31 July 2014

Where does collective bargaining come from?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has predictably rejected a constitutional challenge to the law passed by Republican legislators and signed by Gov. Scott Walker that drastically curtailed public employees' collective-bargaining rights. The result was predictable not because the state's court is stacked with conservatives or Republican appointees, but because many observers, including many opposed to the law, accepted that there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining at either the state or federal level. In Wisconsin, the majority opinion states, "collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation." However, this remains an incomplete picture. The idea of collective bargaining didn't begin with politicians, after all, but with workers. What Wisconsin's public employees ought to remember is that while collective bargaining may not be guaranteed them by any constitution, it remains a legitimate goal of collective action. It may be up to partisan legislators to recognize or not recognize collective bargainers, but it is also up to workers to force the issue if they so choose. Collective bargaining is always as much a creation of collective will, at least, as it is a creation of legislative grace or the good will of private-sector employers. Wisconsin Republicans have told the public-employee unions that you can't take collective bargaining for granted anymore. As many others had to in the past, the unions will have to fight for it if they want it badly enough. They may hope to win the fight in the voting booth by electing a Democratic governor and legislature, but that is never workers' only option -- or else the court would be correct, after all.

29 July 2014

The social is political -- or is it?

In a long career that has made him a dean of American historians, Gordon S. Wood has read a lot about the Declaration of Independence, so you take notice when he writes in The New York Review of Books that "no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like" Danielle Allen's Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Wood, the author of The Creation of the American Republic and the Review's resident reviewer on Revolutionary subjects, is impressed by Allen's close textual analysis of the Declaration, even as he disagrees with many of her conclusions. He disagrees with one conclusion in particular: Allen's opinion that Jefferson and the other drafters of the Declaration intended Americans and "all men" to "pursue happiness by means of politics." Allen is a kind of idealist, or else she infers a Founding idealism. She writes that "Nature has given us an instinct for politics [that is] evidence that nature is organized to provide for our flourishing." As Wood reads her, Allen concludes that we will flourish as nature intended once every is equally empowered to participate in politics.

Since Allen is a social scientist rather than a historian, Wood has cause to tsk-tsk her lack of reading in the historiography of the intellectual origins of the Declaration and the Revolution. He may suspect that Allen didn't realize that she was strolling into a 50 year old intellectual battlefield. Since the 1960s, historians have debated the extent to which the Founders were influenced by "classical republicanism" or by a form of liberalism conducive to or influenced by the rise of capitalism. Classical or "civic" republicanism virtually required that citizens play a role in public life, i.e. in political deliberations, if only to be vigilant against schemes by individuals or factions to usurp power. the liberals or proto-liberals believed that citizens should cultivate their gardens, as Voltaire might have said, rather than devoting so much attention and energy to politics. Wood tries to clarify things by drawing a distinction between "politics" and "society." He argues that "Jefferson and many other revolutionaries in 1776 always put society ahead of government," the latter being no more than a "necessary evil" in service to society. The Founders -- and Wood extends this argument even to the more radical Thomas Paine -- would never have said that citizens can find personal fulfillment (or "happiness") in politics. If Allen finds such a message in the Declaration, she must be misreading it, or misunderstanding the intellectual language of the 18th century.

Wood and Allen aren't quite as far apart as his criticism suggests. He closes his review by noting that "Jefferson and Allen agree on one central point: Democracy requires that at some basic level everyone in a society must be considered the same." Where Jefferson and Allen differ, apparently, is what that imperative requires. This is where Wood's distinction between "politics" and "society" actually obfuscates things, as might any distinction drawn by anyone. Wood ascribes to the Founders the opinion that "government was a plunderer." It's tempting to generalize ahistorically, to infer from this that politics is plunder, but people like Jefferson and Paine obviously were denouncing the forms of government they had known before the American Revolution. Before the Founding, most of the models the Founders had for describing governments were negative: tyrannies or representative governments that succumbed to tyranny. Yet men like Jefferson could not experiment with creating new forms of government if they thought that all government and all politics was plunder. Once you reject the premise that all politics is plunder, the distinction between politics and society begins to dissolve. What is "society," anyway, once you start drawing distinctions? Commerce, presumably, or, more broadly, the "civil society" of voluntary institutions and organizations. These do not require "politics" because they depend on a "natural feeling of affability and benevolence." Yet for Allen, presumably, those same natural feelings are the foundation of politics. This does not compute if you see politics only as plunder,but that clearly isn't how Allen sees it, and it isn't necessarily how Jefferson or Paine (neither of whom were Framers) saw politics when they weren't focused on denouncing monarchies of their present or past. Now that I think of it, Wood pulled off a neat trick by transmuting Allen's "politics" into the "government" despised by some radical Founders. I don't think he meant it as a trick, but it exposes some of his own intellectual (if not ideological) biases. One such bias may be to insist on the society-government distinction. Not to do so, some might say, tends to the totalitarian, but that shouldn't deter us from questioning the basis of any separation of the social and political once we accept that politics is not automatically plunder or coercion or whatever might frighten Wood or Jefferson before him. But if Wood thinks there is something essentially political that is essentially antithetical to the social, so that Allen's political idealism is dangerous to liberal society, he should speak for himself instead of hiding behind Jefferson and Paine, so we can know where to take the conversation next.

28 July 2014

What is it good for?

Today is the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, formalized by the Austro-Hungarian Empire's declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia. To this day, historians dispute the shares of blame to be assigned the various belligerents. Shall we blame the Serbs for the conspiratorial nationalism that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and provoked Austria to punitive action? Shall we blame the Russians -- as I'm sure many would like to these days -- for going after Austria to protect their brother Slavs in Serbia? Typical Russian bullying, right? Or do we stay with the old standby and blame Germany for giving Austria a "blank check" to do with Serbia as they saw fit, for fighting Russia to save Serbia, for fighting Russia's ally France simultaneously, and for drawing Britain into the war by invading neutral Belgium to flank the French? With so many options it's probably better to draw general conclusions about European culture, or 20th century culture. Frederic Morton does this in the current Harper's. A longtime student of the buildup to war, Morton wonders, as many have for the past century, why the working masses of all these countries, and the socialist parties in some of them, followed their flags to the trenches in an uncritical patriotic frenzy? He contends that the jinogistic nationalism of August 1914 was a reaction to the atomization of traditional European society over the previous century, during the Industrial Revolution.

Millions had been torn from their hearths, from their folkways, from the haven of their communal bearings. Deprived of organic roots, they split into precarious, wary atoms. Each atom had only its own strength for support, and only strength stronger than that of all others can promise security....Seething in tenements or on guard in gated glitter, each atom must stay mobilized in offense or defense. Yet at the same time each atom -- that is, each vying shard -- longs for close company that will complete it. 

The call to war, Morton writes, was "a cry for exterior conflict that would relieve the internecine malaise troubling the land. A cry for the thrill of an all-encompassing, collaborative purpose....Thanks to a common enemy people could revive a commonality long lost, could rush forward arm in arm, could regain the village intimacy once enjoyed, by defending -- together! -- the imperiled nation."

War, then, appeals to a yearning for togetherness, but it follows that this yearning has limits, or else war would make no sense. The idea of togetherness with everyone on earth has had only limited appeal over the last 100 years. This, in theory, was the appeal of communism, but in practice -- in the forms of Bolshevism, Stalinism, Maoism -- communist revolutionaries have depended on appeals to fight a common enemy: the bourgeoisie, the imperialists, the counter-revolutionaries, and so on. If no enemies were apparent, they had to be made up, the people whipped up in enmity to them. The roots of all this, I suppose, are in our atavistic sense of scarcity and our feeling that there's not enough of anything on earth for everyone. The best way to secure your share is to purge others. Morton is probably on to something when he suggests that competing on a country-vs-country level alleviates the alienation people feel in their own countries under the pressure of an increasingly competitive economy. It's just too bad that, in order to look around you and feel that "we're all in this together," you have to look across the border and think, "but you're not!" Looking at the world today, it seems that very little has changed. If so, I doubt whether anyone will learn from today's anniversary -- but it's worth taking a chance.

24 July 2014

The NRA scenario becomes a reality, or: whatever happened to the Hippocratic Oath?

A good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. That seems to be the story in Darby PA as a psychiatrist pulled out a gun and opened fire on a patient who had just mortally wounded his caseworker. Whether the good doctor literally stopped the assailant is still open to question -- this report notes that the suspect was subsequently tackled by two other men, but his reported critical condition suggests that the doctor's aim was fairly true. There may be no substitute for hands-on physical restraint, however, unless your aim is very true. In any event, gun-rights supporters will crow that the doctor's courage and/or coolness under fire vindicates their advocacy of concealed weapons for regular folks. I guess I'm a fanatic, however, since I can't let the NRA have this one entirely. The idea of a doctor shooting a patient can't help seeming slightly wrong, no matter what the circumstances, what with "first do no harm" and all that tradition. But maybe this doctor takes a more holistic or more utilitarian approach to his oath, excising diseased human matter for the good of society as a whole. Of course, if he articulated it that way he might become a patient himself, but such are the contradictions of our complicated world.

Endangering civilians

Earlier this week the FAA banned American airlines from flying into or out of Tel Aviv, Israel, after a Hamas rocket landed within a mile of the city's airport. Last night the authority lifted the ban after studying the situation -- and after hearing loud complaints from pro-Israel politicians and opinionators in this country. Objectively speaking, it looks like Hamas has a far smaller chance of hitting a passenger plane, if they're even targeting one, with their rockets than the Russophile Ukrainian separatists had with their more sophisticated technology. The Malaysian airliner incident of last week has made aviation authorities very cautious, however. The problem with their approach, from a political standpoint, was that the flight ban could hurt Israel's economy if sustained, while any disruption of normal travel routines is seen as a "victory" for terrorists. I can't say whether pressure from pro-Israeli politicians contributed to the decision to lift the ban, but the whole story had a familiar ring to it. During Israel's punitive operations in Gaza, we've heard constantly that the Israelis have urged civilians by every means possible to evacuate areas likely to be bombed or attacked, while Hamas has exhorted those same civilians to stay where they are. For this, Hamas is accused of heartlessly endangering civilian lives simply so they can accuse Israel of committing atrocities, while the Hamas point of view, presumably, is that those civilians have a right to stay where they are without being bombed, even when rockets are fired at Israel from their neighborhoods. The situation with the FAA isn't exactly the same, since a third party rather than a belligerent was warning civilians away from danger. But one crucial detail is the same: one of the belligerents, or a lobby of foreign sympathizers -- the latter represented by Michael Bloomberg -- repudiated the warning and urged civilians not to take precautions. There may still be a meaningful difference in degree here, depending on the relative risk to an airline passenger compared to the risk to a Gaza city-dweller. Many may sincerely believe that there is no great risk of a Hamas rocket hitting the airport, much less an airplane. But it will still be fair to ask, should Hamas bring down or even damage a plane, who bears responsibility for the casualties. Supporters of Israel are adamant about holding Hamas responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza so long as Hamas appears to discourage civilian evacuations. By analogy, if political pressure led to the lifting of the flight ban, the politicians, foreign or domestic, should be held responsible if Hamas hits an American plane.

23 July 2014

Cuomo's law: 'I can't "interfere" with it, because it is mine.'

The New York Times lays the smack down on Governor Cuomo today with a long report on the short life of the Moreland Commission, created by Cuomo with much fanfare to investigate endemic corruption in campaign financing and state government. The Times reports that, in fact, the commission was little more than a tool to intimidate the state legislature, and was discouraged from investigating people close to Cuomo himself. It was shut down once it had served Cuomo's purposes, but before it could serve what many considered the state's purposes. Touted as an independent entity, it is now acknowledged by Cuomo himself to have been subject to his will all along. He makes this point, apparently, to dismiss complaints that he improperly interfered with its work. "It's my commission," the governor told one reporter, "I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me." The scare quotes around "interfere" seem to be his. Presumably it was always his prerogative to determine who should or should not be investigated. At one moment he declares that "you can't set up an investigations commission to extort the Legislature. At the same moment he admits that the threat of the commission gave him leverage with legislators to advance his policy agenda. "They thought it was really abusive," he says, but in the end "they gave us everything we couldn't get last year."

From one perspective, this is just strong leadership, proving Cuomo the sort of hardball player the Democratic party needs at the state and national level. I might agree with that except for the apparent hypocrisy of Cuomo's "interference," which suggests that his real target wasn't corruption but opposition. This sort of intimidation is the sort of thing we expect from a leader like Vladimir Putin, except that there's no presumption of innocence for Cuomo's opponents as there is, outside Russia, for Putin's. Apart from that, an investigating committee that acts, in effect, at the leader's pleasure, investigating those whom it's convenient or useful to investigate, and neglecting (or scrupulously ignoring) everything else, looks pretty authoritarian. Yet who doubts that Cuomo will be re-elected this November. Few will feel motivated to vote Republican to punish him, understandably, and few will have the imagination or courage to vote for Howie Hawkins, Zephyr Teachout or any other alternative on the left.  Teachout, who has called on Cuomo to resign after today's story, is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary after failing to wrest the Working Families nomination from him. That alone proves that anyone who says there's no alternative to Cuomo is, to say the least, wrong.

22 July 2014

The ambiguity of the state

The Affordable Care Act is in trouble again. A three-judge panel of a D. C. appeals court has ruled that the IRS can't give tax-credit subsidies to people in the 36 states where "Obamacare" is operated by the federal government. The reason is in the ACA itself. It authorizes the IRS to provide tax credits to people who acquire health insurance through "an exchange established by the state." The two-judge majority, ruling in favor of a set of libertarian litigants, interprets this language to mean "an exchange established by one of the states of the union." Therefore, when the IRS authorized tax credits for people who use exchanges regardless of state or federal origin, it went beyond its legal mandate.

This is another ha-ha moment for Obamacare foes. They've complained from the start that legislators approved the ACA without reading the entire massive text, and today's ruling appears to prove the foolishness of such an approach. From an early point, however, the government was aware of the "glitch" in the language, but by that time Republicans in the House of Representatives were blocking efforts to amend the ACA in a helpful way. It became simply a matter of time before partisan or ideological litigants found a like-minded court or panel -- though in the present case the Obama administration is expected to appeal so that the case is heard by the full court, which is supposed to have a liberal majority thanks to several Obama appointees. If the full court overturns today's ruling, in which the majority were George W. Bush appointees, it'll be role-reversal time; Republicans will complain about partisan bias in the court while Democrats will claim objective vindication of their policies.

One is tempted to say, "Only in America." Elsewhere, I'd like to think, "the state" would be synonymous with "the nation" or "the government in its entirety." Here, however, that sort of thing is "statism," while "states' rights" as against the federal government are still largely held sacred. The ambiguity of the word "state" is one of the pitfalls of federalism into which the ACA apparently has stumbled. It was dumb of the drafters not to realize this, but it's just as dumb of this country that such a "glitch" could have costly consequences for so many people.

21 July 2014

The moral calculus of human shields

In Gaza, the charge against the Hamas government is that it is allowing its own civilian population to be killed as part of a media strategy, in order to inflame world opinion against Israel. Whether by embedding rocket platforms in residential sites or place like hospitals, or by telling civilians not to evacuate certain areas, as Israeli propaganda leaflets reportedly warn them to do, Hamas stands accused of cynical indifference to the lives of its constituents. For Hamas and its sympathizers -- or, to be more accurate, sympathizers with the Palestinian people, the reasoning is just as simple: Israel drops the bombs, so they are the murderers of civilians. If Israelis and their sympathizers are so concerned with the civilians of Gaza, they can stop dropping bombs. Of course, Israel is never going to let Hamas fire rockets at them with impunity, but Hamas can argue that that's not their problem. The Hamas leadership may feel sincerely that their strategy should checkmate Israel, that Israel's professed humanitarian sentiment should stay their hand if the people of Gaza stand between the bombs and the rockets. For the rest of us, the question is whether there's an objective way to assign moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza. If Israel is bombing regardless of the presence of human shields, they are immediately responsible, but if the people are there because Hamas is telling them to stay, then Hamas has to share responsibility unless you want to argue that Israel has no right to defend itself against rocket attacks. If civilians in Gaza are actively volunteering to play human shields, then they share in the responsibility for their own deaths. The mistake is to attempt to calculate who the "real" bad guy is. That'll force you to go back in time. Israel is responsible because of military occupation and oppression; Palestinians are responsible because they've never convincingly renounced the objective of reclaiming all Palestine; Zionists are to blame for claiming any part of Palestine after Islam had claimed it all centuries ago; Arabs are to blame for rejecting the original partition deal of 1948 and attacking the Zionists, and then acting as if they still deserve  their part of the deal. One note plays consistently: the two sides will not share the land. One or the other must dominate; to be poor neighbors of a Jewish state is as abhorrent to one as it is to the other to be the "tolerated" subjects of an Islamic state. Why the world still looks for good guys and bad guys in Palestine increasingly baffles me. I lean toward a simpler calculus: if each side has any share of blame for violence, regardless of proportions, then both are equally to blame, and both should be shunned by the rest of the world. But if the world feels responsible for the dead civilians in Gaza, and for the smaller number of civilian casualties in Israel, then maybe it should take responsibility for the "Holy Land" by taking the rule of it away from Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Arabs alike.  

18 July 2014

Poverty in the Home of Uncle Sam

Checking out the headlines on Google News this morning, I noticed that the Editors' Picks on the main page included a photo essay from Slate about poverty in Troy, New York, the city in which I was born and where I currently work. Here's the link to the story. It was interesting to see people from around the country, if not beyond, pass judgment on people who are nearly my neighbors, even though I know none of them personally.  The pictures portray "white trash" so the inevitably contemptuous commentary is more misanthropic than simply bigoted. You'll see a lot of predictable ranting about the need for more birth control, more "personal responsibility," etc., etc.  If only they had the will and the discipline, these people could lift themselves from poverty -- you've read it all, certainly. I'm not sure whether these poor Trojans are that much more dysfunctional than their grandparents. It's probably more likely that in their grandparents' time, the economy could still use people like these, but now it doesn't need them. That would put a greater pressure on them to strive and excel than their grandparents would have felt, assured as many of them probably were of jobs in "the mill" from the day they graduated high school to the day they retired. None of this makes the present-day poor blameless for their plight, but you can't judge them so inferior to their forebears unless you also acknowledge how much harder the times are. It might help, too, if you consider that it's not these people's fault that the times are harder, as some may believe. If you have an "adapt or die" attitude none of this will trouble you much, but it remains our prerogative, so long as the economy is a social construct and not a natural phenomenon, to ask "adapt to what?" and "sez who?" Exceptional people will pull themselves out of poverty, but it wasn't part of our social contract previously that only the exceptional should have a decent life. This sort of hopeless-looking poverty will stay with us until the American economy finds places for these people, instead of expecting them to shape themselves into the remaining slots, or until we no longer have the sort of surplus population that burdens many post-industrial nations. Either way, we could be waiting a while, and it may not get any prettier.

17 July 2014

If I were a Malaysian ...

If I were a Malaysian today I think I might want to lynch any Ukrainian or Russian I could find.  As far as I know we don't know whom specifically to blame for the shoot-down of yet another unfortunate Malaysian passenger jet, but unless the crash is proved accidental it will remain fair to say that the plane went down because the Ukrainian were fighting their idiotic civil war, with Russian idiots egging one side on and probably doing more than that. When conflicts like this break out, or when the Israelis and Palestinians get into one of their periodic brawls, too many people around the world want to take sides. They want to say these people are the good guys, those the bad; these the victims, those the aggressors; here the freedom fighters, there the tyrants. Whatever we say or hope about peace, for one side or another to get its way usually takes war, and with war comes collateral damage like we appear to have seen today. If we don't want war we can't take sides. The world should say that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are welcome anywhere; that neither Ukrainians nor Russians are welcome anywhere; and so on -- if we really want wars to stop and think we can do anything non-violently to stop them. If wars are wrong, then both sides in any war are wrong. If that's too sweeping a statement, you might accept that people who perpetuate pissant little wars like that in Gaza, or what the war in eastern Ukraine might become, are wrong regardless of whatever they stand for. To say that either side is right is only to perpetuate the conflict.

15 July 2014

The soccer war, American style

The tournament is over and the Germans rightly won, but Americans are still arguing over soccer. Our sportswriters have moved on, but some self-style political experts won't let the matter go. The lack of American success in the sport and its inferior status as a spectator sport in this country still must be accounted for. Ann Coulter stirred the pot for this tournament by snarking that soccer was un-American, something the descendants of immigrants would inevitably abandon but also somehow abhorrent to the authentic American spirit of individual achievement. At least one liberal commentator, Chris Hayes of MSNBC, rose to this bait. He deduced that American soccerphobes were adherents of an obnoxious exceptionalism; they only like sports that this country dominates internationally. Jonah Goldberg found Hayes's outburst revealing of the left's resentment of authentic American cultural patriotism. Goldberg himself did not attack soccer, but he seems to accept the premise shared by both major parties that partisanship, if not ideology, correlates with attitudes toward the sport. If you hate soccer, you're a know-nothing reactionary. If you love the World Cup, you enjoy seeing the U.S. humbled. In our rush to politicize all cultural phenomena we generalize blindly. I am absolutely certain that there are right-wing soccer fans in the U.S. -- there are lots of right-wing soccer fans around the world, after all -- and I'm even more certain that some left-wing Americans are as indifferent to soccer as they are to all sports. 

Andrew W. Lindner has made American hostility toward soccer an object of academic study. He conducted a survey of a limited, perhaps too particular sample group -- residents of Nebraska -- and found that futbolphobia correlates with a certain kind of reactionary attitude that can't be reduced to ideology or partisanship. Lindner concludes that hostilty to soccer is essentially nativist; it expresses a xenophobia exacerbated by the challenges of globalization and immigration. Respondents most hostile to soccer were also most likely to disagree with the assertion that immigration strengthens American culture. At the same time, very few respondents -- less than 10% -- described soccer as "un-American." If anything, that percentage probably would be lower in many states. 

I think Lindner is still reading too much into this phenomenon. After all, our ignorance of cricket is more complete and perhaps more inexplicable since that sport unites much of the English-speaking world. They play cricket in England, in Australia, in India and in the West Indies. Yet no one feels a need to account for America's absence from the cricket scene. For many it'll suffice to note that we have baseball instead. Cricket has international tournaments, just as soccer does, but for some reason Americans feel drawn to the World Cup, and feel a need to excel in soccer, but don't feel the same attraction to cricket. That's probably because soccer promoters have actively proselytized for their sport in this country for the past forty years in a way cricketeers have not.  They have made the World Cup an attractive thing that many Americans want to be part of, while our failures to date have turned off many other Americans who've drawn the sour-grapes conclusion that soccer is stupid. These are two attitudes that don't naturally correlate with our two prevailing ideologies. Some Republicans are as greedy for World Cup glory as anyone, while some Democrats dismiss the World Cup as they dismiss any irrational competition. The reality of American attitudes toward soccer may resemble our attitude toward independence from Britain, as described by John Adams: a third for, a third against, while a third didn't give a damn. Actual percentages may vary.

14 July 2014

The post-ideological millennium?

The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, published a survey of "millennials" -- Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 -- and finds them socially liberal and fiscally "centrist." While all parties will cherry-pick the report to find results that suit or encourage them, the key finding seems to be that "millennials are not committed to one ideological form of government action." To summarize:

 When asked about policies to stimulate the economy,some of which would increase the scope of the federal government (such as raising taxes on the wealthy) and others of which would decrease it (such as cutting spending by five percent), millennials endorsed all the policies. Millennials favor action, and they appear to be less motivated by the governing philosophy behind the action

At the same time, millennials are skeptical about both government and markets. They recognize that governments can be "wasteful and inefficient," and also question whether "the centuries-old American belief that the free market drives economic opportunity still applies," even while many still look forward to starting their own businesses and being their own bosses. In short, they seem to believe in both the free market and the welfare state -- which tells me that there isn't really anything new about their attitude.  The belief that you could have both without contradicting yourself is really the post-New Deal consensus that prevailed from World War II until the rise of Ronald Reagan amplified ideological challenges from Goldwater Republicans, Randian Objectivists and libertarians in general. The Reason Foundation's findings suggest that the Great Recession of 2008 halted and reversed the pendulum swing of opinion toward free markets, even while millennials retain a vague commitment to limiting government spending.

Democrats and Libertarians alike have read the survey as bad news for Republicans, since it shows increased alienation from the social or cultural conservatism that increasingly defines the GOP for younger voters. Since the Reason Foundation is libertarian in orientation, its report on the findings looks for signs of hope that millennials will embrace free markets and limited government more unanimously. The authors attempt to blame the current skepticism about markets, and a perceived naivete about government spending, on many millennials' having to live with their parents due to continuing hard times. The more self-reliant (if not successful) they become, the Foundation predicts, the more fiscally conservative rather than fiscally centrist they should become. In the analysis, there are also hints of the old excuse that young people are economically illiterate. Some evidence admittedly isn't flattering to the respondents. The survey found that many were enthusiastic for government programs and supportive of more government spending until it was mentioned that these would require more taxes.

Elsewhere, the results leave the authors wondering whether millennials know the meaning of socialism. The survey shows a more favorable attitude toward "socialism" than toward a "government-managed economy," although most millennials still favor free markets. This confuses the Foundation, since in their view a "government-managed economy," whatever its inherent flaws, is "arguably less interventionist" than socialism. The authors blame this result on the ability of only 16% of respondents (in a separate survey) to define socialism "correctly" as "government ownership, or some variant thereof." While the Reason Foundation shows a fair amount of objectivity in reporting the survey results, I still wouldn't trust them to define socialism. "Government ownership, or some variant thereof" reveals that, as far as the Foundation is concerned, "government ownership" is the essential thing, the variations being relatively trivial. For real socialists, I presume, "ownership" of the government is just as important, if not more so, than what the government owns. For libertarians, the degree of "ownership" or control is what really matters, and what makes "government ownership" unacceptable, but it must make a difference whether the economy and the government are "owned" by bureaucrats (as libertarians implicitly assume) or by the working class. To clarify, I don't think the millennials understand socialism any more correctly than the Reason Foundation, but the mere word "socialism" clearly has lost some of its old repellent power. At the same time, "capitalism" has lost some of its charm, as the survey itself suggests. Respondents are less enthusiastic for "capitalism" than for "free markets," and while the Foundation likely sees the two as synonymous, the authors infer that millennials may identify "capitalism" with "crony capitalism" or "government favoritism," which libertarians themselves deem antithetical to free markets.  All of this is interesting to comment on, but none of it looms as large as the results pointing to a return to consensus. I suppose it'd be unfair if Republican economic policies are repudiated mainly because of an irrational identification of them with reactionary cultural attitudes, but there's also reason to believe that millennials are rejecting Republican economic dogma not because of but simultaneously with their rejection of Republican social dogma. After all, I doubt whether the 2008 recession changed anyone's attitudes toward homosexuals. But if these findings cause concern for the right, they don't automatically inspire optimism in the left, either. As the Foundation suggests, millennial attitudes remain in flux and a wide range of factors could change them in ways we can't fully anticipate yet. Nevertheless, if the findings mean that a less ideologically polarized generation is taking over, that should be good news for everyone.

11 July 2014

Is anything just a game? Part two: the return of the prodigal

When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, it was widely perceived as an act of treason akin to the most notorious relocations of entire franchises: the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis, etc. James himself became the epitome of selfishness, having made it clear that he left the team nearest his hometown for distant Florida because he'd have a better chance of winning championships in Miami. It seemed as if he felt entitled personally, as an individual, to play on a championship team, and didn't care which team it was. That went against the common idea of team sports; James should have wanted Cleveland to win the title. Instead, with Miami James has played in four consecutive championship series, winning the two in the middle before the Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs nearly as badly as Brazil lost to Germany this week. It seemed suddenly that the Heat were no longer viable as a team, much less a vehicle for LeBron James's ambitions. He quickly made it known that he would exercise an option to become a free agent, and the Heat as we've known them recently have for all intents and purposes broken up. James announced today that he will rejoin the Cavaliers, an outcome barely imaginable immediately after his departure. Explaining himself in Sports Illustrated, James says that it was always his intention eventually to return to Ohio. Having gone into the NBA directly from high school, he regards Miami as his college experience. He doesn't regret going there and believes himself to have matured as a player and a man in Miami. Having satisfied his personal ambition for championships, he now dedicates himself to doing all in his power to bring the crown to Cleveland. Cavs fans will cheer, no doubt, but don't the people of Miami feel a little betrayed right now? There was something distasteful about the abrupt breakup of the Heat, as if James had determined, once the team failed to get a third consecutive title, that there was no more Miami could do for him. Having recognized that, so it looks, he walked away immediately. For Miami, James was just another mercenary; he did what he promised, true, but the main thing was that he got what he wanted. Now there's a new world to conquer and he's gone. For Cleveland he becomes not only the returned prodigal but also possibly the sports messiah of a city that hasn't won a major-league championship since the original Cleveland Browns -- their owner moved them to Baltimore and renamed them the Ravens -- won the NFL title fifty years ago.  If sports is a religion in Cleveland then James, not the Cavs, will be their god. It may as well be that way. I once speculated that his career offers a new paradigm for professional sports in which the individual athlete rather than the local team -- which rarely has talent as nearly local as James was and will be in Cleveland -- is recognized as the real attraction around which teams could be built on an ad hoc basis. Why not have LeBron put together a new team every year and barnstorm across the country with a reality-TV crew in tow? If this hasn't happened yet, I suppose it's because, despite the idolization of individual stars, sports fans still need to feel that players and teams belong to them in some way. The sort of perpetual pick-up league I envision would be more honest about things, and probably harder to love.

10 July 2014

Palestine fatigue

That's what I'm feeling right now, during the latest round of rocket launches and air strikes between Israel and the Hamas administration in Gaza. I'd better clarify my position: Palestinians have every right to irredentist sentiments and no historical obligation to defer to Zionism. But what good does doing what they do do them? They are not going to destroy Israel on their own, especially not with their pissant coup-counting rockets, and most of the rest of the Muslim Middle East is fighting amongst themselves. No anti-Zionist jihad is likely to unite the region anytime soon. Meanwhile, the argument that dismantling the Jewish State and dispersing its people would be a war crime greater than any Israel has perpetrated against Palestine remains compelling. There's no reason to believe that Israelis and Arabs can share land and power amicably any more than Sunnis and Shiites can. Nor does any Gandhi or Dr. King figure seem likely to arise in Palestine, and in any event such a figure is unlikely to have a like effect on Zionists. By now it seems like the only way the Palestinians, in Gaza at least, can feel a sense of identity is through resistance. Their actions have an existential rather than strategic quality. What else can it mean if, as some reports indicate, Palestinians are volunteering to be human shields for Hamas rocket positions? That'd be fine if they actually kept Israelis from firing on those positions, but the Netanyahu government has made it pretty plain that Hamas will be to blame for all such deaths for promoting the idea of human shields and embedding their launchers in civilian areas. This sort of martyrdom will have no practical effect; it may galvanize global opinion but the west has a veto on that. So if someone becomes a human shield hoping only for personal martyrdom without caring whether there are any positive consequences in this world, that's a pretty selfish act -- but again, it tells you what these poor idiots are up against in their part of the world. The futility of it all -- of the perpetuation of it -- disgusts me. But you can't stop them and you can't stop Israel in the current global political climate. The really sad part is that humanitarian considerations only ensure that the cycle of violence will keep on cycling. We hope that all conflicts can be resolved without all-out war, but it may be that in some cases only all-out war can resolve them. Unfortunately for the Palestinians of Gaza, only one side is really equipped to wage all-out war, and it isn't theirs. Do they expect a miracle to save them? If so, I'm tempted to say they deserve whatever they get instead. I'm tempted to add that both sides deserve worse than they're suffering now. but deserve's got nothing to do with history.

09 July 2014

Is anything only a game?

Something that makes us human, for good and bad alike, is our ability to project "meaning" onto practically anything. Objects and events can acquire value beyond any objective or merely empirical measure, depending on the observer or the participant. It can be unreasonable but it may also be irrepressible. I was reminded of this again while watching reports of yesterday's World Cup soccer semifinal in Brazil, in which the home team, long recognized as the sport's superpower, suffered an unprecedented humiliation, losing 7-1 to Germany. Coverage of the rout has been punctuated by reaction shots from the stands that would make you think it was September 11, 2001 in New York, or that the Space Shuttle had blown up before those people's eyes. These scenes of hysterical grief might confirm some Americans in their opinion that other countries take soccer too seriously. You don't get as much futbolphobia up here as you used to forty or twenty years ago when serious efforts were first made to turn soccer into a major spectator sport, but an irrational American aversion to the sport still manifests occasionally. This year Ann Coulter may have been the most notable naysayer, writing with tongue possibly in cheek that soccer's actually rising popularity was proof of national moral decline, but local and national sportswriters also still say that they don't get soccer and don't understand why they should. Soccer is unalterably foreign, the typical complaint goes, while the U.S. has major sports of its own, so why should it matter that the American team has never advanced past the quarterfinals of the World Cup? This overinsistent American indifference is at the opposite pole from Brazil's mania and grief, but it's just as much an irrational response.

American know-nothingism alone can't explain it, since the Olympic Games are just as foreign yet not as reviled. That's easy to explain: the U.S. is good at the Olympics, in gross medal-count terms if not in all events equally, while American soccer, while improving noticeably, still lags behind the established powers of Europe and Latin America. Soccer irks some Americans because it proves that we're not the best at everything. Accordingly, a lot of American hostility to soccer has a sour-grapes quality. Soccer is stupid, we're told, because you can't use your hands -- unless you're the goalie -- but you could just as easily say Americans are stupid if they can't master handling a ball with their feet only. It's more likely true, of course, that our country's best athletes gravitate to our own most popular sports -- baseball, basketball and NFL football -- while countries like Brazil may not have any other outlet for athletically gifted citizens. It's still tempting to make cultural explanations for American inferiority or indifference to the "beautiful game." We know that many sportswriters, claiming to speak for many fans, are bored by the low scores of soccer games -- though if that's the case the Germany-Brazil game may do more to raise interest in the sport here than any American success. From the spectator standpoint the choice is between quantity and quality, though for Americans quantity and quality may be synonymous. The sole goal in a high-level soccer game can be a dramatic moment matched, for me, only by the most intensely competitive NFL or NCAA football games. American fans may be less interested in such drama than in the spectacle of a slam dunk, a home run, a touchdown pass or a sack of the quarterback. American athletes may also be more interested in these things, all of which (except perhaps for homers) occur more frequently than soccer goals. The American weakness when it comes to soccer may be a matter of patience -- something you'd think self-styled conservatives, who love to decry anyone's inability to defer gratification, would understand.

Apart from further proving their xenophobia, does it matter that many Americans don't like soccer? It probably does to some people who feel shut out of something cool after our quadrennial early exit from the World Cup, or for whom our soccer problem may symbolize our inability to play well with other nations in other fields. I don't know if there really is a liberal enthusiasm for soccer and the World Cup to balance "conservative" antipathy, but I'd assume that American soccer fans have a more cosmopolitan attitude, if only based on recognition that the best players are not American, than the soccer haters. We need never become as passionate about the sport as some people in other countries, e.g. the Colombians who murdered a national-team goalie for giving up an own-goal against none other than the U.S. a few World Cups ago -- no sport should inspire that kind of passion -- but an aspiration to succeed in international soccer from a starting point of recognized inferiority rather than assumed superiority may not be an unhealthy thing. and would definitely be more healthy, culturally speaking, than the spoilsport contempt of our reactionaries. Between the extremes of obsession and hate there's a lot of middle ground to play on.

08 July 2014

A conservative future?

Democrats and their sympathizers believe that demographic trends in the U.S. favor them in the short run, on the national level, and in the long run generally. The assumption is that the "angry white male" who votes overwhelmingly Republican is the product of a specific generation that will eventually die off, and that as new generations come of age and the nation grows more ethnically diverse Democrats will grow stronger at every level. David Leonhardt isn't ready to refute that assumption, but he questions it in the New York Times. He warns that Democrats may not benefit from generational turnover the way they expect if the next generation identifies them with economic and foreign-policy failures. Just as voters who came of age in the 1980s went with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in response to the failures, actual and perceived, of Jimmy Carter, so voters coming of age in 2016 or later may turn "conservative" in response to the actual and perceived failures of Barack Obama. Leonhardt bases his speculation on recent political science pointing to generational trends in ideology. The problem isn't that today's progressives will grow disillusioned and turn conservative, but that their children will repudiate their parents' failed policies and values. Leonhardt suggests the Michael J. Fox character from the Family Ties sitcom, a Reaganite yuppie child of hippies, as a model for this sort of generational revolt. That the model is a fictional character doesn't inspire confidence in his speculations, but Reagan's popularity obviously was widespread throughout the Eighties, even if we question whether that reflected any deep ideological turn.

Leonhardt adds a big caveat, however. Models of generational ideological turnover apply mainly to whites "because race adds a variable." As he explains, non-whites maintain a persistent bias against the Republican party that seemingly seals their loyalty to the Democrats regardless of their failures. They are "decidedly turned off by the attitudes of today’s aging, white Republican party," Leonhardt assumes -- but what happens when the "aging" Republicans die out? Unless a new generation of white Republicans reproduces the offensive attitudes, traditional objection to the GOP among minorities may lack their former and present force. Leonhardt seems to anticipate increasing tension between minorities' cultural bias against Republicans and their increasing dissatisfaction with Democratic policies if the latter remain inadequate to the nation's economic challenges. It may be, however, that minorities are more likely to see economic and cultural politics as parts of a whole rather than conflicting imperatives. Meanwhile, suggesting that the next generation of white voters may be more "conservative" obscures the options available to them. They might become more "libertarian" in ways that could distinguish them significantly from this generation's "angry white male" Republicans, while libertarianism lacks some of the cultural stigma that repels many minorities from Republicanism. As things stand now, however, a libertarian takeover of the GOP is more likely, if objectively unlikely, than the still-long-awaited emergence of the Libertarian Party as a third major electoral alternative, and in that case the Republican stigma is likely to persist. On some level the question Leonhardt raises is moot. As long as Americans of all ages, races or ethnicities limit themselves to the major-brand options of Democrats and Republicans, we are all conservative.

07 July 2014

Guns and 'This Non-violent Stuff'

Over the Independence Day weekend I started reading Charles E. Cobb Jr.'s new book This Non-Violent Stuff'll Get You Killed. Its provocative subtitle is How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, but Cobb, a journalist drawing on some first-hand experience of the movement, doesn't seem to have intended his book as an intervention in the current gun-rights debate. Still, the gun lobby and the larger gun culture will draw inspiration from Cobb, whether he intends it or not. How can they not when he tells a first-hand account from the early Sixties of an old black man whose gun was confiscated by a segregationist mayor. The man is told by the civil-rights workers that he has a right to his gun in the Constitution. He goes back to the mayor and, barely literate, points to where he was told the Second Amendment was in the text -- and got his gun back. The moral for Cobb is that gun culture was so ingrained in the South -- and guns were still understood as necessary for hunting for poor blacks and whites alike -- that in this one case, at least, a white racist would deny a black man many of his civil rights, but not his right to bear arms.

While that tale is almost heartwarming there's more violent and suspenseful stuff in Cobb's book. He spotlights a history lost in the shadow of Martin Luther King's nonviolent demonstrations. In that history, armed blacks defended themselves, their families and their homes against racist attacks. Sometimes it was enough for the Klan to know that blacks were armed, and sometimes they had to be shot at. How did this make the Civil Rights Movement possible? It helps to understand the Movement as a kind of performance, the show Americans saw on the evening news with dogs and fire hoses. There non-violent resistance had its effect on public opinion. Off-stage, so to speak, Movement activists were thought to be in constant danger of attack by Klansmen or other "night riders," and there were enough actual incidents of murder to justify the suspicion. They often protected themselves with firearms -- even Dr. King kept some in his rooms when he traveled, though I don't know whether he had any in Memphis or if they could have saved him from a sniper -- or were protected by armed locals. In recounting all this, Cobb makes an important distinction between the right to armed self-defense, which King himself affirmed, and armed retaliation or outright insurrection. Until the later "Black Power" period, Movement leaders warned consistently against retaliation or revenge attacks, purging those few who advocated such measures. If one thing above all distinguishes the Movement from 21st century militia movements, if only in the eyes of gun-control activists, it is the perception that the militias are using the Second Amendment to assert a right to insurrection, while the Civil Rights people, or at least those discussed by Cobb, did not.

Can a believer in gun control justify civil-rights activists' appeals to the Second Amendment while refusing today's claims by the NRA and other groups? In other words, can you approve of the activity Cobb describes and still deny an individual right to bear arms? On a purely emotional level you would want the beleaguered heroes of Cobb's history to have every resource to protect themselves from racist terror -- especially when racists controlled local governments and law-enforcement and were unlikely to offer blacks the protection they were owed. When government clearly isn't doing its job, individuals have no recourse but to take up arms themselves. Some people may feel they're in a similar predicament today but after reading Cobb it's hard to take their complaints seriously. Whether or not we can take them seriously is one thing, however, and whether all such claims are equal under law is another. The constitutional question can't be settled simply by saying these people were good guys, but we think those people are bad guys. Meanwhile, new complications have emerged that could not have been anticipated fifty years ago, most notably the threat of the amoklaufer or mass shooter, which probably weighs more on most gun-control advocates than the threat of private militias. The real problem with the Second Amendment may be that it abstracts gun-control issues, especially when jurists interpret it through the filter of natural-rights theory, when the question of when people need to take up arms, either against oppressive neighbors or an oppressive government, may always be a matter of situational ethics and specific circumstances. Put another way, it actually may be correct to say they had a right to take up arms, but you don't -- that ends sometimes do justify or disqualify means -- but the Constitution gets in the way of actual moral judgment of such cases. You can't read Cobb's book without raising such questions for yourself, and I don't know if anyone --even the most ardent gun nut -- can read it without having some core assumptions challenged. I haven't finished the book yet, but I definitely can recommend it.

03 July 2014

Vote left, click right

David Brooks made a peculiar observation in his recent column on the rise of a "peer-to-peer" economy. His focus was on social networks that enabled people to rent cars or temporary living space to one another. These represent a welcome trend for Brooks, the emergence of an economic sector based mainly on social trust. This sector doesn't depend much on government regulation, Brooks notes -- and he finds that ironic or paradoxical in some way, because he presumes many of the people who participate in these networks to be "political progressives." For such people to rely more on unregulated trust networks, he writes, is to "vote left, but click right."

Brooks is one of the house conservatives on the New York Times editorial staff. By most standards, he is a moderate conservative, as is arguably demonstrated when he implies that the essence of conservatism -- to "click right" is to do business on a casual level without requiring government oversight. But perhaps he's revealing more about what he takes to be the essence of liberalism. Shouldn't liberals or "progressives" want these peer-to-peer networks regulated by the state?

Brooks is smart enough to partially answer his own question."We’re probably entering a world in which some [economic] sectors, like energy, retain top-down regulatory regimes," he writes, "Other sectors, like bake sales, are unregulated. But more sectors, like peer-to-peer, exist in a gray zone in between." He tries to work this down to a formula: "As mechanisms to establish private trust become more efficient, government plays a smaller role." This is sensible, but does that make it Right? Only if you presume that Left means the state must have an eye on every transaction between individuals. If anyone, only the most extreme communists have desired such a state of affairs.

Earlier, Brooks makes a distinction that might have clarified his attempt to distinguish "left" from "right" attitudes. He observes that many people are turning to peer-to-peer networks because they "have actually lost trust in big institutions." They're more willing to trust "strangers" who are also "peers" by virtue of their participation in these networks. Brooks sees this as part of an individualist, "personalistic" trend, which partly explains why he sees it as a "right" phenomenon even if the most ardent participants don't. He recognizes, however, that this trend is at least as much a rejection of corporate institutionalism as it is a revolt against a regulated economy. If these young people are as progressive, yet individualist, as Brooks believes, it's most likely that whether a business or an economic sector should be subject to government regulation is a matter of scale or proportion. Put most simply, it would make sense that an economy that truly functions on a "peer-to-peer" level, including the sort of peer review many of these social networks provide, should require minimal regulation, while an economy where the participants are not peers, and in which disparities of power are potentially if not inherently abusive, would require more state attention. Here is an important distinction between an American progressive and some communists. For the last century, since the time of Teddy Roosevelt, economic regulation has meant the regulation of economic power, on the Progressives' assumption that the consolidation of economic power, however inevitable or even necessary to a modern society, is at least potentially harmful both to working people and the body politic. In a peer-to-peer sector, the same danger simply doesn't arise, and no one is abandoning any progressive or "left" principles by letting it try to run itself.

At the same time, Brooks's hopeful prediction of a smaller role for government in the advent of private trust networks reminds me slightly of Karl Marx's promise that once true communism were achieved the state would wither away. I don't mean to suggest that Brooks's utopia of private trust networks is akin to Marx's dream of communism, but the two seem to have one important thing in common: the absence of what we recognize as capitalism. Conservatives might idealize peer-to-peer economies as free enterprise in their purest form -- and as long as they don't equate "free enterprise" with "capitalism," we might even concede the point. So if Republicans and (more likely) libertarians are also taking advantage of these peer-to-peer networks, are they voting right and clicking left?

02 July 2014

Obama and the cult of personality in American politics

The verdict of a Quinnipiac poll on President Obama's performance during his six years in office can't simply be dismissed as the result of Republican propaganda -- or racism -- or blamed on Republican obstructionism. By now it seems pretty nearly established as an objective fact that Barack Obama has been a sub-par President. Too many events around the world seem to have caught him flat-footed, and he has been unable, despite his own election victories, to win the larger policy or propaganda battles with a Republican party that is at least as unpopular as he is. Is Obama really the worst President since the end of World War II? For the moment he's the least popular from the perspective of 2014. This judgment isn't universal, of course. There are gender and, perhaps more importantly, generation gaps in perception of the man. He is most popular with the young, even as many young people grade him a failure on several policy fronts. Some will blame Obama's standing with young adults on "liberal media" brainwashing and bad education in the public schools, but the numbers may reflect a feeling among young people, in spite of Obama's own record, that he's the right kind of President for our time. Recent polls have shown new lows of esteem for all branches of government, including the Supreme Court. Is everyone in government more stupid than ever, or is the U.S. simply in a decline that thwarts anyone's efforts at leadership? Unfortunately, we'll probably have to endure another Republican presidency before most people will draw conclusions. For now, many can still convince themselves that a President with a more understanding attitude toward business could turn the country around, even though a reputedly business-friendly President presided over the 2008 recession.

That the Republicans will most likely win the Senate this year, and the White House in 2016, only illustrates the impasse we're stuck at. The American people have little confidence in either major party, but they still have less confidence in anyone else. If it's a point against Obama that he was relatively inexperienced in government before winning the Presidency, how willing would anyone be to take a chance on someone who, by virtue of being independent, will not have held any political office? Conservatives might claim that successful businessmen have the skill set necessary, but will anyone else agree? Fewer still would agree that a pure academic is qualified to run the country. However, if things stay as they are, more Americans may decide that the primary qualification for a President, despite the different reservations of conservatives and liberals, is that he be the sort of strong man that neither Obama nor George W. Bush has been, though both have been accused by their enemies of aspiring to that role.

Will a time come when the Republican or Democratic party is repudiated as decisively by the American people as Communist parties were by Eastern Europe in 1989? Communist parties are accused of building cults of personality around leaders but something similar goes on in the U.S. In our case, the faults of an administration are blamed on the people in charge, not on their party, so that Obama's rotten poll numbers reflect on him personally rather than on the Democratic party, even though his unpopularity may hurt Democrats generally this fall. The damage is always temporary, however, and in time the Democrats will present new candidates as "better people" than Obama, just as Republicans in 2016 will offer "better people" than George W. Bush. The cult of personality in American politics sustains the illusion that government failures are personal failures, not systemic ones. Since there will always be new people to run for office as Democrats or Republicans, the parties can survive any personal failure. Whether the country will survive many more is another question entirely, but if our survival depends on people overcoming bipolarchy I wouldn't get my hopes up.

01 July 2014

The Ukrainification of Iraq?

It was most likely only coincidence that I read today that Russia was sending fighter planes and pilots to Iraq to help the government fight the ISIS army, and that the Iranian foreign minister had accused the United States of wanting to turn Iraq into another Ukraine. I don't think the Iranian's reasoning had any influence on the Russian deployment. The Russians are helping Iraq, I presume, because ISIS is also the enemy of their more established ally, Syria. The Russians may also fear that their country will be a more immediate target for terrorism should ISIS consolidate power and begin to export jihad. Their help will most likely come with no strings attached, at least on the political level. By comparison, Iraqi negotiations with the U.S. are fraught with conditions which the al-Maliki and his Shiite party seem reluctant to meet and the Iranians equate with the Ukrainification of Iraq. I'm going to guess that what the Iranians mean by their Ukrainian analogy is not that a superpower is stirring up cultural tensions, in which case Russian help should be the last thing they want, but that in Iraq, as in Ukraine, a political minority is trying to destabilize a legitimate elected government. In Iranian eyes, this destabilizing force isn't ISIS, though they're obviously a conventional if not existential military threat, but Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds. Where American influence is most controversial, if not subversive, in Iranian eyes is in the Obama administration's insistence, at a moment of national peril, that al-Maliki's party give the Kurds and Sunnis a greater role in the national government. From Obama's perspective, al-Maliki's failure to govern according to pluralistic principles helped bring about the current crisis, giving ISIS a Sunni constituency it might not have had otherwise. From the Iranian perspective, Obama's interest is to reduce Shiite (and hence Iranian) influence in Iraq, despite whatever electoral mandate al-Maliki's party can claim. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government continues to unravel, its parliament failing to elect a Speaker today thanks to Sunni and Kurdish walkouts while the Shiites continue to resist power-sharing with the other sects or nationalities.  So what's going on in Iraq? Either Iran is emboldening the Shiites to stand on a winner-take-all ground despite legitimate objections, or else the Kurds and (especially) the Sunnis are simply malcontents emboldened by the U.S. and the ISIS uprising into undermining Iraq-Iran relations. No one actually wants ISIS to win -- except for the Saudis, according to some suspicions -- but Iraqis continue to squabble amongst themselves while ISIS continues to attack, while some observers believe a sort of Ukrainification is inevitable if not desirable, with Kurdistan as a Crimea that actually does become independent while Sunnis and Shiites split the rest of the country.

Back in Russia, President Putin gave a talk to his diplomatic corps headlined by a loyal news site with his declaration that "Everyone has right to be different." That's not my attempt at a Russian accent, but the actual headline. It's clear enough that by "everyone" Putin means nations, not individuals. In the article proper, he insists that all countries be allowed to "live at their own discretion." In other words, the U.S. and its allies shouldn't try to impose a single standard of good government for the entire world. Putin's rhetoric, in translation, sounds all right until you question the "their own discretion" part. Many in the west, at least, will question whether the Syrian people have really lived at "their own discretion" under the Assad dynasty, Russia's ally. But if you question the legitimacy of the Assads and their presumably fake elections, you can also question the democratic legitimacy of the Ukrainian Maidan revolt, and you can even question the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis' sense of entitlement to some demographic share in political power when their parties didn't win the election. In Iraq, from what I suppose is Putin's perspective, al-Maliki's party has the power -- they won the election -- and no other country should question how they distribute power. If that gets al-Maliki beheaded by Sunni jihadists, too bad -- Putin will probably move on and deal with the new regime, whether the U.S. or Iran likes it or not, unless ISIS is as crazy as many believe and does launch a global jihad. For most people, I think, the real question that makes Iraq scary right now is precisely, "What might ISIS do?" In practical terms the question is: should ISIS be allowed to conquer Iraq? How Iraq should be governed is a separate question unless you can prove that al-Maliki's policies vis-a-vis the Sunnis are the immediate cause of the ISIS uprising. Whether the world has a say in either question remains a subject for debate.