30 June 2014

The First Amendment and the rights of conscience

The two Supreme Court decisions everyone seemed to be waiting for today were decided in large part on First Amendment grounds. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Republican majority ruled that a "closely held" private firm can't be compelled to provide coverage for birth-control procedures to which the owners object on religious grounds. The majority made clear, however, that this was not the same as allowing the owner to deny employees birth control; what the owner refuses to cover, the government can. In Harris v. Quinn, the same majority decided in relatively narrow terms that home health care workers can't be compelled to pay union fees if they aren't union members. Previously, although union membership wasn't mandatory, the union was the exclusive collective-bargaining agent for all workers, and it was thought that non-members should have to pay something in order not to get a "free ride" on benefits won through union action. As in other recent anti-union rulings, the majority decided that non-members should not be compelled to subsidize unions' political speech if they object to it. In effect we're back to money=speech, the idea here being that when compulsory contributions are dedicated to partisan or ideological speech, those compelled to contribute are being compelled to "speak" in a way that violates the spirit of the First Amendment. It was argued in the Harris case that even for the union to agitate for higher wages, to the benefit of the non-union employees, would violate the latters' First Amendment rights since a wage hike for home health care workers would mean more government spending on Medicare, to which the non-members may object, however self-defeatingly, on fiscal-conservative grounds.

Through history, dissidents have appealed to rights of conscience in refusing obedience to the national will. In the most obvious cases, some Americans have been allowed to refuse military service on religious grounds as conscientious objectors. The rights of conscience usually have been identified with religion, which is why, I suppose, they're identified with the First Amendment. Harris v. Quinn represents the ongoing secularization of conscience -- the equation of ideology with conscience. Implicit here is an assumption that ideological disputes are not settled by elections. That is, even if an election goes against your ideological preference, there are limits to your obligation to acquiesce in the result. Harris v. Quinn isn't the best example of this since the plaintiffs, as non-members, didn't even participate in whatever elections may have determined the union's political agenda. But the general point remains: the Supreme Court has effectively affirmed an ideological right to defy the representative will, at least on certain fronts. What about taxes, now? Dissidents on both left and right have long questioned their obligation to pay taxes if the government spends the money on things to which the dissidents object morally. Leftists, for instance, have objected to supporting a large, interventionist military with their tax money. If to subsidize is to endorse, as the current majority of justices implies, shouldn't pacifists have the right to withhold taxes from a state that "speaks" with guns and bombs? Or should we instead conclude that ideology is not identity, and that government acts -- or those of other collective entities decided democratically -- that go against your  ideology do not violate your conscience in a constitutionally-actionable way? Your real right of conscience under the Constitution is your freedom to protest. But the freedom to protest and an obligation to acquiesce can co-exist. Nothing stops a political minority in a union from speaking in favor of whom they choose, and against whomever the majority prefers. But the logic that frees the minority from any obligation to contribute toward the realization of the majority will points to the end of democracy itself. What is democracy, after all? We sweeten it with labels like "equality" and "freedom of speech" but it is nothing if it doesn't include a principle of submission -- a word with which few Americans are very comfortable. Exceptions can exist to the principle, but when the exceptions expand dramatically on dubious grounds, there may be no real rule before long.

27 June 2014

The 'battle for pluralism' in the Middle East and Elsewhere

Thomas Friedman's confusion about what a takfiri is doesn't inspire confidence in his latest recommendations for the Middle East. He writes in the New York Times that the ISIS/ISIL army in Syria and Iraq are fighting against takfiris, whom Friedman defines as alleged "apostates." In fact, or at least as I understand it, ISIS are the takfiris, or so they're called by Shiites, and takfiris are the ones who call other people apostates at the drop of a hat. An impatient American may well say, "whatever." Friedman's main point is that Muslim countries need to transcend the sort of doctrinal differences that divide their people into "apostates" and "takfiris." He worries that Muslims are still drawn to palindromic extremes: ISIS on one hand, and Sisi, the current Egyptian strongman, on the other. Both are equally hostile to civil society and the pluralism Friedman deems necessary to peace, order and prosperity. The likes of ISIS reject pluralism, allegedly, because Islam, as they understand it, is "the arbiter of all political life." The likes of al-Sisi reject pluralism, allegedly, because they see "the national state" as the arbiter of all political life. This is shown by their suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, who themselves were accused of hostility to pluralism, and their oppression of anyone who objects to the manner of suppression. I lose track of Egypt sometimes: was the overthrow of the Brotherhood government a victory for pluralism or a blow against it? Again, "whatever" is the most likely answer. Friedman exhorts Muslims to recognize that neither the Sisi nor the ISIS model will deliver the "prosperity, stability and dignity" ordinary people desire. Instead, they must put "[civil] society" at the center of politics," with the state as its servant rather than the other way around. Friedman nominates Kurdistan, the prize pupil of the occupation of Iraq, and Tunisia, the prize pupil of the Arab Spring, as models for the rest of the region. Both are "based on society" and have achieved a precocious degree of pluralism compared to their neighbors. It's up to experts to decide how viable either example is as a model for the rest.

What is "society" or "pluralism" in this context? For the moment, they're best defined negatively as the absence of a winner-take-all, by-any-means-necessary struggle for power or resources among groups with little sense of common identity. Friedman cites a Jordanian author who suggests a kind of reversal of the old "stake in society" argument against democracy. In the past, many people, including some of the American Founders, believed that political rights should be limited to those who have a stake in society, usually understood as property. Marwan Muasher argues that pluralistic democratization -- the "Battle For Pluralism" -- must strive to give different groups a "stake in the system" through inclusive policies. You can see an American influence in Muasher's belief that pluralistic stability requires some sort of system of "checks and balances," and this is as good a point as any to suggest a "physician, heal thyself" approach to well-meaning liberals like Thomas Friedman. It can be argued, after all, that the United States is becoming less pluralistic, if pluralism means a willingness to share power with, or yield it to, people who have different ideas, or seem to have different values, from yours. It can also be argued that an American-style system of checks and balances unintentionally exacerbates the deterioration of pluralism. This may expose the flaw in a strategy that stakes so much on cultivating pluralism. Liberals may take for granted a "whiggish" view of pluralism that sees it as ever expanding once the constraints of arbitrary power are thrown off. A historian might be useful now who can chart the rise and fall of pluralism, once we all agree on what it is, in different societies through history. Meanwhile, more traditional history might clarify whether any society can move from tribalism (or feudalism) to pluralism without an interlude of political absolutism. It may be that a Sisi, or a Saddam, or an Assad, is necessary to the eventual emergence of pluralism, despite their immediate hostility to it, by eliminating the impediment of tribalism -- though Middle East dictators have too often exploited tribalism, needing a loyal force to implement their will, instead of transcending it. Again, Americans should be cautions about recommending the U.S. as a model, since history may prove that pluralism + ideology = tribalism of another kind. I appreciate that liberals like Friedman want progress without violence around the world, but would-be liberals around the world may know better.

26 June 2014

When SCOTUS is unanimous, the President F'd up

The question of recess appointments has been a partisan tug-of-war for some time now. When one party has the power in the legislature to block executive-branch appointments, the executive, when of the other party, waits for the legislators to take a recess and then claims the power to make recess appointments in their absence. That power comes from the Constitution's "Recess Clause," a relic of the era when it would take some time for Senators to return to Washington from their breaks and it was sometimes necessary that the President not wait for them to return to ratify his appointments to fill crucial vacancies. In our more partisan age, a presidential recourse to the Recess Clause is seen as a dodge, a way to avoid having to compromise with legislators of the other party who can block the ratification process. In the unanimous opinion of a normally-divided Supreme Court, President Obama has gone too far in that recourse. The problem with Obama, the Justices have ruled, is that he chose, on his own authority, to declare the Senate in recess in order to make fast-track appointments, when the Senate was actually in "pro-forma" session. Admittedly, the idea of the pro-forma sessions was to keep the Senate out of recess and keep the President from making recess appointments. Unfortunately for the President, it isn't up to him to say that the Senate is in recess. That was the specific point affirmed in today's 9-0 ruling; it is for the Senate and the Senate only to declare itself in or out of recess. Anything else imperils the separation of powers. Even the "liberal" Justices had to acknowledge that, in this respect, the Constitution is biased in favor of obstruction. Recall that Obama's party controls the Senate, yet minorities or individual members can delay or thwart executive appointments for ideological reasons or no stated reason at all. Some of that can be corrected by simple rules changes rather than constitutional amendments, if the majority party can maintain resolve in the face of inevitable cries of "power grab!" and is willing to concede the same power to the other party once it has a majority again. Beyond that, Americans need to discuss where the happy medium is between preventing genuinely undesirable executive overreach and preventing an ideological minority (or the vested interests behind them) from exercising an effective veto on executive functions. Right now things seem out of balance. The presidential mandate seems constantly obliged to defer to the legislative mandate, while legislators rarely seem forced by the rules into similar deference. It looks that way because Congress itself is divided; should the Republicans reclaim the Senate this fall, they'd probably soon find themselves obliged to defer to the presidential veto power if they can't override it. Even then, the law has an obstructionist bias, allowing the President to prevent Congress from doing something. In our vaunted system of checks and balances, the checks are obvious, the balance less so. If ideology continues to prevent Americans from balancing their different interests, our government may end up checkmating itself.

25 June 2014

Open primaries vs. the Tea Party

In Mississippi an elderly conservative Republican U.S. Senator won a primary runoff election yesterday, defeating a Tea Party challenger with the apparent help of non-Republican voters. Mississippi has an open primary law allowing any registered voter to vote in a primary regardless of actual party affiliation. Fearing defeat after the challenger's strong showing in the first round, the incumbent appealed to black voters, warning that his challenger was the worst sort of conservative: a barely-veiled racist. Some of the challenger's supporters rose to the bait; fearing vote fraud, they called for poll watchers to be assigned during the runoff. That's supposed to be a red flag for Mississippi blacks, since poll watchers were the people who often kept their parents or grandparents from voting back in the bad old days. Some Democrats had suggested that they should let the TP challenger win since his extremism would be a tougher sell in the general election and the actual Democratic candidate would have a better chance to win. More people apparently felt that Mississippi is too far gone to Republicanism for any Democrat to stand a chance against any Republican, so Democrats may as well take advantage of a law that gives them some role in the choice of a Republican candidate. On some level, this always seems unfair. A political party's candidates should be the choice of its members and no one else. But open primaries might be considered a fair price to pay when a party depends on the state to stage and fund a primary election. A government might also insist on the sort of free-for-all multiparty primary that now takes place in California. To prevent this, parties might revert to the old convention style of nominating candidates, in which primaries choose delegates only and the delegates' names, not the candidates', appear on the primary ballot. In the olden days all it took to be a candidate was to be recognized by a mass meeting somewhere, but back then we didn't have voting machines that have lists of candidates sorted by party affiliation. The idea situation, at least in the abstract, is one in which the Republican primary result doesn't deter the local Tea Party from running their man in the general election, but now they'll have to jump through hoops to get him recognized on the ballot as a third-party candidate if they want to continue their challenge. Better still would be if every state had parties or candidates that actually represented the interests of the working-class majority, so that no one would have to resort to tactical voting to secure the least-worst option that will probably still stink.

24 June 2014

The Authoritarian Constituency

To Michael Ignatieff, the 21st century looks a lot like the 1930s. Unlike neocons, for whom it's always the 1930s, this generation specifically resembles the Thirties in the way frustrated democrats around the world seem to envy effective "authoritarians" in other countries. In Mussolini's day people proverbially appreciated fascism's ability to make the trains run on time. Today, Ignatieff writes in the New York Review of Books, democrats return from places like China "wondering why autocracies can build high-speed rail lines seemingly overnight, while democracies can take forty years to decide they cannot even begin." He worries that people might reject democracy, or specifically liberal democracy, in favor of authoritarian models, while at the same time authoritarianism has taken the offensive at the Russia-Ukraine border. Ignatieff recommends that fledgling democracies like Ukraine (never mind the current regime's origins in a coup d'etat) should be protected from authoritarian predators, while democracies need to get their act together. The latter looks like the hard part, in large part because Ignatieff's diagnosis of democracy's troubles is muddled.

Like a good Democrat, though he is Canadian, Ignatieff wants to blame democratic dysfunction on money in politics. It's clear that his real subject is American dysfunction when he notes that "to citizens of other liberal democracies, the Supreme Court doctrine that money in politics deserves the protection accorded speech seems like doctrinal insanity. For other Western democrats money is plainly power, not speech, and needs to be regulated if citizens are to stay free." I don't disagree with this quote, but earlier in the same paragraph Ignatieff observes that the once-admired American constitutional system has fallen into disrepute because it has fallen into "the hands of polarizing politicians." In a subsequent paragraph, he writes that "Democracy can only work if politics is conducted between adversaries. Right now, America's constitution is stymied by a politics of enemies." Later still, he explains that "what is required is ... courts and regulatory bodies that are freed from the power of money and the influence of the powerful." Does Ignatieff believe that money in politics is the cause of polarization or the "politics of enemies?" It seems more likely that the flood of money into politics is a consequence of that polarization, unless he really believes that the conservative reaction of the last fifty years is entirely an uprising of billionaires. To repeat: money in politics is a problem, but it may not be the problem.

"The saving grace of democracy is its adaptability," Ignatieff writes. But from his own account it looks like American constitutional democracy has failed to adapt to a polarization that has more causes than the flood of money into politics. Maybe Ignatieff believes that liberals would automatically win all elections if not for that corporate money, but I have my doubts. Instead, let's return to the original comparison: why does constitutional democracy seem wanting, on certain important scores, compared to authoritarian government? Do authoritarians keep money out of politics? Ignatieff suggests not. In fact, he may expose his own blind spot by suggesting that authoritarianism appeals primarily to the sort of elites whose money allegedly paralyzes democratic politics.

The new authoritarians offer the elites of Africa and Eurasia an alternate route to modern development: growth without democracy and progress without freedom. That is the siren song some African, Latin American, and Asian political elites, especially the kleptocrats, want to hear. (emphasis added)

Ignatieff is probably making a big mistake if he assumes that authoritarianism appeals exclusively to elites. After all, would he characterize the people who envy China's high-speed rail construction as elitists? Some Americans would -- the Republicans and libertarians whom Ignatieff presumably blames for paralyzing constitutional democracy. What is this paralysis, after all? The cause -- or at least an important cause among several -- is the ability of political minorities to obstruct majorities by constitutional or at least legal means. If outsiders really envy authoritarian states, what they envy is certainly not the suppression or intimidation of dissent but the perceived lack of obstruction when a government wants to accomplish something. Not only elites want governments to accomplish something. Ignatieff thinks that authoritarianism's weak point emerges when we see "demands by the middle class to be treated like citizens." By this he means their dissent, their ability to say no to their governments, but he also recognizes that for many citizens in liberal democracies, being treated like citizens means receiving services from the state: "health care, employment insurance and retirement pensions," etc. They have positive demands on government and resent the obstruction of their fulfillment. Increasingly, they may question why political minorities should be able to obstruct their fulfillment. But as Ignatieff implicitly concedes, the U.S. Constitution and other liberal government systems were not designed primarily to provide services on popular demand. Instead, they are loaded with safeguards against assumed government overreach that serve practically as protections for vested interests.

If constitutional democracy, understood as a government with built-in checks and balances to prevent overreach or abuse of power, is seen primarily as a system for the protection for vested interests, at the potential expense of the popular majority, we should expect to hear demands for more "authoritarian" government, understood as government liberated from obstruction by vested (or "special") interests. For the right wing, the remedy is to get people to stop demanding so much from the state -- to give up their "entitlement mentality." The American right wing remains unreconciled to the idea of the state as how people preserve life; for them the only reason to have a government is to protect those who earn from those who would simply take. From that perspective the ability to obstruct is essential to democracy as they know it, and the removal of that ability is "authoritarian." By blaming the current paralysis of obstruction in American government on money in politics, Ignatieff seems to be dodging an essential question for weighing the relative merits of liberal democracy and authoritarianism. To what extent should people be able to obstruct -- not merely dissent from, but obstruct -- the mandate of legitimate government and the will of the people behind it? Ignatieff can avoid the question if reducing money in politics reduces obstructionism, as he seems to expect. But in the first place, it looks like we'd have to overcome concerted obstructionism to reduce the power of money in politics. And if reducing the power of money in politics fails to have the healing effect Ignatieff hopes for -- then what? I'm not sure what Ignatieff would say, and that means I either need to read more of his work or he needs to think more about democracy and authority in the 21st century.

23 June 2014

Iraq: the view from Iran

Everybody believes that the worsening civil war in Iraq is a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites -- except, apparently, for the most powerful Shiite on earth. That would be Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "supreme leader" and head of state of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a talk yesterday, Khamenei expressly denied that the conflict had any real sectarian character. We've been told that the ISIS (or ISIL) army -- I don't get why they're not called an army instead of mere "militants" -- has exploited Sunni discontent with the way Iraq's Shiite prime minister has seemed to monopolize power for himself personally and for Shiites generally. Many reports have stressed that Sunni tribes have risen to support ISIS or simply oppose the al-Maliki regime. However, Khamenei makes a distinction between Sunnis and those he calls "takfiris." We've seen the term before and it really is a useful one and a "politically correct" alternative to "Islamists." As the Tehran Times explains, "A takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of being an unbeliever. Most takfiri groups believe that only their group’s interpretation of Islam -- or sometimes also similar groups’ interpretation -- is correct, and all other Muslims are unbelievers." One of the early "Islamist" terror groups in Egypt, for instance, called itself Takfir wa Hijra. They called on Egyptians to denounce the military regime (then led by the doomed peacemaker Anwar el-Sadat) as pagan and to withdraw from society and politics to form an alternate government, as Muhammad himself did in abandoning Mecca for Medina. In Protestant Christianity the nearest equivalent is "come-outerism," though that usually comes without plans to reclaim the mainstream by force. Takfiri is presumably a pejorative with most Muslims because mainstream Islam, at least in theory, frowns upon anyone questioning the sincerity of anyone else's faith. By dubbing ISIS takfiris, Khamenei hopes to marginalize them, portraying them as a sectarian fringe without support among mainstream Sunnis. He's probably right to note that ISIS is "as hostile toward the faithful Sunnis who believe in Iraq's independence as they are hostile toward Shias." The real question is how many "faithful Sunnis" there are right now.

For Khamenei, "Iraq's independence" is synonymous with the country's alignment with Iran. Since an ISIS takeover presumably would take Iraq out of alignment with Iran, Khamenei takes the conspiratorial "who benefits" view and blames the ISIS offensive on "the hegemonistic powers," i.e. the U.S. and Europe. That interpretation would seem to be belied by the hysteria over ISIS in the U.S. media. It's fair to say that no one here is rooting for ISIS to win, though many Americans may no longer give a damn who wins in Iraq. At the least, if this is all an Obama conspiracy to reduce Iranian influence in the region, he hasn't shared that information with Republicans. The only real reason for Khamenei to smell a rat is the growing volume of calls for al-Maliki to step down in favor of a leader more capable or more willing to reconcile Iraq's different sects, tribes and factions. If the Iranians see al-Maliki as their boy (even though he was once our boy) they'll raise a ruckus if he's pressured to step down or is simply forced from power. The Iranians seem isolated in their apparent belief that al-Maliki has done nothing wrong in power, from a policy standpoint, and that "faithful" Sunnis have no legitimate complaint against him. But I'm not very comfortable myself with the idea that the duly elected leader of Iraq may have to be thrown under the bus in order to save his country -- especially when, to my astonishment at this late date in history -- none other than Ahmad Chalabi, the neocon poster boy of 2003, is mentioned as a possible replacement for al-Maliki. The problem with Iraq is that every other country seems to want a say in how it's governed, while its diverse population has little sense of common identity. It may be that only the will of a strongman like Saddam Hussein could keep Iraq viable, but that raises the question of whether Iraq's viability, as an arbitrarily bordered creation of European imperialism, is worth anyone's trouble.

20 June 2014

Rand Paul and the 'Weinberger Doctrine'

Sen. Paul of Kentucky published an op-ed yesterday in which he opposes U.S. military intervention in Iraq. This is consistent with his previous anti-interventionist position, which the senator shares with his father. It makes you wonder how some people can be relatively reasonable on foreign policy yet relatively unreasonable on domestic policy. After all, it looks like the Paul Doctrine in foreign policy is to protect American lives by avoiding needless war. Shouldn't protecting American lives be the priority in domestic policy, too? But that apparent discrepancy is old news. Meanwhile, Paul's foreign-policy statements are also admirably non-partisan. While many fellow Republicans are exploiting the Iraq crisis to attack the President for perceived weakness, Paul recognizes that the trouble started long before Obama took office. He clearly has no patience for the likes of Dick Cheney now re-emerging from the wilderness to blast Obama for ruining some great thing they put together during the Dubya years. Paul's own conclusion seems indisputable: "For former Bush officials to blame President Obama or for Democrats to blame President Bush only serves as a reminder that both sides continue to get foreign policy wrong."

What did Obama do wrong? Paul clearly doesn't object to the President withdrawing from Iraq in 2011; his position, after all, remains that we shouldn't have gone there in the first place. Obama's mistakes, Paul contends, took place elsewhere. "Saying it is [only] President Bush's fault is to ignore all the horrible foreign policy decisions in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere under President Obama, many of which may have contributed to the current crisis in Iraq," he writes. In other words, Paul has a problem with the "Arab Spring" concept, or at least he feels that it was not Americans' business to encourage it. Syria, of course, is the key. Everyone recognizes that the ISIS army threatening Baghdad is blowback from outside support for the uprising against the Assad regime. The anti-Obama storyline currently developing is that ISIS is his fault because he failed to give the necessary support to the good Syrian rebels, whoever they may have been, and left ISIS to fill the vacuum. Paul doesn't seem to be saying that, however. He blames Obama to the extent that the President gave any encouragement to any rebels when it wasn't this country's business who governed Syria. Paul's consistent narrative seems to be that any aggressive "democracy promotion" by the U.S. in the Middle East can have only destabilizing consequences that do more harm than good. Libertarians, the most fanatical about liberty in their own land, presumably, are less fanatical about liberating other lands and peoples than others in this country.

The only potential false note in Paul's article is his appeal to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, or more specifically to the legacy of Reagan's defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. Paul believes that Weinberger set down guiding principles that would have prevented George W. Bush's adventurism and Obama's clumsy handling of the repercussions:

In 1984, Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger developed the following criteria for war, primarily to avoid another Vietnam. His speech, "The Uses of Military Power," boils down to this: The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the U.S. or its allies are involved and only "with the clear intention of winning." U.S. combat troops should be committed only with "clearly defined political and military objectives" and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives and with a "reasonable assurance" of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress and only "as a last resort."

It does sound sensible until you recall that under Reagan and Weinberger the U.S. invaded Grenada and overthrew its government. That was a war, more or less, we definitely could win, but did it meet Weinberger's own criterion of "vital national interest?" The point of asking is not to question Rand Paul's foreign policy principles, but to question his tracing them to Reagan. That looks a little like pandering to Republican Reaganolatry, while it ignores the many ways Reagan interfered with other countries to wage the Cold War. If Obama is wrong to have supported rebels in Libya or Syria, wasn't Reagan just as wrong to support rebels in Nicaragua and other places? For all I know, Paul might agree. But a lot of 21st century anti-interventionists on the right said or did little to temper the American impulse to intervene globally against the International Communist Conspiracy during the 20th century. Does it simply boil down to some people feeling less threatened by militant Islamism than by international Communism? While some people clearly should feel less threatened by Islamism, it is fair to ask whether opposition to interventionism today is simply a matter of impulse rather than a matter of principle. It'd be hard to tell in Rand Paul's case unless an aggressively revolutionary Communist party actually takes over a government somewhere. For now, I can only regret that his dad didn't steer him onto a career diplomatic track. The best of Ron Paul's own legacy might have been better served that way.

19 June 2014

Political football

There's something absurd about the ruling made yesterday by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office against the Washington Redskins football team. The PTO has stripped the club of trademark protection because the "Redskins" name and logo are considered disparaging by a significant number of Native Americans. To deny trademark protection, of course, is to encourage bootlegging. So to correct an offense against a group of people the PTO, using powers granted in the Trademark Act, has made it easier for the offensive name and symbols to proliferate. Unless the aggrieved Indians have legal recourse against bootleggers, the situation seems to be worse unless you assume that the social disapproval affirmed by the PTO ruling will deter anyone from making knockoffs of Redskins regalia. The point of the original complaint, I presume, is that the complainants don't want the name or logo used -- they don't want to be offended. But the PTO apparently can't tell anyone not to use an offensive name; they can only, in theory, deny the offender profits by refusing him trademark protection. Nor can legislators simply make "Redskins" a forbidden word, since that would somehow violate the First Amendment.

The situation was absurd already before Rush Limbaugh jumped into it. The radio talker blames the President of the United States directly for the Redskins' legal defeat. In Limbaugh's view, the PTO ruling is a tyrannical abuse of executive power, carried out for no other reason than to show that the President can punish a private business when he pleases for an offense against political correctness. Predictably, Limbaugh has long defended the Redskins. Native Americans' complaints boil down to "hurt feelings," and Limbaugh takes the libertarian view -- which isn't restricted to libertarians -- that no one else's freedom should be sacrificed to assuage anyone's hurt feelings. The Redskins controversy has been going on for some time, and different polls have shown Native Americans both offended by and indifferent to the controversial name. A poll cited in the PTO ruling found little more than 30% of Native respondents offended by "Redskins" -- but the PTO still found that number too large to be ignored.

Those who support the PTO ruling will insist on a distinction between the "hurt feelings" described by the likes of Limbaugh and the "disparagement" cited in the ruling. The claim here is that "disparagement" damages the standing of the disparaged group as a whole, as well as individual members, in civil society. Many non-Natives object to this idea because they assume that an activist minority of Natives choose to feel disparaged and use the perceived offense as an excuse to throw their weight around and impose their will on the national majority. You can understand the objection on a commonsense level: if you root for the Washington Redskins during the football season, it doesn't follow that you despise the people for whom the team is named. Many fans consider the current owner an incompetent leader, but this is no reflection on any Native people or culture. This leaves us at the usual impasse: what to do when you don't intend offense, but someone is offended. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the offended party doesn't understand your harmlessness; a worse reaction is to assume that he's simply trying to pick a fight. In either case, the offending party gets defensive and assumes that the offended party is the one who needs to change his mind, who has an obligation to understand you. The obligation never seems to be mutual, because the accused offender assumes that his lack of disparaging intentions sums up the objective reality of the case. This defensive mentality resists the "politically correct" implications of multiculturalism because they appear to oblige him to defer to an opinion -- the sense of offense -- he considers self-evidently wrong. That's why many people feel that to be politically correct is to live a lie -- that political correctness forces us to lie about life so that people's feelings aren't hurt. There are plenty of points to debate here, but the stakes aren't that high in the Redskins controversy. How would it be lying about life to defer, for once, to people who feel offended whether you mean it or not? There is no natural or positive law stating that Native Americans should not feel offended by the word "Redskins" when the word is not intended as an insult. Likewise, the archetypal (if not stereotypical) angry white male is probably more offended by trivial crap than any other group of people in the United States -- but he doesn't think the rest of us (disclosure: I'm not "angry") are free to ignore his protests. Like it or not, -- and no one will like it entirely --  in a pluralistic democracy like the United States, the imperative of mutual respect across cultural lines can't always be trumped by appeals to objective reality, because cultures, for good or ill, aren't based on objectivity. There are plenty of times when respecting other people's opinions, even if they don't seem rational, won't violate the integrity of republican government, much less anyone's self-respect. The Redskins controversy is one of those times.

18 June 2014

Libertarianism: ideology or dogma?

In the latest New Republic Mark Lilla bemoans the global surge of forms of libertarianism, arguing that they represent a dumbing down of political imagination. While I tend to think of libertarianism as an ideology, in at least a broad sense, similar to liberalism or Marxism, Lilla argues that libertarianism doesn't even rise to that level. To make the distinction, he defines ideology as a way of seeing the world that "holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality." More objectively, ideology "takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other." Most importantly, it "tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them." Libertarianism is a dogma, in Lilla's scheme, because "it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world....It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going." This certainly doesn't match libertarians' self-image; they most likely see themselves as the most curious, if not the least ignorant because they're the most practical. But Lilla argues that libertarianism is dogmatic because libertarians refuse to think about anything that might challenge the primacy of individual liberty. By contrast, "Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised." This isn't automatically a point in favor of ideology, since most of this "work" boils down to rationalization. But Lilla seems to mean that ideology is falsifiable in a way that dogma, and thus libertarianism, isn't. It still looks a little like semantic hair-splitting that tells us little more than Lilla's contempt for libertarianism.

Lilla's on safer ground when he attempts to explain the dumbing down of the political imagination, the process that has resulted in libertarian ascendancy, since the Cold War. It seems to be a byproduct of the Manichean imagination of "freedom" and "tyranny" at opposite poles of political possibility, engaged in an eternal tug-of-war. In the U.S. especially, Lilla sees a failure of political science, the loss of an ancient understanding that multiple forms of political organization were possible and even acceptable depending on circumstances. "[S]cholars convinced of democracy’s absolute and unique goodness abandoned the traditional study of non-democratic forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, and took instead to distinguishing regimes along a single line running from democracy (good) to totalitarianism (bad)," Lilla writes, " [I]n the mind of America’s political and journalistic classes, only two political categories exist today: democracy and le déluge." This has left us unable (if not just unwilling) to comprehend why anyone rejects liberal democracy and accepts options that leave people less free by our standards. Lilla claims to know better, pointing to a pejorative sort of American exceptionalism:

No peoples are as libertarian as Americans have become today; they prize goods that individualism destroys, like deference to tradition, a commitment to place, respect for elders, obligations to family and clan, a devotion to piety and virtue. If they and we think that they can have it all, then they and we are very much mistaken. These are the rocks on which the hopes for Arab democracy [for instance] keep shattering.

Across the American political/ideological/dogmatic spectrum, Lilla sees a stubborn refusal to consider that liberal democracy may not be the best option for every nation at every moment in history. If someone says that some culture isn't "ready" for liberal democracy, it "smacks of racism to the left and defeatism to the right (and both to liberal hawks)." Lilla seems to be saying that all Americans are dogmatic libertarians if they're incapable of "abandoning the dogma that individual freedom is the only or even the highest political good in every historical circumstance." Lilla blames this for the disasters that have followed the American rush to "democratize" countries around the world. This is 21st-century hubris: the libertarian assumption that "all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well."

Lilla himself is a liberal. He believes in "the rule of law and a respected constitution ... professional bureaucracies that treat citizens impartially ... the subordination of the military to civilian rule ... regulatory bodies to keep economic transactions transparent." But he doesn't believe that every culture will acquire all of them at once, and he doesn't believe that we should take an "all or nothing" approach to democratization. Liberals have to do more than concede that forms of authoritarianism will endure; they should start thinking of how to make authoritarianism "compatible with good governance." One problem, of course, is that you can't talk about the trade-offs other countries might make without it being thought that you're asking your fellow Americans to make a trade-off. To say that some form of authoritarianism is okay in some places is to imply menacingly that authoritarianism would be okay in the U.S.A. If individual freedom is not the "highest political good in every historical circumstance," then individual freedom is in danger everywhere. If you can imagine these responses, that's what Lilla is writing about -- what he sees as a refusal to think. That imposes more responsibility on him; he ought to follow this article with an essay that actually challenges the primacy of individual liberty in the American political imagination, whether on pragmatic, moral, or other grounds. Let's have him propose when people should submit to leaders, or when they shouldn't even complain. Let him make a needed distinction between acceptable dissent and unacceptable obstruction, or a distinction between reasonable deference and shameful submission. Most importantly, let him assert the priority of society, the thing libertarianism, following Margaret Thatcher, denies the most. In our defense of liberty, we've too readily rejected the idea of either an inherent or an imminent collective whose claims could overrule the so-called laws of nature upon which notions of individual liberty are based. If there's a major flaw in Lilla's essay, it's his underestimation of libertarian commitment to these laws and the justifications they provide for intransigent individualism. Having surveyed the field, it's time for thinkers like Lilla to take the offensive, if they dare.

17 June 2014

Hollywood propaganda: I MARRIED A COMMUNIST (1949)

Very rarely do I cross-post between my two blogs, but when I saw the film formerly known as I Married a Communist last weekend (under its alternate title The Woman on Pier 13) I thought it would be a relevant subject for both my movie blog and my political blog. So here's what Hollywood anti-communism looked like 65 years ago; it proves quite different from its modern counterpart, and in some ways more innocent. People who were against communism were against less in general back in 1949. Read for yourself:

  It's hard to imagine many Hollywood movies more reflexively reviled than this Howard Hughes agit-noir from his recently-acquired RKO studio. According to legend, Hughes tried to make participation in the project a test of loyalty for studio talent -- loyalty to himself, I suppose, as much as to the American Way of Life. In general, overtly anti-communist movies get a tougher rap from critics than the overtly anti-Nazi films of a few years earlier. This is because the anti-commie movies are perceived to target not a fighting wartime aggressor but an underdog dissident faction. Regardless of recent histories demonstrating the complicity of American communists in espionage and crimes against international communists, most people's image of an American communist, if they have one at all, is not of a terrorist gangster actively pursuing the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Posterity has deemed the anti-red rhetoric of the scare years disproportionate to the actual threat. As a result, films like I Married a Communist are dismissed as absurdities if not offenses against truth. The fact that the film's title was changed quite quickly to the almost-pointless Woman on Pier 13 suggests that movie audiences during the actual Red Scare may have felt the same way. But rather than debate whether the film was fair to the actual Reds I want to pay attention to what the screenplay (credited to Robert Hardy Andrews and Charles Grayson) actually says and how it may belie our expectations.

I Married a Communist is a bit of a cheat title. It should have been I Married an Ex-Communist, because the object of the title, Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), quit the party in disgust more than a decade before the story starts. Since his street-fighting days as a labor agitator, Brad has risen, with the help of a name change, from stevedore to shipping executive. He's successful and just married to Nan (Laraine Day), the I of the title, when the trouble starts. Just when he thought he was out, the Reds pull him back in. Christine Norman, an ex-flame (Janis Carter) has the dirt on his Commie past, and so does the Party boss Vanning (Thomas Gomez). Since the revelations will ruin his career, and his role in a strike killing may condemn him to the electric chair, Brad must submit to blackmail. The simple part is the 40% of his salary he has to kick back to the Party. But then it gets interesting.

Brad's company is negotiating a new contract with the union. This being a Hollywood picture, the union honcho Jim Travers (Richard Rober) is a former flame of Nan's. But he's a good guy -- the most positive male character in the entire picture. He's not going to start a strike on his own; he believes in negotiation and compromise. But the Party wants Brad to precipitate the strike -- it presumably serves some international strategic purpose, since it will tie up the San Francisco docks -- by taking an intransigent stand against the union, against compromise. Here are two things worth noting. First, the right-wing propaganda of 65 years ago is different from the right-wing propaganda of today in some significant ways. Most notably, and maybe most surprisingly given Hughes's agendas, his anti-communist movie is not hostile to organized labor. In fact, as I suggested, Jim the union leader is the nearest thing to a hero after Nan herself. Meanwhile, the script seems to be telling us that employers who refuse compromise with unions are doing the Commies' work for them. Robert Stevenson directed this film at the cusp of the "Treaty of Detroit" era when management and labor agreed to share the wealth to an unprecedented extent in return for peace on the shop floor and the elimination of communist influence. 1949 was not a period of economic decline for which unions could serve as a scapegoat as they do now. Some observers might expect anti-communism in the McCarthy era -- the Senator from Wisconsin made his big splash into celebrity a year later -- to be synonymous with hostility to organized labor, but on this evidence it simply wasn't so.

While Brad reluctantly carries on his insincere negotiations, Christine jealously turns her seductive attentions to Nan's younger brother Don (John Agar), whom Brad had given a job before the trouble started. She gradually transforms Brad into a radical union agitator who shouts Jim down when the moderate leader pleads for moderation. This process apparently took longer in an earlier cut of the film, since Brad's radicalization and its role in provoking the strike is shown as part of a lengthy montage of snippets of scenes that clearly had important dialogue in them, while ominous music plays. Left intact is Brad's first introduction to communism at one of Christine's parties. This scene is as ideological as the movie gets. It tells us what the writers (if not Hughes) thought communism stood for. What it stands for, apparently, is "the scientific management of society," as one well-fed intellectual asserts. Nothing here about the proletariat or property or capitalism. An initially skeptical Brad senses that this is a form of elitism and tells his interlocutor that "I prefer democracy." So another thing missing that we in 2014 might expect in an overtly anti-communist propaganda movie is a defense of capitalism. Nothing here about "free enterprise," nor even about "freedom." The opposite of communism is "democracy." Communism, then, appears to be a political system above all, characterized by the rule of an elite justified by an appeal to science. This is actually a fair hit against Bolshevism or Leninism and the concept of necessary, incontestable leadership by a vanguard party who would do the dictating during Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat." Sixty-five years later you may be more likely to hear someone say that democracy and capitalism contradict each other, with capitalism getting the better of the argument. 1949 was a different world.

Where the 1949 film gets most outrageous is in its portrayal of blatant gangster tactics by American communists. Some were certainly involved in the sort of labor-dispute street fighting Brad took part in as a young man, but I Married a Communist goes beyond that. Communists are shown murdering a suspected informant, in part as a way to intimidate Brad. The victim is tied up and dumped off a pier as he begs for mercy. Brad, being Robert Ryan, is unimpressed by the attempt to scare him. Later, the Communists begin to devour their own. When Don begins to get wise to how he's been manipulated, Vanning orders a hit on him. The local Reds farm out much of such work to a carny who runs a shooting-gallery concession on the pier. Eschewing the obvious, the hit man kills Don by running him over with a car. Later still, Christine threatens to turn on Vanning, but he dumps her out a high window. The film's conflicts are ultimately resolved by gunplay, Brad killing Vanning while suffering a mortal wound so he can give Nan back to Jim, from whom he took her. In history, you often hear of "purges" among the American communists, but these weren't the sort of purges you had in countries where communists controlled the state and enforced their own laws. American communists who got purged usually formed their own splinter parties, even more futile than the original party. Mine wasn't the most thorough Google search, but I found nothing indicating that American communists killed each other on American soil to enforce party discipline or to punish informants. Actual labor unions seem more likely to have done such things. American communists seem to have been more "community organizers" in the pejorative sense than men of action or the sort of hard cases who carried out revolutions elsewhere. In Russia, Stalin robbed banks and Lenin condoned it. The category error of American anti-communism was to assume that America's communists were the same sort of people, that to be a communist was to be a criminal at heart. That feeling still persists, and so I Married a Communist will not seem quite as alien or surprising in its overall attitude as I'm suggesting here -- and I must also admit that a non-violent finish would have made a weak film only more dull. But my main point remains: to be against communism doesn't mean automatically that you'll also be against other things, or for other things still. An anti-communist movie of 1949 isn't necessarily a right-wing movie by today's standards -- and it's not really a good movie by any standard. But it's very interesting as a historical document and a great example of what movies can tell us about the culture they were made in and how it differs from our own.

16 June 2014

A diplomatic revolution in the Middle East?

Back in 2001 the problem seemed clear. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were Sunni extremist groups. It was a stretch to broaden the idea to encompass the Sunni secularist Saddam Hussein, but it was clear enough that the U.S. had been attacked by Sunni Muslims. It made sense at the time when you heard rumors of cooperation between the U.S. and its longtime antagonist, the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But George W. Bush muddied the narrative by vowing enmity to an Axis of Evil that included Iran, and it became part of our strategic mission in Iraq to deny Iran the influence there, post-Saddam, that was arguably inevitable given the Shiite majority in both countries. Regardless of what Bush or Obama hoped for, the al-Maliki government leaned toward Iran while practicing Shiite chauvinism at home. The reaction at home is the ISIS uprising, the resurgence of militant if not terrorist Sunnism. The reaction abroad to that includes new rumors of cooperation, if not rapprochement, between Iran and the U.S. The U.S. denies any desire for military cooperation while Iran denies any current plan to intervene militarily against ISIS. But once again the two antagonists see a common enemy. That should be enough to get something accomplished, if either country is willing to apply muscle or money and neither expects or demands too much. The problem last time was the Bush demanded far too much, actually aspiring to an "end to evil" that meant the end of the Islamic Republic. Make no mistake: the Islamic Republic has done some evil shit just as just about every country has done. Their governing doctrine is abhorrent to anyone who values democracy, civil rights and secularism. But if Churchill and Stalin can ally against Hitler, it shouldn't be so hard for the U.S. and Iran to work together against a form of Islam arguably worse than anything Iran promotes. On top of hating all infidels, Sunni extremists like ISIS hate Shiism as a form of idolatry. They are enemies of civilization in ways the Iranians are not. No two groups should have to agree on everything or anything else to agree that Sunni extremism needs to be deterred if not stopped outright. Cooperation in Iraq might set the stage for at least negotiations toward a settlement of larger conflicts between Shiism and Sunnism, to the extent that those drive the civil war in Syria and conflicts elsewhere. Expecting it to promote settlement of the major issues between Iran in the U.S. is too much to ask. Cooperation should not require us to acquiesce in Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, nor Iran to make peace with Israel or whatever else might please the U.S. Those are topic for other times, but Americans are dangerously impatient with diplomacy. This would be a time for American diplomats to be more patient and more focused on immediate problems. If the conquest of Iraq by ISIS is as undesirable as everyone seems to think, preventing it by with as few bad consequences as possible should be every nation's priority.

12 June 2014

Rick Perry and impulse control

Addressing the Commonwealth Club of California yesterday, the governor of Texas said, "Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that. I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way."

It's been amusing to see some of Gov. Perry's apologists deny that their man had said anything pejorative about homosexuality in that sentence. The context of his comment was a defense of his state's endorsement of "reparative therapy" for homosexuals who want (or are pressured) to change their sexual orientation. This is, to say the least, a controversial concept that has been condemned by many as pseudoscientific. I take a less alarmist view, so long as no one is compelled to undergo such therapy; a person should have as much right to change his or her sexual orientation if they're uncomfortable with it as they have to change his or her gender. However, the Texas Republican party, for whom Perry is at least a figurehead, endorses reparative therapy in the context of opposition to a perceived "homosexual lifestyle," and in that same context Perry's comparison of homosexual and alcoholic predispositions can only mean that both are impulses that, in his view, ought to be overcome. Resisting homosexual impulses is a matter of self-control rather than self-repression, presumably. Whether Perry was using a theoretical or personal "I" when discussing alcoholism, however, is unclear. In any event, his remarks suggest that he doesn't practice impulse control as well as he preaches it. Remarks like these can't help someone presumably aspiring yet again to become President of the United States, who must eventually sway an audience much larger and more diverse than the Republican party base of primary voters. Perry may calculate that a silent majority still rejects homosexuality, but most of the recent evidence suggests otherwise, and there is, as I've noted before, a cultural offensive underway against any assertion that homosexuality is "wrong" in any way. Perry may also calculate that, by making himself a target for that offensive he'll rally supporters to his defense, but we may already be past the point where someone who can now be described as an avowed homophobe -- whether he accepts the label or not -- can win a national election. To put it another way, it may feel good now, but it could very well hurt Perry later. Someone with more self-control would be better off today.

Back to Iraq?

In the U.S., each party blames the other's president for the current crisis in Iraq, but it's hard to see why either Bush or Obama should be blamed for the al-Maliki government's obvious incompetence. The leadership in that unhappy country seems incapable of actually governing or even defending itself from a relative handful of motivated jihadis. If they can't hold power without a perpetual American military presence they should not have power. Will the jihadis be worse? From an international perspective, probably -- but a takeover by Sunni extremists would be a major blow to perceived Iranian aspirations to regional hegemony, and don't we want to deny them that hegemony? Victory by "ISIS" in Iraq would also put more pressure on the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and don't we usually consider that a good thing?  But won't it be a humanitarian disaster -- isn't their offensive a disaster already? Probably, but what else is new? That may sound harsh, but this is not a time for illusions. Nothing short of imperial conquest on a totalitarian scale will pacify Iraq and no outside force is going to do that. It should not be up to us again. Those who criticize Obama's withdrawal should be asked whether they're willing to assume permanent rule over Iraq, but the American people have already made clear that they're unwilling to pay the price in lives or money. We should not need to occupy Iraq or even bomb it to keep Iraqis from attacking us, and we should give up trying to keep Middle Eastern Muslims from hating us. If ISIS wants the country badly enough, or at least more than al-Maliki does, they'll get it. At that point, Americans can make it understood that if Iraq attacks an ally, it'll be destroyed, and that if terrorism against the U.S. can be traced to Iraq, it'll be destroyed. We may as well play to our strengths; we do destruction far better than reconstruction. That's how Saddam Hussein should have been deterred a decade ago, but American fanatics had grown convinced, or tried to convince the rest of us, that his very existence was a threat to us all. The blithe assumption that civil society would fill the void after Saddam's fall was Bush's great error. Whatever Obama does now, if he treats the establishment of civil society in Iraq as a strategic goal he'll make the same mistake. It seems like an argument can be made that the conditions of our time make dictatorship the only viable option in some places -- no matter how much it'd suck for people who have every moral right to challenge or criticize their rulers but would have to accept all the risks of doing so. That isn't fatalism, and it isn't bigotry. It could be that the sort of civil society we consider the foundation of liberal democracy can't develop in a "liberal" global economy except by chance, and in the absence of civil society you lack the vested interests with a stake in limiting government through constitutions, checks and balances, etc. Give up the dream of global civil society, no matter how painful it may be to do so, and you'll probably see geopolitics more clearly. It appears that the State Department failed badly by missing the rapid rise of ISIS within Iraq and getting caught by surprise by this week's offensive, but aren't we entitled to some indifference to that nation's fate by now? To those who scream NO! I ask whether our real problem is here rather than Iraq. No nation should be so important to us as Iraq seems to be, and no change in a nation's government, whatever the means, so intolerable that we should risk lives to prevent it. It might be different if we had a real world government that could enforce global standards of governance and human rights through the efforts of all nations, but we don't -- and whose fault is that?

11 June 2014

Blowback 2014

Once again the world's liberals decided that a secular dictatorship was intolerable in some part of the world. It didn't help that the dictator in this case was an enemy of Israel. But the main thing was that he and his father oppressed their own people. So when "spring" came to Syria people of good will said the rebels must be supported, the dictator pressed to step down. He has not stepped down. Instead he has thumbed his nose at the world's liberals by holding another election that he won by a predictable if not prefabricated majority. Meanwhile the revolt continues, and everyone says, "we only support the good rebels" -- the ones we hope will be liberals like us. But the war inevitably empowers the most violent and ruthless, and their war knows no national border. Sunni extremists dream of a sharia state encompassing both Syria and Iraq: anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Shiite. Lately they're having better luck in Iraq. They've taken two major cities in as many days and the central, Shiite-dominated government seems powerless to stop them. Meanwhile, refugees by the scores of thousands flee east and north to escape any purge the jihadis may be planning. Naturally, some Americans want to blame Obama, mainly for being weak, while others want to blame his predecessor for destabilizing Iraq. But this doesn't happen, I think, if Obama didn't adopt Bush's principles and demand the end of the Syrian dictatorship. He's been criticized for not doing enough to end it, but he's probably done too much by giving any aid or comfort to any rebels. The point isn't whether he can pick good guys to support, but that destabilizing Syria in the spirit of an "Arab spring" is a stupid act of moral vanity. Liberals abhor dictatorship and too often nothing else matters to them. They still assume that "civil society" will fill any power vacuum, that an innate desire for democracy will assert itself everywhere eventually. These things will happen when they benefit people materially, but democracy comes with no guarantee of material benefits. Until then, if people can't compete they'll seek protection and pay with submission. We equate dictatorship with a sort of civil death, but for many people around the world dictatorship may be the only alternative to death, however unreliable dictators may prove. If there is no civil society on the ground already -- and that need not be the dictator's fault -- no one has any business aiding in the overthrow of the dictator unless he's murdering his own people on such a scale that any alternative would be better. That ought to be a simple test for future diplomats and defense departments. Is any alternative better than the Assad dynasty? For that matter, was any alternative better than Saddam Hussein? It's hard to tell today, and all along it was never for anyone but Syrians or Iraqis to judge. Anyone else's judgment condemns those countries to chaos.

The Brat PAC

In an upset that may belie the belief that the Tea Party is an alien growth from "astroturf" planted by the Koch brothers and other reactionary billionaires, an obscure economics professor has defeated the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, the second-ranking Republican in the lower house of Congress, in a primary election. Rep. Eric Cantor vastly outspent Dr. Dave Brat but lost badly, probably more so than anyone expected. The storyline since last night has been that Brat's was a victory for nativism, that Cantor's constituents had punished him for too soft a stance on immigration. This issue furthered the impression that Cantor had become one of the "political class" and had grown aloof from local concerns and values. Meanwhile, Brat's win sounds like a victory for the radio talkers who did the most to promote him on their shows, giving him free advertising that made up, in part, for Cantor's overwhelming dominance on TV. Their influence can't turn a primary by itself -- they've tried and failed elsewhere this year -- but when other circumstances are right the talkers clearly can make a difference.

Philosophically, Brat looks like someone trying to have it both ways. He wants to send a signal to libertarians by claiming he was "influenced" by Ayn Rand's writings -- he's actually published a scholarly paper on her -- but he also wants to assure other constituencies that he's not a "Randian." Being that wouldn't be compatible with his conviction that "faith in God, as recognized by our Founding Fathers [sic?] is essential to the moral fiber of the nation." That's one of six items in Brat's "Republican Creed." The other five affirm free enterprise as the best and most just economic system; recommend fiscal responsibility; respect constitutional limits for the sake of individual liberty on government action; advocate peace through military strength; and declare that "all individuals are entitled to equal rights, justice, and opportunities and should assume their responsibilities as citizens in a free society," That last one covers a lot of ground, and it'll be interesting to see how much of that ground Brat acknowledges when he runs against a fellow faculty member who won the Democratic nomination in this district. Still, as a minimalist statement of Republican (or Tea Party) belief it could be worse, though the point about religion is bad enough. I assume Brat's is a strong GOP district and expect him to win. He'll have little seniority, however, and Cantor is no real loss. His defeat most likely ends his political career; Virigina has one of those odious "sore loser" laws that forbid him from running against Brat on another party line, although he's allowed to run as a write-in candidate. Most likely he won't; the verdict of his constituents looks too decisive to dispute. Meanwhile, the Tea Party may be like al-Qaeda in this respect: you can hear any number reports of a "leader" being defeated (as opposed to killed or captured), and hopeful analysis of their irreversible decline --- but the next thing you know, hardcore Sunni jihadists are taking the second-biggest city in Iraq, or some unknown guy overthrows the House Majority Leader. These movements have deeper roots than optimists want to admit.

10 June 2014

Jerad Miller: clown prince of crime

In a land of rugged individualism our terrorists inevitably send mixed, idiosyncratic messages. The married couple who killed three people, including two policemen, before carrying out a murder-suicide -- the wife doing the shooting -- in Las Vegas last weekend are described as "anti-government extremists." Early reports were confused by their reported draping of swastikas over their police victims, but it now seems apparent that they were labeling the cops, and not identifying themselves, as Nazis. They also deployed the so-called Gadsden flag, the "Don't Tread On Me" banner with the snake, tempting Democrats and liberals to indict all such flag wavers by association with the killer couple. They apparently sought to align themselves with right-wing anti-government causes, showing up on Cliven Bundy's ranch to offer their support in the racist rancher's battle with the federal government over grazing fees. The Bundys kicked them off the ranch; they say the couple was too extreme for them, while the husband claimed at the time that he was spurned because he was a convicted felon. Taking all this into account, the most glaring fact remains the husband's fascination with The Joker. He would dress up as Batman's arch-enemy, his wife getting the role of Harley Quinn, the sidekick/consort created for Joker in the 1992 cartoon series. This reminded me of the maniac who shot up a Colorado movie theater during the premier of The Dark Knight Rises and left booby traps at home for investigators; he initially identified himself as The Joker. It does not remind me of anyone dedicated to defending traditional values of individual liberty and limited government. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight has sometimes been called a "fascist" film in part because it portrays the creation of an unprecedentedly intrusive (but short-lived) surveillance network for the sole purpose of capturing The Joker. Did this real-life Joker agree with the criticism? Did he somehow identify the villain's nihilist rampage in the film, or his mass-murder exploits in recent comics, as resistance to power or authority? Perhaps The Joker is "V" minus any appeal to social justice, the new icon of sociopathic pride. I don't know whether the murderer did his Joker act on the Bundy ranch, but I could understand why the Bundys might throw him out if he did, regardless of any ideological affinity between the ranchers and the crackpot couple. Some readers may think of all "right-wing extremism" as evil, but most right-wing extremists, obviously enough, don't think of themselves that way. But if you dress up as The Joker, what else can you be saying about yourself? Maybe he -- the real man or his avatar -- stands at the bottom of the slippery slope that starts with a zero-sum defense of liberty against government and accelerates with resentment or any exterior constraint on individual freedom. The Joker is arguably the modern embodiment of an alternate libertarian tradition that could trace its roots to that eloquent 18th-century advocate of personal liberty, the Marquis de Sade. Yet Jerad Miller and his wife would have you think they died defending the more traditional, moralistic tradition. That's so funny I forgot to laugh.

Updates: Local police now report that they took "Mr. J." down and that "Harley" only killed herself. Further reading reveals that Miller reportedly said that he adopted the Joker identity because he assumed that the government would see him as a terrorist, the comics and movie villain being, in his mind, the ultimate icon of terror. Idiot.

09 June 2014

The Liberal World Order and its discontents

In The New Republic for June 9 Robert Kagan has written a long essay on "The Allure of Normalcy." Wisely finding this a bit obscure, the editors advertise it on their cover with the catchier title, "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire." As the cover hints, Kagan's essay is a warning against the U.S. giving up its special role as bulwark of what the author calls a "liberal world order" out of a desire for "normalcy" after generations in crisis mode. The word, popularly credited to President Warren G. Harding, evokes America's retreat from world leadership after World War I, although Kagan scrupulously refuses to characterize those he criticizes as isolationists. He aims at a level of objectivity throughout his essay, of which this passage is typical:

Who is to say that even defense of the liberal world order is necessarily good? The liberal world order was never put to a popular vote. It was not bequeathed by God. It is not the endpoint of human progress, despite what our Enlightenment education tells us. It is the temporary and transient world order that suits the needs, interests, and above all the ideals of a large and powerful collection of people, but it does not necessarily fit the needs and desires of everyone.

All great powers are selfish, Kagan notes, not excluding the U.S., "and the more power a nation has, the more it is likely to act in ways that cannot be squared with a Christian or Enlightenment morality." Yet Kagan accepts that the global benefits of the liberal world order justify at least some of this country's "morally compromised" actions. To be clear, Kagan defines the liberal world order to encompass "an open international economic system," "principles of international behavior," and "democratic governments [with] a minimum of respect for human rights." Commitment to this liberal world order transcended conventional ideas of national interests. It required the U.S., above all, to act, as only it could, as an enforcer of the liberal world order against any disruption, even if it presented no immediate threat to American national interests. For Kagan the golden age of the liberal world order was the administration of George H.W. Bush -- though Bill Clinton made a good showing as well --  and the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq the exemplary act in its defense. It was the supreme moment because it prevented Saddam Hussein from setting what Brent Scowcroft called a "terrible precedent" of acquiescence in aggression. Kagan's liberal world order is virtually synonymous with Bush's "new world order," defined by the President as a world in which "the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations." Kagan's fear is that, should the U.S. abandon its role as guarantor of the liberal world order, the world will revert to a jungle of nations. "Normalcy" is an illusion, he argues. The world was a Hobbesian schoolyard of bullies before the U.S. asserted itself during World War II, he claims, and it will be that again should we "retire."

In fact, the world 'as it is' is a dangerous, often brutal place. There has been no transformation in human behavior or in international relations. In the twenty-first century, no less than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, force remains the ultimata ratio. The question, today as in the past, is not whether nations are willing to resort to force but whether they believe they can get away with it. If there has been less aggression, less ethnic cleansing, less territorial conquest over the past 70 years, it is because the United States and its allies have both punished and deterred aggression, have intervened, sometimes, to prevent ethnic cleansing, and have gone to war to reverse territorial conquest. The restraint showed by other nations has not been a sign of human progress, the strengthening of international institutions, or the triumph of the rule of law. It has been a response to a global configuration of power that, until recently, has made restraint seem the safer course.

This begs a question: if the liberal world order is so great, and its benefits so obvious, why is no one nation or group of nations prepared to play a greater role in shoring it up as the U.S. retrenches? Kagan suggests that the U.S. is uniquely qualified, both by culture and the historical accident of geography -- the long period when the Atlantic and Pacific immunized it from attack from Eurasia -- to play a role no other country can. "American allies have always been less capable and less willing," he writes, "They have lacked the power and the security to see and act beyond their narrow interests. So where they failed before [e.g. 1914, 1939] they will fail again." The annexation of Crimea is the latest warning bell for Kagan, who fears that Putin's actions will embolden other bullies and "autocrats" around the world. All great powers are selfish, as Kagan writes, but somehow the U.S. is less selfish than the others because it has had a vision of world order, while other powers are driven by greed and chauvinism and pursue policies that benefit only themselves. If the U.S. "retires," he warns, we all face "a world in which autocracies make ever more ambitious attempts to control the flow of information, and in which autocratic kleptocracies

Since Kagan himself concedes that liberal world order isn't the "end of history," could it not stand in the way of progress at some point as it stood in its vanguard earlier? Kagan is concerned with the threat of autocrats, but has much less to say about the aspirations of billions of people. Can a liberal world order satisfy them all? Was it ever meant to? It seems not even to satisfy Americans anymore, but the reason for that may prove Kagan at least partially right. He writes that Americans were willing to support a liberal world order first to defeat the Axis, and then to fend off the threat of international communism. But its benefits weren't defensive only; for a time, liberal world order brought unparalleled prosperity to the U.S., so much that capitalists were willing to share more of the bounty with labor. But a liberalization of the world inevitably brought global economic competition, while giving capitalists excuses to take back much of the bounty. As a result, the benefits to ordinary Americans of liberal world order seem far less obvious now, especially to the millions who'll never go anywhere where they have to kiss a local autocrats's ass. For decades now, Americans have wanted the rest of the world to do its fair share to uphold the liberal order -- yet Kagan tells them they can never expect that to happen. Instead, he warns them that the world will revert to a pre-1945 Hobbesian normalcy without them -- yet Americans with any sense of history may question whether the past was as bad for America as Kagan suggests. Unless Kagan and thinkers like him can solve the problem of diminishing returns for Americans, the liberal world order is only going to be a tougher sell over time. If he really believes that human progress isn't finished, that shouldn't worry him as much as it does.

06 June 2014

A good guy with pepper spray

This may not work every time, but I suppose every amoklaufer has to reload at some point. That's where people like Jon Meis come in. He's a student monitor at Seattle Pacific University, where yesterday the latest poor victim of humanity decided it was payback time. This jerk came in with a shotgun and unfortunately was able to hit three people, killing one, before he had to reload. Meis was armed with pepper spray and, well, his arms. Taking advantage of his opportunity, he sprayed the jerk and put him in a choke hold -- perhaps not knowing that the perp still had a knife to use. It didn't get used because Meis's bravery inspired other students to dogpile the jerk. No glorious self-martyrdom for this creep ("super happy and friendly" one friend says, and apparently a clean liver); he will answer to the state and the people for his tantrum. Moral: in some cases, at least -- and this is far from the first -- you don't need a gun to take down a bad guy with a gun. The only time you might, I suppose, is if your amoklaufer has such a souped-up weapon that you don't want to wait for him to have to reload. Even then the guy can't see in all directions. But if there are situations in which the only remedy for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, it's not because so many Americans are crazy -- true as that may be --  but because our country's fanatic gun culture has made those situations possible. The need for the good guy with a gun becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when it justifies, however unintentionally, the empowerment of bad guys. Meanwhile, someone who can stop a bad guy with a gun without a gun is a real good guy, at least on that day. Congratulations, Mr. Meis.

04 June 2014

Remembering 1989

It seems that the failed revolution of 1989 in China is getting more attention on the 25th anniversary of its violent suppression than that year's successful uprisings have received so far this year. I suppose that's because China remains unfinished business for many people who are also quite conscious of the Chinese government's fervent wish that the world would forget about what happened in Tiananmen square. I might have expected the uprisings in eastern Europe to have fresh relevance insofar as they rejected domination by a Russian power, but there's a lot of disillusionment with post-Communist governments to contend with there. Once upon a time 1989 looked like the dawn of a new era, if not the "end of history" understood as a perpetual dialectic of ideological strife. The year's revolts were a repudiation of Bolshevism if not of communism. I use "Bolshevism" here to distinguish a political system superficially defined by its commitment to communist economics but designed primarily to reserve power for a "vanguard" exclusively qualified to govern. The protesters of 1989 in China and Europe were most likely less interested in adopting laissez-faire capitalism than in making their governments more accountable to the masses they claimed to represent perfectly. This meant civil liberties and political pluralism above all -- the right to criticize leaders and challenge their leadership, and the obligation of leaders to submit to genuinely competitive elections. Communist parties always ask for this sort of criticism, no matter how little they want it, simply by calling themselves "parties." Their arguments justifying compulsory one-party states never hold water, while their ideological vanity and pretense to exclusive knowledge kept them from declaring theirs no-party states and avoiding inevitable hypocrisy. The persistent assumption that they know better than anyone else -- an assumption obviously not exclusive to communists or any sort of Marxist -- also keeps them from adopting reforms that might make their monopoly of power more palatable. Why not decide who controls a Politburo by something like an open primary? You'd still have a communist government but the people could choose which communists would run it. Unfortunately, that doesn't fit with the "democratic centrism" model of (presumably) open debate at the highest level of power and dictatorship for everyone else. While liberals ought to acknowledge that elections can't solve all problems, Bolsheviks have more reason to concede that forbidding real elections can't solve them all, either. What they'll never admit, of course, is that the public has the prerogative to reject their ideology altogether and adopt another. Bolsheviks see themselves as the end of history from which there's no turning back, though again, they're not unique in this respect. Many ideologies (e.g. liberalism) include a "whiggish" attitude toward history that forbids turning back (e.g. toward more authoritarian government). That's part of what defines ideologies as inflexible and narrows their field of vision. If 1989 was once seen as a partial victory for liberalism over Bolshevism, by now the limits of both options in the face of 21st-century challenges should be more apparent. Real historical progress is likely to come not through the final victory of one or the other but from the imagination and implementation of new options. That many people want to fight old battles is understandable, but new ones are coming as well.

03 June 2014

Selective outrage at free speech

Cal Thomas is unhappy because the National Football League reacts in a different way when someone insults homosexuals than when someone insults Christians. He notes with disgust that a member of the Miami Dolphins was penalized and obliged to take sensitivity training after Tweeting to express his horror at the sight of Michael Sam, who will be the league's first openly-gay player, kissing his boyfriend on Draft Day. For Thomas this "sounds like the old communist 're-education' camps" -- but what really seems to bother him is that no one is sent to the NFL Gulag for insulting Tim Tebow. Perhaps you remember Tim Tebow? A hot college quarterback who lacked what it took to succeed in the pros and thus became more famous for his overt Christianity, which Thomas would have you think is exceptional in professional sports. Tebow's faith has been mocked and even parodied on Saturday Night Live. When Tebow was cut by the Denver Broncos, he came in for more mockery. That no one was punished, and no one saw a need to punish the mockers, is fresh proof for Thomas that a double standard prevails in our secular humanist culture. His belief, apparently, is that it is either equally OK to insult a man's faith and his sexuality or equally wrong. If it's OK to mock Tebow's faith it should be OK to express revulsion at Sam's sexuality, or if the latter isn't OK, it shouldn't be OK to mock Tebow's faith. It's tempting to say false equivalence, but it is fair to note that had Tim Tebow been a Muslim or a Jew it would have been less OK to mock his faith, for many people, than it is when he's a Christian. Meanwhile, if the Dolphins player did no more than say that he found a male-male kiss "horrible," than whatever penalty he endured -- he's since been fully reinstated -- may have been excessive. Many people find male homosexuality repulsive -- many of the same people probably feel the opposite about female homosexuality, depending on how hot the females look -- but it's one thing to find it repulsive or "horrible" and another to deem it "wrong." There is, however, a genuine zero-tolerance attitude toward homophobia right now that has no room for nuance. Meanwhile, since Cal Thomas takes any opportunity to vaunt the moral superiority of Christians to Muslims, he ought to be proud that his co-religionists can take some ribbing rather than going for their swords as Muslims so often do. Neither faith should be exempt from ribbing or sterner treatment, and since religion is a different kind of identity than sexuality, religion should always be more subject to ribbing since it is always more open to intellectual and truly moral criticism than is the choice of an adult sexual partner.

Thomas hints that secular liberals abhor expressions of faith because religion "exposes flaws in themselves they prefer not to see." Since Thomas endorses a certain degree of abhorrence of homosexuality, may it not also be true that expressions of homosexual love expose flaws in certain observers that the observers prefer not to see? Think about it....

02 June 2014

Jobs, the environment, and resposibility to adapt

New federal rules designed to reduce carbon emissions over a 16-year period are predictably being criticized as job-killers, and not only by predictable Republicans but also by Democratic candidates in coal states who fear that the new policy will be a personal job-killer for them. Of course, you can also find environmentalists to complain that the new rules still aren't adequate to the climate crisis, but it isn't part of an activist's job to be satisfied. In any event, the activist and the candidate have different interests to calculate, the employer and employee others still. How do we sort out all their contradictory claims on government? Two observations might guide us. First, the survival of the environment, objectively speaking, shouldn't be subject to votes if we understand its survival as a fundamental imperative of government. This point is negatively conceded by those who oppose regulation by denying a crisis. Life is not to be sacrificed to "freedom;" government exists in the first place to regulate freedom for the sake of life, if government is anything but the rule of one clique or class over others. Are jobs not to be sacrificed? The self-styled pro-business party tells us so. They mean that government is not to sacrifice private-sector jobs for any so-called public purpose. Business itself, of course, may sacrifice jobs for any reason it pleases, and if anyone protests business blames government. Let's agree that, in the present theoretical case, someone -- public or private sector -- should take responsibility for retraining and finding new work for anyone who might be unemployed by the new regulations. It would be more than many private employers do when they decide that jobs must be sacrificed to the bottom line. When that happens, the unemployed are told that they must adapt in order to compete in the global economy. Their economics obliges us to adapt to people's ambitions, but denies any imperative to adapt to climate change until a way can be found to do it profitably. Until then they deny the need to adapt -- but nature isn't subject to a vote, and for all the big talk about a natural right to do business, nature isn't likely to respect it in the long run. Why should we?