29 November 2013

Anti-communist literature as atrocity porn

Recently I took a new book, Frank Dikotter's The Tragedy of Liberation, out of the library. After a few chapters I wondered why I had bothered. Dikotter's book is a history of the early years of the People's Republic of China, starting with the post-World War II revival of the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Dikotter is a professor in a Hong Kong college, and I suppose it's a tribute to the integrity of China's "one nation, two systems" policy regarding the former English colony that a man so hostile to the current system of government on the mainland can keep his academic post. He's out to destroy any notion that there was a "good" period of Mao's rule before he went crazy during the Great Leap Forward (result: mass famine) or the Cultural Revolution (result:chaos). The evidence seems to be on his side: the first decade of the People's Republic saw indiscriminate terror as party leaders were given quotas of people to kill in their districts. No surprise, really; I wasn't exactly expecting Mao to have been enlightened or comparatively liberal at any point of his career. Dikotter's point is made convincingly very early in his book, yet the book goes on and on until you could believe the only point was that someone got or was expected to get a kick from all the tales of humiliation, torture and slaughter. The author's deeper point seems to be that communism, or at least Maoism, is little more than an ideology of hatred. He tries to demonstrate, first and more convincingly, that the gap between poor and "rich" wasn't very great in many parts of China, and then, perhaps more on faith, that there was little in the way of class animosity in many peasant communities. Dikotter's contention is that the Communists sought to implicate the masses in the violence of the revolution -- so they could be threatened with blackmail??? -- by inciting a hatred for supposed rich oppressors that wasn't really there in the first place. Dikotter might well believe that communism is no more than the scapegoating of the successful by vicious, stupid thugs, but I'm not sure that historical accuracy is achieved by writing under that assumption. I'm not accusing him of making stuff up; his stories are documented by Chinese sources. Nor do I doubt that there's psychological truth in his account of Chairman Mao as someone who basically got off on mass mobilization and mob violence. But I worry that we begin to lose track of what was happening when we take for granted the popular ad hominem interpretations of communist motives rather than engaging, preferably critically, with what they thought they were doing and why they thought they had to do that. You get none of that in Dikotter's book, or at least the part I read. That the Chinese communists were evil is a given there, but he goes too far in assuming that their evil is somehow distinctive. In an early chapter he describes the horrors in a city besieged by the People's Liberation Army, where hundreds of thousands of people died. Yet he can't possibly mean that siege warfare is some distinctive communist tactic, or that the Red generals were motivated by Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought above all to let people starve. He quotes someone on the subject who described the siege as a slow-motion Hiroshima, as if to suggest that the starvation caused by the siege was an atrocity comparable to dropping an atomic bomb. The argument is not unfair when you look at the numbers, but couldn't someone else describe Hiroshimas in even slower motion if they want to denounce the deaths and suffering caused by capitalism, western imperialism, etc? It may seem absurd to many, but for generations many people saw the capitalist economic order as intolerably cruel to its subjects, a long-term crime that demanded nothing short for redress than a complete overhaul of the social order. The sincerity of such feeling wouldn't excuse atrocities carried out in the name of communism, but I fear we've reached the point where many believe that communists committed atrocities for no reason, but out of the basest impulses. I think instead that you can only take communist atrocities seriously if you take communism seriously. If you can't or won't do that, all your research amounts to the literary equivalent of a snuff film.

26 November 2013

Papalnomics: the Apostolic Exhortation

Here's Francis I on the global economy:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

The English text comes straight from the Vatican, so at least one report finds it telling that the Pope uses (or implicitly approves) the phrase "trickle-down," which is usually regarded in the U.S. a partisan pejorative term for the "supply-side" economic theories favored by Republicans. If the particular language has raised eyebrows, the line of argument is really nothing new. The Catholic Church was driven to lie with strange bedfellows (e.g. fascists) by its hostility to communism, but its great objection to communism has always been to its godlessness, not to its economic theories, and to my knowledge the church has never felt compelled by its hostility to communism to endorse capitalism unconditionally. Needless to say, Catholicism and Christianity in general are not about "freedom," and Popes have never been very susceptible to the rhetoric of freedom as an end unto itself emanating from the U.S. The sad thing is that people might listen to a Catholic Pope, who has practically no credibility in his actual realm of expertise, -- the realm of expertise itself has practically no credibility -- when he speaks on socioeconomic subjects, by virtue of the authority he carries in his realm of expertise. When someone says virtually the same thing, yet doesn't claim to speak for God, people either refuse to listen or presume the worst motives from the speaker. Maybe that's why Bolsheviks try to make themselves into gods.

25 November 2013

Merry War on Christmas, Charlie Brown!

The Christmas hype seems to start earlier every year, and so does the annual renewal of hostilities in the so-called "War on Christmas." Usually the defense opens fire first, and the honor this year apparently falls to Sarah Palin, who has just published a book dedicated to "Protecting the Heart of Christmas." In turn, Palin has drawn fire from the syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker. As you'll recall from previous years, self-consciously Christian Republicans take offense when store clerks and other customer-service sorts wish people "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," usually at the instruction of their managers. This policy is blamed on crabby atheists or chauvinists of other faiths who have allegedly taken offense at the sound of "Christ." It seems self-evident, however, that "Happy Holidays" is meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive. This point is lost on those people, presumably including Palin, who interpret the policy as censorship of Christianity. Critics of "Happy Holidays" threaten to become self-fulfilling prophets. While the majority might criticize those who may be so thin-skinned as to take offense at "Merry Christmas," the majority feeling is almost certainly based on an assumption that "Merry Christmas" is a harmless phrase, little more than a way of saying, "Have a Nice Specific Day." But when the Defense of Christmas rushes in to defend specifically a shop clerk's right to proclaim the name of Christ, they imply that the very word "Christmas" is a form of proselytizing, which isn't how most people see it. The more people like Palin make "Merry Christmas" a matter of affirming (or asserting) one's faith, the more people will resist its use in shopping malls, and the Defense of Christmas will be as much to blame for that as any grumpy atheist.

Where does Cynthia Tucker come into this? She rightly recognizes a Christian chauvinist agenda on Palin's part and refutes it with the usual proofs that the U.S. is not a "Christian nation." But then Tucker tries to enlist Palin and all her followers for a war from fifty years ago. It's been almost that long since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, and like Charlie Brown and Linus, Tucker rails against the commercialization of Christmas. She actually applauds those "committed Christians" who "struggle to keep sacred the meaning of the season," though Tucker's approved form of resistance is to stay away from shopping malls. Perhaps it's no accident that it's in the malls where reactionary Christians are offended by "Happy Holidays." What Tucker (or Palin) fails to recognize is that it was the commercialization of Christmas -- a phenomenon that has made Christmas a popular shopping season even in non-Christian countries like Japan -- that has rendered "Merry Christmas" harmless. If atheists are to take no offense at "Merry Christmas," it can only be because Christmas has been utterly secularized, so that the greeting might be translated as "Merry Shopping!" In missing this important point Tucker is little better than Palin. After all, what's Linus's answer to the commercialization of Christmas? It's to read from the Gospel of Luke. Yet there will be another commercial break before the kids spruce up Charlie Brown's miserable Christmas tree and sing their hymn. A Charlie Brown Christmas itself is welcomed with little or no fear of its religious message because it has been embedded from the start in the very commercialization it decries. That wonderful jazzy score makes up for all the hypocrisy. Christmas itself -- the day and the word alike -- will give no offense once everyone recognizes that it no longer belongs to the Christians. The real war on Christmas was won long ago, but many Americans, not just on the Christian Right, don't care to admit it.

22 November 2013

Hey Hey, JFK ...

Americans worship John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated fifty years ago today, because his untimely demise allows them to believe that history could have been different. The conspiracy theories that continue to flourish, immune to refutation (Vincent Bugliosi would have better luck dropping his massive anti-conspiracy tome on some people's heads), enable us to blame people rather than larger historical forces for American decline. What Kennedy may have done in a second term, presuming his victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, can never be more than conjecture. Many conjecture the best: no Vietnam quagmire; no riots in ghettos and no white backlash; no Nixon in 1968; Bobby and Dr. King spared, etc. If conspiracy theories grow more resilient -- Oliver Stone pretty much calls Bugliosi a liar in USA Today -- it's because Americans find more reasons to wish something different could have happened in the past, and more desire to blame someone for where we are now, just as Vito Corleone vowed to blame someone even if Michael gets struck by a bolt of lightning. Obviously history would have been different had Kennedy lived and been re-elected. The question is whether history would have changed significantly. There are two kinds of speculation. One is based on Kennedy's actual record. On that evidence, people on the right (like George Will in a recent column) and to the left of the Democratic party (Noam Chomsky has long been a Kennedy iconoclast) presume that JFK would have carried on a Cold War course, presumably all the way to Vietnam. Unless one has reason to believe that he would have waged war more effectively, with the same generals, than LBJ did, history might change only so that protesters chanted, "Hey Hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?" On the other side, great inferences are made from a few statements from Kennedy's last months, while a more plausible case is made that the Cuban Missile Crisis tempered the President's enthusiasm for confronting Communism. For the most part, however, an assumption is made that Kennedy would evolve as these believers wanted the country to evolve, or as the older folks in this group believe themselves to have evolved. Because Kennedy died, their speculations and assumptions can never be proven wrong. He will always embody the America that could have been, and because Kennedy died by violence the assassin will always embody a force that did not want that America to be. If this country ever gets to a point where we don't see ourselves in decline, and those who lived through decline are gone, then at last the conspiracy theories can be laid to rest alongside Kennedy and Oswald....assuming, of course, that either of them is actually dead.

Postscript: The following was overheard in a shopping-mall bookstore on November 23:

"You wanna know why they killed Kennedy? Because things would have never been the same again, and they couldn't stand that. They have to have control...."

21 November 2013

The Senate goes 'nuclear'

After years of threats from both parties, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate has pushed through a rules change that eliminates the ability of a minority party to block confirmation votes on a wide range of executive-branch and judicial appointments while allowing the old rules to remain in effect for Supreme Court appointments. That exception is the majority's concession to the probability of a Republican takeover at some point; Democrats thus reserve their prerogative to filibuster against appointees of future Republican presidents. Some Republicans have responded to the vote and the exception made with a promise to end the exception when they regain control. That would be fair. Democrats have characterized Republican obstruction of appointments by the President as either fanatical or unprincipled; future Democratic obstruction of Supreme Court nominations will be seen  the same way. If today's vote is a victory for "small d" democracy, the exception makes that victory incomplete. The majority's right to govern through its representatives doesn't depend on the "importance" of a post to be filled. The President's democratic mandate is the same whether he's filling a Supreme Court vacancy or a vacancy on one of the lower courts. If Democrats are afraid of a Republican mandate to pack the Court with reactionaries, the remedy is to win presidential and senatorial elections. Faith in democracy cannot be conditioned by partisanship or a fear of partisanship. If you seek to thwart a democratic mandate at any time because they may get into power, then you're no better than the Republicans whose obstructionist tactics provoked today's vote. Democratic republicanism means that anyone who can win an election can and should be trusted to govern within constitutional bounds. If that trust doesn't exist, the democratic reform carried out today only raises the stakes of elections while reconciling no one to their results. It should still be hailed as a win for democracy, despite the predictable Republican cries of power grab, but you can always depend on "Capital D" Democrats to dampen our enthusiasm with half measures.

20 November 2013

Drugs and Republican hypocrisy

Whenever a Republican is caught in any sort of morals scandal, Democrats gloat. It's true the other way around, too, but while a morals scandal involving a Democrat tends to confirm the Republican view of Democrats, a Republican morals scandal always provokes cries of hypocrisy, as if Democrats and their sympathizers really expect Republicans to conform to the stereotype that portrays them as joyless, bible-bound ascetics. It might be argued that each new scandal, like Rep. Radel of Florida's arrest for buying cocaine, confirms a view of Republicans as essentially hypocritical instead of fanatically moralistic, but hypocrisy is nearly universal in politics. Marxist-Leninists vow to liberate the working class, but have tended historically to subject them to forced labor. Democrats claim the champion the little guy but curry favor with Wall Street. It comes with politics and the difference between what you have to say to win popular support and what you have (if not want) to do when you have power. With the North American right wing -- counting Rob Ford of Toronto in the discussion -- it's arguably more a case of double standards than one of hypocrisy. Drugs are bad if you're a damn lazy hippie or a ghetto welfare cheat, but if you're a hard-charging go-getter, as Republicans (and their Canadian counterparts) presume themselves to be, then neither drugs nor booze should be a problem. A case often made against drugs is that they turn people into losers, but a Republican may not be deterred by that rhetoric because they know they aren't losers. There's something almost antinomian about this attitude, if it exists; if you're of the elect, you can get away with things that mere sinners can't. Rep. Radel isn't going to say any such thing right now, though you never know what Ford might assert, but I suspect that, at bottom, people like them feel they've earned a right, or have a justified need to indulge that others, who might call them hypocrites, haven't. That mentality doesn't automatically make you a Republican or a right-winger, but you can see why those groups may find that attitude agreeable. The fact that other forms of hypocrisy exist elsewhere doesn't excuse this particular kind. If Republicans want to cry double standards today, that's fine. Let's criticize everybody, and maybe we can work toward a single standard by which we can judge everyone equally without ideology or ego getting in the way.

19 November 2013

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago...

Today brings the first of the week's big anniversaries: the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Initially criticized by many for an unbecoming brevity, Lincoln's speech is now widely regarded as the greatest of American political orations, rivaled only by his Second Inaugural Address and Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington. It should be easy, given that brevity, to appreciate what Lincoln said. Dedicating a burial ground for the dead of the great battle, the President described the Civil War as a test of the endurance of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." At first glance, that would appear to confirm the belief that the war was fought, if not initiated, to end slavery. But since Lincoln never explicitly advocated complete civil equality for blacks, his meaning may not be so simple to comprehend. In closing, he declared the stakes of the war to be "government by the people, of the people, for the people." In short, democracy. Lincoln himself may not have been prepared to embrace democracy in the fuller scope that emancipation would require, but the word still meant something real to him -- something worth fighting for. If the war for the Union was a war for democracy, than Secession was a blow against democracy. How so? Not only the act but the theory behind it violated Lincoln's idea of democracy, which arguably was inseparable from his idea of Union. In practice, the Confederate states seceded to protest the result of an election, most of them doing so before Lincoln was even inaugurated and thus before he had a chance to violate their constitutional rights in any way that might have justified secession. In theory, the Confederacy violated a defining tenet, for Lincoln, of both Union and democracy: a commitment to be bound by the will of the voting majority of your fellow citizens. He did not believe that this commitment was conditional, though he did believe that it was regulated by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There were things that the majority could not do to the individual or the minority, but the frame of government itself provided the remedy should the majority attempt to do any of these things. Lincoln would not have taken slaves from their owners, and probably would never have supported a constitutional amendment to end slavery, had secession not provoked war. He had faith that limiting the expansion of slave territory would put the peculiar institution on the course of ultimate extinction until the South forced more immediate measures by rejecting that destiny. You might argue that, for Lincoln, the combination of Union and democracy set that destiny on its course. Where does equality come into it? Lincoln may have hesitated at including blacks fully into the body politic, but for those already in it, the ultimate expression of equality was majority rule in elections. As far as he was concerned, slaveowners may have enjoyed constitutional safeguards, but that didn't mean that their interests counted for more than the interests of anyone else. To refuse majority rule is to say that my will counts for more than their will, my interests more than their interests, and that I need never bow to the majority, whether the Constitution backs me or not -- that I, not the Constitution, am the judge of what the majority may not do. The U.S. may not have a strictly democratic form of government, but it is a democracy in the sense Lincoln understood -- and though the smoke has cleared it's still being tested today. This anniversary is a timely one.

18 November 2013

Poverty Denialism: 'there are plenty of jobs for the taking'

A brief piece in the current Nation by Michelle Goldberg on alleged "Poverty Denialism" had a familiar ring to it for me. Goldberg defines "poverty denialism" as the premise, expressed by some Republicans, that few people, if any, are really suffering in the current economy. These Republicans don't infer from that observation that the economy is in good shape. Instead, they complain that the poor have it too good as dependents upon the state and thus have no incentive to get real jobs. As Goldberg writes:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

The part about "plenty of jobs out there" is the point most likely to be disputed by non-Republicans. I heard that very point asserted by a co-worker recently. He leans Republican but is probably more of a libertarian at heart, having little use for the cultural issues important to many Tea Partiers. We talk politics occasionally, and he's a far more civil conversationalist than my old sparring partner Mr. Right, whom I see little of since I was moved to another floor of our office building. Politics doesn't really come up too often in our talks, but one day he observed that there were jobs for the taking, but many supposed poor people weren't taking them. I always like to challenge people who make such claims to prove not that there are jobs, but that they actually know people who do as they described. He claimed that he did. His current job at our office was a step up for him; at lower rungs of the job market, he claimed to know people who would readily quit if they got dissatisfied for any reason, on the assumption that they could collect as much money, if not more, from the state.

One can assume that this was a very low rung on the job ladder. How you interpret this story depends on whether you're ideologically inclined to see the glass as half-full or half-empty.  A liberal might say that this is the employer's problem; if he wants workers to stay, he should pay them better or treat them better. Viewed from the right, the problem is that the government gives the disgruntled worker a perverse incentive to take himself out of the workforce. From this perspective, both the person and the nation would be better off if he stayed on the job, or found something better in the private sector.

My co-worker isn't the most dogmatic person; I've gotten him to acknowledge an unfairness in the way employers can leave employees behind by outsourcing, etc., without accountability to anyone else. I wonder whether he recognizes a similar unfairness in the situation he describes, or in the way he interprets it. The implicit assumption is that the employer is always right; that it's not up to him to give employees incentives to stay on the job; that the state should not force him to pay more to compete with the dole. That last point could be argued objectively -- if the workforce functioned more fairly than it seems to now. Once you start talking about fairness, however, many Republicans stick their fingers in their ears and start singing loudly. What a liberal, progressive or leftist may think of as fairness strikes the Republican as dictation by the poor to the rich. On the other end, Republicans have a hard time thinking of the rich dictating to the poor, because the conditions others might describe in those terms are just the Market at work, and the Market is the opposite of any kind of dictatorship. That blind spot may explain more of Republicans' peculiar perception of things. Because they can't imagine the Market as a kind of dictatorship, they assume that everyone, or just about everyone, has found his level in the economy based on the decisions he has freely made -- has gotten what he deserves. They look at the Dow Jones average breaking the 16,000 barrier and assume that anyone who isn't getting ahead has himself (or the government) to blame. With no offense to Michelle Goldberg, the problem isn't that Republicans deny poverty, but that they define it differently -- as a behavioral rather than a systemic problem for which the state can provide no solution apart from getting rid of incentives to idleness. They miss the old days when poor people were ashamed to go on "relief" and refused to do so as long as possible. But they shouldn't hold their breath waiting for those days to return. The power of shame -- our sense of accountability to the opinion of others -- depends on a sociocultural consensus that no longer exists. Who cares what X thinks of me if X is nothing but a Y? Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, keep trying to shame each other in vain. Until all the country's factions can again agree on a good they envision for everyone -- on some material standard of fairness -- perceiving poverty differently will be one of the least of our problems.

13 November 2013

Chris Christie: the front runner always wears a target on his back

Gov. Christie of New Jersey was the one Republican hero of the last Election Day. In a season of widespread anger at the GOP and a gubernatorial defeat in a southern state, Christie was re-elected in a landslide victory that instantly raised his credibility as a contender for the 2016 presidential nomination. The moment he was so anointed, there was a tense pause as Republican pundits held their collective breath, praying that the Tea Party would not immediately attack Christie. The danger persists, and opinionators on the right are clearly fearful that they may have created a monster in the TP movement. I've seen preachments from unlikely quarters lately about electability and pragmatism, not to mention some touting of Christie as a Reaganesque figure. A stretch? That loud fat guy a Gipper for the 21st century? But here's what Republicans think they know about Ronald Reagan now: the wisdom of the moment is that Reagan prevailed by reaching out to people rather than alienating them.  His is perceived as a positive message, defined by the man's characteristic optimism, rather than the fire and brimstone some brew into their tea today. Christie could not win in a blue state, it's assumed, if Democrats and independents feared him the way they fear the Tea Party poster boys and girls. By any American standard he remains well to the right of center, but he doesn't inspire the fear and loathing his likely rivals do. Forward-thinking Republicans see this as possibly the difference between victory and defeat three years from now. Christie has a secret formula and they want it. More importantly, they don't want Tea Partiers ruining it for them.

What is the secret? Writing from outside New Jersey, all I can judge Christie by is his response to last year's "superstorm." Some on the far right will never forgive him for saying anything positive about President Obama's federal contribution to storm relief, having convinced themselves that he gave aid and comfort to the ideological enemy at a crucial moment close to the presidential vote. But the important thing about Christie's conduct isn't that he played nice with the President or affected nonpartisanship. The crucial thing is that he did not do what many Republicans dream of doing in such circumstances. He did not revert to the principled indifference of a Calvin Coolidge, who infamously resisted giving federal aid to victims of severe flooding in 1927. Instead, Christie reassured people that he would not leave them to their fate (or their just desserts) as a matter of ideological principle or a test of their fitness for survival. In short, if Christie is the Republican front-runner right now it's because he's given proof that he would govern, at least in some respects, like a human being. And that's why some Republicans hate him.

12 November 2013

Business leaders for campaign finance reform

From the manichean perspective of some Republicans and libertarians, the ongoing debate over campaign-finance regulation is a struggle between the private sector and the "political class." For those who support unlimited donations to candidates or other political causes, spending money is the only way private citizens can overcome the otherwise overwhelming advantage incumbent politicians enjoy in dominating public discourse. The only reason to limit private or corporate donations, from this perspective, is to prevent the private sector from raising legitimate challenges to the dogmas and failed policies of the political class. This viewpoint presumes a dependable solidarity within the private sector vis-a-vis the political class. The presumption is undermined by an op-ed in which Cynthia DeBartolo, a CEO and current chair of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, calls for stricter limits on campaign donations.

In DeBartolo's case, whatever solidarity may exist within the private sector (against excessive taxes, excessive regulation, etc.) is outweighed by the private-sector norm of competition. She opposes unlimited campaign donations because she believes that some businesses will use donations to influence legislation in their favor, if not at the expense of competitors. From her perspective, the campaign-finance debate doesn't break along private sector/public sector lines, but along big business/small business lines. "Voters across the state are concerned about their lack of a real voice in Albany," she writes, "Small- and medium-sized business, like the ones I represent, also worry their needs get overlooked in the shadow of jumbo contributions. To fix Albany, New York's business community needs to come together to support comprehensive reform."

Here is a businesswoman who seems to have a more realistic idea of how politics works than those libertarian purists who claim to speak for the business class. The purists envision a private sector ever on the defensive against a political class whose hunger for power is a sufficient motive for any legislation that appears to hamper free economic competition. As a CEO, DeBartolo presumably is involved in economic competition on a daily basis, yet her presumption is that businesses are not passive victims of power-mad politicians but competitors ever tempted to use their wealth to influence politics to their competitive advantage. Her conclusion: "We cannot continue to foster a system that risks elevating businesses with the best political connections above those with the best business practices." She claims that 72% of New York State's "business leaders" support her preferred option, in which government matches small private contributions with public funds for candidates. She argues that New York City has enjoyed an economic boom that can be traced to its early implementation of that policy. I'm not sure whether that can be proven, but DeBartolo's is a compelling argument that should be taken seriously -- on the understanding that what goes for small employers and big employers also goes for employees and employers in general. Any proposed reform should also make it easier for the working class to have its just share of influence in politics. One hopes that this suggestion won't scare DeBartolo and people like her into redrawing the lines of the debate yet again.

11 November 2013

'Half-baked liberalism:' Obamacare excuses and Democratic self-criticism

The troubled rollout of "Obamacare" has provoked something like soul-searching among Democrats, if not progressives in general. There's an inevitable defensiveness to some of the soul-searching, since Republicans want to use the Obamacare problems to prove their assumption that government is inevitably inefficient if not incompetent for purposes like this one. Overall, a failure to turn the economy around outside Wall Street has raised similar questions. The danger for liberals is that they'll come up with excuses similar to those made by other ideologues caught in practical failures. When liberals say that stimulus spending fell short of its social goals because the government didn't spend enough, for instance, or when Julian Zelizer blames politically expedient "public-private" compromises for rendering programs like the Affordable Credit Act too complex to be popular, compared to service direct from the government, there's a risk that liberals will sound like those libertarians who dismiss market failures by saying we haven't seen "real" capitalism at work, or those Marxists who dismiss systemic failures by saying we haven't seen "real" socialism or communism yet. In short, liberal pundits are trying to preempt attempts to blame Obamacare's problems on liberalism by saying that Obamacare isn't an expression of "real" liberalism. In cruder terms, it may sound as if they're saying there's no problem that can't be solved by throwing more money at it, or by putting government more completely in control. If that's what the apologists for liberalism mean to say, skepticism will be inevitable.

Yet Zelizer in particular has strong points to make about the historical and political factors that have mis-shaped the ACA and built weaknesses into it, compared to the clarity that has characterized Social Security from its inception. That won't make it any easier for Democrats to "go big" in the future, on Zelizer's assumption that bigger is better -- or at least simpler. They'll have to answer the charge that they only want to throw more money at problems, and they'll have to show that there's more to their demands than blind faith in liberal premises. They should have at least one advantage in such a debate over those ideologues to whom I've compared them. The problem with Marxists and libertarians is that the way things are done is an end unto itself for them. There must be free enterprise, for one, or there must be workers' control (or party control) for the other, and whatever benefits either group predicts from its preferred arrangements, those arrangements are moral imperatives to be obeyed regardless of practical consequences. Liberals are different. They may be perceived as ideologues by ideological antagonists, but they're really more pragmatic than that. Economic policy, I suspect, is a means to an end for liberals, not an end unto itself. The end toward which Obamacare was initiated remains popular; no amount of Republican carping, to my knowledge, has convinced anyone that the country should give up on the idea of making health insurance available to everybody. As long as Democrats and liberals emphasize the ends rather than the means, they should retain the advantage in any political debate over healthcare, and they'll retain some flexibility when it comes to the means. More importantly, perhaps, they may be able to make persuasive empirical arguments proving that for this particular end more government control, if not more government spending, may be the best means. They don't need to say more spending solves all problems to say that more can solve some of them. That should be more plausible than the dogmatic assumption that more spending solves none of our problems.As long as Democrats and liberals put themselves at the head of the pack criticizing and correcting the obvious practical problems with the ACA, they should be able to avoid the appearance of excuse-making altogether. All that should take is a willingness to be tough on themselves.

09 November 2013

A Christian critique of 'civil religion'

Whenever the subject of prayer in school or other public places comes up, someone's bound to cite Mathew 6:6, the verse where Jesus tells his followers to pray in private rather than make a public spectacle of their piety. It might be surprising to see that verse cited by Christian Right columnist Cal Thomas in the context of the Supreme Court case involving allegedly sectarian prayers at town government meetings in Greece NY. Thomas, however, has long had an ambivalent attitude toward politicized religion. His own politics are much influenced by his religious views, of course, but he's never been entirely comfortable with the rhetoric that idolizes the U.S. as a Christian nation, if not God's chosen nation. He suspects that the desire of some Christians to put a Christian stamp on the public sector is less about Christianizing the nation and more about sanctifying the state. In his own words:

The desire by the faithful, especially Christians, to see their faith expressed in the public square has been a part of America's "civil religion" since the founding of the country. The idea that America is especially chosen by God for some purpose greater than those of any other nation is a type of idolatry that violates the very Scripture in which Christians claim to believe. Isaiah puts it succinctly as to how God views nations: "Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing (Isaiah 40:17)." One must conclude from this passage that "all" includes the United States.

Many of Thomas's fellow believers really do believe that the U.S. has some special, perhaps divinely mandated purpose to spread or defend Christianity. Thomas himself broke with the Moral Majority because he believed that they had grown too concerned with controlling the government, as if government was necessary for the perpetuation of religion. He has stated repeatedly in his columns that the higher priority for Christians is to convert individuals rather than control the government. His idiosyncratic opinion on the Greece case underscores how crucial distrust of government is for some conservatives, Christian or otherwise. Thomas is arguing, in effect, that public prayers like those offered in Greece, whether "sectarian" or not, are less acts of worshipping God (or "the almighty") than they are acts of worshipping the state. For Thomas's type of conservative, worshipping the state is the worst sin. He condemns liberals and other statists because he suspects them of setting up the state in place of God -- if not as a literal object of worship then as the source of all things upon which we depend -- but he identifies the temptation among many conservatives and Christians as well. He may suppose a zero-sum relationship between God and government, God being neglected when his worshippers try to colonize the public sphere in his name. It's fine to see a Christian zealot uninterested in forcing public prayer down our throats...until you imagine what Thomas's utopia might look like. Then the distinction between public and private might be lost while the church preys on -- I mean, prays for all of us.

06 November 2013

Regulating prayer: Town of Greece v. Galloway

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a suit against the town of Greece NY by two citizens who claim that overtly Christian prayers spoken before government meetings violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. This may look like a classic culture-war conflict, but the Obama Administration, through the Justice Department, has taken the side of the town government. The town reportedly allows any faith group (and even atheists) to lead prayers, and while in practice most prayers are offered by Christians, if not explicitly Christian, the government is satisfied that the prayer policy isn't exclusive or exclusionary. The plaintiffs contend that they should not be required to hear sectarian prayer in order to participate in government. Doing without prayer of any kind apparently isn't an option. With that off the table, the justices question whether they should be in the business of regulating prayer -- whether it should be up to them or another branch of government to determine when prayer is "sectarian" and thus unconstitutional. For most people, it seems, the ideal is a rotation of faiths in which everyone gets a turn. For the plaintiffs, the ideal seems to be an enforceable sectarian neutrality that would permit people to invoke a generic higher power but not to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets, etc. Undisputed is the right to assert the existence of a higher power, while those who might begrudge even that are most likely dismissed as too thin-skinned for civil society. Arguably, the right to be offended is at the heart of the case -- or an assumption that the law should shield me from having my intelligence insulted, or from the inferred threat of certain "sectarian" claims. Since no single sect has an exclusive right to deliver opening prayers, Greece can't be said to have established a religion. To argue that the town has simply established religion goes against the tradition that defines establishment as favoring one sect over another -- and in any event there's supposedly an open invitation to atheists to offer an opening meditation, or whatever you'd call such a statement. Again, the issue comes down to the offense or threat felt by the plaintiffs and whether government must respect their feelings as well as the customary right of others to invoke higher powers in public. There may be a temptation to tell the plaintiffs to get over it, to stop being paranoid, but the perceived need to invoke higher powers in public goes too little examined to justify dismissing the complaints of the other side so quickly. Let's not rush to tell the plaintiffs to get over their issues without making lawyers and judges give good reasons why they should.

05 November 2013

Crashing the NYC victory party

New York City voters are expected today to make Bill de Blasio their first Democratic mayor in a generation, following the tough-on-crime Republican regime of Rudy Giuliani and the "nanny-state" Republican-turned-independent billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Not surprisingly, the Working Families Party is rushing in to claim credit for de Blasio's apparently inevitable triumph. The WFP rarely if ever runs candidates of its own, but fattens on state election rules permitting cross-endorsements of candidates by multiple parties. Voters pick persons, not parties; every vote for De Blasio counts whether you check the Democratic or WFP line. Cross-endorsement allows liberals who feel more liberal than Democrats, but can neither imagine nor risk an alternative to Democratic candidates, to feel better about themselves when voting for the Democrat. They convince themselves that they are sending the candidate a message -- that their support for him is conditional upon his abiding by the principles of the cross-endorsing party rather than the one that nominated him. They play math games to show, should an election be close, that their candidate owes his success to cross-endorsements -- as if those voters would ever have selected anyone else. That's the kind of victory the WFP expects to claim today; they'll scarf up the buffet food as if they had contributed it.

Anticipating de Blasio's victory, The Nation calls the Democrat "a symbol of the [WFP's] efforts to infuse New York politics with true progressive values." This is intended as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and writer Dylan Tokar realizes that the fulfillment depends on voters making the apparently risk-free decision to vote for de Blasio on the WFP line. At the Daily Beast. David Freedlander reports that WFP leaders claim credit for de Blasio getting the Democratic nomination in the first place, if not for inspiring him to run at all. He and the current WFP leader are longtime friends; the latter may well rise to the level of a powerful crony in a de Blasio administration. Whether de Blasio's mayoralty will have resulted from that friendship isn't so easy to prove. Proof of his and his party's influence is demonstrated this way: in his campaign de Blasio has talked about poverty and inequality; the WFP always talks about poverty and inequality; therefore, anyone who talks about poverty and inequality in a successful campaign owes his success to the ideas, and maybe even the votes, of WFP members. The hidden premise is the assumption that only the WFP has talked about poverty and inequality in a compelling way; that no aspiring politician in New York city would talk about poverty and inequality unless inspired or goaded by the WFP. Who really believes this? The problem with the WFP has always been that its goal is to make the Democratic party more concerned about poverty and inequality before making government take these problems into account. You can certainly argue that this is a realistic assessment of what's possible in a Bipolarchy like the U.S., but the WFP's ultimate and essential dependence upon the good will of Democrats should not be mistaken for the reverse. The right-wing New York Post has made the same "a victory for de Blasio is a victory for the WFP" argument to damn both candidate and party as extreme leftists. The WFP chuckles at the Post's indignation, yet really seems to believe that the paper is telling the truth. But the measure of how progressive or leftist you are shouldn't be how angry you make the cranks on the right. After all, right-wingers regularly accuse people and parties of being leftist (or "socialist") when those accused are nothing of the sort. De Blasio may well prove himself a progressive mayor, but no one should take it for granted just because the Post or the Working Families Party says so.

04 November 2013

Occupy the Overpass

Once upon a time, all you had to worry about was delinquents dropping rocks or other objects onto cars from overpasses. Now you have to deal with Tea Partiers. Their latest fad is holding weekend protests on overpasses across the country, waving signs and urging drivers to honk if they support the impeachment of President Obama. These demonstrations are inspired by a website called Overpasses For America. Their contention is that Obama is liable to impeachment for a number of offenses, from the Affordable Care Act's alleged violation of the First Amendment to the administration's failure to rescue diplomats from the terrorist attack on Benghazi to the appointment of officials without the consent of the Senate. It all seems unlikely to make a great impression -- the Albany newspaper only caught on this weekend that protests had been going on for several weekends already -- but it's bound to appeal to some people's moral exhibitionism. It's all legal, apparently -- except in one part of Wisconsin where the protesters have been forced off the overpass because they supposedly create a traffic hazard by distracting drivers. Inevitably this ruling looks like political persecution by those affected, and in that bitterly divided state I wouldn't be surprised if partisan vindictiveness lay behind that decision. As far as I know, no one needs a permit to go up there and display signs. If that's the case, if people really feel a need to silence these clowns, the best idea may be to get to the overpass ahead of them. The left is supposed to be good at occupying stuff, and in these cases possession may prove to be at least nine-tenths of the law. On the other hand, I suppose two factions fighting up there would really distract drivers, and you never know what might come crashing down into traffic.