31 July 2013

The conservatism of 'established democracies'

Here's a thought for the day, found in the current issue of The New Yorker. John Lanchester is reviewing some books about the late Margaret Thatcher, one of which is a general history of the global upheavals of the year 1979, when Thatcher first became Prime Minister. Lanchester appears to agree with the author's premise that Thatcher, a conservative parliamentarian, was as radical a figure as the Ayatollah Khomeini, who took power in Iran that year, and Deng Xiaoping, who consolidated his control of China that year the better to steer the country toward economic reform. The reviewer assumes that some readers will think this strange company for Thatcher, but Lanchester argues that, on one level, hers was a more radical challenge. Here's the thought:

Established democracies tend to be more stable than autocracies, and, as a result, change direction with greater difficulty.

An American, whether Democrat, Republican or other, might think Lanchester was writing about the United States, and perhaps he is. In fact, he describes a condition that some observers often see as a virtue of liberal representative government, but in a way that presents it as a problem. Reading that sentence over again, you wonder why it should be difficult to change direction when necessary, but the historical liberalism from which nearly all American political opinion derives doesn't really envision a need for the sort of dramatic course changes Lanchester has in mind. Instead, liberalism presumes, if not perpetual stability, then a gradual, regulated evolution, the orderliness of which should make radical course changes unnecessary if not impossible. Along with that bias, American liberalism burdens the state with an obligation to respect the interests, if not always the objections of minorities. That burden grows the more people identify themselves with threatened minority interests of any sort. The hurdles are built high to ensure that minority interests are not trampled by abusive majorities, or simply to force second thoughts before rash action. This becomes a problem when radical change seems to become necessary yet also seems to burden minorities (however constituted) unfairly, from the minority perspective. "Established" and "stable" democracies, i.e. liberal ones, don't allow majorities to dismiss minority objections as easily as radicals might like or as "autocrats" can elsewhere. Whether this is a flaw of liberal democracy depends on whether you judge government by its cultivation of stability or by its responsiveness to crisis -- not to mention how you understand crises as political events.

For Lanchester, Thatcher's triumph is that she "managed to bring about a dramatic change of direction, and did so by democratic means." She did not become a dictator, regardless of what some labor unions might have thought. When her own party turned against her, she left power meekly.  What did she accomplish? In the words of the author under review, the U.K. was "reduced to the status of a banana republic" economically before she took over. In Lanchester's words, "Britain became a more prosperous country under her leadership, but they also show that it became a more unequal one." That qualifier didn't bother Thatcher, and her inegalitarian attitude may be related to what Lanchester sees as her particular virtue, practically speaking, as a politician. "She didn't merely dislike the idea of consensus," Lanchester writes, "she despised it." She explicitly rejected the sort of "we're all in this together" rhetoric Americans identify with President Obama. As another biographer relates, Thatcher struck out a line from her party's 1979 manifesto that read in part: "[T]he interests of all classes within the nation are ultimately the same." Lanchester again: "She didn't flinch from the idea that we are not all in it together." Enough were in "it" together, as she understood "it," for her to win three elections before her own party deposed her. Perhaps those who weren't in "it" with her had less power to make mischief than they do in the U.S. She may not have faced the same procedural obstacles American leaders face, her most potent adversaries being striking workers who could simply be ignored and outlasted, not compromised with. There are degrees of stability and establishment in representative government, which is what Lanchester really means when he writes, "democracy." The U.K. might be as "stable" as the U.S. while allowing leaders a clearer path to enacting their agendas. On the other hand, American leaders already hobbled by the Constitution or legislative rules may handicap themselves further by fetishizing consensus in a way Thatcher scorned. In his heart and mind President Obama may believe that we're all in this together, but President Clinton might tell him that it depends on what "this" is. In a democracy we have choices, and choices can exclude. It may even be necessary to exclude to include, to show the undecided in stark contrasts what their actual choices are.  Would a Thatcherism of the left, polarizing yet honest about its intentions, succeed in the U.S.? Should someone attempt it, that would be a real test of the stability and flexibility of established democracy, and of whether what we have here is worthy of the name.

30 July 2013

The Bradley Manning case: If espionage isn't aiding the enemy, what is it?

PFC Bradley Manning has been found guilty of several instances of violating the Espionage Act by providing U.S. government documents to Wikileaks, but the verdict of a military judge is being described as a win for Manning in many headlines because he was acquitted of the gravest charge against him, that of aiding the enemy. Had he been found guilty, he would have faced life in a military prison. The judge apparently was persuaded that Manning had no intention of aiding any enemy by making the secret documents public. That seems correct from what we know of Manning and his whistleblowing agenda. But it throws into question the meaning of "espionage," at least as defined by the Espionage Act. Thanks to generations of pop thrillers, we identify espionage with spying, and spying is usually for somebody. If there is no enemy to benefit, is there espionage? According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The Espionage Act criminalizes the delivery of confidential data to anyone "not entitled to receive it." The issue ultimately isn't who gets the information, but who owns it in the first place. As the defense team for another defendant, accused of leaking intelligence to Fox News, argues, the Espionage Act as interpreted by modern judges amounts to little more than a "Government Secrets Act." A judge in that case has ruled that prosecutors don't need to prove actual damage to national security in order to win a conviction. It boils down to: you have no right to give that info to those people, or to anyone. The information is understood to be the property of the U.S. government. That may be a lawful understanding now, but we might still ask whether the government can own something in a way that entitles them to withhold it from the American people. If the ultimate purpose of someone like Manning is to let the people know what their government is doing, would that be wrong? It might be if you understand citizens' delegation of certain powers to government to be an abdication or renunciation of responsibility for the use of those powers. The argument might go: if you don't want to do this yourself, you don't need to know how it's done. But does the inevitable delegation of power in a large country ever come with a surrender of oversight so complete that it'd be criminal to inform you of what the government does? I suppose not, though ideally there would be formal procedures through which the people could demand information deemed secret by the government -- a more sweeping version of the Freedom of Information Act, for instance -- rather than rely on the initiative of whistleblowers. Can the people's presumed right to know be exercised by individual citizens, even against the preference of most of the people? That is, could the people say: we don't want to know, or shouldn't know, about what the government's doing somewhere and we repudiate anyone who causes trouble by trying to incite us with information? It doesn't sound flattering to the people, but it does sound like what many people say about Manning or Edward Snowden. Such people are probably concerned with secrets that should be kept from actual enemies -- the names of secret agents, etc. -- but how much of the data taken by Manning fits under such categories? Not enough to convict him of aiding the enemy, apparently, and as for the rest, in an ideal situation it would be for the people, not a court, to decide whether Manning had done wrong.

29 July 2013

Dynasty: American politics as family property and soap opera

When Dick Cheney's daughter announced that she would challenge an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator from Wyoming, the news inspired more commentary on the increasingly dynastic nature of politics in our democratic republic. Zeke Miller's piece in the August 5 issue of Time sums things up nicely. Since most of it is behind a paywall, I'll smuggle in what I consider his key insight.

Heredity can act as a handy shortcut around the high barriers to entry of the modern campaign. The financial costs of running a ground operation, hiring consultants and airing television ads have skyrocketed. The increasingly celebretized nature of politics has turned politicians families into stories in their own right. And the advantage of name recognition may be surpassed only by the political networks of high-powered supporters that come with it. There is also the advantage of experience. These candidates start young, dragged to county fairs and Fourth of July parades from their earliest years, and grow up knocking on doors and passing out yard signs.

Notice that it's experience in campaigning rather than experience in administration that counts. Not just governing but running for office seems to have become a specialized trade that one must start young at, preferably in apprenticeship to one's own parents. Miller provides troubling statistics, most notably that the percentage of congressmen who've had "a close relative who has served in the Capitol" has been rising from a historic low in 1960, though we aren't yet close to the historic high of the 1790s, when we were probably the closest we'd get to a real aristocracy. The prospect of a 21st century political aristocracy of Cheneys, Bushes, Pauls, Clintons, Cuomos, Kennedys, etc. may be the best argument for a policy I've never really warmed to, which is the public financing of campaigns. Term-limiting entire families, as some might want, doesn't necessarily eliminate the "high barriers to entry," which themselves encourage recourse to familiar names. If those barriers encourage the sort of dynastic politics that the Founders (presumably excepting John Adams) presumably abhorred, the barriers should be lowered, either through public financing on the demand side or controlling the cost of advertising on the supply side. Public financing should always leave us concerned about the gatekeeper role of whoever controls the purse, but reducing the cost of campaigning, or liberating it from inappropriate market rules, is a less worrisome option -- unless you depend on advertising revenue from politicians and PACs.

On the other hand, we might look to instruction from the Roman Empire -- not the Republic this time. During the age of the Antonines, the supposed golden age of the Empire in the second century of the Common Era, the virtuous emperors cultivated talented proteges from outside the family. Out of respect to the dynastic principle of legitimacy that had prevailed in Rome, the emperors adopted their proteges to make them their heirs. When Marcus Aurelius gave up the practice in favor of his natural son Commodus, things started falling apart. Adopting an adult into your family for political purposes might look awkward in 21st century eyes, but adopting the practice in the U.S. could combine the best features of aristocracy and meritocracy while maintaining the indispensable integrity of the family brand. For those who tremble over regulating the trade in political ads, this modest proposal may appeal to the extent that it reduces family, with its overtones of unwelcome aristocracy and potential degeneracy, to a pure brand that could long outlive the usefulness of the original biological line. If no better option is possible in today's partisan climate, we should at least think about this option -- if only because doing so might make us reconsider the impossible.

26 July 2013

Is Egypt not partisan enough???

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic is no sympathizer with the Muslim Brotherhood -- if not an Islamophobe he's an Islamism-o-phobe -- but he tells us in his latest "Washington Diarist" column that "When I heard the news about the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi I was crestfallen, and this startled me." For all that he'd rather not see Morsi in power, he found the mass celebration of his overthrow "grotesque." What turned him off was "liberals rejoicing in a military coup!" For the sake of argument, let's agree that the people who had demonstrated against Morsi and now celebrated a military takeover were liberals, since Wieseltier's main argument is against a form of liberalism not exclusive to Egypt. While Egyptian liberalism appears unusually "lame," since "it relies on generals to do its work," Wielseltier's critique reads much like attacks from The New Republic on a kind of liberalism its writers and editors detect in these United States. He castigates Egyptian liberals, particularly their self-appointed spokesman Wael Ghonim, who boasts that the movement that toppled first Mubarak, and then (with military assistance) Morsi is "not an organization [nor] a political party." With such an attitude, it surprised neither Wieseltier nor many other observers that the Brotherhood's party won Egypt's first democratic election. The Brotherhood, as Wieseltier observes, is organized, while the liberals appear to abhor organizing. As a result, the liberals have a movement that specializes in protesting rather than governing, yet depends on another highly organized entity, the army, to give its protests force. Wieseltier warns that "the generals whom they glorify will not do liberalism's work." He wrote that well before today's military-approved demonstrations, which give strong hints of a cult of personality growing around General el-Sisi. He, not the civilians now supposedly governing the country, is the hero of the hour. His prominence makes Wieseltier's description of the Egyptian liberals as a "Bonapartist left" look potentially prescient.

"Democracy will never be created by people who do not take democracy seriously," Wieseltier concludes. The Egyptian liberals' alleged aversion to organization proves their lack of seriousness to the columnist. One can't help thinking that Wieseltier's remedy for what ails them, the proof he'd accept of their seriousness, would be the appearance in Egypt of something like the Democratic party, preferably in the deal-making, arm-twisting mode of LBJ vintage often idealized in The New Republic. While LBJ (if not Bill Clinton) may be the ideal, I've called the idea advanced by TNR "Neo-Lincolnism" based on the Sean Wilentz articles (echoed intentionally or not by the Spielberg biopic) emphasizing how much Lincoln was an arm-twisting, deal-making party politician instead of the idealistic rhetorician of alleged legend. If there's been truth to the charge that some liberals place too much trust in rhetoric or moral suasion, and more obvious truth in the observation that government is not a perpetual protest, it should still be possible to envision an alternative to party discipline as practiced by the old Democratic machines as a model for effective progressive politics.   The Egyptian liberals (or Wael Ghonim, at least) claim to be tired of "charismatic leaders," -- even though el-Sisi seems to be accumulating charisma rapidly -- while Wieseltier implies that there is no organization, and thus no effective liberal democracy, without leadership to do the deal-making and arm-twisting. Any organization needs power, but how wrong are the Egyptians to worry that a conventional party organization will end up as just another top-down machine? They rejected Morsi and the Brotherhood as much from an aversion to the kind of machine politics he practiced as from an aversion to his religious zealotry. If they can come up with a nonpartisan alternative to representative government, we might even indulge the military in giving the liberals cover to figure out how to make it work. Whether the military is fully trustworthy is a separate though equally serious question, but it may be jumping to conclusions to condemn revolutionaries for not immediately producing a form of government that American liberals recognize. The Egyptian revolution is probably going to go for a while, so a little patience from the rest of the world may be in order.

25 July 2013

Christianity, capitalism and conservatism

The Public Religion Research Institute released a report this month surveying the influence of religion on American attitudes toward the economy. I first learned about this survey from the Religion Dispatches blog, where writer Peter Montgomery's big takeaway from it is the surprising finding that "50 percent of white evangelicals say they believe capitalism and the free market are at odds with Christian values." This is a surprise because white evangelicals are thought to be the spiritual base of the Republican party and most of what passes for conservatism in the U.S. However, the survey reveals that "only 44 percent of white evangelicals are economic conservatives." If they are Republicans, Montgomery observes, it's mainly because "nearly two-thirds are social conservatives" for whom "religion is the most important thing in their lives." In Montgomery's analysis, consciously echoing Thomas Frank's, white evangelicals tend to vote Republican because "social" (i.e. moral) issues matter more than their economic interests.  This is paraphrased by an unsympathetic writer on the comment thread: "in other words, conservative Christians will vote against their own economic self interest just so they can try to force onto the public an anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-science agenda."

I followed the link trail to the actual survey. It became clear that Montgomery missed one significant detail that might have made the survey findings slightly less surprising. The survey takes into account categories of "economic conservatism" and "social conservatism," defined by responses to survey questions, but also defines a category of "religious conservatives." This is actually a category encompassing all categories, religious conservatives being those who showed themselves "conservative" in economic, social and "theological" orientation. Theological conservatism was defined by whether respondents claimed a personal relationship with God, believed scriptures to be literal truth, and held an "preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition." 38% of respondents proved to be religious conservatives. More so than the broader category of "white evangelicals," this looks like the face of Republican conservatism. Returning to the question of capitalism: "religious conservatives ... express views very different from religious progressives, religious moderates and the nonreligious. Nearly half (48%) of religious conservatives say capitalism and the free market system are consistent with Christian values, compared to 41% who believe they are at odds." Narrowing this down to the specific subcategory of "theological conservatives," respondents thus identified found Christianity and capitalism inconsistent by a narrow margin, 46% to 43%.

It may still be surprising to learn that support for capitalism falls short of a majority even among religious conservatives. By making the point of reference "capitalism and the free market system," the survey avoids the pitfall I suspected, that respondents might not be clear on the meaning of "capitalism" as opposed to "free markets," "free enterprise," etc. The survey leaves unclear why any segment of respondents would deem capitalism inconsistent with Christianity. Respondents were asked to interpret Jesus's injunctions to help the poor. Just half took the presumably "conservative" position that Jesus was calling for voluntary charitable giving, while 41% believed that he was calling for a "more just society." Religious conservatives are somewhat more likely to argue for voluntary charity, 58% saying "individual charity is at the heart of the Biblical call on behalf of the needy." The relevance of this question to capitalism is questionable, but the response may point to a nearly subconscious persistence of the "gospel of works." While many evangelicals presumably deem salvation dependent, on some level, on God's grace rather than human will, they may retain an idea that doing good works counts for something in the afterlife, while passively giving up taxes to the government would not improve their standing with the deity.  Theological conservatives have long regarded the "just society" idea with skepticism because their top priority remains to get people through this life saved rather than, for instance, extending life to its comfortable maximum. Many "religious progressives" think differently, though whether theology or ideology ultimately explains the difference remains unclear after more than a century of debates over the so-called social gospel. In any event, it should be obvious that questioning capitalism doesn't necessarily lead to an embrace of socialism, since numerous options remain in between. If religious conservatives question capitalism, it may simply reveal that "freedom" doesn't live up to their expectations of order. Being believers in God, their expectation of order is probably pretty strong. Not only leftists question capitalism, as the history of fascism shows, so the fact that some American reactionaries question capitalism isn't necessarily a good sign for the nation.

24 July 2013

The new adventures of George Zimmerman

So you see, everything worked out for the best! As many may have read already, the killer of Trayvon Martin got to play good samaritan a few days ago by helping a family get out of an overturned SUV. Lucky for them he -- and the other guy -- happened to be free and available at the time. They might have had to wait for the cops to extract them, but we all know that George was never one to wait for the cops. Still, it was a decent thing to do, but I bring this up now because Zimmerman's legal team could not leave well enough alone. The owners of the SUV apparently hooked up with one of Zimmerman's attorneys, Mark O'Mara, who says they asked him to arrange for a press conference. The event was scheduled for today, but the family backed out, telling O'Mara that "they were more worried about blow back from saying anything that would be favorable to George." They told their local sheriff that "they are not comfortable doing media interviews at this time." Makes you wonder who contacted whom in the first place. In the current climate there was little benefit for the family in going before the cameras to tell a half-skeptical world that Zimmerman is a good guy. You can also understand why it finally occurred to them that doing so would be more like throwing fuel on a fire, however unfair the "blow back" would have been to them. Right now it looks like the only person who benefits from the entire episode is Mark O'Mara, who gets to appear before the media again as the principled defender of the misunderstood lug against a media/political vendetta, and now gets to identify an unoffending family as collateral damage (of a sort) from the anti-Zimmerman jihad.

As always, the comments thread under this ABC News report provides extra amusement. In today's aside, let me point out something I noticed. Here's how divergently the two sides in the Zimmerman story see things: the pro-Zimmerman people are under the impression that relevant information about Martin was kept from the jury and/or general public, while Zimmerman was crucified in the media; and the pro-Martin people believe the exact opposite -- that information reflecting poorly on Zimmerman was suppressed while the media crucified Martin. The weird thing about this is that the side that won still thinks the deck was stacked against them, that supposedly crucial information about Martin's taste for "lean" and other vices has been kept and is still being kept from people, though they know all about it. There seems to be a forlorn hope among them that some decisive detail should be available that would make everyone see things their way, or at least concede room for the reasonable doubt that acquitted Zimmerman -- while the other side still doesn't see how the fact that the first cause of Martin's death was Zimmerman getting out of his car didn't overrule every other point of law. By now it should be clear that the two sides will never convince each other, so it's probably best to hope that interracial reconciliation doesn't depend on all of us agreeing on the Zimmerman case. At this point, simply agreeing to disagree would look like progress -- and the burden of compromise in that case is on Zimmerman's friends, the people who think that any questioning of the verdict is racist lawlessness. These people ought to accept that lots of other people are angry and simply ride out the storm instead of trying to convert or chastise everyone. They might take their cue from the family Zimmerman helped and leave bad enough alone.

Democracy in Egypt: one part military, one part mob

Here's something you don't see every day: the general who initiated the coup d'etat that deposed President Morsi of Egypt is calling on citizens to hold mass demonstrations this Friday. That sort of thing is usually the last sort of thing a coup leader wants, but General el-Sisi is appealing to the masses for a mandate, in the face of continued protests from the Muslim Brotherhood and other friends of Morsi, that apparently can come only from the street. The general, who supposedly is not the ruler of Egypt, wants to remind the world that the opponents of Morsi still outnumber the former president's supporters, as they did last month when their demonstrations inspired (or emboldened) the army to topple the president. The Brotherhood, for its part, accuses el-Sisi of inciting civil war. I can see where they're coming from, considering their continued claim of legitimate rulership, but to accuse the nation's army of inciting civil war is also vaguely reminiscent of Confederates shelling Fort Sumter and saying Lincoln started it.

Arrangements are presumably still under way for new elections and the re-establishment of representative government, but Egypt now has democracy in its rawest form, as el-Sisi implicitly concedes in his appeal to the masses. Democracy in its rawest form is a matter of who shows up, which makes Friday a kind of referendum on the Egyptian coup. This observation may only encourage the perception that Egypt is a politically primitive country going through the birth throes of democracy, but the country actually combines what might be described as a backward "civil society" with some state-of-the-art features of 21st century politics, particularly rampant social media and irreconcilable partisanship. Egypt is of interest to the rest of the world not only for its geopolitical significance, however perceived, but also because it illustrates the perils not of political backwardness but of political modernity. If partisanship is a major part of Egypt's problem -- if the sticking point is not so much Islamism as it is distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular -- that can't be blamed on backwardness. Some outside observers may like to say so, arguing that Egypt's parties simply need to learn to take turns in power without fighting to the death or assuming that every election is mortal combat. But it could be argued that some countries with long established traditions of party politics and peacefully contested elections are starting to look more rather than less like Egypt as partisanship in those places grows more irreconcilable, at least on the rhetorical level. Egypt might seem stuck in the past in some ways, but the troubled nation may also be giving us a look at our own future.

23 July 2013

'Race shapes Zimmerman verdict reaction.' REALLY???

The results of this year's most unnecessary opinion poll, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, reveal -- to the surprise of no one -- that the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin "has produced dramatically different reactions among blacks and whites." The only points of interest here are the actual numbers. While 86% of blacks polled disapprove of Zimmerman's acquittal, only 31% of whites agree with them. A bare majority of whites, 51%, endorse the verdict, though this number is skewed by partisanship. If you're a white Republican, you're more than twice as likely to endorse the acquittal than if you're a white Democrat. In plain numbers, 70% of white Republicans applaud the verdict while only 30% of white Democrats do. Nor would it surprise me if black Republicans proved less likely to reject the verdict than black Democrats.

The comments thread may be more interesting than the poll report, though there's little new there, either. As usual, blacks are accused of wanting to make more of the Zimmerman case than the facts merit, while critics of the acquittal generally refuse to give Zimmerman any benefit of the doubt that jurors were obliged to extend to him. Among Zimmerman's apologists, it's tantamount to thoughtcrime to question the acquittal; doing so proves that you're guided by emotion rather than fact, at one extreme, or at the other, that you're nothing but a cynical demagogue or race hustler. Nor are critics of the acquittal free of bad faith. Among them, the suspicion is implicit (to say the least) that your mere acceptance of the acquittal proves that you value a black life less than another. This doesn't necessarily follow if you share the defense attorney's assumption that, had Martin been white, Zimmerman would never have been tried. The real difference in perception all along has everything to do with white-on-black violence. One side tends to assume that such violence always has a political component, for want of a better word. The other doesn't make the same assumption, though some apologists for Zimmerman make a vice versa assumption that Martin was lashing out at "Whitey," just as critics of the acquittal allegedly are. It probably annoys some white observers that so many blacks feel solidarity with Martin, since most of the whites most likely would not feel any solidarity with the theoretical white Martin.

In fact, some point to the case of a "black George Zimmerman" who killed an unarmed white teen in New York State and was acquitted on self-defense grounds, to show that race need not color our perceptions of such incidents. That is, white apologists for Zimmerman don't see the New York shooting as a racial incident, and don't vilify the black shooter for killing a white boy, so no one should see the Florida shooting as a racial incident or vilify Zimmerman just because Martin was black. Their belief is that you only portray the Florida shooting as a racial incident to advance a political agenda, but it can be argued that they portray the Florida and New York shootings as two of a kind to advance an agenda of their own -- which has less to do with race than with granting gun owners the maximum legal discretion to shoot people who threaten them. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to see how much blacks sympathize with the New York shooting victim, though the fact that the white teen was committing an actual crime may make an understandable difference to them. In this case, too, my own view is that the shooter should suffer some penalty for killing an unarmed person, especially since the victim in New York never laid a hand on the shooter. The fact that race does shape perceptions of the Florida incident does take some of the focus off the feature of these incidents that should concern us all: neither George Zimmerman nor his black counterpart in New York needed or should have had the power to kill people. People may complain about how the NAACP, for one, portrays the Florida incident, but it's the NRA that benefits when it becomes all about race.

22 July 2013

Rand Paul and the libertarian 'southern strategy'

An aide to Sen. Paul of Kentucky is resigning amid unwelcome attention to his past as a self-styled "Southern Avenger." Jack Hunter, the co-author of one of Paul's books, may be characterized as a "neo-confederate." He believes that the states always retain the option of seceding from the Union and once claimed, however jokingly, to celebrate the birthday of John Wilkes Booth. Hunter's resignation comes after hostile Republicans put his past in the spotlight. His most prominent critic was the National Review writer, Fox News commentator and syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, who argued that Paul's association with Hunter made him unelectable as a presidential candidate.

The "Southern Avenger" controversy casts a spotlight on the division within Republican ranks between libertarians sympathetic with the Paul family and a different faction whom the Paul sympathizers are quick to label as neocons. Goldberg takes a swipe at one such apologist, Andrew Napolitano, in his column. Napolitano accuses Paul's "neocon" critics of avowing a "dying ideology," while Goldberg ripostes that the ideas represented by Hunter, if not by Rand Paul, are "far more deserving of death." Meanwhile, another Paul sympathizer, Jeffrey T. Kuhner, slams Goldberg as an apologist for the Republican party's "ruling elite." In Kuhner's view, Goldberg is one of the " self-appointed arbiters of what is permitted — and acceptable — conservative thought." Goldberg allegedly resents Paul because Paul has an anti-interventionist foreign policy, and because Hunter dares question the "myth" of Lincoln. Readers will recall that Lincoln is no hero for some of today's Republicans, who see him as the progenitor of, and the Civil War as the pretext for, modern "big government." As far as Goldberg is concerned, however, this is changing the subject.

While Goldberg seems willing to grant Hunter the benefit of the doubt when the erstwhile Avenger denounces racism, he sees Hunter and the Pauls as hopelessly tainted by what Goldberg, apparently hoping not to alienate all libertarians, calls "paleolibertarianism." This is a counterpart to "paleoconservatism," and one might be forgiven for believing that "paleo" is a prefix meaning "racist." Goldberg identifies paleolibertarianism with two men: Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. These contrarians -- Rothbard was an enemy of Ayn Rand -- pursued a course akin to the "southern strategy" adopted by the Republican party in the 1960s. In Goldberg's account, Rothbard and Rockwell, both of whom were involved with Ron Paul's infamous newsletters, believed that reactionary southern whites would form the base of an anti-statist movement that would do without the "cultural liberalism" they also despised. As Goldberg puts it, these two thought that even the Koch brothers were decadent liberals. They seem to have espoused a potentially contradictory populist libertarianism more concerned with people's right to uphold their traditions against all challengers than with anyone's right to challenge traditions. In Goldberg's judgment, their pandering to white supremacism was downright "sinful." Kuhner, however, dismisses this commentary as a "red herring." In his view, the early effort to block a Rand Paul presidential campaign is all about foreign policy. He argues that you can't end the welfare state without also ending the warfare state, and that only Sen. Paul will do both.

Goldberg is careful not to accuse Rand Paul or the mass of Paul supporters of sharing the views of Hunter or the paleolibertarians. The senator has been suspect in many eyes, however, ever since the interview with Rachel Maddow that exposed his reservations about some civil-rights legislation. He has a curious attitude about discrimination. As a libertarian (regardless of prefix), he opposes state-mandated discrimination (i.e. the Jim Crow laws of yore) but seems to draw a philosophical line when it comes to individual prerogatives. That is, he doesn't quite like it when the state says that individuals can't ever discriminate, however irrational he claims discrimination to be. His beliefs can be discussed without dragging Jack Hunter into it. But if Paul ever hopes to become President, Goldberg insists that the senator has to aggressively repudiate paleolibertarian racism. Noting that past candidates like McCain and Romney could be tarred as racists simply for being Republican, Goldberg clearly feels that Paul wouldn't have a chance. His only hope would depend on "thoroughly interring an ideology far more deserving of death" than the neocon interventionism Paul's fans abhor. That Paul suffers a handicap is obvious. His Republican rivals can go Nixon on him, piously refusing to be "PC" about Paul's ties to reputed racists while reminding us at every opportunity how the PC Democrats will exploit those ties. Or they could simply call him a racist wherever they think it will get them primary votes. Goldberg is right to be skeptical about Paul's chances in 2016, especially considering his own attempt to weaken them.

19 July 2013

Standing their ground on their right to kill

The National Rifle Association has entered the fray over "stand your ground" laws following the Zimmerman trial. While the Florida version of the law was not a factor in Zimmerman's trial or acquittal, his killing of Trayvon Martin has called fresh attention to laws that many critics see as entitlements for killers. The federal Attorney General told a sympathetic NAACP audience that "stand your ground"  seems to "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense." This comment threw the NRA into a semantic snit. "Self-defense is not a concept," a spokesman sneered, "It's a fundamental human right." This may not be the time to debate whether any "fundamental human right" is more than a "concept." The immediate issue is the scope of self-defense. While Zimmerman's acquittal didn't depend on the letter of Florida's stand-your-ground law, it was based on a principle that allows more subjectivity than many people are comfortable with. The jurors concluded that Zimmerman had enough reason to fear for his life that he should not be punished for killing Martin. I'm not sure whether that implies an objective finding that Martin was trying to kill Zimmerman, and my uncertainty is part of the problem. Zimmerman owes his freedom to a judgment on his feelings, it seems, rather than an objective judgment of the danger he was in. It allows for the panic he certainly felt while Martin was pummeling him, but it also seems to make that panic sufficient reason to exempt Zimmerman from punishment. This is where the law at play in the Zimmerman trial and the "stand your ground" principle converge. The indulgence granted to fear, however "reasonable" jurors deem it, looks dangerous to those painfully aware of how much irrational fear drives so many people regardless of race or other factors. Defenders of Zimmerman in particular and stand-your-ground in general apparently believe that this indulgence is necessary if we would not inhibit people from taking necessary steps in more indisputably mortal peril. The NRA position seems to be that we have no right to self-defense unless we can kill with impunity when we feel we need to. They should tell us where the right to self-defense ends and the attacker's right to life begins, or vice versa -- or if they even draw a line. The right to kill does not follow from any right to self-defense. We may acknowledge an inevitable (or "natural") human prerogative to defend ourselves when attacked, but nature is silent on whether we should suffer a penalty when we kill. To demand that our "natural right" absolves us from sanction when we end a life is to abdicate our prerogative as civilized, social beings. My position on the Martin case has been not to idealize Martin, who clearly behaved like a fool when he started hitting Zimmerman, but to insist that however the unarmed Martin provoked or threatened him, Zimmerman should still suffer some sort of penalty for taking a human life. I fail to see how any real or imagined human right would be violated by holding Zimmerman to account. I definitely fail to see how anyone in this country can feel safer because Zimmerman was acquitted, or why anyone may have felt less safe were he convicted. Would they feel more inhibited against defending themselves with lethal force? Well, when you appeal to natural rights in a civilized society, you're taking a chance -- but it's still a free country.

18 July 2013

Presumptions of innocence across borders

In the "dog bites man" department, another Russian opposition politician has been sentenced to a term in prison. This time a candidate for mayor of Moscow has been given five years for embezzlement. Inevitably, his friends in Russia cry frame-up. Just as inevitably, many observers outside Russia take the latest conviction as further proof, as if they needed it, of President Putin's abuse of the country's legal system to persecute dissidents. As usual, dissent is given the benefit of the doubt. That is, whenever a dissident or opposition politician gets into trouble in certain countries, his case is judged not on its merits but on the merits of the regime that prosecutes him. A presumption of innocence generally isn't extended to many governments; the prosecution of politicians is presumed to be politically motivated, and the motivation is presumed to be the consolidation of power and the suppression of dissent. It's important to note that the facts may back such presumptions in some cases. Nevertheless, it's most likely that foreign observers rush to their preferred judgment before examining the facts. Geopolitical bias has a lot to do with this tendency. If you perceive one country as an enemy of yours, you may be more inclined to see its leader as a threat to your freedom, and thus to everyone else's. Enough people are liberal ideologues, however, to insure that practically anytime anyone who can be described as a dissident or opposition figure lands in a criminal court, someone will say it's another step toward dictatorship in that particular country. Dissidents are presumed innocent, governments guilty.

That mentality gets a workout when some people perceive an irony in Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, seeking political asylum in Russia at this time. Whether there is irony in that is hard to tell. In any event, the mockery of Snowden inspired by the latest trial of a Russian dissident has provoked a backlash from Snowden's supporters who contend that, when the chips are down, the U.S. is just as ready to treat a dissident as an enemy of the state, as Putin allegedly does. A more subtle observation is that power inevitably bends justice one way or another. If some states are not so quick to persecute dissent, they are even less quick to prosecute the powerful. As a New York Times reader from Paris observes, "The American political elite band together and protect their own. So in one country there's a show trial, in the other there is no trial. But injustice in both cases." In countries like the U.S., where dissent is virtually monopolized by the powerful, the liberal presumption of innocence for dissent may sometimes allow the powerful to get away with crimes, that outcome being perhaps openly preferred to potentially setting a precedent for cycles of partisan persecution. Obviously, people should not be persecuted simply for their political beliefs, but the reductio ad absurdam of that taboo is that those with unpopular or minority political beliefs should not be persecuted even if they've committed crimes. A nonpartisan or impersonal state would go a long way toward relieving the fears that could lead people to that irrational extreme. If the state is not identified skeptically with a political party (e.g. Democrat or Republican) or with a person easy to portray as a villain (Putin) you can do without the suspicion that someone untrustworthy benefits from prosecuting somebody else. That suspicion may never go away entirely, but it's important to remember that while some may treat that suspicion as a matter of principle, it may also prove reflexive, reactionary and irrational. No matter how much we distrust certain politicians, at home or abroad, we should resist assuming automatically that their enemies are our friends.

17 July 2013

The Zimerman Case: double standards and color-blindness

Cal Thomas wonders why the media doesn't seem to value Joshua Chellew's life as much as it did Trayvon Martin's? As right-wing media readers are well aware, Chellew, a Georgia man, died after being run over by a car earlier this month. He was run over by a car after he had been forced onto the highway by four assailants who had been beating him up and finally left him unconscious in the road. The four men are being charged with felony murder and violation of the state's Street Gang Act. As that detail may tell you, the four suspects are black. Joshua Chellew was white, and as if to prove Thomas's point, the columnist himself neglected to name Chellew in his column. The Republican blogosphere notwithstanding, Thomas claims to have seen "no national media coverage" of the Chellew case, and he blames that on some sort of double standard. He suggests that national neglect of Chellew's death might reinforce the belief that prosecution (or persecution) of George Zimmerman, Martin's killer, was motivated by politics more than by a desire for justice. "You might conclude that if the victim had been white and the perpetrator black the media would have shown little or no interest," just as (he claims) the media has shown little or no interest in Chellew and his attackers.

There probably is a double standard at work here, but a double standard for what? All life is precious, or so nearly all of us claim to believe, but not all murder is news. So what makes murder news? Celebrity, of course, but neither Trayvon Martin nor George Zimmerman were celebrities until their fatal encounter last year. Something else was at work to make their story newsworthy. Whether that something was a double standard depends on whether an observer like Cal Thomas actually believes that the Chellew killing deserves coverage equal to the killing of Martin. Thomas has two choices here. He can say that neither the Martin nor the Chellew death is really national news, so that something was fishy about the publicity given the Martin death. Or he can say that the Chellew death deserves the same level of coverage that the Martin death received, in which case he can criticize the national media for failing or refusing to recognize that the two incidents are essentially similar crimes. In either case, from Thomas's perspective, the blame lies with the national (or "mainstream") media and the civil-rights community. They are guilty either of blowing an ordinary incident out of proportion for political reasons, or of treating white-on-black killing as somehow worse (and thus more newsworthy) than black-on-white killing. I suspect that Thomas would actually agree with both propositions.

There's no point in denying that many people believe that when a white person kills a black person, on some level the one has killed the other because the other was black. The evidence, such as it is, that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin, deeming him suspicious while identifying him as black to a 911 dispatcher, cinches the case as far as many are concerned. It's also indisputable that not so many people assume that in the vice versa case, when a black person kills a white person, the victim died for being white. It's also very likely that anyone who suggested such a thing would be labeled a racist himself. But if anyone believes that no one has the right to assume a racist motive on the part of a black killer of a white, are they obliged to judge the vice versa case by the same standard? The point may be moot in the Zimmerman case if you equate his profiling of Martin as an almost literal smoking gun, but in general it is the presumption of racist motive that makes white-on-black killing newsworthy. There is always a temptation to see every such killing as an extension of some long-simmering race war, but black-on-white killing isn't often seen the same way, except by obvious racists. But if it's racist to see black-on-white killing as racially motivated, why isn't it racist to assume racist motive in white-on-black killing? Unfortunately for would-be objective observers like Thomas, this is where the history they'd like to put aside comes in. The dark history of racism in the U.S. inescapably shapes perceptions of current events, and people can't simply be exhorted to set it aside, especially when they think they see that history perpetuated into the present.

As Thomas sees it, that history only feeds "our never-ending racial double standard." As a result, "Certain behaviors and language are tolerated, while others are not. Some people can get away with language that others cannot." Against this, he argues, "What is needed is one standard. One national identity. One America." A noble goal, but not as easily realized as Thomas probably thinks. Double standards are a complication of the pluralism Americans welcome as intrinsic to their national identity as "a nation of nations." Against pluralism stands nativism and populism, the identification of the nation with one particular nation or culture. A pluralist nation can only reach the point of "one national identity" through fitful evolution; some perceived double standards are kinks being worked out in the process. Nativism offers a simpler, quick-fix alternative: all newcomers should conform to the founding culture, which for Thomas is Anglo-American Christendom. For his ancestors in the 19th century, it would more specifically have been Protestantism. The specifics need not detain us. The main point to make is that the U.S. has repeatedly repudiated nativism and its demands for cultural conformity. Doing so has a price; none of us can simply command that everyone else see things the same way we do, nor can we take it for granted that the way we see things is the objective way, while every other way is biased. Thomas is clearly convinced that those who remain angry at George Zimmerman and still want him to suffer some penalty for killing Trayvon Martin are wrong in some way that he perceives as objective truth, even though he admits at the start of his column that "We are so programmed by our history with race in America that reaction to the acquittal ... depends largely upon one’s individual, even group experience." He can say that, on one hand, yet on the other we don't see him questioning his own assumptions (about the moral equivalence of the Chellew killing, for instance) the way he questions the assumptions of the anti-Zimmerman camp. He comes from a national heritage of double standards, yet acts as if the people most victimized by double standards in our history are the principal proponents of double standards today, if not the inventors of double standards in America. As long as his attitude persists, so will double standards.

16 July 2013

The Senate's nuclear deterrent

The U.S. Senate is a sad body when John McCain is its voice of reason. The former presidential candidate reportedly brokered a deal in the past 24 hours according to which his fellow Republicans will no longer block votes on five of President Obama's nominees for various federal positions in return for the President withdrawing two other nominees and Majority Leader Reid withdrawing his threat to employ the long-dreaded "nuclear option" -- a simple-majority vote to change Senate rules to reduce the votes necessary for cloture on the confirmation of executive-branch appointments. Both parties have threatened to go nuclear, so to speak, when they've had control of the Senate, but so far the real deterrent to doing so has been the thought that the other party can win back control, in which case the new minority will want all the tools it can use to "obstruct" the majority agenda. One party's obstruction is another's principled opposition, but it's easy to understand why Democrats believe that Republican obstructionism since Obama's election has been unprecedentedly unreasonable, due either to fanaticism or simple bad faith. Nevertheless, given an opportunity to change a rule designed originally to encourage the compromise of multiple interest groups, but which has grown increasingly subject to abuse by bipolar ideological partisanship, the current Democratic majority prefers to reserve the right to obstruct whenever it may prove useful to them. They can at least boast that the threat of going nuclear has achieved results, but Republicans inevitably will have their turn to crow the same way.

Now that the immediate crisis seems to be resolved, we should take a longer look at the usefulness and justice of cloture rules and other structures for the protection of electoral minorities. Some may argue that this sort of rule is exactly the thing needed in places like Egypt, where it is feared that an electoral majority (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood) will use political power to consolidate power at everyone else's expense. The more pluralistic a country is -- and Egypt has apparently proven more pluralist than many outside observers suspected -- the more safeguards may be wanted against what might be called minimalist majoritarianism, or the tyranny of the 51%. The problem with such a concern for minority rights is the possibility, which we are obliged to consider, that not all minorities are equal. The problem with minoritarianism, as practiced by Republicans in the U.S., is the presumption that an electoral or ideological minority is morally or constitutionally equivalent to the minorities explicitly or implicitly recognized in the Constitution -- racial minorities, religious minorities, etc. In practice, this approach empowers parties, not people. It twists the respectable principle of freedom of conscience ever so slightly. We nearly all agree that people have a right to ideas and opinions, but political minoritarianism goes further to say, in effect, that the ideas and opinions themselves have rights. That idea is at the heart of the perpetual complaint that conservatives suffer discrimination within the "mainstream" media. That's unjust only if you believe that conservatism (or communism or anything similarly controversial) as a body of thought is entitled to representation in the media, in academe, etc. But if minoritarianism is a problem in government, there's no obvious remedy. The Senate's cloture rules don't recognize party or ideology; they only say a certain number of senators -- or sometimes a single senator -- can block votes from happening. You can end those rules but doing so might leave more authentic minorities without defense from oppressive forms of minimalist majoritarianism -- if Republicans retake the Senate in 2014, for instance. Authentic minorities, however defined, aren't directly represented in the Senate; senators represent states and parties. If we want to look out for the rights and interests of authentic minorities, perhaps we should rethink how the Senate is comprised and whom senators should represent. Filibusters might still happen in a non-partisan Senate, if one can be had, but one would hope that in at least some cases senators would have good reason for filibustering or joining forces to deny cloture. Purging the Senate of partisanship would really be going nuclear -- though not literally, one would hope.

Idiots of the Week: California Zimmerman-verdict protesters

Leave it to Los Angeles to ruin the record of peaceful protest against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Approximately 150 knuckleheads saw a demonstration in L.A.'s Leimert Park as a pretext for rampaging vandalism. These bold rebels spoke truth to power by breaking into a Wal-Mart, breaking windows, and attacking reporters. It's all farcically reminiscent of the riots of 1992, but don't think of it as a black thing. The same thing often happens at other protests, perpetrated by "black blocs" that are often lily-white. In those cases, the more legitimate protesters often accuse the vandals of being agents provocateurs planted by the Powers That Be to discredit the cause. It's probably no more the case than as it was last night in Los Angeles. Crowds attract idiots. Some people think it enough to proclaim their rage with street violence as if rage alone proves anything, or as if their allegedly symbolic targets mean anything to anyone who may actually oppress them. Is anyone in Florida supposed to learn a lesson from what happened a continent away? If Florida's problem is that some people want to shoot young black men at the drop of a hat, what happened in L.A . may only reinforce that impulse. Nice work, guys!

15 July 2013

Are there liberals in Egypt?

Fareed Zakaria writes: "The choice in Egypt is not between bad democrats and a Singapore-style efficient and open autocracy. It is between illiberal generals and illiberal politicians. The tragedy of the Arab world is that it is trapped between these two forces, neither of which is fertile ground for the flourishing of liberal democracy." That made me wonder: what would liberalism in Egypt look like? For that matter, what does liberalism mean to Fareed Zakaria? There seemed to be an assumption that the opponents of President Morsi, whose demonstrations forced the military's hand, were the liberals because they weren't the Islamists. Yet by agitating for a coup they failed one test of liberalism, at least as it is understood in the U.S., which is tolerance by people who disagree with you. Zakaria may acknowledge this failing by not listing the urban demonstrators as a liberal force. Instead, he sets a liberal test for the new regime. "[T]he central challenge it faces is to bring the forces of political Islam back into the political proces," he writes, "Remember that they still represent millions of Egyptians. For Egypt to be stable, let alone democratic, the Muslim Brotherhood has to be allowed to compete in elections at every level." This is a pragmatic necessity, Zakaria contends; excluding the Brotherhood from elections will only steer them toward jihad.

But isn't there a greater burden on the Brothers? It would only be asking for a repeat of the Morsi administration if Egyptians felt obliged to integrate the Brotherhood into its new politics without some guarantee that they'll avoid even the appearance of the sort of power grab that provoked Morsi's opponents. Since many Egyptians remain distrustful toward the Brothers, it's more likely that a new constitution will have to include more ironclad safeguards (checks, balances, etc.) against a power grab by elected leaders. Some may still distrust the Brotherhood regardless of all the safeguards that can be enacted or imagined. The real question for Egyptians is whether a liberal solution to the problem of the Muslim Brotherhood really solves the problem. That problem is twofold: whether they can abide by a liberal political order and whether they can be trusted by everyone else to do so. The country remains in a revolutionary state; by definition that's an illiberal condition, since revolutions are acts of coercion. While deploring the coup that toppled Morsi I've also argued that the new regime may have no better option than to go all-out to destroy the Brotherhood, which does not represent all of "political Islam" in Egypt. That would be a supremely illiberal act, but can there be a liberal polity without a universal, unconditional commitment to liberalism? But the question begs others: again, what does liberalism mean, either to Egyptians or objectively? In political terms, it seems to mean that, once you have political power, you're willing to surrender it if you lose an election, as even Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. are willing to do most of the time.  Morsi wasn't given a chance to establish his liberal credentials, and by virtue of that neither have his opponents. Can liberalism flourish amid enduring uncertainty about the Brotherhood's intentions, or those of any Islamists? Can liberalism flourish on illiberal foundations? That is, can Egypt become a liberal polity after having destroyed the Brotherhood, if it comes to that? On the other hand, if destroying the Brotherhood is the precondition for a liberal polity, can liberals -- if Egypt has any -- bring themselves to do the deed? Tolerance is both a virtue and vice of liberalism, depending on circumstances. But it may be better not to discuss the prospects for liberalism in Egypt, or to hold the country to any liberal standard, until its revolution has actually played itself out. If liberals had their way, after all, there would never be revolutions, even when they're necessary.

14 July 2013

The Zimmerman case: presumptions of guilt

So far, people have managed to express their outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in peaceful ways, which may mean that we've progressed in the generation since the L.A. riots. Social media may have something to do with it, everyone being more conscious that there are eyes on them all the time and more people being reached with advice to remain peaceful despite their anger. It should be obvious, however, that peace is not acquiescence. Millions of Americans will not accept the verdict of the six-woman jury as the last word on the fatal encounter between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. It seems unfathomable, no matter how often Florida law is explained, that Zimmerman should suffer no legal penalty for killing Martin, especially when you consider that Martin is dead because Zimmerman doesn't know how to fight. If he lets a teenager get on top of him and pummel him like they're in the Octagon and can only shoot his way out of the predicament, he's definitely in the wrong line of work. But Florida allows for a level of force other states deem excessive and anyone would consider disproportionate so long as the perpetrator feels himself in mortal peril, as Zimmerman feared that Martin would beat him to death. As the jurors understood the law, it meant that Zimmerman should not be punished for defending himself, even if he had to kill an unarmed teenager (and, apparently, a superior fighter) in the process. I assumed that the right to self-defense is founded on a basic respect for life, but in some parts of the country self-defense is a higher priority than life itself. I'm sure that neither Zimmerman's attorneys nor the jurors would say that Martin deserved to die, but they should not be shocked if people infer from the verdict that that was their opinion. If you insist, and in the jurors' case you order, that Zimmerman is not to be punished, why should no one assume that you think that Zimmerman was not just within his rights, but just plain right to shoot Martin? Can we get any of these people at least to say that Zimmerman's act, if not criminal, was wrong? Or would his lawyers for the impending civil suits discourage such sentiments?

At last night's press conference a reporter asked the defense team whether the story would have played out differently if Zimmerman -- who identified himself as "Hispanic" in the last census -- were black. One of the lawyers answered that things would have been very different; the case would never have gone to trial. He expresses the widespread assumption that Zimmerman was race-baited by race-hustlers who cynically exploited Martin's death for political reasons. There's probably a kernel of truth in the observation. I don't doubt that some people think this way:

A young black man was killed.
The killer was not black.
Therefore, the victim was killed because he was black.

However, I think the attorney was wrong. I suspect that a black Zimmerman would have been prosecuted since, as a neighborhood-watchman, the theoretical perpetrator would be seen as part of The System first, and as a black man second. To expand on the syllogism above, if anyone empowered to act on suspicion of criminal activity or intentions -- a watchman, security guard or cop -- kills a black man, then the victim was killed because he was black as far as some people are concerned. That's why sympathizers with Martin and supporters of the prosecution continue to insist on the relevance of Zimmerman's apparent profiling of Martin. I heard at least one legal expert lament the absence of a black juror who could have explained the relevance of profiling to the rest of the panel. How would that have made a difference? You would have to accept the premise that Zimmerman had somehow surrendered his right to self-defense because he had hassled Martin. But while many may feel that Zimmerman deserved a beating for hassling Martin, the law won't back up that sentiment. Had a policeman arrived before Zimmerman fired his gun and found Martin on top of him, Martin would probably be in jail today, no one having accepted his resentment of profiling as an excuse for the battering he inflicted on the hapless watchman. Of course, the complexion of everything changes if you accept the prosecution implication that Martin only attacked because he thought his own life in danger. But the jurors were not convinced that Zimmerman had already menaced Martin to an extent to justify his violent reaction -- and even if they had, I can't imagine them deciding that Zimmerman had to submit to a potentially fatal beating. The irony of the situation is that Martin might have had a better chance of beating any rap had he actually beaten Zimmerman to death than if he had been pulled off beforehand, because then, as with Zimmerman now, it's his word (plus cell-phone recordings) against the silence of the dead. In any event, my main point is that Zimmerman was going to be presumed guilty of a hate crime by some people the moment the news broke, but I think it goes too far to presume, as Zimmerman's defenders do, that bias of that kind is the only reason Zimmerman ever went to trial. It's not just a matter of feeling but arguably an objective fact that shooting his unarmed attacker was an unreasonably excessive use of force that should be penalized. If Florida law immunizes him from any penalty for the sake of a self-defense dogma that has become an end unto itself -- an exalting of force over life -- then Florida law needs to change. Even FOX News reporters last night opined that the state's "stand your ground" rules are too broad in their implicit authorization of lethal force in most cases. Something clearly needs to be done, but the Florida legislature is reportedly dominated by rural Republicans who are self-defense extremists. Under current constitutional rules, a national consensus, if it exists, can't be implemented nationally without amending the Constitution. It may have been easier long, long ago, when a Zimmerman may have paid wergild to a Martin's survivors to end the matter -- but that seemed uncivilized at some point. Maybe we don't even need that. Maybe it would make more difference than some of us can imagine if George Zimmerman would state publicly that, the jury's opinion notwithstanding, what he did to Martin was wrong. It wouldn't be much of a consolation to Martin's relatives, but it'd be better than nothing and the nation would probably be better off for it.

12 July 2013

The Zimmerman case: whose verdict counts?

After one day of deliberating a Florida jury has not yet decided whether George Zimmerman should suffer a criminal penalty for shooting Trayvon Martin to death in February 2012. They have a number of crimes for which they might convict Zimmerman, or else they can find him guiltless. The jurors may be the only people in America who have not yet drawn conclusions from the incident. The fatal encounter is one of those national ink blots where what you see tells more about you than about the event. For some, Martin was necessarily an unoffending innocent marked for death because of his race. For others, Zimmerman is suffering persecution in the name of political correctness for doing his duty and exercising his right to self-defense. For some, Zimmerman is a plain and simple thug; for others, Martin was. Viewed objectively, it looks like a confrontation between two stupid people ended fatally if not tragically. Few view the Martin killing that way. For many, it is inescapably a political event because the shooting of a black man always is. For others, a simple case has been unjustly escalated into a political event because black people politicize their every misfortune, blaming whitey instead of themselves when things go wrong. For some, Martin is a martyr. For others, Zimmerman may become one even though his life is not in jeopardy. The national news coverage of Zimmerman's trial is probably a better illustration of the still-combustible state of race relations than the actual shooting. That so many across the country can't view the case with indifference tells us more than many of us want to know. Some may wish we could view it with indifference and blame those who, in their minds, supposedly forced the case on our attention for political reasons. Unfortunately, the outrage over Martin's death and the desire that Zimmerman pay some penalty seem sincere rather than cynical. Some would like it proven insincere because that would prove that there isn't really a race problem anymore, only political race baiting or race-card playing by so-called race hustlers. But they can't control how other people perceive a white-on-black shooting any more than the other side can. In turn, we can ask whether some people's fear of black rioting should Zimmerman be acquitted is sincere or not. Sadly, it's probably sincere in most cases, regardless of whether it's justified or not. Those who presume the worst of Trayvon Martin will presume the worst of others like him. Those who presume the worst of George Zimmerman may take it out on innocent people. The same suspicion that was in the air in that gated community pervades the nation. The impulse to take sides in this petty affair is the problem. We may have been better off with both men dead.

UPDATE: 13 JULY. The verdict has come in tonight; Zimmerman is acquitted of all charges. It would be great if the more racist predictions about the response to an acquittal are proven wrong, but we'll see....

08 July 2013

Egypt: with revolution comes terror

In Egypt, it's now a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop after a protest by supporters of deposed President Morsi turned into a bloodbath leaving dozens dead. Of course, both sides claim that the other fired first. The truth may prove irrelevant as several religious figures who had supported the popular coup against Morsi last week are now stepping back. How much will it take before someone straps a bomb on and gets the big show started? For the coup leaders and supporters, this may be fish-or-cut-bait time. It's really hard choices all around. If, as the dominant narrative claims, Egypt has had a revolution that was betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the coup was necessary to preserve the integrity of the revolution, then the notion, entertained perhaps more in the west than in Egypt itself, that the Brotherhood can be made to behave and should be reintegrated into the revolution and the democratic process is probably a pipe dream. If, as its critics claim, the Brotherhood knows no other way than all-or-nothing politics, is out to monopolize power once it gets it, and would never allow itself to be turned peacefully out of power, than there's no room for them in the Egypt the urban protesters -- the people who came out against Mubarak and against Morsi in turn -- envision. There may yet be a silent majority that disagrees with the more secular city folk and are Morsi's constituents, but last week demonstrated that democracy in raw form is all about who shows up, not to mention where they show up. It seems unlikely that the city people will ever trust the Brotherhood. The feeling may be mutual, not just for the Brotherhood but for the multitudes they represent, but the squeaky, more photogenic wheel gets the grease. The cities, it seems, do not want sharia -- at least they don't want the Brotherhood's version of it. Presumably they want a pluralistic Egypt. Can Egypt have a pluralist revolution? Has anyone? Even in the U.S., some people had to go, though the Loyalists had the good sense to go on their own initiative, and even then the pluralism that united slaveholders and free laborers did not endure very long. If the aspirations of the Brotherhood or other Islamist elements are irreconcilable with the other parties to the revolution against the Mubarak regime, there really can't be a place for them in the new constitutional order. It can still be argued that the secular urbanites forced the issue and betrayed the revolution in their own fashion by refusing to trust Morsi, but it can also be argued that the showdown was better off sooner than later, and it might be argued further that the real showdown shouldn't be delayed any further. It can still be argued that the coup was the wrong thing to do, but it might be more important now not to take half measures. If the problem with the revolution is the Muslim Brotherhood -- as opposed to the problem with Egypt being a rotten economy -- then there may need to be a revolution against the Brotherhood. The new regime may need to go Jacobin on the Brothers, with full awareness that the Brothers will certainly hit back. The regime and its constituents put themselves in this situation, and for that reason they would probably deserve the condemnations sure to come from the rest of the world if they follow through with a reign of terror against the Brotherhood. But maybe they were just kidding themselves before in the initial euphoria of victory against a common enemy. Revolution is more than that, however. Rather than resuming now with the overthrow of Morsi, maybe the real revolution is just getting started.

05 July 2013

A conservative story for the 21st century

You often see Democrats and liberals lamenting that they've had a harder time recently crafting a narrative to win people over to liberalism, compared to the perceived success conservatives have had with their narrative over the past forty years or so. Rod Dreher is a conservative who must wonder what success liberals are talking about. In the current American Conservative Dreher warns that conservatives need to "master the narrative art." Hadn't they already? Not by Dreher's standards -- and he has a point. When liberals look enviously on the success of conservative "narrative," they mean exactly what Dreher thinks conservatives suffer from: ideological rhetoric. For liberals, the "conservative narrative" is: free enterprise good, big government bad, personal responsibility, etc., etc. For Dreher, "the stories conservatives tell themselves about themselves are exhausted and have taken on the characteristics of brittle dogma." To survive, he argues, conservatives have to learn to tell actual stories instead of making ideological proclamations.

Dreher worries that conservatives may be handicapped in this particular intellectual competition. He's a former liberal who had been liberal because, as a student, it seemed to him that only liberals shared his "passion for creativity." Today, he doesn't sound very convinced that he was wrong. "Over the years," he writes, "I've seen that most of my conservative friends who are artistically inclined become so in spite of their conservatism -- that is, despite the fact that the right-wingers they knew disdained the arts as effete and impractical. A love for art and literature was not part of the conservative story, as they received it." He worries that conservatives might not be comfortable with the fact that "if story is true to human experience, there will be an element of ambiguity in the telling, and this is something ideologues of all stripes ... cannot abide." Yet conservatives ought to have the advantage in storytelling, Dreher thinks, because "the business of a conservative with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature."

As an American Conservative writer, Dreher represents post-Cold War and post-Reagan conservatism. Too many conservatives, he warns, still look to the Cold War for their references and thus fail to see the 21st century as it is. He states the difference as starkly as a conservative can:

The things we cherish are not primarily under threat by statism in either its Soviet or social democratic versions. The more relevant problem is how to preserve authoritative lessons about the good life in an era characterized by triumphant global capitalism and autonomous individualism.

If I presented that quote in isolation few might recognize it as the utterance of an avowed conservative. That's because capitalism and individualism remain the touchstones for most conservatives in this country. For Dreher, the touchstone appears to be "authoritative lessons about the good life." That doesn't mean reading the Bible, as some might justly suspect, but telling a story that "incarnates policy debates in the lives of real people." Conservatives must learn form as well as content. They must "throw off the chains of ideology and teach themselves to recognize beauty in art and talents in artists that don't easily fit our moral and political assumptions."

That recognition of beauty as possibly an end in itself is important to Dreher's somewhat romantic conservatism. He's impressed by a remark from the Joseph Ratzinger, the retired pontiff, that "the most convincing arguments for Christianity aren't propositional arguments at all but rather the art and the saints that the faith produces -- that is, the stories Christians tell and live." If I understand this correctly, the idea seems to be that the production of something beautiful is proof of some sort of virtue. Dreher's own story, which he has made into a book, is of his sister's losing fight against Cancer and how her home community supported her in life and honored her in death. The spectacle of her funeral "did for my wife and me what syllogisms and abstractions could not -- change our hearts and, in turn, our lives," Dreher writes. It inspired them to leave Philadelphia and move to his sister's town in Louisiana.  As one of the American Conservative school, Dreher sees hope in localism. He can be counted as one of the "crunchy cons" who combine "traditional values" with a small-is-beautiful ethos inherited from the Sixties and Seventies. The answer to individualism, from this perspective, is not communism but community -- not radical equality but everyone finding a particular, personal and meaningful place in a community that shapes them through customs, rituals, and so on. Dreher's conservatism favors the particular over the abstract; it assumes, implicitly, that only the particular is real. It's conservative because, presumably in most cases, it will defend the particular against the abstract. He's taken up the challenge of explaining this as a story by writing a book about his sister. He challenges his fellow conservatives to do the same while asking, "why are contemporary conservatives so lousy at telling stories?" His challenge may actually prove whether those he's challenged are conservative or not.

03 July 2013

Egypt: Coup de grace

Responding to the demands of millions of protesters while ignoring those of millions of others, the Egyptian army has declared President Morsi deposed, suspended the constitution and taken steps to suppress Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They have taken TV stations sympathetic to Morsi off the air and arrested some of the staff. Morsi refuses to acknowledge his overthrow but his power to influence events appears limited. Many observers conclude that he brought events upon himself by violating the constitution and attempting to monopolize power. Yet today's events seem to disprove at least part of the case against Morsi. At the least, he clearly had not consolidated power to the extent that he could prevent the army from acting as it has, much less use it against his own enemies. Egypt has seen a preventive coup d'etat, on the suspicion that Morsi and the Brotherhood were conspiring to acquire dictatorial power. But the Muslim Brotherhood is more than a conspiracy. It's a mass movement representing millions of Egyptians who must now think themselves as completely shut out of power as their enemies feared they would be eventually. It may well be that the Brotherhood will need to be destroyed if Egypt is ever to have a stable democratic system, but that stability would certainly come at a high price. Again, my sympathy with an Islamist movement is automatically limited, but I still can't shake the feeling that this week's tumult has been a triumph of bad faith. Without pleading Morsi's innocence, we can still suspect that many Egyptians never gave him any benefit of the doubt, despite the apparent legitimacy of his election. Ideological and sectarian biases almost inevitably rendered Morsi a dictator in the making in the eyes of those most opposed to his agenda. It's one thing to be vigilant against encroachments on our rights, and another to assume reflexively that someone who disagrees with you politically will encroach on your rights. A pluralist democracy cannot survive while such assumptions prevail. Egypt's democratic revolution will not be complete until parties or interest groups no longer feel the need to continue their campaigns in the streets after the election, after the inauguration, etc. Instead, the revolution continues, and today it has devoured one of its own.

02 July 2013

Democratic turmoil: people in search of responsive government

The crisis in Egypt might be seen as the growing pains of a new democracy exacerbated by partisanship at the creation, but as some writers have reminded us, angry people are hitting the streets all over the world, including democracies thought more stable than Egypt's. I've noted the recent demonstrations against the Erdogan administration in Turkey, which resemble the Egyptian protests in their hostility toward Islamism, but less well covered in the U.S., perhaps because we have no stake in the situation, were last month's mass protests in Brazil against the alleged waste of resources on hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. As Paul R. Pillar points out in The National Interest, the U.S. is not immune to these outbursts, though the Occupations of 2011 were very modest exercises compared to what we see elsewhere. Pillar asks why democratic populations should hit the streets when they have recourse to elections. He suggests that 21st century electoral democracies are susceptible to crises in responsiveness. "[A]lthough representative democracy is still the least bad form of government and the one best able to align the actions of the rulers to the interests of the ruled, it still has deficiencies," he writes. Once in office, elected officials tend to lose touch with their constituents' immediate needs. This tendency gets worse once one party entrenches itself in power, as may be the case in Turkey, or when leaders grow preoccupied with international prestige, as could be so in Brazil.

Calling attention to Pillar's article, Thomas Friedman adds speculations of his own. He sees mass protests as a backlash, in many cases, to "majoritarian" or "authoritarian" democracy, in which winners assume a mandate to ignore the interests or objections of losers, no matter how evenly divided the body public may be. While Pillar notes in passing that "a lot of sociology" can be applied to mass protests, Friedman jumps on his own sociological hobby horse.

A second factor is the way middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market. For so many years, workers were told that if you just work hard and play by the rules you’ll be in the middle class. That is just not true anymore. In this age of rapid globalization and automation, you have to work harder, work smarter, bring more innovation to whatever job you do, retool yourself more often — and then you can be in the middle class. There is just so much more stress on people in, or aspiring to be in, the middle class, and many more young people wondering how they’ll ever do better than their parents.
Too few leaders are leveling with their people about this shift, let alone helping them navigate it. And too many big political parties today are just vehicles for different coalitions to defend themselves against change rather than to lead their societies in adapting to it. Normally, this would create opportunities for the opposition parties, but in places like Turkey, Brazil, Russia and Egypt the formal opposition is feckless. So people take to the streets, forming their own opposition. 

What makes Friedman a neoliberal rather than a neoconservative is his belief that government has an important role to play in helping people navigate the big shift, primarily by promoting education oriented toward adaptability and innovation. As for his analysis of this year's protests, he implies a false distinction between "feckless" political parties and movements out to "defend themselves [and their constituents] against change and the people in the streets, who have some different agenda. I suspect that the people in the streets are just as interested, if not more so, in defending themselves against change rather than adapting to it, whether the change is economic or political. Either way, if you see mobs in the streets it's a pretty good clue that those people don't think that anyone in the political establishment represents them. The solution is not as simple as leaders helping people adapt to change. Friedman notes that social media give ordinary people "more independent means to tell their stories," but what if the story isn't "Help us adapt!" but "Why should we have to adapt?" Friedman takes global competition for granted as something no one can say no to and predicts volatility so long as people and parties refuse to adapt. But he also describes a new economic order that stresses out more people than it seems to benefit. If that new order is an underlying cause of all the mass protests around the world, isn't that a sign that the new economic order is more trouble than it's worth and that we should not take it for granted -- that what the people in the streets want, when they're not trying to overthrow their leaders, is leadership that will help them resist the new order. Whether resistance can be effective at anything less than the global level is a question for another time. What seems obvious now is that simply learning to be more adaptable and competitive, as Friedman suggests, is not going to solve everyone's problems -- it can't by definition. Democratic governments certainly should be more responsive everywhere, but they should respond to people, not markets.

Update: Here's an article that places the Egyptian trouble in an economic context, though it makes it sound like many Egyptians have good reason to continue supporting Morsi, at least in the short term.

01 July 2013

Partisan democracy: failure is success

Protesters in Egypt have forced the army's hand. The nation's military reportedly has given President Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to reach some compromise with the opposition, or else the military itself will "announce a road map for the future."  This warning followed a weekend of protests that exceeded expectations, both in scale and in violence. This morning, a mob attacked the national headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's main supporters. It's said that the army wants to see a power-sharing arrangement, but it looks like the opposition isn't interested in Morsi or the Brotherhood having any share of power. They seem to see the Brotherhood as an incipient dictatorship, out either to impose sharia law or simply monopolize power. Many of the people on the streets this weekend probably have never trusted the Brotherhood, while some say that Morsi betrayed their trust. The justice of their claims is hard for an outsider to determine.

What we do know is that distrust is inevitable in the early years of any experiment in democratic republicanism, particularly if the experiment takes the form of partisan democracy as it has in Egypt. In the absence of the trust or deference that might come from true revolutionary solidarity, the first government of a new democracy will always be suspected of wanting to do away with democracy (i.e. elections) and ruling permanently. Partisan democracy sets a harsh standard for the success of a political system. It doesn't permit confidence in the system's stability until a government peacefully hands power over to an opposition party. By this standard, the proof of the success of the American experiment came in 1801, after John Adams left office as the first incumbent President defeated in a re-election campaign. Despite the confusion, under the original election rules, over the tie vote for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, there was no doubt that Adams had been defeated and no question of his attempting to hold on to power.

In general terms, partisan democracy sets an almost perverse standard: the system can't be proved a success until a government fails. In different terms, it can't be proved a success until the electorate has proven its ability to repudiate a failed leader. Objectively, this seems to mean that partisan democracy is not a success until it produces a bad government. Apologists will argue that bad governments are inevitable and that the best system is the one that replaces them in the most orderly and peaceful fashion. But setting the easy replacement of bad governments as the standard places a somewhat unfair pressure on the first government. If people aren't satisfied that their experiment in electoral democracy is a success until a government is replaced by an opposition, won't anxiety increase if a successful first government persists in power? Given the existence of partisanship and the mutually exclusive claims of ideologies, isn't it as inevitable as it is irrational that an objectively successful first government will be suspected of usurping, hijacking, betraying democracy the longer it persists in office, whether in the form of a popular individual leader or in the form of a popular mass movement? No matter how successful the first government proves to be, democracy won't appear secure from the partisan-democratic perspective until some sort of opposition takes over -- peacefully, of course.

Egypt appears to be an extreme case of partisan democracy in that a mass opposition seems never to have given Morsi a chance and has always presumed the worst of him. As a secularist myself, I can understand some of the distrust of a leader backed by a conservative religious movement. Nevertheless, Morsi was elected and the election is understood to have been fair. Despite that, Egypt is experiencing a kind of preemptive backlash against the pretensions of authoritarian democracy (i.e. "We won the election, so shut up!") seen around the world. At the heart of the problem is the perception that Morsi has the interests of only a part of Egypt's population in mind -- the suspicion that partisan democracy is a zero-sum game where the success of one party means the oppression of another. The suspicion may be justified, if only because partisanship poisons democracy at birth. The challenge for the world, as we watch Egypt's crisis, is to find a form or electoral democracy that can do without parties and the poison they carry -- to figure out whether representative government can be designed to encourage the rational compromise of interests, as James Madison hoped, without turning into an all-or-nothing battle of ideological parties. Madison's own record as a partisan is not encouraging, but as long as we presume interests more rational than ideologies, there should remain room for hope and action.