30 September 2014

Muslim Defeats Patriots

Don't worry: it was only a game. The Kansas City Chiefs, who are somehow less offensive to people than the Washington Redskins -- perhaps location matters -- soundly whipped the New England Patriots in yesterday's Monday Night Football game. One of the highlight for Chiefs fans -- and for the many haters of the too-successful Patriots -- was a pass interception ran back for a touchdown by Kansas City safety Husain Abdullah. A devout Muslim (convert or native I don't know), Abdullah actually skipped a season of pro football so he and his brother could make the pilgrimage to Mecca. He's also an exuberant football player in the modern demonstrative style. As he crossed the goal line, he slid to his knees and then made a prayerful bow to thank Allah for his success. The Chiefs were then penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Everyone was quick to deny that Abdullah was penalized specifically for making a sort of Muslim prayer in the end zone. Abdullah himself assumes that the referee actually objected to his flamboyant knee slide. The NFL has had an issue with end-zone celebrations going back generations. They seem unseemly to old-timers who recall a stoicism that once was the image of unpretentious heroism in sports. The old ideal was the wide receiver who, having caught the touchdown pass, calmly handed the football to the referee and reported back to the sidelines. Our culture has grown more exhibitionist since then, and the argument has been made that some people need to celebrate their triumphs. Throughout professional sports, this triumphalism is taken to absurdity by the devoutly religious. To me, the silliest such spectacle is the Christian baseball player who needs to cross himself or point his index fingers skyward to thank the Lord for hitting a single. In football, the more secular celebrations have always borne an inference of taunting that make them "unsportsmanlike" in official eyes. Add Islam into the mix and things could grow more volatile. Muslims have played in the NFL since the fad for "reversions" to Islam, orthodox or otherwise, began in the 1960s. Muslim football players are rarely as overtly devout as Abdullah. One covert, Ahmad Rashad, was so unthreatening a figure that he became a successful sports broadcaster in the 1980s after his retirement from the game. Husain Abdullah is being compared not with his Muslim predecessors in football but with a more recent player: Tim Tebow, the failed quarterback who gained a (dare I say?) cult following because of his overt Christianity. To my knowledge, Tebow was never penalized for striking prayerful poses after throwing touchdowns or running them in, though some of his fans believe his NFL career was thwarted due to secular-humanist antipathy toward his devotions. For now, it remains a matter of interpretation whether Abdullah was punished for his devotions. As I noted, he doesn't think so himself, but a statement from the league declaring the referee wrong for having penalized him suggests that the front office is worried about having appeared Islamophobic last night. If anything, however, the NFL more likely will be accused of "political correctness" for its retraction. In the long view, this episode is just another complication in the league's conflict with itself over the behavior of players on the field. By now, I suspect, most people have no idea why anyone objects to end-zone celebrations. Most fans see them as part of the entertainment, but the NFL seems haunted by the lingering idea that entertainment and sports are two different things. On top of that, religion is a third thing altogether -- or is it?...

29 September 2014

God's gift to Islamophobes

Terrorism is more successful at empowering terrorists than it is at terrorizing people. It may not give certain terrorists the political power they desire, but it certainly gives them the power to lash out at people to avenge their grievances. The man in Oklahoma who beheaded a former co-worker and attacked another before getting shot (not fatally) by a "good guy with a gun," i.e. a reserve deputy who happens to work at the site, probably had at least as many personal grievances as he had religious or political ones. A recent convert to Islam, he reportedly became a Muslim counterpart to the obnoxious evangelical Christians who try to "witness" to people, and his proselytizing -- one can only imagine the pitch -- may have been a factor in his getting fired. A typical workplace amoklauf, then, except for the choice of weapon and the professed faith of the perpetrator. Those make him a "terrorist" in many eyes, presumably on the premise that anyone motivated by Islam, to any extent, to kill people is a terrorist rather than a plain old murderer or crazy person. Some say there's more to it, pointing to the purported radicalism of an imam at the Oklahoma City Islamic center the killer attended, as if a workplace rampage could be part of someone's strategy to destabilize the United States. The inevitable Islamophobic backlash might be more destabilizing if people leap to the conclusion that Islam was the necessary and sufficient cause of the Oklahoma rampage and conclude, as one Oklahoma legislator has reportedly, that Islam is a "cancer" that must be rooted out of the American body politic.

I'll go this far: Islam and the specific example of the self-styled Islamic State's beheadings may have been the killer's trigger, but had it not been Islam it may have been something else eventually. Terrorism may be a means to an end politically, but some people are terrorists in their hearts or minds before they ever have a political thought or feeling. People like this man probably wish they could kill people -- at the least, they definitely wish people dead -- but they might flounder in their personal fantasy worlds until they stumble upon something that empowers them by entitling them. For any number of reasons, Islam was this man's entitling trigger, but there are other such triggers out there, starting with other religions. What this guy lacked before, possibly, was that one thing to get him over whatever inhibitions kept him from lashing out, to tell him that it's not only OK but right and necessary to kill. And after all that it's still unclear whether he thought he was waging a jihad on his co-workers or he simply thought beheading was cool and badass. Whatever the ultimate truth this guy is the worst thing to happen to American Muslims in a long time because of the convert-to-killer arc drawn in a media-driven rush to judgment. The best thing they can do right now is make it clear to concerned outsiders that the man had tried to convert to the "religion of peace" but had clearly failed. Rather than worry, however understandably, that his crime will subject other Muslims to undeserved scrutiny if not outright persecution, they need to make the case that, whatever the killer himself thinks, he isn't one of them but one of the many Americans who need an excuse to kill and found one.

Where Separatism is Illegal -- sort of

Now it's Spain's turn. The region of Catalonia wants to hold a referendum, emulating Scotland, on whether to secede and become an independent country. But the central government claims that the referendum will be unconstitutional if the Catalonians don't get permission from Madrid. Whether the Spanish government would give such permission seems unlikely, since the prime minister has said that "Nobody and nothing will be allowed to break up Spain."

Catalonia is described as one of Spain's richest and most industrialized regions, with Barcelona its showpiece city. BBC reports describe the independence movement in terms many might recognize as right-wing: the secessionists reportedly resent being taxed to support poorer parts of the country. There's probably more to it than that, since Catalonia had some degree of autonomy until about 300 years ago. Like Scotland, there's a "national" heritage cherished in contrast, if not in opposition, to Spanish national identity. Such vestiges probably can be found in all the modern nation-states of western Europe, all of which, after all, were founded in the forms we know today by one dynasty or principality subjecting several others in the epoch of "absolute" monarchy. These stirrings in a part of the world (western Europe as a whole, that is) widely regarded as the most civilized on the planet should silence some of the perhaps-bigoted sneering at apparently intractable tribalism in the Middle East, but that doesn't mean that a global trend towards "balkanization" isn't a matter of global concern wherever it occurs. Separatism most likely isn't just an outburst of tribal bigotry or nationalist ambition, but also a protest against misgovernment, real or alleged, tainted by the impulse to leave erstwhile fellow citizens to their fate. You can understand why national governments oppose separatist movements everywhere, but "separatist" shouldn't be used as a label that allows you to dismiss complaints that may have more legitimacy and universal relevance. Lately we've seen the extremes of China's imprisonment of an apparently non-violent separatist and the United Kingdom's successful gamble that a free vote on Scotland's independence would go the U.K's way. Spain now appears to be at a constitutional impasse, delaying the moment of truth more nations may face as more people question whether or not the forces of centralization and consolidation are irreversible, and others ask whether they should be.

24 September 2014

Right makes might?

The President's main purpose in appearing before the United Nations General Assembly today was to justify the American air campaign against the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and to solicit further global support for the overall campaign to destroy the IS. With that came a lot of predictable statements about how Obama's war won't be like Bush's, and how American and Muslim values are perfectly compatible, once you eliminate extremism. I found it more interesting that he felt it necessary to bring up Ukraine again, at a time when Russia's support against the IS would be quite helpful. But if Russia values the Assad dictatorship in Syria so much I suppose the Russians have to stand against the IS no matter what Obama says. That aside, the President's comments on Ukraine showed again that, no matter how he seeks to differentiate himself from George W. Bush and the neocons, as an American he wears a set of blinders very similar to those a Republican president might sport at such a gathering. American and Russian responses to the Maidan uprising, Obama argues, show that the Russians live by the "might makes right" principle, while Americans believe that "right makes might."

Here's how the President described the uprising in Ukraine: "Here are the facts. After the people of Ukraine mobilized popular protests and calls for reform, their corrupt President fled." Obama's assumption, we can infer, is that no one -- not the Russophone Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country who supported the "corrupt" president, nor their Russian sympathizers and sponsors, nor anyone else on Earth -- had a moral right to question the legitimacy of what happened in Kiev. But to put it another way, a mob of hundreds of thousands of people intimidated a weak leader into abandoning his post. Leave aside what the mob or the president stood for. Does this sound like "right makes might" or "might makes right" to you? If it were a million of so Tea Partiers (or Occupiers, to be nonpartisan about it) converging in Washington D.C. and deciding to stay until Obama resigned, the President would certainly see things very differently. No principled argument against his authority or legitimacy would be likely to sway him, while his supporters certainly would see the opposed masses as nothing but a mob. Most Americans -- probably even most Republicans -- would probably agree. Our country has a rule of law, as well as free and fair elections; these are the instruments of accountability for elected leaders. "People power" may be an instrument of democratization, but most liberals would probably say it has no place in an established constitutional democracy. In someplace like Ukraine, however, "people power" is deemed necessary and proper by many American observers. These Americans recognized no "rule of law" in that country that trumped the prerogatives of "people power," because they had decided that Yanukovych was "corrupt" (as he probably was) and, worse -- as Obama prudently omitted to mention -- a stooge of Russia.

Americans reserve for themselves, as opinionated individuals if not as world rulers, the right to decide whether other countries have adequate "rule of law" or when "people power" is justified in toppling governments. I don't think a foreign observer has to be an "authoritarian" or an "elitist" to find both the American attitude and the Ukrainian example, as reaffirmed by Obama today, rather alarming. We shouldn't really go too far to the other side -- there ought to be cases when a "right to revolution" could be recognized universally -- but we should consider the other point of view enough to recognize an inconsistency between the vision of global stability the President preaches and his uncritical endorsement of a form of mob rule wherever he sees fit. When Obama says "right makes might," he certainly doesn't mean that liberal democracy will give Ukraine the power to fend off Russian aggression. He means quite specifically that "bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones," Russia being the bully in the Ukraine scenario and that powerful outsiders would be justified, right making might, in punishing the bully. For Obama, "might makes right" really means what most Americans believe, regardless of party: that American-style liberal democracy (in simpler terms, "freedom") always deserves to win and should be helped to win by liberal democrats around the world. His U.N. audience may be excused for seeing little difference, despite his own disclaimers, between Obama and Bush -- but one possible difference might worry them. It was easy for many around the world, and in the U.S., to see Bush's idealist rhetoric as a flimsy veil for the cynical greed of his cronies -- but Obama may really believe all this stuff.

23 September 2014

Where separatism is illegal

Xinjiang has been part of China far longer than Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom, but the example of Israel suggests, sometimes to Israel's own chagrin, that there's no statute of limitation on national aspirations. That doesn't mean a country can't pass a law against them. The U.K. was a model recently of how to address such aspirations when the central government allowed a referendum on Scottish secession and agreed to abide by the result. In central Europe the peaceful separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the former components of Czechoslovakia, also seems like a high point of civility. In other countries, like the United States, it's okay to advocate secession, but our Civil War sets an ominous precedent should any state actually attempt to secede. By comparison, China may look less hypocritical in some eyes for simply forbidding separatist activism. The Chinese government has just sentenced an ethnic Uyghur scholar from Xinjiang to life in prison for the crime of "separatism." From China's own English-language account of the sentencing it's unclear whether they equate "separatism" with incitement to violence or whether merely advocating Uyghur independence, or even greater Uyghur autonomy within China, is a crime in Chinese eyes.

Xinjiang's situation differs from Scotland in that Uyghurs have been blamed for terrorist attacks inside China in recent years, while we're some centuries removed from the last violent uprising in Scotland. Why is Uyghur nationalism violent while Scots nationalism isn't? The tempting answer is that the Chinese government is "violent" toward Uyghur aspirations in a way the United Kingdom hasn't been for some time. But there can be resentment of central rule by an ethnic other without violence being part of it, or else there wouldn't be a Scots separatist movement at all. It may be easy to dismiss Uyghur separatism or nationalism because it's sometimes violent -- not to mention because Uyghurs are Muslims -- compared to Scots nationalism or even Tibetan nationalism within China. But to China separatism (or "splittism") is the original offense, before violence enters the equation. The Chinese government shares with many Americans the belief that political union is inseparable, and that separatism is always a step backward. That's the American belief about their own country, at least, even though we let our fellow citizens argue to the contrary. Even here, however, a growing distrust of all large institutions, including the state, has been noted, and looking outward Americans often cheer for the world's separatists, accepting their narratives of oppression by tyrannical majorities or repressive central bureaucracies. It may be an objective fact that the Chinese are oppressing the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, but does it follow that the remedy for such oppression is the hyper-balkanization of the planet. Ideally an Uyghur is equal to a Han Chinese, a Scot to a Briton -- but does that require the existence of four countries rather than two?

In every country, no person should feel like less of a citizen, or less of a human being, because of their ethnicity -- but on some level --politically, at a bare minimum -- shouldn't every person feel more like a human being and less essentially ethnic? Unfortunately, the 20th century's major attempt to cultivate a predominant "human" identity seemed oppressive to nearly every ethnicity, while China's superficial continuation of that effort may simply mask Han chauvinism at the expense of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans and other minorities. It might still be argued that the adoption of a "human" identity by everyone is essential for humanity's long-term survival, but it must also be acknowledged that resistance is inevitable. It should be possible to deplore abuses of majority rule or large-scale centralized government, or at least to sympathize with the victims of such abuse, without abandoning a belief that the necessary trend is away from separatism, nationalism, sectarianism and tribalism. That may mean sometimes deciding that separatism is unjustified -- possibly more often than not -- but it also means holding every nation to the same standard of equal treatment of all its people, whether our own lives up to that standard or not.

22 September 2014

Actual conservatism? In defense of big organizations

David Brooks is one of the house conservatives at the New York Times. Practically speaking, that means he represents the point of view of Republicans, albeit of the more "thoughtful" kind, and with the caveat that many Republicans probably would regard the likes of Brooks as a RINO. He probably isn't expected to articulate philosophical or even practical conservatism, but he did so, whether he intended it or not, in one of last week's columns. Lamenting the inability of African countries to respond effectively to the latest Ebola outbreak, Brooks blames an absence of infrastructure in the afflicted countries. He goes on to observe a disdain for infrastructure in other places, synonymous with many Americans' disdain for government itself. Writing as a conservative, Brooks sees this as a decline from the 20th century.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.
Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are [seen as] dinosaurs.

His capitalization of "Organization Man" refers back to a 1950s bestseller that warned of a trade-off between collective organization and individual creativity. Starting in the Fifties people grew anxious about the conformity that might be imposed by collective organization, whether on the state level in Communist states or on the cultural level by corporate monopolies and pervasive mass media. Bigness itself became suspect as "Small is Beautiful" became a mantra for some. If Brooks now sees all of this as a sort of backsliding, at the time it was thought a healthy reaction to societies that had gone too far in one way or another. It's clear that a new kind of alienation evolved at midcentury that still inhibits many of us. Yet we still think of the years before as the heyday of the "Greatest Generation," and Brooks doesn't seem to disagree, at least on this score. His is a particularly daring and challenging conservatism when it comes to the defense of big government. though as a Republican he most likely would question whether big government is the best solution to all problems. To the extent that it does solve some problems best, as he argues in the case of epidemics, Brooks might ask what it would take to make people more comfortable again with big organizations or governments, whether the alienation so many have felt can be transcended. It really might just be a matter of time. In the 1930s, threatened by economic depression and fascistic aggression, many people around the world felt there was no hope for survival outside big institutions. In our time "survivalism" is still identified with an individualist ethos, but how much longer will that last should we see more pandemics, more globalized terrorism, more climatological upheaval? Before long, true survivalism may be identified with pragmatic submission to effective authority, though it may prove harder for us or our descendants to swallow that than it was for our grandparents or their parents. We seem more ready to see authority as Other rather than of us. Whatever it takes to change that is what actual conservatives should call for. If a conservative like David Brooks isn't willing to wait until catastrophe to call for change, that may be a good sign.

19 September 2014

Separatism without violence?

The people of Scotland voted yesterday by a 55% to 45% margin to remain in the United Kingdom, defeating a secessionist movement that was clearly popular and widespread. So when does the guerrilla warfare commence? Probably we shouldn't hold our breath. I haven't even heard anyone complain of fraud at the polls. Does this prove anything? If Scottish secessionism doesn't turn violent, does that prove that Scots care less about independence than, say, Russophone Ukrainians? It's probably safer to say the Scots care in a different way, or to a different degree. Obviously, many Scots believe that independence is a good idea, something worth trying. Far fewer, as obviously, feel that their lives or even their sense of identity depend on independence. We shouldn't conclude that some nationalities don't believe in independence as much as others if they don't believe in fighting for it. But it may be true that a place like Scotland will never be independent unless Scots are willing to fight for it, even to the point, probably, of fighting other Scots. That observation is not meant as a reproach against the Scots. The fact is, they don't have to be independent. If anything, by bucking a possible global trend toward separatism and tribalism, the Scots this week may have proven themselves among the world's most progressive people. If those who do deeply believe in independence don't believe in forcing it upon their more reluctant brethren at gunpoint, that would only be further proof. Personally, I was indifferent to whether Scotland seceded or not, and apart from the U.S. government I suspect most Americans felt the same way. The campaign for independence carried no ideological import, or was vested with none by our punditocracy. If only we could see similar conflicts around the world as clearly.

17 September 2014

Kerry meets his critics, in front and behind him

This afternoon's Senate hearing of Secretary Kerry was a spectacle displaying American government at something like its best, in character if not in wisdom or efficiency. The thing you noticed immediately were the silent protesters holding antiwar signs behind the Secretary of State, who had come before the committee to advocate for war against the self-styled Islamic State, throughout the hearing. Remarkably, they were not removed and Kerry, long ago an anti-war protester himself, went to the trouble of addressing them. His address was unlikely to convince them -- predictably, he emphasized the IS's systemic misogyny to refute arguments against war from Code Pink, a female-directed protest group. Certainly Kerry must recall that in his youth the warmongers of the time warned of the atrocities to be committed on all freedom-loving people by Communists, and as a soldier in Vietnam he no doubt saw Communist atrocities close up. Yet he turned against the Vietnam War and appeared  before the Senate not merely as a protester or heckler but as a witness to make the case that the war then being waged was not the answer to whatever threat the Viet Cong represented. Does he think the women of Code Pink are ignorant of Islamist misogyny, of reports of rape and enslavement? They are not so clueless, surely, yet as Kerry believed about Vietnam more than forty years ago, they believe now that an air war against ISIS won't solve the problems it feeds upon. That someone must stop the IS as a matter of humane principle no one disputes; how it is to be done, and by whom, are questions that should be asked without presumptions of naivete or cowardice from those being questioned.

With Code Pink waving signs behind him, Kerry was literally in the middle when questioned by Senator McCain, who used an American ambassador to Syria as a kind of human shield while he spouted his characteristic insanity. He relayed (in fact, previewed) the ambassador's report from the Free Syrian Army, i.e. the "good" rebels in that country, that they considered their government, the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, a greater threat than ISIS. McCain then questioned the priorities of Kerry and President Obama; why adopt an "ISIL first" strategy when the real priority, at least as far as McCain is concerned, is to put the Free Syrian Army in power, or at least to replace the Assad government? The Arizonan wants the Obama administration to order airstrikes against Assad in order to prevent the dictator from bombing the "good" rebels, while Kerry struggled to nudge McCain toward a more "confidential" discussion of the nation's Syria strategy. McCain represents those Americans who want no power in Syria except one that'll be friendly toward the U.S., if not also toward America's friends. If anything, it appeared more important to him to topple Assad than to destroy the IS. Fortunately, his position isn't even necessarily representative of Republicans. Sen. Paul noted during his turn with Kerry that had we bombed Assad last year, ISIS might well have taken all Syria by now. On the other hand, many avowed liberals share this dangerous impulse to destroy all dictators. This sort of fanaticism needlessly complicates the crafting of a true international coalition against the IS. There really does seem to be a consensus that ISIS needs to be destroyed; there obviously isn't a consensus that Assad must go. The Iranians, Russians and others will not accept that outcome. We can call them all a bunch of authoritarian poopyheads, or we can make a grown-up decision to do one thing or another -- the thing nearly everyone agrees with or the thing many refuse. Even then, it's one thing to agree with the world about destroying ISIS, and another, just as important, to consult with the Senate and the American people -- with Congress and Code Pink -- before committing resources to that mission. No one wants the IS to win on any front, as far as I know, but we still need to decide what it's worth to us, and to the rest of the world, to stop them.

11 September 2014

A disagreement among Christians

One reason Republicans have gotten especially worked up over the rise of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is the understanding that the Sunni takfiris are persecuting local Christians along with other non-Sunni groups. I'm sure many Americans feel that this country, as a "Christian nation" has a special responsibility to protect Christians around the world. Senator Cruz of Texas apparently felt that way when he addressed the "In Defense of Christians" group last night. That organization is dedicated to the defense in particular of Christians in the Middle East from attacks by Muslim extremists. Cruz apparently went in thinking that "Christian" trumped "Middle Eastern" as far as these people were concerned. He may also have assumed that the enemy of their enemy must or should be their friend. In any event, he went on the podium before these Middle Eastern Christians and told them that "Christians have no greater ally than Israel." As reported on this Christian news site (with video) he was practically booed off the stage, but not before chastising his audience. It was un-Christian to hate Israel or the Jews, he said, forgetting or at least regretting centuries of history that testifies otherwise. He hoped to impress upon his hearers that all the groups persecuted or hated by the IS should stand together. They weren't buying it, and in a climax that was actually impressive in a way, Cruz basically told them to drop dead. If you won't stand with Israel, he said, I won't stand with you. I don't think this means he'll no longer protest the persecution of Christians by the Islamic State. More likely he'll simply prefer to deal with the Middle Eastern Christians of his conservative Republican imagination, much as most American politicians support the Syrian rebels of their imagination while ignoring the real ones.

It's interesting that most of the people posting comments on the Christian news site, seeing evidence that could be interpreted to show that Cruz cares more about Israelis than Christians, support Cruz's stand, seeing him of a man of principle. So do Republican Christians in the U.S. care more for Israelis than Christians in the Middle East when forced to choose? I suspect so, for a variety of reasons, ranging from an apocalyptic belief in Israel's role in prophecy to a suspicion that believers in Syria and Iraq aren't "real" Christians by some doctrinal or denominational standard. Most likely, I suspect, right-wing Christians are likely to see their beleaguered fellow believers, met face to face, as Arabs (if not dirty Arabs) first, and Christians second at best. Meanwhile, it should be remembered that Christians had it relatively good under the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria. At the very least, neither Saddam Hussein nor the Assads ever forced Christians in their countries to convert or die. A lingering loyalty to Baathism, if not a sense of "Arab" identity, may explain their persistent hostility toward Israel. But it may also have been simple resentment that Cruz saw fit to bring up Israel on an occasion intended to spotlight the persecution of Christians. Cruz and his supporters go away feeling that their Middle Eastern co-religionists are un-Christian in some important respect, and the feeling may be mutual. Get two or more Christians in a room together -- outside of a church, that is -- and that's likely to happen.

10 September 2014

Picking winners in Syria

While making his case for further American military action against the self-styled Islamic State tonight, the President is expected to call for further American support for "vetted" or "moderate" rebels against the Syrian government. Neither Obama nor the Republicans seem reconciled to the idea that Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship may be Syria's best defense against an IS takeover. In fact, you're likely to read or hear that Assad is somehow to blame for ISIS's ascendancy in his own country -- that's "Islamic State in Syria," after all, if only through his refusal to capitulate and abdicate. You also hear from Republicans (and some hawkish Democrats) that Obama is to blame for the spread of ISIS because he hasn't heretofore given adequate support to the moderates who are somehow to defeat both ISIS and Assad. If they were capable they'd be winning -- but this argument won't work with those idealists who feel that there has to be a moderate force, a Syrian constituency for liberal, pluralist democracy. Such a force would automatically deserve to win and therefore should be supported with all available resources. If they don't win, if Syria remains a Baathist dictatorship (if not an Alawite monarchy) or becomes part of a jihadist caliphate, it has to be Obama's fault in particular and the U.S.'s fault in general because liberal pluralist democrats have to win everywhere, and liberal pluralist democrats everywhere have to support their comrades in Syria.

There's been an uprising in Syria because the country is a dictatorship and quite a few Syrians can't stand it. Bashar al-Assad may as well be King Bashar; his dynastic succession is as much an insult to the modernist ideals of the Baath party as Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un's reigns have been to Marxism and Leninism. Plenty of Syrians presumably have plenty of reasons to be rid of Assad and the Baathists, if not of the Alawite clique over which Bashar presides. But what do these disgruntled Syrians want in Assad's place? Americans suppose that they know what the Syrians should want, but it doesn't follow that that's what the people who actually first took up arms against Assad wanted. The sad fact is that there seems to be no consensus among the Syrian rebels themselves, who seem to fight amongst themselves as often as they fight the government. There are relative liberals among the rebels, but all accounts portray them as weak -- that may come with the liberalism -- and there's no reason to believe that American money and material support will make them any more formidable than the Iraqi army has been in the face of the IS assault. There's no evidence I know of to indicate that a majority of rebel supporters, much less a majority of Syrians, seek the sort of liberal pluralist democracy we think they should want. Perhaps the best proof against any Assad complaint that the entire uprising is an American plot is the fact that our favorites aren't in command right now. But a sudden ascendancy of liberal pluralist fighters, without a proportionate expansion of their popular base, would allow Assad to say that the U.S. has co-opted the uprising as much as the jihadis have. Leaving that aside, doesn't it simply seem unfair for us, who didn't start this rebellion, to dictate how it should turn out, or to say this particular group should win regardless of their share of fighting or organization? Offensive as it may be to our liberal sensibilities, the best option may be to let Assad win, if he can, if not to help him win. But Assad is too friendly with Iran and Russia, and too unfriendly with Israel, for most Americans to support him even for the sake of regional stability. Yet he may be the Stalin we must work with, clothespins on noses if necessary, to defeat the caliphists we deem the Hitlers of our time. But I fear that too many of today's Americans, transplanted to World War II, would root for moderates to win the battle of Stalingrad.

09 September 2014

Corruption in an Ideological Age

Today is Primary Day in New York State. Governor Andrew Cuomo is being challenged for the Democratic and Working Families party lines by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who has just published a book on Corruption in America through Harvard University Press. Teachout's challenge to Cuomo, amid claims that the governor behaved corruptly by constraining a committee he created to investigate legislative corruption, has drawn considerable attention to her book. Her main argument appears to be that the Supreme Court today fails to take seriously the corrupting potential of money in politics by defining corruption too narrowly. The Roberts Court has ruled that large campaign donations do not by themselves corrupt recipients, on the understanding that "corruption" means an explicit quid-pro-quo exchange of money for policy. In other words, the Roberts majority will recognize corruption only if a politician can be proved to have solicited money, or had been promised money, in return for a specific vote on legislation.

As Teachout acknowledges, it is easier to presume corruption than to prove it, and much easier to make the charge during a campaign than to make it stick in court. But she remains convinced that corruption is a fact traceable to the role of money in politics and the inequality of influence that inevitably results as campaigns grow ever more dependent on money in our multimedia age.

So what is corruption in relation to campaign donations? Our first impression, almost certainly, is that money in politics corrupts a politician if it changes his or her mind. We would have no problem presuming corruption, even if a quid-pro-quo couldn't be proven, if a Democratic legislator with a "progressive" reputation started voting to abolish regulations on industry after receiving donations from the Koch brothers. Yet the Kochs are understood to reserve their donations primarily for Republicans, and Republicans, for the most part, are presumed to have an ideological affinity with the brothers already. Can the Kochs actually corrupt Republican conservatives or libertarians? You would need very specific proof even for suspicion, something like a pet project of interest or concern only to the brothers, as opposed to an overall ideological agenda with which ideological politicians are presumed already to agree -- some legislation with no apparent purpose but to make the Kochs money. Absent that, the Kochs' donations only sponsor candidates who already agree with them on principle and need the money to get elected, not persuaded.

The ideological polarization (or bipolar ideologization) of American politics arguably renders traditional concepts of political corruption obsolete, if ideologues are understood to be incapable of changing their minds on policy or principle. Could the Kochs possibly change Elizabeth Warren's (or Zephyr Teachout's) mind about anything? Or for the sake of balance, could George Soros (or whomever right-wingers see as the leftist moneyman of the moment) change Ted Cruz's mind? If anything, the hardening of ideology has only encouraged investments in politics by the wealthy, not because money changes more minds but because ideological politicians are safer investments than pragmatists or politicians with any pretense of objectivity.

Suppose a corrupting influence of money over politics could be proved. What would that mean? Presumably it would mean not just that a politician votes a certain way because he receives money from someone -- that's the influence -- but also that he votes in a way inconsistent with an objective or pragmatic understanding, whenever either is possible, of the national interest or the public good -- that's the corruption. The only reason to care about corruption is if corruption means that politicians will vote the wrong way. If you don't presume that some policy questions have right or wrong answers, or good or bad consequences, then anyone should be able to influence his representative with all the arguments or enticements at his disposal. Corruption is bad -- is corrupt -- if it closes a politician's mind, if it blinds him to the right thing to do or inspires him to knowingly reject it. Ever since the Founders rejected the idea that constituents could explicitly and bindingly instruct representatives how to vote, American politics presumes that representatives will legislate with open, objective minds. If ideology is the opposite of an open or objective mind, while it is also possible to know the "right thing to do" without reference to ideology, then ideology itself is the real corrupting element in politics, and money in politics is only gravy. Of course, it's even more impossible to ban ideology than it would be to ban corruption. You can only hope that ordinary Americans will recognize ideology as corrupt -- or, more likely, "crazy," -- and rise up against them like people rose up against Communist ideologues in Europe a generation ago. But despite persistent and increasing disgruntlement in the electorate that result seems no more likely than ever -- and if that lamentable state of affairs can be traced to money in politics, if money can be blamed for Americans thinking they can only ever choose between two lousy options, maybe that's where the real corruption is.

08 September 2014

The NBA and 'freedom of speech' in civil society

Once again an owner of a National Basketball Association franchise is pressured to sell because of allegedly racist comments made in a less-than-private environment. In this case the owner of the Atlanta Hawks is being shamed out of the league for opining that efforts should have been made to attract more white fans to home games, the implication being that the existing crowd, from the players to the cheerleaders to the people already in the seats, were too black for some people's comfort. For some observers this is further proof that the U.S. is going down the chute of political correctness, but such observers need a gentle reminder that it is not the United States government pushing the poor man out, however much some would like to see President Obama behind this in some way. Instead, the NBA is part of what pundits and political scientists call "civil society," the conglomeration of private, voluntary associations that provide what many consider a necessary buffer between the individual and the state. A healthy civil society is deemed essential to liberal democracy by those who note its absence wherever liberal democracy fails to take root. Where there is civil society, it is presumed, the people are more free, in part because civil society relieves them of dependence on government for mere existence, or for information about the world. Taking the long view, these sweeping claims for civil society may be true. But in a pluralist society it is accepted that common standards of, for want of a better word, civility, will not and can not prevail among all the institutions that form civil society. Civil society must accommodate, to some extent, religions that require adherents to be less "free" than the liberal ideal. So too, it seems, it must accommodate entities like the NBA that have decided not to tolerate the least hint of racism among franchise owners, however much their policies appear to violate liberal principles of privacy and free speech. That's how it has to be, I suppose, if civil society is necessary to a civil nation, not to mention civilization -- and if civil society isn't just someone's synonym for free enterprise or laissez-faire.

05 September 2014

The sklavenmoral of the master class

David Brooks has described Russia's interventions in Ukraine and the rise of the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq as "revolts of the weak." That sounds paradoxical since both ISIS and Vladimir Putin are perceived to advance their interests through raw application of force. To call them "weak" is almost to say that strength, or at least brute force, is weakness. However, Brooks isn't talking about physical strength or the kind that finds expression in warfare. Instead, Russians, Muslims and others are "weak" if they "can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization." By appealing to pure force, "they are conspiring to blow up the rule book."

When is strength not strength but weakness? When a transvaluation of values is underway. Brooks's column put me back into the Nietzschean frame of mind I've worked within on and off for a while recently. It had struck me that in modern times we had seen an ultimate transvaluation, an upending of Nietzsche's own genealogy of morals. As I remember it, he theorized that morality, as we know it, arose from a revolt of the "weak." Previously, when the strong, or strength, ruled without question, people thought only in terms of good and bad. Strength was good, the lack of it bad. Morality introduced the idea that the opposite of good was "wrong" or "evil." The strong should not claim power simply because they are strong; to thus rule over the weak was morally wrong, if not evil. Nietzsche proposed that the weak conquered the strong, on one level at least, once concepts of morality prevailed at every class level.

Nietzsche imagined morality as the revolt of have-nots against haves, and so called it a sklavenmoral or "slave morality," but in the 21st century morality both sides appeal to its principles. Isn't it a sklavenmoral, a repudiation of strength, when the haves tell the have-nots that they may not take what they need to survive (or simply what they want) even though they can, presumably, through strength of numbers -- either in raw physical terms or through the vehicle of democratic government?  Here's an important difference: the sklavenmoral of the have-nots targets the haves' conscience by calling them evil and warning them of divine retribution or other bad consequences of their abuse of power, while the sklavenmoral of the haves targets the conscience or, rather, the low self-esteem of the have-nots by calling them weak and arguing that they don't deserve the things they want or need.

Sklavenmorals are probably inevitable in any competitive environment. In less philosophical terms, this sort of morality is rooted in the feeling that your more successful competitor has cheated in some way. That feeling presumes that your own way of doing something is sufficient if not exclusively correct, and shields you from the more painful conclusions that someone else's way is better or that you're inherently limited no matter what way you do things. When competition is a given, any rules proposed are inevitably self-serving. The rich have gotten wealthy the right way, for instance, and it's wrong for others simply to take wealth from them by force or other means the wealthy don't respect. Force is proof of bad character and an essential weakness of those who can't play by the rules. True competition, however, has no rules, and the only true rule is that which ends competition -- or at least competition for survival. By Nietzschean standards that itself is slave morality, and by my own it still is, I suppose, since I'm proposing a competition against a natural order of competition with the rules changed in my favor. This anti-competitive morality has one special virtue, I suggest: it'll never be hypocritical, as nearly all other moralizing is, whether philosophical or political.

03 September 2014

'Convert them or kill them'

Who said it? If you've looked at any entertainment news today, you know that it was Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, addressing the problem of the Islamic State while promoting his new book on Sean Hannity's TV show. Robertson says his preference would be to engage ISIS in bible study and teach them about Jesus, but if the other option is a war of religion he's "prepared for either one."

Put this quote in the bank and save it for the next time someone says Christians aren't like that, or haven't been for centuries. As for those already coming to Robertson's defense by saying that ISIS and other Islamic extremists "started it," the fact is that Christians have been saying that Muslims started it ever since they first heard of Muhammad. Muslims "started it," as far as Christians are concerned, by denying the divinity of Jesus and daring to claim that God gave humanity yet another revelation. I don't mean to say that Muslims are innocent over the course of global history, but that they ceased to be innocent in the eyes of Christians well before they started converting people by the sword. Meanwhile, I'm sure the folks at ISIS feel that the rest of the world has been given adequate opportunity to recognize the truth of Islam, and that the gun becomes necessary in the face of what they see as violent resistance, if not outright oppression by infidels. Both Christians and Muslims crow about all the peaceful appeals they've made before they've had to reach for the sword or the gun. But how peaceful are such appeals when the sword or gun is always there, in plain sight of everybody? Maybe the earliest Christians, the ones who let themselves get martyred in Rome, actually proselytized without any threat of violence, but most of history tells a different story. For Muslims, there was probably an even smaller window of time when the invitation to convert wasn't implicitly backed by the threat of the sword.

The most contemptible thing about Robertson's latest rant is the idea that ISIS can be neutralized, short of death, only by their acceptance of Jesus. Again, let history judge the peacefulness of Christians. If I'm right about ISIS in my belief that religion only rationalizes their deeper need for political power, their conversion would really only give them wealthier, more powerful sponsors for their violence. But many Christians persist in a belief that there are political and social implications to the divinity of Jesus, so that people like Robertson credit Christianity for the relative freedom and prosperity of "Christian" nations while blaming poverty in Muslim countries on Islam. They haven't convinced me yet. Instead of getting the ISIS idiots to trade one version of God for another, mightn't we make more progress if we could somehow convince them that there was no God to justify their lust for power and violence? They might well still kill a lot of people in pursuit of power, but at least they wouldn't go out of their way to kill them for not converting, as Phil Robertson proposes doing.

And for those keeping score: he talks a good game about being ready for a gunfight and about sitting down for bible study with ISIS, but as long as talk is all he does about it when his talk can influence others -- he's a coward, too.

02 September 2014

For once, a terrorist who really is a coward

If you don't know who I mean, I mean that masked dude who beheaded a helpless journalist -- and may have beheaded another earlier, the voices on the videos being similar -- while talking smack to the President of the United States. Even now you may argue that an executioner isn't necessarily a coward, but he's something of a self-appointed executioner, isn't he? Meanwhile, we have no evidence that he cuts heads during break time from real fighting against real soldiers. This is as no-risk as terrorism gets -- especially with the mask on. Here in the U.S. we're all too quick to label all terrorists cowards, as if unorthodox or asymmetrical warfare is inherently dishonorable. I've even seen that American fool, whose death was reported last week, called a coward even though he died, from all indications, in combat. It's as if what was cowardly was his decision to fight for a foreign cause, however stupid, instead of muddling along like a good bourgeois drone. Calling him or anyone who risks or sacrifices his life a coward, however wicked the cause, is stupid. But by all means, call that masked Islamic State moron a coward, because until we see proof to the contrary that's what he is. Call him a moron, too, because he's murdered someone, and may yet risk his life, for the lie of God's will -- both the lie of revelation and the lie that slaughter is his duty rather than his pleasure. If he ever does get in a fight, I hope he's taken alive. That way he can keep on being a coward in his own mind for the rest of his days.

Are there principles at stake in Ukraine?

In short: no.

Imagine an alternate scenario. To protest President Yanukovich's decision to make a trade deal with Russia instead of the European Union, the western part of Ukraine secedes, declares itself a separate nation and seeks membership in the EU. I don't doubt that Yanukovich would have used force to keep the country whole, and I feel pretty certain that Russia would help him in any way President Putin could think of and get away with. So the actual conflict, in which Russia is helping the eastern region against the central government, probably isn't about any group's right to self-determination as a matter of principle, as the Russians claim it is.

But the war in Ukraine is no more a struggle for democracy against the sort of authoritarianism Putin currently embodies. The current government effectively gave up any such pretense after the Maidan uprising drove Yanukovich from power. Maybe that was a triumph for "freedom" or "liberty," but using people power to drive an elected leader from power is no more democracy in Ukraine than it was in Egypt. I'm willing to believe that Yanukovich was corrupt, a toady of Russia, whatever you want to say. But as far as I know it was his prerogative as the elected leader of his country to make the trade deal he thought best, by whatever criterion. That he didn't make the deal a large number of Ukrainians wanted is not sufficient cause to demand, much less effect, his ouster before his term was up. This has to be stressed now that some Americans want to drum up an ideological crusade against Russian authoritarianism. Russians may be everything Americans think they are, but they still have reason to question the legitimacy of Yanukovich's replacement. Before you celebrate the Maidan as direct democracy in action, ask whether you'd like governments in your own country to rise or fall in similar fashion.

Rather, the Maidan, like last year's uprising in Egypt, point toward a devolution of democracy. They signal a dangerous distrust of electoral democracy if not of representative government itself. While blind faith in democracy -- an assumption that it can never result in tyranny -- may not be justified, bad faith within a democracy -- an assumption that it is always on the verge of tyranny, that your opposition is always scheming to impose tyranny -- is hardly more justified. Suspicion of democracy has grown steadily since the decolonization of the Third World raised the spectre of "one man, one vote, once" democracy, the sort inevitably co-opted by the ambitious and ruthless and converted to authoritarianism at best, despotism at worst. Increasingly we see faithless democracy, founded on distrust of those who disagree with you and suspicion of their motives, in which the stakes are too high ever to acquiesce in controversial policies until the next election, so long as it's assumed that the next election may not take place, or that the ruling party will rig it somehow or otherwise steal it. Yanukovich is becoming a tyrant and must go; Morsi is becoming a tyrant and must go. How soon before more people say "Obama is becoming a tyrant ..." -- or fill in the name of a Republican for future reference? We distrust the "authoritarian" demand for submission, and now we distrust the implicit democratic requirement of submission as authoritarian. It's said that Putin fears the Maidan and the Ukrainian example because it may recur in Russia. Whatever he thinks, it is something to fear if it means that any mob of people can drive an elected leader from power for any reason. In the U.S. we're invited to see the Ukrainian war as a people's struggle for freedom from the ever-evil empire. In effect, to support Ukraine now is to endorse the Maidan and encourage imitators. Saying this doesn't mean I want to see Yanukovich restored to power in Kiev; at the least it's too late for that now. But do we really want a world where anyone can gather a mob and undo an election? You might say the mob won't win if the government really has its people behind it, but in our time, with the evidence in front of us, can you be so sure? Russia's bullying presence in ruthless pursuit of national interest makes the issue look simpler than it is. But neither Putin's authoritarianism, whatever its actual extent, nor the mob veto of the Maidan is a model worth promoting globally. If Putin is violating Ukrainian sovereignty, it's only after Ukrainians violated their own sovereignty more than once. Principles, such as they are, cancel out, leaving national interests -- and if the U.S. has a material national interest in the fate of Ukraine I wish someone would tell me what it is.