30 August 2013

No more Freedom Fries

How things change. A decade ago, Labour-ruled Britain joined the U.S. in invading Iraq while a conservative French government -- by French standards -- earned the ire of Americans by arguing against the war. This week, a Conservative prime minister was rebuked by many in his own party as Parliament voted against authorizing intervention in Syria, but the Socialist president of France has lined his country up alongside the U.S. should the President choose to bomb Syrian government forces.

You can probably order some Turkey with those French fries. That country's Islamist government has spoken up ahead of the findings of the UN investigators, claiming that their own intelligence service has proved the Assad government guilty of using chemical weapons. Turkey's foreign minister says it's the international community's "responsibility" to deal with Syria. As part of NATO, Turkey is much more likely to cooperate with any American attack on Syria than they were when Iraq was under the gun. Sharing a border with Syria, Turkey has an interest in restoring stability there but would also be in harm's way should Assad want to retaliate.

The big questions now are whether anyone in the U.S. has the will or power to say no should the President decide to punish Syria, and how far Russia will go to protect one of their most faithful customers (for want of a better world). It may be a bigger question for some whether the world should let any Syrians (regardless of whoever's actually guilty) get away with using the taboo chemical weapons. I admit to knowing little about international law on this point, but I suspect that punitive measures are not as mandatory or obligatory as some suggest. Were this a truly binding obligation, Russia, for one, should have no right to refuse. If punitive action is still subject to votes, whether in the UN or in national governments, than punitive action isn't mandatory, though President Obama's belief may be that action is mandatory and thus not subject to approval of his own legislature. Prime Minister Cameron thought differently and got burned for his trouble. I'm somewhat more certain that the American people never expressed an opinion at the polls on whether they had a duty to risk lives to punish the use of chemical weapons. It looks like we had better speak up pretty soon.

29 August 2013

The Mother of Parliaments rejects war with Syria

The Coalition of the Willing is less so after a chastening decade of war in the Muslim world.In Great Britain, the House of Commons rejected a motion that would have authorized David Cameron's Tory-led coalition government to participate in military action against the Syrian government. Since the head of government must face legislators regularly, opposition MPs, who were joined in rejecting the motion by members of Cameron's own party, forced the Prime Minister to promise further that he would not usurp the "royal prerogative" to attack Syria on his own initiative. As usual, the interventionists portray this as an undeserved victory for the Syrian dictator and accuse the opposition of "giving succor" to a tyrant. The leader of the Labour party rightly called such rhetoric "infantile." Cameron himself appealed to emotion, invoking the victims of Assad's attacks, chemical or otherwise, and warned that failure to punish Assad would embolden others to commit similar atrocities. The opposition replied that it is as yet unproven that the government and not the rebels committed the attack in question. In the U.S., the opposition is torn between war hawks like Sen. McCain and non-interventionists like Sen. Paul, while it remains unclear whether the President believes that his prerogative to intervene in Syria is subject to congressional (much less international) approval. So the American form of government is an improvement on Britain's how?

Is Self-Help Fascist?

The forthcoming reissue of a 1936 self-help manual, Dorothea Brande's Wake Up and Live!, inspires dark reflections from Joanna Scutts, a reviewer for The Nation. Noting that self-help books were, unsurprisingly, very popular during the Great Depression, Scutts demonstrates that the "basic tenets" of self-help could be found across the ideological spectrum, but argues that a conservative if not fascist sensibility seemed most compatible with the belief that solving problems and making progress were matters of pure willpower. On one hand, Scutts identifies Franklin Roosevelt's belief that happiness lay in "the joy of achievement" rather than the mere possession of money" as a tenet of self-help, even if most self-help authors thought that the two naturally went together. On the other, she recounts Dorothea Brande's fascist associations and leanings and implicitly links those to a lineage of reactionary individualism climaxing in Ayn Rand. That self-help is individualist seems obvious enough; that it's reactionary follows from the presumed choice of individual over collective advancement. In Scutt's words:

There is nothing democratic about 1930s self-help, no sense that it might be possible to better yourself by working to improve everyone’s collective lot. In a political climate fearful of the spread of communism among the “inferior” or disenfranchised masses, the call to rise above, rather than strive together, was especially powerful. 

There's nothing surprising about this sort of commentary, except that Scutt's early invocation of FDR reminds us that the "basic tenets" of self-help weren't restricted to the right wing. If we look past the "self" in "self-help," the reliance (if not fetishization) of will in the self-help literature will not look unfamiliar to historians of the left wing. Thanks mainly to Leni Riefensthal, "will" is often thought of as a fascist attribute, but the idea that willpower can or should overcome all obstacles predates fascism and transcends left-right dualism. Infamously, the generals of World War I expected will (or "elan") to carry infantry across No Man's Land, through machine-gun fire, and all the way to victory. In barely fictionalized form, the novel and film Paths of Glory show generals scapegoating "cowardly" soldiers for defeat rather than admit that will alone couldn't overcome machine guns. Likewise, for all its scientific pretension, Bolshevism appealed to will power while exhorting workers to make great leaps forward, and impulsively sought to blame both physical and intellectual forms of sabotage whenever it fell short of its goals. Ultimately, the difference between conservative "self-help" and its leftist counterpart may be the latter's principled indifference to material success. Just as FDR ranked "joy of achievement" over wealth, at least for voters' consumption, so those much further to his left urged their adherents to take joy simply in being revolutionary, to live in a state of exalted will that constituted a kind of moral success unto itself, even while the people lived on rations and waited in lines for toilet paper. FDR praised not only the joy of achievement but also "the thrill of creative effort," which is exactly what Bolshevik propaganda aimed to instill in people. This may not sound like "self-help," but it was Scutt, not I, who said that these things mentioned by Roosevelt were basic tenets of self-help. For that matter, how compatible with fascism is self-help when fascism, nearly as much as Bolshevism, is about "working to improve everyone's collective lot?" In its idolization of the state fascism doesn't look much like a self-help movement. Scutt, however, is probably less interested in fascism as a theory of the state than in a retroactively defined attitudinal fascism, one that can be linked to 21st century reaction by a common contempt for the perceived "losers" of society.  Her subject, Dorothea Brande, seems particularly contemptuous toward the losers of her time and so looks like a precursor of the reactionaries of Scutt's time. In right-wing self-help, an effort of will is required not to be a loser just as, in the left-wing counterpart, you have to make an effort of will not to be a counter-revolutionary, capitalist-roader or class enemy. This is ideological self-defense; in the face of failure the will, not the idea, is to blame. If capitalism seems unsustainable today, capitalist ideologues will say that's because too many people are losers in their minds. Self-help, then, may be a building block of the ideology of capitalism, something distinct from capitalism itself. The willpower training we call "self-help" or "positive thinking" may be an essential component of ideology in general. If so, whether it skews right or left matter less than its overall bad consequences in modern history.

28 August 2013

Another front in the global war of opinion

For some people, suppressing opposing viewpoints takes considerable technical ingenuity. For others, it takes political power. Kieran Michael Lalor wants to take the latter route. He's a Republican member of the New York State Assembly. He's using his bully pulpit -- never more aptly names -- to incite a boycott of cable and satellite TV providers who dare carry the Al-Jazeera America news channel. Many New Yorkers have  already been denied a chance to see the channel on television because Time Warner Cable took down Al Gore's old Current TV channel the moment he sold out to Al-Jazeera. Lalor himself doesn't want to forbid New Yorkers from watching the English-language channel. He just wants those who really want to see it to pay extra for the privilege. He wants the state's other TV providers to make Al-Jazeera America a premium channel. His idea seems to be that the average viewer should not have to subsidize what he characterizes as an anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda channel by having it included in standard subscription packages. The Assemblyman's office was quick, however, to deny that his demand should set a precedent for "a la carte" subscriptions. Many people probably would prefer to have only the channels they like available, Republicans dispensing with MSNBC, for starters, while Democrats do without Fox News. People who buy the New York Times don't have to buy the New York Post, after all. But this is not what Lalor is advocating, according to Lalor's staff. Instead, he wants to stigmatize the channel he deems most likely to question the establishment consensus on Middle Eastern politics. Perhaps he'll next turn his attention to the English language RT channel, characterized by some as propaganda for its Russian owners, and certainly the channel most skeptical toward the prevailing narrative on Syria -- maybe more so than Al-Jazeera. He'd probably have the support of gay-rights activists if he went after RT, whether he'd welcome that or not.  Time Warner still carries RT, but for how much longer? The "marketplace of ideas" definitely isn't what it used to be.

Syria wins the first battle

As the U.S. government and its usual allies continue making noises about attacking Syria, Syrians have attacked the United States. To be specific, the hackers of the Syrian Electronic Army, an organization sympathetic toward but avowedly not affiliated with Bashar al-Assad's government, yesterday carried out their second successful attack in the last month against the New York Times website. In addition, they made an attack on Twitter. All of this is little more than counting coups, and as far as I can tell no one is treating these attacks as an additional casus belli on top of the alleged chemical-weapons attacks against the Syrian rebels that supposedly require punitive action from the international community. But attacks on news and opinion sites will certainly confirm the belief that the Syrian government and its sympathizers are enemies of freedom.

That's not how the Syrian Electronic Army sees itself, however. I tried to reach their homepage today but, to not much surprise, access to it is blocked. Wikipedia reports that the SEA vehemently denies being actual agents or hirelings of the government, but that may be a distinction without a difference to those who see Assad's Baath government as a totalitarian regime. From what I've read briefly about the SEA, it seems like they could be more anti-rebel than pro-Assad. They are mainly opposed to "lies" about their country in the global media. What lies are those? A purported SEA leader said this month that the "truth" about Syria is “There is no revolution in Syria, but terrorist groups killing people [and] accusing Syrian Arab Army.” The rebellion seems to be somewhat more than that, but whether it counts as a "revolution" is definitely open to question. Whether the rebels are the "good guys" in Syria is even more open to question, unless you work on the assumption that anything would be better than the incumbent dictator. The idea that dictatorship is any country's best option for any period of time is abhorrent to most westerners, and we can't really sugarcoat this option by denying that the Baath regime is a dictatorship or at least an "authoritarian" regime hostile to dissent. The SEA may wish to deny that Syria is a dictatorship, or they may characterize it as a benign "people's democratic dictatorship" like China's, or they may simply believe that Assad's kind of regime, warts and all, is Syria's best option at this point in history. Whether outsiders agree with their viewpoint or not, it should be conceded that the SEA has more right to opine on the appropriate form of government for their country than we outsiders have. It doesn't follow from that that they have any right to silence people, at home or abroad, who disagree with them (or "lie" about the rebellion), but the SEA sees itself in a state of war and is unlikely to respect the conventional niceties.

Last week's chemical incident put new pressure on President Obama, who has said that by using chemical weapons Syria would cross a "red line." If he's sweating now, it's his own fault for drawing such a line. Why are people so crazy about chemical weapons? For just about a century now they've been treated as an ultimate taboo of warfare. According to legend, even Hitler, who saw and felt their effects as a soldier in World War I, scrupled at the use of chemical weapons. Considering what Hitler permitted, you wonder again why chemical warfare is a matter for special outrage or a cause for punitive international action. I suppose it has something to do with an assumption that no one can escape a chemical attack, and maybe something more to do with an atavistic bias against an overly scientific (and less manly) mode of attack. A chemical attack seems to strike many as dishonorable the way any sort of missile weapon supposedly seemed dishonorable to oldschool swordsmen and axe-wielders. You get the impression that, presuming that Assad is guilty -- his government (and presumably the SEA) blames the rebels -- he might have outraged the world less had he simply dropped bombs on civilians. Does the world need to go to war with anyone who uses chemical weapons? Would that mean we'd be obliged to aid Assad if the rebels are to blame? Few Americans would take that theoretical seriously, but if you can't answer that question in the affirmative, than there should be no more moral obligation to aid the rebels if Assad is guilty. Arguably, attacking American websites is more a casus belli, if still not much, than the way Syria deals with rebels. Perhaps some independent volunteers who believe in freedom of information will cause mischief with Syrian websites and servers -- but I imagine plenty of that has been happening already. Such a conflict doesn't exactly inspire hope for the future, however. Technological proliferation theoretically gives more people around the world opportunities to speak out, but for every such opportunity there seems to be an opportunity for someone else to shut the first person up. If the liberal utopia is an unlimited global conversation, few around the world are buying.

27 August 2013

Dream on

August 28 is the fiftieth anniversary of the National March for Jobs and Freedom, better known to history as the "March on Washington," its singular status cinched by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. This the first of the big five-ohs of the year, the other shoe dropping in November when John F. Kennedy's assassination will certainly be commemorated in morbidly epic style. Today's anniversary has been anticipated with nearly a month of soul-searching in the news media, the question being to what extent King's dream has been realized. This summer may be the wrong time to ask the question. As much as Republicans usually like to claim Mission Accomplished on this one, many of them, I suspect, can't really see it that way this year. For that, they blame black America and its enablers in the Democratic party and the "liberal media." The resentment felt by many whites over the trial of George Zimmerman should not be underestimated. While many blacks see the death of Trayvon Martin as proof that black and white lives aren't valued equally, many whites see Zimmerman's trial the same way -- but they see the whole affair, Zimmerman's acquittal notwithstanding, as proof that black people don't value lives equally. The insinuation of all the charges of selective outrage aimed at black leaders and media figures is that, to them, black lives are worth more than white lives. That's what Republican opinionators mean when they ask why those leaders and media figures, or their political representatives, don't get equally outraged when blacks kill whites, or even when blacks kill blacks. Never mind that these complainers simply ignore all the "Stop the Violence" activity across the country protesting black-on-black crime. What really bugs them is the idea that, for blacks (or liberals, or the "left" in general), a white killing a black is a worse crime than any other color of killing. The outrage expressed at this notion betrays an enduring failure to communicate with black America, for whom it still looks like a struggle to have the killing of a black by a white recognized as a crime at all. As ever, one side's demand for equality is seen by the other side as a demand for privilege. While some people's utopia of multiculturalism is a place where all kinds of "difference" are respected, it can be argued that so long as this crucial difference of perception persists, King's dream goes unrealized.

Republicans were in Mission Accomplished (or Dream Fulfilled) mode earlier in the year when the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act, but the predictable backlash from blacks and liberals has contributed to the resentment felt on the right this year. The provisions struck down reduced certain parts of the country to a probationary status, as far as election law was concerned, due to their histories of vote suppression. The Roberts Court argues that sufficient permanent progress has been made to justify ending that probationary status. The backlash from blacks and liberals carries a twofold message to Roberts and the Republicans: we don't believe you, and we don't trust you. Skeptics point to photo-I.D. requirements and other measures as reasons for skepticism, but the other side takes this all personally.  Few if any of them identify with the segregationists of the Sixties, and they resent it when it seems that critics consider them no better than the Bull Connors or unreconstructed George Wallaces of King's time. They wonder whether blacks will ever concede that white racism is dead -- and they won't concede that black racism is dead until blacks make the first move. The problem here, again, is one of perspective. Get any small group of people together randomly and you probably won't find agreement on what racism is. For some it's simply a matter of hating other races, and nothing else. For others, it's a social system defined by inequalities that can be reformed only through government intervention, not by a change in attitude. For some, the Obama presidency, whatever its worth on its own terms, is the ultimate irrefutable proof that racism is dead. For others, Obama is a superficial if not irrelevant factor. So long as these different perspectives seem irreconcilable, people of each race will suspect the other of a kind of existential hatred that, rather than their own attitude, is the root of the problem. Whites demand that blacks trust them not to be racist; blacks demand that whites earn their trust; neither trusts the other to judge the case objectively.

Writing in The Nation, Gary Younge decries the Republicans' familiar emphasis on "the content of their character" as the only valid criterion for race relations articulated in King's speech. As Republicans (and many whites regardless of party) see it, once they renounce bigotry they should be able to judge black people entirely by the c. of c. Younge implies that we can't appraise the c. of c. objectively until everyone is more equal in material terms. So long as there are "vast, enduring differences in the material position of blacks and whites," he writes, judging blacks by the c. of c. standard without first taking into account "the consequences of ongoing institutional, economic and political exclusion" tempts whites to see black poverty or crime as "the failings of individuals."  If  Younge's position is that racial equality can't be achieved without state intervention, another potentially irreconcilable difference of perspective emerges. From the Republican perspective, Younge and those who think like him are the real bigots if they really believe that blacks can never get ahead without the aid of government. They characterize Younge's position as an assertion of essential black "helplessness" requiring them to become permanent clients of Big Government, when Younge obviously believes that the fault lies not with blacks themselves. Worse still from the white Republican perspective is the idea that only state intervention can undo the country's legacy of racism. The idea that "only the state" can do anything other than wage war violates their entire value system, in which the state is rarely more than a necessary evil, the necessity of which is almost always open to question.

Despite Younge's strictures, white Republicans will continue to claim that they can fairly judge the content of black character. In the Obama era, many whites increasingly resent a perceived knee-jerk reaction by blacks to criticism that characterizes the critic as a racist. In Obama's own case, critics resent it whenever they perceive that their criticisms of the President's policies, or his supposed ideology, are written off as racial animus. But while they claim that they're judging Obama as a politician and not as a black man, white Republicans have probably grown more assertive and aggressive, in the Internet era, in their judgments of black men. They dislike the insinuation (even if only inferred) that they have no right to judge blacks by their words or actions, or else have to take stuff like centuries of history into account that they don't have to (so they assume) for anyone else. Of course, the assumption that blacks will always cry racism if you judge them is itself a stereotype, but it's also true that accountability in a democracy is never a one-way street. We make a fetish of "speaking truth to power" as if that's the only morally legitimate act, whether it's blacks confronting whites, the poor confronting the rich, the gays the straights, the taxpayers the politicians (did you see that one coming?) etc. etc. But vice versa is true in every one of those instances, and if context is a condition of the powerful or privileged judging those less so, it should also be a condition the other way around. If blacks can say there's something wrong with white people or white culture, whites can answer in kind, regardless of the truth on either side. So on across the board. And since this article commemorates a moment of optimism in American history, let me suggest that a certain level of interracial anger is an inevitable part of the transition to the nation of King's dreams. Let me put it this way: if blacks and whites are yelling at each other instead of rioting or lynching, that's progress. Happy anniversary!

26 August 2013

John Gray on Thatcherism: when disposition becomes ideology

Frequent readers will remember John Gray (the British author, not the Albany news anchorman) as an intellectual curmudgeon who's made the philosophical journey from conservatism to pessimism. He remains conservative to the extent that he rejects the idea of unlimited progress, but since most professed conservatives also profess some idea of progress -- fueled by free enterprise rather than the state -- Gray is somewhat off the grid. He reviews a biography of Margaret Thatcher in the current New Republic and reflects on how the Iron Lady transformed conservatism. You can infer from his comments that what usually gets called "conservatism" now is really Thatcherism, which for Gray is conservatism turned into an ideology. Thatcher was just one of the figures on the right in 1970s Britain who were trying to "break with previous Conservative thinking." Only with them, Gray argues, did British conservatism become "a systematic body of belief." Previously...

For most in the [Tory] party and the country at the time, Conservatism was not any kind of theory at all, but instead -- as the skeptical conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott liked to put it -- a disposition, which featured an enduring attachment to familiar institutions and practices. 'A propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or may be.' Conservatism in that sense was not a notable trait in Margaret Thatcher.

While Oakeshott's ideal sounds complacent, there's also a note of pragmatism (Gray writes that he "stressed the importance of practice over any kind of theorizing") absent in ideological conservatism. Oakeshott's conservatism, which Gray implicitly admires, is opposed to an idealism that defines Thatcherism. Hers was specifically the idealism of "spontaneous order" in a free-market economy as popularized by Friedrich von Hayek. But as Gray notes, Hayek explicitly denied being a conservative. Gray himself characterizes Hayek as a sort of social darwinist. More importantly, he attacks Hayek directly for failing to acknowledge (or recognize?) that even if a spontaneous order once existed, restoring it could not be a spontaneous event.

Neither [Thatcher] nor Hayek considered the fact that ... the claim that law evolves spontaneously, without anyone designing it -- was inescapably flouted in circumstances when law had to be deliberately created, as was the case when Thatcher came to power. The nub of Thatcher's first administration was the assault on trade unions, which required the construction of a new legal framework to curb their activities. A similar contradiction appeared in Thatcher's treatment of local authorities, which she regarded as a bastion of socialism; in order to limit their powers, she had to expand those of central government. The pursuit of Hayek's idea of a 'spontaneous order' in society required a major expansion of state power.

Gray may think it inevitable that Thatcher failed in her ultimate purpose, if that's understood to be the restoration of some idealized bourgeois Britain. Her legacy, he claims, is "a society in which a conservative disposition has no place." If Thatcher meant to restore traditional values -- if, as she said, "Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul," -- Gray notes that her presumably ideal society "based on lifelong marriages and careers cannot co-exist with an economy driven by unfettered choice and the pursuit of short-term gains." In plainer terms, he claims that "The free market that Thatcher promoted acutally worked to undermine and to dissolve middle-class values."

Conservatism may inevitably take an ideological form in a post-revolutionary era. It may even be possible to divide history into pre-ideological and post-ideological eras, the latter a state in which dispositional conservatism of the Oakeshott sort becomes, if not impossible, then so relative as to be unrecognizable to today's dogmatists. Dispositional conservatism can resist a revolution, but reversing a revolution requires ideology and, as Gray notes, state power. If radical revolution has transformed the social order from the root, restoring the old order (real or imagined) requires equally radical action. It also requires a kind of argumentation unnecessary to dispositional conservatism. Once the case has been made for a welfare state or a workers' state, a case has to be made against it. This is the starting point of Thatcherism, based on the perception that by the 1970s unions had gained too much power in Britain and were abusing it to the detriment of the overall economy. If a dispositional conservative might argue that things can always be worse than they are now, or against throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the ideological conservative is out to prove specific points: that the welfare state is wrong; that the regulatory state is wrong; that too much power for unions is wrong. While the dispositional conservative argues from experience or caution, the ideologue argues from abstract principles like those formulated by Hayek. The ideological conservative becomes the radical, as some American "paleoconservatives" have recognized when listening to neocons. But in the 21st century the core "conservative" demand, the culmination of nearly two centuries or arguments against socialism and organized labor, is inescapably radical, whether made by neos, paleos or anyone in between, so long as it requires fundamental upheaval -- and inescapably dependent on the state so many affect to despise. None of this is meant to suggest that no one can argue for a radical dismantling of the welfare state, or against the principle of collective bargaining. But if Gray is right in his implicit claim that dispositional conservatism is the authentic kind, then those making more radical demands are not conservatives in this place and time. It would be more honest of them not to hide behind the adjectival noun and identify themselves explicitly with the things or ideals they actually stand for. We might all see the issues more clearly if we took off our polarized lenses and gave up thinking in terms of "liberals" and "conservatives." For all we know, some people who assume that they agree on nothing because one calls himself conservative, and one a liberal, may find common ground on specific issues where ideologues see none. Or so we can hope.

22 August 2013

China vs. 'Constitutionalism'

The outside world is taking note of a propaganda campaign within the People's Republic of China against "constitutionalism. The effort, spearheaded by a series of articles in the People's Daily newspaper, appears to confirm liberals' worst suspicions about the Chinese Communist regime. To oppose "constitutionalism" must mean to prefer arbitrary, essentially lawless rule. In American "conservative" terms, to oppose constitutionalism is to favor unlimited government, which inevitably means unlimited tyranny. The Chinese don't help matters by criticizing not just what you'd expect, i.e. the Marxist notion of "bourgeois constitutionalism," but also "socialist constitutionalism." What is their problem?

Fortunately, the People's Daily articles are available in English so we can delve into them ourselves if we dare. For starters, the writer (or writers) blame American-influenced constitutionalist thinking in part for the fall of the Soviet Union. They see the oft-expressed ideal of "democratic socialism" as a western construct subversive of the preferred ideal of "people's democratic dictatorship." But what is constitutionalism? People's Daily argues that constitutionalism is inherently bourgeois, and once you work your way past the jargon you can see why they think so. The Chinese Communists at People's Daily identify constitutionalism above all with the protection of vested interests, that being the presumed motivation for checks-and-balances and other limitations on government. Citing American history with inevitable selectivity, the newspaper argues (as have many American historians) that the primary purpose of the U.S. Constitution was to protect the bourgeoisie from the poor. Going further, the article asserts that the power of capital, not the Constitution, is the only effective check on political power in America.

The US President’s power is not locked in a constitutional cage, but is locked in a capital-monopolist oligarch cage. When US officials break through constitutional and legal restraints, and use the power in their hands to seek profit for the capitalist wealth clique and obtain huge commissions from it, they will not meet with obstruction – in the US, the revolving door between officialdom and commerce is an extremely widespread phenomenon; but if someone breaks through constitutional and legal restraints to shake the bourgeois’ sacred right to property, he will most certainly be severely punished. Above the US Constitution, there is another high-level law that overrides it, only, it isn’t God’s will or natural law, but the will of the monopolist clique.

In a purportedly classless society, it follows, constitutionalism has no place if its only purpose is to protect vested interests that unjustly monopolize the means of production. As Marxists, the People's Daily writers reject any natural-rights justification for constitutionalism, arguing that "natural rights" are self-serving class constructs. From the Communist perspective, natural-rights theory is the "self-deification of the bourgeoisie," virtually a form of superstition.

Amid the hubbub over constitutionalism, it might be forgotten that China has a constitution. But that constitution enacts "people's democratic dictatorship," with emphasis on "dictatorship," which is what "socialist constitutionalists" supposedly want to do away with. For People's Daily, "democratic dictatorship" is synonymous with "democracy." Their position seems to be that you can't have one without the other.

The Preamble of the Chinese Constitution is utterly clear about the rights of the Chinese popular masses: “The Chinese Communist Party with its leader Chairman Mao Zedong has led the Chinese nation and people, … they overthrew imperialist, feudalist and bureaucratic rule … therefrom, the Chinese people grasped the State power and became the masters of the country”. Essentially speaking, this judgement is the scientific judgment of historical materialism and dialectical materials, and dues [sic] not require the use of religious theology or spiritualist natural rights, natural law theory to prove it.

That last sentence is regrettable, a bit of secular pomposity hardly more supportable than the claims of natural rights.  Historical or dialectical materialism are arguably pseudosciences, the proofs of which are as elusive as those for natural-rights theory. Getting past the gobbledygook, however, the main point is that, rather than checking the people's will, a constitution "must always do what the popular will tells it do." Communists, however, insist on the Party as a necessary intermediary and an essential part of their more "scientific" constitutional order.

As long as the relationship between the Constitution and the people is clear, the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Constitution will be equally clear. As the Chinese Communist Party implements its concept of serving the people, the Chinese Communist Party is the representative of the interests and will of the popular masses. Separating the Constitution from the Party’s leadership and the popular will fundamentally does not conform with Marxism.

To be fair, the above quote should be recognized as a caveat. "Implementing China’s Socialist Constitution well crucially depends on doing Party building well, on ensuring that the Chinese Communist Party becomes a party that truly serves the people," the paper elaborates, "on ensuring that officials at all levels of power in China identify with the core principles of the Constitution. Otherwise, the Constitution is an empty text." True enough. A meaningful difference between "bourgeois" and "communist" constitutionalism becomes clear here. People's Daily acknowledges that the success of a communist constitution depends on the Party doing the right thing, i.e. serving the people. A communist constitution, it follows, is designed to maximize the effectiveness of government by virtuous people. A bourgeois constitution, as we well know, is designed to minimize the damage that can be done by the government of bad people. The problem with both forms of constitutionalism is that constitutions themselves don't discriminate between good and bad rulers. Thus a communist constitution also maximizes a bad ruler's potential for mischief, becoming "empty" by its failure to prevent abuses of power, while a bourgeois constitution can prevent good people from taking arguably necessary actions with the arguably necessary speed. The difference between the two may be less a matter of belief in natural law than a matter of belief in human nature. If communists believe in the perfectibility of man, at whatever cost in individual lives, bourgeois liberals believe that absolute power (defined always as power over them, never as their own power) corrupts absolutely, and that both individual and collective well being depends on power being checked.  Both forms of constitution come with costs, but now, at least, China can point to benefits as well when communists rarely could before. Which you prefer may depend on what you expect for yourself, and what you expect of yourself. Before making political judgments, or "moral" judgments of politics, know yourselves first.

Putting words in Lincoln's mouth: 'You cannot...'

Peter J. Swota of Waterford has had a letter published in the August 22 Troy Record denouncing President Obama's "socialist" agenda. He notes that Obama "is fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln," but finds Abe's "actual creed" to be the antithesis of everything he believes Obama to stand for. Lincoln's creed is conveniently "embodied" in the following litany of "cannots," veritable commandments for reactionary Republicans. I copy them from Wikipedia

  • You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
  • You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
  • You cannot help little men by tearing down big men.
  • You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
  • You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
  • You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.
  • You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
  • You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
  • You cannot build character and courage by destroying men's initiative and independence.
  • And you cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.
At Wikipedia, however, you won't find these bullet points in the article on Abraham Lincoln. You will find them in the entry for William J. H. Boetcker, an early 20th century conservative who composed them in 1916. To be fair to Boetcker, he never claimed that the "Ten Cannots" (Swota only reproduces eight of them) were anything other than his own work. What happened, however, was that a generation later, in 1942, the Committee for Constitutional Government reprinted Boetcker's "Cannots" in a pamphlet but attributed them to Lincoln and illustrated them with a Lincoln portrait. You can see the thing here. Even then, attributing the "Cannots" to Lincoln wasn't a lie but an editorial mistake, since actual Lincoln quotes appeared on the reverse page. Nevertheless, reactionary Republicans have attributed them to Abe ever since, most notably Ronald Reagan in a convention speech.

While I was suspicious immediately -- "class hatred" looked particularly anachronistic -- I also have to question whether Lincoln would repudiate any of Boetcker's "Cannots." As a founding Republican, Lincoln espoused a "free labor" ideology that remains part of Republicanism to the present day. Abe saw himself as a champion of the laboring man and obviously preferred free labor to slave labor. But he was also eager to defend industrial capitalism against the charge that wage labor was a form of wage slavery. It was not that, he argued, because an industrious, thrifty person could start as a wage laborer, rise to self-employment, and eventually become an employer himself. This inevitably exceptional scenario emphasized that the unpleasant aspects of wage labor were temporary and readily transcended by competent people. The implicit corollary was that it was up to each person to elevate himself out of wage labor, and ever since Lincoln's time Republicans have mostly felt that those who don't rise, who form a permanent working class (if not a proletariat) are simply malcontent losers demanding things they don't deserve. I've discussed Lincoln's views and their influence on Republicans in the past. Whether any or all of the "Cannots" follow from Lincoln's views remains open to debate. Someone like Swota might argue that the "Cannots" embody Lincoln's views figuratively rather than literally -- but he'll have to take that up with some of the people on his own side who are bound to object when Swota credits Old Abe with upholding the ideal of limited government. As we know, many of the worst reactionaries think the opposite of Lincoln, seeing him as the malicious inventor of "big government." Like his fellow Republican, the elephant, Abraham Lincoln is a figure who can't be defined by blindly grasping some small part of his life and thought. Without even bringing the liberal Democrat Neo-Lincolnians into it, his legacy is more complex than most Americans can grasp today.

21 August 2013

Battle for the ballot: why do independents handicap themselves?

Albany NY has had three mayors in the last seventy years, not counting an acting mayor while Erastus Corning II served in the military early in his 42-year run. The most recent mayor, Jerry Jennings, retires at the end of the year after 20 years in charge. Albany is a classic Democratic machine town -- arguably archetypal thanks to the writings of William Kennedy -- but Jennings's departure inspires hopes in other parties as a number of Democrats battle for the mayoral nomination. For the first time ever, Albany will see a Libertarian mayoral candidate. Actually, make that "may see."

The Capital District Libertarian Party has endorsed 23 year old cafe owner Alex Portelli. The candidate himself has submitted more than 1,500 signatures, which should be enough, if they go unchallenged, to earn him a spot on the city ballot. Portelli looks like a typical young libertarian; he wants drug laws liberalized, supports Bradley Manning, etc. etc. On the urban front he wants to "eliminate hindrances to independent business growth," like permits, zoning rules, etc. He wants to make life better for shoppers and businesses alike by eliminating Albany's parking meters (which he claims on his Facebook page to  have turned much of the city into a ghost town) and making more free parking facilities available. In broadest terms, his homemade campaign posters argue that spending more money hasn't made things better, so maybe more "freedom" will.

Portelli's candidacy is problematic. He may seem young for a mayor, but his age doesn't disqualify him. His current status as a parolee might, in the opinion of a Republican election-board commissioner. Portelli served eighteen months in prison for "felony criminal possession of a controlled substance" before his release last November, and will remain on parole until September 2014. In New York State, that means he can't vote until next year. For that reason, the Republican argues, Portelli is not a "qualified elector" and thus is ineligible for elected office under the Albany City Charter. In addition, as a parolee he is ineligible to serve as a witness to the signatures meant to earn his spot on the ballot. On the question of his eligibility to run for mayor, there may be a conflict between city and state law, and some observers believe that state law, which would allow Portelli to run, should have precedence. Whether the courts will clarify the matter probably depends on whether either of the major parties considers Portelli a threat in a close race. But the mere potential for a problem raises questions about how seriously the Libertarians take this campaign. Like them or not, there are hurdles any independent candidate has to jump, and any party that wants to be taken seriously should make sure that any candidate they nominate can jump them while standing the scrutiny certain to come from a skeptical media and a hostile establishment. It may be that there wouldn't be a Libertarian candidate, or even a local Libertarian organization, without Alex Portelli, but if that's the case it begs questions about the party's viability. Ideally we should all vote for individuals, not parties, but at the same time we should be wary of vanity candidates in party disguises. In short, if the Capital District Libertarians can't do better than Portelli -- and this is no knock on his ideas, such as they are -- then they're probably not ready for prime time. Any party that wants to be taken seriously, not to mention get elected, should have a larger talent pool so it can throw a Portelli back in when they see the potential flaws in his candidacy. Demanding this isn't the same as the demand for "experience" that only benefits the major parties. Instead, it's a simple appeal to common sense.

20 August 2013

Idiot of the week candidate: Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Somebody had to do it eventually. Somebody had to blame Israel for the coup d'etat in Egypt that deposed Mohamed Morsi and effectively outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. Someone has probably done it before today, but the claim only makes the news today because it was made by a head of state. Erdogan is the Prime Minister of Turkey. Often described as a moderate Islamist, his critics accuse him, as Morsi's critics accused him, of pushing for a more authoritarian enforcement of sharia at the expense of a relatively recent yet well entrenched secular tradition. Erdogan has weathered mass protests in his own country, though they weren't on the same scale as those that inspired the Egyptian military to remove Morsi. Naturally, Erdogan saw Morsi as a kind of brother if not an ally since he was another elected Islamist leader. Naturally also, Erdogan probably sees the Egyptian coup as a blow against Islamism. It may also be natural for someone like him to presume that the enemies of Islamism must include, and be influenced by, Israel. Natural or not, Erdogan today accused the Israelis of being "behind" the coup. While the Israelis figuratively sighed and shrugged their shoulders, and the U.S. wagged a figurative chiding finger, the Egyptian junta blasted Erdogan for a "bewildering" claim.

But wait! Erdogan has evidence. We can all see it on video -- on YouTube in fact. An aide to Erdogan specifically cited a press conference involving the Israeli justice minister, but it seems like the damning comments (to Erdogan's ears) were made not by any Israeli official but by Bernard Henri-Levy, the French equivalent of Christopher Hitchens, with an emphasis for our purposes on French.. Such distinctions are lost on conspiracy mongers, but even they have an obligation to keep their facts straight. For instance: Israel's most hostile neighbor is almost certainly Syria. If the Israelis are rooting for or covertly supporting the overthrow of any neighboring ruler, that ruler would most likely be Bashar al-Assad. Certainly Israel's friends in the U.S. are rooting against Assad. But do you know who else disliked Assad, and actually called for a jihad against him? The answer is Mohamed Morsi, whose fall was celebrated by Assad loyalists in Syria. Having a common enemy doesn't automatically make anyone friends in the Middle East; it doesn't even necessarily prevent those with a common enemy from being enemies to each other. The moral of this story is that Middle Eastern politics are pretty complex, and definitely too complex to be reduced to the usual anti-semitic devil theory of history, especially on the flimsy evidence provided by Prime Minister Erdogan. Just as you don't want to get Southern politicians of a certain age started about black people, some people, whatever their legitimate grievances with the nation of Israel, just shouldn't get started about The Jews. They simply end up looking stupid.

American crime from a tourist perspective

It's big news in Australia that one of their citizens attending an American college on a baseball scholarship was killed last week in an apparently random drive-by shooting. Authorities in Duncan OK have three teenage suspects in custody and claim that one of them has confessed to killing someone because he and his buddies were bored. Parents of two of the suspects insist on their innocence. An Australian news site has released images of the suspects. For some American observers, everything may be explained by the fact that the three kids are black -- presuming that the photos are actual images of the suspects and that the suspects are guilty. At least one prominent Australian thinks differently. The real problem, as far as a former deputy prime minister is concerned, isn't that black youths roam the streets, but that all Americans have easy access to guns. Tim Fischer has a plan to hold the U.S. accountable for what he calls "the bitter harvest and legacy of the policies of the NRA." He's called for a tourist boycott of the United States. Hit the country in its pocketbook, he believes, and Congress may finally take serious action to regulate guns. Fischer may be hopelessly idealistic; if anything, the NRA's base is likely to resent any foreign attempt to dictate to the U.S. even more than it resents domestic gun-control efforts. They are more likely to recommend (and perhaps, in their dreams, require) that tourists arm themselves. They may be still more likely to change the subject from guns to culture -- as a euphemism for race. The Duncan police describe a nightmare scenario of nihilist youth killing for kicks, but despite their claim of a confession the suspects are innocent in the eyes of law until proven guilty. The indisputable fact is that a young man was killed with a gun. An Australian proposes to hold a country collectively responsible for that fact. Let's see what happens.

19 August 2013

Separation of church and state: an Egyptian example?

The English-language online edition of the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reports that work is underway on amending the country's constitution, mainly to undo damage reportedly done by the Muslim Brotherhood during its brief time in power. In part, this means restoring some of the old constitution that the Brotherhood and its allies had repealed. Perhaps most noteworthy of the restorations is a 2007 amendment that appears to target the Brotherhood itself. In al-Ahram's own English, the amendment reads: "It is not permitted to pursue any political activity or establish any political parties within any religious frame of reference (marja’iyya) or on any religious basis or on the basis of gender or origin." In other words, the amendment forbids explicitly religious parties. Egypt would have no place for a "Muslim Party," for instance. The ban would presumably cover more than superficial piety. Mohamed Morsi, the deposed president, won power as the candidate of the secular-sounding "Freedom and Justice Party," a Brotherhood front that presumably would be identified as such. In a compromise with Islamists not attached to the Brotherhood, the amendment process is likely to preserve 2012 language identifying sharia as the "main source" of Egyptian law. One way of looking at this is that the compromise allows the Egyptian government and courts to argue that, since the country is already more or less an Islamic state, an Islamic party would be a dubious redundancy. However you look at it, the 2007 amendment makes a fundamental separation of religion and politics more clear, arguably, than the First Amendment does in the U.S. While the U.S. government may make no law respecting religion, it doesn't follow automatically that something called the "Christian Party" could not contest elections. Whether Egypt will be better off having that language back in its constitution remains to be seen, but it looks like a good idea on paper.

Of further interest, considering how media-driven the uprising against Morsi was, is a proposal to repeal the Egyptian parliament's Shura Council. Back in 1980 this body was empowered to "impose hegemony on the Egyptian press," according to its critics. Morsi's critics accused him and his party of using their majority on the Shura Council to "Brotherhoodise national press institutions and the state-owned Radio and Television Union." The new powers apparently intend to make sure that will never happen again. This has been a 3M revolution so far, combining the Mob, the Media and the Military. Whether it includes the Majority still remains to be determined, but if the tyranny of a majority is what constitution-makers and amenders are really worried about, the country may be on the right track regardless.

18 August 2013

Politicizing the Pulpit, tax-free?

Newspapers' weekend religion pages have reported on a call by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations for "clarity" in the IRS rules that subject churches to audits of their tax-exempt status over alleged political advocacy from the pulpit. Seeming to echo outrage over the auditing of allegedly politicized or partisan "social welfare" organizations, this commission, an outgrowth of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, wants to give clergy more leeway to speak their minds on political subjects without fear of IRS reprisal. They may specifically seek an end to the policy, in place since 1954, effectively forbidding clergy from endorsing candidates. At a minimum, they want an end to a purported double-standard that lets black (and presumably liberal) churches get away with more than others. It seems pretty obvious that conservative clergy are bursting with desire to endorse Republicans, or perhaps those further to the right, though any change of the rules would give equal license to those on the left.

Historical rather than partisan perspective may be useful here. More than 150 years ago, the "Know Nothing" movement demanded special regulations governing the naturalization of Roman Catholics. The Know Nothings believed that it would take longer for Catholics to become Americanized because their supposed habitual subservience to priests was un-American. Even for a long time afterward, Protestant bigots assumed that, given the opportuity, Catholic priests would tell their parishoners whom to vote for.  Naturally, Catholics resisted these efforts. But their answer to the Protestant libel wasn't, "So what? It's a free country, isn't it?" Instead, Catholics just about universally resented and denied the charge that they would only vote as their priests instructed. They did not insist on their priests being able to instruct or even advise them as a matter of religous liberty. They insisted that they were already good Americans because they would neither demand nor accept such instruction.  Now, apparently, we have Protestants demanding for their pastors the right, at the least, to advise them at election time. If these demands multiply, then a new, non-sectarian Know Nothingism might be in order. Someone just needs to think up a better name for it this time.

16 August 2013

In defense of Anthony Weiner

Let's lighten up to end the week by taking note of one of the month's odder political commentaries. With former Rep. and current NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner's political stock plummeting again, and the man himself reinstated as a national laughingstock, Joann Wypijewski, The Nation's "Carnal Knowledge" columnist, comes to his defense. Wypijewski is at least consistent, having treated Weiner as a kind of martyr to intolerance when he resigned from Congress two years ago. Her position seems to be that sexual conduct is basically irrelevant to any politician's qualifications for office. Back in 2011, while noting a certain recklessness in Weiner's "sexting" habit, she saw his fall mainly as a victory for the right wing, and the scandal itself as proof of continuing cultural immaturity about sex. Rallying once more to the flagging Weiner, Wypijewski is more provocative and potentially more offensive. She defends Weiner (as a sexual being if not as a politician) by attacking one of his rivals for the Democratic mayoral nomination. In her opinion, because City Council speaker Christine Quinn is an open, married lesbian, Quinn has no right to criticize Weiner's sexual conduct. Because lesbianism was once stigmatized (and still is in some quarters), the argument goes, Quinn is hypocritical for making an issue out of anyone else's sexuality. "If Weiner is now too disgusting for public office," Wypijewski writes, "then Quinn, too, disqualifies for betraying" what the columnist calls "the road to greater sexual honesty."

Wypijewski is guided by a belief that "scandal [is] a problem of social power -- who sets the terms and costs of abnormality." Stigmatizing sexual conduct, for her, is intimately related with social oppression.

[S]ex scandal depends on oppression. Those are cogs in the same machine. Periodically the machine is recalibrated, enlarging or constricting the boundaries of who can say, 'You and you and you are sick,' but it needs sickos, always, to take the measure of normal and ensure that its punishing power is in working shape.

The shaming of Weiner is presented by Wypijewski as morally equivalent, implicitly, to the lobotomizing of homosexuals fifty years ago. Since doing that is no longer an option, our "poor, sick society" has to "compulsively .. erect new gates posted: WARNING: WEIRDOS, and cry scandal whenever someone in the pen gets reckless." To some readers her commentary may seem obtuse not because of her refusal to consider whether Weiner's antics do tell against his character as a potential public servant, but because those readers were not aware that society had, in fact, moved on from the persecution of homosexuals. Lobotomies may be of the past, but to argue that the culture-war front has moved to a point where the Quinns have a duty to defend the Weiners is still, to say the least, a peculiar perspective on the battlefield. Since Wypijewski's job apparently is to take a peculiar view of things, I suppose we can't knock her too much. But if her job is also to stand up for oppressed sexuality, is there really no one more deserving of defense than Anthony Weiner? Defending no one else may be as provocative now, but in her daring Wypijewski has leapt from the provocative to the frivolous, if not to outright insult of the same history she claims to respect.

15 August 2013

Islamophobia in Egypt?

One of the prominent liberals in the interim Egyptian government, Mohamed ElBaradei, has resigned to protest the killing of hundreds of people during yesterday's attack on encampments sympathetic to the deposed Mohamed Morsi. The bit I found most interesting about this story was the harsh criticism of ElBaradei, one of the country's best-known diplomats, from the spokesman/leader of the Tamarod ("Rebel") movement that reportedly took the lead in organizing the mass demonstrations against Morsi. Mahmoud Badr basically sneered at ElBaradei, arguing that the diplomat was more interested in his image abroad than in taking the steps necessary for the good of Egypt. Implicitly, Badr, a 28 year old journalist and commentator, endorsed the use of military force against a mass protest (which he characterized as terrorism), if not the actual killing of the protesters. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers were trying to do basically the same thing Tamarod and the other anti-Morsi forces did earlier this summer, and for that they had to die. Had Morsi dealt with Tamarod the same way, most observers would have taken it as irrefutable proof of his tyrannical if not evil nature. Tamarod has been portrayed as a liberal movement, if only by contrast with the a priori illiberal Brotherhood. But this week's events in Egypt will separate the liberals from the people who simply hate the Muslim Brotherhood, and with ElBaradei and Badr as samples, I think we can tell one kind from the other.

Do people like Badr hate the Brotherhood as an organization unto itself, or do they hate whatever they perceive it to stand for. Does Tamarod express something akin to Islamophobia in a Muslim nation? -- Islamismophobia, perhaps? An alternative label is "secular," and Tamarod's backers are arguably what passes for "secular humanists" in Egypt. As this French report shows, Badr and Tamarod enjoyed heavy financial and on-air support from the country's media establishment, a group understandably wary, at a minimum, of politicians pushing for sharia. We all might root for the media over religious fanatics, but the media's apparent triumph in this case is no more democracy at work than the imposition of sharia would be -- and arguably quite less, depending on the will of Egypt as a whole. Yet many observers continue to judge by what they assume Morsi would have done eventually, as if to say the Brotherhood is getting what they deserve. You wonder how much people like Badr will be able to stand, and the answer seems to depend on how deeply they fear the Brotherhood. "Secularists" and "liberals" may end up owning a military dictatorship, and some outside critics suggest that those groups will bear much if not most of the blame if all-out jihad breaks out in Egypt.  It would be a shame if it all comes down to fear of religion, which is what Sen. McCain seemed to be warning against when he urged the current regime last week to be inclusive of Islamists while leaving Morsi to twist in the wind. Even if we focus on fear of theocracy instead, how seriously should we take either the fear or the threat? A Republican like McCain is well aware that religious conservatives in his own country are often accused of seeking theocracy, and most likely thinking those fears exaggerated in the U.S., he may have advised the Egyptians that they might go too far in a preemptive strike against theocracy and its purported promoters in their country.

In many eyes Egypt has now gone too far, but while humanitarian impulses inevitably respond with horror to yesterday's killing, it is still arguable that the destruction of the Brotherhood is a precondition for real revolution in that country. It won't be destroyed without a fight, and if Egyptians press on for the destruction of Islamism the fight will be longer and bloodier still. There's probably no way out of the country's mess without more people getting killed, but no amount of killing automatically clears an exit. Conventional humanitarian standards can't apply here; means will have to be judged by ends, preferably by Egyptians only. What the country really needs is a proper economic policy, and whether theocracy or whatever Tamarod stands for fills that bill is open to question. There may be no winners in Egypt now or in the short run ... but if Americans recognize that there are no "good guys" there and behave accordingly, there might at least be progress in international relations.

14 August 2013

Egypt: revolution, counterrevolution or Thermidor?

Today will probably prove the bloodiest day in Egypt since Mohamed Morsi was forced from office. The interim government, which looks more and more like a military junta, has dispersed Morsi supporters from large protest encampments. In reprisal, sympathizers with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have launched reprisal attacks across the country on those they consider the beneficiaries of a coup against democracy, particularly the nation's Coptic Christians. Despite protests and some resignations by liberal leaders, the military most likely retains mass support from those Egyptians who still fear the Brotherhood and the prospect of sharia more. As an outsider, I know I wouldn't want to live under sharia, but the more the new regime kills people, the more you wonder about Morsi's alleged offenses against democracy. How much blood was on his hands? If there is still a revolution in Egypt, who exactly are the revolutionaries. The Brotherhood and its friends still claim legitimacy and see their cause as the true revolution betrayed by the military and the old guard behind them. The liberals still think the Brotherhood betrayed the revolution by its allegedly authoritarian conduct in power, but by siding with the army against the outcome of an election haven't they betrayed at least democracy, if not the revolution? Each side has its argument, but they can't all have their way. A revolution is an act of coercion; you are with it or against it. The continuing struggle to define the Egyptian revolution means that no one is safe. The Brotherhood may see itself as the revolution, but it is well known that they were latecomers to the protests against Hosni Mubarak, and it can be argued that if revolution means doing away with the old order, the Brotherhood itself must go. Dating back to the 1920s, it was probably the nearest thing Egypt had to an official opposition under the old order. Taking a broad view, it was as much a part of the old order, despite its adversarial stance, as the military itself. Its vaunted organizational advantage over new groups and new parties assured it victory in the first elections, and while complaints against that advantage, not to mention arguments for delaying elections, sounded like sore losing, it could be asked whether such an advantage enjoyed by any party was consistent with revolutionary conditions. After a revolution all parties start at zero or else one party, embodying the revolution, sets the agenda exclusively. Given its organizational advantage, the Brotherhood either becomes the revolution or it becomes the revolution's greatest enemy. If the people (or at least a majority on the streets) and the army agree that the Brotherhood is not the revolution, it's hard to see how they can allow the Brotherhood to survive. From that perspective, lamentations over the demise of "liberal democracy" in Egypt are beside the point. A revolution, not democracy, is at stake -- and there is no guarantee, given the army's role, that any revolution will survive the destruction of the Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood are Egypt's Jacobins -- proceed analogously with caution -- then the army's dominance is Egypt's Thermidor, the moment when radicalism succumbs to conservatism. If the liberals are the Jacobins, and the Brotherhood the old regime, the army may still bring about an Egyptian Thermidor if they, not the liberals, set the subsequent agenda. Not that there'd be anything wrong with a Thermidor if Egypt as a whole benefited from it. But "Egypt as a whole" doesn't mean everyone in Egypt. Scores have died today as the revolution continues, and the revolution will not continue, however it ends, without more dying. If we could all just get along, there wouldn't be revolutions. Until we can, there will be.

13 August 2013

Stupid, Evil or Crazy?

Time magazine profiles Sen. Cruz of Texas this week, highlighting the freshman Republican's lament that "there is a tendency to describe conservatives as one of two things: stupid or evil." He later thinks of a third option, "crazy," and flatters himself by supposing that liberals coined that label to describe him personally, forgetting that almost fifty years ago, Democrats said of Barry Goldwater, "In your guts you know he's nuts." An online version of the interview upon which Alex Altman based the profile allows Cruz to address this point at greater length.

A conservative is either stupid — too dumb to know the right answer — and even worse, if they actually know the right answer, then they’re evil. They want people to suffer. I suppose I feel mildly complimented in that they have recently invented a third category, which is crazy. It’s the alternative to stupid or evil. And now crazy is the third one, because it seems inconceivable that there could be Americans who believe in free-market principles and believe in the Constitution and are working to defend them.

You wish that Altman might have followed up by asking Cruz whether he does want people to suffer, by trying to preemptively defund Obamacare, for instance. To Cruz himself, I'm sure, the answer is a self-evident no, while to his ideological opposites it's an even more self-evident yes. Describing someone else's wants, or even one's own, is inevitably subjective. In a political or ideological context, describing suffering itself is probably subjective. A Republican may say sincerely that he doesn't want anyone to suffer, but he might say just as sincerely that he can't help it if people suffer, whether because of the decisions they make or because life is unfair. Some avowed conservatives (I won't put words in Cruz's own mouth) have suggested that suffering is necessary if people are to learn lessons. Commenting on Detroit's bankruptcy a few weeks ago, and arguing against a federal bailout of the city, George Will wrote that unless failures are penalized (presumably by suffering), failures will multiply. If the assumption is that suffering is the inevitable consequence of failure or error, then whether anyone wants suffering may seem irrelevant. But to the extent that liberals are hedonists, -- and that extent shouldn't be underestimated when compassion is considered a citizen's supreme virtue -- the "evil" of suffering may seem to outweigh the good of any lesson learned from it. Their assumption is that it's always possible to alleviate if not prevent suffering, and that people should accept personal responsibility for refusing to do so, no matter what their rationale.   From the middle ground it might be asserted that suffering of some minimal sort is part of a necessary discipline of life, or even the only way some people can learn certain important truths, but the necessity of the discipline Republicans insist on is always subject to political debate. Their notions of social or individual discipline, and whatever notions they have of the suffering appropriate to breaches of that discipline, are tied to ideological notions about mutual responsibility and collective purpose that will always be contestable so long as civilization is considered distinct from the state of nature. Cruz probably thinks it either stupid or crazy (though perhaps not evil) of liberals to think that he wants people to suffer, but as long as we can conceive alternatives to his socioeconomic ideals that would involve less necessary suffering, it's natural (if perhaps not fair) to equate his preference for a different order with a preference for more suffering, and it's understandable if people resent that "evil" preference in moralistic terms. 
Hedonism (which I understand as something distinct from "greatest good for the greatest number" utilitarianism) is a hidden factor in American politics, the two major parties really promoting alternative hedonisms. Liberals always seem out to minimize suffering, at least according to the "bleeding heart" caricature, while Republicans and libertarians are more concerned with breaking down all limits to the pleasure individuals can earn. Considering how much the Founders distrusted "luxury" and considered frugality conducive to civic virtue it's hard to imagine them embracing either side in the present debate, but they might resent our modern Republicans more for thinking themselves (as Cruz clearly does) faithful custodians of the Founding ideals. Hedonism may keep liberals from thinking as clearly or objectively as they might about some issues, but it's also one of the few reliable standards for measuring social progress. Hedonists may not be right all the time, but their concerns should always be welcome in political debates, even if they insult the alleged intelligence of solons like Sen. Cruz.

12 August 2013

McCain in Egypt: in search of 'democratic governance'

Senator McCain and his sidekick Sen. Graham were in Egypt last week to assess the political situation and talk to some of the major players. While declaring themselves "longtime friends of Egypt and its armed forces," they supported the 2011 popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power. While stating that former Mohamed Morsi "will not be reinstated as president," they refuse to sugarcoat the circumstances of his fall from power. "We find it difficult to describe [it] as anything other than a coup," they write for the Washington Post. They have advice for both sides of the Egyptian political divide. While they insist that "unsuccessful leaders in a democracy should leave office by losing elections," they want the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist sympathizers to concede that Morsi blew it. Their implicit advice to the Islamists is to give up on Morsi if they want to be part of the future political process. Their advice to General al-Sisi and the interim regime is to make sure that the Islamists remain part of the political process. "No matter how much [you] dislike Morsi's supporters, they are Egyptians, too, and it is neither realistic nor right to try to exclude them from the life of the nation. This means dealing with them magnanimously, not vindictively." As a Republican, McCain has experience dealing with religious conservatives and an understandable belief in the necessity of reaching a modus vivendi with them, though the American religious conservatives may not regard him as a model of magnanimity.

The Senators' comments are pretty conventional and could just as well have been written by Democrats. The one really interesting detail in their op-ed was the distinction they drew between "democracy" and "democratic governance."

Democracy is the only viable path to lasting stability, national reconciliation, sustainable economic growth and the return of investment and tourism in Egypt. And democracy means more than elections. It means democratic governance: an inclusive political process in which all Egyptians are free and able to participate, so long as they do so nonviolently; the protection of basic human rights through the rule of law and the constitution; and a state that defends and fosters a vibrant civil society.

Inclusiveness seems like a sine qua non of democracy, but just to be a pest, let me ask what's "democratic" about the rest of the proposed toolkit of "democratic governance." I'm not objecting to the protection of human rights, the rule of law, or civil society. But these items are seen, albeit positively, as checks on democratic excess, whether the tyranny of a majority or the pretensions of democratically-elected authoritarians. So what makes them "democratic?" The answer, I think, is a belief that the rule of the people is never entirely synonymous with the rule of a majority that forms in any one place at any one time. If mobs of millions of Egyptians compelled (or inspired) the military to remove Morsi from power, was that democracy? Not by the McCain-Graham standard if leaders in a democracy should only lose power through elections. The liberal idea of democracy (and that covers "conservatives" like McCain and the Republicans) is that no group of people, no matter how large, is the people.  The real democratic ideal in their minds is government not by but in the interest of all the people; democracy is not when everyone rules, but when everyone benefits.. This ideal conflicts with the aspirations of any group large enough to believe themselves, if not the people, then a majority entitled to rule and determined (with whatever sense of necessity) to act. "Democracy" and "democratic governance" are at least potentially conflicting impulses, the one empowering people while the other aims to protect people from power. On some level it looks like people hedging their bets, but before we jump to judgments everyone interested in Egypt might clarify things by talking straight about power rather than democracy. Those of us in more established "democracies" can set an example by talking straight about the balance of power in our own countries, whether that can be described as democracy or not.

09 August 2013

Road to the Wet House: personal responsibility and public safety

There's a controversy in my old home town of Troy NY over whether to build a "wet house" in the city's "Little Italy" neighborhood. As this article explains, a wet house provides housing for chronic alcoholics who would otherwise be homeless and, most importantly, allows them to drink on the premises. That's all you need to know to understand why some neighborhood residents, and others in the city as a whole, oppose the idea. The idea guarantees a NIMBY backlash, represented in the local paper by Troy's former mayor. You can predict all the arguments against a wet house. It will supposedly draw alkies to Troy. It will ruin the neighborhood. It's a shame to let those bums drink instead of figuring out some way to make and keep them sober. Why should those bums have things so easy? All those arguments make sense -- and I'm inferring the last one, -- but so do some arguments.

Let me argue from some personal experience. I live in Albany, and my neighborhood is already haunted by a chronic alcoholic. He's sort-of friends with other people who live in the building; sometimes they invite him in and have a good time, and sometimes they throw him out and tell me to call the cops should he show up again. He always does. He seems to think that because he has virtually if not actually lived there in the past -- as recently as this year he had some bills delivered to our building -- that our front stairs are a kind of safe harbor where he can pause in his wanderings to drink from his bagged beer cans. He's a mean drunk, filthy-mouthed, argumentative and provocative. On our multi-racial block he'll use every incorrect epithet in the book when the mood hits him. I've heard his life threatened after he called the wrong person the wrong name, but he doesn't seem to care. From what I'm told, he has a place to stay -- but he's not allowed to drink there. So he wanders the city in search of safe places to drink, staying in one place until someone chases him off or calls the cops. He gets arrested frequently but for his petty offenses he never stays long. To me he looks like the perfect candidate for a wet house, and while I understand the concerns of neighbors wherever a wet house may be established, my hunch is that people like this bum will be under more control in such a location and thus less of an annoyance, and much less of a threat, to people in the immediate neighborhood than the wanderers can be throughout a city. Perhaps they can be more effectively isolated from residential neighborhoods, but unless alcohol is delivered to them wet houses will have to be located where tenants can buy beer or booze within walking distance or on the bus line. Dumping them in the countryside is an unlikely option.

What of the moral argument against allowing alcoholics to drink? While the former mayor asks, "Who among us does not know someone who has successfully conquered such addictions?" even Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the New York Times, concedes that some "unfortunates" will never sober up and will more likely drink themselves to death. Boosters of the wet house idea claim that some tenants actually end up drinking less, while a few even quit there. That's not the object of a wet house, however. The real object seems to be twofold: first to keep the chronic drinkers from dying "under a bridge," and second to save the rest of us the trouble of dealing with them. The thing to remember, based on my experience, is that in the absence of wet houses these hard-core alcoholics won't just wander around; they'll try to impose themselves on others so they can drink without risking arrest for open containers or other offenses. Society already takes steps in many cases to force people to dry out, but it lacks the resources and will to force them to stay dry. The worst cases end up as recurring problems, draining the resources of police, emergency rooms, etc. If we can't force them to stay sober, and we can't execute them for being addicts, then what is preferable? Letting them cause trouble for other people until the moral suasion kicks in, or leaving them where they're most likely to leave the rest of us alone? The answer should be obvious, but still begs the further question: where? It has to be in the city, but the rest should be open to negotiation. I don't know enough about the situation in Troy to assume that the proposed location for the wet house is the best one, but if the city does need such a place some neighborhood -- though not necessarily a residential one -- may need to take a chance for the good of the whole community.

08 August 2013

Imperium in imperio: Neighborhood associations vs. freedom of speech

The Albany Times Union has an intriguing story from another front in the fight for freedom of speech. This front is a front lawn in Queensbury where, back in 2010, the Jasinski family wanted to show their support for Chris Gibson, the Republican candidate for House of Representatives. It seems like you see such signs everywhere in an election season, and while many think them eyesores, they're accepted (however grudgingly) as part of the landscape of a free country. Not so in the Jasinskis' neighborhood. They're members of the Hudson Pointe Homeowners Association, which made a rule before the Jasinskis moved in banning the display of political signs on members' property. The association levied a fine of $5 for each day the Jasinskis kept the Gibson sign on their lawn. It eventually wrote off the fines when the Jasinskis refused to pay, but when the family showed their support for Mitt Romney last year the association started fining them again, even though the Jasinkis placed their signs on what they considered municipal property, where the First Amendment presumably prevails. Again the Jasinskis refused to pay until, with their debt more than $1,500, the association placed a lien on their home.

The association claims that the sign ban is aesthetically motivated by a desire to keep up appearances in the neighborhood. But the Jasinksis note that certain signs (e.g. "For Sale") are allowed while others aren't. They assume that "It's the content they don't like," whether they mean hostility to politics in general or to Republicans in particular. While Republicans are quick to assume bias, the affront to freedom of speech would be the same had the Jasinskis put up Obama signs. A director of the association told the TU reporter that he has to represent the entire neighborhood, including those neighbors who "are not happy" with the Jasinskis' signs. So what if the neighbors overheard the Jasinskis talking politics and took offense? The idea of literally silencing them seems absurd, but so should the idea of what remains essentially a private entity infringing on members' public rights. The associations' rule against political signs is akin to the presumed right of shopping malls to forbid political expression, even (in a notorious local case) to the point of forcing someone to take off a tee-shirt. Political speech is often obnoxious by aesthetic standards, to say the least, but the attitude that simply doesn't want to bothered by the sight of political signs is even more obnoxious in a democratic republic. No private entity, be it a business or an association, should have the power to suppress actual political expression. Politics can be messy and make for clutter on the landscape, but on the other hand, I understand they keep North Korea pretty neat.

07 August 2013

The summit of pettiness?

President Obama has cancelled his September visit to Russia to meet with President Putin, presumably to protest Russia's temporary grant of asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. That's how the Russian media is interpreting the decision, and the American media doesn't exactly disagree. Is Snowden worth such trouble? The New York Times, anticipating Obama's decision and applauding it in advance, asks a different question: is Putin worth the trouble? The editors now seem to regard the President of Russia, if not as an enemy, then as the sort of international pariah to whom a visit from the President of the United States confers undeserved legitimacy. "Under the circumstances, the only outcome of a summit meeting would be to add to Mr. Putin’s domestic political capital and his already considerable self-esteem," the Times sneers.

Actually, it appears that the two countries have at least one important thing to discuss. While the American media has tended to portray Russia's solicitude toward Snowden as little more than a thumb to the American eye, Russians see the story in the context of ongoing negotiations, or the lack thereof, over a mutual extradition treaty. In the lack of a current treaty, some Russians argue that a treaty signed under the Romanov dynasty in 1893 retains legal force, while Americans have argued since at least the 1940s that the old treaty is obsolete.  The idea of a mutual-extradition treaty with Russia have never been popular here because Russia has always been viewed as an authoritarian power that illegitimately criminalizes politics. The Times doesn't address the treaty issue, but its anti-summit editorial gets to the heart of the trouble in its dismissal of Snowden's right to asylum.

"Mr. Snowden undoubtedly fears returning home because he would be arrested and prosecuted. But those fears do not qualify him for asylum," the editorial writer argues, "Asylum is for people who are afraid to return to their own country because they fear persecution, unlawful imprisonment or even death because of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their membership in particular social or political groups, or their political beliefs."

One man's prosecution is another's persecution. To the extent that Snowden sees himself as a whistleblower, he presumably considers his leaks to be necessary acts of political dissent. He clearly assumes that he would be subject to political persecution in the U.S. regardless of whatever statutory crime he's charged with. The Times seems incapable of imagining that prosecution and persecution can take place simultaneously, at least in the United States, though it and other "liberal media" routinely make that very assumption when foreign governments try politically controversial figures on criminal charges. Depending on the country -- take Russia, for instance -- it's self-evident to American liberals that whatever criminal charge is made has been trumped up by an authoritarian regime to cover its repression of dissent. Foreign dissidents almost always get the benefit of the doubt, and liberal media like the Times sometimes extend that benefit of the doubt to American dissidents, but the latter case seems to depend on what you dissent against. You can dissent against bigotry or intolerance in some places, especially if liberals can make Republican authorities out to be the bad guys, but if you dissent against American foreign or national-security policy by the simplest means of publicizing what the government does, then you're a common criminal in the eyes of the New York Times. It shouldn't surprise anyone in the U.S. if foreign observers see this differently. It may be hypocritical for them to give dissent the benefit of the doubt this time, but there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around the world. The real problem isn't hypocrisy but a lack of international comity as each country reserves the right to make a prosecution/persecution distinction to its own ideological specifications. Global comity may smack of "moral equivalence" to observers who take moral exception to the idea that all governments are equal, but a global rule of law depends on achieving some global standard of comity -- and, yes, preferably one that doesn't throw all the world's dissidents under the bus. Working toward such a goal looks like a good reason for Obama and Putin to talk to each other -- but I admit that they could just as well skip the pomp and get this done over the phone.

06 August 2013

Neo-Lincolnism and necessary lies

Andrew Delbanco gets the obligatory mention of President Obama out of the way in the first paragraph of his long review article in the August 19 New Republic -- the magazine's latest meditation on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike other writers, Delbanco seems less interested in how Lincoln may serve as a role model for the current President. He contemplates Obama only to question how the President, or anyone, can praise Lincoln yet also idealize what Obama once called "the painstaking work of building consensus." The Civil War, after all, was the ultimate failure of consensus. Delbanco finds it strange that "A president temperamentally inclined to seek middle ground was invoking the central instance in our history of a political and moral impasse out of which no middle way could be found -- and a savage war succeeded where compromise had failed."

Delbanco is well aware, as his essay shows, that the waging of the Civil War itself required a painstakingly built consensus which is itself the subject of the school of thought I call Neo-Lincolnism. The relevance of Neo-Lincolnism, whether propounded in The New Republic by Sean Wilentz or rendered on film by Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, applies less to the struggle of ideological opposites than to the bickering on any one side between pragmatists and radicals. Delbanco, a professor of American Studies, complicates the idea by emphasizing how much "moderation" is a matter of subjective perception. He cites William Seward as an example from Lincoln's time: a political rival and eventual ally who was accused by radicals of being an unprincipled trimmer and by Southern extremists of extremist abolitionism. Seward's words and deeds gave ammunition to both sets of antagonists. This poses what Delbanco calls the "Seward problem...a microcosm of the larger challenge of coming to terms with anti-slavery politicians who demurred at the abolitionist demand for radical action, and tried instead to undermine slavery without frontally assaulting it." Delbanco's own answer to the problem is to insist that men like Seward (and Lincoln) were irreconcilably opposed to slavery and wanted to see it end, but "nevertheless respected constitutional constraints on federal power as [they] understood them." In terms of ends -- the end of slavery that is -- Delbanco argues that "there really was no such thing as a moderate Republican" in Lincoln's time. In terms of means, there was another story.

No end can justify all means in a constitutional democratic republic. In simplest terms, Lincoln couldn't simply command the South to free its slaves on pain of death. He was constrained by accountability as well as constitutional law. Delbanco quotes the Frederick Douglass address that has become the definitive eulogy of Lincoln to remind us that the President had to "have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen" to accomplish either of his great tasks: restoring the union or ending slavery.  Douglass's speech, or at least the paragraph quoted, is a masterpiece of objectivity, acknowledging that Lincoln "seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent" from an abolitionist perspective while admitting that he was "swift, zealous, radical and determined" from the perspective of the Northern mainstream. The key phrase is: "measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult,..."  What Douglass meant, in our terms, is that Lincoln had to sell his ultimate antislavery agenda to a potentially balky public. Neo-Lincolnism emphasizes the inescapable necessity of such salesmanship and the occasional need to use some salesmen's tricks. Turning to the Spielberg biopic, Delbanco highlights the scene in which Thaddeus Stevens must deny his desire to push for complete racial equality in order to make it safe for some congressmen to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment. In film and in fact, Stevens's speech was a "prevaricating lie" in Delbanco's words, but also a "necessary lie, a tactical retreat in the face of the recalcitrant reality of race hatred in North and West." The haters needed reassurance that abolition would not mean the sort of equality they feared, and such is democracy in America that the sort of "dissembling" Stevens practiced was essential to ending slavery. To be more specific, it was essential to ending slavery while remaining a constitutional republic. Delbanco himself may not count as a Neo-Lincolnite, but he touches on its core premise: you can't get your way in politics simply by insisting or even proving that you are right. Instead, you always have to think in terms of what people will accept today, and you may have to be prepared to pay some price to seal the deal.

Instead of being a Neo-Lincolnite himself, Delbanco might unintentionally undermine the Neo-Lincolnite argument, insofar as it is meant as instruction for 21st century Democrats. Isn't he saying, after all, that any declaration of moderation by a Neo-Lincolnian Democrat should be taken as a lie like Thaddeus Stevens's? How could any equivalent statement today by any alleged "extreme" Democrat on any hot-button subject be taken at face value by a Republican? It depends on the duration of the lie, I suppose. After Lincoln died, Stevens reverted to radicalism and strove to destroy Lincoln's successor for betraying the radical agenda. His lie seemed to be good only for the one speech. How long would a liberal today have to live up to any necessary lie? How long would a Republican trust her to do so? Is the sort of prevarication upon which Lincoln's ultimate agenda depended even possible in our ever-more-skeptical age, when prevarication is practically expected? The Neo-Lincolnites still have horse-trading and deal-making to fall back on, but if anyone out there actually fits the description, they may wonder whether Delbanco has given the game away.