25 February 2014

Comparative homophobia

Some may balk when the struggle for equality for gays is described as the 21st century equivalent of the Civil Rights movement, but analogies are hard to avoid when a state passes a law permitting businesses to refuse service to homosexuals. The bill sits figuratively on the desk of Gov. Brewer of Arizona, who finds herself pressured to sign by her state's Republican base, who consider Sen. McCain too liberal for them, and pressured to veto by much of the rest of the country, including large corporations who hint at boycotting the state if she signs. The odds now seem to favor a veto, the governor putting business (including a future Super Bowl) over her base. If so, let that be a lesson to the religious right for continuing to assume that a common antipathy toward godless Marxism makes them and capitalists natural allies. The bill has been portrayed as a religious-freedom measure. In effect, it would exempt from litigation any business refusing service to gays -- or, more likely, to gay wedding planners -- due to religious objections. Thus bigotry wraps the First Amendment around itself. If the governor signs the bill, I'd look forward to a legal challenge. Since the bill implies that some religions compel adherents to oppose gay marriage by having nothing to do with it on a commercial level, I'd like to see it proven whether any religion actually imposes a duty not to facilitate gay marriage. In the absence of such a commandment, a court should identify explicit refusal of service -- the bill presumably entitles businesses to state their reason for refusing service -- as an act of "conscience" rather than a religious duty. Some people confuse the two concepts, but in a case like this we should insist on a religious test, and unless the pertinent scripture compels refusal of service in plain language the unlucky wedding planner who has but one caterer or photographer or tuxedo rental within reach should be invited to sue away.

Uganda makes Arizona's homophobia look wimpy. President Musaveni has just signed legislation imposing life prison terms for gays who dare to marry or even act on their inclinations. Musaveni no doubt won many new American fans with an unapologetic CNN interview in which he described homosexuality as "disgusting" and claimed that Uganda had been innocent of the practice before western imperialism. A local paper has fanned the fresh flames by publishing a purported list of prominent Ugandan homosexuals. The U.S. has denounced Uganda's action and some European countries reportedly are reevaluating their financial aid to the country. This is the latest chapter in a reversal of affections that leaves conservative Americans looking to Africa for spiritual guidance and the cultural left probably (but probably not publicly) condemning homophobic Africans as primitive barbarians. It also returns us to the question of linkage between diplomacy and human rights. Uganda's action, echoed by different degrees of anti-gay legislation in Russia, India and elsewhere, as well as in the U.S., should offend any fair-minded person on the planet. But is that offense sufficient justification for changing the terms of trade or aid between a relatively liberal nation and a homophobic one? Given the supposed mercantile motives at play in Ukraine recently, it's hard to believe that any country would give up trade with another because of the other's treatment of any minority, especially when the west remains concerned with China's success at no-questions-asked diplomacy in the Third World. The Ugandan example forces a different question on Americans than the internal affair in Arizona: is our liberal government's commitment to gay rights worth alienating other countries? Are Uganda's homosexuals more important than any benefit the U.S. or any liberal western nation derives from dealings with Uganda? Similar questions were answered in the affirmative when the subject was South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s. If the struggle with American homophobia is our equivalent of the Civil Rights movement, is the struggle with global homophobia the moral equivalent of the international anti-apartheid movement? There's an easy idealist answer, but there's also a pragmatic answer taking into account that, whether we like it or not, there are many more people in the world committed to homophobia, and obviously in many more countries, than there were whites committed to apartheid. Millions of people around the world see the gay-rights movement as yet another form of cultural imperialism and resent it. Whatever the objective justice in the case, these millions (or billions) don't want the U.S. dictating to them yet again. It certainly can be frustrating, but unlike the frustration liberals feel when foreign leaders treat dissidents rough, there's an convenient outlet for your frustration right at home -- or there will be if Gov. Brewer signs that bill.  

24 February 2014

Apocalypse Ukraine: the next round?

Whether or not he's ultimately to blame for last week's street fighting in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovich is certainly to blame for making the situation still more volatile by fleeing the Ukrainian capital this past weekend. We don't really know yet what provoked him to flee, but it doesn't look like you can blame Russia for this one. A Russian TV commentator supposedly close to the Putin government has slagged Yanukovich for betraying his own country and his Russian friends. One might have expected the Russian media to portray Yanukovich as both an innocent victim and still the legitimate ruler of his country. The Russian government has taken that stance, but they still may have expected Yanukovich to stand his ground with more courage than he has apparently shown. To bring everyone up to date: Yanukovich bugged out of Kiev shortly after reaching an agreement with the opposition to hold early elections, leaving behind a statement decrying a coup d'etat against him. The nation's legislature responded by impeaching him, and an interim government reportedly is seeking his arrest. Much of the eastern part of the country, supposedly pro-Russian and pro-Yanukovich, has also repudiated the president, but other parts, particularly those where Russian is the main language, have protested his removal and fear the worst from their Russophobic western compatriots. From the outside, people's attitudes are shaped mainly by their attitudes toward the European Union, on one hand, and Vladimir Putin, on the other. Those who see the EU as a neoliberal menace deplore the latest turn of events, while those who see Putin as today's leading exponent of "tyranny" applaud what they see as his defeat by the Ukrainian opposition. The danger in an ideological view of Ukraine, of course, is its encouragement of a belligerent attitude toward Russia should Putin choose to punish Ukraine in some way. It also remains to be seen whether "democracy" really has triumphed in Ukraine. The scenario looks much like Egypt last year, only with the military much less prominent. In both cases a divisive leader with an electoral mandate was driven from power under pressure from mobs who claimed to represent the people of their respective nations. If this is democracy, it's democracy in its most primitive and dubious form -- the democracy of those who show up at the right time in the right place. It's as obvious in Ukraine as it was in Egypt that the mobs in Kiev didn't represent the whole country, yet many outsiders will believe it because they assume that opposition to Putin -- the opposition felt that taking money from Russia meant economic and political subjugation to a hated neighbor -- means you stand for freedom, and that makes you the true people of any body politic.

It's interesting to observe Ukraine from the vantage point of the British media. You get a perspective largely missing from the U.S., that of Euroskepticism. There's a surprising amount of support for Yanukovich in the comment threads of British news sites, and while any such expression is assumed by some to be paid for by Putin, it seems grounded in a common perception that membership in the EU is not such a great thing for any country, from both a political and economic standpoint. For right-wingers, the EU remains a threat to national sovereignty. For left-wingers, it's the bringer of austerity and no friend of the working classes. Whatever the reason, these skeptics question whether Ukraine really will benefit from choosing the EU over Russia, regardless of their opinions of Putin or Yanukovich, and they're more inclined to see the crisis as an EU (or US) power grab. Perhaps ironically, a lot of the people condemning the Ukrainian opposition for the "fascists" in their ranks are probably on the right wing of their own country's political spectrum. But that's what happens when you don't see things through the lens of American "freedom" ideology. There's also probably more actual sympathy for Putin than we might expect. Some on the global right see him as an ally against Islam. Some on the global left see him, warts and all, as a perhaps-necessary bulwark against American neoliberal hegemony. None of this requires anyone to endorse Putin's own ideas about "managed democracy," but it wouldn't surprise me if more people around the world, and in the U.S., see American democracy, the ideal toward which the Ukrainian opposition is expected to aspire, as really little better. For many, I suspect, the idea of democracy isn't inconsistent with a government's readiness to push around people thought too big for their britches, or even take them down a few pegs, while the American ideal may seem to go too far toward insulating those same people from any real accountability. If the U.S. gets too confrontational with Russia over Ukraine's future and tries to justify its stance with the usual freedom argument -- if Obama becomes no more than an echo of McCain -- you might see the usual argument challenged by more than the usual "anti-imperialist" or "isolationist" suspects. Ideally, we won't get to that point. We need to recognize that the struggle in and over Ukraine isn't about freedom as much as it's about markets, and no government has any business risking anyone's lives over markets. No other country should dictate Ukraine's future, but that doesn't mean we need to fight if Russia tries to. That may mean Ukraine loses in the end, that the country can't escape a geopolitical destiny, and you can curse that fate if you're so inclined -- but don't curse the world with the burden of fighting it.

22 February 2014

The passion of Ted Nugent

It must have been like torture for the Motor City Madman finally to apologize to the President of the United States for having called him a "subhuman mongrel" recently. Ted Nugent's highly-begrudged apology followed a parade of Republican repudiation, from Gov. Perry down and from outside Texas as well, after Nugent had been campaigning on behalf of a Republican aspiring to succeed Perry. Nugent has never been reticent about his disdain for Barack Obama in particular or liberals in general, but he crossed a red line with the word "mongrel" that made more responsible Republicans realize that they had to distance themselves rapidly from him. Nugent's epithet was vile and stupid, yet I can't help feel that he's been vilified unfairly. It was impolitic for him to call the President a subhuman mongrel, but it's not as if he's the only person to think of Obama that way, or to call him anything like that. Look in the right places on the Internet and you may well see many other people using the same phrase to describe the President. What's unfair is the assumption that it's wrong for Ted Nugent to say it, that politicians feel it necessary to repudiate him for saying it, while anyone else who happens not to be a public figure can get away with it, and no one has to repudiate them. Nor do Democrats have to repudiate all the angry leftists who might find equivalent insults for Republicans -- I suspect that "inbred" is the left's equivalent of "mongrel," and George W. Bush was often depicted as subhuman in his day. Am I saying that politicians should repudiate every insensitive remark of their supporters? Not necessarily, and not until we figure out whether or not the sort of informal censorship that constrains us from letting our fellow citizens know what we really think or how we really feel actually impedes effective political deliberation -- whether holding back slows down the conflict resolution the nation needs. Honest hate is at least honest and might encourage further honesty. Rather than have people deny their feelings in the interest of an ideal of civility, we should demand that people justify their feelings or appear as the fools they'll be if they can't. That would take care of Nugent, I assume, and probably many others as well.

20 February 2014

A critique of Russophobia

For his trouble, Stephen F. Cohen will most likely be branded an "apologist" for Russia or for the government of Vladimir Putin. It wouldn't surprise me if some accused him of being a hireling propagandist for the Russian president. Cohen has published the latest of his occasional critiques of American policy toward Russia in the March 3 issue of The Nation. His criticism is sweeping: across the board, or across the political spectrum, the American media has propagated a "shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory" caricature of Russia and its government, based upon a "relentless demonization of Putin." He traces the American attitude to our disappointment that Putin did not continue the "liberal" policies of Boris Yeltsin. "If Russia under Yeltsin was presented as having legitimate politics and national interests," Cohen writes, Americans "are now made to believe that Putin's Russia has none at all, at home or abroad -- even on its own borders, as in Ukraine."

I received my copy of the magazine as the news reported the collapse of a truce between government and opposition in Ukraine and a renewal of the violence which many in this country blame on Putin and Russia's desire to exercise hegemony over his western neighbor. Cohen writes a different story of the Ukraine crisis, arguing that the western/liberal media have exaggerated the extent to which President Yanukovich has moved toward dictatorship while minimizing the unsavory elements among the opposition. Read any comment thread on a Ukraine story and you'll see what he's talking about. Supporters of Yanukovich portray the pro-EU opposition, based in the west of the country, as fascists or neo-Nazis, while defenders of the dissidents dismiss such charges as government (or Russian) lies. The truth, it seems is that not all or maybe not many of the dissidents are fascists, but Cohen is probably right to observe that the reality of a fascist or quasi-fascist element is downplayed by reporters looking for a story of freedom fighters. Cohen also challenges claims that Russia bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU, noting that the Europeans instead gave Ukraine an either/or ultimatum while Putin had proposed a "tripartite arrangement" that would have given everyone something. Behind it all, Cohen perceives a persistent desire on the part of the west to minimize Russia's influence anywhere.

Cohen questions whether "any Soviet Communist leader after Stalin [was] ever so personally villainized" as Putin.  He concedes that Putin has some "authoritarian" qualities, but insists that he "lacks such power" as the "autocrat" label implies. Likewise, Cohen takes a sentence to concede that "Russia today has serious problems and many repugnant Kremlin policies," but his main point remains that these have been blown out of proportion by the west. There may be geopolitical or economic reasons for this, but Cohen should know that Russophobia is nothing new. Long before the Bolshevik revolution, Romanov Russia embodied tyranny in western eyes. The country's sheer size and its (unfair?) reputation for simultaneous servility and brutality make Russia a threatening mass on the map. Since our first modern age of revolutions in the late 18th century, Russia has been identified with reactionary authoritarianism, its long experiment with totalitarian revolution in the 20th century paradoxically reconfirming the stereotype. While Cohen can look for immediate material causes for 21st century Russophobia, the lasting problem has been the identification of Russia with tyranny, a perception not exactly refuted by its defense of the Assad government in Syria and its stance against "humanitarian intervention" against other alleged tyrannies. If Russia has a distorted image in the west, it's because people here assume that Russia represents tyranny, asserts it as a guiding principle the way the U.S. supposedly represents and asserts "liberty." A deeper problem than Russophobia, perhaps, is the assumption that there exists a global entity called "tyranny" that is perpetually contesting "liberty" for dominion over the globe. From this perspective, anything that benefits Russia benefits tyranny worldwide and weakens liberty. This has been going on so long with Russia that it's probably a conscious lie for only a few people. What Cohen is trying to do, I think, is make people see Russia first as a nation like any other nation, with interests and rights like any other nation and no unique commitment to tyranny. That doesn't mean that Putin or his Cossacks don't push around or literally flog dissidents more than is ideal. But it's one thing to see these things and want Russia to change its ways, another to see them as proof that Russia threatens freedom around the world. Cohen challenges his American readers to take off their X-Ray Specs that purport to show Russia's true nature and see things as they are, not through the lens of ideology or ancient phobias. If that makes him an "apologist," I'm not sure that he really has much to apologize for.

19 February 2014

A parable for big brother

David Brooks recognizes that many of his fellow Republicans have an attitude problem. Cleverly, he invites them to change their attitude through the medium of a Christian parable. He retells the story of the Prodigal Son in his latest New York Times column, adding to it a modern moral. Too many Republicans -- Brooks actually says too many well-off people in general -- take the resentful attitude of the prodigal's older brother when the father takes the prodigal back in. Bible readers will recall that after years wasting himself, the prodigal returns home and is feasted by his father, to his brother's dismay. You know: Why does that bum merit such special treatment? You never gave me a feast? The father can't help rejoicing, however, because one who was lost has been found.

Brooks recognizes that many Republicans don't get it. He paraphrases their attitude: "People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others’ hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted."

While many such critics may actually imagine themselves in the father's role, Brooks sees them as kin to the unreasonably envious older brother. "In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers," he observes, "The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”

Moreover: "[T]his parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism." Meanwhile, "The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude."

It becomes clear that this is a parable for political candidates in 2014, 2016 and beyond. "Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity."

In Brooks's reading of the parable, the prodigal is less a representative of the wastrels and sinners than a symbol of the unsuccessful. Brooks most likely shares with other Republicans a belief that the unsuccessful need to change their lives in order to become successful. But he knows, as many of his fellow partisans may not, that our modern prodigals won't be motivated to succeed -- more specifically, to emulate the successful -- unless they believe that the fathers and the elder brothers really want them to succeed. Brooks is probably exceptional in realizing that the prodigals need assurance that there's actually a place for them at home. "The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted." For Brooks, that acceptance comes with the prodigal's obligation "to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline." But the imperative to accept the prodigal also puts an obligation on the elder brother. He "gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship."

Oddly, Brooks notes a modern critique of the prodigal-son story that finds it irrelevant to modern conditions. From this perspective, Jesus's story is mainly a critique of Phariseeism and its " overly rigid and rule-bound society." In this reading the elder brother is an unforgiving Pharisee while the father represents Jesus's "radical forgiveness." Modern critics supposedly find the parable counterproductive in a society that needs more rather than less discipline; its message may only discourage personal responsibility. Brooks finds this criticism "valid" but still rejects it. Without quite making it plain, he leaves his fellow Republicans, perhaps those on the Christian right especially, with a challenge. Are they Christians or are they Pharisees?

18 February 2014

Apocalypse Ukraine

Epic and ominous imagery streams from Kiev as the government begins to crack down on the opposition gathered in Maidan Square. The capital seems to be all on fire after at least one dozen people have died in the last day's violence. What's it all about? Some people in and out of Ukraine want to make it all about democracy or freedom, so it bears repeating that the crisis is about more and less than these things. It's mainly about Russia. The western part of the country and many liberals throughout Ukraine hate Russia. Some see that country and its current leader as embodiments of authoritarian menace; others see Russia more simply as the local bully, much as much of Latin America sees the U.S. They don't identify with Russia, as the eastern part of the country supposedly does, and they can't accept the domination by Russia that the trade deal supposedly entails. Their attitude toward Russia might not be any different if someone less odious than Vladimir Putin ran things. The people in eastern Ukraine and the supporters of President Yanukovich no doubt also feel that democracy is at stake. In their minds the protesters, heroes of liberalism in the eyes of many outsiders, are probably no better than the American southerners who rejected the results of the 1860 presidential election and provoked a civil war. The analogy isn't exact, since to my knowledge few in western Ukraine talk about seceding and seeking admission as a separate nation to the European Union. Instead, they want it all, which means the fall of Yanukovich. Is Ukraine a nation? If so, at some point the minority must submit to the majority -- at some point one side must confess itself a political minority and as such obliged to submit so long as submission doesn't mean subjection. Why is the trade issue an all-or-nothing, zero-sum affair, for Ukraine itself and for Russia and the EU? Is it really that Russia wants to "dominate" Ukraine? Recent developments confirm that impression for those already inclined to distrust Russia. Many observers believe that a recent release of Russian aid money to Ukraine was conditioned upon a crackdown on the opposition that appears to be under way. If so, it'll only make Putin look more like a bad guy if he can't tolerate dissent in another country. Ukraine is not obliged by geography or history to kowtow to Russia, but there may well be a "silent majority" there that chooses Russia over Europe, for whatever reason. Is it tyranny if they get their way, even if they have to force their will on the rest of the country? If they have to force their will on the rest of the people, whose fault will that be? If the opposition refuses to acknowledge any legitimacy to the Yanukovich government or its policies, aren't they guilty of a bad faith incompatible with democracy? The tragedy of Ukraine is that the opposition, driven by their hatred of Russia if not a hatred of their own eastern brothers, has forced a choice between rule or ruin, and will most likely get ruin.

Pussy Riot goes for the gold

The feminist punks of Pussy Riots attempted to compete with the Winter Olympics today. Members of the outfit appeared in Sochi to call fresh attention to their hatred of President Putin by singing a song. To no one's surprise, they were hassled by cops, detained for questioning about thefts from a hotel room. While most western observers will assume that the Russians simply made up these charges to hassle Pussy Riot, the fact that the cops gave Pussy Riot what I assume they wanted might make one wonder whether the grrls actually did something beyond merely being in town to provoke the authorities. In any event, the bandmembers were freed and rushed into the embrace of the international media, for whom they performed some of their new Putin song. Lest I sound too skeptical toward Pussy Riot, rest assured that I grant whatever grievances they have about their country's religious right. But when their adventures as offered as proof of the authoritarian nature of the government under Putin doesn't it tend to trivialize the liberal critique of the Russian leader? Whatever their real grievances are, Pussy Riot furthers a global liberal narrative in which dissent is just about an end unto itself and the necessary proof of a free society is that you can insult the leaders. Political leaders shouldn't be immune from insult -- many are far too thin-skinned for their people's good -- but a liberalism that can't sleep soundly unless it hears people griping about their government risks confusing a free society, as defined in liberal terms, with a just society. Some people do equate a free society with a just society; they're the ones who ultimately believe that "as long as you have a right to complain, you have no right to complain." Some confusion is understandable, since a just society should, by any definition, also be a free society. But the equation works only one way: a just society is necessarily a free one, but one that is only free isn't necessarily just. The problem isn't really Pussy Riot but the coverage of Pussy Riot --whatever their substantial grievances against Russian society and culture, the west is interested mainly in what they say about Putin and what he does about it. Would Russia really be a better place if Putin or his Orthodox base didn't persecute dissidents like Pussy Riot? Those who answer yes are only partly right, depending on the extent to which greater tolerance of dissent would improve the lives of ordinary Russians? But if greater tolerance of dissent is really all it takes to make Russia a member in good standing of the family of civilized nations, our standard of civilization is probably pretty shallow.

17 February 2014

Populism or Progress: Is either possible?

In the March Harper's Adolph Reed Jr. laments a "narrowing of social vision"on the American left since the 1960s, culminating in the administration of arch-centrist Barack Obama. Reed notes that accounting for this narrowing of vision is a complex task, but he wants to blame it, not unreasonably, on too close an identification between the interests of the left as a whole and those of the Democratic party. He diagnoses a bad case of "electoralitis," victims of which believe that "each election now becomes a moment of life-and-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection." Reed blames this on the increasing demonization (itself not exactly unjustified) of the Republican party, noting a trend long observed here in which the Democrats present themselves as the only viable alternative to Republican ruination of the country, whose success depends on unconditional solidarity on the part of everyone to the left of the GOP. As Reed describes the typical argument: "true, the last Republican didn't bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will." Reed damns both Obama and Bill Clinton, their electoral success having vindicated an unambitious excuse for progressivism. These Democratic presidents have reduced the "left" to no more than "a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order." It seems to stand for no more than "inclusiveness," perhaps taking Obama's election as proof of a reformed social order rather than as a halting first step toward that end. Reed fears that post-Obama leftism will have be "capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering and making up 'Just So' stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity....Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to anti-discrimination."

The problem, Reed thinks, is more than the fact that by now "no politically effective force exists." The deeper problem is that the American left lacks "a clear, practical utopian vision," while the right has one, however wrong that may be. Liberals and those further left seem to have abandoned the "belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present," while the right still peddles the entrepreneurial dream of upward mobility through individual effort. The problem with Reed's essay is that it says little about how we've reached this point. He dismisses the "relentless Republican juggernaut" as a Democratic scarecrow without accounting for how the GOP could play that role convincingly. You get little historical sense of why the left has grown demoralized -- why the Republicans started winning more elections, and so on.

Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books promotes Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as the face of a new American Populism that could turn the historical tide. Warren is the anti-Clinton, more specifically the anti-Hillary, in the eyes of many progressives: a "populist" progressive untainted (as yet) by power. Her success in Massachusetts, reclaiming Ted Kennedy's seat from a short-term GOP usurper, and her seemingly glittering promise for 2016 signal to Michael Tomasky that the Democratic party is "finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and toward a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years or even decades."

Warren is probably the New York Review's ideal populist: born poor in Oklahoma but eventually a Harvard Law School professor. Her main populist credential is a 2011 speech in which she said, "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own." That's little different from Obama's "you didn't build that" remarks, and as such little real proof of populist inclinations, however those may be defined by Tomasky. He thinks conditions are ripe for a populist backlash against the Republicans, given growing inequality, but he thinks conditions will be riper, if not ripest, should someone like Warren defeat an authentic Tea Party Republican in the 2016 presidential election. It's important that the Republican loser be a genuine ideologue so that the party sees his defeat as a decisive if not definitive repudiation of the TP ideology and doesn't repeat the excuse-making of 2008 and 2012. Tomasky may underestimate ideologues' capacity for excuse-making, however. For the true believer, any loser by definition is unsound or impure ideologically; since the pure message would surely win, the losing message is ipso facto impure. In any event, Republican defeat is the sine qua non for any populist or progressive revival -- for Tomasky the two adjectives may be synonymous -- but if the Democrats again define themselves by what they're against (Republicans, Tea Partiers) instead of by what they're for someone like Adolph Reed may see little progress. It may seem very familiar to him instead, especially if the imperative to elect Warren or Clinton as the first woman President trumps other progressive or populist imperatives.

Tomasky believes that "history in fact shows that while progress may take its time arriving, it always comes." That doesn't sound like the sort of pessimism or fatalism Reed decries, while Tomasky might accuse people like Reed, typically, of impatience. Reed may be impatient to the extent that he may not understand fully the causes of today's apparent pessimism. Americans may simply be all too conscious of scarcity to dream big progressive dreams. More so than during the New Deal years, there's a consciousness of ultimate scarcity, not only of any nation's economic resources but mainly of the natural resources of the planet. If anything, people on the left are more conscious and more constrained by thoughts of our ecological vulnerability than those on the right. Do such thoughts make people on the left too quick to assume certain things can't be done? Possibly. Meanwhile, the non-ideological majority remains cautious or just plain scared. Last weekend's vote against unionizing a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee doesn't exactly testify to the common people's faith in solidarity -- though of course the labor movement blames their defeat on Republican fearmongering. Reed writes that a strong labor movement is absolutely essential to a real American left; "Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless." Writing well in advance of the VW vote, he admits that the task won't be easy; "It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves." It definitely seems to require more than trusting another technocrat like Sen. Warren to save us. Does it also require a "utopian vision,"as Reed suggests? It depends on what we mean by "utopian." Utopian thinking today seems constrained by our consciousness of limits. But what if the real meaning of utopian thinking is to demand what we should have regardless of whether we can have it or not? There's some danger to such a mindset, since it's unrealistic by definition, but if realism results only in pessimism, we can still imagine a better world. In fact, we have to, whether it's realistic or not, and whether everyone wants it or not, to be true to our human nature.

14 February 2014

Tom Perkins: Idiot of the Year?

It's only February but Tom Perkins has already told us that criticism of the "1%" could lead to a "progressive Kristallnacht," and now, asked in a public forum for a "sixty-second idea to change the world," the octogenarian venture capitalist argues for the replacement of democracy with plutocracy. Specifically, Perkins turns the old revolutionary formula on its ear. No representation without taxation is his cry; unless you pay taxes, you shouldn't be able to vote. The problem with democracy, he says, is that people are voting who don't pay taxes. On one level it's the old "stake in society" argument that justified property qualifications for voting. On another, it's just plain resentment of citizens being able to make some pay without having to pay themselves. But Perkins isn't done. Adopting the view (shared selectively by people on the left) that taxpayers should decide what's done with taxes, the old gentleman believes that the more you pay in taxes, the more votes you should have. He may also think that this way you can limit your future taxation. What's clear is that Perkins has a big problem not just with "progressive" politics, or with the redistribution of wealth, but with the very idea of democratic republicanism that has come to define this country. While property qualifications did prevail in many states at first, the inexorable trend has been toward universal suffrage, on the premise that everyone who lives in a country, and not just the property owners, has a stake in society -- that society is synonymous with people, not property. In Perkins's America, there are the "successful," -- the 1% and beyond -- and a bunch of parasites who want to live off them, or kill them in a kristall mood. His folly is the notion that taking the vote from these people will put them in their place. Maybe the real reason he's so concerned about eruptions of progressive violence is a guilty assumption that if they knew what he really thought of them... And now that age has loosened his tongue, I guess we'll find out one way or the other.

13 February 2014

Preventing an American precariat

When people talk about a decline in mobility in the U.S., they usually mean social mobility. It seems harder than ever for those poor people not gifted with looks or athleticism to rise in class. I think David Brooks means social mobility too, but the immediate context of his recent New York Times column is a decline in geographic mobility. He perceives that people are moving from place to place less than Americans used to. Brooks attributes this in part to a declining faith in opportunity -- another way of saying social mobility. As he explains:

It takes faith to move. You are putting yourself through temporary expense and hardship because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward. Many highly educated people, who are still moving in high numbers, have that long-term faith. Less-educated people often do not.

When people do move, they move from low-income, low-opportunity areas to equally low-income, low-opportunity areas.  Because they don't expect to find good-paying jobs, they look for places where rents are cheap rather than risk depleting their savings while looking in more affluent places where the jobs actually may be. Another sign of loss of faith in opportunity is an increase over the last quarter-century in the number of Americans willing to describe themselves as "have-nots." For Brooks this is an alarming sign of class-consciousness -- but of what class? A new specter is haunting David Brooks: the spectre of the precariat. The word is the clever neologism of a British economist: it suggests a pre-proletariat, or a working class defined by its precarious job security. Lacking faith in opportunity under the existing economic order, they are potential recruits for "protest movements across the political spectrum," as Brooks puts it. An idle lower class easily can become a dangerous class. What is to be done? Brooks closes his column with an unintentionally asinine and perhaps unintentionally revealing suggestion. While noting cogently that "no one response is going to reverse the trend," he dedicates his last paragraph to a proposal from the American Enterprise Institute that the government issue "moving vouchers" to the chronically unemployed. Since we certainly can't just give them jobs, we could at least make it easier for them to go where they might find some -- where Brooks says they can "chase opportunity." There may be a "jobs are out there" implication in Brooks's assumption that facilitating travel in search of work could restore Americans' faith in opportunity. But there may be a still-deeper implication. Encouraging the poor to relocate in search of work presumably would disperse concentrations of precariat and diminish the potential for social volatility in depressed regions. I could see why a Republican think tank might find that an idea worth paying for -- indeed, an idea worth taxpayers paying for. Somehow the government paying people to travel is better than the government simply creating jobs. Brooks himself may see a place for government job-creation, but highlighting the moving-voucher idea may reveal his real priorities -- it may reveal more of them than he planned.

11 February 2014

Shirley Temple and Hollywood Republicanism

The late Shirley Temple Black made her last stab at stardom in 1965, at age 37, when she filmed a pilot for a sitcom called Go Fight City Hall. When no one picked up the show, Temple turned her attention to politics. Her obituaries remind us that she followed two of her erstwhile co-stars into the political arena. George Murphy, who danced with the ten year old Temple in 1938's Little Miss Broadway, was elected to the U.S. Senate by California voters in 1964, bucking that year's Democratic trend. More significantly, her romantic partner in 1947's That Hagen Girl, Ronald Reagan, was elected Governor of California in 1966. Temple made her attempt in 1967, running for Congress as a Republican in a special election. She lost to a fellow Republican in what was interpreted as a repudiation by her district of her hawkish foreign policy. She proved more effective as a campaign worker than a campaigner. President Nixon rewarded Temple for her work on his behalf in 1968 by putting her on a diplomatic career track. He made her Ambassador to Ghana in 1972. While that may have seemed a backwater, and the appointment may have seemed the typical patronage reward for a prominent supporter, Temple apparently proved a quick study at diplomacy, to the extent that President Ford made her Chief of Protocol, responsible for training other diplomats. She played her biggest role in real-world history as President George H.W. Bush's Ambassador to Czechoslovakia during that country's 1989 "Velvet Revolution." It was interesting to learn that Temple had also been there in 1968, during the "Prague Spring" of liberalization, and had had to bug out (with other Americans and westerners) when the Russians invaded. She had been active in fundraising for research into multiple sclerosis and was lobbying for Czechoslovakia's entry into an international federation of MS societies. One might wonder whether she had more to do there then than that, and whether her work in 1968 had anything to do with her 1989 appointment by Bush the Elder. But by speculating I digress. Temple, of course, was perhaps the greatest of all child stars, the number-one box office attraction from 1935 through 1937, although she failed to maintain her position as she matured. Many of today's obituaries stress her necessarily largely unconscious role in rebuilding national morale during the Depression. She projected an optimism the nation seemed to need, and when writers today mentioned "optimism" I thought of Reagan and how his optimism set him and his political movement apart from traditional, pessimistic conservatism. I don't know much about George Murphy and his views except that he was a conservative Republican like Reagan and Temple -- and like Reagan, a past president of the Screen Actors Guild. These associations left me wondering whether the paradoxical conservative optimism now identified with Reagan was not so much his as Hollywood's contribution to American political thought: a necessary, obligatory optimism -- optimism as a corporate imperative -- that can be traced back to Shirley Temple's musical comedies, if not earlier. I don't mean that her childhood pictures promoted conservatism -- her optimism actually complemented the New Deal -- but that they may have encouraged the belief that optimism could overcome all obstacles. I can only speculate because I never watched her movies when they ran on TV. I was a boy, so Shirley Temple was the last thing I wanted to see. Millions did watch those movies, however -- Temple was probably a bigger star at her peak than anyone is today -- and her historic popularity has to have had some sort of impact. Few watch her movies now, but their original impact still resonates today.

Nazism as Metaphor

Godwin's Law of digital-age discourse predicts that Hitler is increasingly likely to be invoked the longer a debate on practically any controversial subject continues. The law is usually interpreted as defining the point where a debate has deteriorated into hysteria, with the person invoking Hitler being deemed the loser by default. While Godwin's Law appears to identify a kind of intellectual bankruptcy, the invocation of Hitler or Nazism in debates offends many people simply as a supposed trivialization of the Holocaust. Such people were offended recently by a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which businessman Tom Perkins warned that "a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent" could result in an American Kristallnacht, i.e. an equivalent to Germany's 1938 anti-semitic pogrom for which class-baiting "progressives" would be to blame. Self-styled progressives responded as if Perkins had declared himself a Nazi. For many critics Perkins was just another right-wing jerk. For others (try this for an example) he had violated the historic singularity of Nazi evil. In the example cited, Jeffrey Weiss argues that Nazi anti-semitism was a unique, incomparable and uncategorizable evil because it was dedicated, uniquely in history, to the systematic extermination of an entire people. His ruling is that "Cavalier Nazi comparisons disrespect the actual victims of the Nazis by suggesting that any perceived wrong is like the Holocaust."

I have no sympathy or respect for Tom Perkins's views, but this little controversy suggests that some of us have gone too far, however informally, toward restricting the rhetorical or metaphorical use of Nazism in political argument. Just to keep things literal, Perkins warned not of a "progressive Holocaust" but a "progressive Kristallnacht." While any analogy with Nazi Germany may lead readers to infer that Perkins had predicted a campaign of systematic extermination against the 1%, he explicitly warns only of pogrom-like violence, bad enough as that may be.

In the larger context, we have to argue for the existence of larger contexts for the discussion of Nazism. We should reject the notion that neither Nazism nor the Holocaust can be categorized in ways that relate or compare them with other beliefs or crimes. It simply doesn't follow that as an ideology Nazism is incomparable with anything else -- and it can be argued that Hitler only committed to exterminating the Jewish people late in the game, that until the war he at least toyed with ideas of pushing them deep into Russia or exiling them to Africa. In any event, his ultimate plans for the Jews do not disqualify Nazism from consideration or definition as a subset of another category to which one can imagine the Occupy movement belonging. While Hitler lived and ruled, Nazism was widely recognized -- and I believe Perkins still recognizes it -- as a form of demagoguery. Nazism is a kind of demagoguery that, like others, seeks to win power by stoking fear and hatred of a supposedly-powerful and malevolent minority -- in this case, the Jews. From Perkins's perspective, the Occupy movement has done the same thing, only appealing to class hatred of the "1%" instead of race or religion. It should not be beyond the pale to compare any demagogic movement driven by scapegoating with Nazism, for Nazism, whatever else it did, was just such a movement.

Of course, it would make more sense for a businessman writing in the Wall Street Journal to compare Occupy demagoguery to Bolshevism, or maybe even to Jacobinism. Perkins's choice of a Nazi metaphor may only show how little rhetorical force invocations of Communist evils retain today, while a reference to Jacobinism might simply fly over most people's heads. But I suppose his was an appropriately stupid response to a stupid movement. As I've argued before, Occupy's scapegoating of the 1% largely misses their real target by focusing too narrowly. There may well be more sympathy for liberal and progressive policies within the actual 1% than there is within the 10% or the 20%. If there's a class struggle in the U.S., it doesn't pit the richest against everyone else, unless you assume simplistically that they're where you're going to get the money from. The problem isn't necessarily with wealth itself but with a mentality more likely associated with those still climbing socially, those growing wealthier but not yet the wealthiest, who feel entitled to keep all they earn, obligated to no one, and resentful of any perceived restraint on their further enrichment. So I suppose that if I took Occupy more seriously I'd be more offended on their behalf over Perkins's letter. Instead, Godwin would seem to be right if he meant to say that by the time someone invokes Hitler the debate has already gotten stupid enough.

10 February 2014

'Caring equally for all:' pacifist democracy and revisionist history

Kristin Y. Christman is the author of The Taxonomy of Peace, self-described as a "Comprehensive Classification of the Roots and Escalators of Violence," including "650 Solutions for Peace." She wrote an op-ed piece that was probably intended to appear closer to the Martin Luther King holiday but only ran in a local paper this weekend. Christman believes that we'll improve our "potential for peace" if we rethink history and question "the usefulness of each past war." To her credit, she doesn't go for an easy target. Instead, she questions whether the American Civil War was worth fighting. She thinks not.

The war did not stop the exploitation of labor in the South or North. Nor did it sever the connection between wealth and power that stifles economic justice and plagues us today. Freed slaves were subject to lynching, starvation, and the sharecropping system that trapped them in false debt. Northern white workers were fainting from starvation at the profitable Pullman rail car factory outside Chicago.

True enough, but Christman succumbs to an old idealistic account of the war. She seems to believe, on the evidence of this column, that the war was fought, if not initiated, to end slavery. This assumption is important to her argument, since she proposes an alternative scenario in which slavery would have ended without war.

Christman works under the assumption that all parties to a conflict with the potential for war have legitimate concerns that should be addressed in order to keep peace. Since "the essence of democracy is 'caring equally for all,'" democratic governments must "seek to resolve conflict rather than take sides." To assert that one side is wrong is too often to "lure the compassionate into support for war, especially when attention to that inhumanity cloaks hidden purposes of war." While Christman doesn't go so far as to say that no side can be wrong, she insists that "inhumanity could be better addressed non-violently," or should be whenever possible. This entails addressing the "fears" that presumably motivate inhumane conduct or constrain inhumane actors from changing their ways.

How does this apply to the Civil War? Christman's assumption (so I infer) is that the war came because the North insisted on the abolition of slavery. If the South felt compelled to resist, that was because the North made demands without offering anything in return. While she doesn't seem like a Neo-Confederate -- she does seem convinced that slavery is inhumane -- Christman seems to endorse a once-popular quasi-Marxist interpretation of the conflict that portrays Northern capitalism as its driving force, and seems to suggest that slaveholders had concerns the Union was obliged to address.

Why was no effort made in congressional negotiation to link the abolition of slavery with the easing of economic conditions for the South? The North seemed to be forcing the South into a corner, to be squeezing it, by insisting simultaneously on low prices for Southern cotton, high prices for Northern shipping and manufactured goods, a tariff that favored the North, and the end of slavery. Instead of creating economic conditions and human relations initiatives that would facilitate the South's survival without slaves, the North seemed to use the slavery issue as ammunition to foment belligerency toward the South. Billions that could have reimbursed each slave and slave owner went down the drain.

The problem with this account is that we can't tell when this "negotiation" over abolition took place. It certainly didn't happen before secession, since abolition wasn't on the agenda of the incoming Lincoln administration. Lincoln had no intention of freeing the slaves until the war itself seemed to justify it; however much he hated slavery, he felt himself constrained from abolishing it by the Constitution. What he insisted upon, and would not give up in negotiation -- what made his election alone sufficient cause for secession in many Southern eyes -- was that no further territories in the west would be open to slavery. This was abolitionist only in the long view, insofar that confining slavery to the South would put it, as Lincoln did believe, on the course of ultimate extinction. Would Christman have preferred that Lincoln consent to the settling of slaves all the way to the Pacific, or is it her belief that "creating economic conditions and human relations initiatives" would have reconciled slaveholders to their exclusion from the west? She can certainly believe that such initiatives should have reconciled fearful troublemakers to constraints on their inhumanity, but should is no guarantee of would. The weakness of this sort of pacifist reasoning is the assumption that negotiation inevitably will discover a rational basis for conflict resolution -- that the fears that presumably spark or exacerbate war are fundamentally reasonable and amenable to reasoned negotiation. If you're confronted with irrational fears, what then? How much do you give to keep the peace?

To be fair to Christman, hers is always a fair question to ask. What is really worth risking your life, and others'? What is worth killing people? Was it worth the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people either to preserve the Union or free the slaves? At the extreme, the pacifist questions whether anything justifies killing. Whether capital punishment undermines the reverence for life that it's intended to reinforce is a related question. But it can also be asked whether, absent the ultimate rationality upon which Christman's approach to conflict resolution depends, pacifism only perpetuates injustice. When she proposes an alternative to the Civil War including compensated emancipation, many will object to the idea of "rewarding" slaveholders in any way, but she can ask whether your moral objection justifies the deaths of slaveholders and their antagonists alike. The ultimate question may be: what merits death? Some will answer: nothing. Others will disagree. The disagreement defines two conflicting ideals that might be described as hedonist and utilitarian. To the hedonist, and by extension the pacifist, the violent death of anyone is intolerable. For the utilitarian, the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number often allows for the exclusion of a lesser number. Christman's concept of democracy -- "caring equally for all" -- is essentially hedonist. It requires us to keep caring even for the oppressors, even when it seems that you care more for them than for those they oppress. But hers is only one conception of democracy. Others may stress that power is open for all to share in, but exists to be used -- on people, not to mention property.  In this view, democracy always contains an element of command with an "or else" stipulation, with submission to a ruling will implicit in membership, or else we're actually describing anarchy. None of this rules out "caring equally for all" as a democratic objective, but it can set conditions for all and each -- and that may be what democracy is really about for some people. Declaring each human life inviolable may seem supremely democratic from one perspective, but from another doing so may preempt democracy in crucial ways. I'm not declaring any winners in this debate, but I'm pretty sure the ultimate resolution of questions of justice and peace won't be as easy as Christman wishes.

07 February 2014

'not enough about tyranny'

A postscript to the trial of the Chinese dissident Xu Zhiyong comes from a likely source. Xu is Leon Wieseltier's new hero. The New Republic's literary editor loves anyone who stands up for democracy against tyranny, and right now he's been unhappy because the President of the United States doesn't stand up for it enough. "Having deceived the country into believing that almost everything may be accomplished, [Obama] is deceiving it into believing that almost nothing may be accomplished," Wieseltier laments in the February 17 issue, "He is not raising the country up, he is tutoring it in ruefulness and futility." By comparison, the jailbound Xu has delivered "a repudiation of the forgetfulness about the reasons for democracy that now mars our democracy" in a statement, released clandestinely, that he was not allowed to read in court. In it, Xu says nothing new, at least to western ears. He affirms the universality of "modern democratic values" and exhorts Chinese citizens "not to act as feudal subjects" of their leaders. But some people always thrill to these sounds; they remind Wieseltier of the words of Russian dissidents from Soviet times. For him, the sensation of reading or hearing such rhetoric is "the feeling of being morally refined and historically educated and politically catalyzed, the thrill of being pointed in the direction of what really counts." Under Obama, he fears, the thrill is gone. "In America now I hear too much about transfats and not enough about tyranny," he complains.

What America does Leon Wieseltier live in? Does he live in an ivory tower without Internet access, without a TV or radio? Only under such circumstances could someone say that he hears "not enough about tyranny." If Americans seem demoralized about the global prospects for democracy, it's more likely because they've heard too much, far too much about tyranny, and to an extent that trivializes the concept and, to attempt an explanation of what Wieseltier actually perceives, desensitizes them to the plight of people under actual tyranny. In this country people routinely call Barack Obama a tyrant. They regard regulations as a form of tyrannical oppression. And the left, too, exaggerates the tyrannical potential of its opposites. Who in America doesn't feel oppressed? Even the billionaires do. How, then, can Wieseltier expect any American to thrill to, or even take seriously, the idea that American-style "liberal" democracy should be adopted everywhere on Earth? What would that mean to Americans? That every country on Earth gets saddled with an equivalent of the Republican party? Or, as reactionaries abroad fear, the gay lobby? If the U.S. suffers, as Wieseltier suspects, from an atrophy of the "moral imagination" that makes possible "our solidarity with our fellows," and is "abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty," wouldn't that be because of an overuse (or overdose) of the thrilling rhetoric of freedom and tyranny? I don't doubt that Wieseltier still gets a legitimate thrill from the words of authentic dissidents against actual tyranny, but I don't think he actually understands what thrills him, or why American rhetoric on the subject, directed inward or outward, can't have the same thrill. As an intellectual of some sort, he probably knew enough about conditions in the USSR, and maybe even knows enough about conditions in China today, to recognize that the words of their dissidents aren't bullshit. Americans familiar only with domestic familiar rhetoric may be more likely to dismiss all protest against tyranny as bullshit, unless they're hardcore reactionaries or paranoids who think that tyranny is already here -- and they, I suspect, wouldn't see actual tyranny coming until it came down literally with a boot to their faces. That's only speculation, of course, but it's a more plain fact that the age of liberal triumphalism is over, no matter how the likes of Wieseltier pine for it. Liberalism had a moment after the Cold War to prove its appeal and its superiority. That moment is over, and only someone as apparently isolated from the emotional reality of our time as Wieseltier can be surprised -- though he remains entitled to his disappointment -- that few of us seem interested in selling liberalism anywhere today.

06 February 2014

Obama's religion, for breakfast

It was time again today for the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual occasion for the President of the United States to reaffirm his piety in general and his Christianity in particular. While again declaring Jesus his personal savior, President Obama made nice as usual to all the major faiths, insisting that religion, properly understood, is a positive force in the world. It inspires people to acts of conscience, he said, his implication being that for some religion is not just the sufficient but the necessary impetus for such acts. He appears convinced that human dignity depends on our having been "wonderfully made in the image of God," and that thus grounded, that dignity is something that "no earthly power can take away."

Obama then warned that "around the world freedom of religion is under threat." Of course, he failed to acknowledge the threat to "freedom of religion" some fellow Americans perceive in his own health-care law, but he took threats abroad quite seriously. For some observers, this part of his speech is a no-win scenario for the President. As I suggested, some domestic critics will find his solicitude for foreign people of faith hypocritical. Foreign critics will see the speech as another excuse for an American president to claim unearned moral superiority by scolding other countries for their intolerance. For instance, he chided China for its repression of Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in its far west, arguing that "China's potential rests on upholding universal rights." In general, he argues that "no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities."

That sounds very nice, but it all seems to rest on an unexamined premise. Do religions, be they minorities or majorities, uphold universal rights? Do religions guarantee the rights of all people? Obama believes that they do, or at least presumes that in the ideal form he described today, they should. Yet for every instance of an ostensibly atheistic regime oppressing religion as such, there's at least one case of one religion oppressing another, or all others in a territory the majority faith claims as its own. Obama's answer to such phenomena is that "extremist" religion isn't real religion. When one religion attacks another, or when all fight each other, the President argues that religion is "twisted." He charges that "Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess." Obama himself is satisfied that "the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will," and that "to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God." This, to say the least, is an ahistorical account of religion in general and his own faith in particular. It should be obvious that the President is describing a type of religious experience few on Earth will recognize as much like their own -- a faith in which, for all intents and purposes, Martin Luther King is the seal of the prophets, with Mahatma Gandhi as John the Baptist. Islamophobes, with characteristic tunnel vision, ridicule claims that Islam is essentially a religion of peace. How much less ridiculous is it to argue, as Obama does, that religion in general is essentially peaceful or conducive to social justice? I'm sure that Republicans in this country will ridicule Obama's speech (here's an early example), but that shouldn't deter others from doing likewise when they have better reasons.

04 February 2014

Marriage, prosperity and family values

For the last half-century since a "war on poverty" was declared there have been occasional skirmishes on a front of questionable strategic significance. Armchair generals culture-war commandos alike have perceived a correlation between poverty and childrearing conditions. They have argued most often that single-parent households, particularly those where the sole parent is the mother, handicap poor children in various ways. To this day, it is asserted that marriage -- "traditional" marriage, of course -- will improve a child's economic opportunities regardless of other socioeconomic factors. With this in mind, Bill O'Reilly challenged President Obama during their Super Bowl interview to demonstrate that he had promoted marriage in his speeches, if not in his policies, and the President was quick to affirm that he had done so.

To promote marriage doesn't mean necessarily that you belong to the religious right, but to the extent that the actual religious right promotes marriage on their terms, as an expression of their values, a forthcoming survey in The American Journal of Sociology should prove troubling. As publicized by Nation magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg, the survey builds on the known and already-paradoxical statistic that the most deeply "red" states, those in the culturally conservative south, have the highest divorce rates. The sociologists attribute this to "the promotion of practices that increase divorce risk." In particular, they focus (or Goldberg does) on early marriage, itself motivated by the imperative of premarital abstinence from sex. As Goldberg summarizes the findings, early marriage leads to children before either parent really has sound means of supporting them, especially wherever conservative cultural dominance suppresses sex education or information on contraception. In the researchers' words, "Families that are formed early have a really difficult time making ends meet with the human resources they have at their disposal."

It's unclear from Goldberg's summary, however, whether economic issues are the major factor in red-state divorce rates. She notes that a correlation between "conservative Protestantism" and high divorce rates remains after the researchers control for income, suggesting that cultural factors also destabilize families that are comparatively secure economically. Meanwhile, you don't have to be a traditionalist but simply a historian to question the researchers' assertion that "you can't put people with few relationship skills and few resources together at a really young age and saddle them with children and expect them to survive," since it was done for a long time, until relatively recently. If it can't be done so easily now, that has less to do with the constraints of marriage than with the constraints of the economy, a point Goldberg may miss in her rush to conclude that "the blue state model -- marriage is delayed; responsible premarital sex is approved -- simply works better." That reads like she wants to score culture-war points, when the real story here is the statistics that appear to prove wrong the promoters of traditional marriage as an economic advantage. 

As the President himself said, responding to the familiar suggestion that single-parent households are a particular problem for black, "[Y]ou are starting to see in a lot of white working-class homes similar problems when men can’t find good work, when the economy is shutting ladders of opportunity off from people, whether they are black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter, that puts pressure as well on the home ... So, you have got an interaction between an economy that isn’t generating enough good jobs for folks who traditionally could get blue collar jobs even if they didn’t have a higher education and some legitimate social concerns [i.e. about marriage] that compound the problem." Does anyone actually believe that the mere fact of more people getting married will generate jobs of that sort, or any sort? I suspect not. It's easier to blame poverty on lack of marriage, especially when you want to blame the poor for their poverty, than it is to credit prosperity to marriage. Those mainly interested in blame will keep on blaming, while those really interested in building will look for solutions elsewhere.

03 February 2014

No maybe about it: 'rightwing' resents Super Bowl ad

It looks like the only thing that MSNBC Twitter commentator was wrong about was the ad that would provoke, shall we say, nativist outrage during the Super Bowl. You'll recall that the president of the liberal-propaganda network felt compelled to apologize to the Republican National Committee because his Twit (for want of a better term) speculated that the rightwing might object to a Cheerios commercial featuring a multiracial family.  The ad they did object to was for Coca-Cola. It portrayed a multiracial, multicultural mosaic of our country and especially infuriated some viewers, it seems, with a multilingual version of the song "America the Beautiful," some lines sung in Spanish, others in Arabic. Some viewers found it an affront or a provocation not to sing the song entirely in English, the language of assimilation and our founding culture. Their responses are described here and here. For extra measure, critics of the commercial elaborated on their critique on the comment threads on these websites. Here's one from the E! page:

I am outraged! We may be a melting pot nation but a song so closely associated with our American heritage should never be disgraced in such a way! The coca cola company should be ashamed of themselves. I personally will be returning my coke products. Where do we draw the line & start being proud to be a Americans again?! If controversy is your way to get people to talk about your products... I'm out!

And one from the Daily Beast:
What frightens many Americans is the incessant promotion and celebration of our differences, and monolithic ignorance of what truly unites Americans. It is not skin color or where some came from. Amnesty of millions of 3rd world and millions more annually appears to many to be a deliberate attempt to overwhelm the country with those who have even less appreciation of the constitutional limited govt and econ freedoms than Democrats, with at least an excuse why they are ignorant of the virtues of limited gov't and individual freedoms. Capitalism, freedom and virtues of economic freedom are not "white" and are more beneficial to all than to the few who understand this country. 
Our immigration policy appears to be deliberately trying to change our country from one of immersion and assimilation for American dream to one of moving to a better neighborhood in another country. Schumer and Obama pushing immigration "reform", you know they care nothing for the costs and everything for the electoral advantage - pretty sad that they are confident 3rd world, illiterates whose country doesn't want to support them would be natural Dem voters. 
This writer goes on to accuse both major parties of pandering to immigrants, but would you seriously question a characterization of the opinion expressed as "rightwing?" More to the point, it seems that one would have to be "rightwing" in order to interpret the ad as a rejection of assimilation, if not to feel threatened by hearing a language other than English spoken, ever, in this country. Please note that I didn't say "Republican," and neither did the MSNBC tweet. But in the previous case Republicans chose to feel insulted on behalf of the "rightwing," perhaps on "no enemies to our right" principles. In any event, here's fresh evidence that some people in the U.S. despise any expression of multiculturalism. If Republicans don't despise it, fine. This would be a great opportunity for the Republican party to differentiate itself from a "rightwing" we know to be real. If they don't take advantage, the next time someone seems to confuse them with a bigoted or chauvinist "rightwing," they'll have only themselves to blame.