31 March 2014

Why oppose Russia?

Russophobia still rages in the U.S. as diplomats try to stabilize the situation in Ukraine. Anyone who questions America's obligation to resist Russia's annexation of the Crimea or stand up to President Putin is dismissed as an apologist or appeaser. Do it online, at least on a news site comment thread, and you're likely to be accused of being a paid troll for Russia. Despite polls indicating a larger American disinterest in Ukraine, the opinion cloud is heavy with hatred for Putin in particular if not Russia in general. What, exactly, are they afraid of? What makes Russia a malevolent force in the world, at least in the minds of Americans and people in western Europe? The reason Russophobia seems so prevalent now is that people across the political spectrum have reasons, reasonable or not, to hate if not to fear Russia. Neocons like Charles Krauthammer despise the idea of spheres of influence, rejecting the idea that big countries inevitably will have influence over their neighbors as well as a voice in their relations with more distant countries. For Krauthammer, the U.S. has had a special mission since the end of World War II to be an "offshore balancer protecting smaller allies from potential regional hegemons." If this itself is hegemony, then it's hegemony for a good cause, be it the freedom of the small country from its big neighbor or the freedom of the multinational businessman to do business everywhere without the local big country dictating terms. Krauthammer scoffs at Obama's attempted dismissal of Russia as a "regional power" because "regional powers" started World War II. He sees regional conflicts as more likely in the absence of a single global (and presumably disinterested) hegemon. Should the U.S. under Obama continue to shirk what Krauthammer considers its obligations, smaller countries will face two choices: "bend the knee or arm to the teeth." Should an American ask why they shouldn't have to arm to the teeth if they want to be safe from the local bully -- or the distant one, for that matter -- Krauthammer's answer is that American abdication from hegemony would only make regional nuclear wars more likely, with bad consequences for everyone. It remains unclear, however, how anything short of a nuclear threat could make Russia retreat from the Crimea, and Russia's nuclear deterrent makes such a threat unlikely. Krauthammer sneers at the new sanctions against Russia as feeble gestures, but what more can be done to punish Russia, presuming they deserve punishment, short of the sort of military buildup that Russians take for granted anyway in their paranoid imagination? Neocons need to get it through their heads that no American is or should be willing to die for Ukraine, no matter what treaty obligations appear to exist -- and that Russian power simply isn't an existential threat to the U.S., no matter how much they long for one.

Neocons aren't the only Russophobes, of course. During the buildup for this year's Winter Olympics, before the Ukraine crisis broke out, Russophobia was becoming the new hobby of at least a section of America's cultural left. Putin's Russia is seen as a leader in the global axis of homophobia, while Putin biographer Masha Gessen argues that Putin is no mere nationalist but an ideological enemy of the west.  Gessen sees Putin as an exponent of a sort of traditionalist cultural nationalism that naturally finds expression in homophobia but is also more expansively opposed to the supreme western ideal of tolerance. Gessen quotes a December speech in which Putin comes across like a strident American right-winger:

Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning....We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values. [Russia’s role is to] prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.

To some ears that sounds less communist than fascist. Putin seems to subordinate individual liberty not to humanity as a whole or even to a global proletariat but to "ethnic traditions."  In an extreme reading Putin exalts the nation rather than the state, though many will see this as a distinction without a difference. You see that Russian chauvinism online sometimes when a Putin supporter claims superiority for the land of Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, etc., over 21st century U.S. pop culture, though that's arguably an apples-and-oranges comparison like comparing Hemingway and Faulkner to whatever's on Russian cable TV this week. In any event, Putin's policy sounds like it'd suck for progressive-minded Russians, as Pussy Riot will readily attest, but such a policy is self-consciously defensive. You can't infer from that excerpt any intent to convert outsiders to Russian ethnic traditions; Putin actually affirms cultural difference and claims to defend it against the "chaotic darkness" of western influence. Gessen claims that Putin aspires to lead a global crusade against western decadence, which presumably would make him the enemy of western liberals. That would be so only if Putin sought to suppress liberalism in the United States, though it may seem so as long as American liberals feel themselves entitled to advocate for their kindred spirits all over the world. While neocons claim to champion the small countries who would otherwise be thralls to the local hegemon, liberals champion the sovereign individual whose rights should be the same everywhere on earth, not subject to local cultural traditions. That leaves the world divided between individualists and nationalists, with no one really advocating for humanity as the Communists claimed to. The Obama administration has criticized Russia for "19th century thinking" during the crisis, but the end of the Cold War seems in some ways to have knocked the whole world back in time, to no one's benefit.

28 March 2014

Your First Amendment right to censorship

As some never tire of reminding us, the Bill or Rights in the U.S. Constitution places limitations on the public sector alone. Your "freedom of speech" is violated, for instance, if a government (and some would say only the federal government) tries to prosecute you for non-libelous speech, but not when privately-owned media takes your job away for saying something controversial or offensive. This view of the fundamental law was upheld this week when a federal district court dismissed a lawsuit by emigre Chinese dissidents and their supporters against Baidu, a China-based search engine. The plaintiffs had claimed that Baidu had violated their speech rights by employing an algorithm that blocked Baidu users from getting links to "pro-democracy" websites. Since Baidu can be used by American computer users as well as anyone else on earth, the plaintiffs sought to find the company liable under American law. However, while some may assume that any Chinese company is just a tool of the Chinese government, the American court treated it as a private company. As such, it has a right to editorial control over its search engine as a form of political expression in its own right. To deny a private entity like Baidu that prerogative, the presiding judge ruled, "would contravene the principle upon which [the American] political system and cultural life rest." That principle is "each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence." 

Intellectually, the ruling is slightly problematic because it puts the right of Baidu to "decide for itself" over the presumed rights of its users -- but since we're still talking about the U.S., those users can opt for other search engines if Baidu proves too restrictive. Philosophically, I don't care very much for the implication that no one really has to listen to anyone else if they don't want to. That notion of individual rights falls a little short of democratic ideals of mutual respect and mutual accountability. It also raises a dystopian specter of a totally privatized world and how little freedom people might actually have under such a social system, which is a strange conclusion to draw from a legal victory for what could be seen as a propaganda arm for a communist dictatorship. It might not have surprised Orwell, however, since in Animal Farm he imagined a convergence of totalitarian and plutocratic interests when the pigs partied with the farmers while the other animals suffered. Neither group really wants to listen to the little guy, but as long as we have a "public square" somewhere people can try to be heard. Lawyers for the plaintiffs tried to equate Baidu with a public square but the court didn't buy the idea. Agree with that or not, you may still wonder how much longer we'll have public squares. The answer may be that we'll have them as long as we're willing to make them.

27 March 2014

The end of spontaneous order?

In a column at least partly inspired by the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, David Brooks writes: "The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order." This is a lesson only newly learned by many people, and it goes against the libertarian logic of recent times. The sentence I just quoted looks to me like a direct refutation of the libertarian theory of spontaneous order, at least as applied to the economic and political realms. For many, the presumption has been that order follows growth -- that commerce generates the institutions of civil society upon which a rule of law is built. According to this logic, the fall of Communism in Russia should not have ended up with someone like Vladimir Putin in power. The error of that thinking, Brooks argues now, is that people presumed that economic liberalization was enough. In his words:

We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. When empires like the Soviet Union collapse, we send in economists with privatization plans instead of cops to help create rule of law. 

Brooks is impressed by a recent book, The Locust Effect, that illustrates how lawless much of the world remains. In many places there are far fewer police, far fewer prosecutors, far fewer lawyers per capita than in the U.S. While those stats may make some American envious, Brooks notes that these shortages make it extremely difficult for poor people in particular to seek, much less get justice. His implication is that the sort of civil society idealized by liberals and libertarians alike can't get off the ground unless a strong rule of law, with the emphasis on law enforcement, already exists. In too many countries, he suggests, the rule of law is only a pretense and the legal system "is there to protect the regime from the people." The "regime" can be statist or plutocratic; the main point is that in such places "the well-connected want a legal system that can be bought and sold."

As usual, we can find the weak point in Brooks's argument in his assumption that the west is significantly superior to the more benighted places from the standpoint of justice. Our quantitative superiority in the categories he mentions is indisputable, but it doesn't guarantee a qualitative superiority so long as any number of police or prosecutors can be bought and sold. When Brooks writes, to close his column, that "unless cruelty is tamed, poverty will persist," some may think he hits closer to home than Russia or the Third World. Brooks is mainly concerned with what The Locust Effect calls "the relentless threat of violence" that prevails in much of the developing world, and his assumption is that New York Times readers "may fear job loss or emotional loss" but "are probably not buffeted by daily waves of physical terror." On some level he's right, but he also quite typically underrates the level of "terror" in a declining capitalist society where no rule of law can guarantee that you won't be laid off tomorrow at the will of powers no less arbitrary, despite pretenses to the contrary, than the archetypal despot. Brooks isn't wrong about the need for a rule of law in more countries, and for a Republican he seems ahead of the curve for recognizing the dependence of rule of law on what can only be described as strong government with strong bureaucracy. I just wonder how much farther he'd be willing to go if someone suggested that the U.S. itself needed more rule of law, or a kind of order more capable of keeping the law from being captured by the well-connected. Whether he'd agree or not, I think he'd concede that it won't just happen by itself. We have to will the order we want into being, against the will of others if necessary.

26 March 2014

Corruption: this time a Democrat

The mayor of Charlotte NC has been arrested and accused of public corruption following four years of FBI investigations and a sting operation in which the mayor, a Democrat, reportedly accepted money and other gifts from undercover agents in return for promises of favors. While I understand the concept of "innocent until proven guilty," it seems wrong somehow that this man, a veteran local politician, was allowed to run for mayor last year while this probe was underway and he was strongly suspected of corruption. In a better system, perhaps, he would have been informed of the investigation and invited to decline any nomination and retire from public life. But I can already imagine someone explaining to me how that power might be abused by law enforcement or the federal government. In fact, today's lesson is not that all Democrats are corrupt, as Republicans may insist, any more than the next revelation of Republican corruption will prove the whole GOP corrupt, as Democrats will insist. The Charlotte case proves instead that, in spite of liberal idealism, no frame of government can guarantee absolutely against abuses of power. Just as the rights of dissidents are never absolutely secure no matter what a country's constitution says, so no rule of law can completely suppress the impulse to use political power to enrich oneself. Different solutions to this particular problem of politics have been proposed. For some, the tendency toward corruption among career politicians is an argument for a kind of plutocracy, on the assumption that very rich people would not seek bribes. Libertarians, seeing that bribery is often motivated by a desire to jump bureaucratic hurdles, would eliminate the hurdles, many of which they see anyway as forms of "rent-seeking" by politicians and bureaucrats, and thus remove the incentive to offer bribes, rendering the willingness of politicians to receive them moot. The libertarian solution is too drastic; to minimize corruption they would minimize government past any really desirable minimum. Modern civilization requires government with strong regulatory powers, but as today's news proves, it requires constant vigilance of those elected or appointed to exercise those powers. It would be wrong to dismiss such calls for vigilance as paranoia or to equate them with hostility to government itself. The bigger the government, in fact, the greater our vigilance should be. The good news about the Charlotte case so far is that we have news. The system seems to work sometimes. The mayor didn't have the influence to suppress the investigation, or the wits to realize that it was happening around him. Maybe every elected official should be made to watch the movie American Hustle until it sinks in that anyone entering your office with a wad of bills could be a Fed. Maybe if they were less trusting in such cases, the rest of us could trust them more.

Authoritarianism isn't monolithic

Lately I've spent a lot of time attacking the idea that the world is divided between two forces best described as "freedom" and "tyranny," as well as the corollary notion that international relations are a zero-sum contest between these forces, with "free" nations obliged to support each other while "unfree" nations naturally gang together on their unoffending opposite numbers. Probably the easiest part of this proposition to refute is the idea that "unfree" or "authoritarian" countries naturally band together out of the mutual self-interest of their rulers. Russia's support for Syria during that country's civil war is often taken as proof of the solidarity of tyrants, as if Putin has no reason to support Assad other than that Assad is a dictator. A closer look at Syria's part of the world complicates things.

One of Syria's neighbors is Turkey, where some would have you believe that Prime Minister Erdogan is taking the country down the authoritarian path. His move to suppress Twitter in Turkey, citing its refusal to take down links to wiretap recordings allegedly implicating Erdogan in corruption, is seen by the opposition in Turkey and many observers outside as proof of the premier's tyrannical tendency. Since Erdogan plays to his base by boasting of his defiance of the west, theorists of a bipolar world might assume that he would support Assad against the Syrian rebels -- so long as the rebels are seen as proper freedom-fighters. But over the weekend the Turks shot down a Syrian plane, and after the opposition criticized the provocative action Erdogan accused them of supporting Assad. Erdogan actually has been quite critical of Assad down the line. In addition, he remains very critical of the interim government in Egypt following the coup d'etat against Mohammed Morsi. On the campaign trail, Erdogan has scoffed at opposition and foreign descriptions of himself as a dictator, pointing at both Egypt and Syria to show what dictatorship, to him at least, actually looks like. Morsi himself was toppled after mobs formed in Cairo to denounce the elected leader's alleged authoritarian tendencies, but while in power he was one of Assad's most strident critics. Now his successors are being criticized as authoritarians for their heavyhanded measures against Morsi's organization, including the mass death-sentences announced this week, while their supporters reject the label, claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood represents the true authoritarian threat in Egypt.

A sweeping generalization, of course, would label all these players as authoritarians, but what would that prove? It definitely would disprove any notion of a natural affinity among authoritarians. Egypt, Syria and Turkey, not to mention their respective leaders, have plenty of reasons not to get along with each other, though religious sectarianism isn't really a good one. While all three governments might be described as authoritarian to different extents -- Syria the most, Turkey the least -- "authoritarian" should always be understood as an external label. The myth of monolithic authoritarianism is that all governments so described actively espouse an authoritarian ideology that itself automatically puts them at odds with non-authoritarian nations. Instead, an assumption that authoritarians are more likely natural rivals than natural friends, and still more likely so the nearer they are to each other, should inspire diplomats to  pursue their countries' (legitimate) interests by playing authoritarians against each other, unless some country refuses dogmatically to deal with any authoritarian entity. To take the authoritarian label too seriously, to the point of limiting your own options, is to sacrifice pragmatism to fanaticism. We may be talking about self-styled liberal democrats here, but it looks a little like the difference between authoritarians and totalitarians to me.

25 March 2014

Democracy in America or democracy in Ukraine

The American people have spoken -- or at least a sample has. A CBS poll indicates that 65% of Americans surveyed -- including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, don't want the U.S. giving military aid to Ukraine. A slightly smaller percentage, 61%, asserts that the U.S. has no responsibility to intervene in the beef between Ukraine and Russia. This news certainly will disappoint neocons and those liberals who believe that democracies have a responsibility to stand up for each other. Some observers inevitably will damn the Obama administration again, this time for failing to articulate a "freedom agenda," for want of a better term, in foreign affairs that would awaken Americans to what some see as their responsibility to the global cause of democracy. Expect Sen. McCain, who now wears Russia's refusal to let him in the country as a badge of honor, to be heard from on these points, along with his remaining followers. They seem to be increasingly isolated in what they most likely see as an atmosphere of "isolationism" and "appeasement." Yet the Obama administration itself remains too strident for its own good in its demonization of Russia, as the President's U.N. ambassador unapologetically insults the Russians as "thieves" of the Crimea in the Security Council. You don't have to be an "apologist" or appeaser to find this attitude ridiculous, even childish. Russia conquered the Crimea fair and square a long time ago, only to have it taken from them and reassigned to Ukraine by the arbitrary will of a Communist dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, who spent his formative years in Ukraine. Nor do you need to be an appeaser or apologist to question our assignment of superior legitimacy to a Ukrainian regime whose base is a mob, remains unelected, and stands for little more than hatred of Russia. None of these observations make Russia or President Putin the good guys in the story, but there doesn't really have to be a good guy in every story. To different extents, the neocons and the Democrats in the U.S. are still selling an existential foreign policy that commits American power to the preservation and spread of "freedom" around the world. But between the "liberations" of Afghanistan and Iraq and the full flourishing of "freedom" at home fewer Americans, if the poll is accurate, see the benefits of promoting "freedom" anywhere. They no longer believe in the ideological myth of the free world locked in eternal struggle with the forces of tyranny. That doesn't mean they've grown soft on tyranny; many remain oversensitive to supposed tyrannical trends at home. But that only makes more Americans skeptical of the idea that American hegemony benefits everyone, since many feel that it doesn't even benefit us. If that means Ukrainians have to fight their own battles, and lose, so be it. If the world doesn't owe anyone a living, it doesn't owe Ukraine freedom. If that sounds hopelessly cynical and defeatist, try giving us a government of our own that we can believe in before telling others how they should govern themselves.

24 March 2014

The civil society of nations

Last week in The Atlantic Robert D. Kaplan was advising, albeit guardedly, an "imperial" foreign policy dedicated to defending small democracies against the big bullies of their geopolitical neighborhoods. Kaplan has the cover story in the current (March 31) Time magazine, signaling his return to favor as an analyst of geopolitics. For a time, Kaplan was considered politically incorrect for stressing the apparent intractability of national conflicts in places like the former Yugoslavia. Now that Russia again seems innately domineering toward its neighbors, Kaplan is available to tell us that our post-Cold War idealism was mistaken.  As he recalls, "The post-Cold War era was supposed to be about economics, interdependence and universal values trumping the instincts of nationalism and nationalism's related obsession with the domination of geographic space." The news from Ukraine teaches us differently, Kaplan argues. Like many other nations, Russia still thinks of foreign relations in zero-sum terms -- "those that provide advantage to their nations or their ethnic groups only." Nations still think that their survival, or at least their prosperity, depend on control of resources or trade. But wouldn't globalization  have assured everyone of resources and markets? Wasn't it supposed to bring about a global civil society with a secure rule of law and rights for everyone. While Kaplan acknowledges that "civil society of the kind western elites pine for is the only answer for most of these problems," he concludes that "the worldwide civil society that the elites thought they could engineer is a chimera" because "the past never dies and there is no modern world."

For a reputed realist, there's a striking note of naivete in Kaplan's analysis when it comes to the west. Notice how he credits the western powers (the U.S., the EU, etc.) with a desire for a globalized civil society, as if he did not believe that the west was itself pursuing a zero-sum geopolitics. That's not how the Russians see it, of course, and their viewpoint is not to be dismissed out of hand. To Kaplan's credit, he refuses to dismiss it. He doesn't really question western policy toward the Ukraine, but he does insist that "Ukraine can become a prosperous civil society, but because of its location it will always require a strong and stable relationship with Russia." In other words, Ukraine can't simply tell Russia to f*** off the way some Ukrainians and some of their western friends would like. As for those friends, Kaplan advises that "while our foreign policy must be morally based, the analysis behind it must be cold-blooded, with geography as its starting point." A morally based foreign policy, presumably, means we must still object to Russia bullying Ukraine but must give up the idea that Ukraine can tell Russia permanently to f*** off.

The problem with the more utopian notions of global civil society was the belief that it could transcend nationality, if not do without nations. People would trade with whomever they wanted, regardless of proximity or traditional cultural ties, and no nation would have a right to complain about it. Civil society remains essentially a matter of individuals and their ability to form associations within and across borders. But what would a civil society of nations look like? It's easy to say it should be based on mutual respect, and to find our current society of nations wanting in that respect, particularly when it comes to western attitudes toward "authoritarian" countries. But as with civil society within nations, a civil society of nations should be grounded in a "moral" principle that would make it all somewhat less than voluntary -- the idea that everyone must benefit. Both the ideal civil society and the ideal political society should be based on the belief that everyone must live -- that none are to be condemned for being "uncompetitive" by someone's subjective standard. Anything else is zero-sum: some must suffer if the "deserving" are to maximize their rewards. If conflict results from some assuming that they can survive only by taking from others, the only alternative is a society in which everyone's share is assured. As with individuals, so with nations. That may not be what many think of when they talk about civil society, but what could be more civil, or internationally more peaceful, than that?

21 March 2014

Twitter, mwitter

So says Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey -- in Turkish, "Twitter, mwitter" is equivalent to saying, "Twitter, schmitter" -- vowing on the campaign trail that Twitter will learn to respect the power of the Turkish government. He's secured a court order denying Turks access to the popular, short-winded social-media service, citing alleged invasions of privacy, identity thefts, etc. From all reports, most IT-savvy Turks, including the country's president -- the head of state as opposed to the head of government -- quickly figured out how to get around the restrictions, and the supposedly-temporary ban has won Erdogan a new round of scorn around the world. Most critics assume that he's really just angry that Twitter has refused his requests to take down links to clandestine recordings that allegedly implicate Erdogan and his family in corruption. The west, seeing Erdogan as an increasingly "authoritarian" Islamist, sees the action against Twitter as further confirmation of their suspicions. Meanwhile, Erdogan plays to the rubes in his own country by boasting that he doesn't care what the west thinks, while at least one supporter of his action points to a recent case when the British government at least considered a temporary shutdown of Twitter during a period of rioting in London. The problem with the analogy, critic will most likely point out, is that the U.K. was dealing with actual unrest in the streets, while Erdogan is dealing with uncomfortable (if perhaps also unethical) revelations about himself. Superficially, it looks like another would-be strongman trying to protect his personal power rather than a statesman keeping the peace. Still, the British case shows that some in the west don't hold Twitter or other social media quite as sacrosanct as most in the west assume. Liberal idealists around the world see social media as a pillar of "civil society," a means for citizens to form networks and communicate with each other without the mediation or supervision of the state. The west's liberal democracies and republics are thought of as guarantors of civil society, not as its enemies. But for a moment one western government contemplated the possibility of social media, if not "civil society," serving a subversive purpose and needing to be shut down -- and if one such government has thought of that, it's not at all paranoid to suggest that the others have done so as well. Again, there can never be as absolute a guarantee of the right to dissent and protest as liberals assume to exist in some countries and insist on everywhere. Even in the most "free" societies dissent involves some element of personal risk, however minimal most of the time. For that reason it remains unrealistic to insist on guarantees of risk-free dissent as proof that a nation belongs in the community of civilized nations. Erdogan has failed, it seems, to keep Turks from Twitter, and if he tries harder and annoys more people, he may fail more badly -- but his success or failure can only be up to the Turks themselves to decide.

20 March 2014

The paradox of libertarian 'isolationism.'

Neocon Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin is furious at what she sees as Sen. Rand Paul's "pandering" to the anti-surveillance paranoia of college students during his recent appearance at Berkeley. For Rubin, the younger Paul's remarks -- he said blacks should be especially concerned about NSA surveillance because of past government surveillance of civil-rights leaders -- merely reconfirmed the Tennessean's paranoia and isolationism. She scores a fair hit on Paul when she notes that he didn't discuss his opposition to abortion and gay marriage at Berkeley, and warns that whatever support he hopes to win from college kids will vanish once his more Christian-right positions on some issues are better known. But for now let's focus on the Paul family's record of skepticism toward the War on Terror and foreign entanglements in general. The Senator recently warned against gratuitously "tweaking" Russia over the Ukraine crisis, while other Republicans feel a compulsion to voice their Russophobia. The difference doesn't seem to make sense at first.

Across a wide swath of the American ideological spectrum, there is a shared perception that the world is divided between "freedom" and "tyranny." Ever since the U.S. came into existence as a revolutionary government, Russia has almost always been part of the "tyranny" team in the American imagination. In effect, as some see it, there's been a kind of cold war going on for nearly 250 years, with one side actively promoting "freedom" and "liberty," while the other is accused of actively promoting "tyranny," whether its the monarchic reaction of the 19th century Holy Alliance, the totalitarian agenda of Marxism-Leninism, or whatever it is that Vladimir Putin is selling. As we've seen this month, many Americans feel an imperative to show solidarity with people representing "freedom" when they struggle against "tyranny." They feel that any victory for "tyranny" on the globe is a blow to "freedom" everywhere, and that anyone who stands against a perceived "tyranny" is necessarily on the side of "freedom" and thus morally entitled to as much support as "free" nations can offer. In our time, Putin's dogged support for the Assad government in Syria marks him as an advocate for "tyranny" around the world, while many Americans feel a moral obligation to help the Syrian rebels, the Ukrainians, etc. as much as our resources allow. The curious thing is that, in the U.S., the libertarians are supposedly the people most obsessed with "freedom," yet if the Pauls really represent American libertarianism, then libertarians do not share the perception of a global cold war between "freedom" and "tyranny" described above.

Are libertarians, despite their "isolationist" reputation, simply less xenophobic than Republicans or even many liberals -- less likely to see foreign governments as threats to their personal freedom? Possibly, or else libertarian xenophobia may be so comprehensive that they have no interest in whether foreigners anywhere are free -- but this seems unlikely. It is curious that they seem less paranoid about foreign powers than they are about their own government. Perhaps their own bias against the state makes them skeptical toward foreign affairs, since these are always primarily the relations between states rather than the theoretical entities "freedom" and "tyranny." Since the state inevitably conducts foreign policy, libertarians may feel that no government, not even their own, can play the role of "freedom" that liberals, neocons and others idealize. Enemies of libertarianism may see any anti-interventionist bias in the movement merely as further proof of its essential selfishness -- of course they don't give a damn about anyone else! But there may be more of a principle involved as well. Libertarians presumably share with Republicans a belief in "personal responsibility." In the economic realm, that means that each person should do everything legally in their power to make themselves useful to society rather than accept dependence upon the state and its taxpayers. In foreign affairs, libertarian "isolationists" like the Pauls are arguably being consistent. They may believe that it's up to the Ukrainians, the Syrian rebels, etc. to fight their own battles -- that they have no more right to win the struggle between "freedom" and "tyranny" than anyone has a positive right to anything. Liberals in particular see "freedom" as a set of guarantees enforced by a necessarily impersonal state, above all the right to dissent from leaders without fear of reprisal. Libertarians may also talk about natural rights, but they lack liberals' confidence in the state as an effective or consistent guarantor of those rights. For that reason, and with evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq to back them up, they may doubt whether intervention by a foreign power can really secure "freedom" for any nation. Whatever the reason, libertarians don't seem to see the world -- the world of nations, that is -- the same way that Republicans do. That will be a problem for Sen. Paul if he actually wants the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, but if libertarians, however ironically or paradoxically, see the world more clearly than mainstream American politicians, rejecting their perceptions entirely may cause problems for all of us.

RIP Fred Phelps

The pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, which made up with provocative fervor ("God Hates Fags") what it lacked in congregation size, has passed away at age 84. Fred Phelps was the man America loved to hate for his hatred. Even people on the Religious Right could denounce him readily -- it was convenient for many to do so, since Phelps made them look tolerant, or at least civil, by comparison. However sincerely he hated homosexuals, I suspect that some critics were right in seeing Phelps as ultimately a publicity hound, and to the extent that the publicity was ultimately lucrative for his church and family -- I can't say whether it was or not -- his survivors will likely carry on his dubious work. What amuses me today is the early commentary I see on news sites reporting Phelps's death. An assumption seems to prevail among many who boast of their tolerance that Phelps will or should burn in Hell for his homophobia. This really misses the point. Fred Phelps did not shuttle across the country carrying signs saying "I Hate Fags." His message was that God hates homosexuals, and there are two possible answers to that assertion. The more popular answer seems to be, "Of course God doesn't hate homosexuals," either because he only hates the sin but not the sinner -- a distinction many homosexuals seem to reject -- or because some people's more liberal notion of the deity precludes any hostility toward gay identity or conduct. But the more decisive answer would  be, "Of course God doesn't hate homosexuals, because there is no God." In which case, also, Fred Phelps will not be burning in Hell. It may hurt his family's feelings to say he will, if that's what you're after, but I suspect that the Phelpses have grown pretty thick-skinned about such things, or else they could not continue their work. So why be vindictive toward the dead? The man was a jerk in life but probably helped, unwittingly, build a national consensus in favor of gay rights by becoming the reductio ad absurdam of homophobia in the flesh. Let him rot in peace.

19 March 2014

Inequality is confusing

Thomas Frank actually agrees with many politicians and economists who believe that inequality is the great problem of our time. In his view, it's such a great problem that the word "inequality" is inadequate to express it. The word is too dry, insufficiently visceral; it describes a state of being rather than the process that got us there.

Start with the word itself: Like “neoliberalism,” another favorite lefty term for many of these same developments, “inequality” is confusing. It is euphemistic and aloof. It gets easily muddled with other, similar-sounding issues like marriage equality, gender equality and equal housing opportunity. Its tone is also needlessly clinical, giving the whole debate a technical and bloodless air.

Frank would like to return to the more forceful rhetoric of a century and more ago, when old-school populists and progressives openly asserted that inequality happened when the rich stole from the poor. He offers an 1892 sample:

The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

The problem now, Frank thinks, is that too many self-styled liberals and progressives can't imagine talking or writing this way. They try to overcomplicate things and always have their eyes out for a technocratic, conflict-free solution. That's why Frank feels that working people themselves must take the lead in protesting inequality. "If the destruction of the middle class is ever to be addressed and solved, the impetus must come from below, not from above," he writes. He's already given us an idea of what he thinks the protest should look and sound like. Are Americans capable of that kind of discourse? How many actually believe in some kind of labor theory of value after generations of pro-capitalist indoctrination portraying the entrepreneur and the investor as the founts from whom all fortunes flow and the rightful reapers of the most rewards?  After generations dedicated to damning the idea of entitlement, how many of us really feel that inequality is unfair? How many would stand their rhetorical ground after being chided for their "envy" and their ignorance of economics? Or will this be a debate at all? When the poor rise up, will it be because they've refuted capitalist apologetics, or because they've finally refused to listen to them? Put that way, you might understand why professional liberals feel uncomfortable with any passionate feeling on the question. Life for them, it often seems, is one great debate. But that may also be why Frank says they can't lead anymore. Life, he may believe, isn't subject to debate.

18 March 2014

The blessings and insults of imperialism

Robert D. Kaplan publishes a provocative "defense of empire" in the April Atlantic, arguing that "traditionally, imperialism itself, most notably that of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, had protected minorities from the tyranny of the majority." Pitching his appeal more generally, Kaplan contends that imperialism "offered the most benign form of order for thousands of years, keeping the anarchy of ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war bands to a reasonable minimum." If some empires were "cruel beyond measure," they were still "less cruel and delivered more predictability for the average person than did anything beyond their borders." The sufferings of people in places and in predicaments as diverse as Rwanda and Syria represent the consequences of a retreat from imperial responsibility. Kaplan does not advocate that the U.S. become a formal empire by conquering or annexing other countries -- such a venture would be unsustainably expensive today -- but her recommends an "imperial-like" foreign policy dedicated, predictably enough, to the defense of "democracies" against powerful and ambitious neighbors. The U.S. must defend Israeli democracy against Islam, Taiwanese democracy against China, and Polish democracy against ... he doesn't say it by name and his article probably was written before the current crisis, but this shouldn't be too hard to figure out. While the U.S. should "initiate military hostilities only when an overwhelming national interest is threatened," it ought to practice a "robust diplomacy," including "economic inducements," to "exert every possible pressure in order to prevent widespread atrocities in parts of the world ... that are not, in the orthodox sense, strategic."

While Kaplan has little good to say about the United Nations -- it hasn't yet rivaled any great empire in achieving "peace and stability" -- his article might have been less provocative, or would provoke different readers, had he replaced "empire" with "world government." But so long as effective world government isn't an option, for practical or ideological reasons, Kaplan would rather entrust the world to an exclusive set of enlightened hegemons. He insists that "imperialism and enlightenment (albeit self-interested) have often been inextricable, painting a rosy balance sheet of empires from Rome through America's rule of the Philippines. He admits that his view may seem "patronizing" to some readers, but it only seems that way because he insists on empire (or empire-lite) rather than a world government founded on the equality of nations and peoples. His appeal to enlightenment is inevitably inegalitarian, since some are always more "enlightened" and thus entitled to rule than others. While he praises the imperialism of Western Europe and the semi-imperialism of the U.S., he singles out Russian imperialism in Eurasia as one of "the very worst examples." Not even the USSR gets off this hook, since the Bolsheviks were "radical utopians who sought ... ideological submission." Russia remains a second-class citizen of Kaplan's world, and he probably thinks less of them since he wrote this piece. Yet he would most likely take offense if anyone accused him of being Russophobic or at all "patronizing" toward the nationalities he'd recommend to other countries' stewardship. Whatever the costs and benefits in any particular case, imperialism in any degree means one's country's entitlement to rule another, and the other country's incapacity for self-government. Kaplan dismisses "the critique that imperialism merely constitutes evil," sniffing that "that line of thinking is not serious." But seriously: what other word better describes that imperial sense of entitlement or the will to make it law? Kaplan thinks in terms of good and bad imperialism, but isn't the impulse to govern foreign lands always bad? Of course, when world government comes it probably will look like imperialism to many people -- or worse, like an Orwellian dystopia. But as long as it isn't one country or one religion imposing its will on all the others, it should be preferable to the sort of imperialism Kaplan advocates.

17 March 2014

Speaking Texan in the Crimea

A Crimean Russian tried to explain it this way: how would Americans feel if "crazy Texans" suddenly took over the U.S. and "told everyone they should speak Texan?" Of course, that analogy  has a lot of holes in it, but I suppose it conveys how the Russian-speaking majority in Crimea feels and why they voted last weekend for independence from Ukraine and absorption into Russia. It also conveys a perhaps desperate desire for Americans to understand what's going on, at least as Russians see it. To them, I suppose, the west-oriented Ukrainians may seem like crazy Texans, if not the Nazis of the wilder Russian imagination. The problem is that many Americans see Russians as the crazy Texans of Eastern Europe, storming in with a cowboy mentality where they have no business, with little respect for the niceties of liberal civilization or people different from themselves.

President Putin's well-known macho posturings in publicity photos encourage a view of him as a kind of crazy cowboy, if not a vainglorious fascist in the Mussolini mode. Some of his supporters, or supporters of Russia in general, hope that simple logic may be more persuasive. If you accept the uprising of the Maidan in Ukraine and the "coup" that drove out Yanukovich as legitimate expressions of self-determination, they ask, how can you deny Crimea their more peaceful means to the same end? More objective observers and even critics of Russia have raised this same question. Russophobes have a simple answer: Crimeans voted with implicit if not literal guns to their heads, at Putin's dictation. For them, the Crimeans at best are the real crazy Texans of the piece: residents in a foreign land who never stopped identifying with their mother country and rebelled once it seemed that their adopted country wouldn't do things their way. But analogies are superfluous for Russophobes. The only meaningful fact is that Russians are an outlaw race, an inherent threat to everyone else on Earth because of their apparently innate servility toward tyrants at home and their brutal impulse to dominate other nations. That other countries have been domineering toward neighbors, not to mention toward countries that hardly count as neighbors, matters little or not at all to the Russophobe, since those facts don't change Russian nature and other countries' offenses don't entitle Russia to do likewise.

The Russophobe would most likely resent the suggestion that his is a prejudice and would answer the charge with facts. He would attempt to prove that because of what was done to some politician, or to some businessman, or to some journalist, or to Pussy Riot, or more likely to all of the above, Russia has no international interests that the world is bound to recognize. From this it's easy to infer that Crimea's Russian majority has no right to secede from Ukraine, since doing so only empowers or enriches Russia -- self-evidently a bad thing for humanity.  To argue for moral equivalence or against the hypocrisy of certain criticisms, or of certain critics, is to miss the only relevant point for the Russophobe: Russia is evil. In that sense, the Russophobe, be he a Ukrainian in the Maidan or an American on a cable news channel, is the real crazy Texan in the story, to the extent that a crazy Texan believed that the only good Mexican or Native American was a dead one. The American Russophobe, at least, will deny that analogy: he only wants the Russian people to be free of their tyrannical heritage. But it's hard to tell if such a person could tell a free Russian on sight. We know he can't (or won't) if that Russian freely chooses Putin and decides that the rough treatment of erstwhile oligarchs, punk performance artists, et al, does not compromise his own freedom. The Russian may be wrong to think that, but that doesn't mean he isn't free to do so. Freedom goes in odd and self-contradictory directions sometimes,but isn't it contrary to the whole idea to prevent that from happening anywhere in the world? We have some people today saying, in effect, that free people have no right to choose "authoritarian" government. It's so impossible for some minds that they can't see such a choice as a free one -- hence the charges of coercion in Crimea. How free, then, are "free" societies in reality? We might try answering that question before judging the freedom of others.

14 March 2014

Is there a crisis in American leadership?

Ukraine is never mentioned in David Brooks's recent column on America's supposed "leaderless doctrine," but we can assume that some dissatisfaction with the U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis provoked him to write it. Vladimir Putin is mentioned once and described as a "menace to civilization." That should tell you where Brooks stands. Putin can be described many ways -- "bully" and "thug" might not be unfair -- but "menace to civilization" is certainly an exaggeration. Brooks's column is actually a subtler case of the leadership envy many American conservatives feel when contemplating Putin. Few of them, presumably, want the thuggery or bullying of a Putin, but they see a decisiveness about him they find terribly lacking among American leaders. At least Brooks doesn't single out President Obama as either the proof or the source of the problem. Instead, he perceives a post-Cold War loss of faith, in this country, in "big units." The World War II generation had that faith because they were part of the "big unit" that helped beat the Axis. Their children recognized the "big unit" as their bulwark against Communist aggression. But with the Cold War won, ordinary Americans lost not so much faith but interest in the "big unit." This, Brooks claims, has nothing to do with Afghanistan and Iraq and was underway before we invaded those countries. He perceives a cultural shift toward decentralization and flattened hierarchies, a bias against "big unit" leadership that is both liberal and libertarian in its biases.

Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals [emphasis added].

Brooks seems to believe that this is all wrong. Taking the will of Putin to be the necessary and sufficient cause of the Ukraine crisis, he takes recent events as proof of the ability of the man of power, the leader, to shape events and decide the destinies of multitudes of other people. The current American attitude, he implies, doesn't take Putin and the potential he represents seriously. Perhaps we imagine that Russians can do what Ukrainians did in Kiev -- withdraw their consent until Putin evaporates. But Brooks seems to assume that Putin is both indifferent and immune to any withdrawal of consent by his own people, and perfectly capable of vetoing Ukraine's withdrawal of consent to subservience to Russia. The only effective remedy to Putin on the global stage, the columnist suggests, is a kind of leadership that no one in America seems capable of now -- an ability to rally the nation into an effective big unit that could deter Putin convincingly. Brooks believes that we need leaders who can refute "the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional" while sharing his belief that "menaces to civilization" (Iran is his alternate example) must be "faced" (whatever that means). 

The big obstacle to reviving leadership, Brooks suspects, is Americans' dwindling ability to trust each other. He notes poll findings that indicate that half as many "millennials" as Baby Boomers believe that "most people can be trusted." This lack of trust combined with a growing bias in favor of spontaneous order (Brooks doesn't use those magic words, but they're apt) handicap any would-be leader in the struggle against Putin and whatever he stands for. What we need, he writes, is "someone who arouses intense moral loyalty." If such a person says we have a duty to oppose Putin, presumably, Americans would take his word for it. It would seem, however, that such a leader would have to earn "moral loyalty" on the domestic front before spending it abroad. The American problem may be that, for reasons we may like or not, people like Putin have the "moral loyalty" of their people. While we focus on the dissident minority and assume that consent has been withdrawn, the majority of Russians (and maybe the majority of Crimeans) trust Putin, for good reasons or otherwise. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, they may not have lost faith in the "big unit" or concluded that a "big unit" isn't necessary.  Brooks believes that leaders make history, but their instrument is the state. Because Brooks is a Republican, however moderate by current standards, he has to dance around the heart of his problem without stating things as plainly as he might have. If our inability to deal persuasively with Russia -- if that's really a problem -- is due ultimately to American lack of faith in the state, then it's hard to blame any humiliation jingoistic Americans feel on the perceived wimpy liberalism of Obama or Secretary Kerry when they, as Democrats, are supposedly blind worshipers of the state, and have been badmouthing Putin constantly in any event. Brooks is wise enough to realize that liberalism in the partisan sense isn't the problem, but to what extent will he concede that conservatism, in the anti-statist Republican sense, is at least part of it? It would be epic irony if the same people who insist on American hegemony throughout the world, while constantly belittling the sort of big government that made it happen, end up undoing it.

13 March 2014

Conservatism is not funny -- or is it?

A curious item on the Atlantic Monthly website asks why there isn't a right-wing counterpart to Comedy Central's Daily Show. The lack of a counterweight to John Stewart's perceived liberal bias seems strange to some observers given the popularity of Fox News and Republican talk radio. Fox News does have a comedy program, but it's relegated to 3:00 a.m., while an earlier attempt at comedy commentary failed miserably. But it's not as if Republicans don't enjoy making fun of Democrats and liberals, so what's the real problem? Author Sean McElwee quotes one comic's unconvincing explanation that comedy subverts authority and celebrates rule-breakers. Don't today's Republicans and Libertarians do the same thing? But the comic may be right to specify that comedy responds best to a certain kind of authority that isn't synonymous with "government." Maybe the problem is that comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian while Republicanism, despite its denials, is inherently authoritarian? McElwee himself steers away from cultural or ideological explanations, suggesting instead that Fox News is simply too cheap to give its comedy show the budget necessary to make it credible competition for Comedy Central's political shows. He also suggests that conservative humor is unlikely to flourish in the urban centers where stand-up comedians hone their skills and get noticed, but that didn't stop a cohort of comparatively rustic (though not necessarily conservative) comics (e.g. Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy) from getting famous (if not respected) in recent years.

The query begs a separate question: what would authentic "conservative" comedy look like? It can't simply be a matter of satirizing liberalism, because liberalism is self-critical and self-satirizing. As McElwee notes, Daily Show makes fun of Democrats frequently, while Bill Maher recently mocked Rachel Maddow's obsessive coverage of Chris Christie's scandals. To become conservative comedy, such mockery would have somehow to become mockery of liberalism itself. But how does that get beyond the "you're stupid" level where most "liberal comedy" presumably resides? Such comedy is obviously partisan but not necessarily conservative. To succeed, conservative comedy would have to be recognizably conservative (or Republican, to be fair to other conservatives), and also appeal to those people who consider themselves conservatives or Republicans, and go in directions self-critical liberals won't. While Republicans and Libertarians do see themselves as defying authority and speaking truth to power, in order to define a "conservative" style of comedy they'd probably have to aim low rather than high. To the extent that a contempt for society's "losers" drives much of what passes for conservatism in the U.S., conservative comedy, to be recognized at such, must make fun of the poor. You can't get more specific than that without getting in trouble, but you could probably get away with mocking poor people in general while the outraged reactions of liberals would only prove your edginess. The model should be things like the Darwin Awards. Their mockery of stupidity may seem apolitical but while it's one thing for liberal comedians to mock Republicans as stupid, it's something very different to mock someone as too stupid to live. Liberals won't go there, but I assume that Republicans and (perhaps even more so) Libertarians will. Self-styled conservative opinionators may think that the essence of their movement has to do with high principles of limited government and free enterprise, but where's the humor in that. The ideology of the base is probably much simpler: the smart and strong survive; the rest had better swim or sink -- and whatever they do, it'll be funny to watch.

Meanwhile, comedy arguably is less anti-authoritarian now than it has often seemed. Anti-authoritarian comedy was often a question of manners,the highlight often being some trampling of etiquette, through ignorance (the Three Stooges) or by deliberate assault (the Marx Bros.). In our post-etiquette age the equivalent of the "stuffiness" so often skewered and punctured by clowns is the perceived "uptight" attitude of anyone who doesn't share your amusement at certain things and find your amusement disgusting. Comedians presume they're doing something right when people react in an uptight way, regardless of the social or cultural position the reactionaries occupy. Remember the stereotype of the humorless, politically-correct liberal. In the past the "puritan" played a similar role, and for some he still does. Conservative comedy may have to risk offending both, but the real challenge to any flourishing of the genre will more likely not come from those who won't let you laugh, but from those who refuse to be laughed at. Play at your own risk.

11 March 2014

Actual malice: the legacy of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

The New York Times is patting itself on the back this week to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling in its favor. In 1963 the Warren Court unanimously overturned an Alabama libel conviction in which the Times was found liable for factual inaccuracies in an ad it published denouncing that state's mistreatment of civil-rights activists. While Alabama regarded the misstatements as defamatory, the Court decided that too strict a standard of accountability for accuracy for advocates had a chilling effect on public discourse. Two hundred years earlier, John Peter Zenger had escaped a libel conviction, and was made the patron saint of American press freedom, with the defense that a statement could not be libelous if it was true. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan went further: a statement critical of a public official could be false, but the falsehood was libelous only when made with "actual malice." Actual malice exists when you know your statement to be false, i.e. when you're consciously lying. In the Court's opinion, Justice William Brennan wrote: "Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate [and] must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need to survive."

Brennan was one of the great liberal justices, but fifty years later it looks like he may have put the country on a slippery slope. It isn't hard to imagine the potential for mischief in the Sullivan precedent in a postmodern age of often-willful skepticism. While Sullivan addresses libel law exclusively, its canonization as a civil-liberties milestone arguably has licensed political actors in general to disregard fact in their discourse. Little of the untruth readily circulating in our media today falls into the category of libel, but Sullivan may stay the hands or tongues of those who hope to hold anyone accountable, in any way, for disinforming the public. After all, how do you know that someone knows that what he's saying isn't true? And who are you to weigh your evidence against his belief? Who are you to say that he should know it's untrue? Liberalism and skepticism combine to perpetuate debate past all reasonable limits on some controversial questions, while extreme postmodernists (political or apolitical) see any assertion of truth as merely an assertion of power. In the 21st century actual malice may be less a matter of consciously lying than of cynical skepticism or bad faith -- a refusal of truth rather than a deliberate untruth. Even without Sullivan, you couldn't punish a person for this through law unless he actually attacked a person with his words. But the bit the Times quotes from Brennan in its commemorative editorial doesn't say anything about libel. The subject is "free debate" and we are all implicitly enjoined to give the maximum leeway to "erroneous statements" in any venue. We can correct them, of course, but we can't suppress them, and so the debate continues. But if you see any linkage between Sullivan and today's terrible state of public discourse, you may be tempted to wonder whether it would have been so hard for those noble civil-rights activists or their sympathizers to do some fact-checking before buying ad space in the Times.

10 March 2014

Party like it's 1989: liberal fantasies in Eastern Europe

In the current New Republic Paul Berman writes: "The Ukrainian crisis is a story of the revolutionary spirit of 1989 and its nemesis, which is the Soviet Union, neither of which were thought to be alive in 2014. But both are alive." Does that make Vladimir Putin a Marxist-Leninist? Not quite. While Berman describes the Russian president as "a Kremlin general secretary," with the implication of Bolshevism in the term "general secretary," his real point seems to be that Putin is working according to the same geopolitical logic that motivated Soviet leaders. Putin has invaded Ukraine, or at least the Crimea, for the same reason that Khrushchev invaded Hungary and Brezhnev invaded Czechoslovakia. As far as Berman's concerned, this isn't entirely a matter of Russia asserting a right to dominate its neighbors and dictate their policies. The real issue, he thinks, is that Russian domination of its "near abroad" neighbors is considered necessary for the stability of Russia itself or, more to the point, the security of Russia's rulers.

To a certain point, a Russian sympathizer, or maybe even the Russian government might agree. Russia's security would be destabilized, such people may argue, if NATO sets up shop and installs missile-defense systems in immediately neighboring countries. But that's not what Berman is writing about. His subject is the "spirit of 1989," a thing he considers the greatest threat to Putin's power and assumes is seen that way by Putin himself. In 1989, you'll recall, much of the Eastern Bloc overthrew Communist rule, either through elections, resignations or, in the exceptional case of Romania, by violence, while a parallel movement in China was crushed in Tiananmen Square. Berman remains convinced that 1989 was an uprising of ideas and a contagion that leaped from country to country, possibly launched from Russia itself during the glasnost era and returning there to finish off the USSR in 1991. The fate of Mikhail Gorbachev, Berman claims, convinced Putin of the necessity of his policy of hegemony in the near abroad. "In 1989 Gorbachev declined to invade any country at all, and soon afterward the Soviet Union came to an end," he writes. Berman supposes that Putin agrees with his belief that, should freedom prevail in Ukraine, it will soon prevail in Russia in a way that can only be bad for Putin. Recalling the "Orange Revolution" of 2004, Berman thought, "If the revolution could break out in Ukraine, why not in Russia, too?" The unexamined premise is that a revolution needs to happen in Russia along the lines of the 1989 uprisings and their echoes in the "color revolutions" of the 21st century.

Whether Putin is a Marxist-Leninist or not, liberals like Berman invariably see him as an enemy of freedom, and as far as they're concerned Putin's enmity sufficiently explains the incursion and imminent annexation of the Crimea. In the liberal demonology, Putin opposes "the notion that mankind craves freedom, that liberal democracy corresponds to the craving, and so forth," i.e. the spirit of 1989. Berman rejects revisionist accounts of 1989 that give priority to anything but the power of the spirit. He sees the same spirit at work in the Kiev Maidan, of course -- his utterly whitewashed account describes the Ukrainian uprising as "the spirit of 1989 in its purest distillation, level-headed, lucid" and doesn't bother mentioning the role of alleged extreme nationalists even to dismiss their significance. They seem literally not to exist in Berman's field of historical vision, and one doesn't have to accept the pro-Russian characterization of the Maidan and the post-Yanukovich regime as predominantly "fascist" (as I don't) to see a failure to mention them as a whitewash. Berman appears to practice a whitewashed, entirely idealized if not ideological historiography in which "freedom" and "tyranny" wage eternal battle and everyone must take a side. But his worldview collapses when any pressure is applied to his fragile assumption that "freedom," as he understands it, is the natural and rightful aspiration of most people on Earth. To deny his premise is not to say that those people, like the stereotypical Russian, crave the knout. But it is to say that Berman's idea of freedom -- above all, I assume, the insistence that dissent be risk-free -- hardly lives up to most people's idea of the good. Any worldview that sees such a "craving" as a decisive force in history -- even recent history -- is hopelessly naive, and to the extent that this worldview influences American foreign policy, dangerously so.

07 March 2014

Cry me a river in Egypt: the perils of self-determination

You'd have to be completely blinded by Russophobia not to detect some note of hypocrisy in the west's denunciations of plans by the Crimean autonomous region to secede from Ukraine, and most likely to be annexed by the Russian Federation. From the purely Russophobic perspective this scheme is merely another form of aggression by Russia against Ukraine. But why is it less legitimate for russophone Crimeans to reject domination by Ukrainians than for Ukrainians to reject the domination by Russia they saw implicit in the continued rule of President Yanukovich? Why do people rush to question the democratic legitimacy of any secessionist move in Crimea, having never questioned the democratic legitimacy of the Maidan in Kiev? "Russophobia" is the simple answer to these questions: the assumption that association with Russia is a blow to civil and individual liberty, if not also to sexual freedom or more intimate concerns. At the risk of digressing, now would be a good time for Russians and their sympathizers worldwide to speak out against Russophobia as a form of bigotry and the stereotyping of Russians in popular media. But to end the digression, won't the tables turn again if the indigenous Tatar population of Crimea, still recovering from the forced deportations by Stalin during World War II, decides they'd rather be with Ukraine, or on their own, then part of a Russian entity they still identify with Soviet and earlier oppression? Would the russophone Crimeans be hypocrites if they suppressed Tatar aspirations?  Many would say so, but where does it all stop? Ukraine may not be part of the Balkans technically, but the place seems classically balkanized, reduced to groups united by little more than cartography, none of whom can stand "domination" by another. Perhaps it can never be different for a relatively small country, albeit big enough to be perilously diverse, caught between great powers. Politics in such a place may never mature past suspicions of foreign loyalties; if so, Ukraine may never have been viable as a nation in the modern world. That's a shame, I suppose, but I wish we could reach a point where nationalism is no longer viable or modern. We seem further away from that ideal than we've been in a long time. For many people around the world, the only alternative to nationalism is an alienating statism, whether the totalitarian specter of communism or the regulatory embrace of the European Union that many find smothering. It's impossible to transcend nationalism if you can't help seeing anything that transcends nationalism as domination by The Other, e.g. when some countries reject American leadership in the name of "freedom" and human rights, and others earlier rejected Russian/Soviet leadership in the name of the working class. It makes you wonder objectively whether anything short of a "totalitarian" remedy can cure humans of seeing each other as Other -- and at that, past "totalitarians" too often have resorted to inventing Others as scapegoats for their own shortcomings. Can we, must we cure humanity, by whatever means, of this habit? Whether it matters depends on whether you see that transcendence as necessary to our survival and the planet's. From that perspective, all the troubles of all the people in Ukraine seem pretty small and hardly worth the crisis we're having.

06 March 2014

The sacrament of bullets

The Grace Baptist Church of Troy NY will raffle off an AR-15 rifle at a Sunday service later this month dedicated to the biblical right to armed self-defense. The weapon has been modified to comply with New York State's controversial "SAFE" act and comes with a 10-round magazine. The winner must have a driver's license and pass a background check to receive the gun. The pastor of Grace Baptist believes that gun owners need a break after repeated attacks from "anti-Christian socialist media" and "anti-Christian socialist politicians." Read more about it here.

Is there a biblical right to self-defense? "Turn the other cheek" will automatically come to mind as an argument against the idea, at least for Christians, but there's a school of bible study that contends that pacifists have misunderstood the context of Jesus's famous injunction. It's part of the Sermon on the Mount as described in the Book of Matthew. In 5:38-39, Jesus contrasts his principle with the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" idea. This indicates to some readers that Jesus is talking about revenge and reprisal rather than self-defense. In the self-defense reading, Jesus says not to answer an offense with an offense after the fact, and not that you can't defend yourself during the actual offense. Readers sympathetic to this interpretation point to Jesus's later advice to his disciples that they spare no expense in acquiring swords, which is not contradicted, in their view, by Jesus's chiding of Peter for wounding a soldier while defending him at Gethsemane. Jesus's statements around that time are complicated, supposedly, by his belief that he had to be taken by the authorities and executed in order to fulfill prophecy. His refusal of defense in that special case does not rule out self-defense for ordinary humans, as far as Christian gun-rights advocates are concerned.

However, Matthew's Sermon isn't the only case of Jesus appearing to preach non-resistance to force. One such case that looks far more difficult to spin is Luke 6:29, an alternate version of the same basic sermon, but known as the Sermon on the Plain. The verse starts with the "turn the other cheek" injunction, but in Luke Jesus follows this with (in King James, since many Americans consider that translation divinely inspired) "and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also." This would seem to be the ultimate affirmation of non-resistance, but context may still be relevant. Matthew has a slightly different version of this phrase in which the man after your cloak is "suing" for it. King James spells it out more plainly: "If any man will sue thee at law..." The Luke version is often interpreted as advising non-resistance to robbery and is thus a centerpiece of Christian pacifism. We have no objective basis today for determining whether Luke or Matthew got this statement correct. Christians will have to follow their hearts on this one -- which makes it a good thing that we don't leave it to any church to determine the actual self-defense rights of citizens in a constitutional republic. The pastor of Grace Baptist can interpret scripture as he pleases, and he's apparently within his rights to hold his raffle. But if he claims that his interpretation of scripture determines the scope of our real-world right to defend ourselves, or even that his interpretation is binding on other Christians, he's just another voice crying in the wilderness of his own mind.

05 March 2014

A global clash of conservatisms?

The American political establishment is nearly unanimous in condemning Russia's incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region, but some Americans have noted an ambivalence on the part of Republicans. They seem to hate Vladimir Putin as much as anyone else, but there's also, to say the least, a grudging admiration for his perceived decisive leadership. In some cases, as with Rudy Giuliani, the point of praising Putin's decisiveness and leadership in general is mainly to show up President Obama, whom Republicans generally perceive as weak and indecisive when not portraying him as an imminent threat to constitutional government. In some respects, most obviously his homophobia, Putin is a conservative by any standard. Some American conservatives, most notably cultural conservatives like Pat Buchanan, have suggested that Putin is really a natural ally for the U.S. in a twilight struggle with Islamism. His support for homophobic measures probably has endeared Putin further with this element. Still, the hostility toward Putin expressed by Republicans like Sen. McCain, who for our purposes definitely is a conservative, reminds us of the ways American conservatism, broadly defined, has evolved away from an older understanding of the term that still prevails elsewhere. The most obvious difference is an American distrust of the state that simply was not a factor in the conservatism of, say, the 18th century. Before the American and French revolutions, the state was taken for granted as the necessary instrument for the enforcement of traditional values, its hierarchies reflecting a divinely-willed order. By comparison, American conservatism, in most cases, shows its liberal roots in its priority on individual liberty, however tempered by persistent moral traditionalism. Many Republicans in this country can never embrace Putin because the Russian leader embodies the oppressive power of the state, and to the extent that Putin is a statist, he's little better than a communist for many American observers. Whatever cultural affinities American and Russian conservatives may share, knowingly or not, an ideological divide persists for the moment. That divide might be expressed in fairly simple terms. One type of conservative only feels big when his government is powerful and can push other countries around. The other only feels big when his government is small, yet can still push other countries around. Someone may object that "conservative" isn't the right word in either case, but I'm sticking with it until I hear a better suggestion.

04 March 2014

Liberalism and mob rule

Not so long ago, mob rule was the antithesis of liberalism: violent, coercive, non-deliberative and presumably unrepresentative. Yet this year we see liberals cheering on mobs in Kiev -- as long as they oppose Russia -- a year after they cheered on the mobs in Cairo protesting against Islamism. Some are probably cheering for mobs in Caracas, though that depends on whether or not a liberal also views himself as a progressive, in which case social justice, as presumably represented by the Maduro government, takes priority over civil liberty, as represented by the mob. Few liberals, most likely, understand Thai politics enough to know whether to side with the mobs in Bangkok or not. When did liberals learn to love a mob? Most likely during the 1980s, when mobs of protesters rose up against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and the idea of "people power" was born. Marcos was seen as a pro-American ruler, so at first the formula wasn't as simple as "a mob is good when the ruler is anti-American." Still, as "people power" brought down the Soviet Bloc at the end of the 1980s, I suspect that an idea developed in which mobs were the necessary substitute wherever an "authoritarian" or "totalitarian" state suppressed "civil society. Some liberals may now grant mobs the benefit of the doubt, much as they grant it to dissidents in general, so long as the government the mob opposes can be seen as "authoritarian" at least. As some skeptics have observed, liberals would not feel so sanguine if hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers converged on Washington D.C. to demand President Obama's resignation and got into fights with police in the process. But does the analogy prove that the mobs in Kiev should be accorded no legitimacy, as President Putin suggests? The answer can't be an absolute one. It remains possible to imagine scenarios in which citizens should take to the streets to protest and pressure their governments, and even to demand a government's immediate ouster. The problem with Ukraine is that many liberals automatically reached the conclusion that the mobs were legitimate, based on mixes of knowledge and assumptions about the nature of the Yanukovich government. Liberalism today regards dissent as the health of the state; the best proof of our freedom is hearing someone disagree with the government. For some liberals, it seems more important to hear disagreement than to judge whether the disagreement is justified. In giving the benefit of the doubt to dissent unconditionally, liberals show bad faith toward governments and politics in general, whether they realize it or not. The remedy isn't blind faith in governments, but the problem is blind faith in dissent as an end unto itself.

03 March 2014

The Eurasian Union; a new Holy Alliance?

Among the writers criticized in Stephen Cohen's Nation article on Ukraine was the historian Timothy Snyder, a Eastern Europe specialist who writes for the New York Review of Books. For Cohen, an opponent of Russophobia, Snyder, who has written extensively about the atrocities committed by both Soviets and Nazis during World War II, is guilty of underrepresenting the neo-fascist element in the Maidan protests that drove President Yanukovich from Ukraine. Snyder issues a counterblast in the New York Review's print edition for March 20 and an updated online article at the Review's website. He rejects the implication that neo-fascist, neo-nazi or even "far right" elements predominated in the Maidan, arguing in the print article that these elements were actually latecomers to the protests. The earliest protesters against Yanukovich, he writes, "were politically on the left, some of them radically so." The defining feature of the Maidan, for Snyder, isn't any nostalgia for Hitler but identification with Europe rather than Russia. Meanwhile, he smears-by-association anyone who characterizes the Maidan as predominantly "far right," since you can find the same judgment in Lyndon LaRouche's publications or, to be less esoteric, on Ron Paul's. Snyder traces all such charges to Russian or pro-Yanukovich propaganda, which he finds pretty rich considering the political views he claims to be prevalent in Russia. In Snyder's eyes, Russia under Putin has resumed, if it had ever really renounced, its historic role as the inherent enemy of European liberty. It's not enough for him to see Putin as a ruthless nationalist dedicated primarily to regional hegemony. Instead, he urges us to see Putin's Russia as once more an ideological state, opposed on principle to liberal democracy. The vehicle of this ideology, Snyder explains, is the Eurasian Union, an "international commercial and political union" for nations either east of the European Union or, Snyder suggests, ideologically hostile to it. From his print article:

The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights. On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin's rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

Snyder informs us that there is already a "Eurasian ideology," new to the 21st century and born largely from the mind of Aleksandr Dugin, an advocate, according to Snyder, of the reconquest and colonization of Ukraine by Russia. Snyder claims that Eurasianism is explicitly opposed to liberal democracy. Dugin reportedly "calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism" and is influenced by the proto-Nazi political scientist Carl Schmitt. What Dugin actually says Snyder leaves for us to discover, citing a major work called The Foundations of Geopolitics. I suppose I can concede without reading that work that this Dugin is no liberal, but the suggestion that he is Putin's ideologue and that Putin's motives are ideological to any significant extent are less demonstrated than assumed in Snyder's account.

It's bad enough that Russia is unwilling to let Ukraine sort out its own destiny, though by the same principle Ukraine is also no one else's business. Russia's intervention in the Crimea region to protect ethnic Russians, an allegedly persecuted minority under the new Ukrainian regime, seems hypocritical when there's a sizable and vocal minority of Tatars within the Russian enclaves that avows loyalty to Kiev. Since the Tatars are Muslim, their protests only allow the Russians to say that the anti-Yanukovich coalition consists not just of Nazis and gays but also of Islamist terrorists. From Russia's standpoint, if you don't like Russia, you're evil. From the Russophobic standpoint, Russia is evil, perhaps innately so. For two hundred years, at least, Russia has been seen not just as the oppressor of its own subjects but as a threat to freedom elsewhere. After the defeat of Napoleon, Russia provided the muscle for the so-called Holy Alliance, a coalition of conservative states cooperating to crush dissent and rebellion in central and eastern Europe, and for a time feared as the means to spread reaction westward. Russia's size and its politics seemed to prove the claim by Montesquieu, but rejected by Madison, that a country of such vast size could only be governed by tyranny. No one takes Canada, the second-largest country geographically, as a  threat to liberty, but Russia's historic combination of size and force seems to make it an irredeemable entity in world history. Its size certainly puts a chip on the figurative Russia shoulder, but does it make Russia as absolutely hostile to liberty as so many fear?

A partial corrective to Snyder's alarmism might be found in the same issue of the Review. Discussing a new "History of Democracy in Crisis," John Gray criticizes the author's simplistic contrast between democracy and autocracy, noting that such a stark distinction misses "differences" in kind among both autocracies and democracies. Gray considers it a fallacy to equate democracy, as the author under review does, with liberalism. History informs Gray that liberals historically have distrusted democracy because of its potential for "tyranny of the majority." Turning to Russia, Gray writes that "Putin's Russia more closely resembles the type of democracy against which nineteenth-century liberal thinkers warned." Gray appears to agree with Snyder that Russia is explicitly opposed to liberalism, and is "far from any kind of civilized government." But he warns that a more truly democratic Russia "would not necessarily be more tolerant or pluralistic than the one that currently exists" so long as it remains grounded in an illiberal civilization.

Gray doesn't shy away from moral judgments about Russia, but he also exposes a manichean thinking among liberals that both equates democracy with liberalism and decries any departure from liberalism as a slippery slide toward autocracy. He also spotlights faults in liberalism that may reduce its appeal to some cultures. If we still take the U.S. as the exemplar of liberalism, Gray concedes that the country is not "monopolized by a tyrannous majority," but observes that the government has been "immobilized by an irreconcilable minority." While Gray remains confident that "the current gridlock will eventually be overcome," he recognizes that "probably few people outside the United States ... any longer regard American government as a model that should be emulated." It might be inferred that the American experiment in liberalism has gone too far, at some levels, toward immunizing minorities from oppression, especially once purely numerical minorities defined by political beliefs begin to feel themselves entitled to liberalism's protections. Liberalism's concern for the vulnerable few in any polity will always be problematic, not just because of majority prejudices but also because of the ease with which safeguards conceived in the interest of the vulnerable few -- ethnic and religious and now sexual minorities -- can be exploited by the powerful few to thwart not merely an undesirable tyranny of the majority but any effective democracy. Liberalism abhors Russia, and other countries, because dissidents there seem to get pushed around on a more regular basis than they do in liberal nations. Liberalism is dedicated fundamentally to the proposition that the dissident should never get pushed around, that he should never suffer for being in any sort of minority. It's provocative even to suggest calculating the costs of that approach, but liberal absolutism of that sort threatens to alienate the liberal powers from a wider world where most people are simply less horrified, less outraged morally, when the local dissidents get pushed around, whether for holding obnoxious opinions, growing too big for their britches, or for general malcontenment. If we could see other countries this way, still critically but not hysterically, instead of seeing them as slaves of evil rulers of insatiable ambition, some of us might not have seen the Ukrainian trouble as the world crisis it has become.

01 March 2014

Maybe the NRA is right after all

Gruesome news from China: in an apparent terrorist attack, blamed by the government on Muslim separatists from the country's southwest, a gang of men attacked a train station and killed 33 people, according to the latest report, while wounding more than 100 more. The remarkable aspect of this particular atrocity is that the killers all used knives. It appears to confirm the argument often made by gun-rights advocates that getting rid of guns won't guarantee anyone's safety, since vicious or crazy people will find other effective means to kill or hurt people. It definitely proves what motivated people can do with sharp objects. It also reconfirms, following waves of knife attacks on kindergartens and other public places in recent years, that some people are really, really pissed off by conditions in China. Since China apparently has effective gun control, the government can skip debating over whether gun ownership makes such incidents more likely. The real question they face is deciding whether to dismiss each case as the act of a hopeless malcontent or to deduce that something is wrong with they way the country is going. They may decide that these killings are an inescapable collateral cost of some necessary socio-economic development, much as many Americans accept gun violence as an unavoidable risk of free society. One thing seems certain: regrettable as the absence from China of a truly free "civil society" may be, it does mean that the country will be spared the propaganda of a Knives Rights Association. Meanwhile, this tragedy may have a silver lining if it convinces reactionary Americans that even should our government take their guns away, they still have a fighting chance to make a difference through empty gestures that only hurt innocent people.