30 April 2014

Is the Democratic majority Unreliable?

Two years after everyone predicted that demographic trends assured Democrats victory in the present and future presidential elections, most people anticipate a Republican landslide in this fall's congressional elections, including a GOP takeover of the Senate that would render President Obama the lamest of ducks. While some may blame the gerrymandered drawing of congressional district for the failure of the Democrats' presidential majority to reproduce itself at the congressional level, Sasha Issenberg suggests in The New Republic that the real problem isn't with the congressional map, but with Democratic voters. Reporting on recent research in patterns, Issenberg divides the electorate into "Reflex" and "Unreliable" voters based on turnout in congressional elections. The research suggests that a disproportionate number of Democratic presidential voters are "Unreliable," failing to vote in the midterms, while the Republicans have a disproportionate number of "Reflex" voters who go to the ballot every time. Hence Democratic success in Presidential elections is checked by Republican success in the midterms.

Since The New Republic is a Democratic-leaning magazine, Issenberg is kind in accounting for the Unreliability of Democratic voters. Rather than suggest that for some reason only the Presidency matters to them, or that they somehow fail to understand how a government of checks and balances works, Issenberg cites socioeconomic factors. The young people and minorities who form great parts of the Obama coalition are more mobile or more subject to displacement, while Republicans tend to be more settled property owners. Mobility supposedly makes it a chore to re-register every time you move, though somehow these people manage to be registered when the Presidency's at stake. Mobility also means that local issues, and thus local elections, may not matter as much to theoretically transient people than they do to long-term property owners. Even if they think nationally rather than locally, however, Democrats should recognize the national importance of congressional elections, and if they can register to vote in presidential elections, even if they've only recently moved, they should be able -- and, more importantly, willing -- to register as soon as they settle in someplace new, so they can vote in the next election. There must be more plain apathy or ignorance involved in these numbers that Issenberg is willing to acknowledge, and that should embarrass Democrats everywhere.

As it turns out, the Democratic party is working hard to turn Unreliables into Reflex voters. Here Issenberg's account takes a slightly disturbing turn. One successful tactic Democratic canvassers have applied, following the advice of two Yale professors, is to use subtle forms of intimidation.  They've "achieved even more striking results by sending out letters that threaten to distribute neighbors' vote histories before and after Election Day," Issenberg notes. Testing similar tactics, another get-out-the-vote group waged a direct-mail campaign inviting people to vote but adding, "You may be called after the election to discuss your experience at the polls." Faced with the possibility that they might have to explain to someone why they didn't vote -- in Issenberg's words, the campaign was "testing the potential of a new concept -- self-integrity -- by threatening accountability for potential voters who valued civic engagement," -- more people voted. Turnout increased by more than 50% in the test group of people who received the letter.

This is very subtle psychological intimidation that doesn't really rise to the level of coercion. It can be called pressure, however, and it raises the question whether people should be pressured to vote. The answer depends on how you define democracy -- whether it's rule by the people who choose to vote, or whether its very legitimacy depends on everyone voting, or as close to everyone as we can manage. On some level it's a choice between quality and quantity: whether the measures described result in better-informed voters may matter less than assumption of responsibility for the country's (or the community's) future.  Whether a citizen in a democratic republic has a right to be apathetic, complacent or acquiescent that is violated by such tactics is open to question -- in a democratic republic, the question might even be decided by popular vote. However you decide that question, let's agree that it's pretty sad that such measures have to be taken at a time when, as the poet says, some of the worst people vote with passionate intensity, while those who know better can't be bothered even to vote for Democrats consistently, much less rally to some new party more deserving of their support.

29 April 2014

Boner vs. Boehner: suppressing dissent in Ohio?

The Speaker of the House of Representatives faces a primary challenge this year from a divided Tea Party movement in his Ohio district. One of his challengers is J. D. Winteregg, a French-language instructor whose campaign posted what they considered a clever video to their website. Filmed in the style of a Viagra commercial, the ad claims that Boehner's district has suffered from "electile dysfunction." Playing off a common and often purposeful mispronunciation of the Speaker's name, it warns that those who've had a Boehner for 23 years -- his tenure in Congress -- should seek immediate medical attention. The symptoms of electile dysfunction, as illustrated, include an overly friendly attitude toward the President of the United States. Implicitly, Winteregg promises not to shake hands or play golf with the Chief Executive.

Along with teaching high-school French, Winteregg taught an online course for a local Christian school. He's now lost the gig with Cedarville University after the school decided that Winteregg's silly video didn't represent Christian values. Such uptight action isn't really surprising, and from the school's point of view it's probably entirely appropriate. But if something like this had happened in another country -- if a declared opponent of a powerful politician had lost a job for criticizing or mocking him -- the American media would say that that country was on the road to authoritarian rule, that the powerful politician had to be behind the opponent's dismissal, that it was all an attempt to silence the brave dissident, etc. They won't say that about Winteregg and Boehner, partly because few in the media care much for Tea Partiers and partly because it's reasonable not to assume a conspiracy behind the school's decision. If we see things differently as they happen in other countries, we aren't automatically wrong but we should acknowledge that we don't know other countries as well as our own. Too often we hear that a dissident is in legal trouble in his country and we jump to conclusions about tyrannical tendencies there. Foreign dissidents usually get the benefit of the doubt from Americans, with Russophone protesters in eastern Ukraine being a notable exception, but it's just possible that when a dissident anywhere gets into trouble he's simply screwed up as Winteregg has by pulling his boner. A lot of Americans like John Boehner little better than they like Vladimir Putin, but it doesn't mean that either man's opponents are always right.

Is speech free in the private sector?

Sports fans and interested outsiders are wondering what penalty the National Basketball Association will inflict on the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise for racist remarks he made in a private (but recorded) phone conversation. The recording went public not long before the NAACP, to which the owner has been a frequent contributor, was to give him a Lifetime Achievement award. As the owner of a basketball team, of course, he's made millionaires of a number of black men. There seems to be a contradiction here between private feelings and public conduct, but I'm not interested in weighing them all in the balance to determine whether the man is a racist or not. What interests me is the fact that, while the severity of punishment remains to be determined by the NBA commissioner, and is subject to wide debate by basketball fans, the fact that he'll be punished for words spoken in private, merely for talking like a racist, is undisputed. He may be suspended or forbidden from attending his own games. He may be fined. Many angry people want him to be forced to sell the Clippers; some want him stripped of it without compensation. It probably won't go that far, but he will almost certainly be punished.

A backlash is probably already under way, with the owner seen as a likely victim of political correctness run amok. While no one, probably, will defend whatever the man said, some will probably see him as a martyr like the short-lived CEO of Mozilla who was denied the post when activists learned that he'd contributed to the campaign for the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California. The Clippers case will look to some like another instance of intolerantly thin-skinned people forcing their repressive codes on everyone else, and in this case not merely in public but in private life as well.  If this is how you see it, however, your problem isn't with political correctness, but with the private sector. These cases serve as reminders, to those who shouldn't have needed them, that there is no Bill of Rights for the private sector. When people say there's "freedom of speech" in the U.S., they mean that the government can't make laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The government can't formally forbid racist speech, for instance, but any private entity in "civil society" can.

One way of looking at this is to question whether the state or the private sector is the greater threat to freedom, when freedom is understood as being able to speak your mind without consequences. Another is to ask why, if private-sector entities can sanction bigoted speech, government should not. The correct way of looking at it, I think, is not to see a double standard, with business allowed to do what government can't, but to recognize that the "freedom of speech" protected by the First Amendment and the "freedom of speech" violated by private entities are two different things. The government can't forbid "hate," because it would be too easy for a partisan government to redefine opposition as hate (as Republicans accuse the Obama administration of doing), but freedom of political discourse isn't at stake in the decisions of a corporate board or a sports league, and in any event there was no political content to the owner's comments unless you, like the archetypal PC fanatic, see everything as politics. In civil society, different considerations can have priority. The Clippers owner will likely be sanctioned because his remarks amount to "conduct detrimental to the game" of basketball. While his philanthropic public gestures may contradict his private sentiments, once those sentiments were known they could be deemed unworthy of an NBA franchise owner. They're unworthy of an American citizen, too, but in such cases responsibility for the rebuke is privatized, just as libertarians and many Republicans would want. So what's the problem?

Update: The owner has been "banned for life" by the NBA and fined $2,500,000. The "ban" means that he won't be allowed to attend NBA games and can't make business decisions for the team he will continue to own. The decision follows an investigation conducted by the league to verify that his was the voice in the controversial recording. Again, if you think this unfair, your beef is less with any hegemony of political correctness than with a society that allows the private sector to deal with offensive people this way.

28 April 2014

Gunplay in the home of Uncle Sam

When I was growing up, I lived in an apartment in downtown Troy, New York. Often on weekend nights I'd be awakened in the middle of the night, or distracted from the TV if I was staying up late, by screams and yells directly outside. My building was next door to a bar and there was another across the street. They catered to different crowds, one town, one gown, and I fancied that the patrons fought one another in the middle of the street. I remember vividly one tussle that had two guys rolling and grappling together as cars dodged them. It was always drunk people being stupid, but that was thirty years or so ago. Had I lived in the same place last weekend, I would have been awakened, or distracted, by gunfire. Somebody fired into a crowd outside a pizza shop next door to one of the bars and wounded five people. While investigators believe it was a targeted attack, but that not all the people hit were targets, it's unclear whether the shooter, who remains at large, intended to kill anyone. It looks like all the victims were hit in the legs, and none of their injuries are life-threatening. Still, guns! In a case like this it's questionable whether the assailant could have done much less damage with a knife, but a crowded sidewalk is probably the last place you would have wanted to see a "good guy with a gun" at a time like this. That being said, I don't want to make it about guns this time since guns only exacerbate an existing volatility that's nothing new in crowds on cities in weekends. We're dealing with problems in human nature for which there are no simple "left" or "right" solutions. I doubt whether more economic security, as liberals would want for everyone, or more morality grounded in religious tradition, as conservatives would call for, will keep people from getting drunk or high, or keep some of those from getting competitive, jealous or belligerent. It may take more than either of these solutions to change human nature, if our nature is changeable and change is desirable. Many people say change is good but they usually mean change for the society around them, change in other people's backward minds, rather than change in themselves. But as long as people draw lines against progress exempting themselves from change, believing themselves fine as they are, society is likely to remain "fine as it is" despite the persistent evidence to the contrary. These may be grim observations after a non-fatal incident, but that incident looks like further proof that society is still getting worse, at least locally, while the possibility of real change continues to dwindle and the imagination of radical change remains in disrepute. This city's slogan is, Ilium fuit, Troja est: the Troy of classical mythology fell, but the present Troy endures. Yet it will take no army hidden in a gift to bring it all down.

25 April 2014

The few, the proud and the Founders

George Will is not a Progressive. I suppose that goes without saying, since Will is a conservative, but he found it necessary to clarify the distinction in a recent column. Progressives, he writes -- referring back basically a century to the movement identified, fairly or not, with Theodore Roosevelt -- believe in perfecting democracy, in making sure that "the people" rule. The Constitution, however -- in Will's understanding, exists to limit democracy in defense of the inherent rights of individuals. In his words:

The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected. 

I think he got somewhat irrationally exuberant in describing the "realm of freedom," since laws obviously define its limit. But he isn't entirely inaccurate to say that the Constitution sets limits to the scope of law; the Bill of Rights makes clear that majorities simply can't decree anything they wish. Whether you believe in "natural rights" or not (Will does), the Constitution and its amendments established individual rights while making them very hard to take away.  In any event, the dichotomy Will defines creates an inaccurate impression of Progressives hostile to the concept of individual rights. This inaccuracy can be traced to a blind spot in Will's analysis that's more telling than his own definitions. You'll notice it in this paragraph:

Government, the framers said, is instituted to improve upon the state of nature, in which the individual is at the mercy of the strong. But when democracy, meaning the process of majority rule, is the supreme value — when it is elevated to the status of what the Constitution is “basically about” — the individual is again at the mercy of the strong, the strength of mere numbers. 

This isn't so much wrong as incomplete. The first sentence, especially, is not false. But Will forgets (or, more likely, ignores) that the Founders did not think exclusively in terms of individuals. I don't think you get a complete picture of the Founders' minds unless you can also writes that in the state of nature, the many or the majority are at the mercy of the strong. The Founders, generally speaking, aimed at balanced government. While many took seriously the threat of a "tyranny of the majority," they were obviously well aware of the danger of tyranny over the majority by a few, or a one. The world of kings and nobles outside America made this danger more obvious than the theoretical danger of a tyrannical majority. Will's blind spot is his failure to recognize that the "strong" can be the "few" and not always the many -- that the tyranny of the majority is not the only tyranny possible. The Progressives, meanwhile, believed they were continuing the Founders' work. Their reforms were meant to shore up the republic's defenses against a kind of tyranny of the few -- a plutocratic oligarchy of wealth beyond the Founders' imaginings. For the last century, Progressives' opponents have accused them of warring on liberty, since wealth, from this opposing perspective, is only the product of liberty. If anything, however, the Progressives were more willing than the Founders to concede to the robber barons the fruits of their industry. They didn't want to confiscate that wealth, but they wanted to limit its power to influence politics -- and now we're told that doing so is yet another offense against individual liberty. To believe that the Constitution is concerned only, or even primarily with individual liberty really is to define "a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom" for certain individuals. That sounds like a good thing to George Will, but I wonder whether many Founders would agree. To some of them, it might sound like tyranny.

24 April 2014

A Republican hero

Cliven Bundy is the Nevada rancher whose dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management was noted in my "Democracy in Nevada?" post earlier this month. Republicans and right-wing opinionators have made a hero of Bundy, seeing him as the victim of an overreaching, intrusive federal government. His fame is just about to end. A New York Times reporter, probably suspecting (as many following the story certainly did) that Bundy would eventually embarrass himself, hung around the man until he got the money quote. Here it is: 

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Two things need to be said.  First, Bundy's opinions about black people don't change the merits, such as they may be, of his argument against the BLM. There are plenty of reasons, it seems, to presume his position wrong, but racism isn't one of them. That would be an ad hominem argument better applied not to Bundy but to his soon-to-be-former friends in the Republican media. They're the losers today because they've spent the last several years screaming at anyone who assumes that someone like Bundy might just be a racist. You have no right to slander us so, they cry, just because the current liberal statist chief executive happens to be black. They've tried to make the conversation about Obama rather than about race in general, arguing that the "race card" is used to mute criticism of the President in a manner Vladimir Putin might envy. The problem with their argument is that while you don't have to be racist to criticize Obama from the right, it doesn't follow that those who criticize Obama, or espouse an ideology hostile to Obama's policies, are categorically innocent of racism. Your opposition to Obama may be primarily ideological in nature, but you may still be a racist. Cliven Bundy doesn't oppose the BLM because he is a racist, but he's still a racist. Critics may expose a bias if they fail to be surprised by this revelation, but you can't tell them that their bias has no basis in fact. Republicans may insist that that each of them individually should be presumed innocent of bigotry until proven guilty, but they don't (yet!) get to make the rules of public discourse unilaterally and they can't stop their opponents from placing the burden of proof on Republicans in general on the question of race. Cynically speaking, calling Republicans racist is the equivalent of calling Democrats socialist. Inevitably, however, one charge must come closer to the truth than the other, and Bundy is just another weight in the balance.

23 April 2014

Spheres of influence, then and now

One hundred years ago this week, American troops occupied Vera Cruz, Mexico. The government of Mexico had changed the year before in a process described by Americans, and by most of the world, as a coup d'etat. Mexico's powerful northern neighbor refused to recognize the new regime. The administration of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, reserved its right to intervene militarily in Mexico to protect Americans and American interests. On April 9, 1914, the junta arrested a group of American sailors by mistake but quickly released them. The Americans demanded a formal apology and the firing by the Mexicans of a 21-gun salute to the American vessel. The junta apologized but refused the salute. That refusal gave Wilson a pretext for the attack on Vera Cruz on April 21. The Americans occupied the city until November. By that time the coup leader Victoriano Huerta had fallen from power, the occupation having denied him an important supply line for his fight against Pancho Villa and other rebels. In 1916 Huerta died in an American military prison, accused of plotting with Germany to regain power and possibly wage war on the U.S. Meanwhile, American troops entered Mexico again to fight Villa. Ultimately, German appeals to anti-American sentiment in Mexico formed part of the pretext for the American declaration of war on Germany in 1917. This is what big countries have always done with small, or strong with weak. If it's wrong now it's always been wrong. Would the Obama administration like to apologize to Mexico after 100 years? If they won't, that itself won't legitimize anything happening now. But history lessons help remind us that no nation, or at least no great power, comes to these crises with clean hands. Least of all can the United States claim that no other country can claim a sphere of influence implicitly subjugating its neighbors. It may be wrong for Russia to claim Ukraine for its sphere of influence, but in the absence of a truly global tribunal capable of enforcing a single standard for international relations everywhere, opposition to Russian influence in Ukraine can only be seen as other countries claiming Ukraine for their sphere, with no more justice. The day when no nation is subservient to another will be the day when all nations are subservient to world government, and smart enough not to resent it.

22 April 2014

Allegiance to what?

There are two kinds of atheists, generally speaking. Let's call them unbelievers and anticlericals. The first group simply don't believe, and for the most part they don't care if others do believe as long as they're left alone. Anticlericals are actively hostile to religion and want to reduce its influence if not its presence in society and culture. The two groups have dramatically different ideas of what it means to be left alone. The mere unbelievers generally feel unthreatened by public displays of piety; they're not going to bark at a shop clerk who wishes them a Merry Christmas, for instance. The anticlericals tend to see any public piety as a form of proselytizing and are highly sensitive to perceived pressures to worship. You may be one kind of atheist or another based on ideology, personal experience or other factors. My family wasn't aggressively religious when I was growing up, so I haven't become a "militant" anticlerical, but you need not have a personal grievance, as I assume few Marxists have, to consider religion in general something best outgrown, or better yet thrown out, by humanity. My kind of unbeliever is tempted to roll his eyes when reading news of yet another lawsuit against mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. The plaintiffs in the latest case don't object to pledging allegiance to the flag or to the republic for which it stands. As you'd expect, they object to the two words, "under god" added to Francis Bellamy's 1892 text in 1954. These render the Pledge a discriminatory text in the plaintiffs' view; to invoke God is to "publicly disparage" unbelievers. Their children will be stigmatized if they refuse to participate, while their patriotism will be questioned so long as the Pledge ties it to worship of a deity. I suspect that the kids in question would only refuse to participate because their parents would insist upon it; since the plaintiffs are anonymous, presumably for their own protection, I don't know how young the kids are and how committed they may be to unbelief. But I'd bet that while the parents may be anticlericals, the kids are probably no more than unbelievers.

I want to roll my eyes at such news because these stunts only ask for a backlash. Inevitably, if unfairly, the atheists and their representatives at the American Humanist Association will be accused of trying to deny the other kids their right to acknowledge God. In the absence of formal school prayers, the Pledge has become the de facto act of worship for religious families, many of whom might have found something sinister about the Pledge, a form of state worship, had Bellamy's secular text -- recall, too, that he was a minister, albeit a self-described Christian socialist -- not been amended to underscore American rejection of Marxist-Leninist atheism. But"under god" is an independent clause that doesn't change the Pledge's function as an act of homage to the state. Perhaps if it were made more clear that the Pledge constitutes state worship, regardless of its McCarthy-vintage two-word sugar coating -- enthusiasm for it in any form would diminish.  The obligation to pledge allegiance in school, and not the wording of the pledge, is what we should finally question. If education itself makes patriots, as the Founders hoped, than a pledge of allegiance is superfluous, while composing a text for it is fraught with mischief. All I know is that all through public school I pledged allegiance every day, and yet there is no god.

21 April 2014

Campaign contributions and political accountability

"OF course money is corrupting," Charles Krauthammer writes in his latest column, "Money distorts. There is no denying the unfairness of big contributors buying access unavailable to the everyday citizen." On the other hand, Krauthammer remains convinced that "of course money is speech." Without proof, he claims that "the most disdainful dismissers of this argument are editorialists and incumbent politicians who -- surprise! -- already enjoy access to vast audiences." Had Krauthammer consulted more working-class Americans, or did he not recognize Republicans only as working Americans, he might find more widespread rejection of the Buckley v. Valeo principle. However, let's concentrate on his concession about the corrupting effect of money, which positions Krauthammer somewhat to the left of Buckley-era jurisprudence, according to which only explicit quid-pro-quo arrangements fall to the level of corruption. The columnist writes this week that he thought he had a formula that reconciled the money-is-speech principle with appropriate concerns about corruption: full disclosure of donors and donations. "Let transparency be the safeguard against corruption," he writes, "As long as you know who is giving what to whom, you can look for, find and, if necessary, prosecute corrupt connections between donor and receiver."

In theory, then, Krauthammer has no problem with the idea that politicians can be held accountable, either at the polls or elsewhere if necessary, for the donations they receive. If you learn that your representative, or his challenger, is getting money from the Koch brothers -- or, from the opposite perspective, from George Soros -- you act accordingly.  Full disclosure has been a progressive principle for at least the last century, but now Krauthammer can no longer endorse it. It turns out to be one thing to hold politicians accountable for the people who give them money, and another, far worse in Krauthammer's view, to hold the donors accountable for the causes they fund. He's predictably outraged over the recent debacle at Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox search engine, whose CEO designate had to step down when it was learned that he had donated money in support of Proposition 8, the California anti-gay marriage referendum. Picking up on his "liberal totalitarianism" thread from last week, Krauthammer accuses gay-rights activists of drawing up a blacklist of Prop 8 supporters, others of whom have been "hounded" from their posts of honor or responsibility. For Krauthammer this is wrong because there is no possibility of corruption in financial support for a referendum, since you're not electing anybody. Prop 8 supporters are being blacklisted solely for their opinions, in his view. But people who donate to candidates are also being targeted unfairly, at least according to Krauthammer's interpretation of the scandal over IRS auditing of tax-exemption claims.

"Blacklist" is a dynamite word, of course. While Krauthammer doesn't go all the way and accuse gay-rights activists of McCarthyite tactics, he does attempt to remind readers that it was once people on the left who needed safeguards against reprisals. It was once urgently reasonable, he notes, to allow the NAACP to keep its membership lists secret. In such a case, and at the present time, individual immunity from unjust reprisal trumps any public right to know. In his words, " If revealing your views opens you to the politics of personal destruction, then transparency, however valuable, must give way to the ultimate core political good, free expression."

Again, Krauthammer writes like a true liberal -- who else believes that free expression is the "ultimate core political good?" And it's hard to say he's wrong on principle without surrendering your right to criticize the anti-communist blacklists of the McCarthy era. If it was wrong to deny people jobs because of their beliefs in the 1950s, it must be so in the 2010s.  At the same time, leaving behind the Mozilla controversy to survey the wider world of political contributions, does it follow that accountability is a one-way street, that politicians can be held accountable for taking money but no one should be held accountable for giving it? It depends on the degree of accountability, I suppose. The simplest form of accountability for a candidate in an election is to deny him your vote if you don't like where he gets his money from. You deny him your vote because you assume that, if elected, he'll do the bidding of his hateful donors. From the classical liberal perspective, the donor is simply expressing his opinion -- and Buckley v. Valeo requires courts, at least, to see campaign donations that way.  In American politics the presumption is that the donor promotes those who already share his opinions, and doesn't use his money to change the minds of candidates, though commercials obviously are meant to change the minds of voters. Yet we have the recent spectacle of Republicans currying favor with Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas. Ideally, I suppose, each potential candidate merely intends to prove to Adelson objectively that he already best reflects Adelson's views and is most deserving of Adelson's money. But isn't it just a little naive to assume that no potential candidate would consider changing his views if it improved his chances of getting money from Adelson -- or from whoever his counterpart may be as a Democratic sugar daddy? To deny absolutely any principle of accountability for donors is to assume that such a scenario can't happen -- that a preponderant display of wealth can't change the course of political debate. But what if it does? It's still just Adelson's opinion, right? If we hold him accountable for his opinions we're no better than McCarthy, right? That's where liberals seem to be stuck, so long as their arguments against the equation of money, speech and opinion remain unpersuasive to the courts. Liberals, and to an extent their conservative cousins, like to talk about rights, but the question of campaign contributions may prove ultimately a question of right and wrong for which liberals have no answer. That will depend on what each of us, and all of us together, decide the "ultimate core political good" to be.

18 April 2014

Snowden's side of the Putin story

All the criticism of his appearance yesterday on President Putin's call-in show got under Edward Snowden's skin. He felt it necessary to write an op-ed for the Guardian, a friendly venue, clarifying what he thought he was doing when he put his question about Russian surveillance techniques to Putin. He strikes a necessary cynical note, assuring his readers and fans that he never thought Putin would answer his question truthfully. In Snowden's knowing opinion, the sort of question he asked "cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program." While it might have been more interesting had he said that to Putin, his intent, he now suggests, was to catch Putin in what might be proved a lie down the line -- though it will be up to Russian investigators and whistle-blowers to prove the truth. Citing the opinion of one Russian journalist, Snowden believes that he's started a conversation in Russia about that country's surveillance programs that could prove uncomfortable for its president. Snowden is explicitly critical here toward what he describes as Putin's "evasive" response to the big question. Given all this, he is shocked, and possibly even surprised, to see himself characterized as everything from a naive dupe to a conscious mouthpiece for the Putin government.

I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticise the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive. I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin's evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.

Snowden's PR problem of the moment actually has less to do with speculation about his motives than with speculation about Putin's motives for allowing Snowden to ask his question. The simple assumption is that Putin doesn't arrange for Snowden to appear -- that his appearance was pre-arranged and no surprise to the president is taken for granted -- unless Putin benefits from the moment. Regardless of the repercussions Snowden may hope for in the long term -- he wants to see Russians ask Putin tougher questions about surveillance at next year's call-in -- Putin benefits now by saying Russia's surveillance program is smaller, better regulated and less intrusive than its U.S. counterpart, even if Putin himself admitted that Russia simply lacks the technology and finances to run a program on the American scale. Putin's enemies around the world, from rival powers to those common people for whom he's become the new international bogeyman, can't let any propaganda point for Putin go uncontested. Such people would rather that Snowden had gone outside his realm of expertise to ask Putin the questions they want asked about murdered journalists, alleged sham trials of political opponents, etc. Some would not have been satisfied unless Snowden used his airtime to call Putin a dictator, or maybe a poopyhead for extra measure. But since yesterday's show is assumed to be a propaganda victory for Putin, even if no one seems to believe what he said, Snowden is presumed guilty of aiding and comforting tyranny -- and of epic hypocrisy given his concern for civil liberties.

As a celebrity and political figure, Snowden is a slow learner in the art of spin. His spin control comes a day late and any number of dollars, rubles or pounds short, depending on your perspective. In his own mind -- and I have no reason to question his sincerity about this -- he's playing a long game with Putin, with a payoff expected over time. In his game, it doesn't matter whether Putin appeared to score a propaganda victory yesterday, but to many others it does. Snowden's game seems to require Putin to score first, or at least to make the first move. " [I]f we are to test the truth of officials' claims," he writes, "we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims." In other words, while many westerners assume Putin to be a liar, Snowden wants to prove it, if he can. It may be too cool an approach when Putin makes so many people's blood boil, and it may still prove naive if no Russian whistleblower takes up Snowden's implicit challenge. But Snowden has already proven that he plays his own games by his own rules. To assume, as so many do, that he's simply playing Putin's game, or is being played by Putin, is probably premature.

17 April 2014

The Putin-Snowden Show

Even those Americans most sympathetic toward Edward Snowden may regret his participation in President Putin's call-in show today. If so, it's all about Putin rather than Snowden. For those who haven't heard: Putin held a live call-in program today and Snowden was one of the callers. The American exile asked if Putin had a surveillance program similar to the one Snowden exposed in the U.S. Probably before Putin opened his mouth, most western observers will probably have rolled their eyes. Could Snowden be so naive as to think Putin would give him an honest answer? Assuming not, many immediately leap to the conclusion that Snowden's participation was pre-arranged and that the American was the willing tool of Russian propaganda. All these assumptions depend on the premise that anything Putin might have said short of "Of course we have such a spy program, only bigger and more intrusive!" would be a lie. (As for what he did say, this article includes some attempted corrections) Because he is an "authoritarian" if not a dictator, and perhaps also because he's Russian, and definitely because he was KGB back in the day, Putin is presumed to lie whenever it suits him. The west thinks it knows Putin, or knows his type: essentially a gangster, ultimately interested only in his own power, ruthless and lawless at heart. This isn't necessarily wrong, but it's also possible that many in the west, whether they call themselves liberals or conservatives, simply can no longer fathom the attitude someone like Putin may have toward his nation and its state. so that a difference in political philosophy becomes a moral failing. Many of us can't help seeing Putin as evil, especially since some people, Russians or not, have a vested interest in portraying him that way. Thus every time an opposition politician gets arrested, whatever the alleged offense, it's a fraud instigated by Putin. Every time a Russian journalist is killed or attacked, Putin is ultimately to blame. At the worst extreme, every time a terrorist attack takes place in Russia, some Russian (or Russophobic) "truther" will call it a false-flag incident designed to justify a new war or another Putin power grab. Again, my point is not to presume Putin innocent, since power has resented dissent throughout history, but to warn against a knee-jerk presumption of his constant guilt based on a culturally-biased perception of what he is and what he stands for. As for Snowden, I suspect that he actually doesn't give a damn about Putin. The show gave him a chance to repeat his basic charges against the U.S., and that may have been all that mattered to him. To go further, Snowden may be so convinced of the paramount threat posed by American surveillance and American power to both peace on earth and individual liberty in his home country that he may not care where a countervailing force comes from, or what it stands for, as long as it checks or balances the U.S, or at least protects him from his former employers. Apart from sticking it to the U.S. and the Obama administration, Snowden and Putin probably have no common interests, but as human beings we can't help linking things together to make Snowden a tool of or collaborator with Putin in some evil scheme. Before drawing such conclusions, ask yourselves why Snowden is in Russia today. Is that his fault, or ours?

16 April 2014

Krauthammer vs. the "totalitarian" American left

Charles Krauthammer feels threatened. His home paper, the Washington Post, recently received a petition organized by an organization called Forecast the Facts and signed by 110,000 people, demanding that the paper not run any of Krauthammer's columns that could be construed to deny global warming. While the Los Angeles Times has implemented such a policy, at least as far as letters to the editor are concerned, the Post did not comply. As a result, the petition ends up grist for Krauthammer's mill, proof in his eyes that the left is " no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition." This is a multifront operation, the left seeking to eliminate all opposition to the acceptance of gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act's mandated contraception coverage, etc. But as Krauthammer goes on, his argument becomes less precise. Name calling, it turns out, is part of this massive "totalitarian" campaign to silence the opposition. To be called a bigot or a sexist for opposing certain measures becomes morally equivalent to petitioning the Post's editors to suppress a columnist. Merely to characterize one's opposition in terms less generous than the opponent himself would use is to try to silence the opponent. In short, Krauthammer is going PC on the left. It's long been a staple of "political correctness" that bigoted or sexist language in discourse has an intimidating effect and is used consciously to silence minorities. In effect, Krauthammer argues now that invective aimed at Republicans is an implicit threat to silence them.

Krauthammer's beef with the climate activists stems from his reluctance to acknowledge that anthropocentric global warming is a "settled" fact to such an extent that debate is no longer necessary on the subject. A sense of urgency on the subject is understandable on both sides, I suppose, one side feeling a threat to human life on earth, the other a threat to individual liberty, free enterprise, etc. Unanimity on the question of warming may be impossible, but Forecast the Facts argues for an overwhelming consensus, with 97% of climate scientists accepting the anthropocentric premise. I suppose they could be all wrong, and that the climate crisis is no more than mass hysteria, but it's also possible that the 3% are cynical corporate hirelings or ideologically blinkered. Since much of the controversy focuses on models predicting future warming and its consequences for global climate, it's impossible to say that any model is absolutely right until more time passes. Nevertheless, the consensus should seem compelling for policy makers -- but should it have any coercive effect on dissidents? Unless it can be proven that climate dissidents are lying about anything, it's hard to argue that they should be silenced by their employers, much less by any other authority, even if dissent on the op-ed pages is vastly disproportionate to dissent in the science departments due to corporate control of the media, the power of lobbyists, etc. In any event, a recognized ideologue like Krauthammer isn't really changing minds one way or the other on this issue. Readers know him as a conservative and won't pay attention if they're liberals. The irony of it is that in his refusal to acknowledge that this debate can end, his insistence that it continue indefinitely as long as some fail (or refuse) to be convinced -- Krauthammer is arguing exactly like a liberal.

15 April 2014

Democracy in Nevada?

Republicans are making a cause celebre out of a Nevada rancher's dispute with the federal government. The rancher refuses to pay the government a grazing fee imposed back in the 1980s for the protection of tortoises on the grazing land, claiming that the state rather than the feds have rightful jurisdiction there. Supporters gathered recently in an attempt to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from seizing the rancher's cattle. For right-wingers this was another dangerous encroachment on our rights by an overreaching, intrusive federal government -- and some suggest that the family of Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, has some financial interest in keeping cattle off that land.

In a USA Today op-ed, Eli Federman, identified as "an executive at an e-commerce company, sees the episode as democracy in action.

The lesson here has nothing to do with endangered tortoises, or contract rights predating the formation of the BLM, grazing fees, states right or even whether the government is acting heavy-handedly by using armed men to seize cattle. Rather the lesson is about caring citizens standing up for a cause, while openly criticizing and scrutinizing the government. That is the activity democracies are made of. Whether the cause of Cliven Bundy is legitimate is beside the point. We have citizens peaceably forming a protest against what they believe is government overreaching. That alone has drawn scrutiny over the governments actions. Such scrutiny and oversight are instrumental in a democracy.

Whatever Federman's politics may be, his remarks read like classic liberalism. The line that jumped out at me was, "Whether the cause ... is legitimate is beside the point." The real point, it seems to me, is that liberalism, if not democracy itself, is a double-edged sword. I've written many times that citizen vigilance (i.e. "scrutiny and oversight") is essential to democracy. While I don't believe that any state really can guarantee dissidents the sort of immunity that liberalism demands, and that Americans assume exists here, I do expect citizens in a democracy to take whatever risks may be necessary to expose errors or outright wrongdoing by their leaders. Does it follow from all that that "whether the cause is legitimate is beside the point?" It would follow from that that all protests are qualitatively equal, that all suspicions are equal, that the paranoid and the liar, at least at first, have just as much right to protest (or obstruct?) as the genuine truth-seekers and the actually injured. Must liberalism blind itself to such distinctions, assuming them to be prejudiced? Can there never be a case when a claim of "government overreaching" can be dismissed preemptively as self-evidently false? Or must every single accusation be indulged, lest people assume a habit of unthinking deference to leaders? The answer has to be found somewhere between the extremes. People's prerogative to protest outside institutional channels may be vital to democracy, but just as vital, if not as glamorous, is a principle of submission. That principle is the difference between democracy and anarchy. Someday, liberals may have to decide which they prefer.

14 April 2014

An angry white male

The way some people talk, people like the moron who shot people at two different Jewish establishments in Overland Park KS yesterday don't exist anymore. The shooter, who killed three people, is believed to be a former Grand Dragon of a Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Klan and an active white supremacist, as well as a failed political candidate, whether in major-party primaries or as an independent, on multiple occasions. The man believed to be the killer made news as a candidate a few years ago when he claimed that radio stations were obliged, by virtue of his candidacy, to air his inflammatory ads; the FCC ruled that he failed to meet the institutional criteria for a "bona fide" candidate. He went on a Jew-hunt, presumably, but two of his victims were Christians, a grandfather taking his grandson to some show audition being held at the JCC. The suspect reportedly yelled "Heil Hitler" at reporters as he was put in a police car.

Some people want us to believe that white supremacism or violent Christian chauvinism aren't real problems in this country. That claim usually comes from people who resent being labeled white supremacists or just plain bigots simply because they oppose or even hate President Obama, or because they resent all immigration by Hispanics, legal or illegal, or because they fear all Muslims, etc. Such people take solace from the discovery that the suspected killer had run in primaries for both major parties in recent years. That fact gives some fresh occasion to remind us that Democrats were the racist party for a larger portion of American history, as if events of the last fifty years remain less relevant to the present than everything that came earlier. Some sophists ask what they think is the right question -- "what's conservative about the KKK, anyway?" -- but that only shows the extent to which "conservative" has lost its literal meaning in the U.S., especially for self-proclaimed conservatives. For everyone else, the "conservative" aspect of white supremacism is self-evident. For that reason people who proclaim themselves conservatives, even if they really aren't bigots of any sort, will always have to deal with critics who hold them responsible or accountable for the excesses of racial or religious bigots. It may not be fair, especially in the case of a fringe figure like this Kansas killer, but conservatives have chosen the label for themselves. Instead of simply declaring themselves Capitalists and identifying themselves with the decidedly unconservative concept of "creative destruction," they identify themselves with many of the same "traditional values" that less ideological or intellectual types espouse, and look for their country's golden age in a past whose social and cultural values are unacceptable by most 21st-century standards. As a result, Republicans can't keep enough distance for comfort from extremists like the Kansas killer, no matter how they try -- and some people still wonder how much they really try.

10 April 2014

James Madison vs. Plutocracy?

A local paper has reprinted a recent editorial from the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts denouncing the Supreme Court's decision in the McCutcheon case to strike down more controls on campaign donations. The Eagle argues that the Roberts majority, by further empowering the wealthy, defeats its stated purpose of protecting the right to "participate in electing our political leaders" if the consequence of McCutcheon is the drowning out of ordinary Americans by those who can afford the loudest megaphones and buy up all the airtime. You can read the same sentiments all over the place, but the editorial writer in this case must have felt that it would really show up Chief Justice Roberts to cite the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison.  The Eagle quotes Madison as having written: "Government should prevent an immodest accumulation of riches." The editorial writer interprets this as a warning to prevent the corruption of government itself through the influence of immoderate wealth, noting sadly, "His fears were realized long ago."

As longtime readers may have guessed, it's time again to ask whether a famous person actually wrote or said something credited to him in an opinion piece. I usually catch Republicans citing counterfeit quotations, although they usually do so unwittingly, but Democrats can fall into the trap as well. In this case, however, the Eagle editorialist is guilty of no more than a condensation of Madison's opinion. In 1792 Madison wrote a newspaper essay noting the emergence, against his hopes, of political parties in the new American republic. As he was largely responsible for this development, having become an opponent of the Washington administration, or at least of its financial policies under his fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, Madison had some explaining to do. His own view was that Hamilton was turning the administration into a party or faction in its own right, using his economic policies to win the support of bankers and wealthy merchants. How could the republic combat this evil? Madison had several suggestions; here's one of them:

By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 

You'll notice that the Eagle left some words out, along with some superfluous-looking commas. My attempt to translate Madison into 21st century American goes like this: government shouldn't do anything to make the rich richer at everyone else's expense unless there's no other way to get something done. Madison and his friend Jefferson felt that Washington and Hamilton were robbing Peter to pay Paul on the pretext of building an American economy, benefiting merchants, bankers and early industrialists at the expense of landowners and the white working class. Notice, however, that Madison isn't talking about the rich influencing government, but about government using the people's money to create a rich client class -- but it's implicit that those enriched by unfair government policies would then use their wealth to help their political patrons.

Madison makes it more clear later in the essay that he considers excessive wealth a problem in its own right. He proposes combating the evil of partisanship "By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort." I'm not entirely sure what Madison meant by "silent operation of laws," but I presume he wants an alternative to blatant acts of confiscation familiar from ancient history and possibly happening already in revolutionary France. Most modern readers take this as Madison's advocacy of progressive taxation, which would probably come closest to passing the "silent operation" test. In any event, if the means seem ambiguous, the end is clear: not just to "reduce extreme wealth" but also, to the horror of many who think themselves Madison's heirs, to "raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort." Madison concedes that this may not look perfectly reasonable, but " if this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism."  Some may still say that limits on campaign donations don't follow from Madison's suspicion of immoderate wealth, but Madison himself may have their answer. Later still in the essay he describes an alternative approach to his that would encourage inequality on the assumption that a wider range of social distinctions would increase the checks and balances in politics. In his summary, "This is as little the voice of reason, as it is that of republicanism." That sentence becomes false only by putting a capital R in the final word.

Militant ignorance about Ukraine

The Washington Post reports an interesting finding from a new survey of American opinion on the Ukraine crisis. While asking respondents whether they believed the U.S. should intervene in Ukraine, pollsters also asked them to locate Ukraine on a map of the world. A whopping 16% of respondents located the country correctly. The pollsters claim that belligerence is linked to ignorance: the less accurately you locate Ukraine, the more you want the U.S. to intervene on its behalf. It seems that even if you're interventionist by inclination, you're more likely to want to intervene in Ukraine if you don't know where it really is. In the pollsters' words:

Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent  confidence level.

The survey seems incomplete, however. If the pollsters want to show that interventionist attitudes are exacerbated by geographic ignorance, they should have followed up by showing respondents the correct location of Ukraine and asking again whether they supported intervention. If literal ignorance is a contributing factor to interventionist attitudes, some respondents should have an "oh" moment when shown that Ukraine is next door to Russia, if only for pragmatic reasons.  While geographic ignorance may be consistent intellectually with an interventionist mentality, I doubt whether that ignorance determines that attitude. It seems more likely that interventionists don't care where Ukraine is. For some people, the Ukraine matter is purely a moral issue. On the comment thread, one writer explains that his wife is "well informed" about Ukraine but doesn't really know how to read maps. In response, other writers questioned whether such a person could be "well informed," but geography becomes irrelevant if you see Ukraine exclusively in moralized terms, e.g. Maidan good, Moscow bad. Geography is only a partial remedy to this moralizing tendency, since Russophobes refuse to concede Russia any sphere of influence in former Tsarist or Soviet territory. Moralizing Russophobia or American interventionism may be best challenged morally, by exposing the biases, bigotries and selective standards at their heart. We shouldn't need maps to do that.

09 April 2014

Amoklauf in Pennsylvania, with knives

In Murrysville a high school kid went on a slashing spree this morning and wounded at least nineteen people before he was arrested. Right now we don't know his name or much about him apart from the usual hearsay. Both sides of the gun-control debate are already spinning the story, one noting that in the absence of firearms no one has died, the other observing that sick or violent people will always find ways to hurt others and that gun control is no panacea or guarantee of peace. I'm not sure if any gun-control advocate has ever suggested that it would be, but it may sound that way to their critics. Gun control has never been the one thing necessary for peace; questions of mental and emotional health need to be addressed as well. Another part of the equation is an entitlement mentality that prevails in the U.S. more than in other countries. I don't mean the materialist entitlement mentality so often decried by Republicans, i.e. the right to have things necessary for life, but the sense of an entitlement to kill that seems synonymous with our quasi-constitutional right to individual self-defense. While other countries decide the fight-or-flight question in favor of flight, obliging citizens to avoid violence if they can, Americans demand to stand their ground and fight back. Something follows from this preference, I suspect, that can't be contained by moralizing distinctions between defense and attack. The U.S. affirms an individual prerogative -- an entitlement, if you prefer -- to declare another person's life forfeit under certain circumstances. While it's unclear whether the kid in Murrysville actually meant to kill people -- it's possible he only meant to make people suffer -- we have to ask, if murder was his intention, where he got the idea that fellow high school students deserved death. It may be that deserve's got nothing to do with it in many cases -- that people kill for the thrill of killing with complete indifference to the victims -- but it's more certain that our culture doesn't do enough to teach people that no one deserves to be killed, or at least that no individual has a right to kill, under any circumstances. Today's amoklauf wasn't about guns, but it was obviously about someone's assumed entitlement to violence, and no matter how much the gun lobby insists that their rights are exclusively defensive, their relentless assertion of an individual right to violence continues to have unintended consequences.

08 April 2014

Can any American be Un-American?

Kathleen Parker believes that Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, "broke down all barriers to protocol" when he called the Koch brothers "un-American" in recent speeches. If that's so, it would only be because there was only ever a House of Representatives committee on "Un-American Activities" back in the bad old days. As Joe McCarthy was a Senator, and never a member of HUAC, Parker may be on safer ground when she chides Reid for "McCarthyesque name-calling." Meanwhile, Charles Koch himself indulged in another kind of McCarthyism when he characterized his critics as "collectivists" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. From Parker's relatively-moderate Republican perspective, it's just as wrong for Reid to call the Kochs un-American as it is for some of the Kochs' sympathizers to call President Obama un-American. It might even be slightly worse, not because she believes Obama is more un-American than the Kochs, but because in Reid's case "a powerful government official fired a shot across the bow of two private citizens who have acted within the law while contributing wealth to the economy through employment" But her main point seems to be that Americans shouldn't call each other un-American, and that Reid should apologize for doing so.

 That's the conventional moral of the McCarthy story, after all. Regardless of one's opinion of Communism, no American should have been stigmatized as "un-American" for advocating Communism" because there's nothing inherently "un-American" about Communism or any other ideology advocated by Americans. To believe in "un-American activities" is to be an inquisitor sniffing out heresy,or a commissar sniffing out "anti-party" activities, while liberal Americans recognize no heresy in politics -- except, I suppose, for bigotry, which in their minds is most likely too contemptible to rise to the level of heresy. I'm sure that Reid's comments about the Kochs did rub some establishment liberals of otherwise impeccable Democratic loyalties the wrong way for these reasons. To use the term "un-American" is to appear intolerant, and no liberal wants to look that way. But do liberal scruples decide the matter for all of us? Is it always wrong to call a fellow American un-American? The answer depends on how broadly we define the context for the word. If you accuse someone of aiding a hostile foreign power -- as McCarthyites accused Communists -- then the right term might be "anti-American" or "traitor." But Reid doesn't mean that the Kochs are traitors in that sense. He more likely means one of two things: either that the Kochs' plutocratic ideas are somehow alien to American political culture -- in which case Reid, as a Democrat just as hungry for campaign donations from billionaires as any Republican, is a hypocrite -- or that the policies the Kochs advocate are detrimental to the American economy and the American people. You have to be careful how you phrase that, too, since "enemy of the people" rubs some the wrong way, too. Were Reid to call the Kochs that, people would be calling him worse things than McCarthyite.  Again, however, liberals need not have the last word. Liberals may believe that there is no such thing as an "enemy of the people," but the people need not agree. Nor need people agree with Kathleen Parker that no private citizen acting within the law should be called un-American or an enemy of the people. Nor should Parker worry that such rhetoric means that the gulag or the guillotine is next. Certainly Harry Reid intends no such measures, nor does he seek to silence the Kochs in any comprehensive way. Sometimes "un-American" is just a heavyhanded way, maybe forceful out of necessity, of saying "you're wrong."

07 April 2014

In Eastern Ukraine: 'people power' or 'astroturf?'

Tensions in Ukraine ratcheted to a new level this weekend after pro-Russian demonstrators in several cities stormed and occupied government buildings in the eastern, predominantly Russophone part of the troubled nation. The demonstrators demand referenda giving them the option of declaring independence from Ukraine and seeking annexation by Russia. So they're evil, of course. It's grimly amusing to read western commentary on these incidents, almost unanimously denying them any legitimacy. Of course all those people are puppets of Vladimir Putin -- probably his paid agents, too! But how different are these incidents qualitatively from the Maidan uprising in Kiev that precipitated the current crisis? "Qualitatively" is the right term, since I'll concede without verifying it that there were more people in the streets at the height of the Maidan than there were in all the eastern cities this weekend. West or east, however, how representative are crowds? Do we have any objective basis for deeming the Maidan more legitimate, for demanding the ouster of President Yanukovich, than the eastern mobs are for demanding union with Russia? Why do western liberals cry slander when anyone east of Kiev suggests that anyone in the Maidan was a paid agent of a foreign power, yet let stand or even endorse the charge that the eastern demonstrators are Russian agents? Why not give 'people power' the benefit of the doubt in both places? The answer, of course, is Russophobia. If the mobs in the east support Russia in general and Putin in particular, then they can't be for "freedom," and thus can't be people power in action, since people power, apparently, only comes into being for the advancement of liberal democracy. The Maidan was people power because it was against Russia and thus inferentially for liberal democracy, despite whatever percentage of fascists or "extreme rightists" in the new Ukraine regime -- less than Russia claims, most likely, but also more than the west claims, quite possibly. To remind readers again, nothing here is intended to whitewash Russia or Putin -- it's no place I'd want to live and probably not the kind of leadership I'd care for. It's probably tough to be a dissident there, but it's also possible for it to be too easy sometimes. Yet it isn't idealizing Putin to point out yet again a hysterical exaggeration in western perceptions of Russia that has persisted through numerous changes in the country's form of government for at least 200 years. Russian expansionism or chauvinism is an objective threat to some degree to the country's immediate neighbors, but it's more difficult now than it was fifty years ago to claim that Russian power threatens the freedom of the whole planet. In an ideal world -- at least according to one ideal --  Russia's neighbors should pursue their destinies without interference or even influence, if it isn't wanted, from Russia, but in that same world there'd be some spokesman for that ideal less compromised, less likely to be judged hypocritical, than the U.S. government. But there's more than one ideal in the collective political imagination, and more than one notion of national and human destiny. Liberalism is not the only option, and when liberals claim that any other option is a lie, the rest of us will have to judge the truth for ourselves.

04 April 2014

The rule of law in Turkey

Prime Minister Erdogan grumbles that he may have to obey the ruling of Turkey's Constitutional Court overturning the ban on Twitter, but he doesn't have to respect it. Since Turkey seems to be a free country, I guess he's right on both counts. The country's telecommunications directorate cut off access to the social media platform, albeit ineffectively, in response to Erdogan's complaint that links had been posted to illegal wiretaps appearing to implicate him in corruption. Justifying his own stance, Erdogan -- as translated by an English-language Turkish news site -- complained that whether or not people used a commercial product like Twitter was not a question of freedom. He complained that the court's ruling was "unpatriotic" since it had favored an American entity over his government. While his complaints have raised new alarms among Turkey's liberals, the salient fact remains that he has respected the judicial check on his powers in the only way that counts. His party's victories in local elections did not embolden him to defy the court. Inevitably Erdogan will continue to be portrayed as an authoritarian personality by his rivals, but where don't you hear such rhetoric? It's a mostly regrettable feature of democratic representative government that opponents will accuse each other of trying to end democratic representative government. Whether the warnings about Erdogan from his enemies are to be taken more seriously than the warnings our country's Democrats and Republicans issue against each other is for Turks, who are obviously better qualified observers, to judge for themselves.

Double standards and ulterior motives

As everyone knows, Republicans compulsively accuse Democrats, as well as liberals and progressives in general, of using double standards in political discourse. In crudest form, the argument is that Democrats denounce Republicans for doing the same things Democrats themselves do when they have power. The crude assumption is that double standards are simply a matter of partisan dishonesty, but Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg suspects that double standards go a little deeper than that, while remaining double standards. Like many fellow partisans, he's rallying to the defense of the Koch Brothers, whom Democrats are using this year as straw men to scare their base into voting and, perhaps more importantly, contributing. As usual, Goldberg scents a double standard in the demonization of the Kochs, though what he finds may be better described as a blind spot. He objects above all to the assumption that the Kochs advocate policies and support candidates primarily to enrich themselves. The objection is twofold. First, he questions whether people as rich as the Kochs really need to go to the lengths they've gone as donors and organizers just to get richer. This is a naive objection we can dismiss instantly. Goldberg's more challenging objection looks like a typical double-standards argument. He asks why people like the Kochs, if not Republicans in general, are presumed to have "ulterior motives" -- to be motivated primarily by greed rather than disinterested benevolence or even ideological zeal -- while Democrats rarely are.

Goldberg's argument is that the presumption of ulterior motives is wrong. Thus when he mentions how much money Al Gore has made off his climate advocacy, or raises the theoretical possibility that the disgraced California state senator Leland Yee promoted strict gun-control measures to steer business to his alleged gun-running operation, Goldberg is quick to reject ulterior-motive explanations in both cases. Gore's sincerity is unquestioned so his profits are unchallenged, while Yee seems too stupid to have been more than a "greedy hypocrite." While these are his own conclusions, Goldberg finds it "vexing" that the media draws the same conclusions. Democrats get "the benefit of the doubt," i.e. they're never presumed to take stands or make policy primarily for personal profit, while Republicans are nearly always assumed to do so -- except, presumably, when their religious fanaticism or bigotry override their profit motives. 

Goldberg is onto something, since suspicion of ulterior motive explains much of what looks like double standards. In foreign policy above all, Democrats justify hawkishness little different from Republican policy with the implication that Republican wage war to profit themselves and their corporate cronies while Democrats are concerned only with national security, the rights of small nations, the responsibility to protect, etc. etc. Republicans really have only themselves to blame for this entrapment, for when you declare yourselves the uncompromising champions of capitalism and free enterprise, it can't help sounding like you've just said "greed is good." Goldberg will excuse us if we don't buy his assumption that the super-rich at a certain point stop wanting to get richer. It may well be that the Kochs and their friends objectively believe their policies best for the country as a whole, but I doubt that such conviction comes without a belief that they'll benefit personally and more than most people. For more than a century now, Republicanism has defined itself against a "progressive" oppressor itself defined by a desire to limit how rich people can get. Regardless of what policies a Republican advocates, it's reasonable to assume that he wants to get and keep more money. That doesn't mean Democrats are unworldly or unambitious, but they do seem more deferential toward limits imposed by democratically-elected governments than Republicans are.

To be fair, let's meet Goldberg halfway by giving neither party and no politician the benefit of the doubt. If anyone actually does give Democrats the benefit of the doubt, that's probably a mistake. It would be foolish to assume, once Republicans are labeled the party of greed, that Democrats can't be greedy. As long as there's political power there's potential for abuse, and no ideology immunizes anyone from the temptation to abuse that power. Vigilance is essential to the well-being of a democratic republic, while it'd be dangerous to ignore or dismiss warnings of corruption for partisan reasons. If each party accuses the other of corruption, it's more likely that both are right than that only one is. It's nice of Goldberg, I suppose, to give the benefit of the doubt to Democrats, but a little less trust of (or blind faith in) one's own side is a good idea across the board.

02 April 2014

McCutcheon v FEC: money wins again

By the usual 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court has overturned yet another limit on campaign contributions. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission the Republican majority strikes down the aggregate limit on individual campaign donations while retaining limits on the amount individuals can donate to individual candidates. Mr. McCutcheon felt his rights had been violated when he could not donate to as many candidates as he wanted without breaching the limit on total donations. Chief Justice Roberts agrees, ruling in the majority opinion that the aggregate limit can't be justified as a measure to prevent corruption. Plutocratic precedent since Buckley v. Valeo insists that corruption can only take the form of a quid-pro-quo arrangement of the sort that would be hard to distinguish from all the promises made during an election campaign. The "conservative" justices have argued consistently that the "influence" that comes from donations, or the ability to donate, isn't equivalent to corruption. In today's opinion, Roberts writes: "We have said that government regulation may not touch the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or their allies, or the political access such support may afford." Only Justice Thomas is truly consistent, however, opposing even the limit on contributions to individual candidates, while the other conservatives, or Roberts at least, believe that it still serves an anti-corruption purpose. I'm not sure how that follows given how strictly the majority defines corruption, but I suppose we should be grateful.

Roberts seems to view distrust of money in politics as a form of bias, or as inherently partisan. "Money in politics may appear repugnant to some," he writes, "but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests [e.g. the late Rev. Phelps] and Nazi parades -- despite the profound offense such spectacles cause -- it surely protects political campaign speech [i.e. donations] despite popular opposition."

For all intents and purposes, the Roberts majority does not recognize plutocracy as a threat to democracy or even as a viable concept. For them, "plutocracy" is just a scare word coined by those who hate rich people. If so, it's a strange attitude to take at a time when Republicans are racing to Las Vegas to curry favor with the billionaire Sheldon Adelson -- nothing corrupt about that! I suspect that the Framers these "originalists" on the Court claim to revere would see things very differently -- but  then again, they didn't have to worry about the cost of TV commercials.

01 April 2014

Democracy or 'people power?'

Anne Applebaum shares the general American assumption that Vladimir Putin regards democracy as a kind of contagion that would prove fatal to him. "It is precisely because he understands the euphoric power of crowds," she writes in The New Republic, "and especially because he understands how they can embolden people cowed by an unjust state that Vladimir Putin ... is so determined to prevent Ukraine's revolution from spreading." To my knowledge, Putin has demonstrated no such understanding, and Applebaum offers no proof that he does. She's an expert on Soviet history, having written a best-selling account of the Gulag, but her portrait of Putin looks more like assumption (this is how a tyrant must think) than analysis. But that's because she's saved her critical analysis for the Ukrainian revolution itself. The next sentence after her sketch of Putin reads: "Yet a successful street revolution, like any revolution, is never guaranteed to leave anything positive in its aftermath -- or anything at all." Her article is a warning against idealizing "people power" revolutions like the Maidan uprising. She believes that "we often mistakenly confuse 'people power' with democracy itself." Her belief is that "democracy" is synonymous with "democratic institutions -- courts, legal systems, bills of rights," as well as regular elections. In other words, democracy means representative government and the rule of law -- but is that quite right, either?

A "democratic" government is necessarily a kind of institution, but "democracy" itself is a principle, not a thing. It's the insistence that "the people" rule. Labeling any institution "democratic" requires a theory of democracy, whether the constitutionalism of the American Founders or the more radical "general will" idea, that equates the delegation of power to representative institutions with the direct rule of the people. The people rule, for instance, if the people's representatives rule. Inevitably this is to some extent an appeal to faith. Democratic legitimacy depends on the people's faith that their representatives really represent them. So long as elections establish accountability, democracy is obliged to defer to its elected representatives during their term in office. "People power" signals a loss of that faith, but there is no true democratic restoration, in Applebaum's view, until the people again submit to elections and a rule of law. "The post-revolutionary moment is often more important than the revolution itself," she writes, "for this is when the emotion of the mob has to be channeled rapidly -- immediately -- into legitimate institutions." Ukraine must "discard the revolutionary romance, choose rigor over spontaneity and analysis over emotions. The crowd had its moment, and that moment has now passed."

Applebaum makes a reasonable argument for good or at least stable government, but despite the metaphysics of political philosophy these can never be absolutely synonymous with democracy. The principle of democracy is prior to any democratic institution, and a true believer in democracy must reserve to the people, even if law does not, the prerogative to rise and reject any representative system. The obligation to defer to elected institutions can never be absolute, and Applebaum herself recognizes this if she credits the Maidan with any legitimacy. Otherwise she'd have to counsel deference to Yanukovich's electoral legitimacy, and she hasn't. Instead, she concedes the legitimacy of revolutionary action, although she warns that its legitimacy is open to question where alleged authoritarians remain widely popular, as in Thailand and Venezuela -- and Russia? The tension between democracy and representation can't be resolved as neatly in every case as some liberals may hope. Revolutions and elections both come with risk -- both can result in tyranny. "People power" probably can't be a perpetual presence in public life, but it should always be a potential force, latent in a citizen vigilance that can demand accountability at election time but need not stop there. It may be wrong to equate "people power" with "democracy itself," but it's just as wrong to equate "democratic institutions" with democracy itself. Either way, democracy is reduced to who shows up and where and when. If democracy is more than that, no theory or system can encompass or control it. Democracy is a dangerous idea and a dangerous thing, but we probably couldn't do anything with it otherwise.