28 August 2014

An American soldier of the Islamic State

A decade ago, we were assured that American Muslims presented no threat to national security because they were integrating successfully into American society. They enjoyed economic opportunities here that were lacking in the Middle East, or in Europe for that matter, and so felt none of the frustration that fueled Islamist radicalism and terrorism. This week we learned of an American, raised in Minnesota and a former resident of San Diego, who died fighting for "the Islamic State" (aka ISIS or ISIL) in Syria. Has something changed?

Reporters have noted that Douglas MacArthur McCain is the second person from his high school class to die in a jihad, a friend having fought and fallen for the al-Shabab group in Somalia a few years ago. McCain "reverted" to Islam -- some Muslims prefer this verb on the assumption that all people are born Muslim -- possibly under the influence of Somali immigrants in his community. For some, this will be an argument against immigration from Somalia or any Muslim country.

Before we draw conclusions about Muslims, however, let's remember that those assurances about economic opportunity securing social and cultural integration were made before the Recession of 2008. If the formula was valid in the first place, it follows that less economic opportunity means less opportunity for integration or assimilation. We need to know more about this man personally to explain why he chose jihad rather than crime or gangs, but we may want to consider that fewer opportunities increase the pool of people looking for fulfillment, meaning, power, self-respect, for whom jihad may be an option. If someone answers that it's each individual's personal responsibility to create opportunities for himself, rather than wait for the state to create opportunities for him, -- well, that's what McCain did, wasn't it?

Thomas Friedman wrote recently that more people in the world feel "un-free" despite trends of political liberalization around the world. He argues that achieving freedom from dictatorship isn't enough for people; following the latest author he's read, he distinguishes between "freedom from" and "freedom to" and says people need more of the latter. It looks like the old distinction between "negative" and "positive" liberty, but it also looks like only part of a larger picture. "Freedom to" includes free enterprise, at least in Friedman's enumeration, but it is one thing for law to permit it, another for opportunities actually to exist. Couldn't the reality be the reverse of what Friedman perceives? There might be plenty of "freedom to," on paper at least, but people really miss "freedom from," particularly two of the FDR-era Four Freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. In the competitive environment identified with "freedom to," these two freedoms often seem like distant if not unrealizable ideals. For some, the best path to achieving these ideals looks little like freedom to others. I read somewhere else recently that liberalism will always face opposing ideologies around the world. That has to be because liberalism (much less its American "conservative" variant) can't really guarantee freedom from want or fear, while others, less scrupulously, will. Around the world, many still feel that the surest way to this kind of security -- personal, not national -- is to get political power. In order to live, they must rule. Such people depend on what Friedman calls "imposed order," but he seems to see this as the object of ruling elites, not the goal of the masses anywhere, who presumably want "freedom to." The alternative is order based on shared values and an assumption that everyone will share in a nation's "journey of progress." The question Friedman should ask is whether everyone really can share in a journey of progress without some sort of imposed order -- order imposed upon those concerned only with their own journey and content to leave others behind.

I don't claim that the last paragraph explains Douglas McCain. To the extent that religion is relevant to his experience his motives most likely weren't entirely rational, and jihad was probably some sort of existential experience for him. Yet it seems likely that, for some reason, he and his long-dead classmate could only find fulfillment in jihad, in the struggle to bring order to the world through a caliphate. As an American McCain didn't lack "freedom to," but it clearly wasn't enough for him. That only makes him a loser or a "terrorist" in many eyes, now that we know about him, and if his solution to the world's problems was Shari'a, then even I can't regret his passing too much. His fate is less a tragedy than a warning -- not a warning against Islam but against a world where "freedom" is the only answer offered to any problem, even when the slogan, at least, is self-evidently inadequate to the problem. We can keep on blaming the losers and the evil men who seduce them with dreams of power, but if in years to come we keep on seeing such people, isn't something else to blame?

27 August 2014

What happens in Bizarro Ferguson?

In the wake of the protests and looting in Ferguson MO it's been asked: how would people react if the reverse situation occurred -- if a black policeman shot an unarmed white man? The closest thing we have currently to such a case took place in Utah earlier this month when a "non-white" cop shot down a suspect alternately described as white or Hispanic. The story hasn't been covered much apart from local and conservative media, the latter taking up the issue, presumably, to highlight how the outrage in and over Ferguson is racially selective. From the local reports I've read, the victim in Utah, like the victim in Ferguson, was "no angel." As in many cases regardless of race, a failure to "comply" was fatal for the victim. And in fact, there have been protests against the shooting, but they've been small and peaceful. But to answer the theoretical question, my gut feeling as a white person is that most white people already inclined to support the police would continue to do so. A racist minority may feel that blacks don't belong on a police force, but for the majority, I suspect, a black man turns blue once he puts on the uniform. More importantly, while some whites may be racist, fewer are tribal in any way that would assure sympathy for a "no angel" white kid gunned down for messing with the police. You're unlikely to hear celebrities or other strangers refer to such a victim as their "brother." White racism is a kind of negative tribalism defined by distrust toward others but not by any great solidarity with one's own. It may be different in Europe, but white American culture really is defined to an important extent by the "personal responsibility" ethos. White Americans are far less likely to feel the loss of a fellow white person who is otherwise a stranger personally, compared to how black Americans seem to feel when one of theirs is shot down. The difference is understandable; many blacks seem to feel that any assault on a black individual is an assault on blackness, on black America as a whole. White Americans only feel that way when criminals of color kill their kind; they're more likely to give cops of color some benefit of the doubt, and more ready to accept that a white kid killed by any cop probably brought it upon himself. Both an excess of solidarity that becomes uncritical and a lack of solidarity that becomes indifference are extremes to be avoided. The real issue, of course, remains how police should behave regardless of their or their victims' color.

26 August 2014

We're No Angels

The big challenge many of us face when contemplating the Ferguson tragedy is the near-impossibility of reserving judgment. That's partly because reserving judgment usually entails a presumption of innocence until proof establishes guilt, yet it seems impossible for most people to presume both the kid and the cop innocent. Instead, because of the nature of their encounter, to presume one innocent is to presume the other guilty. To claim that the cop committed no crime is perceived as claiming that the kid deserved death. To presume the kid innocent, in the sense of not having brought about his own death, is perceived as presuming malice (or racism) on the part of the cop. This is the emotional and rhetorical environment in which the New York Times can provoke outrage by publishing a story that states simply that the kid was "no angel." That much was evident from the security-camera video of his misadventure in a convenience store minutes before his death. Yet the article has been deemed insensitive, having appeared on the day of the kid's funeral, not to mention indicative of a tendency offensive to black observers in which the media allegedly sets an impossible standard for a "perfect victim" whenever a cop shoots a black person, and in a way that inevitably distracts from the real issue of police procedure and police responsibility for another unarmed corpse. The fear is that the moment you concede that the victim is "no angel," you open the door to blaming the victim; if he's no angel, he must have done something wrong to invite gunfire. This doesn't follow, but it's also understandable that many black opinionators doubt people's ability to think logically about such matters, given how many idiots, racists or knee-jerk cop-lovers seem to think that the kid deserved death merely for roughing up a shopkeeper. Yet you needn't be a crackpot or a cracker to feel that a "no angel" account of the victim is a necessary corrective to the sentimental "gentle giant" description his family and friends understandably still insist upon. What will make you neither crackpot nor cracker is your ability to remember that the ultimate, objective issue is still about police procedure. This is more a political than a legal issue because the cop may be vindicated by having followed procedure, yet we can still believe that the procedure is profoundly wrong if it results, in this case and others, in unarmed perpetrators of any sort mortally wounded. I've seen a lot of talk about how it's unrealistic to have expected the cop to shoot to wound, that he must shoot to stop, which usually means lethal force aimed at the center of the body. But how unrealistic is it to expect our police officers (i.e. our "peace officers") to know how to subdue an unarmed assailant of any size without killing him? No matter how unrealistic it may be, it's still our prerogative to demand that higher standard of self-defense, and to demand that officers be held accountable when they fail to meet it. In the end, our answerable to us, or should be more so, or else this country becomes, as Al Sharpton warns, a police state. But all that being said, if the kid being "no angel" before his last night on earth has nothing to do with the cop's responsibility for killing the kid, then there shouldn't be any harm in saying he was no angel. History can't defer indefinitely to the feelings of a grieving family any more than it should comply with the demands of police. The kid was no angel, but being unarmed he didn't deserve to die. What the cop deserves, who can say? There's a question for you.

Ukraine: It's all about money?

The leaders of Russia and Ukraine are meeting today at an awkward moment for Russia. The Ukrainians captured some Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil hours earlier, and the best the Russians could do was say that a patrol had blundered across the border by accident. Happily, the incident hasn't disrupted the meeting, at which President Putin clarified Russia's position on the Ukraine and its economic ties to the rest of Europe. In short, Putin claims that the Russian economy will lose billions of rubles as Ukraine switches its orientation toward the European Union, and other countries in a Russocentric trade group will suffer as well. The Russians are also concerned that Ukraine will prove a gateway for European goods to compete with Russian products and Russian labor. In short, rather than waging some sort of war on freedom, Russia's motives are blatantly protectionist. Putin concedes Ukraine's political sovereignty but insists that its trade policies should not be made to the detriment of Russia or any other country. But that's competition, Vlad. If Ukraine is sovereign, Ukrainians can choose whom they'll trade with, and if an old trade partner suffers, that partner's a sore loser if he threatens retaliation. To be fair, however, the largely unspoken aspect of this crisis has been the extent to which the EU may have insisted on zero-sum conditions so that its gain is necessarily Russia's loss. This has a lot to do with Ukraine adopting new standards to join one group and abandoning the old group's standards, and it may be less a matter of malice toward Russia than an inevitable consequence of the politicization of international trade. Again, if Ukraine is sovereign it can tell Putin to bugger off, if it dares, but if Americans want their own politicians to be more conscious of the consequences for workers of its economic policies they ought to show some sympathy toward Putin's concern for Russian workers and businesses. Ideally, the remedy is not to subject Ukraine to political intimidation, but there seems to be no ideal economic option for Ukrainians and Russians right now. If Russia's complaints against the EU are valid, then free trade doesn't prevail in Ukraine any more than it might were the country a vassal of Russia. Whether free trade itself is the ideal state, if that means competition and its inevitable losers and suffering, is another question worth asking, though I doubt it will come up at the current summit.

25 August 2014

ISIS delenda est

The self-described "Islamic State" simultaneously waging war against Iraq and Syria is everyone's Islamophobic nightmare of a militarized "caliphate" come to life. These guys are the real deal and aren't playing, we're told. They've imposed convert-or-die (or pay jizya) terms on non-Muslims and reportedly place Shiites virtually in the same category. They stand accused of war crimes for which they've provided the evidence in propaganda videos designed to impress sympathizers with their strength while intimidating everyone else. No limit is imagined to the scope of their ambitions, given their appeal to the global Sunni umma and threats to attack the U.S. and other past oppressors. ISIS (or ISIL, or just plain IS) has evolved rapidly into a classic existential threat to the free world, so naturally the usual suspects in the U.S. deem its existence a threat to national security. The President is urged to escalate his air war against IS positions in Iraq and to expand it into Syria if necessary, while he is inevitably blamed for ignoring their rise to threatening power. The Syrians themselves invite cooperation against a genuinely existential threat to the Assad dictatorship, but demand to be treated as strategic partners in any operations, warning that they will treat unilateral U.S. action as aggression, for all the good doing so may do them. Nevertheless you can understand Syrian distrust since it was an American desire for regime change against a perceived impediment to Middle East peace that created the vacuum the IS seeks to fill. At this point, however, it ill becomes Assad to begrudge the manner in which his onetime enemy becomes his possible savior. It would also ill become the U.S. not to accept at least some of Syria's conditions, since if you believe the hype about the IS than Assad becomes the Stalin you team up with against Hitler, the way his father was Stalin to GHW Bush's FDR against the last generation's "Hitler," Saddam Hussein. By now it should be apparent that there'll be no liberal democracy in Syria for the time being, which will still suck for those Syrians critical of Assad, but it may also be apparent to the decision makers that for now there's no better option than Assad. That doesn't mean he's a good option for his own people, but the proof of that one way or the other will come in the long term, not in the annual human-rights reports. Still, compared to what the IS presumably has in mind, Syria, whose ruler belongs to a religious minority but doesn't proselytize, by the sword or otherwise, is a relatively free society by the worsening standards of the Arab Muslim world. All of this depends on how seriously you take the IS and its aspirations. They seem like a global gang for whom militant (or takfiri) Sunnism rationalizes a lust for power as the only way to a decent life. "Freedom" isn't working as a battle cry in that part of the world because most people there, I suspect, realize that power, rather than freedom, is the key to their survival. If it's power they really want, however, would they be satisfied with local power, or are they Muslim Trotskyites whose identity depends on a perpetual revolution? You can't know, so do you take a chance now, either to tolerate their rise to power and their possible stabilization into responsible statesmen, or to do everything within the world's power to destroy them, while they have friends nowhere else, at least among the governments? Who would veto the destruction of the IS? Not Russia, presumably, if it helps their Syrian friends? Not China, presumably, if it would discourage their Uighurs from their own jihad? Yet would destroying ISIS be the right thing to do, either for immediate benefit or as a precedent? Is it as necessary as many make it seem now? We should look beyond immediate fears of terrorist attacks to imagine all the possible consequences of the IS war to unify Sunni Islam, weighing other possibilities against the atrocities that are admittedly inevitable, before we and the world make up our minds.

20 August 2014

The Perry Case

Last year the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, was arrested for drunk driving. She displayed the arrogance of the privileged while under arrest, demanding that the local sheriff be summoned to take care of her problem. She served 45 days for the offense and returned to work. Texas doesn't provide for automatic removal of such an official for such an offense. Nor does the governor of the state have the power to remove her. However, he shares in the power of the purse. The governor's idea was to cut off funding for her office, which includes a Public Integrity Unit, by vetoing the relevant spending provision, thus rendering her powerless. She has not resigned, though she will retire at the end of her term. Now the governor is in legal jeopardy. A special prosecutor claims that the governor abused his power and illegally attempted to coerce a public servant by using his veto and, apparently more damningly, stating explicitly that he would veto the funding if the district attorney didn't resign. Some observers have suggested that the governor might not be so deep in trouble had he simply used his veto without issuing the threat. Since this is America, most people will base their judgments on the matter on the fact that the governor is Rick Perry, a Republican who made a fool of himself in the last presidential campaign but may run for that office again in 2016. Regardless of his identity, it's probably a more relevant fact that the district attorney's Public Integrity Office was investigating the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas, a project in which cronies of Perry were closely involved, and that Perry would be able to name the d.a.'s replacement had she resigned. But all this shows is that there are no good guys in this particular story, since the d.a.'s drunken spree arguably demonstrated her unfitness for public office, and especially for a post responsible for "public integrity." It may be that Perry took advantage of an opportunity he didn't create to try to force her out of office, but it's not obvious to me, not being a Texan, that his actions, however opportunistic or even cynical, are also illegal. A decade ago, I recall it being suggested that Congress stop the war in Iraq by denying funding to the military. That's obviously another level of government, but it suggests that in general denying funding is a legitimate way to check unpopular or unwise policies. It's being argued in Texas that it isn't a legitimate way to target an individual or force her out of office. But it follows from none of this that this person should still have herself, except according to the letter of an inadequate law. She shouldn't be the victim or hero of this story, since its real moral seems to be, however much we'd like to reject stereotypes of a "political class," that politicians in the American Bipolarchy are too often just plain jerks.

19 August 2014

One man's summer is another man's spring

You know things are messed up in Ferguson MO when even the Fox News reporters are questioning police tactics. Last night was the worst since Ferguson became the focus of the nation, and both sympathizers with the police and sympathizers with the young man slain by the police were quick to blame outside agitators. Groups like the Revolution Club of Chicago and the New Black Panther Party (that favorite of Fox), as well as white anarchists, are in town to cause trouble or, in their minds, to speed up a true uprising. A lot of people in Ferguson, residents included, are sick and tired. In other countries when a critical mass of people get sick and tired a government can fall and they call it a spring. There's far from a critical mass today in Ferguson, much less the United States, but you can wonder how different in spirit the protesters are from protesters in Tunisia, where a kid killing himself helped bring a government down, or in Egypt, where people got fed up twice over in three years' time, or in Ukraine, where one group of people got fed up with the government and overthrew it, and another group got fed up with the first and seceded. Americans like to cheer on spontaneous protests in other countries but distrust them on their own soil. That's understandable if you think your fellow citizens don't actually have serious complaints, but couldn't that have been what a passive majority thought in Tunisia, in Egypt, or in Ukraine? Maybe we imagine that we know what all these people stood for, but the one thing they have in common across their borders is that they felt oppressed. On our own soil, we're more critical of protests against oppression -- my own temptation just now was to write "alleged oppression." We don't give our own protesters as much benefit of the doubt as we do protesters against foreign regimes -- and it isn't even a matter of whether the country in question is an "enemy" of America. Egypt wasn't, but many of us rooted for the people in Tahrir Square, and some rooted both times, when a second wave of revolt overwhelmed the first. Sometimes who you're against makes a difference; America loved the Maidan in Kiev but hates the Russophone Ukrainians who rose in turn against it. I'm not going to suggest that the people in Ferguson are moral equivalents of any of these groups. All I ask is that Americans show a little of the same skepticism many show toward the Ferguson protesters toward mass protesters elsewhere in the world, before we make more commitments we regret. But if we think it is good to rebel everywhere else on Earth, perhaps we shouldn't dismiss so quickly or contemptuously those who feel a need to rebel at home.

18 August 2014

Transparency and paralysis in government

David Frum has a provocative piece in the September Atlantic in which he argues that reforms undertaken since the 1970s to make government more transparent and less corrupt have only made it more difficult for government to do anything useful. What's really provocative about the argument is the implication that strong leadership rather than rules and procedures, much less checks and balances, is what gets things done. Here's the argument in Frum's own words:

We have had campaign-finance reform, and reform of the seniority system in Congress, and endless rounds of anticorruption measures in the federal government. Calls for “transparency” and “accountability” have meant more administrative and judicial supervision. In turn, power flows to impersonal institutions (agency review boards, courts, and so on) and away from elected leaders who can get things done—and who can be punished at the ballot box for delay and disappointment.

Frum's argument is related to the line of political thought I've called Neo-Lincolnism, which values leadership in forms ranging from deal-making to arm-twisting over an idealized notion of deliberative persuasion in which leaders make things happen by making speeches. Lyndon Johnson is as much an exemplar of the leadership advocated by neo-Lincolnism as Lincoln himself. While Neo-Lincolnism has focused on presidential leadership, often as a critique by Democrats of Barack Obama's alleged over-emphasis on speechmaking, Frum expands the argument to criticize a loss of congressional leadership over the last forty years. An unintended consequence of liberal Democrats' efforts to break the power of their elderly, reactionary southern compatriots over congressional committees is that "Committees and subcommittees multiplied to the point where no single chair has the power to guarantee anything. This breakdown of the committee system empowered the rank-and-file member—and provided the lobbying industry with more targets to influence. Committees now open their proceedings to the public. Many are televised. All of this allows lobbyists to keep a close eye on events—and to confirm that the politicians to whom they have contributed deliver value."

Frum finds it bitterly ironic that reforms enacted "to eliminate backroom wheeling and dealing" having only given lobbyists more influence over government. Well-meaning reformers are only "eliminating governance itself." Whether you agree or not, the charge begs the question of what Frum means by "governance." In simplest terms, of course, we can say "getting things done." As Frum, a moderate conservative, well knows, many Americans believe that the point of our system of government is to prevent things getting done when getting things done seems to threaten either vested interests or enshrined individual rights. Frum realizes that activist "conservative" judges have contributed to the current problem by subjecting politics to excessive judicial supervision. But the original impetus to which he traces our current torpor came from liberals who resented "wheeling and dealing" and were determined to root out corruption wherever they perceived it. Liberals of a certain stripe resent most deal-making because they wish that politics could be settled through principled deliberation. While LBJ and Lincoln are, in their respective fashions, icons of liberalism, the insinuation of neo-Lincolnism, as echoed in Frum's article, is anti-liberal (though not conservative) in one particular sense. A great liberal hope, inscribed in the Constitution itself, is that procedures should suffice to get things done while compensating for the foibles of individual leaders. James Madison hoped that checks, balances and so on would channel the ambitions and other impulses that make men less than angels toward constructive, mutually beneficial ends. By the 21st century,  it seemed as if ambitions checked ambitions too well, too thoroughly, so that none seemed to prevail and nothing seemed to get done. Neo-Lincolnism hints that real, effective leadership can't be contained entirely by the strictures of proceduralism -- that at least in the sort of society we've lived in all along, wheeling and dealing, horse trading, arm twisting, are all inescapably necessary even if they betray or belie the liberal ideals of principled deliberation. What redeems Neo-Lincolnism as a democratic idea is the insistence of both original neo-Lincolniam Sean Wilentz and a possible sympathizer like David Frum that leaders remain accountable to the people for whatever they do in a way that unelected actors, from judges to lobbyists, are not. This political philosophy allows ends to justify means more than pure liberalism does, but as long as we agree that the people, not the leaders, are the ultimate judges of ends and means alike, Neo-Lincolnian arguments may contribute to getting things done in the long run.

17 August 2014

How many wrongs make a right?

It's been an interesting weekend in Ferguson MO starting with Friday's revelation of a convenience-store security tape apparently showing a young man roughing up a shopkeeper while trying to steal cigars a short time before a cop shot the young man to death. Reactions to the tape were fascinating. Some cynics were happy to see the story told by the victim's family of an innocent "gentle giant" belied by the footage. It confirmed an impression that a black man who gets shot by a cop must have done something wrong, or at least something stupid. Unfortunately, many observers made an unjustified leap in logic to argue as if the young man deserved death for his actions in the store, even as the police made clear that the cop who killed the youth didn't know he was a robbery suspect. Meanwhile, sympathizers with the victim treated the footage as an ad hominem argument against the dead man, a distraction from the crucial question of the police procedure when the youth was stopped while jaywalking. In fact, no one has a right to infer from the security footage how the doomed youth behaved when the cop stopped him. If the footage has encouraged a belief, in advance of definitive testimony about the shooting, that the incident was a justifiable homicide, on the assumption that the victim was violent and menacing, than releasing the footage was an irresponsible act. Yet it will still be welcomed as a contribution to the whole truth of the story, regardless of its legal implications. Its social consequences were less welcome; it seemed to provoke new rounds of rioting and looting, including some spiteful targeting of the store with the cigars. No one approves of this yet no one can stop it. "No justice, no peace" has a compelling logic that defies efforts by community leaders and activists to turn the rhetoric on and off. For the mob, "justice" is the arrest and at least the prosecution of the cop for murder. He is presumed guilty by many, some of whom probably see any killing of a black by a white as murder, if not an act of war. Objectively, however, the issue is not whatever attitude he might have had toward a large black man but the leeway for lethal force given police everywhere. Even in the worst-case scenario imagined by police apologists, in which the victim was trying to take the cop's gun, it isn't unreasonable to expect cops to be capable of defending themselves and protecting their gear without using lethal force, particularly when the assailant, as everyone agrees, had no weapons of his own. The rules police make for themselves may exculpate the cop depending on what actually happened, but that won't necessarily make his walking away without penalty just. It's the people's prerogative to question justice as defined by police, but if they can't find a better way to articulate their questioning than to sack unoffending stores they surrender much of the sympathy to which they might otherwise be entitled. Worse, it shifts the subject back to "what should be done with black criminals?" from "what should be done with cops who use excessive force?" where it belongs. On the other hand, if mass anger is at all justified, excess anger shouldn't entirely dismiss the grievance from the minds of presumably objective observers. If the cop did wrong, you can't let him walk just to spite the looters or Al Sharpton or whoever's protest offends you. We still need to know exactly what happened, and it would help if we could agree on what should have happened before anyone passes judgment on anyone else.

14 August 2014

Is this a Libertarian moment? How would we tell?

Conor Friedersdorf rises on the Atlantic webpage to defend libertarianism from the scoffing of other opinionators. Friedersdorf takes offense at some pundits' "disdainful" and "vexing" rejection of the proposition that we're on the verge of a "libertarian moment" in American politics. It becomes apparent that he and his antagonists are writing about different things. To be more specific, Friedersdorf's notion of "libertarianism" differs from that of most people. The problem with most people, he believes, is that they identify "libertarianism" with the most extreme ideas of avowed libertarians, when libertarians as a whole are far from monolithic or fanatical in their views and priorities. "There are a lot of people, including commenters on this site, who laugh at Fox News' absurd characterizations of liberals," he protests, "yet somehow cling to similarly cartoonish notions of what libertarians are."

If a "libertarian moment" comes, Friedersdorf predicts, it won't come in the form of wholesale adoption of libertarian views or the uncompromising enactment of libertarian policies. He tentatively defines a libertarian moment as one when "younger voters will support policies and elect leaders that enhance liberty in comparison to the status quo." If we want to know what this might mean in practice, Friedersdorf insists that we not focus on the most obvious or most extreme sources in the Libertarian Party or the Ron Paul movement or the fans of Ayn Rand. What, then, is the "liberty" younger voters may prefer? It becomes clear that Friedersdorf envisions a "moment" in which libertarianism is not defined primarily in economic terms. He prefers a libertarianism that's synonymous with "civil libertarianism," from resistance to national-security surveillance to drug-law reform to the expansion of gay rights. Hence:

If fewer people are caged for inhaling the smoke of a plant, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer people's doors are kicked in late at night by police officers dressed in combat fatigues, that's a libertarian victory. If more cancer patients can legally obtain a substance that alleviates their suffering, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer assets are seized by police without proof of guilt, that's a libertarian victory.

A fair number of writers in the comments thread have questioned this particular assumption. The adjective "civil libertarian" may be more popular nowadays, but some observers note that all of the above can just as easily be called "liberal victories." They would have been recognized as such unanimously not so long ago, and some reactionaries probably still see these phenomena as primarily "liberal." The only reason, it seems, to call them "libertarian" instead is if you identify "liberalism" with the "statism" against which formal libertarianism protests. For libertarian politicians, whether formal party members or individual ideologues, the main reason to promote "civil libertarianism," apart from believing sincerely in these victories, is to identify these most obvious goods with the more controversial libertarian economic agenda. However, I take Friedersdorf at his apparent word that he wishes to downplay the economic aspects of libertarianism. For him, I infer, libertarianism in most general terms means a less intrusive state. His libertarian presumption, I presume, is that in nearly every instance a less intrusive state is better for society. More committed libertarians no doubt hope to convince young voters that the way to prevent any reversal of the victories Friedersdorf cites is to minimize government intrusiveness at all levels. We'll have a libertarian moment if they can convince a critical mass of people, but I suspect that few people will make so sweeping a generalization. Whatever ideology or even the Constitution says, each generation has to decide for itself what is properly subject to democratic regulation and what isn't. It doesn't follow that we must give up the welfare state or the regulatory state to secure the right to smoke pot. It may or may not be a libertarian moment if Americans actually draw that conclusion, but it definitely won't be a good moment for the country.

13 August 2014

In Missouri, the latest rush to judgment

Here we go again: a policeman kills a black person. The victim is reportedly unarmed, but it's as yet officially unknown whether he fought with the cop. Most people draw their own conclusions: a racist cop acted out of fear, hatred or arrogance; a stupid punk got what was coming to him for showing attitude, getting confrontational, etc. Outbreaks of looting follow, which only harden the attitudes of many white observers, whose comments only harden the attitudes of black observers. Who is the victim? As with Trayvon Martin, some see him as a child, others as a "gangbanger." Who is the cop? The general public doesn't know his name yet, yet some think they know him in some essential way. They assume either that he lashed out at a stereotype of black youth, or that he had no choice but to defend himself from attack. The fact is, most people following this story don't need to know anymore: black kid vs. cop is all they need to know, no matter whose side they take. A surprisingly nuanced look at the latest controversy comes from a figure in the last one: the attorney for George Zimmerman. He writes for CNN that attitudes either way -- cops toward blacks, blacks toward cops -- are problematic and dangerous, but argues that police have to take "the first step" toward reconciliation, since their authority places responsibility on them. "In return," he emphasizes, we must respect police authority and the risks of their work. It is a "grave reality," he argues, that "the way we engage a police officer can affect whether we walk away, whether we are driven away in handcuffs, or whether we are taken away on a stretcher." But this is still also a matter of police responsibility, and we might note that, ideally at least, the people should set the rules of engagement for their police. If Mark O'Mara concedes these points, a more respectful environment for police may result. But if he looks like a voice of reason this time, you can always scroll down to the comments thread for what are most likely more typical opinions, from those absolutely convinced that the cop committed murder to those who believe that black people's problems (or, more likely, the writers' own problems with black people) would end if they'd only talk and dress better. Prejudice is rampant in our land of individual liberty, no less than in the past. As ever, prejudice belies any pretense of individualist sentiments. A true individualist really has no choice but to reserve judgment until we know more about the two individuals who confronted each other in Ferguson, but reserving judgment seems to be a lost discipline in this paranoid nation.

12 August 2014

Statism and American (or Russian) exceptionalism

Last week's New Yorker piece on Russia by David Remnick, an old Russia hand before he took over the magazine, drove home a real cultural difference between Russians and Americans.  For supporters of Vladimir Putin, the state is a focus of national pride in a way it most certainly isn't for many Americans. A repentant liberal tells Remnick: "Back then [as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991] we believed we could build a democracy without a state....But society began to change, and I am a reflection of that change." A Russian right-winger, hence a strong Putin supporter, tells how he hated Boris Yeltsin, the successor to the USSR, for "hollowing out the state." The same man assumes that the West has always sought "the destruction of the [Russian] state." He sees Putin's Russia as the country's "fifth empire" and the latest resurgence of a state ordained by "some sort of mysterious forces."

While in the U.S. anti-statists identify statism with liberalism, Russian statists see the state as the antithesis of liberalism, or a bulwark against it -- liberalism here being understood as western decadence and immorality. This is something bigger than Putin or "Putinism," as Julia Ioffe notes when writing in The New Republic that wishing Putin away would only result in someone similar, if not worse from a western or liberal standpoint, taking over. To Ioffe, Putin "is giving Russia something that is quintessentially Russian:" reverence for a powerful state based on the feeling that "there's not much separating you, or anyone, from the void." She traces Russian statism to a perpetual "fear of the future" due to a perpetually dysfunctional economy. Each "empire," she suggests, fell due to bankruptcy; Putin's may go the same way, but we still shouldn't expect a liberal dawn in Russia if that happens, if by liberalism we mean liberation from a craving for, if not a dependence upon, a powerful, always potentially oppressive state.

Americans no doubt will be tempted to find a character flaw in Russian culture to account for all this, as if Russians deviate from an American norm in their attitude toward the state. It's probably more true that Russians and Americans occupy opposite extremes in their attitudes. Americans seem to see statism as a negative measure of self-reliance or "personal responsibility;" if you want a powerful state, it's because you're weak or afraid or simply lazy. It's said that the American Founders regarded the state as a necessary evil; it's probably safe to say Russians don't think that way. It's more likely that, despite several generations of allegedly atheistic Communism, Russians retain a traditional belief in the state as part of a hierarchy of life or a great chain of being -- a natural if not sacred phenomenon. At this point of comparison the U.S. does appear exceptional in its founding by colonies of settlers cutting ties from the previous source of authority, disregarding any indigenous sources, and making up rules to minimize any state's impact on free men's commerce. The American presumption seems to be that we are not inherently subject to some power on earth, while some such subordination seems implicit in the sort of conservative statism, dedicated to preserving and advancing a traditional culture, seen in Russia and other places. The state is the vessel or vehicle of culture; to belong to the culture, it may be thought, is to belong to the state.

Whatever that culture is, it's not the same as the "civil society" liberals idealize -- it's not so voluntary and obviously not as scrupulously separate from the state. Liberals presume that this degree of statism, compounded by traditionalism, handicaps cultures, keeping them intellectually and economically backward, even though the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow. Putin himself thinks differently. Remnick quotes him: "[T]he point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness." In practice, however, conservatism too often confuses forward and upward movement with downward or backward movement, since it presumes that progress depends upon and serves tradition. American conservatism seems more straightforward these days: it opposes any movement that may discomfit vested interests, and its whole design of government is to protect vested (or founding) interests from interference or subordination. From a perspective favoring the welfare of humanity as a whole, there may be little to choose from between statist and anti-statist conservatism, except that the former, by retaining a right to command (which the latter abhors) may be better suited for collective survival in extreme circumstances. I'd rather take my chances with a self-styled American progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, who credited Abraham Lincoln with the idea that "a strong people might have a strong government and yet remain the freest on the earth." Both American conservatives, who favor a weak state, and Russians, who allegedly favor a weak people, are missing key pieces of the equation. They shouldn't be that hard to find and put together.

11 August 2014

A prejudiced critique of prejudice?

Kristin Y. Christman says nothing new in a recent Albany Times Union op-ed in which she attributes American foreign policy under President Obama and his predecessors to prejudice. Her particular, if not original spin on the subject is to use categories conceived by the 1950s thinker Gordon Allport, who divided the world into "Prejudiced Personalities" and "Democratic Personalities." Christman, a student of Russian, sees prejudice in American portrayals of Russians as evil actors in Ukraine. She sees similarly selective attitudes wherever the U.S. operates. Her discoveries are old news: we see things in black and white, oversimplify, demand unconditional compliance with our demands, etc. etc. That news isn't so old that it can't stand repetition, of course, and Christman writes plenty of sensible stuff besides. "Evil is not one side of war," she writes, ""Evil is the war [itself] and the belief that the enemy deserves punishment and destruction." I've said nearly the same thing when I warn the world against taking sides whenever war breaks out. Yet obviously I have a problem with Christman or you'd have nothing to read here today. The problem, from my own perspective, is that while Christman understandably singles out Americans for these prejudiced attitudes, she does so with such singlemindedness that you might infer that only Americans have such attitudes. Isn't it also possible that the Russians simplistically see the Ukrainians and their western backers as evil? Isn't it also possible (duh!) that Arabs simplistically see Israelis as evil? I'd guess that Christman does see Prejudiced Personalities as a universal phenomenon, but her column makes it look like a peculiarly American problem. It may be a worse problem for Americans given our tendency to moralize in foreign policy, but where's the country whose foreign policy is unmotivated by prejudice? If Prejudiced Personalities "believe people are superior or inferior," as Christman claims, we should expect to see them in every nation. Asking Americans to change their ways will accomplish little if other countries don't change -- especially when Christman warns that Prejudiced Personalities could be set in place as early as age five. Nor is it very encouraging when the best Christman can suggest is that "we must help children and adults know love more than threats, empathy more than punishment, and caring more than commands." I'm not sure we can get to that point worldwide, given the human material we have to work with now, without a lot of threats, commands and punishments. But that might be my own prejudice talking, -- or a certain misanthropy born not of prejudice, but of experience and reading history.

08 August 2014

Trying to blow out blowback

Time for another humanitarian intervention with bombs. The President has decided that the Yazidi people of Iraq, trapped on a mountain after being driven from their homes, are in danger of a massacre bordering on genocide at the hands of The Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL). He has ordered air drops to the Yazidis and "targeted" air strikes against the IS to prevent a likely slaughter. Iraq remains in chaos as the IS have won their first rounds against the vaunted Peshmerga of Kurdistan, while Baghdad remains incapable of reaching a satisfactory power-sharing arrangement for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The IS is everyone's nightmare of Islamism (or takfirism) run amok, reportedly threatening pretty much anyone who deviates from their style of Sunnism and demanding conversion as the price of survival. It bears repeating now that they are, to some extent, a product of the west's desire to topple the Assad dictatorship in Syria -- another unintended consequence of our impulse to democratize the world at all costs. Liberals in particular find it hard to accept that in some places some kind of dictatorship really is the best option, or the least awful, and that in such places there is no substitute for personal courage -- no guarantee of your safety -- if you want to criticize the government. In looking at the wider world, liberals have to rethink their priorities. Free speech cannot be the only thing that matters. Americans themselves may have moved closer to realizing that liberty can't solve every problem. The alternative is not unconditional submission to a leader, but it does mean letting rulers rule when the alternative is tribal or ideological anarchy and accepting risk when you see a ruler going wrong. Too many people around the world remain uninterested in democracy as liberals understand it as the sharing of both power and life. Tribes and factions either want to be left alone by everyone else, or see exclusive political power as their only means of survival. The Islamic State may be an army of religious fanatics, but their essential motivation, I suspect, is a feeling that they must rule in order to flourish. Liberal democracy depends on most people relying on something other than political power to survive or flourish. In some parts of the world, we may have to acknowledge, there is no such "something" that people can turn to -- no commerce or civil society. We assume that dictators thwart the development of such things, since we assume that those things are seen as threats to their authority. But in a globalized economy it may be increasingly likely that some places and peoples will be shut out permanently from such things unless they win some resource lottery. For such people, political power may be their only hope for survival, not necessarily by wielding it themselves, but by allowing someone to accumulate enough to be useful to them. Again, liberals assume that dictatorship is never useful for the dictator's subjects because they assume dictators to be self-interested "kleptocrats" when they aren't aspiring gods. This is historically naive, but too few liberals take a longer view because it might mean deferring the gratification of freedom until that proves useful to people. The agony of Iraq should compel any objective observer to conclude that that country was better off under Saddam Hussein. That doesn't mean Iraqis had it good under his rule, or even that there weren't any viable alternatives to his personal rule. It simply means that, except for some people, Iraqis are worse off since their liberation.

Humanitarian intervention is a lovely idea, but the only really effective humanitarian intervention in the affairs of the world will be the one that establishes a world government. The possibility that it might establish a world dictatorship doesn't necessarily disprove the point. 

06 August 2014

Loss of faith in democracy?

American public opinion hit a kind of milestone this summer when a survey conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post revealed that a majority of respondents disapproved of the performance of their own representative in Congress. Previously, it was often lamented that Americans deplored the performance of Congress as a whole, or as an institution, but were satisfied with how their own guy was doing. The supposed tendency not to blame your own guy for systematic dysfunction was seen as an obstacle to wholesale reform. So are we closer to a thorough housecleaning now? Not necessarily. We've also learned this summer that approval ratings for President Obama and the Republican Party are at new lows. As long as Bipolarchy prevails, people may gripe about their Congressman but still refuse to replace him with someone from the hated Other Party. Many Americans are probably disgusted with the whole system -- which may help explain why so many intellectual opinionators are worried about the rise of "authoritarianism" around the world. Their great, if largely unspoken fear may be not so much that foreigners will give up on democracy (not to mention "rule of law," "civil society" and other niceties allegedly antithetical to "authoritarian" government), but that Americans will begin to look to the likes of Vladimir Putin, not just for models of perceived strength or toughness, but for models of effective government. That could happen if Americans prove unable to think outside the Bipolarchy box and end up thinking of "American-style government" only in terms of two-party gridlock. Pollsters could do this country a real service if they asked people what qualifications they'd find acceptable for political candidates who don't belong to the two major parties and thus have no practical experience in legislating or administration. When would you feel confident about voting for someone who isn't a Democrat or Republican? There will probably be no one answer. Since Ross Perot's time many Americans have regarded running a successful business as an eminent qualification, but just as many might see the successful businessman as a profiteer and exploiter. Someone who's been a community activist may repel many who use "community organizer" as a pejorative to describe Obama, denoting someone good at making noise but with no practical, responsible experience, but the same activist may inspire many who feel that Obama has not lived up to their ideal of a "community organizer" in politics. No uprising against Bipolarchy is likely to coalesce around one movement; conflicts between some sort of "left" and "right" will most likely persist. The important thing isn't necessarily to give one big party all the power, but to get voters to believe that an (R) or (D) isn't a prerequisite for elective office. If Americans can't stand the two major parties, yet assume no other entity capable of governing the country, then the American experiment is finished. What would follow wouldn't be a choice between authoritarianism and liberal democracy but, as in the larger world, a choice between authoritarianism and armed anarchy. We might spare ourselves that choice if we renew our faith in real democracy, which is not the rule of parties or of constitutions or of checks and balances but rule by ourselves. If we need the Democratic party and the Republican party to rule us, we're really little better than someone who feels that we need a Putin or some other strong man to rule us. You either believe we can do it ourselves, or you submit to whoever can do it himself. That's the choice Americans face in this generation; they'd better start making up their minds.

04 August 2014

The publicity war over Gaza and a demographic shift in the U.S.

Someone put a little leaflet on the bulletin board of the coin-op laundry I use in Albany. The slip of paper called on the world, if not Israel to "Stop the Massacre" of Palestinians in Gaza. I saw something similar in a nearby pizzeria this weekend. Haven't seen anything similar urging support for Israel, though you see plenty of that in the letter columns of the local papers. Around the world, there's a perception that Israel is losing a battle for public opinion because people are focusing on the civilian victims in Gaza and rejecting the pro-Israeli argument that Hamas is to blame for them. This should be a hard one for Israel to lose because their antagonists are seen as Islamist extremists. The irony of the global picture is that the Arab neighborhood has little sympathy for Hamas. The new Egyptian government, in particular, sees Hamas as an extension of the hated Muslim Brotherhood, while Islamism itself (or "salafism," "jihadism," "takfirism," etc.) is a dirty word in many places where there's normally no love for Israel. Outside the region, however, it seems that most people don't care who governs Gaza, while the more radical sympathizers with Palestine claim that the "street" supports Gaza (if not Hamas) in spite of the region's unrepresentative governments. A humanitarian reflex responds to news of dead children and other civilians -- that leaflet was illustrated with a scene of crying kids. In many quarters, that reflex is compounded by an "anti-imperialist" or "third-worldist" impulse that regards Israel as the rich white oppressor stomping on the poor dark people and resists passing judgment on the attitudes and tactics of oppressed, presumably desperate people. It's the mirror image, I suppose, of the attitude that justifies nearly every measure taken by the Jewish State in the face of an "existential" threat from irreconcilable bigots and religious fanatics. Meanwhile, a recent survey of Americans suggests that the same demographic trends pointing toward liberal dominance in domestic politics are pointing away from this country's traditional solid support for Israel. A plurality of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 told pollsters that Israel was more to blame than Hamas for the current violence in Gaza. Since trends among younger voters are accented by greater racial and ethnic diversity, it's worth noting that blacks and Hispanics -- the latter more so than the former -- are most likely to be critical toward Israel, though in no case does a majority of any demographic group condemn the Zionist Entity. These young people have grown up with the war on terror, so again we might expect them to be suspicious of an Islamist Entity like Hamas. However, this may be the first generation to get its news more from different forms of social media than from the "mainstream" media -- liberal, corporate or otherwise.  This means they have access to other viewpoints largely absent from the major news outlets, as well as access to unfiltered actuality footage from YouTube, Facebook, etc. None of this means that people are getting a truer or less biased picture of events, but it does mean that they're seeing things outside of a previously determined narrative context of a perpetual threat to the existence of Israel and the lives of all its Jews. This trend disappoints some American observers, to the extent that it may be echoed in Washington and may ruin the best-ever opportunity, with other Arabs looking the other way, to destroy Hamas for good. Hamas itself would be no great loss, if the entity is as fanatical and cynical as claimed and can think of no better way to advance its cause than to provoke the murder of its own constituents. But as we all know by now, Hamas can't be extirpated without a level of collateral damage that fewer and fewer people around the world are willing to tolerate. They might not tolerate Hamas's agenda and its likely consequences, either, but agendas count for less than innocent lives, as long as you resist the argument for civilian responsibility for elected extremists. Whether a demographic shift in American attitudes toward the Middle East might push the region toward peace is unclear. Too few people in any group give the most obvious answer to the who's-to-blame question: "Both." Once that number goes up, something meaningful might happen.

01 August 2014

Civilians and/or Citizens

An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Thane Rosenbaum has scandalized many readers by questioning whether citizens, like those in Gaza, who endorse an intransigent regime like the Hamas government, really are the moral equivalent of those "civilians" whom the laws of war protect from military targeting. The actual article is behind the Journal's paywall, but indignant writers have culled numerous quotes from it. This bit, cited by a Washington Post writer who calls Rosenbaum's "the most vile op-ed you will ever read," looks like the money shot:

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

As many critics have noted, Rosenbaum's logic is chillingly similar to that of Osama bin Laden when he justified terrorist attacks on American soil. In both cases, critics are repelled by the idea that citizens of democracies can be held responsible by offended outsiders for the actions of their elected representatives. Rosenbaum first came to my attention through a critical comment in the Albany Times Union. Victor Asal writes: "If we accept Rosenbaum's argument, we hold every citizen responsible for every act committed by their leaders. As a citizen, that is a responsibility I truly do not want and should not have placed on my shoulders."

Asal's strongest argument is in defense of the children who inevitably die in attacks on civilians, but have voted for no one. Children obviously aren't responsible for the crimes, actual or alleged, of their governments, but Asal argues that you can't accept the premise of collective civilian responsibility unless you concede that children are also legitimate targets. I think a line can be drawn so that, for instance, you can concede Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas rocket attacks by bombing rocket positions in urban centers while also holding them responsible -- though not necessarily exclusively responsible -- for the deaths of children.  Meanwhile, something doesn't seem right about Asal's disavowal of responsibility for the acts of his government. His attitude is what you might expect under a representative form of government, and especially in the U.S., where from an early point we conceded that our representatives act at their own discretion, and not at our instruction. We have periodic opportunities to repudiate our leaders, but this only seems to prove that we as citizens are not responsible for their actions until the next election, and even then few would accept that by re-electing our leaders we assume the sort of responsibility that makes us eligible for reprisal from foreigners. For Asal there seems to be no difference between a citizen and a civilian -- but is that so? "Civilian" simply means non-military, but it has come to mean "innocent," or at least morally immune from attack during wartime. As Asal shows, civilian innocence is synonymous with non-responsibility for the actions of governments. But is this really what the political philosophy of representative government, of small-r republicanism, is about? Since the American republic was founded, politicians and historians have debated, as noted earlier this week, how involved citizens ought to be in politics. While the Founders and their biographers and students may have disagreed over how active the citizenry should have been in public life, I suspect that neither side -- neither those idealizing political activity as the highest form of human activity nor those who idealized a "society" distinct from politics -- would have endorsed the blanket abdication of responsibility for their representatives that comes when citizens see themselves primarily as civilians. The problem isn't a question of whether we "deserve" attack, but an abandonment of responsibility in peace as well as war, a delegation of responsibility to politicians who can be scapegoated as the cause of all our troubles as well as excessively idealized as the answer to them all. Our continued dependence on the Bipolarchy -- the two-party system -- is only the most obvious evidence that Americans today are not taking responsibility for their country the way the Founders intended. But at a certain point we're no longer innocence no matter how much we deny responsibility.

None of this is meant to suggest that one country is right to hold citizens of another both responsible for their government and liable to attack. Foreign relations are very subjective. Just as Israelis and their friends abroad can hold citizens of Gaza not just responsible but culpable for electing Hamas, so Palestinians and their friends abroad can hold citizens of Israel culpable for the original seizure of land for a Jewish State and subsequent offenses against the previous occupiers, while the Israeli side can still hold Palestinians culpable for refusing the deal of 1948, attacking the newborn country and arguably surrendering their entitlement to anything. As a general rule, however, an awareness that the foreign policies you vote for may have consequences for you ought to encourage voting for more modest foreign policies around the world. When people can't vote, then leaders alone are to blame.