26 November 2014

Here's one reason why atheists get angry

A local "anti-terrorism" court in Pakistan has sentenced a media mogul and three TV performers to 26 years apiece in prison for blasphemy. The blasphemy consisted of staging a dance to accompany a song about the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad's daughter. This "malicious act," the court claims, "ignited the sentiments of all Muslims of the country and hurt [their] feelings." This Pakistani news source notes that the sentence may not be carried out by the central government, but it's the thought (or lack of it) that counts. There is no more contemptible non-violent expression of religious intolerance than blasphemy laws, especially when blasphemy, in spite of religious claims of exact knowledge, exists in the eye of the beholder or, as some have said of this particular case, it can be prosecuted selectively for political reasons.

A Pakistani case might be considered none of my business, but while I claim no authority to change another country's laws, it's certainly my prerogative to call them stupid when the label fits. I needn't assert a universal human right that I can't prove in order to suggest that laws should not be imposed to protect religions from insult.

Thinking about this makes me wonder whether we in the U.S. could amend our Constitution to forbid federal and state governments from passing laws against blasphemy. Some may assume that the First Amendment already covers this, but nitpickers will argue that the laws "respecting an establishment of religion" covered by the existing amendment are only those that would establish some denomination on a tax-supported basis, while the nature of the "speech" protected by the same amendment remains a subject of controversy. Redundant or not, why not a Blasphemy Amendment? We'll have to come up with a better name for it before it becomes just plain Amendment XXVIII, but while Americans identify the concept of blasphemy almost exclusively with militant Islam atheists might find many unexpected allies in such a venture. It would definitely be interesting to see who in America would come out against such a proposal, though the Catholic League is the only high-profile entity I can even imagine doing so. Still, once the full scope of such an amendment becomes clear, we might be surprised at how much the attitudes we attribute to Muslim backwardness still survive here, once someone suggests that we should be free forever more to mock God.

The rule of law in Hong Kong and Ferguson

Is everything relative? Americans may not have noticed the latest round of street violence in Hong Kong amid the chaos in Ferguson MO, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of those who've followed the Hong Kong story take a very different view of street violence depending on where it happens and who's doing it. For those who've joined late, Hong Kong dissidents have been carrying on "Occupy" style protests against the policy that allows the mainland Chinese government to vet candidates for the semi-autonomous island's upcoming election. The protesters fear that Beijing, which is to say the Communist Party, will approve only those candidates they deem correctly subservient to the mainland, if not to the Party. While many Hong Kong citizens complain, as many Americans did about the original Occupiers, that the protesters are obstructing traffic, commerce and the regular routines of hardworking people, for liberals around the world the only consideration is that this is a pro-democracy protest. If the local government, at the behest of Beijing or not, acts to suppress the Occupation, that will be proof to many observers that Hong Kong has succumbed to the "authoritarian" will of the mainland; it will be a blow against democracy and human rights. Many of those observers will reject any comparison with Ferguson. The Hong Kong protesters are not looting, they'll say. They're not rallying around an unworthy martyr. They stand for a higher principle, while Ferguson has shown nothing but simpleminded tribal rage. Yet the Ferguson protesters themselves seem very clear in their belief that injustice has been done to one of theirs, and the principles at the heart of the nonviolent protests -- and maybe of the violent ones also -- should be obvious. Police have too much license; they are given the benefit of the doubt in a way that inescapably casts blame on people who are still victims, because they are unarmed and dead, no matter what they may have done wrong.  Observers of Ferguson can agree that looting is wrong, but some Americans are so hostile toward any protest against the grand jury decision not to prosecute the cop who shot Michael Brown that the distinction between protest and riot gets lost. I get a sense that some Americans feel that no one has a right to protest the decision, or even the shooting of Brown. In this context, it should be possible to support the protesters in both Ferguson and Hong Kong in the name of a democracy that can never be fully constrained by the idea of rule of law. In this same context, here's news worth noting. Back in October, a video camera caught seven Hong Kong cops beating the crap out of a protester. Today, in an act that may have been timed exactly to suggest comparisons with other countries, the cops were arrested.

25 November 2014

The Ferguson verdicts

The grand jury decided that there was no cause to try a Ferguson MO policeman on the suspicion that he had violated the law by shooting an unarmed man in the line of duty. The law, as the jurors understood it, permitted the cop to shoot the man under the circumstances as the jurors understood them, or else the law rightly shielded the cop from a kind of accountability that might have a negative, demoralizing effect on public safety. A number of citizens of Ferguson protested, some peacefully, some by burning and looting. If the only point of the protesters, violent or not, was to complain that a cop had gotten away with killing one of them, then I can't have much more sympathy for them than most people have shown. Would they have come out in such numbers, with such force, if the cop's victim had been white? If they answer that no white youth would be so victimized, they betray a narrow if not tribal viewpoint that guarantees a dead end to their marching or rioting. The issue for the nation in Ferguson is not the identity of the victim, however important that is for one segment of the population, but the procedure of policing. But this point is lost if protesters assume that the cop acted as he did primarily if not solely because his antagonist was black. If Ferguson is going to influence the future, we have to get past the question of Michael Brown and his conduct. We should be able to concede all the arguments against him, yet still insist that, being unarmed, he should not have been shot, and that there must be some form of accountability for police who shoot unarmed people. Body-cams and other suggestions for making a record of all such encounters are good ideas, but they don't substitute for changes in police procedure. If the police are public servants, then the people have every right to set down the standards they choose for police conduct. If the people demand that police should be able to subdue big guys who are pummeling or grappling them without having to use guns, so be it. The expectation may be unrealistic, but we shouldn't have to take the policemen's word for that. The Ferguson protests will be useful if they inspire movements to force changes in police procedure. Unfortunately, the violent protests will only encourage certain people to favor more draconian procedures, just as they reinforce the prejudice that Brown and the rioters are of a common type that simply needs to be put down. Few minds were changed by last night's spectacle. The challenge for those who saw injustice done -- by the cop and by the grand jury, that is -- is to steer outrage in a more radical if less violent direction, to take power. If you can make law, you don't have to change minds; it'll be someone else's turn to comply or else.

24 November 2014

'Anti-theists' and atheists who don't give a damn

Reza Aslan's fifteen-minute fame meter started when he lucked into an interview with an idiot reporter on Fox News. After the reporter repeatedly and cluelessly questioned Aslan's motives, and implicitly his right as a Muslim, to write a book about Jesus, that book became a best-seller. If the controversy over Zealot put Aslan in implicit antagonism with reactionary Christians, he's moved on now to take on another popular target: the so-called militant (or "New") atheists represented on the best-seller lists by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Aslan has arrived late to this fight, which pits the militants not just against the believers but also against some atheists who resent their zealotry. Writing for Salon, Aslan suggests alternate labels for two types of atheist. Reserving "atheist" itself for those folks who happen not to believe in gods and leave it at that, he does away with vague adjectives in favor of dubbing Dawkins and Harris "anti-theists," distinguished by an open hostility toward religion that some mere atheists may lack. This novelty aside, Aslan's argument against the anti-theists is familiar stuff: they're absolutist, intolerant, the mirror image of those fundamentalists they most despise, etc.  In Aslan's own words:

Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community [hyperlinks in original].

The writer dismisses the anti-theism he's just defined as "rooted in a naive and, dare I say, unscientific understanding of religion – one thoroughly disconnected from the history of religious thought," though he notes with liberal care in advance that there's nothing wrong with people feeling this way. Aslan prefers, obviously, those atheists who simply opt out of faith, presumably without casting aspersions on the remaining faithful. The crucial difference, it seems is that the mere atheist thinks that religion is wrong in a more-or-less value-free way, but doesn't consider his opinion binding on anyone else, while the anti-theist thinks that religion is bad. An atheist just happens not to eat meat, for the sake of analogy, while an anti-theist is a self-conscious vegan and PETA member and sometimes annoying in his advocacy. The one decides that meat (or religion) is not good for him; the other concludes that it is not good, period.

I wondered for a while whether we needed this new (or newish) label. Whatever happened to anticlericalism, after all? That was the past's word for open hostility toward religion, but after thinking it over I decided it doesn't quite fit our present-day antagonism. As the word implies, anticlericalism is above all hostility toward a priesthood, while Aslan's anti-theism really indicts all believers, the rabble perhaps more so than their leaders in our democratic age. Anticlericalism arguably resented the power or wealth rather than the beliefs of a priesthood, while anti-theists presumably recognize belief as the source of priestcraft's power and wealth and directs its attack accordingly. 

I don't consider myself a militant atheist but I find the atheism preferred by Aslan a rather milquetoast thing. For him, atheism should be no more than a consumer choice: if the preacher's pitch doesn't work for me, that doesn't mean it shouldn't work for anyone. Is it possible, however, to feel that way about religion? Can you reject the appeal of faith without feeling that it's a lie or a con? The answer is yes if only because I've read some high-profile intellectual atheists who take that stance. Longtime readers may recall John Gray's harsh criticisms of the New Militants, many of which are echoed by Aslan. Gray is an atheist himself but has argued that people -- most of them --  need myths of some sort in order to cope with an otherwise meaningless world. He counts the idea of progress itself as such a myth, and it may be true that in order to accomplish or even try some important things we have to believe in things, like our own success, that we can't prove. Faith in something is necessary to culture and society, arguably, but I don't know if religious faith is that kind of faith, and I'm less convinced than some are that religion has to be accepted as such a faith. I don't argue that religion must be destroyed, or at the least I don't assume that destroying it is any shortcut to a better world. But I like to believe that I rejected religion not just because it's wrong for me, but also because it's wrong in a way that others can and perhaps should recognize for their own sakes. Religion too often is a lie or con for us to agree for civility's sake not to mention the fact. If that makes an atheist uncivil or demotes him to the anti-theist ranks in Reza Aslan's eyes, then let's recall that many of us find religious proselytizing quite uncivil. If one must be tolerated, so must the other, and so must their mutual criticism. If I can tolerate preachers promising hellfire for the likes of me, then believers ought to be able to stand the rhetoric of atheists or anti-theists without whining the way Aslan does. His outraged tone is disproportionate to our moment in history. Call me, Mr. Aslan, when Richard Dawkins starts chopping off heads.

21 November 2014

The Prosecutor-in-Chief and executive discretion

As compromise between the two major parties seems increasingly impossible on a widening field of issues, presidents assert ever more sweeping discretionary powers that allow them theoretically to ignore or override the legislative branch. George W. Bush was much criticized for his various executive orders, by Senator Barack Obama among others. Since then, President Obama has found it convenient if not necessary to claim similar discretionary power in his executive capacity. While Bush asserted the President's right as Commander-in-Chief to use discretion in taking immediate action for national defense before consulting Congress, Obama claims similar discretionary authority in his capacity as chief enforcer of the nation's laws to "defer" the deportation of large numbers of undocumented immigrants. He depends on the concept of "prosecutorial discretion," based on the assumption that law enforcement inevitably must set priorities given inevitably limited resources. The current opposition claims that the sort of discretion the President elects to exercise effectively nullifies policies set by Congress and thus tips one of the balances upon which constitutional government depends. This isn't the first time the Obama administration has been criticized for selective enforcement of laws, but given his new position as a lame duck facing hostile majorities in both houses of Congress next year, his action (or inaction) on deportations strikes Republicans in particular as a provocative act if not a threat to the American political order. Each party in turn, as it gains strength in the legislature, fears that a President of the opposing party will hop on skis and race down the slippery slope to "authoritarian" rule if not outright dictatorship. Each party has been hypocritical when criticizing executive power as exercised by the other, and in defending controversial assertions of executive power by their own leaders. While the prosecutorial discretion principle assumes that discretion is necessary and inevitable, the public can still ask itself exactly how much discretion the President of the United States should have. As Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist, asks at an admirable distance from partisanship, how would Democrats like it if a future Republican president, acting on his or her discretion, chooses not to enforce the Affordable Care Act's rule requiring everyone to buy health insurance, or any number of "anti-business" environmental regulations? Prosecutorial discretion can justify such choices as easily as it justifies Obama's present course.  If discretion is inevitable, it needn't be the last word. If Republicans feel strongly enough about this, perhaps they can seek something like a writ of mandamus from a court that could compel a president to execute laws according to legislative discretion, respecting the letter and spirit of legislation. And of course, there are always elections, and while Barack Obama doesn't have to worry about those anymore, his party still does.

As for the merits of the President's particular course, he may be pandering to Hispanics but he wouldn't be the first chief executive (as his supporters note forcefully) to take pragmatic discretionary action in face of overwhelming numbers and humanitarian concerns. Ideally, there ought to be a way to debate policy without also having a debate on the desirability of greater Hispanic immigration, but that's entirely up to Republicans. Unfortunately, they seem incapable of making their case without implicitly questioning the fitness of Central Americans for small-r republican citizenship. For the GOP some things never change. While Abraham Lincoln in particular among the GOP founders criticized the "Know Nothing" nativism of his time, the Republican party effectively inherited the anti-immigrant vote the Know Nothings once claimed. Republicans have always accused Democrats of exploiting immigrants by making them clients of local party machines and expediting their naturalization in order to get their votes. For their part, Democrats have told each new wave of immigrants since 1854 that Republicans hate them, and the immigrants have seen little reason to dispute the claim. As more people question the very idea of "illegal" immigration the modern debate has grown more intense, while not as virulent as when most immigrants were Irish. Many people are cheering Obama's discretionary move as a means toward a desired end, while just as many seem ready to take him to court, but the end in this case may not entirely justify the means. The case itself shows us that partisan gridlock and presidential assertion go hand-in-hand. Presidents will feel less tempted to claim worrisome discretion if their parties actually could work with the opposition instead of each party playing an all-or-nothing game. If you fear the rise of an authoritarian executive, the paradoxical fact is that you have to smash the two-party system, but this becomes less paradoxical when it means creating not a one-party state but a true multi-party state or, perhaps even better, a no-party state. Then I could understand people wanting to come here.

19 November 2014

The Cosby Show Trial

A black celebrity is accused of date-raping a number of women, at least several of whom are white, and conservatives are rallying to his defense, while at least a few blacks are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude at his plight. The reason is simple: Bill Cosby has become best known in recent years for scolding black culture and condemning much of hip-hop culture in particular. This made him a hero for white conservatives who could let him make charges many of them wouldn't dare make. They see Cosby as an espouser of "personal responsibility," someone who won't just blame blacks' problems on whites. Hostility toward Cosby among black opinionators is based largely on how they think whites will exploit the comedian's criticisms. Americans in general seem to assume a zero-sum relationship between "personal responsibility" and "social justice." If Cosby and other high-profile contrarians (e.g. the basketball broadcaster Charles Barkley) argue for more personal responsibility, they're assumed to downplay the need for social justice. When Cosby denounces "knuckleheads" in the hood, he's accused of stereotyping (if not blaming the victim) and of enabling stereotyping attitudes among whites. Without ever seeking political office, Cosby has become a political figure, which may be why we haven't seen white conservatives dismiss him, in light of the new or revived charges against him, as just another [n-word]. He has individualized himself in opposition to the supposed black consensus or "herd mentality" in a way that O.J. Simpson, for instance, never did. As a result, we can see conservatives indulging in conspiracy theory, suggesting that the liberal media is out to destroy Cosby because he challenges political correctness or the hegemony of "social justice" thinking in the black community. On the other side, some black opinionators see the Cosby scandal as the humbling of a hypocrite who had no business passing judgment on anyone else, much less the disadvantaged of his own race. Add to the mix all those celebrity-worshippers who always presume the celebrity innocent when relative nobodies accuse him of such things, as well as the dead-end bigots who do now see Cosby as just another [n-word] and we have yet another case where people will find it difficult to judge the charges objectively. Because Cosby's fate may have an impact in a wider realm in which many hold a stake, people will be tempted to judge the case as a means to an end rather than on its own terms. But if Cosby has been defined increasingly by his own judgmental attitude -- his supporters might call it his moral courage -- I suppose the result will only be fair, even if it also proves very annoying.

17 November 2014

The worst are full of passionate intensity: an argument for getting out the vote

Carl Strock, once a columnist for the Schenectady Gazette and now a blogger for the Albany Times Union, is no fan of the Republican party, but when others blame low turnout for the GOP victories this month and wish more people had voted, Strock is skeptical. "I have never considered voting the civic virtue that public figures invariably consider it," he writes, "Maybe knowledgeable voting is a virtue, but voting just for the sake of voting, whether or not you have any idea of who the candidates are and what kind of horse thieves they might be, I’m not sure. It might be just as well that you stay at home if you haven’t made a minimal effort to inform yourself."

This is the sort of rhetoric I expect to hear or read from Republicans. Just as liberals believe that the more people vote, the better for them, Republicans believe the opposite. The GOP argument against maximizing voter turnout is pretty much the same as Strock's: the more people vote, the more ignorance will prevail. Strock is also willing to believe that non-voters have made a conscious if cynical choice, seeing no difference for them in who gets elected, but he still wishes that voting could be made conditional on some sort of intelligence test. Knowing how controversial this idea is, Strock proposes something minimalist and value-free: "Just, what state do you live in? Who is the governor? Which way is up?" But he knows even that would be attacked as implicitly discriminatory, while the more severe partisans would more likely propose more biased tests. Each of the major parties believes the other profoundly ignorant in certain major fields, Democrats presuming Republicans ignorant of science, Republicans presuming Democrats ignorant of economics. Each would love making tests in their own specialized fields of knowledge (or belief) the prerequisite for voting in pursuit of their respective utopias where there's no such thing as an uninformed vote.

Permit me to suggest, for today at least, that our present problem is not so much ignorance -- I presume most Americans were no more conversant with science or economics a century or more ago -- as it is ideological fanaticism. The U.S. is in a Yeatsian state in which, as the poet wrote almost a century ago, "the worst are full of passionate intensity" while most, if not the best, "lack all conviction." Acquiescing in apathy yields the field to the worst of the passionately intense. As for the apathetic, the real hidden majority of the country, however ignorant they may be we can assume that their cynicism will immunize them against the appeals of demagogues and void the oldest argument against maximizing voter turnout. If the hidden majority were compelled to vote -- if they actually have to choose a candidate rather than leave any column blank -- they may simply vote for the least obnoxious candidate, which hopefully would eliminate the most extreme or fanatical rivals. Another possibility is that, in a collective fit of "ignorant" pique, they might choose a third-party candidate to spite the Bipolarchy. If our future is threatened by voting blocs who care to excess, the answer may be simply to swamp them with a majority that doesn't care. But if this idea gives "ignorance" too much voice for your taste -- if you still dream of imposing the perfect test to sort the deserving from the undeserving -- your problem may be not so much with the American electorate or any hidden majority but with democracy itself. I don't mean that as a conversation stopper, since intellectual arguments against democracy can be made, but if those arguments are going to be made we should make clear what we stand for: government by, of and for the people, or something else.

14 November 2014

Kissinger and 'fresh' thinking on foreign policy

As he grows more insufferable as an opinionator on domestic politics, George Will still maintains a somewhat reasonable perspective on foreign affairs. In a recent column he calls attention to American politicians ("Republicans especially") who are "thinking afresh" about our country's stance toward other nations. Will goes on to suggest that these fresh thinkers could take notes from a nonagenarian, Henry Kissinger, who has published a new book diagnosing the country's problem. Here's Kissinger as quoted by Will:

The conviction that American principles are universal has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate. [This] suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.

Kissinger is a foreigner by birth, after all, and is bound to notice things about us that we don't recognize -- or won't acknowledge. Kissinger and Will invite us to rethink this national bias, and doing so can only be a good thing. Ever erudite, Will repeats the now-familiar John Quincy Adams quote describing the U.S. as "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." He seems to propose a repudiation of liberal interventionism, the idea that the liberal democracies (the U.S. especially) have a moral responsibility and a right regardless of law to liberate individuals from tyrannical governments. For self-styled conservatives this should be an easy call, but American conservatism as it evolved in the 20th century is, to put it generously, paradoxical to a fault. Many "conservatives" in this country remain wedded to an idea of "natural rights," with corollary assumptions about their universality, that most conservatives throughout history would have laughed at. In this country, "natural rights" have evolved from a Jeffersonian justification for revolution to an existential argument against slavery to an ideological defense against communism and other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. By now I'm not so sure that American conservatives (Republicans especially) can dispense with this pretense. An appeal to natural rights is their ultimate veto against the perceived self-aggrandizement of the state and the perceived whims of the masses. Acting on the commonsense premise that the individual is prior to the state, the idea of natural rights asserts inherent limits to what the state, understood as the ruler and/or the people, can demand of or take from the individual. While alternate ideas like social-contract theory or the romanticism of fascism assert that the individual becomes something different and arguably superior by subjecting himself more completely to the body politic, natural-rights theory, at least as practiced here, assumes that such submission invariably diminishes the individual in an unacceptable way while empowering the state in inevitably more oppressive ways. But for this argument to be more than the preference of certain political philosophers or their wealthy patrons it has to be a universal principle, applicable everywhere on Earth. That makes it hard for some Americans not to judge other countries on the basis of something more, well, judgmental than the "contingent" basis Kissinger prefers.

For "bleeding heart" liberals the problem is even worse, and to the extent that they're "collectivist" rather than individualist they're only more likely to feel that no one on Earth should have to suffer as they imagine people suffer under tyranny.  While it should be easy to imagine a conservative saying it's each person's personal responsibility to liberate himself from tyranny, and not the job of other countries, liberals have a Good Samaritan (or busybody, depending on your perspective or interest) impulse, compounded by their philosophically hedonistic revulsion at the repressive measures taken in many countries, that tells them that whoever can should do something about repression, torture, etc., though most would flee from the inference that this means conquering the world. To the extent that modern American conservatives feel threatened by any (or every) foreign dictatorship, they've only been contaminated by liberal fear, most likely as a result of the mid-20th century Cold War consensus against Communism, while in the past, presumably, conservatives only abhorred tyrants if they refused to trade with us.

If you accept the argument that the military-industrial complex, and thus the American economy, requires a perpetually adversarial relationship between the U.S. and the world's authoritarians, you only acknowledge a further impediment to "thinking afresh." But the biggest obstacle may be one that Will, at least, won't acknowledge. The truth in the assertion that authoritarianism anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, or at least in the U.S., lies in our fear of an example. Recall how Americans assume that Vladimir Putin wants to crush the Maidan revolution in Ukraine because he fears the example it will set for Russians. Presuming that Putin is not a universalist of any sort, it's unlikely he has such a fear. He more likely believes that Russians are culturally immune to any example set by Ukraine, and that only Russia's economy and global prestige, and not his own power, are at stake in that country. If you are a universalist, however, an event anywhere might set an example everywhere. It's more likely that the U.S. fears the success of Putin, or the success of the Chinese, because these might set examples for Americans. Could Americans actually want a more "authoritarian" government? If you define it as a government that "gets things done" and has the power to push around billionaires grown too big for their britches, I could definitely see a constituency for it here, and I can also see that theory of Putin's motives as a form of projection. Some American conservatives may think that the only way to suppress an American desire for a stronger government is to demonize and plead defense against any authoritarian regime that might prove an attractive example. Conservatives should be able to refute the whole idea by saying that American liberty is our particular birthright by virtue of the Constitution while Russian authoritarianism, or any other form, is merely one country's unique cultural legacy. But another problem arises when you acknowledge your system of laws and rights as no more than the work of men, rather than something almost divinely inspired. If the U.S. wasn't founded on universal or unalterable principles, all our laws and rights ought to be subject to review at some point, unless you want to be really conservative and declare a taboo on questioning the ancestors' legacy. Despite all this, there should be some way for Americans to think about foreign policy without turning it into a debate on forms of government and human rights with our own liberties at stake. If old Republicans -- even those with tainted legacies like Kissinger -- can help us figure it out, then they may be useful after all.

12 November 2014

The world watches Ferguson

Some Americans are sure to be annoyed at the idea of a United Nations commission investigating the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson MO policeman last summer. Look at the comments thread for this report of Browns' parents testifying in Geneva and you'll see some troll calling them traitors. Others find it ridiculous if not offensive that the U.S. should be subject to scrutiny from an anti-torture committee when so many dictatorships elsewhere are self-evidently worse. They've forgotten a golden rule: judge not, lest ye be judged. There are lots of people in the world whose notion of individual rights may not be as expansive as Americans', yet are probably more sensitive to the ways discrimination or ethnic inequality belie any country's pretense of liberty. This should be old news to us. Ever since Americans declared independence with Jefferson's eloquent rhetoric, critics have questioned our rhetoric's credibility by citing our treatment of Africans and/or Native Americans. Even before the Declaration, Samuel Johnson asked of the Americans, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Communists in the 20th century would always bring up the blacks when challenged about their own oppressive policies, while many American politicians pragmatically endorsed the Civil Rights Movement in an attempt to deny the Commies this rhetorical point. To this day, one part of the appeal of "radical Islam" is its insistence that their religion doesn't countenance racial discrimination. Sure, Arabs enslaved Africans by the millions back in the day, but those were pagans so that was okay. Around the world, equality is a value that transcends ideologies. Whether a government is liberal, authoritarian or totalitarian, it matters that it treat people the same. Some may even prefer a regime that oppresses everyone equally, depending on how you define oppression, to a regime where liberty appears to be reserved for certain groups only. Of course, some will be hypocritical in criticizing the U.S. while discriminating against unfavored groups at home, and it can be argued that any regime's pretense of egalitarianism is hypocritical once you see the sordid reality behind the rhetoric. But we should avoid the ad hominem fallacy of assuming that if a dictator says we're wrong, we must be right. We should probably also resist the temptation to see the Ferguson case as symbolic. Michael Brown is almost certainly not as innocent as his grieving family and their friends claim, but the cop who shot him is almost as certainly not as innocent as police apologists insist. At the least, in the latter case, people have a right not to see him as an innocent -- not to accept the police or pro-police interpretation of the incident as the last word on the matter.

Ferguson is poised for more unrest as everyone awaits the determination of a grand jury, the authorities warning against violence if Brown's supporters don't get the justice they've demanded but also allowing for peaceful protest if it comes to that. One side wants the policeman prosecuted, while another abhors the idea. A compromise should be possible, one that stresses answerability more than accountability. It may not be necessary or appropriate to prosecute police in all such cases, but a "truth commission" in all such cases might be in order. If relatives of murder and manslaughter victims get to confront and denounce convicted perpetrators in court, it may be proper for police to face the same informal judgment in a public forum from the families of those they've killed, even if they face no legal penalty. If the police are at least answerable to the bereaved to some extent, that might relieve the sense of oppression, the feeling that the government has no interest in them other than to keep them quiet, that has driven the Browns to Geneva. But if you think that the Browns are doing this only for publicity, or with an eye on some future payday, or that they're dupes of some enemy of America, these considerations probably won't mean anything to you. You're probably hopeless, and you're definitely part of the problem, even if you don't see one here. The fact that others do see a problem here may be a problem for you someday. But if you think it's none of their business if they're not from here, please remember how you feel now when you feel like criticizing the ways other governments treat their people. In this case, equality is the only rule we can recognize. If we can criticize them, they can criticize us. If we can act on our criticisms, so can they on theirs. Judge not lest you be judged.

11 November 2014

Veterans Day in perspective

It's appropriate to set a day aside to acknowledge the sacrifices made by those who fought in our country's wars and show sympathy with the survivors. In the U.S. we have two such days, one in May for those who died, and one in November dedicated, more or less, to the living. Veterans Day falls on the day of the armistice that ended World War I, and the American holiday was known as Armistice Day until 1954. The current label was adopted to include veterans of World War II and the Korean police action in the day's honors. With this came a subtle change in emphasis. Back in 1938, when Armistice Day became a holiday by law, rather than a matter of presidential proclamation, the occasion was dedicated by Congress to "the cause of world peace." Although World War II was just around the corner, World War I was still the Bad War in many memories, the conflict that seemed to have no point and in which, in retrospect, Americans had few good reasons to intervene. Yet were someone now to propose that Veterans Day observances be dedicated to the cause of world peace, I suspect that many Americans would denounce the proposition as an insult to the troops. On both Veterans Day and Memorial Day we are exhorted to show gratitude to fallen and living soldiers for having spared the country from some awful fate. Yet from the Civil War forward, with the debatable exception of World War II, the freedom and sovereignty of the nation has not been at stake in any of our wars. If you were to suggest in 1938 that these had been at stake in the Great War, veterans and civilians alike probably would have laughed at you for still believing the propaganda of Liberty Bond posters. In our time, the constant implication of holiday rhetoric is that Americans owe their freedom not merely to the obvious heroes of the Revolution, but to soldiers who have fought in our lifetime, as if our freedom, however defined, was recently in jeopardy from abroad. The more offensive subtext of such rhetoric is the warning that, since we owe our freedom to a powerful military, we really shouldn't criticize the military, nor even the government policies that send the military to war. In short, Veterans Day serves today primarily as a reminder that "freedom isn't free" and an argument for the permanent necessity of a large military establishment, because otherwise Vladimir Putin or ISIS or the Chinese will fall upon us in their hunger to dominate and oppress. To question any of these premises is to insult soldiers past and present, as far as many Americans are concerned, but to pursue provocative policies thoughtlessly and put today's soldiers at risk of combat seems like more of an insult. I understand that today's desire to thank soldiers still goes back to regret over the poor treatment given troops returning from Vietnam, but what soldiers deserve is our sympathy more than our thanks. We owe them something for sacrificing for the government, but we do not owe them in any way that binds us to militarism or an ideologically aggressive foreign policy -- and I doubt many of them would ever call in such a debt. For that, probably, we should thank them.

10 November 2014

Rebranding parties: can it work?

A form of boutique politics was practiced in New York State during this year's gubernatorial campaign. Republican challenger Rob Astorino, hoping to take advantage of widespread distrust of the "Common Core" educational standards, set himself up as the candidate of a new "Stop Common Core" party. The Democratic incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, tried to draw more women than usual to a Democrat by giving them a new option; they could vote for Cuomo on the Women's Equality Party line. While Astorino's gambit is probably a single-use proposition, Cuomo may have a long-term agenda of undermining the Working Families Party, an institution at once inflexibly loyal to Democrats yet often critical of their alleged centrism, and dedicated to the still-unproven premise that they can pressure Democratic candidates further to the left. In the end, Stop Common Core provided about 3.5% of Astorino's total vote, as compared to the 16.3% who checked him off on the Conservative line, making the latter the state's largest "independent" party. In the Cuomo camp, Women's Equality provided little more than 2.5% of the incumbent's total vote, compared to 6.2% who voted for Cuomo on the Working Families line. Self-styled progressive voters more likely voted against both candidates by giving Green candidate Howie Hawkins just under 5% of the vote, presumably that party's best showing ever. For those bothering to keep track, the Libertarian vote was dismal, amounting to less than 0.5% of the total popular vote.

For what it's worth, Women's Equality slightly outpolled Stop Common Core, and both parties just made it over the 50,000 vote threshold entitling them to automatic lines on the next statewide ballot. On that level, for those with an interest in perpetuating both parties, this fall's results count as success stories. Is there a future in this sort of pseudo-partisanship? Not in any state where election laws forbid cross-endorsement of candidates, of course, but the greater creativity in labeling this year might get people in the big parties thinking as approval ratings for Democrats and Republicans in general continue to sink. If you can't throw an alternate party line out there and have it count for you, why not re-brand the actual major party? This, too, would be tricky under most election laws, but if that isn't feasible why not abandon the old labels and stake everything on a hot new brand? Consider how this may have benefited the Democrats this fall. Despite President Obama's low approval ratings, there is a barely-hidden majority of voters out there who came out twice, in 2008 and 2012, to give him historic victories. Many of these same people, reportedly, didn't bother voting either this year or in the 2010 races that cost Democrats the House of Representatives. As the numbers add up, this year is revealing a historically low turnout that clearly hurt Democrats more than Republicans, and apathy rather than vote suppression is clearly to blame. A kind of cult of personality devoted to Obama seems to prevail among the quadrennial voters, who seem not to give a damn about the other branches of government, and some people opined, both before and after the fact, that Democratic candidates had to embrace rather than run from Obama if they hoped to get votes at anything like 2012 levels. If this were the private sector, the solution would have been obvious. If these voters wanted a product called Obama, it was up to the Democrats to provide it, even if the man himself wasn't running for anything. If the quadrennial Obama voters represent the imminent majority Democrats expect to make life easy for them in decades to come, and if Obama alone inspires them, why not change the party name from Democratic to Obama, or create Obama lines everywhere and dedicate all advertising to getting people to "Vote Obama?" Depending on how things change in the next two years, you can keep it the Obama Party or change it to the Hillary Party or whatever your focus groups advise. All of this may sound absurd, but given the excuses being made and the blame cast at apathetic liberals after the election, there may well be Democrats out there who think something like this may have worked. A lot more probably can be convinced that it'd be easier than actually thinking hard and proposing new policies and priorities for the 21st century. And if no one steps up to start more credible alternative parties, it may be up to the Bipolarchy to make up third parties of their own to save themselves.

07 November 2014

Mixed election messages

It's already been noted in the news that some of the states that elected Republicans this year also approved measures to raise the minimum wage. That's probably the best evidence against interpreting this week's elections as an ideological repudiation of the Democratic party. As far as I know it's pretty solid GOP orthodoxy that to raise the minimum wage is a bad thing, since the opinionators and their favorite economists tell us that higher wages at entry level means less entry level jobs. So if people were voting Republican because they'd decided that Republicans are right about stuff, they shouldn't also have voted for higher minimum wages. Votes in favor of medical marijuana in other states aren't so contradictory, since they testify to a libertarian streak that can obviously benefit Republicans under the right circumstances. But they, too, can testify that rather than signaling a turn to the right, the November 2014 elections basically told us that Democrats suck. They ran lousy campaigns for lousy candidates, it seems, and failed to get their base voters out despite the usual scare tactics. Democratic voters also suck, it might be said, for failing to take anything other than presidential elections seriously. The ultimate question for analysts is whether voters feel strongly right now that Democrats suck, or whether the results only reflect their conviction that President Obama sucks. He and his party clearly share blame for something in many voters' eyes, but the moderate Republicans are probably right to say the elections were about "competence" more than ideas or principles. But they and the voters are no more than half-right if they meant to say that Republicans are competent. It was only eight years ago when voters decided fairly decisively that the Great Decider and his party were far from competent. We're always willing to believe, however, that they're not like that anymore, and for that same reason the Democrats will win again soon enough. The weird thing is that we're always ready, after a little while, to forget the blunders and scandals of the major parties, yet we can't imagine any other party doing better. We seem content, on seeing one of the majors fail again, to assume that the other can't be worse, while nothing is worse, it seems, than an entirely new thing. This risk-aversion, supposedly atypical of Americans, only makes us more complacent and cynical as the major parties grow still worse with every election cycle. At some point someone has to decide that the unknown can't be worse. The only question is how bad things have to get for that to happen.

05 November 2014

The Democrats' (partly) hidden majority

If many Republicans believe in a hidden majority -- on the assumption that there must be a critical mass of Americans inhabiting their ideal version of the nation -- so do many Democrats. Democrats may protest that their majority isn't hidden at all, but elected Barack Obama president twice over. But Obama's majority of the popular vote in 2008 and 2012 is still a minority of the overall voting-age population. After 2012, Democrats grew more convinced that the country's changing demographics would make victories, at least on the presidential level, more of a cinch in the future. Writing the weekend before the congressional elections, David Brooks warns that such a complacent approach may be a mistake. He didn't single Democrats out for criticism, but he did complain about campaigns across the country that seem to be shaped more by demographic analysis with "generic" or "data-driven" appeals that lacked personality. These campaigns, Brooks assumes, are based on the belief that different demographic groups respond automatically to particular hot-button issues. They pander to the perceived prejudices and fears of their constituents instead of introducing new ideas to the debate. They fail to offer answers to problems of the here and now, reverting instead -- though Brooks avoids saying so -- to old-school identity politics. During crisis times, this is an especially dangerous mistake.

In the midst of this scuffling economy, voters are thinking as Americans and not as members of a niche. They’re asking: What can be done to kick-start America? They’re not asking: How can I guarantee affordable contraception? People who are building campaigns on micro-targeting are simply operating on the wrong level of consciousness.

While Democrats cling to their faith in their hidden or imminent majority,  Republicans hope Mia Love will tell a different story. She has become the first black woman elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives, defeating the last Democratic member of Utah's congressional delegation. The daughter of Haitian immigrants and a convert to Mormonism, Love touts a personal narrative of faith and hard work. For her party, she stands as proof against the Democratic argument that Republicans remain hostile to the aspirations of blacks and women. Republicans want to believe that the only reason blacks and women vote against them is the Democrats "big lie" that the angry white male Republicans hate them and want them to remain subordinate. That many Democrats, black and white, male and female, do believe this is indisputable. The question for the future is whether this is the belief of the Democrats' hidden majority -- whether Democrats depend on this belief alone to keep women, gays and ethnic minorities voting their way. What Republicans don't want to believe is that these groups lean toward liberalism for cultural or experiential reasons of their own that don't depend on a narrative of WASP (White Angry Straight Patriarch) hatred -- that the experiences of blacks, gays, women, Hispanics encourage a sense of solidarity contrary to the Republicans' personal-responsibility ideology, or a suspicion of employers contrary to the GOP idolization of them and the Market from which all blessings flow. Republicans believe that there should be no natural antipathy toward Republican values in any American demographic, but that's because their hidden majority naturally has no such antipathy. Democrats would be just as naive if they define their hidden majority by fear of the WASP -- but it's not so clear that they do. Predictions of a long-term Democratic majority are based not just upon whites becoming a minority of the population, but on an assumption that social and cultural changes are shaping the next generation of all races and sexual preferences -- on a belief that whites themselves will grow less receptive to traditional Republican appeals even as other demographic groups remain more or less impervious to them.  However, there probably is more complacency about the inevitability of these changes than is helpful for Democrats in the short term. The argument to be made against Republicans was not that they were going to take away birth control but that their own record proves them unqualified to restore the American economy to real health. But Democrats themselves have done far too little toward that end, their protests against GOP obstruction notwithstanding, to inspire much confidence among voters this year. The economic and social program that will inspire the real hidden majority to vote remains hidden itself -- at least to the mainstream in media and politics. The major parties have done all they can to lure out the hidden majority, but it will finally show itself only when it finally finds its own voice and its own leaders. We'd like to think we'll know them when we see them and hear them, but such a faith is probably too presumptuous for anyone right now.

04 November 2014

Bipolarchy as a spectator sport

As voting continues across the country I'd be surprised if even Republicans believe that their expected victories in the congressional elections represent an ideological awakening or even a smartening-up of the American electorate. If the Republicans take over the Senate, it'll be no more of an ideological or intellectual revolution than it was in 2006 when the Democrats reclaimed both houses of Congress at a low point for the George W. Bush administration. The balance of power between the major parties most often shifts when voters simply get sick and tired of the people leading the country. As 2006 was a referendum on Bush, so 2014 will be a referendum on Barack Obama, a verdict on his competence more than on his policies or beliefs. Today's vote should not be interpreted as a mandate for limited government any more than the Democratic victories of not so long ago were mandates for big government, or the Republican victories before that were previous mandates for less government. There are ideological cohorts in both parties, and in the media, who set the terms of the debate, but voters for the most part judge people, not principles. Perhaps ironically in an age when the major parties are identified with ideologies more than ever, that helps keep the American Bipolarchy alive. No matter how many liberal leaders fail or earn Americans' contempt, liberalism is never repudiated so completely that it can't come back again, and neither is Republican conservatism despite the repeated failings of Republican leaders. I suspect that most American voters -- not to mention any hidden majority that might be out there -- looks at party ideology as something akin to the distinctive ad campaign of a car insurance company or a fast-food restaurant chain. It gives people something to talk about to keep the product in mind, but their decisions are most likely made on other grounds -- not because you think Flo or the Gecko is cuter or funnier, nor because one political party or another is more ideologically correct. The real majority of people who bother to vote most likely vote for people, not principles. Repeatedly they make pundits who predict the demise of a major party after any bad defeat look ridiculous. The major parties are simply too useful to the American people; they're like the major leagues in any popular spectator sport, or at least that's how they're seen. If you want to prove yourself an effective politician you'll rise to prominence in one party or another; remain independent and you prove yourself, intending no reflection on two past presidents, a bush leaguer. One you make the majors, you'll be judged on talent; you may wear the right uniform, but if you don't perform you're a bum. If no one's any good the fans will whine with nostalgia over the good old days, but they don't go and start a new baseball or football or basketball league, do they?

In other words, despite all the ideology and rhetoric, the major parties endure because they're basically hollow; the electorate sees them as vehicles through which promising politicians prove themselves. They may also endure because the electorate itself is hollow, unwilling to commit for the long term to liberalism or conservatism, not to mention more radical options. They want someone who "gets things done," and that's true even for most of those who say they want government to leave them alone. If the incumbent of one party can't get things done, the nominee of the other party is presumed to have the best chance of getting things done because he's proven he can get things done, or so it seems, by getting nominated. The public's great blind spot is our failure to see the major parties themselves as obstacles to getting things done. That no more occurs to most people, it seems, than would the notion  that the National League and/or the American League are to blame for bad baseball. For too many Americans, the division of government between the Democratic and Republican parties is as much a part of the natural order as the division of Major League Baseball between the American and National leagues, with all smaller leagues serving only to feed talent to the big two.  No one has tried to rival the Major Leagues in about 100 years, since the quick demise of the Federal League. You might look to other sports for more promising analogies, but in football, for instance, the AFL's challenge to an NFL monopoly in the 1960s only resulted in a bipolarchial merger that made the Super Bowl the sport's Election Day. Since then the USFL and the XFL have failed miserably to reproduce the AFL's success. In politics, the Democrats and Republicans have stuck around long enough to become the sort of institutions that most people, perhaps unconsciously adopting sports analogies, would see no reason to challenge.

I often ask what it would take to make one of the major parties go the way of the Whigs in the 1850s, on the assumption that the rise and fall of the Whigs shows what the natural lifespan of a political party should look like. The Whigs elected two Presidents during their brief career but this didn't guarantee their "major league" status for more than a generation. If the Whigs fell, we should expect the other major parties to fall at some point, and we should wonder, as I do, why they don't. But I suppose there's another way of looking at it that may or may not trouble you. That way of looking at it is to see the fall of the Whigs in the mid-1850s less as proof of the health of the American political order than as a sign that civil war was imminent. Should Americans stop seeing politics as a game or a spectator sport, things could get rough. I don't say this as a warning against change, but as a precaution against surprise. The American Bipolarchy may not fall without a fight, whether the parties do the fighting or not.