30 September 2013

When you buy an election, who do you pay?

John Nichols and Robert McChesney were in Troy NY recently to give a lecture promoting their book on "Dollarocracy." To promote the lecture they wrote an op-ed for the Albany Times Union. In today's edition, reader Frank S. Robinson disputes the authors' claim that big money is stripping Americans of their democratic birthright. To Robinson, it's a truism that "you can't buy elections." Critics like the authors, he claims, can't produce "a single example of a U.S. election 'bought' with campaign spending." For his part, Robinson can cite the many cases when wealthy candidates and their backers flushed millions down their toilets in losing efforts; in particular, he cites eBay magnate Meg Whitman's failed run for governor of California. Robinson's beef with the authors turns out to be a matter of semantics. He acknowledges that the role of money in politics is problematic. "Candidates' need for money from donors who are not disinterested is corrupting and often amounts to bribery," he writes. But that's not the same thing as buying elections or somehow disenfranchising voters, which is what the authors supposedly claim.

What does it mean to buy an election? Robinson would certainly concede that an election has been bought if someone bribes people to vote a certain way. You might also say that an election has been bought if someone bribes the people in charge of counting the votes, though in such cases most would rather say that the election has been "stolen." Now what if the candidates have been bought? Robinson concedes both the possibility and the actuality of "bribery" by donors. If money proves to have determined the choices voters have, would the voters' freedom to choose change the essential fact that the election has been bought?

If there were only ever two choices in an election (as opposed to two "real" choices) the answer would have to be an undisputed yes. In reality, the more powerful the office, the more alternatives to the two major parties, the ones most likely to be "bought," are available. Robinson might fairly argue that an election isn't "bought" so long as you can choose a Green candidate or someone further to the left. His own argument is that campaign donations by businesses ("important, legitimate parts of our society, with democratic rights to participate and be heard") would be problematic only if campaign spending proved "one-sided," with all the money going to the pro-business candidate. Robinson exposes the limitations of his own worldview in his dismissal of that possibility. "The two parties are well-matched in the money department," he writes, "and the amounts spent tend to cancel each other out." Implicit here is an assumption that the Republican and Democratic parties by themselves give voters a meaningful choice that isn't compromised by money. Nichols and McChesney, on the other hand, argued in the Nation magazine preview of their book that in the 2012 presidential election "big money beat big money" because the Obama campaign "collected more large contributions than did the Republican's." They do not believe that the Democrats are a "grassroots" party, although many Democrats obviously will disagree. So long as the Democrats depend on big donations, the authors suggest, a conventional two-party contest will not be as clear or "free" a choice as Robinson assumes. As long as other options exist, however, Robinson could call any contest a free election. Whether any election is ultimately "bought" may depend on how you account for Americans' persistent refusal to vote outside the Democratic-Republican box, whether for Greens or parties to their left, for independents to the right of tea-party Republicans, or the real exceptions that transcend the left-right dichotomy. If you want to blame a national lack of imagination, or collective stupidity, then money is off the hook. But if you want to blame that stupidity on structural causes rooted in policies consciously designed to discourage political imagination, you might be able to piece together a trail leading back to an original purchaser -- but in such a case it is the political system itself, and nothing so trivial as a particular election, that would prove bought and paid for. The real question would then become: what are you going to do about it?

27 September 2013

Censorship in the name of science

A local paper called my attention to the recent decision by the online content director of Popular Science magazine to no longer allow online readers to comment on stories. The reason, writes Suzanne LaBarre, is twofold. First, some of the hostile commentary from "trolls" on one side or another of controversial issues is "shrill" and "boorish." Second, and more in the spirit of the magazine, a recent study indicates that uncivil discussion influences most people's views on any given subject and encourages a more extreme polarization of viewpoints. Responses could range from doubling down on your own position to spite the other side, or the knee-jerk liberal impulse to assume that if someone feels so strongly against a thing, maybe we should reconsider -- an impulse that may come into play this weekend as the Tea Party Republicans demand the delay or defunding of "Obamacare" as the prerequisite for authorizing new spending or raising the debt ceiling. LaBarre laments a "politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise" that has brought Popular Science to this sad decision. Her momentarily-silenced critics will see that as more proof of "elitism" from the likes of LaBarre. They will deny questioning "expertise" as such, but insist on questioning the expertise of those don't see the world their way. They may also question whether conventional credentials confer expertise as definitely as the "establishment" insists. As autodidacts, in many cases, they imagine themselves more committed to free inquiry than those the establishment (however defined) defines as experts, exactly because they refuse to take some things for granted. Ultimately, they express a perhaps-inevitable pathology in self-styled free societies that seem to stand for nothing but "freedom." For many, freedom is essentially the right to refuse, to resist. This freedom is an adversarial state of mind, assuming that others are out to enslave them or take their stuff. It can only confirm that it is free by disagreeing with something. The ability or the right to disagree becomes more important than the substance of the disagreement; the really important thing is to prove that you're not simply being carried along by the tide or driven with the herd. The funny thing about this is that for all that the Founders and Framers talked about freedom, they expected the masses to defer to those who were their intellectual superiors. That was true whether you followed Hamilton or Jefferson. Now, the people who most loudly proclaim their allegiance to the Founders don't believe in deferring to anyone. Their very sense of freedom seems to depend on refusing to defer. Historians will have to figure out whether this was an inevitable if unanticipated result of the Founders' experiments. But for what it's worth, the comment option here remains open.

26 September 2013

'Tail Right On You:' too much information on the bus

Americans complain about an increase in surveillance. They don't want the government to know their business, but sometimes it seems as if people don't care if anyone else does know about it. Maybe we worry so much about the state knowing our secrets because we've forgotten how to keep them. Here's a case in point: this morning a person got on the bus I ride from Albany to Troy. She was carrying on a cellphone conversation from the sidewalk -- and not in her "indoors voice." The first thing I couldn't help but hear was, "That's why I say Troy stands for Tail Right On You." She went on to describe how hard life can be for a crack dealer in the Collar City, though it became apparent -- unless she was actually showing some guile -- that she's not in the business now. She also made it clear that she preferred dealing in "bud." That's probably a question of clientele. But there's so much you have to deal with regardless of your product, from the dirty cops (she made one exception, naming a particularly "grimy" officer) to the people knocking on your door even after you tell them not to come over anymore. She was at least careful enough not to name names (except for the one cop), referring only to a "person" who supplied her when she was dealing. The fact remains that she was, quite unselfconsciously, telling everyone on the bus that she had been a drug dealer. Wasn't this a form of snitching on herself? Maybe she felt secure in the assumption that no one on board knew her name; more likely she didn't give a damn what anyone heard. In any event, no one (including me) was going to tell her she'd been (if she wasn't still) a scumbag, or even that her chatter was TMI for everyone else on board. Multiply her by millions and how can the government not know more about us than we want? What makes us a free country, it seems, is that we can't shut up, but we expect no consequences for what we say.

25 September 2013

Cruzing for a McCain bruising?

Senator McCain listened to more of Sen. Cruz's tirade than I did, and apparently heard nothing in it to change his previous characterization of his fellow Republican as a "wacko bird." The Arizonan told reporters this afternoon that he confronted Cruz after the speech to complain about the Texan's perceived equation of those who didn't approve of his anti-Obamacare tactics with the British Tories who appeased Nazi Germany before 1939. One would hope that McCain objected as well to the implicit equation of Obamacare, however much he opposes it as a Republican, with the annexation of Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. After reading this account of McCain's objections, I can't really tell. The way he saw it, Cruz's analogy trivialized the struggle against Hitler. He took it as an insult to the people who actually fought against Nazism, including McCain's own ancestors, even after Cruz informed him that he had meant the analogy to apply only to "media pundits" who had criticized Cruz's tactics. Tea Partiers will no doubt take this as fresh proof of McCain's obsolescence, if not his senescence. Elder Republicans like McCain "don't get it," as far as the radicals are concerned; his quibbles only demonstrate the extent to which some Republicans have become creatures of "Washington" or irredeemable members of the "political class." Outside the Republican bubble, people may wonder who's "appeasing" whom in Washington, in the historical sense of the word.


Ideally, someone will take the trouble for the rest of us to search through the entire length of Senator Cruz's marathon speech against funding the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") to find anything resembling a substantive argument. Although we've all been told that his speech doesn't count as a filibuster, it had many of a filibuster's ingredients, i.e. time-filling irrelevancies. It was meant to take time from everyone else, and the "genius" American government is that it allows a lone dissident to do that, presumably on the assumption that sufficiently strong objections should force time for second thoughts (or compromises of interests) upon everyone. Cruz did not appear to be stalling for compromise. He wants Congress to defund the ACA, as is its prerogative. As far as I know, his most substantive argument for defunding is that Obamacare will have a staggering effect on the economy, and particularly on job creation. We already see evidence that some companies are reducing hours for workers, or holding back from hiring more, to stay below the minimum number of full-time employees that would compel them to provide health insurance. Economists are debating (with whatever degree of partisanship) whether this is simply consistent with long-term trends toward more part-time workers or whether the prospect of Obamacare itself is depressing the job market in a new way. In any event, the ACA is supposed to make new insurance options available for those not covered by their employers. In practical terms, there's nothing wrong with a critic arguing that the act isn't working or won't work if he can prove his case. A practical argument, however, is not an argument for defunding the act; it should be a call for amendments instead. Cruz probably wants it both ways, telling the ACA's supporters that it won't deliver what they're hoping for while reminding his base -- which he clearly hopes to make national -- that it is wrong on principle. The only reason to demand defunding is a belief that the whole thing is wrong on principle -- but what principle is that? Some Republicans reportedly have proposed an alternative to the ACA that promises to meet the demand for reduced costs and easier eligibility. They might argue that Obamacare is so fubar that the nation would be better off scrapping it and starting over toward the same general goal. Their real goal, most likely, is to eliminate as many obligations on employers as possible, without resorting to anything resembling "socialized medicine." Ultimately, a qualitative question is under debate: whether a civilized (or even a "free") society should make it easier for everyone to receive adequate health care than in the past. The sort of reactionary populism that Cruz expresses as a Tea Partier often seems to resent the idea of the future having it easier than the past, while Republicans in the main are the closest thing we have to H. L. Mencken's archetypal Puritan. The Puritan couldn't stand the idea that somebody somewhere was having fun; the 21st century Republican can't stand the idea that somebody somewhere is suffering less than the Republican thinks he should. That's not the whole argument against Obamacare, but it's a bigger part of it than many care to admit.

24 September 2013

Is neutrality on Syria heartless?

Enraged by the thought that Bashar al-Assad will go unpunished after using chemical weapons against his own people, Leon Wieseltier laments that Americans "are becoming heartless" and that the President's "brain is where his heart should be....In the name of 'nation-building at home,' we are learning to be unmoved by evil." He believes that opponents of military intervention are telling the Syrian rebels, "Go back to your disgusting little country and die." He equates perceived indifference to the fate of the rebels to Republican indifference to poor people.

We grow inured to the victims, the way the rich grow inured to the poor. The Syrians, the Libyans, the Egyptians, the Iranians, the politically aspiring peoples of the tyrannized world—they are the global 47 percent, taking, taking, taking. Or they would be, if we were giving. Atrocity fatigue is our fatigue at their atrocity: imagine how atrocity-fatigued they are! The impatience of the fortunate with the unfortunate is not a pretty sight.

The falsehood of the supposedly shaming analogy is apparent the moment you actually think -- using your head instead of your heart -- about responsibility. American liberals, progressives and leftists have at least a plausible reason to criticize the apparent indifference toward poverty and inequality of their fellow Americans who happen to be Republicans. That reason is the belief that citizenship confers responsibility on each citizen for the well being of all. Republicans may dispute the premise, just as the anti-interventionists on their side have questioned the need to intervene in Syria, but the reference point of citizenship on which the domestic debate hinges does not exist when we debate war against a foreign country. No one is a citizen of the world in a legal sense, regardless of how some humanitarians see themselves. Wieseltier might argue that there is a moral imperative to aid rebels against tyranny just as there's a moral imperative to aid the poor, but the lack of a true world polity deprives his appeal for Syria of the force any nation's appeal for its poor would have.

So do we simply dismiss bleeding-heart liberals like Wieseltier in the international sphere the way Republicans dismiss them in the domestic realm, and do we affirm that we don't care whether one side or another wins in any conflict around the world, or whether innocents suffer in the process? We need not, but we do need to reconcile heart and head rather than opt, as Wieseltier urges in his agitated state, for the former over the latter. If we don't want anyone -- whether it's Assad or his enemies -- to commit atrocities like those in Syria, then the only remedy is for all of us to become citizens of the world. The only way that becomes meaningful is for us, the people of the world, to make a true world government, with one law for everyone. To claim for powerful nations the right to intervene in civil wars when they can is as much an assertion of arbitrary and ultimately lawless power as anything a tyrant does. If we can't stand seeing local bullies oppress the weak in faraway places, we have to push constantly for a world government to which our nation, and not just the wicked, will submit. It seems unlikely that we'll ever get that without a war (or wars) that will dwarf the Syrian conflict, but this course is what reason dictates if anyone wishes to make his or her humanitarian impulse the law of the globe instead of simply expressing distaste for one dictator out of many. Think of this as the more intellectual version of the "go fight yourself" argument; one that acknowledges that old men may still advocate revolution (Wieseltier is sixty-one) but holds them accountable for intellectual consistency. If you will the end, you have to will the means, and you had better calculate whether the end is worth the means. To put it another way, since everyone's compassion is in question: don't boast of your compassion unless it extends to everyone, not just the sufferers on the news.

23 September 2013

Can democracies ban political advertising? The debate in Europe

The September 30 issue of The Nation includes this observation from John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney:

Countries that rank far higher than the United States on The Economist’s Democracy Index bar paid political ads because they view them as propaganda. Those countries also provide dramatically more support for public media to ensure a broader range of voices and deeper political analysis. 

Immediately, some people will question the standards used by The Economist, a British newsweekly identified with Toryism. Many Americans believe that unlimited spending on political ads is the only defense against a monopolization of the media by spokesmen for the incumbent government or the "political class." From this point of view, the power to buy ads is the only effective way that concerned citizens from outside the political class can get their message out to the masses. In Britain itself, the law sees things differently. While Americans view paid advertising as a necessary corrective to an unbalanced discourse dominated by the political class, the British see paid advertising itself as a distortion of political discourse in favor of those who can afford to buy the most ads. I don't know where the U.K ranks on the Economist index, since you have to register with the magazine to see the stats, but that country has a longstanding, comprehensive ban on paid political advertising that was challenged earlier this year by the European Court of Human Rights.

At issue was the desire of an animal-rights group, Animal Defenders International, to run a 30-second ad on British commercial TV. The group went before the international body to argue that the British ban violated the would-be advertisers' human rights, particularly their freedom of expression while imparting information of public interest. The British position was that there could be no exceptions to their ban if they hoped to keep Big Money out of politics. In the meantime, since the ban doesn't cover the Internet, people could see the disputed spot on YouTube at minimal cost to everyone involved. For that reason, ADI argued that the ban on TV advertising was obsolete and irrational. They also argued for a narrower definition of political advertising, suggesting that the ban, if at all permissible, should apply only to electioneering ads advocating the election or defeat of candidates for office. Americans are familiar with this line of argument, which resulted in the proliferation here of 501(c)(4) organizations that are transparently partisan without engaging in specific electioneering.

By a 9-8 vote, the human-rights court upheld the British ban. You can read a news summary (and an interesting comment thread) here, and the opinion of the court (with dissents) here.  Precisely because of the growth of social media, the majority determined that the ban on TV advertising did not deprive ADI of its freedom of expression, while observing that the group was not banned from interviews or panel discussions in the British news media. The dissenters speak in terms most Americans know and many agree with:

The general ban on “political” advertisements is problematic not only because, as already indicated, it borders upon prior restraint, but in view of the very doubt as to the usefulness for its purpose – there seems to be an inherent contradiction in a viable democracy safeguarded by broadcasting restrictions. Indeed, in our view, the general ban on “political” advertisements appears to be an inappropriately assumed positive duty of the State to enable people to impart and receive information. It is based on the view that powerful groups will invariably hamper the receipt of information by a one-sided information overload. Promoting a right where it cannot be effective without additional State action is, according to our jurisprudence, appropriate, but is not a generally accepted primary ground for rights restriction. There is a risk that by developing the notion of positive obligations to protect the rights under Articles 8 to11, and especially in the context of Articles 9 to11, one can lose sight of the fundamental negative obligation of the State to abstain from interfering.... Entirely and permanently closing off the most important medium of communication to any and all advertised messages about the conduct of public affairs is a harsher constriction of freedom than is necessary in a democratic society. Freedom of expression is based on the assumption that the speakers, not the Government, know best what they want to say and how to say it. Ideas can compete only where the speaker is in a position to determine, within the limits recognized by the Convention, which form of imparting ideas serves best the message.... There can be no robust democracy through benevolent silencing of all voices (except those of the political parties) and providing access only through programming. A robust democracy is not helped by wellintentioned paternalism.

The narrow margin in the court only assures that the debate will continue in Europe as it persists in the U.S.  The dissenters seem to share the American assumption that the political process can be distorted or hampered only by state power, when the universal understanding of the phrase "buy an election" suggests otherwise. Civil libertarians worry that governments may forbid certain things from being said, or certain people from speaking, yet are rarely as much concerned with the content of what might be said. In simpler terms, the danger of censorship is usually seen as greater than the danger of lying; the possibility that a free participant in political discourse could distort the discourse is rarely recognized, or else those concerned about the possibility are chided for "paternalism." Admittedly, political debates often (if not always) mix facts and values, so that many claims, e.g. about the future moral consequences of controversial policies, are arguably unfalsifiable and immune to the "lie" label. But it seems naive, after the 20th century, to be unconcerned about the dangers of propaganda, or to assume that propaganda is only effective when backed by state power. To the extent that any nation is a democracy, it will be impossible to eliminate unreason from political discourse. But ways may be available to minimize its effects, and the cures need not be assumed  worse than the disease.

20 September 2013

Op-Ed Diplomacy, continued

Now it's the turn of President Rouhani of Iran, who writes to the Washington Post in advance of his first visit to the UN General Assembly. While criticizing unilateralism in international relations -- which he characterizes as an appeal to brute force -- the new executive's overall tone is both conciliatory and thoughtful, and less provocative than President Putin's last week. Rouhani is probably as eager to differentiate himself from his predecessor as President Obama was, and the comment below is as critical of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as it is of any American:

We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time — perhaps too much time — discussing what we don’t want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran’s international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders.

In the Iranian context, this looks like an indictment of Ahmadinejad for using foreign-policy statements, as Senator McCain arguably did when writing for a Russian website this week, to pander to his domestic base instead of taking his global audience seriously.  Rouhani promises to take foreign policy more seriously and urges other leaders to do likewise. For him, that means "constructively work[ing] toward national dialogue" not just in Syria, where Iran supports the Assad government, but also in Bahrain, where (as Rouhani apparently expects people to remember) a Shiite protest movement was crushed early with nary a peep from the international community. Linking the two events makes when you see the Middle East divided into hostile Shiite and Sunni camps, though more people in the west ought to have recognized a struggle for freedom in Bahrain, too.

Rouhani writes that "global politics is no longer a zero-sum game," and that he wants to secure "win-win solutions," but he might have made his point more convincing had he mentioned Israel in his op-ed. The perception persists, fairly or not, that the dispute between Israel and its Muslim neighbors is the ultimate zero-sum game, with the Muslims allegedly seeking nothing less than the annihilation of the "Zionist entity." My point isn't that Rouhani should be proposing a peace settlement, but that he indicate to the world that Palestine is also a part of the world where a "win-win solution" is possible. It might be argued that we can infer that from his op-ed, but it's hard to justify not mentioning the main reason why so many nations oppose Iran acquiring nuclear power -- unless the deliberate omission is Rouhani's own way of pandering to his domestic base. That complaint aside, Rouhani's op-ed makes a pleasant first impression, and ought to earn him some benefit of the doubt from those not blinded by bigoted attitudes toward Iran or Islam.

19 September 2013

Op-Ed Diplomacy

Can no one have an opinion in the world without Republicans demanding equal time? After President Putin of Russia published an op-ed on the Syrian crisis in the New York Times last week, Russian media has hosted replies from American politicians. The most noteworthy came from Sen. McCain, whose missive appeared on the Pravda.ru website -- which, as McCain apparently failed to realize, is not related to the old Communist Party newsprint organ. Earlier in the week, Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to the Moscow Times, an English-language website. McKeon's piece was slightly more diplomatic in tone, but both Republicans resort to ad hominem attacks on Putin and his Syria policy. Putin must be wrong about Syria, the argument goes, because he is some sort of tyrant. McCain's tone in particular borders on the hysteric:

A Russian citizen could not publish a testament like the one I just offered [about inalienable human rights]. President Putin and his associates do not believe in these values. They don't respect your dignity or accept your authority over them. They punish dissent and imprison opponents. They rig your elections. They control your media. They harass, threaten, and banish organizations that defend your right to self-governance. To perpetuate their power they foster rampant corruption in your courts and your economy and terrorize and even assassinate journalists who try to expose their corruption. 
They write laws to codify bigotry against people whose sexual orientation they condemn. They throw the members of a punk rock band in jail for the crime of being provocative and vulgar and for having the audacity to protest President Putin's rule.

The tone in both cases is also quite predictable, signaling that the commentaries are really meant more for American than for Russian consumption.  More interesting are the comment threads at both sites. Few readers express support for the Republicans, and those are the ones who share McCain's nearly irrational hatred for Putin. More often, you find Americans expressing support for Putin and Russians defending their leader. The American Putin fans often seem to be Tea Party types who, however they feel about limited government still want strong leaders and see Putin as stronger than President Obama in many respects. Unlike McCain, whom many TPs barely recognize as one of their own party, these Putin fans are unmoved by the fates of gay-rights activists or the Pussy Riot band. Instead, they see Putin, as many of his Russian fans do, as a defender of Christian values against decadence at home and Islamism overall, setting aside whatever differences exist between Russian Orthodoxy and U.S. Protestantism. For their part, the Russian Putin fans seem to regard his home critics as insignificant "marginals" whose protests get more attention abroad than their numbers deserve. Whether these motley marginals -- who range from the aforementioned punks and gays to Yeltsin-era oligarchs and people who actually are hassled by the government -- should be dismissed so easily by the majority is a fair question. At the same time, no one should dismiss the idea that Putin, warts and all, remains a very popular leader among people who may well hold a different idea of democracy from John McCain's -- one, for instance, in which political minorities do not and should not have as much ability to obstruct the will of the majority and its representatives between elections as Americans seem to enjoy. In any event, the real issue is Syria, and whatever else Putin may have said rightly or wrongly in his piece, he most likely got one very important thing right. "Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy," he wrote, and everyone needs to stop treating the rebellion there as if it was such a battle that requires the world to take sides. It would help if some countries in particular would also stop treating international relations in general as a battle for democracy. After all, I suspect that when we actually see a global battle for democracy, all the governments will be on the other side.

18 September 2013

Dissent against the 'free world'

In a Nation magazine commentary entirely sympathetic toward the whistleblower Edward Snowden and acclaiming him as a modern-day dissident in the honorable 20th century tradition, Jonathan Schell makes what may prove a rhetorical faux pas. Lamenting the circumstances that forced Snowden to seek asylum in Russia, Schell observes, first, that "almost no fully democratic country would have him," and then "Only in unfree countries was Edward Snowden welcome." What's wrong with these observations? I don't mean to argue that Russia is a "free" country, although that's more up to local standards than some would accept. Rather, I question Schell's own resort, after he's concisely summarized the totalitarian potential of the U.S. surveillance regime, to "democratic" and "free" as labels for the U.S., its allies and clients. By that I don't mean to say that the U.S. is "unfree," either. What I mean to say is that Schell's vocabulary hasn't caught up with his critical thinking. He notes how the Obama administration has been quick to reject any characterization of Snowden as a "dissident." Schell recalls how that word became identified during the Cold War with those who opposed the "totalitarian" tyranny of the Soviet Bloc. He goes on to identify the "ambition to control the entire globe" as a "totalitarian tendency" facilitated by the scope of U.S. surveillance, and reminds us that the U.S. employs its power, presumably in the name of "freedom," at the expense of the personal privacy many deem essential to freedom. There are words for that sense of freedom that justifies trampling on the freedom of others, but "freedom" isn't really adequate to the purpose. During the Cold War, the canonization of Soviet Bloc dissidents underscored the common American belief that the Cold War was a struggle in defense of freedom against a global tyrannical threat. That thinking influences the perception that Snowden has somehow surrendered the moral status of a dissident by accepting asylum in Russia -- that by doing so he somehow aids and comforts the supposed tyrant Putin. All too many Americans -- though the number seems to have dwindled in the last decade -- still believe that their country's main interest in the world is the preservation of freedom, and that any blow to American power prestige imperils freedom worldwide. These people really are on to something, but as I suggested earlier, their vocabulary isn't quite right. Jonathan Schell would make his own meaning clearer if he would put aside the free/unfree dichotomy, while reserving the right to denounce tyranny wherever he sees it. It might make more sense to identify the American cause, from the Cold War to the present day, with the particular form of freedom called privilege, opposed but not conceptually opposite to the agendas behind other forces in the world.  That would make more clear exactly what people like Snowden and his sympathizers are dissenting against

17 September 2013

Amoklauf in Washington

The Navy Yard shooter now seems to have acted alone, and as yet there is no indication of political motives behind his fatal rampage. According to the latest and presumably final count, he killed twelve people before the cops got him. A history of "anger management" issues and apparent paranoia has emerged, as well as gun incidents, despite all of which he received security clearance not once but twice to work in the Navy Yard as a contractor. Rather than being some aggrieved Muslim, the shooter had apparently turned to Buddhism in a vain search for calm or self-control -- though there are plenty of people in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and no doubt elsewhere who can testify to Buddhist violence and even Buddhist terrorism. None of the shooter's gun incidents resulted in prosecution, and it would seem that his right to own guns was never in danger. While the background-check process at his workplace is clearly open to scrutiny, the ease with which he was able to bear and keep arms must also be questioned. If anything, however, the recent controversies over government surveillance have put preventative approaches to crime back into disrepute. For many, the Fourth Amendment has taken on fresh significance as a palladium of liberty, as long as preventative surveillance is viewed unconditionally as an "unreasonable search." Our whole idea of criminal justice is based on addressing events that have already happened, while an approach based upon suspicion (reasonable or not) of future activity is considered characteristic of tyranny. Surveillance violates people's presumption of their own innocence and their expectation that the state share that presumption until someone actually commits a crime. Few can imagine a system that detects and isolates dangerous people prior to crime that can't be abused for political purposes. Despite the opinion of the country's majority faith that all people are sinners, the presumption of innocence (perhaps more insistent in a self-consciously "free" society) forces us into a reactionary approach to mass murder when a preventative approach is self-evidently more desirable. Preventative measures are contemplated only at the cultural level, as if a new stream of moral exhortation, adopted however early, will counter all the forces behind amoklaufs. Into the resulting void the NRA steps in with its appeal to the "good guy with a gun" as our only effective defense against the amoklaufer. That's how a "free society" defends itself from internal enemies, apparently, but who watches the watchmen in that case, especially when they act at their own discretion, with no authorization necessary? Political scientists may question whether such a state is sustainable; political philosophers may wonder whether our refusal, out of fear of tyranny, to reform won't result in some kind of tyranny anyway. But if we can't think of a society where no one can pull an amoklauf as anything but a tyranny, that suggests that our vocabulary of shibboleths is inadequate to the challenges we face.

16 September 2013

Who won the Syrian crisis?

For now, it looks like the U.S. won't be attacking Syria. The government and the UN are giving the Russians a chance to work out their plan, supposedly inspired by an offhand remark by Secretary Kerry, to have the Assad government turn over its chemical-weapon stockpiles, though Assad continues to deny that his side used chemical weapons in the attack that crossed President Obama's "red line." Because Assad isn't going to be attacked right away, he's declaring "victory" in a way guaranteed to infuriate some Americans. Some will be infuriated because the claim is ridiculous; others will be infuriated because they agree that any result that leaves Assad in power is victory for him and humiliating defeat for the U.S. Others still see the outcome as a victory for Russia, proof of President Putin's ability to influence events in the Middle East, where some think Russia should have no influence. If anything, the current deal would seem to prove that the Russians were ultimately more reluctant to fight for Assad than it may have seemed a little while ago. If the extreme Russian position was "don't mess with Assad and don't interfere with Syria, period," the chemical-weapons deal shows them backing down, to the extent that chemical weapons gave their guy Assad an advantage over the rebels -- though, again, the Russians dispute whether Assad used chemicals, while the UN will only confirm that Sarin gas was used on the occasion in question. Obama can brag that his threats forced the Syrians and Russians to make the deal, but the result probably will leave unsatisfied those who want to see Assad or his government actually punished for using chemicals. So long as they understand American policy to seek Assad's ouster, they may question how much the deal speeds the dictator's downfall. Some will refuse to trust Russia or Syria, of course, but the U.S. has its options open and Obama can now say, should he feel a need to attack later, that he gave Assad every chance to comply. It remains undesirable for the U.S. to wage war on Assad, but our figuring out a way, even if only for now, to avoid doing so is as much a victory for us as it is for Bashar al-Assad. Whether he has any right to declare a "victory" is irrelevant. The correct course for us, even more when he speaks than when he acts, is to ignore him.

Washington Navy Yard shooting: amoklauf or terror?

There's still a lot of confusion at the scene of a mass shooting this morning on the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard. All we really know is that some people were shot and some of them are dead. The big point of confusion as I write, as is often the case, is the number of shooters. Descriptions from witnesses differ enough (on race, clothing, weaponry, etc.) that investigators must continue to entertain the possibility of multiple attackers. The more people were involved, the more likely that this will prove an act of terrorism rather than the amoklauf of, say, a disgruntled employee or an isolated nut. Even if there proves to have been a single shooter, the choice of target makes it impossible to dismiss terrorism as a motive at this time. There's little point to speculating until we learn more, but I'll be back when we do.

14 September 2013

No Fair!

Michael Brown of Colonie is a "Have." He outs himself on the letters page of the Albany Times Union, where he answers a previous writer who dared call self-conscious Haves like Brown a dangerous lot. He not only resents the slur, reminding readers that "I did not get these things. I earned them." He resents even more, it seems, the previous writer's demand that government "act fairly to all," which he interprets as a call for the redistribution of wealth. Brown may be a Have, but he's having none of that. To him, redistribution means "these things should be forcibly taken from me and given to people who choose not to work hard." This is objectionable, not just because being a Have-Not, in his view, is a purely voluntary matter, but also because "It is not the government's job to decide what is fair."

Whether or not that's the government's job depends a little on whether Brown believes in fairness at all, or if he's one of those who claims to live by the "life's not fair" credo. If the latter, he's really kidding himself, if not us. As I've noted before, the people who claim with a smug pretense to realism that life's not fair are exactly the ones who complain that any policy aimed at fairness is, in fact, unfair -- to them. You can hear that note in my quote from his letter; it would be unfair to take from him, after all his hard work, to give to someone who doesn't deserve to get anything. So let's agree that Brown and all the "life's not fair" camp actually do believe in some form of fairness. Very well; where does it come from? If it's not the government's job to identify fairness -- and let's observe that it should never be the job exclusively of elected officials, though they must, arguably, have the final word -- whose is it? Some may answer that it's no one's job -- that no one can just assert or declare by fiat what fairness should be -- because fairness is a fixed, natural quality. That isn't exactly consistent with a belief that life's not fair, especially if you translate that assertion, in order to make it true, to state that nature isn't fair.

Let's pause to clarify what the word "fair" means. When someone says that "life's not fair," what is he actually saying? The answer really depends on who is talking to whom, and when a Republican or libertarian is talking, "life's not fair" really means, "you can't have everything you want." Shift the emphasis one way or another and it might mean, "you're not entitled" or "you can't necessarily have anything you want, or need." The conservative assumption is that the left equates fairness with entitlement if not with equality.

So what do I mean by "nature isn't fair?" I'm addressing the implicit conservative (or Republican/libertarian) idea of fairness, which might be summarized as "I should keep what I earn." Does nature allow you to keep what you earn? Presuming that in nature you actually can "earn" something in the Lockean sense, nature itself makes no guarantee that you can keep it. If there really is such a thing as a natural law of human relations, it is that strength always prevails, even if the stronger one, or the stronger group, hasn't earned what it takes. Nature might well argue, were it more argumentative, that taking by force is the only form of "earning" it recognizes. Some people argue that you can infer from nature the rules that ought to exit, which are the only ones that should exist, but I think those people can safely be ignored. It makes more sense to recognize that the rule of fairness that forms the basis of property rights -- that I should keep what I earn and am thus entitled to protection for my earnings -- goes against whatever passes for fairness in nature. If people make laws based on this premise, then their government has "decided what is fair" in apparent violation of Michael Brown's rule. But people like Brown have been getting away with this contradiction for so long that they've come to think their own invention equivalent to the state of nature itself, and no invention of theirs.  Any alternative idea of fairness inevitably looks like self-interested interference with immutable law. But as I've demonstrated, it's easy to show that their idea of fairness is little more than self-serving rationalization. It's up to people like Brown to demonstrate why their ideal of the preservation of "earned" property is more fair, more just, more whatever, than an ideal based on the preservation of life. If they have no better argument than the old canard that some people will get something for nothing, or that everyone would live off handouts and no one would work, they ought to hit the books before writing to the paper again. That may sound unfair, but I'm just trying to keep them from looking foolish.

12 September 2013

Obama's Exceptionalism

From an early point in his presidency, Barack Obama has been criticized by Republicans for a perceived lack of faith in American exceptionalism. They focus on his answer to a press-conference question on the subject, in which the President noted that many countries believe themselves exceptional. For many Republicans, such an observation missed the point, which is that the U.S. is objectively exceptional, a country uniquely qualified by its commitment to freedom and limited government to take a leadership role in global affairs, if not uniquely obliged to defend freedom worldwide, wherever it is threatened by tyranny. For jingoists, to deny exceptionalism is to believe that the U.S. is no better than other nations, which is the same as saying that free people are no better than tyrants or their slaves. In international affairs, exceptionalism is asserted on the assumption that the U.S. should never have to answer to tyrants, while the U.N. is resented because it presumes equality between tyrannies and free countries. The U.S. may enjoy the veto power to thwart a consensus of nations, but so do Russia and China, which defeats the purpose as far as many Americans are concerned. From this perspective, for a President to deny exceptionalism is to say that the U.S. should submit to the whims of tyrants, which is tantamount to surrendering the world to tyranny.

The problem with this Republican critique is that Obama has always affirmed that the U.S. is exceptional; such a view isn't incompatible with the belief that many if not all countries are exceptional. This explanation won't satisfy Americans who really want affirmations of American supremacy, but they have less to complain about after the President's speech on the Syrian crisis. Obama invoked exceptionalism in the final paragraph of the speech, and it's the exceptionalism of American entitlement, the assertion of an exceptional prerogative, regardless of the preliminary disclaimer.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. 

What makes America different? What makes America exceptional? As far as I can tell from this paragraph, it is that we can do something, and so we have a right to do it. Policing the entire globe effectively may be beyond our means, but the aspiration to do so is not beyond our rights. If humility comes into it, it's a matter of knowing the limits of our ability, not the limits of our prerogative.

Such an assertion of exceptionalism may still not satisfy jingoists who want plain assertions of American moral superiority, but it's bad enough as it is. Some Americans want to believe that our values make us exceptional, but Obama seems to be saying that our power makes us so. This is the exceptionalism of the Clintons and Madeline Albright, the people who asked why the U.S. had such a massive military if we weren't going to use it, and answered the question by using it. Restating this has earned Obama praise from one quarter. This is Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, who still thinks Obama is doing too little, too late:

The phrase “American Exceptionalism” is often a demagogic expedient. It suggests that America is particularly beloved by God –more so than any other nation. It is poppycock, rhetorical cocaine for conservatives. But tonight Obama employed it in a sensible way: America is exceptional because we have the wherewith all to stop the killing and deal harshly with the killer.

If the results are the same without resort to "rhetorical cocaine," then Cohen's is the proverbial distinction without a difference. 

11 September 2013

Good News from New York

If yesterday's mayoral primary in New York City was a rebuke to Michael Bloomberg, it was also more obviously a rebuke to Anthony Weiner. The former congressman and apparent sexting addict had briefly been a front-runner in the Democratic primary race due to name recognition, but his reversion to form and the ability of other candidates to define themselves eventually eclipsed the Weiner candidacy. He ended up with about 5% of the vote yesterday and earned his last headlines by flipping the bird a reporter. Democratic primary voters also rebuked the disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer, though not as emphatically. He made a more respectable showing in the vote to nominate the party's candidate for city comptroller, and Spitzer behaved more respectably during the campaign, at least to our knowledge, but he still lost to a candidate with far less name recognition outside the metropolis. The primary results thus brought an abrupt end to a narrative of redemption that some sought to spin into a liberalization of sexual ethics in America. Given how many politicians succumb to sex scandals, it's no surprise to see arguments that sexual behavior should not determine politicians' worthiness for office, or against any rush to judgment over unconventional sexual behavior. But the New York scandals were scandals not because of sex but because of ethics. Spitzer and Weiner were disgraced because people believed that they had betrayed certain trusts, if not the actual law of the state. Each man plotted a comeback, presumably on the assumption that their celebrity would overwhelm the competition, or that ideological primary voters would see them as champions of causes greater than sexual ethics. While Weiner proved obviously irredeemable, it's unclear how much disdain for Spitzer's ethics contributed to his defeat. If it contributed at all, let that be a lesson to him. According to one ideal voters should vote for principles, not men, but ideological soundness should not become a license to flout the common sense of right and wrong. The common sense may be old-fashioned or repressive, but as long as everyone else is expected to live by it, so should our elected leaders.

A bad day for Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg was elected to three terms as mayor of New York City despite embodying much that people despise in politicians. For many observers he combines the worst aspects of the plutocrat and the bureaucrat, while his fortune allows him a degree of independence from the major parties few others can hope to earn. His quixotic efforts to regulate the portions of fast or junk food that can be served or sold have helped make him the poster child for the dreaded "nanny state" while his support for police "stop and frisk" policies draw scorn from many otherwise assumed to be natural constituents of a nanny state. Some may still hope that he'll run for President as an independent in 2016, but Bloomberg suffered two rebukes yesterday that remind us of his widespread unpopularity. In his own city, the Democratic party has nominated to succeed him the candidate who reportedly went the furthest to define himself in opposition to Bloomberg. Worse, Bill De Blasio's apparent victory, which automatically makes him the favorite in the November election, follows what may be the most asinine comment of Bloomberg's political career. Resenting De Blasio's criticisms, Bloomberg accused him of running a "racist" campaign -- by which he meant that the candidate was somehow pandering to ethnic voters by allowing himself to be shown with his wife, a black woman. Meanwhile, nearly a continent away, Bloomberg had reportedly spent $350,000 to oppose a recall campaign against two Colorado state senators, one of them the senate president. They had been targeted because of their support for gun-control legislation; gun-rights groups had targeted four senators but failed to get enough signatures to force recall votes on the other two. Despite Bloomberg's support, which may in fact have worked against them, both Democratic senators were recalled and replaced with Republicans last night, the winners boasting that faraway billionaires would not dictate how they could defend themselves. For all we know, Bloomberg may mean his departure from public life, once his term ends, to be temporary, but the people hastening to kick his ass on the way out seem to have a different idea. Across the ideological spectrum, there may be quite a bit of irrational resentment both of what Bloomberg is and of what he's perceived to stand for. It's inevitable and arguably healthy for citizens to question a billionaire's presumption of expertise in politics, so long as our perceptions of the actual issues aren't distorted by his association with them. In short, even if his ultimate record is more mixed than the demonizers believe, we're probably better off without him in public life.

10 September 2013

Jefferson of Arabia

While I thought that Thomas Friedman was trying to have it both ways by arguing against the U.S. getting "embroiled" in Syria but for arming select Syrian rebel factions, many readers of his New York Times column apparently took him at his word that he wanted to avoid war, and then took him to task for it. "[P]lease do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here," he protests in his follow-up column, addressing those who felt (prior to the Russian proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons stocks) that there was no credible alternative to military action against the Assad government. Friedman's protest is prelude to a column-closing hissy fit against the Arab world.

Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so. We’ve struggled for a long time, and still are, learning to tolerate “the other.” That struggle has to happen in the Arab/Muslim world, otherwise nothing we do matters.

I'm not sure whether this outburst satisfies Friedman's critics -- I had thought the subject was the correct response to the use of chemical weapons by anyone, not just Arabs -- but his main point this time is that political outcomes in the Middle East have relatively little to do with the "right" or "wrong" approach taken by the U.S., and more to do with what Friedman and many others diagnose as an almost uniquely dysfunctional political culture in that part of the world.  He points out that Libya is rapidly sliding into Iraq-type chaos despite the supposed superiority of President Obama's regime-change strategy over that of President Bush. Friedman now thinks that Obama's approach may have been worse, because it did not allow the U.S. to have "boots on the ground" in order to act as a "referee" for the factions that have emerged since Khadafi's fall. Such an army, Friedman believes, should act as an "army of the center," to support the good "centrist" factions in any benighted country. The problem with Arab countries, in his view, is that the "center" is underdeveloped and weak in many of them. The "center" consists of those with the most advanced sense of citizenship, or a "deep ethic of pluralism." These countries are pluralistic as they are, he notes, including a variety of tribal, sectarian or other divisions. "Deep pluralism," however, means more than each group having its own enclave; it depends on their ability to cooperate, or at least compete peacefully for political power, trusting each not to trample all the others whenever one gets the chance. There needs to be an evolution, in Friedman's headline words, from "[Saddam] Hussein to Jefferson," without sidetracking toward Hobbes, at one extreme, or Khomeini at another.

Half a century ago, Arab dictators were the "center" of their region, or the nearest thing to it. They promoted national if not supra-national identity. Egypt and Syria very briefly merged into a United Arab Republic that was undone by personal rivalries and policy disputes. Throughout the region, "Arab Nationalism," not "militant Islam," was the specter haunting the West. The Assad government is one of the last vestiges of that spirit and continues to illustrate its handicaps. From the liberal perspective, the Arab nationalists wanted to do everything in top-down fashion, while liberals would argue that the center can only grow out of grass-roots "civil society." From an objective perspective, the self-styled nationalists were often hypocritical, appealing to national consciousness while favoring and depending upon minorities: the Alawites in Syria or Saddam's Tikriti Sunni cronies in Iraq. I'm not sure whether the liberals want to argue that a "centrist" ideal of citizenship can't be imposed from above, or that it shouldn't be, but Europe's history suggests that the undoing of feudalism by absolute monarchs was a precondition for modernity, while the U.S. was exceptional in its doing away with much of the feudal heritage simply by abandoning it and colonizing a conquered land. The very exceptionalism that Americans boast of, to the extent that it is real, limits the relevance or usefulness of the American example for other countries.

For that matter, how good a model for modern centrism is Thomas Jefferson? Was the early U.S. a model of "deep" pluralism? Recall that until 1865 a large segment of the population was enslaved, slavery itself being defined by race. Jefferson knew that his doctrines and his ownership of slaves were inconsistent, but he described his dilemma thus: "we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." How different is this from the  "tribal" statecraft that compels any faction to trample the others, on the assumption that any other will do the same given a chance. Jefferson's idealism was compromised by his gut feeling that the white and black races were incompatible. He wasn't exactly the keenest advocate for economic development, either, as Alexander Hamilton could tell you. Jefferson's party opposed Hamilton's development agenda because they could not see past "Northern" merchants or industrialists benefiting at supposed "Southern" expense. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Friedman here, since I suspect he only used "Jefferson" symbolically, to signify "American values" if not "democracy." If so, however, that only proves him no less carelessly loose-lipped than the President, whose "red line" remark brought on the current crisis, or Secretary Kerry, whose stating of supposedly impossible terms may show us the way out, whether Kerry or Obama intended it that way or not.

09 September 2013

Shall We Play A Game? Van Jones proposes virtual war with Syria

A few years ago Van Jones emerged as a prominent new bogeyman in the Republican demonology, an Obama administration appointee with a record of controversial positions who was eventually hounded out of office. He now has a regular gig debating Newt Gingrich on CNN's once-reviled, now revived Crossfire program. To boost Jones, CNN has published an op-ed today in which he calls out all opponents of the invasion of Iraq, urging them to oppose attacks against Syria. Jones makes a three-point argument. First, while Bush made a dodgy case for invasion to the UN, Obama as yet has not bothered making a case at all to that body. Second, while critics mocked Bush's "coalition of the willing," Obama barely has a coalition beyond France and perhaps Turkey. Third, while Bush was condemned after the fact for having no real plan to secure the peace in Iraq, Obama doesn't even have a plan to win the war, as far as Jones can tell.

Those are three strong arguments, and Jones isn't done. At the same time, however, he feels obliged to state that "The situation in Syria would break the heart of anyone who has one." For that reason, Jones makes clear that he and other "progressives" definitely want an end to chemical weapons attacks. He proposes two ways to end them. The first seems sensible enough, if not feasible: renew diplomatic efforts with the international allies of the Assad regime (i.e. Russia) to bring all the Syrian factions to the negotiating table. I don't really see this going anywhere because the only peaceful solution I can see is one that keeps Assad as the head of state, and I can't see all (or maybe any) of the rebel factions accepting that. Still, it's the right suggestion for an outsider to make. Unfortunately, Jones has another suggestion:

Disrupt and deter without violence. Cyberwarfare has proven extremely effective containing Iran and disrupting its nuclear program through the Stuxnet virus U.S. intelligence agencies developed. A similar cyber campaign aimed at disabling the communications and weapons delivery systems of the Assad regime could "degrade" al-Assad's ability to attack innocent civilians just the same.

Jones describes this as an "option short of war." I guess that's why they call it cyberwarfare. Maybe Jones thinks it's not war if there's no "violence." But he's just recommended interfering with the military command structure of a sovereign state waging a civil war. Better still, his approach guarantees a response from the Syrian Electronic Army, which has already proven its ability to disrupt American communications, at least at the commercial-journalism level. Perhaps a demonstration against CNN would be a timely reminder of their potential. Leaving aside whether Syria has an effective deterrent for the sort of short-of-warfare Jones proposes, we should ask how his proposal is any less a violation of international norms, as opposed to a violation of progressive sensibilities. The fundamental question Jones needs to ask himself is: do outsiders have any right to interfere in the Syrian civil war? The answer is either an absolute No or an unrestricted Yes. It's the unilateral interference, not the violence of war, that has to be opposed, unless Syria is only the first stop on the way to true world government binding and enforceable everywhere on earth. That really would be a progressive idea, but Van Jones probably isn't that kind of progressive. 

06 September 2013

The Embroiler

Perhaps the most inane commentary on the Syrian crisis this week came from Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist. Friedman recognizes that he and the country are confronting a "wickedly complex" problem, but that's no excuse for his answer. He opposes the sort of missile attack that the President is presumably contemplating. He believes it will look weak if not backed by a more substantial commitment, while further infuriating the Arab/Muslim world. Fine. His own priority is "a policy response that simultaneously deters another Syrian poison gas attack [and] doesn’t embroil America in the Syrian civil war." He has more priorities than that, but let's pause here. It sounds like an excellent idea not to embroil the U.S. in the Syrian conflict. But moments later Friedman says the U.S. should arm "responsible rebels units, and they do exist, [that] can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way." Better still, arming the "responsible" rebels will put those worthies in a better position for the inevitable showdown with the presumably irresponsible rebels, i.e. the jihadists. Before you start thinking, Friedman assures us that doing this won't "embroil" us in the war because this way Americans won't be bombing the country.

You can think now.

Friedman seems to equate being "embroiled" with direct military intervention, if not with the proverbial boots on the ground. The dictionary definitions of "embroil," however, are "to involve in conflict or difficulties" and "to throw into disorder and confusion." Perhaps Friedman would like to debate the meaning of "involve," but to commit the country to arming not just the opposition to the Assad government but particular factions of the opposition looks like embroiling to me.

For what it's worth, Friedman also recommends that the international community somehow shame not just Bashar al-Assad but his entire family into some form of submission. Even futile efforts to bring the Assads and their underlings to justice via the International Criminal Court and other venues will serve to make them global pariahs, Friedman believes. Critics often accuse Friedman of living in some kind of fantasy world, but this is ridiculous. If other countries have material or monetary interests in supporting Syria today, as Russia clearly does, they're not going to sacrifice those interests to moral posturing, as Americans are so often tempted to do. Friedman's real hope seems to be to shame Russia (and the more neutral China) into renouncing Assad, but he can't even keep his story straight. He thinks that it should grow increasingly difficult for Russia to defend Assad's use of chemical weapons, but Russia isn't even trying to do that. As even superficial news readers should know by now, the Russians deny (or at least doubt) that the chemical weapons were deployed by Assad.  So good luck with the shaming, Friedman -- but you ought to be ashamed for writing such a silly column.

Imperium in imperio: Free speech wins by a technicality

About a month ago I noticed a newspaper article about a local family fighting its neighborhood Homeowners' Association over the right to display political signs on their property. The Jasinskis of Queensbury faced a lien on their property because the Hudson Pointe Homeowners Association acted on the assumption that its ban on signage extended to campaign signs for candidates. The Jasinskis suspected an arbitrary if not partisan agenda, noting that certain kinds of signs (e.g. "For Sale") were allowed while theirs weren't. Last week a Warren County judge ruled in their favor, though his opinion was of more limited scope than free-speech advocates had hoped for. As reported here, the judge ruled that Hudson Pointe didn't specifically include political signs among the kinds banned by association rules. Because the rule was too vague, he voided the lien and the fines levied on the Jasinskis, but the obvious implication was that had Hudson Pointe explicitly banned political signs, the Jasinskis would have been SOL.

The Jasinskis and their civil-libertarian supporters hoped for a broader ruling against any sort of ban on political signage, but the judge didn't oblige them. Had Hudson Pointe written its rules properly, its ban on political signs would not be unconstitutional, the judge opined, because the Constitution (in a reporter's words) " protects against government intrusion on free-speech rights, but the HOA isn't a government." To be more accurate, an HOA is a government of a sort, or else it wouldn't be issuing rules or punishing infractions, but it's not the government, and in the judge's reading the Constitution only regulates the government: federal, state, etc. At first glance, the only section of the Constitution that limits the private exercise of power by one person or group over another is the Thirteenth Amendment, which bans slavery. Otherwise, what civil rights are private quasi-governments like homeowners' associations bound to respect? It'd be nice to have an answer for future use if one takes seriously the possibility of an increasingly privatized world. It might be utopia for some, but so long as the company town or the company store remain "private" in the eyes of the law, taking over public-sector functions without claiming public authority, how many people really would be more free in such a future? The common American assumption is that the main threat to their freedom is the state, and the American agenda often is to constrain state power, if not the power of other states as well. Those assumptions hint at a blind spot in the American view of things that may not seem serious when the question is whether you can put a sign on your lawn, but might keep us from seeing something worse coming.

05 September 2013

A Republican's case against attacking Syria: too much and not enough

Like a lot of sensible people, Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing Utah, opposes the punitive use of military force by the U.S. against Syria. On this issue, I'd advise against assuming that any Republican who opposes intervention is a hypocrite on the basis of the party's support for the war plans of its own president a decade ago. Many of today's elected Republicans had nothing to do with Iraq; the sincere anti-intervention of someone like Sen. Paul of Kentucky is self-evident. Nevertheless, I find Sen. Lee's opposition odd, if only because he seems to say more than he needs to.

Lee lines up with other opponents of intervention when he states, "We cannot ask our men and women in uniform to engage in a military conflict that does not present a national security threat to the United States." He acknowledges that the proliferation of chemical weapons is a potential national-security threat, but when he goes on to say, "We must work to ensure that chemical weapons in Syria do not get into the hands of groups that will use them against American or western targets," it's not hard to see this as a warning against the still-mysterious Syrian opposition. In terms of the current debate, this is an adequate statement of Lee's position, but it's the last paragraph of four that Lee released on the subject. Here's the first:

The administration has indicated its goal is to use limited military action to significantly degrade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and to deter future attacks.  After hearing from the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in a top-secret briefing, I do not believe that the range of options the president is considering will accomplish this military objective, and therefore I cannot now support intervention into the Syrian civil war.

This would make sense if not for that final paragraph in which Lee throws the military objective into question. What's the point of saying the means are inadequate to the end, only to tell us later that you don't believe in the end? Who cares whether intervention in "a military conflict that does not present a national security threat" will work or not, if the point is to keep it from happening?

What's happening here, for which  I won't reproach Lee too much, is a Republican expressing discomfort with his own opposition to the U.S. asserting its usually-assumed world leadership. Simply to say that intervention is unnecessary, not to mention wrong, might have made Lee look to himself like the sort of peacenik Republicans tend to despise. As well, Republicans may have difficulty wrapping their minds around the idea of President Obama as a warmonger, since the stereotype of a Democrat, for Republicans, is a spineless wimp or coward. While the rest of the world sees little difference between the major American parties on foreign policy, remembering that LBJ bombed North Vietnam and Clinton bombed Serbia, the partisans need to convince themselves that the differences are real and deep. In practice, this means that someone like Lee cannot criticize a Democrat's warmongering without also making the more familiar observation that the Democrat is weak. That seems to be the point of Lee's first paragraph. We may have a warmongering Democratic President, but Lee also wants to remind his base that their assumptions about Democratic military incompetence remain true. If his closing sentiments are sincere, however, it would make no difference had the President, Secretary Hagel and the others had come up with a better plan. But it doesn't hurt a Republican to say that Democrats (not counting Hagel) are bad planners. The next time Lee wants to campaign as a hawk, he'll most likely quote from the first paragraph of his statement instead of the fourth. If that time never comes, I'll be surprised. 

04 September 2013

'Ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody'

Leon Wieseltier in the September 16 issue of The New Republic:

Ambivalence is inevitable, at least in morally scrupulous people; but ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody. The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes. The recent insistence on the decline of American power is in part the expression of the wish that America be less powerful. But it is too late for that, too. If our might cannot make right, it can at least serve it.

Wieseltier has long advocated action against the Syrian government on humanitarian grounds.  He claims to enjoy the "panicking" or "realists" over the new likelihood of American military action, but unsurprisingly finds the President's intentions "shatteringly late" and too ambivalent for his own tastes. He seems disgusted by the ideal of "intervention without interventionism," to be demonstrated, in his pessimistic prediction of "a cop-out in the shape of a cruise missile," a strategic slap on Assad's wrist, and a consensus that "once we do something, we can go back to doing nothing."

In the quote above Wieseltier criticizes the attitude often described sarcastically as the "beautiful soul." The beautiful soul trembles at the means to any desired end, always reluctant to dirty its immaculate hands, seemingly concerned more with its own karma than the good to be done for others. Such souls are at best ineffectual, at worst essentially selfish in a narcissist manner. Wieseltier is right to question this possibly impossible ideal, but his consideration of "evil" seems less nuanced. He may not believe in immaculate ethical perfection, but he does believe in an evil that might seem like the equally unreal opposite of that perfection. He may locate evil in acts like the chemical attack in Syria, if not in its presumed perpetrators, and he can certainly insist on a practical, empirical definition of evil measured in human suffering. Ultimately, however, "evil" is a label applied by us ever-imperfect people, usually as a means to an end. For Wieseltier, "evil" is an override code rationalizing his entitlement to "rescue" someone without regard to considerations that might otherwise regulate or constrain his action. He may think of that entitlement as a self-evident imperative, but it isn't mere ambivalence to question whether that imperative overrides all questions of jurisdiction or authorization as easily as he assumes. If the beautiful soul is to be dismissed because moral questions aren't only about him and his soul, shouldn't we be nearly as skeptical when someone claims a superhero's exemption from authorization, since the issue isn't all about him and his moral instincts.  The superhero sees only himself and the victim to be rescued, but even in comic books he consciously takes his chances with authority by acting, while authority not unfairly insists that other considerations do matter.  Those other considerations don't add up to ambivalence. It is not ambivalence to question whether a country or coalition of countries has a right to attack another country over that country's conduct of a civil war. Nor is it moral indifference to insist that the fate of the helpless is not the only moral consideration in such a case. Wieseltier may think that his little aphorism at the end of the excerpt answers any questioning of his entitlement to intervene. To "serve right" rather than make it, in his view, may be to disclaim a personal entitlement to act, but it may still be argued, whether he likes it or not, that right is always made, even if not by might, and doesn't simply exist to be served by whoever discerns it. To be less obscure about it, we could say that thinkers like Wieseltier are the real cop-outs so long as they claim moral rights to wage war while doing nothing to advance the true world government, whatever its costs, that would render moot all the questions every particular intervention raises.

03 September 2013

Syria Pro and Con

For the sake of argument, here are ten arguments apiece for and against a punitive attack on Syria, submitted by a Jordanian website. In the U.S. arguments for the strike are being made in Washington, while Russia reportedly wants to send lobbyists to make the case against intervention. The Russian case against intervention is self-evident: that country makes money from the Assad regime. Whether they're capable of making a principled argument I can't say, but the demand for principled arguments may be part of the problem. What "principle," exactly, puts President Obama on the same side as Sen. McCain, and actually compels the winner of the 2008 election position shape his position to satisfy the loser? When McCain enters the debate, the immediate provocation of chemical weapons becomes less relevant. He's been pushing for a more aggressive American stand against Assad since the Syrian civil war broke out, on the apparent assumption that nothing could be worse than an anti-American dictator. Most Americans who support intervention feel a predictable moralist outrage over the atrocities purportedly perpetrated by a dictator. They may be incapable of entertaining the possibility, however slim, that the rebels carried out the chemical attack; instead, they reflexively assume that any suggestion of that possibility is a lie by Assad and his unprincipled Russian friends. They are definitely incapable of considering the possibility that Assad is the country's best option at this point in history -- that anyone morally preferable would be unable to take or consolidate power, while anyone capable of replacing him is also capable of more mischief. The image of the dictator blinds some observers to the realities of a situation. So long as a dictator exists, there must be a better alternative, and that alternative must be supported. Expressed another way, wherever there is tyranny there must be freedom fighters, but that assumption has little basis in history, and to intervene in Syria on the assumption that doing so will give the inevitable freedom fighters their best chance to come to the fore is delusional. As for the specific provocation of chemical weapons, as far as I can tell no treaty or law obliges individual nations to take punitive military action against governments that use such weapons. The argument made by the Obama administration is about preventing a precedent for the use with impunity of chemical weapons, but it's really up to the people of each sovereign nation to decide whether they give themselves the duty to enforce this particular taboo at the risk of their lives in distant lands. As for the President himself, his position increasingly looks little more principled than Russia's. Obama is clearly looking to save face, or cover his ass, depending on your perspective, but his implication that any forthcoming debate in Congress only figleaves his eventual use of executive prerogative power is more troubling than anything Republicans have ever accused him of.   Presidents of the United States need to stop thinking of themselves as the ultimate enforcers of international justice, and as the men who ultimately define it. That Obama may make concessions to McCain, and larger concessions yet to Republicans -- will someone dare suggest sacrificing Obamacare for authorization? -- may tell us all we need to know about the difference between what people think Obama stands for, or what they want him to stand for, and what he actually does stand for.