24 December 2014

Drawing a line on protest

This fall's protests against perceived police use of excessive, lethal force against unarmed people have had a shifting emphasis, depending on the time and place. Correctly the emphasis is on unarmed, since in the best known cases neither Michael Brown nor Eric Garner had a weapon, though Brown is widely believed to have tried for a policeman's gun. In such cases, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that police be capable of subduing their antagonists without shooting or choking them to death. Often, however, the emphasis has been on black, and that seemed to be the emphasis in Missouri last night when people protested the killing near Ferguson of an armed black man. Security-cam footage appears to show the man pulling the gun on the cop, but the police department has withheld images of the actual shooting for the sake of the dead man's family. What is to be protested here? I suppose you can dispute the police account of events and say the man wasn't armed or a threat. You may also believe that the police are to blame for "hassling" and thus provoking the man. You may even believe that no cop ever has the right to kill a black man. Whatever the thought process, outsiders are free to believe that for last night's protesters the issue really is race relations rather than police power, unless any of them stated clearly a belief that police should never use lethal force under any circumstances, on anyone. While it's irrational if not irresponsible to argue that protests against the killings of unarmed men were the necessary or sufficient motivation for the Brooklyn cop-killer, it may be argued more plausibly that the previous protests enabled a protest last night that seems far less justified. In either case, we have an opportunity for clarification, and it is the responsibility of the protest movement to do the clarifying. What needs to be clarified is when we should consider police force excessive, and whether race should inform our consideration to any degree. To put it more simply, neither last weekend's murders or last night's scuffles is reason to silence protest. If anything, these incidents impose a greater obligation on protesters to make their message clear to everyone, without reducing our obligation to listen to them.

23 December 2014

The mayor who stole Festivus

In New York City, where tempers are still seething following last Saturday's assassination of two policemen by a career-criminal crackpot, Mayor DeBlasio has called for a cooling-off period. Feeling pressure from the police, and probably thinking it the diplomatic thing to do anyway, the mayor has urged activists to suspend protests over the deaths of Eric Garner and others until after funeral services for the murdered policemen. Because the cop-killer from Baltimore consciously resolved to avenge Garner as part of his apparent plan to exit in a blaze of glory -- the plan presumably included shooting his ex-girlfriend -- the mayor now thinks it wise to mute temporarily protests widely interpreted as anti-police and inflammatory, and apparently concedes the point that such protests are insensitive during a time of mourning for cops. But the mayor made his call yesterday without reckoning with the fact that today, December 23, is Festivus, the day set aside by Jerry Seinfeld and his TV writers for the airing of grievances. Senator Paul of Kentucky is having a blast on Twitter today to commemorate the occasion, but why should he have all the fun, especially when his grievances are almost literally nothing compared to those felt on all sides in New York? In fact, a handful of activists have spurned the mayor's appeal, as Fox News was quick to publicize, and as many protesters have argued, the inexcusable crime against the two policemen does not negate the perceived offenses against Garner by another policeman and a grand jury who found no cause for prosecution in the original, fatal offense. Meanwhile, I doubt we'll see a moratorium on "blood on their hands" commentary about Saturday's killings from the right-wing media. As I understand it, Festivus is an occasion not only for airing grievances but for feats of strength. The best way to honor the day in the city where, presumably, it was born may be to dedicate this Festivus to tests of strength. Who has the greater, the more credible grievances? Which side can out-grief the other? Ideally it would be the sort of test of strength that can be decided peacefully, by the judgment of the people as a whole. Only then can any case be made for one grievance cancelling out the other. Until then, it's still a free country, whether cops like it or not -- and it's still a free country whether black activists like what others say or not. This is a time for candor, not polite sensitivity -- and not just today, either.

22 December 2014

The police state: in union there is strength

Here we go again. In Milwaukee last April a cop fired 14 times to kill a homeless man after the man fought with him and seized his club. This brief account doesn't tell how may bullets hit the man, but it informs us that this time, too, the policeman won't be prosecuted, even though he was thrown off the force after an internal review determined that he had had subjected his victim to an "improper pat-down." The fact that he let a bum take his club probably didn't help his job security, but while that means this victim wasn't exactly unarmed, people are still bound to think that 14 bullets vs. a baton, even when wielded by a mentally ill person, is a disproportionate use of force. We'll see what becomes of this in the aftermath of the assassination of the two policemen in Brooklyn last Saturday. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the paper's house Republicans, challenges readers to do something about it all. Writing before the Milwaukee decision and the Brooklyn shootings, Brooks acknowledges a problem with police that's actually pretty similar to the problem many perceive in the public schools. He claims that the biggest obstacle to reforming police procedures and community relations is the entrenched power of police unions. Their arrogance in the face of protests this fall has been flagrant and offensive, climaxed by the NYPD's attempts to shame the mayor of New York following the Brooklyn killings by turning their back on him and ranting about blood on his hands because he had tolerated and even sympathized with protests against police excesses. Even Rudy Giuliani thinks the "blood on his hands" bit goes too far, and he's no fan of Mayor DeBlasio nor a sympathizer with the protests. Brooks suggests that nothing will change until people and politicians confront the police unions. It seems to him, however that "the left doesn't want to go after police unions, because they're unions." I doubt that matters much to the black protesters, who presumably count as part of the left, but it probably is fair to say that protesters haven't clearly addressed how to deal with union resistance to whatever reforms the protesters desire. Of course, Brooks realizes that the right will be of little help because police still embody "law and order" for most of them, though he might have mentioned that libertarians of the Rand Paul sort might prove more useful allies to the left on this particular issue. Most people seem to agree that "reform" of some sort is necessary, but from the long perspective reform got us here in the first place. The problem with police, to some extent, is less about union power than it is about professionalization. We wanted police who weren't just puppets of the politicians who ran a town, who had qualifications for protecting people and property besides their political connections. We don't want to go back to the Keystone Kops today, but we probably do want police to be more mindful of their dependence upon political will. On some level our police represent us as much as our elected representatives, and on some level they should be answerable to us. If we can have that along with the protections unions can provide against unreasonable treatment, fine. But it has to be the people, not the police, who decide ultimately what reasonable treatment is. Otherwise the police are a law unto themselves in a way no other unionized workforce is.

20 December 2014

Retaliation and responsibility

In retrospect it seems inevitable that someone angered by the failure to prosecute police for killing unarmed black men would decide to kill cops. The unusual part is that the killer traveled all the way north from Baltimore to go hunting cops in Brooklyn. He found two in their car -- an Asian and a Hispanic, for the sake of arguments -- and assassinated them. Cornered later, he killed himself rather than fall into the hands of angry police. This man had issues of his own and was clearly out to settle all outstanding business today, having shot an ex-girlfriend before heading north. Al Sharpton was quick to condemn the shooting but that won't stop anyone from saying that he, along with everyone else who's denounced the police -- including the mayor of New York City -- has blood on his hands. That is plain and simple bullshit. Holding Sharpton responsible for cop-killers is like calling The Interview an act of war. The intent is basically the same. Just as the Guardians of Peace presumably want to silence foreign critics of Kim Jong Un, those engaging in "blood on their hands" rhetoric this weekend really want to silence criticism of the police and a legal system that enables killer cops. Two wrongs don't make a right, after all. To be specific, the second wrong doesn't make the first right. The deeds of a crackpot scumbag don't vindicate the police in Ferguson or Staten Island. But if you still want to argue that all the anti-cop rhetoric inflamed and emboldened this particular scumbag crackpot, answer a question first. Do you think this particular crackpot scumbag was only convinced this fall that cops were his enemies? His criminal record suggests otherwise. Sharpton and others haven't created a crisis; they've only described it. If today's news proves anything other than that this country is full of dangerous people with guns, it's that while the legal system continues to immunize cops from accountability for killing unarmed people, armed people will feel tempted to hold the cops accountable themselves. In that case, whose hands, besides those of the dead murderer, are bloody today? The police seem increasingly to think that every hand but theirs is. Their petulantly self-righteous displays tonight, including turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio, effectively surrender whatever sympathy they had received as a class following the murders. Sympathy is owed to the murdered officers, as persons, and their families, and to no one else.

19 December 2014

Tyrannophobia and its discontents

In my immediate anger over Sony Pictures' cancellation of a film I never wanted to see, I reflected that it was too bad that the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with North Korea, since that left Americans nothing of Kim Jong Un's here to attack. While my own anger was exacerbated by Paramount Pictures' cowardly refusal to make Team America: World Police available for replacement screenings, I think I've found a sense of perspective by observing Republicans' apoplexy (excepting Rand Paul, at least) over the prospect of the U.S. normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Led by reactionaries of Cuban descent, particularly Senators Rubio and Cruz, the Castro haters are treating this initiative of the Obama administration as no less craven a capitulation to tyranny than the suppression of The Interview. Somehow I don't see it that way, but why should that be? Why am I less offended by the prospective opening of normal relations with a bloodstained tyranny than with with the bullying of a Hollywood studio by another bloodstained tyranny and its online auxiliaries? Actually, there are some fairly obvious reasons to see the two cases differently. Nothing is lost to us by normalizing relations with Cuba, apart from the exiles and reactionaries' capacity for moral self-congratulation. Nor has Cuba recently attacked American interests -- to clarify, Sony Pictures is an American-run subsidiary of the Japanese-owned Sony conglomerate -- or interfered with the Internet, unless you count the censorship of Cuban browser capacity that's inevitable in any modern dictatorship. On a psychological level, since Fidel Castro's retirement in favor of his less charismatic brother, Cuba's cult of personality is less of an affront to American sensibilities than North Korea's, where Kim Jong Un is a Pharaoh for our time. Most importantly, the American rapprochement with Cuba comes with no obligation on the part of American citizens to hold their tongues regarding the Castro brothers. Rubio and Cruz and all the exiles and all their friends have just as much right to denounce the Castros and their Communist government as they ever had. The main reason I find their outrage unreasonable compared to the outrage over the suppression of The Interview is that the Castro-haters are self-evidently unsatisfied with merely criticizing the Castros.

To explain myself, I use "Castro-haters" as a descriptive rather than a pejorative term, since history has given good reasons to hate the brothers. They are tyrants; however legitimate their siege mentality in the face of a longterm American threat, they're unjustified in regarding all opposition to their regime as giving aid and comfort to the imperialist enemy. If the U.S. can hold elections in the middle of a civil war, no country's government has any excuse to refuse reasonable challenges to its continuation in office. On some less visceral level I suppose I hate the Castros or something they seem to represent, but I separate myself from "Castro-haters" whose opposition to the brothers and their party is irreconcilable. Here's a crucial distinction: however Seth Rogen may have felt personally about Kim Jong Un prior to this week, and no matter how much the North Koreans willfully misconstrue his intentions, I'm pretty certain that The Interview does not advocate the assassination of Kim or the overthrow of his party by the U.S. government. The film is not a policy recommendation. Meanwhile, the Castro-haters want nothing short of the overthrow of the Castro brothers and the Communist party in Cuba, and while they're neither crazy nor brave enough to propose "liberating" Cuba by force they insist that American policy keep regime change as its ultimate goal. That's the unreasonable part, just as it is every time the U.S. makes regime change anywhere a policy goal.

Americans are sensitive enough to the subtleties of pop culture, even if subtlety is probably the wrong word to describe The Interview, to see that Rogen's film is not propaganda for regime change. In our eyes, at least, the Guardians of Peace's reaction to the film is insanely disproportionate to its offense, but that's only keeping with North Korea's description of the project as an "act of war" since its inception. I suppose that on some level The Interview is an expression of a characteristically American tyrannophobia, but while the perfect tyrannophobe may be outraged equally by both North Korea and Cuba, though that may make him merely a virulent anti-Communist, tyrannophobia for most of us is a relative thing. Few here would argue that, outside the military, there are circumstances when we have an obligation to obey authority's positive commands without question, or that our collective existence requires the emergence of a ruler entitled to command unconditionally. Such beliefs may come more naturally to older, more "organic" cultures, but I suppose every culture has a line beyond which rulers become tyrants and must be opposed. The American difference may be a tendency to see threats to our freedom in tyrannies anywhere else on Earth, and an assumed prerogative to propagandize against them, either to advocate their overthrow or simply to let them know what we think of them. It shouldn't surprise us if other nations see our habit, whether expressed by governments, corporations or individuals, as a breach of a certain international comity upon which world peace depends, or simply as a withholding of a respect to which all nations and their governments are entitled. This seems to be the crux of the Interview controversy: Kim Jong Un demands a degree of respect, or the Guardians of Peace demand it for him, that would make Rogen's film unimaginable,while Americans, if not other people around the world, feel morally entitled, if not morally compelled, to withhold that respect from rulers like the Kim dynasty -- or the Castro brothers. For the moment, the Guardians have upheld Kim's honor by force; hacking, apparently, is the new form of "no gun, no respect." By doing so they've violated many Americans' sense of honor, which is staked on our ability to speak out against anyone on Earth who offends us. The sequel to this chapter will most likely be more interesting than anything Seth Rogen can imagine.

17 December 2014

The Interview debacle: this isn't funny!

Events developed rapidly today as the threat to theatergoers planning to see The Interview from the self-styled Guardians of Peace, previously dismissed as not credible, somehow became more credible. This afternoon I read that the Bow Tie theater chain, which runs a multiplex in Schenectady, not far from where I am, had decided not to take chances by showing the Seth Rogen film. Tonight I hear that Sony Pictures, still reeling from the Guardians' hack, has pulled the comedy from release altogether. The U.S. State Department now holds North Korea responsible for the hack, although the Guardians are believed to be based outside the country. The Guardians are offended on North Korea's behalf because The Interview made a conspiracy to assassinate hereditary dictator Kim Jong Un the subject of a comedy, or of any sort of movie. The Guardians' attitude, their ideology notwithstanding, is exactly the same as the attitude of American right-wingers when they learned of a film that imagined the assassination of George W. Bush. In each case, the offense is a kind of sacrilege, and the brainless assumption is that to imagine is to advocate. But at least the Bush movie played in American theaters. King Kim and his surrogate hackers have successfully bullied Sony into suppressing their mockery of him. Apparently it isn't enough for the Guardians that governments show their idol the diplomatic minimum of respect. Instead, they demand implicitly that individuals everywhere show Kim Jong Un a respect that anyone who believes in civil liberty must withhold. But neither Kim nor his toadies has any right to expect respect from free people, nor should they expect us to mute our opinions in deference to his thin skin or from fear of his long virtual reach. If these Guardians think they're fighting the power by defending Kim's honor, then they're probably as ignorant in their own languages as they are in English on the evidence of their threats. It's one thing for Kim to oppress his own people -- and if we're to assume that they acquiesce in his rule because they don't revolt we can also assume them contemptible -- but now he and his stooges insult the entire world and violate our freedom to mock him. I may feel that no one anywhere deserves to be killed, but if I made exceptions despots like Kim would probably top the list. The only reason I didn't title this post, "Kill Kim Jong Un" is because it might have violated Blogger standards, but the sentiment is there. This is about more than a movie -- a movie that never looked like more than a piece of crap and one I wouldn't have wasted money on just to make a statement, especially since I've made a statement here and now. Fully recognizing my responsibility as a citizen to hold my own government and its leaders to standards of justice first, I still have consciousness to spare to hate tyranny elsewhere and wish it gone from the earth. Like The Interview probably is, Kim Jong Un is a big joke that isn't really funny. It should be as easy to withdraw him from circulation.

Justice without justice?

James Coll is both a college professor and a police detective. He's written an op-ed for the Albany Times Union asking whether justice was served in the decisions by grand juries not to indict policemen who killed unarmed men in New York and Missouri this year. The protest slogan, "No justice, no peace," he writes, begs the question of what justice really is. Coll thinks he has an answer, but it's unlikely to satisfy the protesters. In short, he rejects any notion of justice that isn't embedded in law. Noting that the Constitution was drafted to "establish justice," among other objectives, Coll assumes that the Constitution, as amended over time, does just that. This compels him to a predictably liberal conclusion, in the classical sense: justice under the law in the U.S. is essentially procedural. Justice is not to be understood as a substantive result. On this reasoning, there was due process in both of the recent controversial grand jury proceedings, as justice requires, but justice does not demand a specific result, as the protesters appear to insist. On one level, this is logical: you may not have gotten the result you want, but that alone doesn't make the process unjust. However, Coll himself is guilty of a fallacy when he interprets the protesters' demand for justice as simply something they want. I don't think he'd say that the protesters want "justice" the way someone wants a car for Christmas, but that's what he says in effect. "There will always be those who care little about facts," he writes, implicitly describing the protesters. It's obvious, however, that the protesters care very much about one fact in particular: unarmed men, blacks in particular, are being killed by police. As far as Coll is concerned, presumably, that fact is mitigated by other facts grand juries are bound to consider. The alternative, he warns, is a legal system "subject to the influence of public opinion." In the end, he abandons the idea of justice by reminding readers that "we have a legal system, not a justice system." What he means, in the context of what came before, is that we can expect no more justice than the legal system allows.

Coll must have lost his train of thought somewhere after reminding us that the Constitution is meant to establish justice. He can argue that the legal system isn't the same as a "justice system," but that doesn't mean that the country doesn't have one. Instead, our justice system is our electoral system, through which the people establish justice by choosing representatives to make laws. There would be no disregard for any facts in a demand for changes in the law to make police more accountable for killing unarmed people. If that's what the protesters are demanding, Coll really has no complaint against them. It would be another thing if the protesters are only demanding that somebody prosecute those cops for something now, but if the protesters really hope to accomplish anything I hope they know that they need to change the law. I don't know if Coll would think it unjust to change the law to increase police accountability, but if he does I'd like to know the facts that would make him think so. In any event, while we live under a rule of law -- except when we disobey a policeman, that is -- we also have a right to say the law is wrong, especially when we have the facts to back us up.

16 December 2014

Another school shooting

It was in Pakistan this time and was more or less a military operation -- a revenge attack by the Taliban. One report says there were nine gunmen, in which case the reported body count of 141 victims suggests that these hardcore jihadists were less effective, having less victims per person, than the little creep who shot up the Newtown grade school two years ago. There's probably more similarity in motive behind the two incidents than we might assume. Taliban spokesmen have said that they wanted Pakistani military families, whose children were in the Peshawar school, to "feel the pain." As far as the Taliban were concerned, this was a fair reprisal for the killing of "our families and females" by the Pakistanis. But revenge, arguably, is simply spite with a sense of drama, and spite certainly drives the angry individuals who go on amoklaufs in America, not to mention the knife-wielding Chinese farmers who've made schoolchildren a special target in recent years. As news of the Peshawar atrocity follows the fatal hostage-taking in Sydney, the prospect of more "lone wolf" attacks around the world shadows the holiday season. A great fear in the U.S. is that a convergence long-dreaded will occur as our homegrown misfits take inspiration, justification or some sad sense of belonging from the appeal of the "Islamic State" or other Islamic extremists. In some cases around the world, Islamic extremism inflames people with authentic or at least arguable grievances, but the IS's propaganda of the deed no doubt inflames many more people whose grievances are far less obvious to most of us.  Either way, a point comes when they can't share the world with some people, perhaps because they think they haven't gotten their fair share, perhaps because they think they haven't gotten any share. Whether everyone can share the world is still open to debate, but the debate can't be abandoned, even if it offends those who won't share it and like things as they are -- or were.

15 December 2014

The true face of the police?

Another weekend brought another peaceful but high-profile protest from an NFL football player of excessive use of force by the police. In Cleveland, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins took the field without provocative gestures, but wore a shirt demanding justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford. Rice was the twelve-year old boy killed for carrying a BB gun in Cleveland last month; Crawford was shot down in an Ohio Wal*Mart earlier this year. Compared to the "hands up, don't shoot" display by members of the St. Louis Rams this was a modest demonstration, but it was still enough to enrage the Cleveland police union. As did their St. Louis counterparts, the union demanded an apology from the football franchise. As in the previous case, the Cleveland cops actually expect gratitude. "The Cleveland police protect and serve the Browns stadium," their statement reads. I don't think I read too much into these outbursts if I infer that they threaten the withholding of protection and other services in the future if the players don't show the proper respect. While the Cleveland cops can't accuse Andrew Hawkins of lying, since he made no comment about the Ferguson MO incident, they did express contempt for "pathetic ... athletes [who] think they know the law." Not surprisingly, the police union misses the point. In cases like these, Hawkins and those who feel as he does probably know all too well what the law is. Their sense of justice demands a change in the law, and the last time I looked it was every citizen's prerogative in this country to demand changes in the law -- to demand "justice" -- without being pressured to apologize by offended parties. If a cop feels disrespected by Hawkins's demand for justice, that cop most likely feels that he and his blue line are the law. I'm surprised they don't call Hawkins or those Rams players traitors. But in this case, unlike in the Rams game, the cops presumably had the last laugh of the day. Cincinnati shut out Cleveland, 31-0. The Browns scored a moral victory, however, by standing up for Hawkins's right to "bring awareness to issues that are important to [him] ... in a responsible manner." Usually wherever the police can't tolerate such behavior we call it a police state, while a healthy irreverence toward police is an American tradition, as our pop culture heritage well testifies. A century ago people laughed at tramps evading cops in movies. I wonder whether police unions would tolerate such displays today, but then again I fear that people don't find cops as funny as they once were.

12 December 2014

More spending, less regulation

On the radio this morning I heard a Democratic congressman from Virginia ranting on the House floor about how compromise was the way the legislative branch was supposed to work. If compromise means everyone gives up something, I'm not sure that's what we saw last night in the passage of the so-called Cromnibus spending bill. Democrats, at the President's urging, had to loosen some regulations of derivatives trading and campaign donations. Tea Partiers, despite their Nay votes, had to accept funding of the President's discretionary enforcement of immigration laws. The Cromnibus is acknowledged as genuinely bipartisan legislation, as enough Republicans opposed it to make Democratic support essential to its passage. That probably means there's more spending in the bill than any Republican really likes, and if that's so then I suppose everyone did give up something. We can still question whether the tradeoffs were equitable.  Seeing the Democrats -- or at least the President -- relent on regulation to get more spending actually made me wonder whether there actually was some virtue in the idea of austerity. Of course, it the spending is for essential programs and not for the pork barrel, it could be argued that Democrats had to give Speaker Boehner something, especially if his bill was angering Tea Partiers. On the other hand, we can still ask whether the regulations were more important than the spending. People with money to throw around can now throw ten times as much as before to the national party committees. Stock traders can play more of the same games that got everyone in trouble in 2008. Would it be unfair to ask people to do without some things to hold the line on the old regulations? I leave the answer to those measuring the pros rather than the cons of the bill -- but I doubt they can justify the ancient, obfuscating practice of attaching rules-change "riders" like the ones mentioned to spending bills. The practice may make horse-trading easier but it also makes it hard to know the will of the nation on the merits of individual things. I get the sense that not many Americans approve of the cromnibus in its entirety, but once the Senate approves it and the President signs it, it's the law of the land, in its entirety, just the same. I'd like to think that if the base elements of each party hate it, there must be some good to it, but thinking so presumes an inherent virtue in centrism that can't be proved. Centrism in a bipolarchy isn't the same as moderation as the ancients understood it. A compromise between bad and bad probably isn't much good for anyone, but it probably won't end the world either -- this time, at least.

10 December 2014

The oil war: a crude sketch

Consumers may rejoice at plunging gas prices but while they benefit, international tensions may increase. Consumers, and commuters especially, will want to thank Saudi Arabia, which is glutting the market and pulling prices down. The Saudis seem to be waging a two-front oil war. On the geopolitical front, driving down oil prices hurts the economies of Iran and Russia, theoretically diminishing their ability to support the Assad regime in Syria and Iran's ability to create mischief in the Middle East as a whole. While overproduction should hurt the Saudi economy as well, the Saudis presumably have financial resources the Iranians and Russians lack and clearly expect to weather whatever storm their policy generates. It's easy to assume that the Saudis are acting in American interests in this respect, but the second front of their oil war, according to many analysts, pits them against U.S. oil producers. Specifically, the Saudi strategy seems designed to preempt the development of American shale oil reserves through fracking. The idea behind this is that fracking is expensive and requires high oil prices to be cost-effective. If the Saudis can hold prices down, fracking becomes unprofitable because frackers can't make their money back on the oil market. Given the ambivalence with which Democrats in the U.S. regard fracking, it's possible that the Obama administration could be encouraging Saudi overproduction to hurt Russia and Iran without caring much about the consequences for frackers. It seems just as likely, if not more so, that the Saudis have reasons of their own for their actions that have nothing to do with costs or benefits for the U.S. Were this a movie, this would be the part when someone tries to sabotage Saudi production, but in the real world we should assume that people have wanted to do that for some time, only to find opportunities lacking. Still, the Iranian president has described the Saudi policy as "treachery," while the Saudis' partners in OPEC can't be too thrilled with a policy that more likely hurts than helps them. We can't help wondering how much longer Saudi Arabia will get away with it. The Iranians, Russians and Syrians may want to do something about it, but the tipping point might come when Republicans take over the White House and the entire American government resolves to make the world safe for fracking. Meanwhile, although consumers may praise the Saudis now, inevitably they'll curse the Saudis when it's in the Saudi interest to limit production and drive prices up. These rumors of oil wars sound like an argument for the global socialization of oil production in fairness to oil producers and consumers alike -- while oil lasts, that is. Until that happens, we can only hope that oil wars don't turn into shooting wars.

09 December 2014

'Inconsistent with our values as a nation'

Upon receiving the on the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture since 2001, the President released a statement declaring that "these harsh methods were ... inconsistent with our values as nation"

He really is out of touch, isn't he? He certainly looks dumb saying this at a time when millions of Americans apparently affirm that unarmed people deserve death for resisting arrest. What's a little waterboarding to such people? And he was just talking about that sort of thing the other day. I suppose he finds that inconsistent with our values, too.

I get it, of course. All of this is inconsistent with his values -- in which case, good for him. But he shouldn't insult our intelligence, not to mention that of the rest of the world, by trying to convince us that there's something fundamentally un-American about torture. Torture is no more fundamentally un-American than it is fundamentally American. Wherever people believe they know who the bad people are, regardless of legal standards of proof, they long to hear the bad people confess their crimes, and they long for someone to make them confess. It is arguably inconsistent with American values to torture people merely for expressing political opinions, but I'd bet that there are millions of Americans who wouldn't mind seeing certain dissidents tortured until they confess the treasonous malice behind their dissent. Anywhere, when people say they want bad people punished, they most likely mean they want bad people to suffer. The liberal humanitarian hedonists for whom the infliction of pain on anyone is an evil unjustified by any noble end are a pitiful minority around the world. On the simplest level, the majority assumes that suffering is necessary to learn right from wrong, while inflicting suffering is necessary to teach the difference. Like Americans in general, liberal Americans like President Obama like to think Americans are better than everyone else. Abhorring torture is how they sustain a belief in our superiority that justifies the sort of interventions around the world that end up with Americans torturing people. Interventionism brings us to torture just as it makes us the target of terrorists. Obama may think he solved the problem by issuing an order early in his presidency -- the offenses reported today took place under George W. Bush -- but he'd do more to solve the problem permanently if he renounced interference in other countries' affairs. By now it should be clear that he'll never do such a thing. It's terrible to torture prisoners, sure, but it's necessary for national security to kill families with drones. That's why the President's moral preening looks petty to me.

08 December 2014

Eric Garner, Libertarian Martyr?

What you make of the death of Eric Garner after a policeman choked him into submission is very much a matter of perspective. Some observers are satisfied that Garner got what was coming to him for resisting arrest. Others, more prominently, see him as yet another black victim of a racist police culture, dead not necessarily because the cop hates blacks but because cops are conditioned somehow to react more forcefully when confronting black men. I'm not the only person to warn that too exclusive a focus on race can distract Americans from the issue of equal relevance to us all, the immunity police seem increasingly to enjoy when excessive force leads to fatalities. But if black protesters have a right to see Garner's death in a context of racist brutality, then Rand Paul has as much right to see it in a context of excessive taxation and regulation by government. As part of his outreach to minority voters, Sen. Paul has often criticized police excesses occasioned by the "war on drugs." During the first wave of Ferguson riots last summer, he expressed concern over the "militarization" of police forces across the country. While libertarians stereotypically want a government that is no more than a police force, existing primarily to protect property, Paul has tried to remind his base that even the police power can go too far and should be subject to scrutiny. Yet he has irked some people with his intervention in the Garner case because of his argument that the law bears a share of the blame for Garner's death.

Rand Paul wasn't the first person to note that Garner died for selling "loosies" -- individual cigarettes sold on the street tax-free. For many observers that's just a way of underscoring the atrocious disproportion of the punishment Garner suffered to the offense he committed. Paul goes further than that, however. Seeing an analogy with the war on drugs, the senator argues that an unjust law -- New York State's expensive cigarette tax -- creates an underground economy that puts people like Garner in peril of police violence. Leaving aside the other recent high-profile killings of unarmed people by cops, Paul suggests that in this particular case, Garner might still be alive today if the tax wasn't so high, or if it didn't exist at all.

Paul would have been a fool not to expect a backlash, but this wouldn't be the first time he'd be surprised at hostile reactions to opinions that seem reasonable to him. To many observers on the left, Paul's statements are a crass exploitation of a tragedy (or a crime, depending on your perspective) for a right-wing purpose: the reduction or elimination of a tax. To some activist observers, Paul seems to be distracting people from whatever they consider the real issue, e.g. a racist police war on black men. I suppose I consider Paul's stance a distraction since I consider the real issue to be police procedure more than the laws the police enforce. Yet Paul's stance isn't entirely irrelevant to the bigger picture insofar as a "broken windows" policy of cracking down on relatively minor offenses (like selling loosies) makes dangerous confrontations between people and police more likely. Taken out of the context of Paul's overall position on the police, however, his comments on the Garner case make it easy for an ideological enemy to think that the tax is the only thing the senator is really concerned about. As a result, some of the current criticism of Paul seems unfair. Nevertheless, we should be able to affirm the state's right to tax cigarettes, if that's what the people really want, while holding the police more strictly to account for their action against the tax-evading loosie trade. The law that matters most in the Garner case and others like it is not the law the cop attempts to enforce, but the law we the people ultimately must make regulating the cops' enforcement of all our laws.

05 December 2014

Comply or Die

In the United States, you can be killed for resisting arrest. In this sense, our country is as much a "police state" as any place where you can be killed for resisting the government. Before anyone goes reactionary on me, I don't intend to say that suspects have a right physically to resist arrest. The issue isn't a suspect's right to resist, but a cop's right to kill, even when there's no actual resistance. Just yesterday a Phoenix man was shot down while reaching for a pill bottle. Even in such a case I'm sure someone is saying, he should have known better than to reach for anything. In all such cases police apologists ask what the problem is with obeying an officer's instructions. Do they really want to affirm that failing to obey merits death? Depending on the circumstances, you may not have too much sympathy with someone who gets his ass beaten, or gets himself tazed, while resisting. But as the stakes increase responsibility shifts to the person with the power to kill. Police apologists are concerned only with the stakes for the cop. How often have you heard or read how making police accountable for killing through excessive force will make them less effective in a real crisis when quick reactions may save his life? What this means is that since killing is justified when the cop's life is truly in danger, it's also justified when it is not in danger. Does that follow? Maybe the apologists want to say that a policeman is always in danger, and therefore always has the right to kill -- must enjoy immunity from prosecution or accountability to the people -- when he's on duty. In the Eric Garner case, it's been said that the cop whose chokehold hastened Garner's demise could not be indicted unless the grand jury suspected premeditation (impossible under the circumstances) or malice on the cop's part. It begins to look as if the national standard is that a cop can't be indicted unless he's heard shouting, "Die, N----r!" or whatever he might shout to people of different races.

Apologists for the grand juries rightly emphasize respect for the rule of law. No cop should be indicted merely because the family of the dead man feels bad. Somehow, however, the de facto exoneration of lethal cops seems to violate many people's idea of the rule of law. The problem is that their idea -- their sense of justice -- isn't really the law. They have to make law, or at least try. Ideally the recent atrocities will inspire a true democratic moment in this country. One group of Americans insists that police must be held accountable in the criminal justice system when they kill unarmed people. Another contends that police must enjoy the benefit of the doubt in such cases, from the law and the public alike, in order to protect us effectively.  No theory of natural law gives us the right answer to this question: the people as a whole must make a choice. We either demand accountability, at whatever cost, or we give police something like impunity, at whatever cost.

In this debate, the race question isn't irrelevant but easily can become a distraction. At the risk of offense, the issue of black Americans' relations with police is a separate but equal issue tangentially related to the larger question of police procedure. Making the police issue a race issue primarily makes it too easy for reactionaries to shift the debate to issues like black crime, "black culture" or the allegedly irrational hostility of blacks toward police. Whenever largely black crowds protest the shooting of a black person by a white policeman, some reactionary asks why they aren't marching when blacks are killed by blacks. That's the trap protesters set for themselves when they portray race as the deciding factor in incidents like the killings of Garner and Michael Brown. If you suspect blacks of having double standards, or of caring only for their own and not the rule of law, the question to ask them is why they don't hit the streets, if they actually don't, when unarmed people of other races are killed by cops. It does happen, and all too often. Also, while it may suit some black people to treat killings by police as a conspiracy against their race, it hardly helps coalition-building to say that, since if anything you'd minimize the sense of danger others should feel. Black people may have a claim to moral leadership on this issue, but could surrender it if they assert it too exclusively. That being said, distaste for it being treated as a race issue shouldn't dissuade anyone from dealing with the problem in its true scope.

Issues like these show one of the limitations of our political order. It's clear that millions of Americans would like to have new rules governing the use of lethal force by police. Inevitably, their impulse will be diluted by the imperatives of electoral politics and representative government. The conventional answer to the sort of complaints raised over the past fortnight is, "Elect leaders who will change the law." But electing representatives inevitably involves tradeoffs on priorities, especially when a party system superimposes itself on the constitutional frame of government. The only real test of the will of the American people will be when the specific question of criminal (or other) liability for cops who kill unarmed people is on the ballot as an initiative or referendum. We shouldn't have to worry about who (or what party) represents us in the legislature before declaring our will on a subject like this one. There are times when the people should speak directly, and this is one of them. If our political order can't facilitate such a resolution, that would be another mark against the Framers and their successors. Should politicians or the people as a whole make the rules for the police? If we can't answer that question, cops will keep on being a law unto themselves.

03 December 2014

Choose your prejudice

David Brooks believes that much of the hostility directed toward the late Michael Brown, his family and friends and sympathizers across the country is explained by class rather than racial prejudice. He finds the pejorative rhetoric directed against the Brown faction similar to the rhetoric used by upper-class Britons toward lower-class Britons in the 19th century, in a time and place when race had very little to do with class prejudice. What Brooks is trying to say is that theories of racial inferiority appear to have little to do with reactionary attitudes toward blacks in the 21st century U.S. He prefers to see the contempt currently directed toward blacks, whether they're rioting and looting or not, as part of an indisputable and more expansive contempt among right-wingers for "losers" in general. Brooks blames this attitude on an increased class segregation that allows the "meritocratic" class to dismiss the poor as losers whose poverty can be blamed on poor habits and attitudes. That right-wingers are contemptuous toward "losers" regardless of background can't be denied, but it's naive of Brooks to deny that racism exacerbates that contempt when the object is black people. Very few people today would argue, publicly at least, that blacks are genetically inferior to whites and deserving of an inferior social position for that reason. However, much of the reactionary commentary on the Ferguson case blames a specific black culture for the failings of Michael Brown and his community. Blacks are presumed by many to be culturally alien in a way that handicaps them socially. The irrepressible implication is that, to succeed, they must become less "black." This is an important variation on the usual "personal responsibility" theme that Brooks misses in his focus on class over race. Poor whites may be thought of as losers, but it is not presumed that such people need to transcend their culture in the way deemed necessary for blacks. Read any comment thread about Ferguson (here's a good example from a right-wing news site) and it becomes obvious quickly that the subject isn't poor people in general. Something else Brooks misses in his emphasis on class is that it isn't rich reactionaries alone who have condemned Michael Brown posthumously or wished a fate similar to Brown's on the Ferguson rioters. An animus toward blacks persists across class lines, and may be expressed most viciously the lower down the socioeconomic ladder we go. Just as you don't have to think of Michael Brown as a gentle giant to believe he shouldn't have been killed, you don't have to assume blacks innocent as a race to recognize something enduringly irrational in some whites' feelings toward them.

Whether the basis of prejudice is class or race, can it be cured the way Brooks proposes, through integration in some nebulous "common project?" Brooks's hope is that "Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends." What should the common endeavor or project be? Brooks's vagueness on this detail reminds me of a column earlier in November in which he yearned for leaders who could encourage collaboration across partisan and other divides. Taking inspiration from the private sector, he hopes that "collaborative" political leaders will "combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive." In the private sector, presumably, even when ideas seem mutually exclusive, the people with contradictory ideas still have a common goal: more profits for the company. The problem with the analogy is that the common goal in the public sector is not as self-evident. "The good of the country" only begs the question, on which, as we know all too well, there remains profound ideological disagreement that has much to do with class, if not as much to do with race. We can't take for granted that any "collaborative" leader can reconcile the apparently irreconcilable visions of the common good that prevail in this country today. A less ambitious "common project" might overcome some class or race prejudice, as Brooks hopes, but he had better hope that it overcomes ideological prejudices as well. Classism, racism and ideology all feed one another. Brooks sees class as both the dominant element and the weakest link in the chain that holds the country back, but I'm not sure one can be beaten without beating all three.

02 December 2014

The global cycle of hypocrisy

Take a look at this editorial on the Ferguson case from the Xinhua news agency, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. While the writer notes some interesting inconsistencies in Officer Wilson's descriptions of his fatal encounter with Michael Brown, the main point of the commentary is to offer the grand jury "acquittal" of Wilson as proof of American hypocrisy on the subject of human rights. For the writer, the mere fact of mass protest appears to prove that the grand jury miscarried justice in a way typical of the nation as a whole. The whole Ferguson affair belies America's "propensity to blame others for being undemocratic" and "reveals the hypocrisy of the country touting itself as a human rights defender and judge" 

If the point of the editorial is that nobody's perfect, or "judge not lest ye be judged," well and good. But for nations to accuse each other of hypocrisy is to wield a double-edged sword. Inevitably it will be asked what right China has to judge the state of democracy in any other nation, or to judge the hypocrisy of anyone else's attitude toward human rights. A hostile reader will likely argue that China's violations of democracy and human rights are systematic to an extent that makes their exploitation of the Ferguson incident look pathetic and cynical. Even on the subject of race or ethnic relations, it could be said that the oppressors of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, etc., have no business passing judgment on race relations elsewhere.  Many Americans who have criticized conditions in Ferguson would deny that those disqualify them from criticizing other country's oppressive practices. 

Just the same, Ferguson no doubt embarrasses many Americans just as their parents and grandparents may have been embarrassed whenever any Soviet apologist of yore answered arguments against the Gulag with "What about the blacks?" At such moments there's a temptation to think of injustice in "authoritarian" countries as an apple and injustice in America as an orange, and to observe that the orange may be bruised but the apple is rotten. I suspect that the Chinese wouldn't reject an apple-and-orange argument as long as people keep their opinions about the apple to themselves. Their whole point, as I understand it, is that China has a different culture and philosophy of government to which American or western claims of human rights are largely irrelevant -- that ideas about the proper relationship between citizen and state are shaped by culture, as understood in both nationalist and Marxist terms, and not defined absolutely or universally by philosophical assertions. In western eyes this is a rationale for totalitarianism, but the Chinese presumably deny that their way of doing things makes individuals into slaves or makes the Communist Party a government of gangsters.Comparing themselves with an America defined by Ferguson, they might concede that others will disapprove of the way China deals with political dissidents, but they more likely expect others to concede that China at least deals with its people equitably, without reference to race or other forms of minority identity. Uyghurs, Tibetans and various Christians may dispute that point, but the Han majority will assert it just the same. To them, and perhaps to all citizens of China, it might be more offensive to see an entire race reduced to second-class status, as they see African Americans, than to go without guarantees of absolute safety for political dissidents. All of this begs the question whether Chinese criticism of American race relations can only go so far as "you have no business judging us" or whether it is inevitably itself a judgment, a argument for Chinese superiority. This was an easier call when China was more overtly advancing Marxism as a universal system of values, back in the day of Chairman Mao. Now, when China is more likely to assert, both more modestly and more stridently, their right to a particularly Chinese way of doing things, it might be argued that they have less business than ever judging other countries' ways while Americans, still imagining theirs to be universal values, can argue that inequality comes inevitably with the freedom that itself is the sine qua non of human well being. The challenge for any culture is to confront the evils inherent in its own values while arguing for universal values that transcend any particular culture. If humanity is to survive as a species individuals everywhere should have the courage to criticize governments anywhere, including at home, in the name of humanity rather than mere national interest. If the Chinese are wrong to claim that Ferguson leaves Americans no right to criticize China, it's also wrong to claim that China -- standing in for the specter of authoritarianism that has always haunted us -- leaves Americans no need to criticize Ferguson.

01 December 2014

Hands up ... shut up!

Yesterday, several members of the St. Louis Rams football team made their entrances doing a sort of dance with their hands upraised. This was understood to be a gesture of solidarity with the family and friends of Michael Brown, and a gesture disapproving of the grand jury's decision not to indict the cop who shot Brown to death in Ferguson MO earlier this year. The gesture was noted with great disapproval by the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The statement issued in their name by one Jeff Roorda chides the players for their ingratitude to the police who protect them. In Roorda's account the cops bravely stood between the Rams and last week's angry mobs, and this is the thanks they get!

It gets better. Roorda wants the National Football League to discipline the offending players and hints at a boycott by police if the league fails to satisfy him. "I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products," he writes, "It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do." Notice how he's shaping the context of his complaint. The Rams presumably were protesting the grand jury decision, but Roorda implies that they were also supporting the Ferguson rioters and other disturbers of the peace.

Best of all, Roorda attempts to preempt any First Amendment defense of the Rams players by asserting his own First Amendment right to demand their punishment. "I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours." In truth, as we should know by now, the players would not have a First Amendment defense against disciplinary action by the Rams management or the NFL, each being a private entity, though they do have a strong union that would certainly wage a vigorous defense against any such action. Still, the extraordinary part of Roorda's screed is his claim that his First Amendment right to demand the silencing of the players trumps their First Amendment right to protest the Ferguson decision. In effect, he's claiming that people have no right to protest that decision, first because the decision is settled law, and second because protesting it hurts the feelings of cops. And we know the poor dears simply can't function properly if their feelings are hurt or if they ever feel anxious about accountability for anything they do.

Roorda sees things this way: you either accept the grand jury's decision uncritically or you endorse riots and looting. There's at least one other way to see things. Knowing whatever you do about the fatal incident in Ferguson, if you feel that Michael Brown deserved death, then you support the cops and the grand jury. If you don't think he deserved to die, and you think there should be some kind of accountability for cops who kill unarmed people, no matter what the circumstances, you stand with the peaceful protesters, including the Rams players.

As for the Rams management, I don't think they'll mess with success. After the offense before the kickoff, the offense kept on going, and St. Louis beat the Oakland Raiders, 52-0. Athletes are a superstitious lot, so I'd expect to see a repeat of the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture before every remaining Rams game this season. It's just too bad that they didn't start this earlier. They're only 5-7 now; had they been doing this all along, they might be on their way to the Super Bowl.

26 November 2014

Here's one reason why atheists get angry

A local "anti-terrorism" court in Pakistan has sentenced a media mogul and three TV performers to 26 years apiece in prison for blasphemy. The blasphemy consisted of staging a dance to accompany a song about the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad's daughter. This "malicious act," the court claims, "ignited the sentiments of all Muslims of the country and hurt [their] feelings." This Pakistani news source notes that the sentence may not be carried out by the central government, but it's the thought (or lack of it) that counts. There is no more contemptible non-violent expression of religious intolerance than blasphemy laws, especially when blasphemy, in spite of religious claims of exact knowledge, exists in the eye of the beholder or, as some have said of this particular case, it can be prosecuted selectively for political reasons.

A Pakistani case might be considered none of my business, but while I claim no authority to change another country's laws, it's certainly my prerogative to call them stupid when the label fits. I needn't assert a universal human right that I can't prove in order to suggest that laws should not be imposed to protect religions from insult.

Thinking about this makes me wonder whether we in the U.S. could amend our Constitution to forbid federal and state governments from passing laws against blasphemy. Some may assume that the First Amendment already covers this, but nitpickers will argue that the laws "respecting an establishment of religion" covered by the existing amendment are only those that would establish some denomination on a tax-supported basis, while the nature of the "speech" protected by the same amendment remains a subject of controversy. Redundant or not, why not a Blasphemy Amendment? We'll have to come up with a better name for it before it becomes just plain Amendment XXVIII, but while Americans identify the concept of blasphemy almost exclusively with militant Islam atheists might find many unexpected allies in such a venture. It would definitely be interesting to see who in America would come out against such a proposal, though the Catholic League is the only high-profile entity I can even imagine doing so. Still, once the full scope of such an amendment becomes clear, we might be surprised at how much the attitudes we attribute to Muslim backwardness still survive here, once someone suggests that we should be free forever more to mock God.

The rule of law in Hong Kong and Ferguson

Is everything relative? Americans may not have noticed the latest round of street violence in Hong Kong amid the chaos in Ferguson MO, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of those who've followed the Hong Kong story take a very different view of street violence depending on where it happens and who's doing it. For those who've joined late, Hong Kong dissidents have been carrying on "Occupy" style protests against the policy that allows the mainland Chinese government to vet candidates for the semi-autonomous island's upcoming election. The protesters fear that Beijing, which is to say the Communist Party, will approve only those candidates they deem correctly subservient to the mainland, if not to the Party. While many Hong Kong citizens complain, as many Americans did about the original Occupiers, that the protesters are obstructing traffic, commerce and the regular routines of hardworking people, for liberals around the world the only consideration is that this is a pro-democracy protest. If the local government, at the behest of Beijing or not, acts to suppress the Occupation, that will be proof to many observers that Hong Kong has succumbed to the "authoritarian" will of the mainland; it will be a blow against democracy and human rights. Many of those observers will reject any comparison with Ferguson. The Hong Kong protesters are not looting, they'll say. They're not rallying around an unworthy martyr. They stand for a higher principle, while Ferguson has shown nothing but simpleminded tribal rage. Yet the Ferguson protesters themselves seem very clear in their belief that injustice has been done to one of theirs, and the principles at the heart of the nonviolent protests -- and maybe of the violent ones also -- should be obvious. Police have too much license; they are given the benefit of the doubt in a way that inescapably casts blame on people who are still victims, because they are unarmed and dead, no matter what they may have done wrong.  Observers of Ferguson can agree that looting is wrong, but some Americans are so hostile toward any protest against the grand jury decision not to prosecute the cop who shot Michael Brown that the distinction between protest and riot gets lost. I get a sense that some Americans feel that no one has a right to protest the decision, or even the shooting of Brown. In this context, it should be possible to support the protesters in both Ferguson and Hong Kong in the name of a democracy that can never be fully constrained by the idea of rule of law. In this same context, here's news worth noting. Back in October, a video camera caught seven Hong Kong cops beating the crap out of a protester. Today, in an act that may have been timed exactly to suggest comparisons with other countries, the cops were arrested.

25 November 2014

The Ferguson verdicts

The grand jury decided that there was no cause to try a Ferguson MO policeman on the suspicion that he had violated the law by shooting an unarmed man in the line of duty. The law, as the jurors understood it, permitted the cop to shoot the man under the circumstances as the jurors understood them, or else the law rightly shielded the cop from a kind of accountability that might have a negative, demoralizing effect on public safety. A number of citizens of Ferguson protested, some peacefully, some by burning and looting. If the only point of the protesters, violent or not, was to complain that a cop had gotten away with killing one of them, then I can't have much more sympathy for them than most people have shown. Would they have come out in such numbers, with such force, if the cop's victim had been white? If they answer that no white youth would be so victimized, they betray a narrow if not tribal viewpoint that guarantees a dead end to their marching or rioting. The issue for the nation in Ferguson is not the identity of the victim, however important that is for one segment of the population, but the procedure of policing. But this point is lost if protesters assume that the cop acted as he did primarily if not solely because his antagonist was black. If Ferguson is going to influence the future, we have to get past the question of Michael Brown and his conduct. We should be able to concede all the arguments against him, yet still insist that, being unarmed, he should not have been shot, and that there must be some form of accountability for police who shoot unarmed people. Body-cams and other suggestions for making a record of all such encounters are good ideas, but they don't substitute for changes in police procedure. If the police are public servants, then the people have every right to set down the standards they choose for police conduct. If the people demand that police should be able to subdue big guys who are pummeling or grappling them without having to use guns, so be it. The expectation may be unrealistic, but we shouldn't have to take the policemen's word for that. The Ferguson protests will be useful if they inspire movements to force changes in police procedure. Unfortunately, the violent protests will only encourage certain people to favor more draconian procedures, just as they reinforce the prejudice that Brown and the rioters are of a common type that simply needs to be put down. Few minds were changed by last night's spectacle. The challenge for those who saw injustice done -- by the cop and by the grand jury, that is -- is to steer outrage in a more radical if less violent direction, to take power. If you can make law, you don't have to change minds; it'll be someone else's turn to comply or else.

24 November 2014

'Anti-theists' and atheists who don't give a damn

Reza Aslan's fifteen-minute fame meter started when he lucked into an interview with an idiot reporter on Fox News. After the reporter repeatedly and cluelessly questioned Aslan's motives, and implicitly his right as a Muslim, to write a book about Jesus, that book became a best-seller. If the controversy over Zealot put Aslan in implicit antagonism with reactionary Christians, he's moved on now to take on another popular target: the so-called militant (or "New") atheists represented on the best-seller lists by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Aslan has arrived late to this fight, which pits the militants not just against the believers but also against some atheists who resent their zealotry. Writing for Salon, Aslan suggests alternate labels for two types of atheist. Reserving "atheist" itself for those folks who happen not to believe in gods and leave it at that, he does away with vague adjectives in favor of dubbing Dawkins and Harris "anti-theists," distinguished by an open hostility toward religion that some mere atheists may lack. This novelty aside, Aslan's argument against the anti-theists is familiar stuff: they're absolutist, intolerant, the mirror image of those fundamentalists they most despise, etc.  In Aslan's own words:

Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community [hyperlinks in original].

The writer dismisses the anti-theism he's just defined as "rooted in a naive and, dare I say, unscientific understanding of religion – one thoroughly disconnected from the history of religious thought," though he notes with liberal care in advance that there's nothing wrong with people feeling this way. Aslan prefers, obviously, those atheists who simply opt out of faith, presumably without casting aspersions on the remaining faithful. The crucial difference, it seems is that the mere atheist thinks that religion is wrong in a more-or-less value-free way, but doesn't consider his opinion binding on anyone else, while the anti-theist thinks that religion is bad. An atheist just happens not to eat meat, for the sake of analogy, while an anti-theist is a self-conscious vegan and PETA member and sometimes annoying in his advocacy. The one decides that meat (or religion) is not good for him; the other concludes that it is not good, period.

I wondered for a while whether we needed this new (or newish) label. Whatever happened to anticlericalism, after all? That was the past's word for open hostility toward religion, but after thinking it over I decided it doesn't quite fit our present-day antagonism. As the word implies, anticlericalism is above all hostility toward a priesthood, while Aslan's anti-theism really indicts all believers, the rabble perhaps more so than their leaders in our democratic age. Anticlericalism arguably resented the power or wealth rather than the beliefs of a priesthood, while anti-theists presumably recognize belief as the source of priestcraft's power and wealth and directs its attack accordingly. 

I don't consider myself a militant atheist but I find the atheism preferred by Aslan a rather milquetoast thing. For him, atheism should be no more than a consumer choice: if the preacher's pitch doesn't work for me, that doesn't mean it shouldn't work for anyone. Is it possible, however, to feel that way about religion? Can you reject the appeal of faith without feeling that it's a lie or a con? The answer is yes if only because I've read some high-profile intellectual atheists who take that stance. Longtime readers may recall John Gray's harsh criticisms of the New Militants, many of which are echoed by Aslan. Gray is an atheist himself but has argued that people -- most of them --  need myths of some sort in order to cope with an otherwise meaningless world. He counts the idea of progress itself as such a myth, and it may be true that in order to accomplish or even try some important things we have to believe in things, like our own success, that we can't prove. Faith in something is necessary to culture and society, arguably, but I don't know if religious faith is that kind of faith, and I'm less convinced than some are that religion has to be accepted as such a faith. I don't argue that religion must be destroyed, or at the least I don't assume that destroying it is any shortcut to a better world. But I like to believe that I rejected religion not just because it's wrong for me, but also because it's wrong in a way that others can and perhaps should recognize for their own sakes. Religion too often is a lie or con for us to agree for civility's sake not to mention the fact. If that makes an atheist uncivil or demotes him to the anti-theist ranks in Reza Aslan's eyes, then let's recall that many of us find religious proselytizing quite uncivil. If one must be tolerated, so must the other, and so must their mutual criticism. If I can tolerate preachers promising hellfire for the likes of me, then believers ought to be able to stand the rhetoric of atheists or anti-theists without whining the way Aslan does. His outraged tone is disproportionate to our moment in history. Call me, Mr. Aslan, when Richard Dawkins starts chopping off heads.

21 November 2014

The Prosecutor-in-Chief and executive discretion

As compromise between the two major parties seems increasingly impossible on a widening field of issues, presidents assert ever more sweeping discretionary powers that allow them theoretically to ignore or override the legislative branch. George W. Bush was much criticized for his various executive orders, by Senator Barack Obama among others. Since then, President Obama has found it convenient if not necessary to claim similar discretionary power in his executive capacity. While Bush asserted the President's right as Commander-in-Chief to use discretion in taking immediate action for national defense before consulting Congress, Obama claims similar discretionary authority in his capacity as chief enforcer of the nation's laws to "defer" the deportation of large numbers of undocumented immigrants. He depends on the concept of "prosecutorial discretion," based on the assumption that law enforcement inevitably must set priorities given inevitably limited resources. The current opposition claims that the sort of discretion the President elects to exercise effectively nullifies policies set by Congress and thus tips one of the balances upon which constitutional government depends. This isn't the first time the Obama administration has been criticized for selective enforcement of laws, but given his new position as a lame duck facing hostile majorities in both houses of Congress next year, his action (or inaction) on deportations strikes Republicans in particular as a provocative act if not a threat to the American political order. Each party in turn, as it gains strength in the legislature, fears that a President of the opposing party will hop on skis and race down the slippery slope to "authoritarian" rule if not outright dictatorship. Each party has been hypocritical when criticizing executive power as exercised by the other, and in defending controversial assertions of executive power by their own leaders. While the prosecutorial discretion principle assumes that discretion is necessary and inevitable, the public can still ask itself exactly how much discretion the President of the United States should have. As Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist, asks at an admirable distance from partisanship, how would Democrats like it if a future Republican president, acting on his or her discretion, chooses not to enforce the Affordable Care Act's rule requiring everyone to buy health insurance, or any number of "anti-business" environmental regulations? Prosecutorial discretion can justify such choices as easily as it justifies Obama's present course.  If discretion is inevitable, it needn't be the last word. If Republicans feel strongly enough about this, perhaps they can seek something like a writ of mandamus from a court that could compel a president to execute laws according to legislative discretion, respecting the letter and spirit of legislation. And of course, there are always elections, and while Barack Obama doesn't have to worry about those anymore, his party still does.

As for the merits of the President's particular course, he may be pandering to Hispanics but he wouldn't be the first chief executive (as his supporters note forcefully) to take pragmatic discretionary action in face of overwhelming numbers and humanitarian concerns. Ideally, there ought to be a way to debate policy without also having a debate on the desirability of greater Hispanic immigration, but that's entirely up to Republicans. Unfortunately, they seem incapable of making their case without implicitly questioning the fitness of Central Americans for small-r republican citizenship. For the GOP some things never change. While Abraham Lincoln in particular among the GOP founders criticized the "Know Nothing" nativism of his time, the Republican party effectively inherited the anti-immigrant vote the Know Nothings once claimed. Republicans have always accused Democrats of exploiting immigrants by making them clients of local party machines and expediting their naturalization in order to get their votes. For their part, Democrats have told each new wave of immigrants since 1854 that Republicans hate them, and the immigrants have seen little reason to dispute the claim. As more people question the very idea of "illegal" immigration the modern debate has grown more intense, while not as virulent as when most immigrants were Irish. Many people are cheering Obama's discretionary move as a means toward a desired end, while just as many seem ready to take him to court, but the end in this case may not entirely justify the means. The case itself shows us that partisan gridlock and presidential assertion go hand-in-hand. Presidents will feel less tempted to claim worrisome discretion if their parties actually could work with the opposition instead of each party playing an all-or-nothing game. If you fear the rise of an authoritarian executive, the paradoxical fact is that you have to smash the two-party system, but this becomes less paradoxical when it means creating not a one-party state but a true multi-party state or, perhaps even better, a no-party state. Then I could understand people wanting to come here.

19 November 2014

The Cosby Show Trial

A black celebrity is accused of date-raping a number of women, at least several of whom are white, and conservatives are rallying to his defense, while at least a few blacks are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude at his plight. The reason is simple: Bill Cosby has become best known in recent years for scolding black culture and condemning much of hip-hop culture in particular. This made him a hero for white conservatives who could let him make charges many of them wouldn't dare make. They see Cosby as an espouser of "personal responsibility," someone who won't just blame blacks' problems on whites. Hostility toward Cosby among black opinionators is based largely on how they think whites will exploit the comedian's criticisms. Americans in general seem to assume a zero-sum relationship between "personal responsibility" and "social justice." If Cosby and other high-profile contrarians (e.g. the basketball broadcaster Charles Barkley) argue for more personal responsibility, they're assumed to downplay the need for social justice. When Cosby denounces "knuckleheads" in the hood, he's accused of stereotyping (if not blaming the victim) and of enabling stereotyping attitudes among whites. Without ever seeking political office, Cosby has become a political figure, which may be why we haven't seen white conservatives dismiss him, in light of the new or revived charges against him, as just another [n-word]. He has individualized himself in opposition to the supposed black consensus or "herd mentality" in a way that O.J. Simpson, for instance, never did. As a result, we can see conservatives indulging in conspiracy theory, suggesting that the liberal media is out to destroy Cosby because he challenges political correctness or the hegemony of "social justice" thinking in the black community. On the other side, some black opinionators see the Cosby scandal as the humbling of a hypocrite who had no business passing judgment on anyone else, much less the disadvantaged of his own race. Add to the mix all those celebrity-worshippers who always presume the celebrity innocent when relative nobodies accuse him of such things, as well as the dead-end bigots who do now see Cosby as just another [n-word] and we have yet another case where people will find it difficult to judge the charges objectively. Because Cosby's fate may have an impact in a wider realm in which many hold a stake, people will be tempted to judge the case as a means to an end rather than on its own terms. But if Cosby has been defined increasingly by his own judgmental attitude -- his supporters might call it his moral courage -- I suppose the result will only be fair, even if it also proves very annoying.

17 November 2014

The worst are full of passionate intensity: an argument for getting out the vote

Carl Strock, once a columnist for the Schenectady Gazette and now a blogger for the Albany Times Union, is no fan of the Republican party, but when others blame low turnout for the GOP victories this month and wish more people had voted, Strock is skeptical. "I have never considered voting the civic virtue that public figures invariably consider it," he writes, "Maybe knowledgeable voting is a virtue, but voting just for the sake of voting, whether or not you have any idea of who the candidates are and what kind of horse thieves they might be, I’m not sure. It might be just as well that you stay at home if you haven’t made a minimal effort to inform yourself."

This is the sort of rhetoric I expect to hear or read from Republicans. Just as liberals believe that the more people vote, the better for them, Republicans believe the opposite. The GOP argument against maximizing voter turnout is pretty much the same as Strock's: the more people vote, the more ignorance will prevail. Strock is also willing to believe that non-voters have made a conscious if cynical choice, seeing no difference for them in who gets elected, but he still wishes that voting could be made conditional on some sort of intelligence test. Knowing how controversial this idea is, Strock proposes something minimalist and value-free: "Just, what state do you live in? Who is the governor? Which way is up?" But he knows even that would be attacked as implicitly discriminatory, while the more severe partisans would more likely propose more biased tests. Each of the major parties believes the other profoundly ignorant in certain major fields, Democrats presuming Republicans ignorant of science, Republicans presuming Democrats ignorant of economics. Each would love making tests in their own specialized fields of knowledge (or belief) the prerequisite for voting in pursuit of their respective utopias where there's no such thing as an uninformed vote.

Permit me to suggest, for today at least, that our present problem is not so much ignorance -- I presume most Americans were no more conversant with science or economics a century or more ago -- as it is ideological fanaticism. The U.S. is in a Yeatsian state in which, as the poet wrote almost a century ago, "the worst are full of passionate intensity" while most, if not the best, "lack all conviction." Acquiescing in apathy yields the field to the worst of the passionately intense. As for the apathetic, the real hidden majority of the country, however ignorant they may be we can assume that their cynicism will immunize them against the appeals of demagogues and void the oldest argument against maximizing voter turnout. If the hidden majority were compelled to vote -- if they actually have to choose a candidate rather than leave any column blank -- they may simply vote for the least obnoxious candidate, which hopefully would eliminate the most extreme or fanatical rivals. Another possibility is that, in a collective fit of "ignorant" pique, they might choose a third-party candidate to spite the Bipolarchy. If our future is threatened by voting blocs who care to excess, the answer may be simply to swamp them with a majority that doesn't care. But if this idea gives "ignorance" too much voice for your taste -- if you still dream of imposing the perfect test to sort the deserving from the undeserving -- your problem may be not so much with the American electorate or any hidden majority but with democracy itself. I don't mean that as a conversation stopper, since intellectual arguments against democracy can be made, but if those arguments are going to be made we should make clear what we stand for: government by, of and for the people, or something else.

14 November 2014

Kissinger and 'fresh' thinking on foreign policy

As he grows more insufferable as an opinionator on domestic politics, George Will still maintains a somewhat reasonable perspective on foreign affairs. In a recent column he calls attention to American politicians ("Republicans especially") who are "thinking afresh" about our country's stance toward other nations. Will goes on to suggest that these fresh thinkers could take notes from a nonagenarian, Henry Kissinger, who has published a new book diagnosing the country's problem. Here's Kissinger as quoted by Will:

The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate. [This] suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.

Kissinger is a foreigner by birth, after all, and is bound to notice things about us that we don't recognize -- or won't acknowledge. Kissinger and Will invite us to rethink this national bias, and doing so can only be a good thing. Ever erudite, Will repeats the now-familiar John Quincy Adams quote describing the U.S. as "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." He seems to propose a repudiation of liberal interventionism, the idea that the liberal democracies (the U.S. especially) have a moral responsibility and a right regardless of law to liberate individuals from tyrannical governments. For self-styled conservatives this should be an easy call, but American conservatism as it evolved in the 20th century is, to put it generously, paradoxical to a fault. Many "conservatives" in this country remain wedded to an idea of "natural rights," with corollary assumptions about their universality, that most conservatives throughout history would have laughed at. In this country, "natural rights" have evolved from a Jeffersonian justification for revolution to an existential argument against slavery to an ideological defense against communism and other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. By now I'm not so sure that American conservatives (Republicans especially) can dispense with this pretense. An appeal to natural rights is their ultimate veto against the perceived self-aggrandizement of the state and the perceived whims of the masses. Acting on the commonsense premise that the individual is prior to the state, the idea of natural rights asserts inherent limits to what the state, understood as the ruler and/or the people, can demand of or take from the individual. While alternate ideas like social-contract theory or the romanticism of fascism assert that the individual becomes something different and arguably superior by subjecting himself more completely to the body politic, natural-rights theory, at least as practiced here, assumes that such submission invariably diminishes the individual in an unacceptable way while empowering the state in inevitably more oppressive ways. But for this argument to be more than the preference of certain political philosophers or their wealthy patrons it has to be a universal principle, applicable everywhere on Earth. That makes it hard for some Americans not to judge other countries on the basis of something more, well, judgmental than the "contingent" basis Kissinger prefers.

For "bleeding heart" liberals the problem is even worse, and to the extent that they're "collectivist" rather than individualist they're only more likely to feel that no one on Earth should have to suffer as they imagine people suffer under tyranny.  While it should be easy to imagine a conservative saying it's each person's personal responsibility to liberate himself from tyranny, and not the job of other countries, liberals have a Good Samaritan (or busybody, depending on your perspective or interest) impulse, compounded by their philosophically hedonistic revulsion at the repressive measures taken in many countries, that tells them that whoever can should do something about repression, torture, etc., though most would flee from the inference that this means conquering the world. To the extent that modern American conservatives feel threatened by any (or every) foreign dictatorship, they've only been contaminated by liberal fear, most likely as a result of the mid-20th century Cold War consensus against Communism, while in the past, presumably, conservatives only abhorred tyrants if they refused to trade with us.

If you accept the argument that the military-industrial complex, and thus the American economy, requires a perpetually adversarial relationship between the U.S. and the world's authoritarians, you only acknowledge a further impediment to "thinking afresh." But the biggest obstacle may be one that Will, at least, won't acknowledge. The truth in the assertion that authoritarianism anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, or at least in the U.S., lies in our fear of an example. Recall how Americans assume that Vladimir Putin wants to crush the Maidan revolution in Ukraine because he fears the example it will set for Russians. Presuming that Putin is not a universalist of any sort, it's unlikely he has such a fear. He more likely believes that Russians are culturally immune to any example set by Ukraine, and that only Russia's economy and global prestige, and not his own power, are at stake in that country. If you are a universalist, however, an event anywhere might set an example everywhere. It's more likely that the U.S. fears the success of Putin, or the success of the Chinese, because these might set examples for Americans. Could Americans actually want a more "authoritarian" government? If you define it as a government that "gets things done" and has the power to push around billionaires grown too big for their britches, I could definitely see a constituency for it here, and I can also see that theory of Putin's motives as a form of projection. Some American conservatives may think that the only way to suppress an American desire for a stronger government is to demonize and plead defense against any authoritarian regime that might prove an attractive example. Conservatives should be able to refute the whole idea by saying that American liberty is our particular birthright by virtue of the Constitution while Russian authoritarianism, or any other form, is merely one country's unique cultural legacy. But another problem arises when you acknowledge your system of laws and rights as no more than the work of men, rather than something almost divinely inspired. If the U.S. wasn't founded on universal or unalterable principles, all our laws and rights ought to be subject to review at some point, unless you want to be really conservative and declare a taboo on questioning the ancestors' legacy. Despite all this, there should be some way for Americans to think about foreign policy without turning it into a debate on forms of government and human rights with our own liberties at stake. If old Republicans -- even those with tainted legacies like Kissinger -- can help us figure it out, then they may be useful after all.

12 November 2014

The world watches Ferguson

Some Americans are sure to be annoyed at the idea of a United Nations commission investigating the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson MO policeman last summer. Look at the comments thread for this report of Browns' parents testifying in Geneva and you'll see some troll calling them traitors. Others find it ridiculous if not offensive that the U.S. should be subject to scrutiny from an anti-torture committee when so many dictatorships elsewhere are self-evidently worse. They've forgotten a golden rule: judge not, lest ye be judged. There are lots of people in the world whose notion of individual rights may not be as expansive as Americans', yet are probably more sensitive to the ways discrimination or ethnic inequality belie any country's pretense of liberty. This should be old news to us. Ever since Americans declared independence with Jefferson's eloquent rhetoric, critics have questioned our rhetoric's credibility by citing our treatment of Africans and/or Native Americans. Even before the Declaration, Samuel Johnson asked of the Americans, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Communists in the 20th century would always bring up the blacks when challenged about their own oppressive policies, while many American politicians pragmatically endorsed the Civil Rights Movement in an attempt to deny the Commies this rhetorical point. To this day, one part of the appeal of "radical Islam" is its insistence that their religion doesn't countenance racial discrimination. Sure, Arabs enslaved Africans by the millions back in the day, but those were pagans so that was okay. Around the world, equality is a value that transcends ideologies. Whether a government is liberal, authoritarian or totalitarian, it matters that it treat people the same. Some may even prefer a regime that oppresses everyone equally, depending on how you define oppression, to a regime where liberty appears to be reserved for certain groups only. Of course, some will be hypocritical in criticizing the U.S. while discriminating against unfavored groups at home, and it can be argued that any regime's pretense of egalitarianism is hypocritical once you see the sordid reality behind the rhetoric. But we should avoid the ad hominem fallacy of assuming that if a dictator says we're wrong, we must be right. We should probably also resist the temptation to see the Ferguson case as symbolic. Michael Brown is almost certainly not as innocent as his grieving family and their friends claim, but the cop who shot him is almost as certainly not as innocent as police apologists insist. At the least, in the latter case, people have a right not to see him as an innocent -- not to accept the police or pro-police interpretation of the incident as the last word on the matter.

Ferguson is poised for more unrest as everyone awaits the determination of a grand jury, the authorities warning against violence if Brown's supporters don't get the justice they've demanded but also allowing for peaceful protest if it comes to that. One side wants the policeman prosecuted, while another abhors the idea. A compromise should be possible, one that stresses answerability more than accountability. It may not be necessary or appropriate to prosecute police in all such cases, but a "truth commission" in all such cases might be in order. If relatives of murder and manslaughter victims get to confront and denounce convicted perpetrators in court, it may be proper for police to face the same informal judgment in a public forum from the families of those they've killed, even if they face no legal penalty. If the police are at least answerable to the bereaved to some extent, that might relieve the sense of oppression, the feeling that the government has no interest in them other than to keep them quiet, that has driven the Browns to Geneva. But if you think that the Browns are doing this only for publicity, or with an eye on some future payday, or that they're dupes of some enemy of America, these considerations probably won't mean anything to you. You're probably hopeless, and you're definitely part of the problem, even if you don't see one here. The fact that others do see a problem here may be a problem for you someday. But if you think it's none of their business if they're not from here, please remember how you feel now when you feel like criticizing the ways other governments treat their people. In this case, equality is the only rule we can recognize. If we can criticize them, they can criticize us. If we can act on our criticisms, so can they on theirs. Judge not lest you be judged.