31 January 2014

Thin-skinned hypocrisy

According to the Republican party narrative, the problem with liberals is that they're far too quick to take offense at everything and too willing to suppress freedom of speech out of sensitivity to hurt feelings or in the name of political correctness. By comparison, Republicans are supposed to be happy warriors who know how to give and take a joke. Lately, however, it's hard to tell which side has the thinner skin. Again we hear Republican whining over an insult that appeared not on the MSNBC network itself, but on its Twitter feed. The offending tweet suggested that "maybe the rightwing will hate" a forthcoming Super Bowl commercial spotlighting an interracial family. For the hypersensitive right, this was tantamount to saying all Republicans are racists. Their howls of protests forced an apology from the president of MSNBC to the Republican National Committee, even though the "maybe" in the tweet should have dispelled any libelous impression.

Meanwhile, as this story clarifies, the theoretically offending commercial is a sequel to an ad that aired during the last Super Bowl and did provoke hateful responses on the advertiser's YouTube channel. Who was doing the hating? While it may not follow from any particular observation that the entire "rightwing" is racist, it would be a good guess to assume that all racists, or all the people taking offense at the sight of a biracial family, are on the right wing. Perhaps some Nation of Islam types would also be offended, but they hardly count as liberals. Of course, my more general proposition (all racists ... are on the right) would be challenged, fairly enough, by those who perceive "race men" like Al Sharpton (an MSNBC host) as haters, so let's clarify terms to single out a kind of rightwing-racism that objects strongly (as I suppose Sharpton doesn't) to phenomena like interracial marriage. Whoever condemns a commercial because it has an interracial couple in it is most likely a rightwing racist.

If Republicans seem increasingly oversensitive it may be because they've grown more obsessed than ever with proving Democrats to be hypocrites. To them, the MSNBC tweet proves that Democrats and liberals "hate" as much as MSNBC claims that Republicans do -- that is, it proves MSNBC to be hypocritical. Yet to the extent that Republicans still accuse Democrats of being hypersensitive, humorless, and intolerant of frank discussion, Republican reaction to this minor outburst proves them to be hypocrites as well.

30 January 2014

Are whistleblowers enemies of liberalism?

As a contributing editor to The New Republic, the historian Sean Wilentz has carved a niche for himself as a forceful apologist for centrist liberalism as practiced by the Democratic party. I've credited him with propounding a "Neo-Lincolnist" doctrine that presents Old Abe as a role model for an idealist politics that doesn't eschew horse-trading and arm-twisting when it can further liberal ideals. He regularly chides those whose idea of politics is too rhetorical or exclusively deliberative, arguing that sometimes it takes more than speeches, though it should never take violence, to make people do what you want. In the current issue Wilentz goes after the leakers and whistleblowers -- or most of them -- who've embarrassed the NSA and the Obama administration, while castigating those liberals who support their work. His polemic is two-pronged. He contends that the fears raised by the leakers are mostly unjustified, and at the same time goes after the leakers McCarthy style. That is, he hopes to make the leakers odious in the eyes of right-minded (or is that center-minded?) TNR readers by suggesting their guilt by association with bad guys, bad ideas, etc.  Focusing specifically on Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Snowden's journalist ally Glenn Greenwald -- he's curiously silent on Bradley Manning, perhaps because Manning's gender issues make an ad hominem attack too risky -- Wilentz argues that "the leakers despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it." Thus he attempts to demonstrate that Snowden is a virtual gun nut who only turned against the NSA after Obama's election; that Snowden and Greenwald are far too admiring of Ron Paul, mention of whom justifies a litany of all the dubious ideas, however relevant to the issues at hand, associated with Paul; that Snowden, Greenwald and Assange can all be labeled as "libertarian paranoids," and that Assange in particular is an arch-individualist distrustful of institutional authority, yet all seem to get along well with the arch-authoritarian Vladimir Putin. The three leakers "reside in a peculiar corner of the political forest, where the far left meets the far right, often but not always under the rubric of libertarianism," Wilentz writes of Greenwald in particular, yet their leaks have only aided and comforted enemies of liberty around the world.

What's left of Wilentz's defense of the NSA after we toss out all the ad hominem stuff? He concedes that Snowden's leaks "have revealed worrisome excesses," but that Snowden showed bad faith by not addressing them in the correct way. His problem, common to the leakers, is that he thinks it "impossible ... to reform this clandestine Leviathan from the inside" and seeks to "spin the meaning of the documents they have released to confirm their animating belief that the United States is an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions." According to Wilentz, the leakers haven't proven their case. While the NSA is "in need of major reform," Wilentz argues that it "has acted far more responsibly than the claims made by the leakers and publicized by the press." He believes that the leakers' libertarian paranoia has blown their revelations out of proportion in their own eyes. Their paranoia -- if you concede the label -- has no place in a liberal democracy.

The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong --even paranoid -- to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand.

For "democratic," read "representative" and it makes more sense. The problem with the leakers, in Wilentz's eyes, is that they seem unwilling to delegate to any representative "modern surveillance powers. "Democratic" government, however, depends on this delegation as an act of faith by the citizenry. By tarring the leakers as libertarians, Wilentz wants to suggest that the real problem isn't that they don't trust government with certain powers, but that they don't trust government at all, such distrust being inimical to liberal representative democracy. But their relations with Russia suggest to Wilentz that only the real enemies of democracy, the authoritarians, benefit from the leakers' compulsive distrust of democracy in America. What Wilentz can't take seriously is the leakers' implicit assumption that American hegemony is a greater threat to the world than the power of any authoritarian state, that such hegemony is the ultimate authoritarianism that belies all boasts of liberty at home. If the leakers want to say that, we can debate it, but Wilentz isn't interested in that debate. He seems convinced that American power can never be a bad thing -- as long as Democrats wield that power, I suppose -- and he reads almost like a neocon as he waxes Russophobic, arguing in effect that to be against the U.S. on any point is to be against liberty (despite one's libertarian pretensions) and for tyranny. On on level, I can see where he's coming from. A lot of today's distrust of complex systems is irrational and ill-informed, and for Wilentz the leakers fit that profile. It's one thing for him to argue that the leakers' own evidence fails to prove their case; each of us can test that premise on our own. It's another to suggest that citizens have a duty to trust their government with modern surveillance powers. I'm sure Wilentz doesn't see this as a blind trust or an absolute duty, but when the subject is a permit for secret activity, there seems to be more ground for enduring skepticism than Wilentz would concede. And when his argument for trust closes out a threefold hatchet job on the leakers that one might expect to read in a Russian newspaper, it doesn't quite turn out as trustworthy as Wilentz might hope.

28 January 2014

Is Sarah Palin a RINO?

Earlier this month the Arizona Republican party took the unusual step of censuring U.S. Senator McCain, delegates to a state meeting finding him too liberal on immigration issues. What this means practically is that the party organization won't support him should he seek a nomination for another term, though it remains questionable whether any challenger within the ranks could successfully primary him should he chose to run. Nevertheless, the censure vote signifies that McCain's base has moved further to his right. The entire Republican party appears to be drifting that way, and with that in mind it seems strange to see McCain's erstwhile running mate, ex-Gov. Palin of Alaska, coming to his defense. To the extent that she has any future in electoral politics, Palin's fortunes presumably depend on the good will of Tea Party types, the sort of Republicans, presumably, behind the censure of McCain. In fact, Palin was careful in her statement of support to emphasize that she, too, differs with McCain on immigration issues. While her defense of McCain might well be seen as an act of honor or gratitude toward the man who made her a national celebrity, Palin's gesture also serves to position her in a post-McCain debate to define the Republican agenda.

Palin's defense of McCain amounts to an assertion that foreign policy should remain a high priority for the Republican party. She puts this in terms Tea Partiers might understand by emphasizing McCain's persistence in investigating the Benghazi consulate attack. "Benghazi" has become a catchphrase if not a joke recently. To one side, it signifies a criminal indifference to terrorist threats that disgraces both President Obama and his heir-presumptive, Hillary Clinton. To the other, it signifies a hateful obsession with an issue of relative insignificance for the nation's present and future. Praising McCain for his "steadfastness in demanding truth in the White House's Benghazi cover-up," Palin seeks to remind Tea Partiers that McCain remains a committed enemy of Obama. But Palin's commitment to McCain and his foreign policy is about more than Benghazi. For her, the really important thing about McCain is that "He fights to remind our President that the federal government's first priority must be strong defense of our homeland." To the TPs in Arizona, she pleads, "Despite our differences on some other issues, there is no questioning Senator McCain’s dedication to national security in spite of the White House’s agenda."

In other words, for Sarah Palin national security trumps ideological purity. On one level you can only say, "one should hope!" But in Republican terms Palin seems to be walking a tightrope in an attempt to reconcile the Tea Party movement with a neocon agenda many TPs mistrust due to xenophobia, isolationism, common sense, or other reasons. Tea Partiers may believe that the U.S. is the mightiest country on earth, but they don't seem to feel as great a need to prove it constantly as neocons do, if only because they really, really don't give a damn about anyone else but themselves and thus don't care whether other countries are liberal democracies or not or do business with America or not. If they give a damn about Benghazi, it's probably because they suppose it proves Obama & Co. incompetent or soft on Islam. It doesn't necessarily follow that outrage over Benghazi means a renewed commitment to American domination of the world, but that may be what Palin expects and why she defends McCain against critics who might otherwise be her natural base. Few would think of Palin as a RINO -- "Republican In Name Only" -- but what that means depends on what it means to be a Republican. Whatever the Republicans in Arizona think, Palin has ideas of her own on the subject.

27 January 2014

Uncle Sugar: Mike Huckabee and what Republicans think of women

The way Kathleen Parker tells it, Mike Huckabee was trying to tell his audience that Democrats try to win women's votes by focusing on the single issue of reproductive rights. Apparently the former Arkansas governor wanted to criticize a supposed Democratic belief that reproductive rights is the only issue that matters to women. Huckabee and Parker alike challenge the Democratic talking point that Republicans have waged a "war on women," claiming that the abortion issue is the only evidence, spurious at that, to back the contention. Parker argues that since many women oppose abortion, the Democratic "war on women" claim doesn't follow. Leave that point to be debated another day. The reason Parker wrote a column on the subject is that Huckabee, to her obvious embarrassment, went on to act very much like a gender warrior. Here's the quote that probably has sunk his chances for a dark-horse run at the 2016 Republican nomination for president:

And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it, let us take that discussion all across America because women are far more than the Democrats have played them to be.

While this seems to have been enough for Parker to write off Huckabee, she still claims that he had meant to characterize what he thought to be the Democrats' attitude toward women. That is, in Huckabee's mind Democrats insult women by claiming that they "cannot control their libido" without "Uncle Sugar" providing a backstop int he form of contraception. But as Parker seems to suspect, there seems to be some subconscious projection going on here. What Democrat, after all, believes that women's control over their libido is an issue? What Democrat is asserting a right to contraception on the ground that women can't control their libido? To the contrary, it's pretty obvious that Huckabee is telling us why he thinks women want contraception. Seen this way, the problem with the Democrats is that they say women don't have to control their libido. The fundamental problem, for Huckabee, is that women can't or won't control their libido.

"Who, really, is worried about women's libidos?" Parker asks. But she's kidding herself if she thinks, or wants us to believe, that Huckabee's apparent attitude is in no way representative of Republicans. My own anecdotal experience is admittedly limited, but the only hard-core Republican I've ever debated reproductive rights with made it clear that reproductive rights wouldn't be a political issue if women would only keep their legs closed. For at least some Republicans, the reproductive-rights question is inextricably tied to female sexuality. Implicitly, Huckabee said that women need to control their libido, that doing so would prove them "far more than the Democrats have played them to be." You don't want babies? Don't have sex. It still takes two to tango, of course, but if the object is to prevent unwanted pregnancies and their abortion, the burden of chastity seems to fall disproportionately one way.

By writing Huckabee off, however regrettably given past hints of a milder temperament, Parker continues to defend the Republican party from the "war on women" charge. Her defense might be more convincing if she acknowledged the essence of the charge. "The alleged war on women was based essentially on the notion that people who think abortion is a bad idea — or who don’t think the government should mandate insurance coverage for birth-control coverage — are anti-woman," Parker writes, "Whatever one’s own position, Republicans could be characterized as waging a war on women only if no women agreed with the premises mentioned above." This is incorrect. Republicans can still be characterized as waging a war on women if someone believes that the decision to terminate a pregnancy can be made only by the mother -- only by women. It still may not be a fair characterization -- whether the mother should have such exclusive power when it does take two to tango is legitimately subject to debate -- but for those who believe strongly in women's exclusive prerogative on such an intimate matter it wouldn't be a great leap to assume that intrusion on that prerogative in the name of the state is really a usurpation of the prerogative by men, no matter how many women agree with the men's position. In other words, given the ideas and emotions in play in the reproductive-rights debate, Kathleen Parker will find herself accused of waging a war on women whether she likes it or not and whether it's fair or not. Can someone argue that women must not abort their pregnancies without being accused of furthering male supremacy? They should be able to if the question is the state's interest in children being born, but then the debate should flow naturally to the next and arguably more important question of the state's interest in keeping everyone who is born alive. Until the subject changes from the consequences of "libido" to the scope of a positive right to life that doesn't expire at birth, we should forgive people for thinking that Mike Huckabee's "unconscious" outburst reveals the true face of Republican misogyny beneath the gentler mask of Kathleen Parker.

24 January 2014

Dinesh D'Souza and the rule of law in a constitutional republic

In a day the veteran right-wing provocateur Dinesh D'Souza has become, for some Americans, the moral equivalent of Xu Zhiyong -- or he would be that if more Americans knew who Xu Zhiyong was. Suffice it to say that D'Souza's friends think of his plight the way liberals around the world think of Xu's in China. D'Souza, best known on this blog for his idiotic notion that President Obama inherited an "anti-imperialist" mentality that motivates all his policies from a father he barely knew, has been indicted for fraud. He is accused of having induced people to contribute money to a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York and then compensating them in amounts equal to their contributions. The prosecution contends that D'Souza thus made  "straw donations" to the candidate in excess of the legal limit on individual contributions. To his fans, D'Souza is self-evidently a target of partisan persecution. He can fairly be called one of Obama's most prominent critics, having been the mind behind 2016, the sleeper-hit anti-Obama documentary of a few years ago, while his diatribes have also proved popular in print form. Therefore, the far right concludes, Obama has targeted D'Souza for prosecution, taking the U.S. one step closer to personal dictatorship. You can find a summary of authentic commentary on the case here.

As I've written before, it's typical of liberalism, from which 21st century Republican-party conservatism descends, to give dissent the benefit of the doubt in the realm of politics -- it's a different story, of course, in the workplace. It seems too easy for authoritarian rulers to abuse the rule of law to silence critics, especially when, as liberals often suspect, the laws are designed to entrap or else make life difficult for dissidents. In the D'Souza case, many of his supporters probably question the legitimacy of any law limiting campaign donations in the first place, and that bias only heightens suspicions of a political motive behind the prosecution. But had D'Souza been accused of any other crime, many would still smell a rat. In the paranoid imagination, the evil power is capable of trumping up any charge against an innocent person and making it stick. Once you become a dissident, it seems, anything bad that happens to you becomes suspicious, while it is assumed that you, the dissident, can't have done anything bad. In the liberal mind, broadly defined, the dissident is necessarily more innocent than everyone else, since the only proof of a free society is the freedom of the dissidents -- it being assumed that no matter how good a society is, someone will have something to dissent about.

In the Chinese case, the trial of Xu Zhiyong seems to prove again that there's still no true rule of law in the People's Republic. This conclusion depends on the assumption that there's no other reason to prosecute Xu than to suppress dissent. The United States is usually conceded to have a rule of law, if not to set the global standard for rule of law, yet the prosecution of a dissident seems to belie that assumption for many right-wingers. Many Americans will not give a Department of Justice answerable to President Obama the benefit of the doubt on this matter, and they'd most likely take offense at the assertion that it's owed the benefit of the doubt if we have a rule of law. Here, I think, we see a divergence separating liberals from their right-wing descendants. The true liberal probably does believe that "rule of law" is the achievable sine qua non of a free society; he believes that some nations existing today actually have a rule of law. Republicans and other right-wingers may agree in theory on the need for rule of law, but the D'Souza case makes clear that, for many of them, rule of law counts for less than the character of the ruler. Convinced that Obama is an infidel, they regard his administration as essentially lawless, its rule of law a sham. For the liberal, the rule of law is the essential safeguard when ruler and ruled disagree on anything. It restrains the dissident from resorting to violence when he disagrees with the ruler, but also restrains the ruler from resorting to violence when someone disagrees with him. In either case, liberal rule-of-law theory assumes and accepts disagreement and strives to perpetuate peaceful debate -- perhaps beyond reason in some cases. The right-wing Republicans rallying to D'Souza's defense seem to see things differently. His jeopardy appears to prove to them that dissidents aren't safe unless everyone agrees with them. In simpler terms, rule of law or not, they trust no one in power who doesn't agree with them. Meanwhile, Dinesh D'Souza is innocent until proven guilty. Whether he could ever be proven guilty to certain people is the question for today.

23 January 2014

Liberal intolerance in New York State?

Gov. Cuomo has created an uproar by telling a radio interviewer that "extreme conservatives," defined as "right-to-life, pro-assault weapons, anti-day," had "no place in the state of New York." It sounds like standard political rhetoric to me, but Republicans are more sensitive to offense than ever and have taken offense at the implication that their beliefs aren't welcome in the Empire State. GOP spokespersons have demanded an apology, but the governor has only gone so far as to clarify that he saw no place for extreme conservative candidates in his state. Still, it's understandable if rank-and-file extremists feel that their beliefs, not just their candidates, are no longer welcome here. One such stalwart made her feelings known to a local paper yesterday.

Are we “extreme” because we believe a baby has a right to be born? Are we “extreme” because we believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman? Are we “extreme” because we believe in the Second Amendment? The governor says we have no place in New York. Mr. Cuomo, with his intellectual superficiality paints conservatives as homophobes, anti-women, and clinging to their guns. It sounds to me like he wants to curtail free thought, not allow contradiction, and scorn anyone with a different opinion.

In my own opinion, the writer is extreme in two out of three cases. If she embraces Cuomo's characterization of her Second Amendment position as "pro-assault weapons," then she's an extremist. If she can believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman but not in any sort of marriage between people of the same sex, she's an extremist.  On abortion I concede that moral objections can always be raised, while insisting that they don't necessarily dictate the law in a democratic republic. I can understand, however, why many women may find the writer's opposition to abortion no less extreme than her homophobia or her Second Amendment absolutism.

Overall, the criticism of Cuomo the Younger echoes the attack on liberal "intolerance" -- though many in New York still see the governor as far from liberal on many issues -- by the opponents of equal rights for homosexuals. Gay equality remains the major flashpoint because the idea behind it remains the most revolutionary. Homophobic reactionaries recognize that gay-rights advocates want to close the debate on the moral and legal status of homosexuality for all time. For one side, progress will mean that full civic equality for homosexuals is no longer subject to debate. For the other, such a result will be decadence, not progress, and when the patriarchs of the past have opined on an issue it must always be open for debate -- at least until the patriarchs' side wins. Gay rights aside, however, it's hard to feel any chilling effect in the governor's comment unless you, as an "extremist," have cultivated your persecution complex. To the extent that Cuomo is a liberal, he's never going to suppress opinions in favor of assault-weapon ownership, or against abortion or gay marriage. All he was really saying was that those opinions aren't going to win in his state. If he can back that up, that still wouldn't render him or New York intolerant, unless intolerance now means you can't get everything you want. If anything, the zero-sum thinking of reactionaries who equate disagreement with their beliefs with intolerance of them may betray their own fundamental intolerance of disagreement, since they seem to perceive disagreement as inherently hostile to them. Both parties are guilty of this, but Republicans once tried, sometimes, to appear more thick-skinned about such things, if only in order to portray the other side as inexcusably thin-skinned. Today, however, Republicanism seems more and more like a perpetual raw nerve, hypersensitive to every inferred slight. That may be one of the most reliable signs that they're losing in the long term despite any short-term boost their rage gives them.

22 January 2014

The rule of law in an authoritarian state

The Chinese media finds it necessary to respond to criticism of the imminent trial of a dissident lawyer who is charged with "gathering crowds to disturb public order." That sounds suspiciously like "giving a speech" to western ears, and so the arrest and trial of Xu Zhiyong becomes further proof of the enduring dictatorial nature of the Communist party government. In rebuttal, an editorial writer for the English-language Global Times website insists that Xu is not being prosecuted for his beliefs. "Xu's advocacies, including constitutionalism, property disclosure of civil servants and education equality, can be expressed and are also echoed in Chinese society," the writer argues. "These advocacies are not incompatible with China's reforms." The writer denies that the trial represents a crackdown on Xu's "New Citizens' Movement." But Global Times insists that China has (or is "speeding up the construction" of) a rule of law to which Xu is accountable, not for his beliefs, but for his actions. "[T]hese political activists ... must have a clear vision of the boundary line between politics and law," according to the editorial, "ensuring that their political advocacies are shown to the public within the rule of law." At the same time, there is a fairly candid admission that the line between free thought and illegal expression is blurred, at least from some perspectives.

But in actuality, the line between the rule of law and the activists' advocacy is not clearly defined. A "gray zone" is used and expanded by many dissidents, who want to legitimize their advocacy, even some radical political actions. By painting themselves as "democracy fighters," they want to step out of the jurisdiction of the law. Any charges against their violations will be interpreted as "oppression" of democracy.

This editorial recognizes that liberalism has had the deck stacked in its favor in political debates with all comes for quite a while.  Identify yourself with "democracy" and you're automatically right. If anything, however, Global Times has the process slightly backward. Whatever PR problems China is having over Xu Zhiyong are based on the perception of the People's Republic as a dictatorship and thus a tyranny. Assume that China has a tyrannical government and it's hard to see Xu in the wrong. Worse, liberalism (I use the term in the classical sense that can also encompass much of modern so-called conservatism) refuses to give dictatorship any benefit of the doubt. Liberal readers will laugh at the claim that China is constructing a rule of law since, by liberal definition, a dictatorship cannot have a rule of law because dictatorship is always arbitrary power. If a dictatorship appeals to the idea of a rule of law, its spokesmen are assumed to be lying outright or using law in a self-serving manner -- since dictatorships are always and only self-serving. You see the same thing happening in Ukraine this month, where dissident mobs are trying to force the fall of the pro-Russian government and liberals around the world scream against the government's new law against demonstrations. On the face of it, such legislation looks abhorrent, but every so often someone should ask, just for the sake of argument in the liberal spirit, whether immunity (or impunity) for dissent is really any society's highest priority. Do we really believe that there is only "rule of law" where people can denounce the government with impunity, or at least as much impunity as we seem to enjoy in the United States? It seems instead that "rule of law" inevitably comes into conflict, and presumably must take precedence over individual liberty to some extent everywhere. But to question the centrality of impunity for dissent to the rule of law is not to imply that there exists some duty of unconditional obedience to rulers in every body politic. It's more likely that the sort of impunity for dissent that liberals idealize is ultimately impracticable or unsustainable, if we assume that no form of government is immune to subversion by genuine tyrants, some of whom may actually exploit impunity for dissent while they're in dissent. If liberals want a world of perfect immunity or impunity for dissent they're bound to be disappointed in the long run. But that doesn't mean "shut up." It means that dissidents must always accept risk, anywhere. It also means that we should never idealize dissent as a thing or end unto itself. From that follows the real challenge for liberals: to consider the possibility that dictators aren't always wrong.

Actually, in this particular case, they probably are, but that's beside the point.

The 'problem with liberalism'

Here's the diagnosis of Joseph H. Vanderpool of Rensselaer, as submitted to a recent local newspaper. "The problem with liberalism," he writes, "with all its good intentions, is that it makes average people dependent on government." A few paragraphs later, he repeats himself: "The problem with liberalism is that it disempowers us average people. It makes us dependent on government largess for our physical, social and economic well being and security rather than becoming independent, self-reliant individuals. Furthermore, liberalism creates a gigantic culture of elitist managers, bureaucrats and 'experts' who control and direct every aspect of our lives. We are no longer free, independent individuals, but rather pawns in the games and power trips of these elitists."

It's a good thing that Vanderpool chose to elaborate, since as he went into more detail he revealed the subjectivity of his perceptions. From liberalism's own perspective, it empowers the very people Vanderpool accuses liberalism of disempowering. Modern liberalism seeks a democratic mandate to redistribute wealth to improve everyone's physical, social and economic well being and security. While Vanderpool portrays himself as a "libertarian-oriented individual," his perception of liberal "dependency" is influenced by anarchist distrust of representation. Instead of seeing the people use government as their instrument, he sees them as the tools of "elitist managers, bureaucrats and 'experts'" who are essentially not the people but a separate class. From Vanderpool's perspective, these parasitic representatives "profit and prosper from our tax dollars while we [who?] live in penury."

Vanderpool anticipates and rejects any characterization of himself or other "libertarian-oriented individuals" as "cold, insensitive or heartless." He insists that he rejects liberalism not out of any hostility toward its constituents, but "on the simple pragmatic [ground] that in the long run it doesn't work." It "doesn't work," we can infer, when it generates an elitist bureaucracy that perpetuates dependence while impoverishing taxpayers. He exhorts us to "liberate ourselves" by putting "an end to liberalism and the dependence on government that it fosters." But this is exactly where critics will test his heart, his sensitivity, and his body temperature. If dependence upon government is unacceptable, what becomes of those who can't become "independent, self-reliant individuals" in the current economy? Vanderpool might dodge the question by insisting that not just anyone but everyone can become independent and self-reliant. He might well clarify his position, as I suspect he would, by explaining that all it takes to qualify as an "independent, self-reliant individual" is a job, preferably in the private sector. If so, it's an interesting definition of independence, with the only point of reference being whether or not you're dependent on the government. It would be nothing new, of course; it's the good old "free labor" ideology developed by the original Republicans of the Civil War era to refute the charge that factory workers, etc., were "wage slaves" as dependent on the whims of their employers as chattel slaves were upon their owners. We can go on questioning all the premises of this ideology but it gets us away from the real question people like Vanderpool should answer. If the real choice is between "dependency" and death, whether quick or slow, what do they wish for their fellow Americans?

21 January 2014

Islamphobia, Individualism and Herman Melville?

Just the thing for a progressive weekly: a cover story of literary criticism. That's what The Nation offers in its January 27 issue, which serves to promote Greg Grandin's new book on slavery. His piece for the magazine uses Herman Melville's story Benito Cereno as a jumping-off point for reflections on modern-day Islamophobia and the ideological and ethnocentric biases behind it. Melville's story is a fact-based account of a slave uprising aboard a Spanish cargo ship, as discovered by an American sea captain. In fact and fiction, the erstwhile slaves trick the captain by pretending that they remained the loyal servants of their ship's captain, who was in fact their prisoner. Grandin admires this for showing that Africans had "talents their masters said they didn't have (reason and discipline)." He's more impressed by the mere fact of a slave uprising by Muslim slaves, since he thinks that such an incident refutes Islamophobic stereotypes. In his words, Islamophobes claim that Muslims "have no true concept of personal freedom" because their religion insists "on the submission of one's self to the divine." But a Muslim slave uprising suggests to Grandin that "far from quashing individuality, belief in a universal, unseen god and membership in a larger prophetic community gave enslaved men and women a way of surviving -- and contesting -- slavery."

I'm not sure it all follows exactly as Grandin believes. For starters, the uprising more clearly refutes a different Islamophobic stereotype, an older one that views Muslims as culturally paralyzed by a fatalism apparently unique to their faith. According to this stereotype, Muslims should have submitted to slavery since their enslavement had to be the will of God. Meanwhile, Grandin sees the uprising as proof of Islam's "insistence on human dignity," at which point it has to be mentioned that at no point in his article does the author mention the long history of Muslim slaveholding, slave-taking and slave-selling -- perhaps because he thought it might refuel readers' Islamophobia to do so. To recall the history of slavery in the Islamic world is to call into question Grandin's characterization of the uprising as an affirmation of Islamic belief in "human dignity" or "individuality." He'd certainly say no such thing about a narrative of Europeans escaping enslavement by, say, the Barbary Pirates. He's unlikely to see such a story as an affirmation of individual freedom of dignity because he's too aware of Christians' history of slaveholding, slave-taking and slave-selling. Is he unaware of the same things in Muslim history? I suspect not, but since he wants no one to think ill of Islam he politely ignores it all. Had he not, readers might see the uprising that inspired Melville as motivated not by a belief that no one should be a slave -- admittedly, Grandin never actually makes such a claim explicitly -- but by a conviction that a Muslim should not be the slave of an infidel, along with the more obvious and universal selfish reasons.

It turns out that Grandin is not as concerned with individual liberty as his article initially suggests. While it might be useful to show how the uprising disproves assumptions about Muslim antipathy to western ideals of individual liberty, Grandin actually has a problem with the western ideal. At the least, he has a problem with an extreme expression of the ideal by those he calls "individual supremacists." These people "want to deny the ties and obligations that all humans find themselves caught up in -- the bonds, in fact, that make them human." Returning to his subject, Grandin writes that "Individualism masking as freedom, Melville thought, was no kind of freedom." He chops up some lines from a Melville poem to enhance the point. The lines are from Clarel: John Rolfe says, "'Tis the New World that mannered me/Yes, gave me this vile liberty/To reverence naught, not even herself." Individual freedom without "reverence" is a lack Islam seems to fill. Grandin admires what he sees as Islam's attempt to "find a balance between free will and fatalism under conditions of extreme suffering, along with its insistence upon human dignity." He sees an affinity between Melville's critique of "vile liberty" and the Sufi belief that, in Grandin's phrase, "the real meaning of freedom was found ... in recognizing the limits of freedom." That reads well in abstract, but we may still question whether Muhammad or any of his successors described those limits properly, and we ought to keep questioning despite Grandin's concern for bruised sensibilities or his anxiety about cultural clashes.  Individualism as an ideology (or "individual supremacism") may be a problem, but it's doubtful whether Islam is the or even a solution. Grandin's need to protect those he apparently sees only as the downtrodden muddies the argument he wants to make about the true balance between individuality and slavery in the real world.

20 January 2014

Dr. King's Legacy

The buses are more crowded today than on ordinary Mondays. The public sector has the day off but many on the lower rungs of the private sector don't, yet the buses run less frequently on their holiday schedule. So there's a bit of a jostle at the most crowded downtown stop, and a man apparently bumped a woman's arm while she was holding a cup of coffee. As they boarded, the woman loudly demanded, if not an apology, at least an "excuse me" from the man. The man only wished her to chill out, admonishing her not to "be black in the morning" in a manner only black people, I presume, can get away with. From the woman's perspective, his talking back to her only perpetuated his offense. How dare he insist that she let the matter drop ("It's just a two-dollar cup of coffee!") when he kept talking to her? Finally the man tired of the banter and urged her to shut up. This was the wrong day to do that.


Finally, the driver called a supervisor, and in a minute he appeared to ask, "Is everything all right in here?"

"Yeah, we okay," the disputants answered.

16 January 2014

From Anarcho-primitivism to Sandy Hook?

The New York Daily News has brought global attention to a piece of intellectual detective work by a blogger who, for what it's worth, has identified the perpetrator of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre as a caller (under the pseudonym "Greg") to a radio talk show conducted by John Zerzan, a leading thinker in the anarcho-primitivist movement. The blogger identified the shooter by tracing his comments on another forum under a known pseudonym, in one of which he comments on the call he made to Zerzan. In the call, made in late 2011, "Greg" equates the notorious face-ripping rampage of a trained chimpanzee to the amoklaufs (to use my own term) of alienated youths whose ranks "Greg" would soon join. "Greg" shows the apparent influence of primitivist thinking when he objects to accounts of the chimp rampage that blame the incident on a foolhardy attempt to tame a wild animal. The way "Greg" (if not Zerzan) saw it, a chimp rampage and a school shooting are essentially the same phenomenon, since civilization (as primitivists understand it) is as antithetical to humanity as it is to other primates. To an extent, Zerzan supports this view, though the transcript shows him a passive listener to "Greg;" in other writings, he attributes mass shootings (if not chimp rampages) to a degree of alienation for which civilization itself is to blame. People are now likely to ask whether Adam Lanza's interest in primitivism contributed to his obsession with mass murder or served to justify his own amoklauf. It would not be the first time primitivists have faced such scrutiny; some in the movement felt upon reading the Unambomber's manifesto, without endorsing his attacks, that he had some valid points about industrial society. While idealizing a prelapsarian state of unalienated communion, intimacy and solidarity, primitivism arguably counts as an anti-humanist movement to the extent that adherents concede the necessity of a mass die-off of humanity before the survivors can resume the good old ways. Few primitivists, I assume, are interested in hurrying such a process along by killing people themselves, expecting instead that civilization will destroy itself, or that nature will do the job in some way. For the sake of argument, I'll also assume that primtivists are also moved by a greater compassion toward all those suffering in civilization than Lanza, in his various identities, ever showed. To him, I suspect, all that mattered was that his life was miserable, and in a kind of megalomania he held all of civilization to blame for that. Anarcho-primitivism may encourage such beliefs, but to my knowledge it doesn't recommend the sort of response we saw at Sandy Hook. But since it has no real faith in progress, the scruples of individual adherents probably have little restraining influence on those who conclude that most of humanity is better off dead. Lanza was less an anarcho-primitivist himself -- I don't really care to explore the subject much further -- but someone who may have found in it a rationalization of his own deranged feelings and a justification for expressing them. Depending on your impulses, you might find such rationalization or justification anywhere, from political ideology to religious faith. A link between anarcho-primitivism and the Sandy Hook amoklauf is definitely interesting, but it isn't as simple as 1+1=death. Anarcho-primitivism itself may only be a reflection of what's really wrong with our society and culture, and it almost certainly isn't the solution to the problem.

15 January 2014

McCullen v. Coakley: free-speech zones for anti-abortion activists?

You're probably familiar with the Orwellian concept of the "free speech zone." It's the space created for protesters to exercise their constitutional right to free speech without disrupting the right to assemble of those people or groups against whom the protesters want to protest. These zones are usually located far away from the people the protesters want to hear their protests, on the pretext that protests at to close a proximity disrupt the gatherings protested and violate the First Amendment rights of those gathering. The rationale of the free speech zone is that the right to speak and the right to protest do not amount to a right to confront; you can't show up at a gathering (usually a political convention or international conference) and compel those you oppose to listen to you by virtue of your mere presence. On a similar principle, the state of Massachusetts has created "buffer zones" around abortion clinics. The current law forbids anti-abortion activists from talking to those entering the clinics, or handing them anti-abortion literature, 35' of the clinics. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing McCullen v Coakley, a challenge to the Massachusetts law by an activist who claims that the law violates her constitutional rights. After a day of oral arguments, it looks like the justices are leaning her way. The problem with the Massachusetts law, as I understand it, is twofold. First, some of the liberal justices are uncomfortable with the law's apparent failure to distinguish discourse from disruption. They don't sound thrilled with the idea that a person opposed to abortion can't even start a quiet conversation with someone within the buffer zone. Second, the law isn't "content neutral," as laws allowing free speech zones presumably are. That is, the law explicitly bans anti-abortion activity within the buffer zone without forbidding the opposite point of view. But the content-neutrality test seems inappropriate to the case, since in the context of the debate over abortion rights, the abortion clinic itself isn't content-neutral. It seems absurd to demand that clinic employees do nothing to encourage or reassure visitors in the interest of fairness, especially so long as the right to have an abortion is understood to be protected by the Constitution. It would seem that a person visiting an abortion clinic should have at least as much right to do so free from interference as a political party or international business organization has to hold a meeting free from interruption. So far, none of the justices are suggesting that the "pro-life" crowd should do as they please outside clinics; even Justice Scalia hinted that Massachusetts could make and keep a law forbidding genuinely disruptive behavior by protesters. That may not satisfy the "pro-choice" camp. Those people clearly have less sympathy than the justices for people like the plaintiff in this case who want to quietly dissuade women from having abortions. This is culture-war territory, after all, and to an extent the abortion-rights side is taking a stand similar to the gay-rights movement. The implication of the Massachusetts law, after all, is that it's wrong, at least within the buffer zone, merely to say that abortion is wrong. You can understand why that idea troubles some outside the conservative or anti-abortion camp, since the liberal tradition values people's presumed right to say that a law is wrong, even if by doing so they seem to menace someone's cherished rights. But if the justices want to say that you can't expect to exercise your current rights without having their rightfulness challenged, I wish they would begin to work toward a consistent application of whatever rule they come up with for balancing the rights of one group with those of another that disagrees with them and wants to tell them so.

14 January 2014

The Fifty Years' War

You may have seen or heard a lot of commemorative commentary this month on the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of a "war on poverty" through a package of social programs. Poverty, of course, has not been defeated, and may never be, but a debate has lasted as long as the war itself over whether it has accomplished or could accomplish anything. The criticisms have grown familiar. Johnson's programs have been blamed for fostering a culture of dependency contrary to his stated purpose to empower people, while the redistribution of wealth that fueled the programs supposedly retarded the entrepreneurial economic growth that many see as the only real remedy for poverty. A smaller chorus to LBJ's historical left argues that his programs were inadequate to their purpose for a variety of reasons, while the first set of critics would counter that throwing more money at the problem would not have changed the result. The War on Poverty itself didn't cripple the American economy, while the fact that it was launched, and deemed necessary, at a time of what would now seem phenomenal economic growth suggests that economic growth itself isn't the ultimate answer. Arguably, no matter how an economy thrives, people at the very bottom will still suffer, both relatively and objectively, so long as the economy and the larger society run on competitive principles. Relative poverty or relative suffering may not be so bad if objective poverty doesn't mean objective suffering, but that begs whether the war was waged on poverty or suffering. If the latter, the results are mixed depending on your point of view. The war has left behind more of a safety net than existed before, though the more hedonist liberals may never be satisfied with what government can offer, but amelioration hasn't really become empowerment in many cases. What does empowerment require? One side still says that right behavior, whether that means studying hard or getting married to support your kids, is a sine qua non for which government can offer no substitute. Another side points out that no amount of right behavior guarantees that jobs will be waiting for those who jump all the hurdles and pass all the tests. Some critics of the War on Poverty, or of liberalism in general, seem to will the end without willing the means. They insist that everyone who is able must work, but they never say jobs must be created. Such critics may assume that the Market will find places for anyone with skills, or they may not really care whether everyone finds places or not. A nation's commitment to ending poverty can be questioned when many of its citizens still assume that poverty (if not misery) is a fair outcome for failure to be productive and/or competitive. Those citizens may say sincerely that they don't really want anyone to be poor and miserable, but they'd probably also say that whether anyone ends up poor or miserable is that person's responsibility first if not entirely. To the extent that the War on Poverty was meant to empower the children of the poor through education, there remains disagreement over whether the responsibility to educate our children is the state's (or society's) in part or the family's entirely. Consensus has to be reached on questions like these before "total war" on poverty can be waged. Americans need to decide whether improving the lives of the poor, when the poor can't do it themselves, is necessary to national prosperity, an end unto itself, or less important than other national priorities. Half a century of Democratic and Republican talking points have done little to clarify the issues. At best, the semi-centennial should inspire people at least to start the debate over again.

13 January 2014

Dogpiling on Gov. Christie

Another week, another scandal for the popular governor of New Jersey. While the tempest over "Bridgegate" touched Chris Christie only tangentially, to the extent that the Republican was responsible for the petty nastiness of his underlings, the new scandal surrounding the use of hurricane-relief funds to film a "political" commercial points more directly at the governor himself. The complaint here is that the commercial, touting the state's recovery from the 2012 superstorm, could be taken as a form of electioneering given Christie's prominent role in the ad, even though governors nearly always appear in these type of ads to promote tourism or business investment. What seems clear when we take in the picture as a whole is that people are out to get Christie. The real question may be: who isn't? Democrats presumably fear him because Christie's relative moderation could win him the presidency in 2016, should he overcome Tea Party opposition in the Republican primaries. That possibility probably has Tea Partiers gunning for him as well. What we should expect to see, and are seeing already, is Republicans crying crocodile tears over Christie's troubles. If either or both of these scandals bring him down, many in the GOP may secretly celebrate, but that won't stop them from accusing Democrats (and their alleged auxiliaries in the "mainstream media") of hypocritical partisan persecution. Some of the usual voices are already asking why "Bridgegate" should receive more attention (if that's even the case) than the purported persecution of Tea Party groups (i.e. the auditing of their claims to tax-exempt status) by the IRS. By spinning investigations of the Christie administration as partisan persecution, the Republican right wing may try to hit two birds with one stone. Meanwhile, if Democrats really are pushing efforts to investigate or eliminate Christie, wouldn't that be typical? Some in that party may think that their presidential candidate for 2016 would have an easier time against a Tea Party nominee than against a perceived relative moderate like Christie. If such a belief motivates anything happening now, it may show that Democrats are more concerned about taking down short-term threats to their power than taking down long-term threats to the country's well being. Of course, there may be no similar "smoking guns" that could be used against the leading TPs, but the real problem with the Tea Party isn't the corruption or venality of any individual members or leaders. Their ideology is the problem, but I sense that Democrats wouldn't mind keeping them around as ideological foils, figures to frighten the voters and donors with. But at the same time the Tea Party may point to Christie's fate, should the worst happen, as proof that any Republican, not to mention any politician, who rejects their ideology, or challenges it to any extent, is most likely corrupt. Chris Christie himself may not be worth a damn, but I wonder whether anyone apart from his political rivals would benefit from his fall.

10 January 2014

The American Wolf of Hustle Street

Martin Scorsese has made himself controversial again with his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street. Based on a true story, Wolf is a three-hour riot of depravity and conspicuous consumption. The controversy starts with the perceived excess of sexuality, vulgar language and drug humor, but gets interesting as people debate whether the film "glorifies" its subject, the convicted junk-stock trader Jordan Belfort. If Wolf seems morally ambiguous, that's mainly because it's a comedy. In comedy, you're often invited to laugh at immoral or contemptible behavior, your laughter not necessarily indicating approval of it. I think Scorsese's view comes across most clearly, though not clearly enough for many, in the scene where Belfort is teaching his cronies how to close a deal over the phone. As he wheedles and cajoles in his most respectful voice, Belfort keeps making obscene gestures at the phone. Since his goal is to make commissions for himself and not to make the customer rich through any investments, his salesmanship, with its promises of wealth for the mark, isn't just a con but a big F.U. to the customer, complete with the middle finger the guy at the other end of the line can't see. Does Belfort's contempt for his customers register with the audience? If so, is their response indignation, indifference or empathy? One reason Wolf risks the charge of glorifying its subject is that, being a comedy, it never shows anyone actually suffering from what Belfort does to them. We don't see anyone whose life savings he may have sucked away, for instance. Wolf shares that apparent indifference to the victims of the con with another popular film of the moment, David O. Russell's American Hustle. Another period piece (the 70s, not the 80s and 90s), Hustle has con artists for heroes and makes a villain of an FBI agent trying to entrap politicians in the Abscam sting operation. The hero played by Christian Bale rips people off five grand at a time with false promises to help them secure big loans, but as far as the film's concerned his victims can take the loss. In both films people pay for a promise unlikely to be fulfilled. As James Surowiecki notes in a New Yorker column, one of the reasons both films may seem to glorify con artistry is that the con is at the heart of much of our legitimate business as well.

It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.

Entrepreneurs have skills that are very much like those of the con men. To raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imagined future—a dream. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts.As the sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism.

Of course, this isn't the story capitalists tell about themselves.  They preach that success comes from making something, preferably  -- when they're preaching to the poor -- after a period of deferred gratification if not outright self-denial. By comparison, Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, in particular, never defer gratification; Belfort's mentor explicitly tells him not to. Whether they intend to or not, con-man films like Wolf and Hustle teach a counter-myth to the American Dream of entrepreneurship based on invention, on selling something of proven or self-evident quality. Both films hint that conmanship is the best if not only route for rags-to-riches success; hence the feeling that government agents are villains or at least killjoys for ending their sprees. They offer no counterexamples of honest success, though the protagonists of Hustle end up legitimate art dealers. The critics who complain that these films glorify excess and immorality probably recognize all of this. Some of them no doubt resent this because they do find the excess immoral, or the immorality excessive. But I wonder whether some resent these films because they think the films tell a truth they don't want people hearing.

09 January 2014

Rules for playing God vary by state

In California we've seen a family fight to keep a hospital from taking their brain-dead daughter off life support. Now, in Texas, we learn of a family fighting to have a brain-dead woman taken off life support. The mother and husband of the woman in question say that it was her wish not to be kept on life support should the worst happen -- and since she was a paramedic we can presume she spoke from some understanding of the situation. However, this case is less a war of wills between a family and a hospital than a fight between the family and the government. Texas is one of 12 states in this country that require pregnant women to be kept on life-support so that fetuses may be brought to term. I can understand the thought behind the law: the baby should have a chance at life. At the same time, there's something ghoulish about the idea of a woman reduced to an organic incubator -- if "organic" is the right term to describe a woman in this unfortunate's condition. The idea inspires rather dystopian thoughts for the future, however well-intentioned the law may have seemed. I don't know if either the hospital or the state of Texas has yet been accused of "playing God" in this case, but the tag is probably just as justified as it is in the California case. Both cases raise questions about what "life" really means to us, as individuals and as a nation, and it probably would make sense if we could set a single national standard for such cases. But don't hold your breath waiting -- or else you might also end up brain-dead, and then what do we do?

08 January 2014

The Globetrotter

If the patronage or even the proximity of tyrants taints everything, we had better clean out most of the world's art museums. Historically, certain professions have gravitated toward power because, for much of history, only the politically powerful have had the resources to provide those professions the patronage upon which they depended. But who despises the painters of the Renaissance for accepting the patronage of the Medicis, the Borgias, or worse? The results arguably belong to all of us, having become the world's cultural heritage. Admittedly, we most likely won't benefit the same way from Dennis Rodman's visits to North Korea, but that doesn't explain the hate-a-thon unleashed upon the former NBA star for his befriending his famous fan, Kim Jong Un. Every so often someone works up outrage over an entertainer performing at some celebration staged by or for some dictator somewhere, but nothing has compared to the anger at Rodman. The obvious reason is that North Korea is perceived as an enemy of the United States, and for that reason some have suggested that Rodman is a sort of traitor, in spirit if not in law. People who think that way about Rodman have become what they beheld, since to think it treason to meet with foreigners deemed hostile to the state is not merely McCarthyite but outright Stalinist thinking. Rodman's visits may benefit the Kim dynasty in someone's wild dream, but how does it harm the United States?

For some critics, national interest isn't the issue. This commentator, for instance, claims that Rodman has a duty to humanity to engage if not confront Kim Jong Un over his geopolitical belligerence and his misrule of North Koreans. The commentary expresses a relatively recent attitude about the moral responsibility of artists and athletes. It flourished in the 1980s, when Jimmy Carter withheld American athletes from the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and various boycotts were waged against the apartheid regime in South Africa. "I ain't gonna play Sun City" was a popular song of the time; the thought behind it was that artists and athletes lent a kind of legitimacy to tyranny, denial of which might destabilize a regime or shame it into changing its ways. Thus Rodman, despite all absurd appearances, is thought to confer legitimacy or prestige upon the Kim dynasty by playing basketball or singing a birthday song for the ruler. This suspicion only proves that we've conferred too much prestige on celebrities like Rodman in the first place. He can outrage only those who wake up every morning looking to be outraged. The rest of us were amused by the transgressive absurdity of his first visit, but I think a lot of us are more amused now by the frothing outrage of his critics.

07 January 2014

New rules for playing God

A girl in California had her tonsils and other matter removed to relieve her sleep apnea, and then something terrible happened that left her brain-dead. The hospital considers her just plain dead but as long as machines keep her lungs breathing and her heart beating the family hopes for a miracle and wants the machines kept running. You may have seen this story somewhere and you may have noticed the passions it's stirred. It looks like an awful situation all around, while outsiders for whom it's just a news story look for someone to blame. Depending on who you read or hear, it's the hospital's fault or the family's fault, or it's the damned lawyer's fault that this is even a news story. For some the hospital is acting like a death panel; for others the girl's relatives are so many disgusting losers. I know a lot less about the story than some claim to so I abstain from judgment -- except for this. I noticed that the family (or was it their lawyer) accused the hospital of wanting to "play God" by taking the girl off life support. That sounded odd from a historical perspective. I remember Karen Ann Quinlan, whose parents wanted to take her off a hospital ventilator after a misadventure left her in a persistent vegetative state. Back then, the Quinlans and their supporters accused their hospital of "playing God" because the doctors wanted to keep Karen hooked up to life-support machines. At that time, it seems, "playing God" was the opposite of "letting nature take its course." In the current case, you might infer that, as far as the girl's family and their friends are concerned, "playing God" means something like "deciding who lives and who dies." The hospital will claim that that's already been decided, but my point is that, for at least some people, not to take all the heroic measures technology makes possible to sustain life is to "play God," while many people in Karen Ann Quinlan's generation (or that of her parents) thought the opposite. The change may not be so stark, however, if you decide that, in each generation, "playing God" really means "not doing what I want." Let's split the difference. Something probably has changed in our culture, but the more things change...

06 January 2014

Iraq: the return of blowback?

A new milestone of futility in America's engagement with Iraq seemed to be reached last weekend when it was reported that Sunni extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda had taken over the city of Fallujah and much of the country's al-Anbar province -- the battleground for the famous "surge" of George W. Bush's second term. Predictably, Senators McCain and Graham blamed the Obama administration for allowing this disaster to happen by removing American troops from the country. They were careful not to blame Obama entirely, but insisted that the White House must accept a share of blame, on the assumption that the U.S. retains some kind of responsibility for keeping Iraqis away from each other's throats and a duty to deny anything that might be labeled a victory to anything that might be labeled "al-Qaeda."

The largest share in any assignment of blame has to go to the Iraqis themselves, beginning with the government. From what I've read, the trouble in Anbar boils down to the usual sectarianism, the Shiite-dominated government, representing a majority of the population, apparently failing either to win the trust or simply to treat fairly the Sunnis who form a majority in Anbar. That troubled province is just one front in an escalating conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Middle East, the main action being in Syria. As it happens, the manifestation of al-Qaeda causing trouble in Anbar identifies itself with a wishful entity called "the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." The same people have been fighting in Syria against the Assad regime, which has the support of the main Shiite powers in the region, Iran and the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon. To the extent that the U.S. has encouraged the destabilization of Syria, the Obama administration should share in any blame for what's happening in Iraq, but since the likes of McCain and Graham have pushed constantly for further U.S. intervention against Assad, they should get a share as well. Americans can protest that they've never aided anyone having anything to do with al-Qaeda, and they can split hairs over who the good rebels and bad rebels are in Syria, but any effort by a foreign power to exacerbate the destabilization of Syria that came with the "Arab Spring" was going to create opportunities for al-Qaeda or some entity unfriendly toward the U.S. in particular or liberal secular democracy in general. McCain and Graham live in a dream world where the U.S., if rightly governed by brave wise men like themselves, somehow could give the good rebels the exclusive means to win both the war against Assad and the peace afterward, without repercussions being felt in Iraq. Those who take them seriously now have learned nothing in the last decade, and may never learn.

03 January 2014

The rich should help, but ask nicely

Richard Riordan and Eli Broad would agree with the typical reader of this blog that the current scale of income inequality in this country is a bad thing. They'd also agree with the premise that wealthier Americans have a responsibility to help close the income gap -- to a point. Riordan and Broad are philanthropists, and Riordan was once mayor of Los Angeles. In an op-ed running in papers across the country, they worry that critics of inequality will blame the rich too much for the current state of affairs. They challenge the assumption that "a minority of Americans has become richer by making a majority of people poorer." At the same time, they note that since 1973, "the number of middle-class jobs has been reduced by global competition and automation." But if jobs have been lost in order to automate a business or otherwise make it more competitive, doesn't that mean that people are being laid off in order to make other people wealthier, or at least so wealthy people can maintain their standard of living? It may be true that from a "compete or die" standpoint, the employer has no choice but to cut jobs, and doesn't do so out of malice toward employees, but the effect on the unemployed is the same however the employer feels about it. In the writers' view, however, the real problem is that working people lack the tech skills to get the jobs still available in this country. That's where the wealthy should come in. Riordan and Broad want others to follow their example by investing in both American jobs and American education, to help make it possible for Americans to get the skills they need to get the jobs. They close high-mindedly:

 What we all need to continue to believe, and to act on, is the conviction that it's wrong and socially destructive for the rich to forget those who still can use a hand up. Rather than investing in hedge funds and other forms of financial speculation divorced from the real economy, more of the wealthy need to accept the responsibility of investing in job-creating enterprises. At the same time, they need to make educating the workers to fill those jobs a principle focus of their philanthropy.

These are good ideas in the long term, but what do you do about now? What do we do for people before they get up to speed in the job market? For that, it seems, Riordan and Broad have nothing, because there's probably no alternative in the short term to income redistribution, and that, to them, is a bad thing. Immediate solutions like increasing tax rates for the rich or raising the minimum wage may not be wrong in principle, but the authors deem these remedies "counterproductive." They are counterproductive mainly because they may provoke capital flight. "When taxes rise to onerous levels," they observe, "the wealthy move on, taking their investments, tax payments and philanthropic contributions with them." The authors can't, or won't, imagine any remedy for this. That's understandable, I suppose, since the man of wealth has as much prerogative to seek his fortune elsewhere as the man without. But the inability of Riordan or Broad to imagine an alternative underscores the limitations of their approach to inequality. Let's take them at their word that they want less inequality, that they find greater parity of wealth desirable. Let's concede that their contributions toward education may help achieve their long-term goal. But for all that they find the idea admirable, they don't quite find it imperative. They're ready to tell their fellow millionaires what they should do, but might not dare tell them what they must do. The exhortation I quoted above is fine stuff, but if they can't or won't compel anyone to live up to their ideal, they may as well say,"These are things you should be doing, but if you don't -- it's too bad, but whatever." What really matters more to them: achieving greater equality or protecting the right of capital to go where it will? I suspect that Riordan and Broad would call this a false choice. Doing so would be their choice, but that wouldn't make it the truth.

02 January 2014

Fighting crime with happy thoughts

Call me a buzzkill so soon in a new year, but I found this news item from my town of Albany NY ridiculous if not contemptible. The Times Union reports that hundreds of people will participate this year in a project coordinated by a local university professor to reduce violent crime in the New York state capital by meditating.

The professor, of course, is careful to couch this whimsy in the terminology of the scientific method. Please understand that the Albany Peace Project is simply testing a hypothesis. Here's the hypothesis, in the reporter's words: "The idea is that the mere thought of focused, non-violent intentions toward Albany create enough positive energy to pacify parts of the city." In the professor's: "Everything is made of energy, of physical thoughts and events. Any interacting systems become phase-locked." He hopes to repeat a reported success several years ago in Washington D.C., but the only source the reporter cites for the success of that experiment is the group that conducted it, the Transcendental Meditation Research Organization. The same experiment is described by a skeptic on the comments thread as the "Maharishi Effect." By that name or others, judge its success for yourselves.

I'm actually less annoyed by the proposed technique for pacifying Albany than by the implicit laziness and cowardice involved. These people propose to reduce violence in the inner city without addressing, from what I can tell from the article, the actual urban conditions that may contribute to violence, and without even engaging the people and neighborhoods presumed potentially violent.The idea isn't even to get people in Arbor Hill or other crime-troubled neighborhoods to think happy thoughts, except insofar as the happy thoughts thought from a distance induce happy thoughts elsewhere. It looks like waging peace the way the U.S. wages war: preferably from a safe distance, by remote control. To be fair, for all I know the Peace Project is not indifferent to sociological factors that may influence crime. But the Project itself, concerned primarily with reducing violence, seems like nothing more than an anaesthetic, presuming it works, and nothing like a lasting cure. A cure would most likely require more hands-on or face-to-face attention to the problem than these well-meaning idealists are able, or willing to give.