism, since just as libertarians themselves say that political liberty can't endure without economic liberty, so the reverse ought to be true.  In other words, if libertarianism is a perpetual veto upon the will of the people, how free will enterprise be, eventually?

17 June 2013

The Syrian debate

No opponent of American intervention in the Syrian civil war has infuriated the interventionists more than David Bromwich. Richard Cohen cited Bromwich's New York Review of Books commentary scornfully in the column discussed last week, and in my mail today came The New Republic with Leon Wieseltier's tirade against Bromwich. I'm a little behind in my reading of the New York Review, but Bromwich's piece is available for free reading at the NYRB website. Writing last month, Bromwich has anticipated the criticisms that have come this month. He's already dealt with opinionators who argue that Syria is not "another Iraq" and thus can benefit from careful application of American military power. Batting all aside, Bromwich offends self-styled humanitarian interventionists by writing, "What then should the US do? Nothing, until we can do something good."

Wieseltier, The New Republic's literary editor, dismisses Bromwich as an Ivy League academic and literary critic. Advising on foreign policy, apparently, is a matter of moral rather than academic or intellectual credentials. Wieseltier has no more obvious authority on the subject of Syria than Bromwich, but trumps his fellow critic with volcanic moralism.

“What then should the US do?” Bromwich asks. His sophistication deserts him. “Nothing,” is his answer, “until we can do something good.” Would it be “good” to stop the worst butchery of our day, and prevent jihadists from coming to power in Damascus, and return the refugees to safety, and secure Syria’s neighbors against disintegration? Bromwich does not say. “But the situation could not be less promising,” he adds. He is right. For certain objectives, intervention may now be too late. In this sense, Assad has already won. But it is not too late to avoid the most hideous outcomes of all; and anyway I cannot hear from American liberals that it is too late, because they are significantly responsible for making it too late. 

Wieseltier also offers his services as a translator. The NYRB cover headline for Bromwich's article reads, "Stay Out of Syria." In Wieseltier's translation: “Ignore the Murder of a Hundred Thousand People and the Massacre of Children and the Use of Chemical Weapons and the Bombing of a Civilian Population by Its Government and Millions of Displaced Persons Outside Syria and Millions of Displaced Persons Inside Syria and the Destabilization of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and the Aggression of Hezbollah and the Ascendancy of Iran!” He admits, of course, that space limitations would have prevented an accurate rendering.

The argument, of course, is that writers like Bromwich are indifferent to human suffering that might be prevented. Inevitably, Wieseltier's attack takes an ad hominem turn, as he goes from deriding Bromwich as a Chomskian and a narcissistic purist ("This analysis of the world, in other words, is not about the world. It is about us, and our a priori stain, and our quest for purity, which is grossly mistaken for conscience.") to the depths of comparing him, and anti-interventionist liberals in general, not to Ron but to Rand Paul. Wieseltier laments that too many liberals are "saddened but not provoked by crimes against humanity." They suffer from an "ethical fastidiousness" that is "strikingly lacking in a particular moral vocabulary." Because Bromwich can't imagine either the U.S. or the region benefiting significantly from Assad's fall, giving the malignant forces involved in the insurrection, Wieseltier concludes that "the benefit of Bromwich's doubt goes to Assad." 

Wieseltier and his fellow interventionists can't look past the figure of the dictator. They seem to assume that the evil in the world is concentrated in a handful of individuals, the world's despots. It's one thing to recognize that Bashar al-Assad is a tyrant and that his father's Baath party has governed Syria unjustly for two generations. It's another to think of him as evil incarnate, and that perception distorts interventionists' vision. They see carnage in Syria, and see a dictator, and assume: no dictator, no carnage. That may be why people like Wieseltier seem blind to man-made humanitarian disasters elsewhere in the world. Where there is no dictator, no easy remedy comes to mind. In the absence of a dictator, endemic violence may seem more like a saddening but not provocative natural phenomenon. Bromwich is too troubled by the decentralized violence in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Libya to risk it breaking out in Syria. Wieseltier can't imagine the situation getting worse -- admittedly, it's very bad right now -- in the absence of a dictator. If Bromwich does, then he must be sympathetic to tyranny. Wieseltier wants it to be all about the dictator, but to refute him is not to argue for dictatorship under any circumstances. The point for today is that people like Wieseltier act as if all the world's problems will disappear, or at least will be ameliorated meaningfully, if we get rid of dictators. The archetypal dictator, for the interventionists, is the devil someone will chop down the whole forest to get at, in the scenario Thomas More warned us about in the play. In the play the trees symbolize the rule of law, and the danger is leaving oneself without shelter when the worm turns, but the metaphor works for foreign policy as well -- think of the trees as collateral damage -- as a literary critic might acknowledge. In describing the destabilizing consequences of humanitarian intervention, Bromwich seems to get it:

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote about the millions of stateless and rightless persons cast up by the early wars of the twentieth century and the imperialist manufacture of new nations before and after World War I. A whole generation of the displaced were brought into the world so lacking in hope, so without access to elementary rights that, for them, to live within the law presented no advantage over crime and for that matter terrorism. “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Arendt wrote, “but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them.” The disasters of the twentieth century, as she judged them, had proved that a globalized order might “produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.” An end no happier, if we do not take care, awaits us down the road of the “carefully choreographed” violence and the “symphony of diplomacy” conducted by the last of the great powers.

16 June 2013

The Iranian Election: how did that happen?

In the Islamic Republic of Iran the Guardian Council and the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Khamenei, have a veto over who can run for elected office. They have less control over who can vote. The religious leadership can try to filter out "moderates" or "reformers," but to the extent that elections are genuinely contested, one or more of the candidates vetted by the leadership is bound to play to "moderate" voters. Apparently, that's how Hassan Rouhani (transliterations from Farsi vary) won the presidential election in the first round with a majority of the popular vote. How "moderate" these results are is hard to say. I haven't read up on the campaign enough to measure how much domestic issues factored into it, or how much of the vote was an implicit criticism of the Supreme Guide. Nevertheless, western media trumpet the triumph of a moderate, though many of the same media had acted as if such a result was impossible after the usual clerical vetting of candidates, a process in which both a former president and the outgoing president's designated protege were barred from running. How much power the incoming "moderate" president will enjoy relative to his religious overseers remains to be seen, but for now the result seems to debunk popular depictions of Iran as an ayatollic tyranny. As long as the leaders give their people some sort of choice, the people still have some power in that country. At least, even after the Guardians had their way with the candidate list, Iranians still had more names to choose from than most Americans allow themselves. 

14 June 2013

Syria: What are we going to do about it?

The Obama Administration is now satisfied that the Syrian government has used poison gas in its civil war against forces seeking its overthrow. The President has said that using gas -- a war crime by most standards -- would be crossing a "red line" that would force his hand. He now considers the U.S. government entitled to intervene in the conflict, at a minimum by providing arms to the insurrection. He may later attempt to establish a "no-fly zone" to protect the insurrection from Syrian air power. These decisions come at a time when another foreign intervention, by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, appears to have turned the tide of the Syrian conflict in the government's favor. One can't help thinking that Obama feels a need to make some gesture now so that he (and his party) will not be accused by the U.S. opposition of having abdicated our alleged duty to rebels against dictatorship. Should one think this aloud, however, certain American opinionators will take moral offense at the idea. The President might be able to ignore neocon Republicans like Senator McCain, but Democrats also are beating the drums for some sort of war against Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, Richard Cohen published a column in the Washington Post denouncing "cold-hearted liberals" for opposing intervention in Syria. Cohen is a liberal on domestic issues but pretty much a neocon on foreign policy, at least in the Middle East. In his June 3 column, however, Cohen tried to deny any policy agenda in Syria. He resents some perceived ad hominem comments by anti-interventionist liberals but resents more their arguments against intervention. He disputes the argument that Syria would be "another Iraq," claiming instead that "The whole idea of intervening early — it may already be too late — was not to impose some U.S.-friendly regime but merely to stop the killing and avoid an immense humanitarian calamity." He reiterates, bitterly: "Syria was never going to be the Iraq war. It was going to be a humanitarian intervention, an attempt to stop the killing, end the misery — use U.S. power to do good. This was not colonialism or neocolonialism or imposing a repellent Western regime on the always virtuous East. All we wanted — all I wanted — was to end the killing."

Cohen betrays himself with that bit of sarcasm about the "always virtuous East." It's the old dig against anti-interventionists, anti-colonialists, anti-imperialists, and even abolitionists: you oppose us because you love some other more than your own kind. But I doubt whether anyone in the U.S. thinks Assad virtuous. No one here that I know of opposes intervention against Assad out of love for him. At the same time, if Cohen is correct that interventionists only want to end the killing, they can prove their good intentions and disinterested benevolence by proposing an end to the killing without the immediate exit of Assad from power. To be fair, as Cohen notes ruefully, even the President has said that Assad must go. But if our first object is peace, the means to peace can't be letting just one side have its way. If the insurgents claim there can be no peace with Assad in power -- that there's absolutely nothing he can do short of abdicating to mollify them -- then someone looking at the war purely in humanitarian terms needs to blame them, not Assad, for the persistence of war. That may rankle those who assume that the dictator is always wrong, but the humanitarian standpoint and the moral standpoint aren't always the same.  Whether Cohen's standpoint is either is open to question. As always, cases calling for moral or humanitarian intervention can be pointed out all over the world. Why, then, is Cohen so concerned with Syria? Probably for the same reason the Saudis and their Sunni friends are, as are the Israelis: because the Alawite regime is considered part of an aggressive Shiite axis, encompassing Iran and Hezbollah and threatening regional stability, i.e. the hegemony of non-Shiites.  It's easy to complain that in Syria the particular Shiite sect is an oppressive minority, but the larger issue between Sunnis and Shiites may need to be settled peacefully before peace is possible in any individual country. Merely stopping the killing in any given place doesn't solve the underlying problem --but it may serve somebody else's interests. The advocates of humanitarian intervention like to ask what their opponents stand for, but they should be more honest, or at least more concrete, about what they stand for, first.

13 June 2013

The politics of superheroes, again.

"Some people will read all this and say: "You're over-intellectualising. You're reading too much into it." This may be true. But these charges are always made by people who never over-intellectualise anything, who never read too much into things. They are made by people who want you to take The X-Men seriously, as legitimate fiction. And then when you do, they say that you are over-intellectualising."
- Joe Queenan

The superhero genre began during the Great Depression. During World War II, it was obligatory for superheroes to be shown beating up America's fascist enemies and announcing their antipathy toward fascism. On the radio, Superman was called the "champion of equal rights" and the enemy of intolerance and prejudice. Once he went on television, those epithets were replaced by his commitment to "the American Way." Since then, it seems, critics have often felt an impulse to label superheroism a right-wing phenomenon. The Batman of Christopher Nolan's trilogy was sometimes called a fascist by people who seemed to know little about fascism except that fascists were violent and often wore uniforms. In a milder tone, and for the occasion of the release of Warner Bros.'s high-stakes Superman reboot, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, killjoy critic Joe Queenan of The Guardian -- the same British paper that gave us Edward Snowden -- argues that all superheroes are Republicans.


It is a genre dominated by the thoroughly unoriginal notion that you cannot trust the government. Even when you can trust the government, you cannot trust all of it. And even the branches you can trust aren't much help, because they are incompetent. To save humanity, one must rely on a bootstrap operation headed by a dedicated go-getter and self-starter. At heart, all superheroes are Republicans.

By Queenan's standard all movies are Republican. I know I haven't seen any recently in which government authority was extended the trust or the presumption of competence Queenan apparently prefers. I might make an exception for Zero Dark Thirty, but I don't think it would be very encouraging to our critic. Meanwhile, let's not make the rather dispiriting assumption that individual initiative is a Republican trait. Neither the Democratic party in the U.S. or the broader left worldwide will make much progress until we see more individual initiative, however collectively implemented, from their ranks.

To be fair, I do think that Queenan meant that line partly as a joke. His analysis strikes closer to home later in his article. Despite that crack, he writes that "the rise of superhero movies signals the triumph of the neurotic over the maverick." He argues that the genre caters to a sense of helplessness and a fantasy of redemption through some miraculous empowering event. Recalling the genre's Depression origins, Queenan argues that a similar anxiety (or outright pessimism) prevails today.

If movies are a reflection of society's most cherished hopes and deepest fears, then superhero movies perfectly capture the planet's current mood of uncertainty and dread. Today's global economy is a disaster, unemployment is ravaging the economies of both the developed and the developing world, and the threat of terrorism stretches from Kabul to Moscow, from London to Boston....Superhero movies are made for a society that has basically given up. The police can't protect us, the government can't protect us, there are no more charismatic loners to protect us and the euro is defunct. Clint Eastwood has left the building. So let's turn things over to the vigilantes. Superheroes need not obey laws or social conventions; they go where they please and do what they want. They pose simple – usually violent – solutions to complex problems. Superheroes operate in a netherworld just this side of fascism.

Alas, Queenan couldn't make it through the piece without using the f-word, and The Guardian itself introduces the article by describing superheroes as "sexist, semi-fascist bores." As I've said in the Batman context, vigilantism is hardly "this side of fascism" when the vigilantes -- the superheroes, in these cases -- have no political agenda, at least in terms of seizing control of the state. My big problem with this constant critical resort to the "fascist" charge is that it recognizes something that's actually there, but distorts it. The distortion is the portrayal of the superhero/vigilante impulse as something essentially rightist. It'd be more accurate to describe it as authoritarian, an echo of an impulse that found expression from both right and left at the time of Superman's birth. Siegel and Shuster's creation is contemporary with the the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union (Stalin's own nom de revolution is often translated as "Man of Steel") as well as the fascist challenge to the international order. Reading the old stories, I find myself reminded more of show-trial Stalinism than of fascism by Superman's eagerness to coerce confessions from people by dangling them from the skyscrapers or threatening to drop them as he flew through the air. The apolitical fact is that in desperate times, when systems are presumed corrupt, people want to see someone cut through all the barriers to simple justice -- if not by all means necessary (most superheroes quickly evolved codes against killing) than with more forcefulness than comic book readers are capable of. If there's anything "right" about the archetype, it's the underlying assumption that a special, uniquely gifted individual can do what a mass of people can't or won't. But the ideal superhero is less Mussolini than Cincinnatus, the Roman dictator appointed by the Senate who promptly gave up power and returned to private life when his task was finished. Every superhero with a secret identity is a kind of Cincinnatus if that means he doesn't want to be a superhero, or even a public figure, every hour of his life. George Washington regarded Cincinnatus as a role model and was hailed as an 18th century Cincinnatus when he resigned from the Continental Army instead of making himself ruler of the United States after the Revolutionary War. The old Roman is a problematic role model; while you might want to give someone his powers, you may not trust anyone else to renounce those powers when he's done with them. Likewise, the superhero can be seen as a model of disinterested benevolence -- he expects no reward for his labors and would rather not be recognized and adored by everyone he meets -- but that doesn't mean that superheroes are an altogether healthy fantasy of a healthy culture. The problem with the superhero as a fantasy -- Queenan is more cogent on the problems of superhero films -- isn't a political, much less a partisan problem. The real problem may not be what we imagine in superhero form, but why we imagine superheroes instead of other ways to save ourselves.

12 June 2013

Are libertarians security risks?

Discussion of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker currently self-exiled to Hong Kong, has tried to make something out of his apparent libertarian leanings. He reportedly made a campaign donation to Ron Paul last year, and Paul himself has called fresh attention to the potential linkage by worrying publicly that the U.S. government might try to kill Snowden with a drone strike. For some observers, identifying Snowden with libertarianism means he can be dismissed as a crank or a paranoid. David Brooks, the moderate conservative who writes for the New York Times, may have a different agenda. In his opinion, Snowden's presumed libertarianism is a symptom of his sociological condition rather than an ideological cause of his action.

Brooks sees Snowden as "the ultimate unmediated man," bright enough to rise to a position of sensitive responsibility with no better credentials than a GED degree yet so incompetent on some other level that he had to resort to a GED program after dropping out of high school. Techies like Snowden seem to "live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society." Hearsay reports portray Snowden as aloof from family and neighbors. Perhaps not a loner -- he had a girlfriend -- he nevertheless "appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments"

Just as there are loner leftists with little actual commitment to collective life -- I offer myself as an example -- so there seem to be loner libertarians with little actual commitment, as far as Brooks can tell, to the libertarian ideal of civil society. While the loner leftist looks to the state as his protector against the rough play of civil society, the loner libertarian distrusts all institutions, be they private or public. For them, Brooks suggests, "Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state." Such people, who either missed out or explicitly rejected all of the above "mediating" institutions, are presumed especially susceptible to the more anarchic or paranoid strands of libertarianism that Brooks claims are distinct to our time. Brooks also believes that these traits should have predicted bridge-burning act of protest against NSA practices.

It's tempting to read Brooks's column as a subtle dig at the libertarianism he may blame for dragging his Republican party toward uncompromising extremism. As far as he's concerned, fear of the state or fear of complex institutions can go too far. " Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country," he writes, "Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good." In the hero-or-traitor debate, Brooks unreservedly calls Snowden a traitor. In doing so, however, Brooks may go too far in defense of institutions and institutional obligations. He accuses Snowden of betraying not just his country but also his employer (the contractor Booz Allen) and his own cause. Brooks attempts paradoxes, arguing that government may become more secretive and less law-abiding after Snowden's revelations and blaming Snowden if it does so. Most of all, Brooks objects to the idea of an individual exercising a kind of veto over government policy. While he can't bring himself to say that leaks are always wrong, he does argue that "the founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed." He suspects that, as an "unmediated" man, Snowden lacked the "various barriers of resistance" more socialized or "mediated" people would have against "unilaterally" or "self-indulgently ... putting his own preference over everything else."

Brooks believes that "honesty and integrity [are] the foundation of all cooperative activity." That's indisputable, but Brooks seems to put the burden of honesty and integrity entirely on individuals rather than on institutions. Trust is a two-way street. Trust should be extended readily in an environment of citizenship and solidarity, but it must be earned as well. We may not be able to start anything without an initial extension of trust, but the renewal of trust must be conditional or else trust degenerates into mere faith. If libertarians go too far, the loner sort especially, in their distrust of government, that doesn't mean a government is entitled to blind faith. Brooks may not be saying it is entitled, but his appeal to some kind of personalized institutional loyalty that results from being "mediated" is hard to distinguish, in its assumed practical effect, from blind faith. For Brooks to blame Edward Snowden for any decline in trust in government this summer, meanwhile, is another kind of blindness.

11 June 2013

No off-year for fundraising

The President sent me a begging letter this week. It's been a while, but then again I didn't really expect any right away. Special elections aside, Congress won't be in play until next year. But I was naive to think there was such a thing as "too early" when it comes to political fundraising.

The chief executive writes on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Their object is to strengthen the Democratic majority in the upper house at the 2014 elections. That's a tall order, since most observers expect the President's party to lose seats, and some Republican optimists anticipate a takeover. Campaign donations are a form of gambling, however, so the odds against success may not deter many people. For the uncertain, Obama explains that "This is a crucial moment that will determine whether or not we can restore the security that the middle class has lost. It's a moment where [sic?] we must decide whether the next step we take will be forward or backward." He reminds us that Republicans espouse "trickle-down" economics while denying climate change. To sum up, "Republicans in Washington aren't in it for you."

After the revelations of this spring, more people may wonder whether the Democrats are in it for them, either, or whether "reasons of state" will impel any government to pursue its own interests at the expense or risk of the people's. This administration would rather we ignore such questions and think of their agenda of "building and strengthening the middle class and demanding equality for each and every American citizen." Does it strike you as inconsistent to talk about "equality for each and every American citizen" while also talking about a "middle class" as implicitly distinct from both an upper and a lower class? If there are people below the middle class, shouldn't it be a more immediate priority to build and strengthen them? If Obama is right that "our goal as a country has always been to ensure that every single American gets a fair shot at the American Dream," do we really need to start at the middle? I know that "middle class" is a flattering euphemism Democrats use, but won't it help sometimes to call things by their real names, or at least by more accurate ones? Most Republicans are absolutely honest when they also say that they're committed to what Obama calls "a rising, thriving middle class," though it may be just as unclear whom, exactly, they mean by that term. Millionaires may be middle class as far as some Republicans are concerned. But rather than quibble over definitions, let's recall the millions of Americans who remain jobless and agree that, no matter what either party wants to say, they are not middle class, at least right now. Agree on that and all the rhetoric about the middle class will seem beside the point. Someone should tell that to the President's letter-writers.

10 June 2013

The whistleblower

Starting with a GED, Edward Snowden rose to a position that gave him access to classified National Security Agency documents and the responsibility to protect them. He has lived through a decade of disillusion. He tells Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, to whom he leaked the documents showing some of the breadth of the U.S. government's "metadata" collection operations, that he had once been enthusiastic to join in the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein, only to learn that most of his comrades-in-arms simply wanted to kill Arabs. He had hoped that Barack Obama would end many of the Bush Administration's intrusive policies, only to see the new President do the opposite. He hopes he has exposed systematic government overreach into citizens' private lives that has lasted through changes of party control in the White House and Congress. But many Americans will interpret Snowden's story only in terms of whether or not it damages President Obama. Others debate whether Snowden is a "hero," like Bradley Manning, or a "traitor," like Bradley Manning, or significantly different from Manning. Snowden himself opts for "different," noting that Manning's leaks named names and possibly endangered people, while his own put no one in jeopardy. He has holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room since leaking, but the latest report as I write is that he has checked out, possibly on his way to some country that will give him asylum. He claims that the programs he has exposed pose "an existential threat to democracy." This is a slippery-slope argument. A commitment to prevent terrorism in itself is no such threat, but the tools the government uses obviously can be used toward different ends. That has been the great fear since the Patriot Act was first debated: that the government will be empowered to suppress dissent in the interest of suppressing terrorism. Those fears can't just be dismissed as paranoia, but at the same time we can't disregard the imperative to try to prevent mass murder, and we can't act as if no one is planning mass murder. We can put our house partly in order by ending the foreign policies that provoke foreigners (and their domestic sympathizers) to action, but there are more reasons we can imagine -- because many are actually unreasonable -- for individuals to start shooting suddenly. The Santa Monica shooter last Friday killed more people than the Boston Marathon bombers. Since he seems to have had personal issues, it's doubtful that the NSA's operations monitoring international calls, etc., would have exposed his intent to kill. But if you want to prevent as many amoklaufs as possible, there is no prevention without surveillance. It should be possible to concede that the government goes too far in some respects without insisting on a utopian ideal of a world without surveillance. People will have to change before governments can. Snowden says he doesn't want the news to be about him as a person, so let's take him at his word. We should debate not what the government should do to him, but what we want from or should do about our government.

09 June 2013

Free-Speech Zone for homophobes

Today was the day of the annual Gay Pride parade in Albany NY. The parade goes up Lark Street -- Albany's alleged answer to Greenwich Village, and turns right at Madison Avenue. Southbound traffic along Lark diverges at this point, Lark continuing a few blocks more while most of the traffic goes left on Delaware Avenue. Between Lark and Delaware is Dana Park, a modest pedestrian island with some trees and park benches where small-scale neighborhood concerts are held during the summer. At the northern tip of Dana Park, where the identifying monument stands, you're across the street from where the parade makes its turn. At this point this afternoon stood a handful of people protesting the parade. These were Christian demonstrators, not "God Hates Fags" extremists but a group convinced that homosexuals needed to repent to save their souls. They made this point quite loudly as crowds lined the sidewalks waiting for the parade. Counterdemonstrators stood alongside them holding mocking signs while the lead protester railed on obliviously. While I watched the scene never turned seriously confrontational. Civility of a sort prevailed.

Apparently, no one questioned the right of these zealots to get in the faces of the gay-rights paraders, or at least to make sure that the sinners heard them. And while civility prevailed, I couldn't help thinking that, had this been any other public event with any kind of controversial potential, people who wanted to protest the event would have been exiled to a "free speech zone" where they could exercise their constitutional right well out of sight and hearing of those they wanted to confront. In Albany, no one felt that the gay-rights people needed to be protected from homophobic preachers -- not even the gay-rights people themselves, it seems, who were happy simply to mock the profoundly outnumbered protesters. If it seems that homophobes have more free-speech rights than other confrontational radicals, the problem is not that the homophobes enjoy favoritism -- I don't know if any officials even anticipated their appearance, though precedent suggests they should have -- but that today's spectacle, where deeply opposed groups both had their say in close proximity to each other with no harm done, should set an example for other controversial public occasions, yet doesn't. If homosexuals don't feel endangered by the nearness of people who (arguably) hate them -- things might have been different in France, I admit -- why do more powerful people fear the nearness of their critics. Neither side today may have taught the other a lesson, but together they may have taught the rest of us.

07 June 2013

Amoklauf in Santa Monica

Six victims dead along with the gunman in Santa Monica, California; five more people wounded. The question recurs: do we want to prevent such things? If so, are we prepared to pay whatever price is set, be it material or, more likely, a psychological one? Civilization is freedom and submission at once. When we insist on one and not the other, as do those most jealous of their "natural" right of self-defense against everything, the balance of freedom and submission is endangered and civilization leans toward chaos, just as too much emphasis on submission tips us toward tyranny. Mental health and gun control are only pieces of the puzzle; neither is a cure-all in its own right. If we want to prevent amoklaufs, a more wholesale change in attitudes, as well as changes in policy, may be needed. Can it be worse than the thought of someone opening fire on you anywhere, at any time? Is this really a zero-sum trade-off of liberty for security? Isn't security of some sort a prerequisite for liberty? Is freedom really this messy?  Or have we just made a mess of freedom? If someone can see today's news and worry only about his own guns being taken from him, we're definitely in a mess. If we can clean it up, that'll be less the end of our freedom than proof of it.

No one is (presumed) innocent

Of course, the story started with a leak. Someone leaked to Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper a copy of a 90-day court order, one of many since the country embarked on a War on Terror, requiring Verizon to provide "metadata" on its customers: not the content of their calls, but information on whom they call, how often, for how long, etc.  Verizon is not the only service provider in this respect. The Internet is being monitored as well. This should not be news to anyone, but some people continue to be shocked that these practices continue under a Democratic administration. Some of that shock may be exaggerated for partisan reasons, and the leak itself may have been timed to exacerbate anxiety over the Obama administration's surveillance on other fronts. The opposition hasn't really shown a united front on this;  neocons have defended the practice while libertarians are alarmed and some congressmen dispute the President's claim that "every member" of the House of Representatives was briefed about the program. Nevertheless, the shoe is definitely on the other foot now. A decade ago, liberals feared the Patriot Act in large part because they feared that the Bush administration would use it to link dissent with sympathy for terrorism. Some conservatives will worry now because they may suspect that Obama will use this power to target his own rather than the country's enemies. A relative handful of libertarians and leftists have been consistent in opposition. How many people really trust government -- not just a particular partisan administration but government in general --  not to abuse such powers? On the other hand, how many of us really trust our fellow man? If this is all about the War on Terror, the simple answer remains to change the policies that provoke terrorism. You might still have a handful of jihadists waging a self-conscious war of aggression, as some presume all jihadists have been doing all along, but they wouldn't last long. But while the present controversy is a legacy of the war on Islamist terrorism, a case can be made that there remains good reason for the government to continue these practices -- if they can be useful in any way in preventing domestic terrorism or lone-wolf amoklaufs. If you want to prevent crime -- particularly mass murder -- rather than punish it after the fact, isn't surveillance inevitably necessary? Liberals may look to gun control or social reform as the effective solutions to violence, while conservatives may want to restrict surveillance to the realm of mental health. Across the board, however, the biggest objection is the offense widely felt at the mere idea of being surveilled. To many, it is a fundamental violation of privacy, or a denial of the presumption of innocence to which they consider themselves entitled. Well, James Madison said government itself wouldn't be necessary if men were angels, and the further we get from that ideal, the more government we're bound to get. Maybe we've reached a point where we don't -- or can't -- presume each other innocent in a way that should exempt us from suspicion and surveillance. On the issue of gun violence I've written repeatedly that we can't divide the populace between the innocent whose rights should not be infringed and the "criminals" who should and somehow can be kept from guns without infringing the rights of the innocent. We simply can't know when an innocent person will snap, cross over to the dark side, etc. That's why entrusting our protection to the innocent only leaves us vulnerable on every side. Maybe, rather than worry or grumble about what's necessary today, we should think about what it will take to get back to, or for the first time reach, that point where we all trust each other enough to respect each other as both citizens in public and individuals in private, not only in this country but around the world.

For all I know, discussing that will put us under suspicion, but that's life -- for now, at least.

06 June 2013

Jackie Robinson for Libertarians

The baseball player Jackie Robinson was a Republican, one of the last prominent black figures to take the GOP "Party of Lincoln" rhetoric seriously, at a time when it still could be taken seriously. He endorsed Richard Nixon for President in 1960, before Nixon pandered to reactionaries and racists with the "Southern Strategy" that helped get him elected in 1968. This info isn't necessarily relevant to Matt Welch's review of the recent Robinson biopic 42 in the libertarian Reason magazine, but it may help set your mental stage. Welch is a big Robinson fan, less a fan of 42. That's because Welch objects to the film's emphasis, typical of modern tellings of the Robinson legend, on the hero's more-or-less passive resistance to the race-baiting of hostile players and fans during his first two seasons with the Brooklyn Dodger, as the first black player in modern Major League Baseball. As the legend goes, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey advised Robinson not to strike back at race-baiters during those first two years, fearing that fights would prove that the races couldn't play together. After that probationary period, Rickey gave Robinson the green light to deal with offenders as he pleased. Welch observes that Robinson earned the Most Valuable Player award the following season and really hit his stride as a competitor, but notes with regret that the 42 movie never gets to that point. In explaining his preference for a more confrontational Robinson, Welch can sound downright radical.

There is something inherently attractive about the narrative of successful nonviolent campaigns against white majoritarian tyranny. What monstrosity it exposes! What heroism it requires! But could it be that white audiences in particular enjoy and enhance that tale, even to the exclusion of less pacifist narratives, because it goes down more comfortably? Are we doing Jackie Robinson an injustice by portraying him more as saint than fighter?  
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I suspect that we still want Jackie Robinson to be noble, not furious, just as we would rather quarantine baseball desegregation to a single event in 1947 rather than examine how ballplayers were still excluded from hotels and restaurants, and subjected to soul-destroying racism, well into the 1960s. When your face is unlovely, it's always more fun to look at old photographs than the bathroom mirror.

When Welch praises Robinson and criticizes 42, is he writing as a libertarian? Not obviously. Libertarians can root for Robinson without reservation because no one forced baseball to integrate and libertarians generally abhor racial discrimination even if they scruple over how to do away with it. But I think there's something arguably libertarian in Welch's preference for the "furious" over the "noble" Robinson -- or at least something philosophically or emotionally related to libertarianism.

However much a libertarian may applaud voluntary integration, the initial moment may be uncomfortable in some way simply because integration usually comes with an unconditional demand that a newcomer be accepted simply for what he or she is. The Civil Rights era model of nonviolent agitation for integration, for which Robinson can be seen as a precursor, places the burden of unconditional acceptance perhaps more uncomfortably on some people, if only subtly, because it goes against what might be the libertarian ideal or integration or socialization in general. The later Robinson, at least as Welch perceives him, fits this inferred libertarian ideal more closely because, instead of passively demanding acceptance, he committed aggressively to earning his place. All the admiring epithets Welch applies to the later Robinson could be condensed into the favorite libertarian adjective, "competitive." This distinction can but shouldn't be overstated. I don't think Welch would say that Robinson was uncompetitive during those first two seasons -- he was Rookie of the Year in 1947. But Welch may think Robinson could have been even better in those early years, when he was closer to his physical peak -- due to segregation, he couldn't join the Majors until he was 28 -- if he had felt no need to suppress what Welch considers his most healthy competitive (or confrontational) impulses.

Sports are one thing, politics another, of course, and I don't think Welch means to repudiate the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights years, when Robinson was trying to convince Martin Luther King to support Nixon rather than Kennedy. That is, I don't think he's saying King should have fought the way Robinson finally got to fight. But he is stating a preference for those who earn acceptance through performance -- including through confrontation if necessary -- over those who simply demand acceptance on general principles. Whether that preference has larger philosophical or political implications I leave for others to ponder.

05 June 2013

The 'natural order of affections:' why utilitarian philanthropy bugs David Brooks

The Washington Post last week profiled Jason Trigg, a hedge fund programmer who's resolved to live what David Brooks, commenting in The New York Times, calls "the life of a graduate student." Inspired by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, Trigg decided to take a job that would maximize his income so he'd have more money to donate to charity. The cause of his choice is the global fight against malaria. Told that $2,500 can save the life of a malaria patient, he wants to save as many as possible by making as much money as possible. Brooks, one of the Times's house conservatives, finds Trigg's scheme admirable yet troubling.

For Brooks, Trigg's approach presents several pitfalls. The first is that, whatever his selfless intentions, he's bound to be shaped by his work environment. "You will become more hedge fund, less malaria," Brooks warns. Another objection, perhaps most consistent with Brooks's (tame by Republican standards) conservatism, is that Trigg may make himself "a machine for the redistribution of wealth" or "a fiscal policy." Since Trigg would be redistributing his own wealth voluntarily, what the problem is isn't clear, even after Brooks explains what he means about a person turning himself into "a means rather than an end." It seems to come down to choosing a career because you value the work itself, not as a means to a distant end. "Taking a job just to make money," no matter what you mean to do with the money, "is probably going to be corrosive," leaving you "a specialist without spirit." If Trigg is really concerned with fighting malaria in Africa, Brooks suggests, he should go to Africa and do hands-on work. "I'd think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously," he writes.

Brooks claims to be most concerned about Trigg's "deep soul," but his most interesting (or revealing) criticism of Trigg's philanthropy is that it might invert "the natural order of affections." Trigg's apparent devotion to Peter Singer may have rung an alarm bell in Brooks's mind. The columnist seems to have an issue with utilitarianism. To Brooks, it views the world "on a strictly intellectual level," treating "a child in Pakistan or Zambia [as] just as valuable as your own child." Where might that lead?

If you choose a profession that doesn’t arouse your everyday passion for the sake of serving instead some abstract faraway good, you might end up as a person who values the far over the near. You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around. You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far — rationality — and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around — affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence. Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god. 

These criticisms and suspicions are not new. In Victorian times Charles Dickens -- not exactly an uncompassionate soul -- used the character of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House to chide people grown obsessed with helping the needy in distant lands at the expense of the needy at home. Utilitarian detachment from the particular or individual often disturbs people who worry that utilitarians value people as interchangeable units rather than as irreplaceable individuals. Why Trigg's modest aspiration should inspire such anxiety is unclear. What usually bugs people about utilitarians is the fear that "the greatest good for the greatest number" might authorize the sacrifice of individuals for an abstract common good. Perhaps Brooks worries that people who practice philanthropy at a distance, as Trigg does, grow distant from people near and far alike. He doesn't object to Trigg helping Africans, but thinks everyone will be better off if he does it in Africa. I'm not sure if that follows, but in the end it's Brooks's anxiety, not Trigg's philanthropy, that intrigues me -- and requires more of an explanation.

04 June 2013

Liberalism with Teeth?

The June 10/17 double issue of The Nation features a "Letter to the Nation From a Young Radical" asking "Has Liberalism Failed?" Bhaskar Sunkara is a self-styled Jacobin -- he edits a publication of that name -- and has long seen himself as a radical rather than a liberal. In Sunkara's view liberalism "seemed, even at its best moments, well-intentioned but inadequate." At those best moments, "liberalism once had teeth." Too often, however, liberalism seems willfully toothless. As Sunkara explains:

Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power. Much of its discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the “Republic of Letters,” which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence. 

By way of illustration, Sunkara mentions President Obama's "inclination to sit the health insurance companies down at the table rather than confront them head-on." The distinction is unclear; if you've sat them at the table, aren't you confronting them head-on? The difference depends on the meaning of "confront." Sunkara's preference for radicalism may clarify things, but the Nation article doesn't really help that much. In it, Sunkara describes two categories of liberals: welfare-statists and technocrats, neither of which has "moored their efforts to the working class." Sunkara regrets the absence of a true "labor" party in the U.S. and notes that the Democratic party is unlikely ever to become one because it "has no ideological requirements for membership" and few ways, under American election law, to exclude anyone from registering. Sunkara notes, however, that the Republican party does seem to have ways of enforcing ideological discipline. He holds the GOP up, in this regard, as the model for a radical party that may emerge after radicals "smash the existing liberal coalition." Sunkara advises that "a schism will have to be forced through actual struggle," by which he means waging campaigns against the Democratic party establishment and, if necessary, against the Democratic party. That recommendation is guaranteed to catch him hell from some Nation readers who'll blow right past Sunkara's criticism of lesser-evilism and accuse him of guaranteeing Republican rule by dividing the anti-GOP forces. If Sunkara is really radical, Republican resurgence may not trouble him; he may look forward to it forcing the necessary crisis instead.

My problem with Sunkara's letter is that he implies things without spelling out the implication. What does he mean, for instance, by a "dynamic theory of power?" In context, he clearly has something more in mind than the politics of rhetorical persuasion. But what does he mean beyond staging working-class demonstrations? What are the "teeth" that liberalism once had and radicalism should acquire? What does it mean, really, to "confront" your antagonists?

The distinction between radicalism and liberalism is twofold. Sunkara stresses the radicalism of ends. Liberals aspire to reform, to ameliorate the ills of society, while radicals by definition demand fundamental change, preferably from the ground up. In his closing paragraph Sunkara makes his radical priorities clear.

Socialists aren’t just doctors with remedies for liberalism’s ailments. We’re members of a movement with aspirations distinct from it: a society free from class exploitation, a democracy extended from political spheres to social and economic ones, a world dramatically transformed. This means pushing struggles beyond the limits of liberalism, or even the boundaries of a single nation. It means a pitched battle for supremacy within the broader progressive movement

The divide grows deeper when we consider the radicalism of means. This radicalism is what most people, I suspect, mean by the word itself; think of the alarms sounded at the thought of a Muslim becoming "radicalized." Meanwhile, liberalism is identified above all with a refusal to justify means by ends. The stereotypical liberal doesn't believe in coercion; tolerance of dissent or deviance may be his supreme virtue, in his own eyes. The radical, convinced of the necessity of fundamental change, must grow impatient with even principled objections to his demands. Sunkara hints at radical impatience with the socio-political order in general and with the Democratic party in particular. How impatient is he? How radical is he, really? How radical does he -- do we -- need to be? His letter to The Nation raises more questions than it answers.