27 February 2015

Who is the Opposition: death of a 'Putin critic'

There's been a political assassination in Russia. The victim is Boris Nemtsov, once a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and a high-profile opponent of Russia's involvement in Ukraine. That last part may have been enough to get Russia's nationalist rabble riled up at Nemtsov, since people in any country who oppose its foreign policy are likely to be thought of as traitors. Nemtsov himself worried that his stand would get him killed. That his murder was a political act is almost certain, but who done it? Here's another case in which news media shape the narrative possibly without even realizing it. Predictably enough, many headlines on news sites identify Nemtsov as an "Opposition" figure or leader. Just to nudge readers further, some sites identify him as a "Putin critic." This is still breaking news in our part of the world, and Putin himself has condemned the murder as good political form requires, but the way Nemtsov has been presented to the outside world will most likely lead people here to echo the victim's own suspicions. He believed that Putin himself would have him killed, or so he told a Russian website, as the BBC reports. Perhaps we should defer to the fears of a man who dealt with Putin at closer quarters than we ever will, but even an authoritarian bully ought to be considered innocent of each particular crime until proven guilty. An analogy might help keep things in perspective. Let's say some goons killed an American anti-war activist, or for the sake of arguments a prominent anti-war politician, ten years ago. Few of us would leap to the conclusion that George W. Bush or the Republican party had ordered the murder, because we know our own country and we know what our reactionary yahoos are capable of. It's not hard to believe that Russia is just as full of reactionary yahoos who are just as capable of acting on their own initiative to take down a perceived traitor. It would hardly reflect less badly on Russia if Nemtsov has been killed by random reactionary yahoos, yet the authoritarian specter of Putin so haunts the west that many here will automatically assume him responsible for any misfortune suffered by the "Opposition." If we want to see Russia clearly, warts and all, we have to resist the impulse to treat Putin's consolidation of power as the one master narrative, the only thing that's really happening there. A big problem with American attitudes toward the rest of the world is that we look at other countries and only see their leaders. It may be a wider problem, but I suspect that populations less obsessed with the threat of dictatorship have at least a potentially clearer view of other countries. If we look at Russia today and see only Putin, we definitely have a problem. Nemtsov's murder may prove that Russia is a dangerous place, but its danger to us will be all the greater the less carefully we understand its danger to its own people.

25 February 2015

Who is the Opposition?

Bangladesh is a Muslim nation that defies western expectations. It's a Muslim nation in which the two most powerful politicians, leaders of the country's major political parties, are women. Khaleda Zia is a former prime minister and the current leader of the opposition to her rival, Sheikh Hasina. There's a warrant out for her arrest on an embezzlement charge. Zia has been trying to force Hasina's government to call early elections after boycotting last fall's parliamentary votes. Her party accuses Hasina of authoritarian tendencies while Hasina darkly accuses Zia of terrorism. I can't judge between the two leaders or their parties. But I noted something interesting in the global coverage of their power struggle and the arrest warrant. Browsing through the headlines on a Google News page, I found Zia almost invariably identified as the "Opposition" leader. It's an accurate description, and for non-Bangladeshi readers it probably makes sense to identify her affiliation as Opposition rather than BNP or Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But how often do you hear about "Opposition leader" John Boehner or "Opposition leader" Mitch McConnell? If you're an American you'd probably see no reason for such labels, since you know the names of your country's major parties and their relation to each other. In fact there's nothing wrong with identifying Republicans by their party name or GOP rather than Opposition. The problem is actually on the other side.

When the news identifies a conflict between parties as "Government" vs. "Opposition" we're tempted to think of the conflict in polarized terms, to imagine the stakes higher than they actually may be. American liberals, I suspect, are especially tempted to see such polarized conflicts as struggles with freedom or human rights at stake. Predictably, in Bangladesh the BNP sees political motives behind the warrant for their leader's arrest. I expect many American observers to sympathize with that perception, to the extent that they're aware of the crisis in Bangladesh, because they tend to be suspicious anytime an "Opposition" leader in a foreign country is arrested or even accused of a crime. The prosecution of Alexei Navalny in Russia is the current textbook case; few western observers take seriously the charges against an Opposition leader, while perceptions of Vladimir Putin only encourage further skepticism. The dichotomy of Government and Opposition shapes perceptions of the underdog individual threatened by the monolithic state. Since dissent is the only proof of freedom many will accept, whenever a dissident falls into legal jeopardy people feel that freedom itself is in jeopardy if not under direct attack by a lying government. We might step back from such extreme perceptions if we recognized a Navalny or a Zia as just another partisan politician. Labels won't change the truth of each case either way, but we should want to avoid extending the "partisan immunity" principle in domestic politics across the globe. In the U.S. partisans often protest against a "criminalization of politics" when their own people are accused of crimes, but they don't extend the same courtesy when the other party is similarly embarrassed. Cynicism aside, that's because the parties here know each other well enough, and are so nearly evenly matched in voting strength, that neither can be taken seriously in the abstract Opposition role so often assigned to dissident parties abroad. Americans as a whole are jaded enough to recognize that crooks are likely to exist even within each person's favorite party, but we seem less jaded when we look beyond our borders. The tragedy of politics everywhere is that sometimes the only thing standing between a population and a really lousy government is some sort of a crook. Putin may be an authoritarian goon, but Navalny may also be a crook. Hasina may be trying to consolidate power dangerously, but Zia may also be a crook. Political choices are rarely as morally simple as we'd like them to be. If they were, we wouldn't see so many polarized electorates and politicized criminal cases. A desire to oversimplify such conflicts may only complicate them further.

24 February 2015

Amoklauf in Czech

According to the latest summary, a middle-aged man who had shortly before called into a TV program to complain about suffering some form of bullying entered a pub in the Czech town of Uhersky Brod today and started shooting randomly. Eight people died before the man turned a gun on himself. Authorities know the shooter to have been mentally unstable, yet he possessed firearms. The Czech Republic reportedly has liberal firearms regulations, and the nation is a major manufacturer of small arms. One of the leading manufacturers is based in the very town where today's shooting took place. No psychological test is required before an applicant receives a gun license, but it should be noted that people may go crazy well after getting a license. In any event, two details here are consistent with amoklauf incidents elsewhere: the firearms themselves and the peculiarly modern sense of entitlement to kill that makes such incidents more prevalent around the world. That sense of entitlement -- in short, that rage -- motivates people even where guns aren't had so easily, as the mass knife attacks across China in recent years testify. Stricter regulation of guns around the world will reduce the lethal potential of that rage against humanity, but the rage itself clearly has a lethal potential that must be addressed separately. Either-or choices such as those forced on us by gun lobbyists who blame everything but firearms are inadequate to the problem. But liberals also need to look past an exceptional notion of American violence to recognize that gun control alone also falls short. Some will turn their attention to the culture, or more specifically the media, but violent media are themselves more likely symptoms than causes of the larger problem. Is the desire to see destruction and death, not to mention cause it, a media creation? In some cases maybe, but in general I suspect not. The more we think about this as we ought to, the more we may realize that nothing sort of a cultural if not a moral revolution must take place that may not be possible without a social revolution as well.

23 February 2015

Love (of country) means never saying you're sorry

Rudy Giuliani has as much right to say that President Obama doesn't love his country as Kanye West did to say that President Bush didn't care for black people. Some people are acting like Giuliani committed some form of treason, or else proved himself an untouchable bigot, for questioning Obama's patriotism last week, but so long as we can freely accuse Republicans of hating whole segments of the American population Giuliani is equally within his prerogatives as an American. Of course, everyone else remains within his or her prerogative to judge Giuliani, but the implication that he has, or should have, no right to say what he did goes too far. What's supremely asinine about Giuliani's remarks, and his efforts to clarify them afterward, is the former mayor's own apparent lack of confidence in his country's objective moral standing. His complaint, as he has elaborated, is that Obama is too often critical of the country's past and insufficiently affirmative of its historic virtue. For Giuliani, as for other overly aggressive advocates of American exceptionalism, the rating game of nations is played by zero-sum rules. To bring up the nation's crimes, or even its mere shortcomings, in this view, is to disqualify the U.S. from its rightful role as Leader of the Free World. Giuliani would seem to think that people who learn of the bad things done by the U.S. will conclude that the U.S. is a bad country, and he blames such a conclusion on Obama's failure to affirm often enough all the good things about America. As many critics have noted, Obama has affirmed those good things quite often, but either still not often enough for Giuliani or, more likely, not at the right times. What Giuliani would like, I suspect -- if he wouldn't actually prefer that Obama not criticize our past at all -- is that every presidential talk on history have a "despite that" moment. Despite all that, Obama should say after every recitation of American failings, the U.S. for however so many reasons remains the Greatest Country in the World. If Obama doesn't correct the balance in every single speech, Giuliani worries, people can't be trusted not to conclude that the U.S. has been a historic experiment in wickedness, and Obama can't be trusted not to believe that himself.   Why else would the former mayor think that Obama has demoralized the nation? Either he assumes that Americans are so stupid that they're incapable of balancing the bad and the good in their own heads, or else Giuliani himself must worry that the U.S. will be found wanting in the scales of history. If he didn't believe himself that slavery, conquest, generations of bigoted injustice, etc. may damage the nation's standing beyond repair, he wouldn't get so worked up over Obama's attempted history lessons. Obama himself presumably draws different conclusions. While he may be more circumspect than past Presidents about the U.S. unilaterally dominating the world, he has never appeared to doubt a special American entitlement to throw our weight across the globe. Moreover, those inclined to see Obama as an egoist or narcissist ought to suspect that the President sees his own election and reelection as redeeming the nation's past sins if not sufficiently proving its exceptional greatness themselves. In short, why wouldn't Obama love a country that made him President? Only a truly paranoid mindset of the sort that still imagines an international communist conspiracy would dare answer...and that's why you let people like Giuliani, who might yet aspire to political power, speak their minds without inhibition. Only then do you know how their minds really work. For that reason, Rudy should be thanked for doing us all a public service.

21 February 2015

Revolutionary paranoia and Venezuela's 'endless coup'

It's a sign of how polarized and nearly equally divided politically Venezuela is that the mayor of its capital city is part of the opposition to the late Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. And it's a sign of how desperate things have gotten there that Maduro had the mayor, Antonio Ledezma, arrested this week, accusing him of participating in a conspiracy to remove Maduro from power by a coup d'etat. Maduro grew expansive in his suspicions, claiming that Bolivarian Venezuela is beset by an "endless coup" of the wealthy, backed by the U.S. That phrase sums up neatly the way revolutionary politicians see their opposition. When you're convinced that revolution is an unconditional imperative, any opposition, any disagreement, becomes counterrevolution, and all disagreement is potentially if not inherently conspiratorial. In the most basic terms, it's a negative conspiracy of refusal to get with the program or submit to the will of the people, or the will of history as the Leader understands it. The problem with this point of view is its failure to make distinctions under insecure conditions. One might accept that revolutionary change is an unconditional imperative, but it never follows from that that the Leader is always right, or that the Leader should never be contradicted. Revolutions often go off the deep end that way, but that's not the situation in Venezuela. The opposition there is adamantly opposed the the Bolivarian revolution, and elements of the opposition did attempt a coup against Chavez. None of this proves that Mayor Ledezma is a coup plotter, but just as a diagnosis of paranoia doesn't mean that you don't have enemies, liberals should not make an absolute presumption of Ledezma's innocence. Venezuela is in bad shape and from all appearances Maduro isn't helping things much. He lacks the charisma and apparently much of the political skill of Chavez, and the worldwide oil glut has punished the country's petro-centric economy. I can't judge how badly Maduro is f'ing things up, but if people were ready to take down Chavez when the country was doing relatively well economically, how many more may find Bolivarism intolerable in a bad recession. People might have very good reasons to believe that Maduro should go, but none of them entitle citizens of an electoral democracy to remove him by extralegal means. The opposition screams that Chavez was becoming a dictator or that Maduro is, but such cries were belied by Bolivarian acquiescence in opposition election victories. Only now, arguably, comes a real test. If Ledezma is guilty, it's up to Maduro to make sure a free and fair election replaces him, even if that makes someone of Ledezma's party the next mayor. If he uses the charges against Ledezma to ban his party or disqualify it from the next mayoral election, Maduro would go a long way toward proving all the old charges against his movement. If he starts to treat all opposition as illegal counterrevolution, Maduro will be on the way to dictatorship, and all constitutional bets would be off. In short, Ledezma's trial is coming, but Maduro's is here.

18 February 2015

Obama vs. violent extremism: another fight he can't win?

People wonder why the President convened a panel on combating "violent extremism" instead of specifically targeting "Islamic extremism." Some accuse him of euphemism and can see no good reason for it; others see "violent extremism" as an evasive term in keeping with Barack Obama's alleged appeasement of Islam. Yet to show you what he's up against on the other side, here's an opinion piece from The Guardian, one of Great Britain's leading newspapers, accusing the President of focusing too much on Muslims. The authors, taking it apparently on faith that last week's Chapel Hill killings were hate crimes (because the victims were Muslims and the accused killer an avowed atheist) believes that hate crime in general, but especially anti-minority hate crime in the U.S., should be on the agenda of Obama's panel. On this evidence, nothing Obama can do will convince some observers on the left that his strategy against extremism isn't biased against Islam, just as some observers on the right can't be convinced that he isn't going easy on Islam for some sinister reason.

As for the President himself, it's been clear all along that he doesn't want conflicts with extremists who happen to be Muslim to stir up bigotry against all Muslims, including the presumed-innocent majority in the U.S. He tried to clarify his position further today by publishing an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Obama believes that violent extremism is essentially political. It is a drive for power that exploits culture and religion as needed. While noting that many recruited by extremists have legitimate grievances against their societies or governments, the President as a liberal believes extremists are wrong to argue that "violence is the only way to achieve change." Extremism will die out when governments give free reign to civil society and democratic processes so people can express their grievances, Obama hopes, as long as societies provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development."

The President worries that even as objective-seeming a label as "Islamic extremism" helps extremists like al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State make their case that the U.S. is at war with Islam itself. Obama also continues to insist, on less authority than all but the paranoid in America will grant him, that the ideology of these extremists is only a "perversion" of Islam. I myself lack the authority to say he's wrong, and Americans' general ignorance about Islam is a vacuum filled with crazy speculation about the reasons for word choices. Muslims to some extent have themselves to blame, since with all the resources of the oil states you'd think some wealthy Muslim would emulate the Mormons and make TV commercials showing how benign a once-suspected sect really is. In the absence of such a public relations campaign, or even any significant effort to proselytize among white Americans, selective readings of the Qur'an and the Traditions of the Prophet tend to confirm the biases of the readers. It's a commonplace tenet of Islamophobia, as it is of anti-semitism, that Muslims will lie about anything, especially including their true intentions, for temporary advantage. It'll take much more persuasion than Muslims or their friends here -- or more objective observers of religions in general -- have tried in the past to overcome such hostile perceptions. Obama's blanket denial that Middle Eastern extremism has any fundamentally religious component is unlikely to help. It may well be that more Muslims by the day are convinced that the world will be safe for Islam only when Islam rules the world -- but  how different is that mere idea from any proselytizing faith's hope to convert all mankind? It may be that many young people born Muslim now believe that they as individuals will only have a chance in the world if Islam rules it. For them, the answer may be the economical, educational and entrepreneurial development the President writes about, but how well are all those doing in our western world lately? How much does the vaunted freedom to gripe really help matters? How civil is any society in which ever fewer people seem to have a place assured to them? The extremist "Islamic State" seems to promise survival, if not more, by means of conquest and plunder. Perhaps they're not extremists as much as they are an advance guard of other extremisms dedicated to securing places for themselves by force, in a form of competition they can hope to win, whether in the name of Islam or under other names? The answer to this sort of extremism has to be more than "opportunity" or "freedom," but the answer itself may be too "extreme" for many to accept.

17 February 2015

American Sniping Redux

The Academy Awards are announced this weekend, with Clint Eastwood's controversial biopic  American Sniper a front-runner in several categories as the most popular film of all the nominees. Meanwhile, the troubled veteran who killed Chris Kyle and one other man at a purportedly therapeutic firing range has just gone on trial for murder. It's time for another round of American Sniping, and with that thought in mind the Albany Times Union directs readers to an anti-Sniper article published late last month on the websites of Reason magazine and the Future of Freedom Foundation. These are libertarian sites, the FFF being specifically anti-interventionist on the Ron Paul model. Sheldon Richman, the author, is a FFF vice-president. He takes toward the film what might be described, with apologies to Eastwood, as an unforgiving attitude, but his main beef is with Chris Kyle himself. In Richman's view Kyle is no hero because Americans were the aggressors in Iraq and Iraqis had every right to resist them. That's the sort of attitude that gets Ron Paul's followers accused of hating America, but Richman spins the argument to accuse conservatives of betraying their principles:

Kyle was a hero because he eagerly and expertly killed whomever the government told him to kill? Conservatives, supposed advocates of limited government, sure have an odd notion of heroism.

Richman's rhetoric is stridently naive, but it exposes a possibly important difference between conservatives and libertarians. While Richman was riffing on a Fox News commentator who praised Kyle for killing whomever the government told him to, conservatives in general are more likely to think of the nation, rather than the government, being at war. That's why they're so quick to brand both leftists and libertarians as traitors when those groups question a government's decision to wage war. On  one level, Richman simply dismisses the notion of the nation being at war because the nation, as he notes, was neither attacked nor threatened by Saddam Hussein. As a "war of choice," the invasion of Iraq was an act of the government rather than the nation. Libertarians seem to approach the subject of war from a critical remove that conservatives (or Republicans) can't or won't attain. The typical Republican seems to have decided early that "the Arabs" or "Islam" attacked the nation in September 2011, and still has difficulty imagining that a known enemy like Saddam, who was an Arab after all, could have had nothing to do with it. They may share the Zionist perspective that sees the Arab/Muslim world as a wilderness that needs to be civilized. So thinking, they would not recognize an Iraqi sniper as "the resistance," as Richman does, but as a "savage" native, as Kyle did. Savagery has no right of resistance from that perspective. A libertarian may just as readily assume that Arabs are savages, but he respects their right to be left alone by outsiders -- by armies if not by salesmen. Libertarians and Republicans may seem equally paranoid about infringements on their liberties by their own governments, but Republican paranoia seems more expansive. It doesn't end at the nation's borders. They seem not to feel safe so long as "tyranny" exists anywhere on Earth, while libertarians outgrew whatever such fears they had when the Cold War ended. The difference may boil down to libertarians, perhaps ironically, being more self-limiting in their ambition than Republican conservatives, and less ironically, not identifying their own ambitions with the national interest, or the nation itself, as much as Republicans do. Their individualism makes libertarians an obstruction to social progress in domestic politics,yet makes them at least a potential force for common sense in foreign policy.

Some Republicans might argue that libertarian individualism undermines national solidarity in other ways. It might be argued that however debatable the invasion of Iraq may have been, an American soldier is still a hero if he prevents his buddies from being killed. I suspect that Eastwood, who opposed the invasion, and earlier made heroes of the Japanese resisting our invasion of Iwo Jima, thinks this way, and producer-star Bradley Cooper may think that way as well. Richman rejects such arguments explicitly. Invaders, in his view, can never plead self-defense when they kill the resistance. His attitude probably puts him at an extreme even among libertarians, since he says in effect that American soldiers in Iraq deserved to die, but that's not exactly inconsistent with libertarians' respect for property above all, while Republicans seem to share the older feeling that the enemy or the savage has no property rights that civilized people are bound to respect. One way or another, libertarians are welcome voices in the American Sniper debate and the larger debate over the "War on Terror," since they prove that these debates, at least, can't be reduced to the usual left-right, Democrat-Republican polarities. If Sniper keeps such debates going, it may do more service in the long run than Chris Kyle himself did.

16 February 2015

Netanyahu: the right's shadow president

Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, in response to an invitation from House Speaker Boehner. The Speaker apparently is within his constitutional rights to do extend the invitation, but he has most likely assured a collective snub from the Obama administration, if not from the Democratic party as a whole, by failing to advise the President of his plan. Pro-Israel lobbyists are poised to wage a "shaming" campaign against any member of Congress who fails to attend the speech. Meanwhile, the Israeli opposition dismisses the speech as a publicity stunt in advance of that country's parliamentary election, much as Republicans dismissed Senator Obama's appearance in Berlin back in 2008, and an election board has ordered Israeli television to broadcast the speech on a tape delay so that anything deemed partisan or electioneering may be edited out. Netanyahu is expected to lecture Congress on the existential threat Iran's nuclear program presents to his country, and to encourage them to take a tougher stand against the Islamic Republic via intensified economic sanctions. For the Republicans, the further point seems to be to highlight Obama's perceived softness on or appeasement of radical Islam.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been the American right's favorite Israeli since the 1980s, when he would argue on American TV that the PLO was part of the international communist conspiracy. Netanyahu is a conservative in Israeli politics the way Republicans are conservatives in U.S. politics. I don't doubt that many right-wingers see Netanyahu as the ideal of a modern political leader, a Churchill for the 21st century, the Englishman's moral equivalent for his uncompromising opposition to what many see as this century's answer to Nazism. Many right-wingers whose grandparents may have despised Netanyahu for his race or religion now seem to see him and his nation as the exemplary "free" or "western" nation. In him, I suspect, they see an archetypal pioneer, and by exalting him they affirm the rightness of their own settler heritage. Against the Palestinians, or against Arabs or Muslims in general, they can make the arguments that are no longer politically correct when made against Native Americans and other aboriginal or simply indigenous "wasters" of land. Such people, settlers believe, should yield to those who can make the land more productive or simply need space to be free. One version of the argument is that Israel deserves the land because they made the desert bloom when Arabs had failed for centuries. Another version is that "democratic" peoples are entitled to supplant politically or culturally backward natives, presumably so that "civilization" or "freedom" will spread. Americans are told constantly that Israel's democratic form of government (contested elections, free press, parliamentary representation for Arabs, etc.) entitles the country to our support against its authoritarian if not barbaric enemies.  Apart from whatever moral debt Jews may be owed for the world's failure to prevent the Holocaust, support for Israel is presented as an ideological imperative. This is easier for Americans to swallow as Israel's socialist origins recede deeper into the past. Republicans in particular may believe that we can't abandon Israel's effort to maintain an outpost of "freedom" in the Middle East without in some way repudiating our own settler heritage. If anything, Americans have less excuse for their conquests than Israel has. No centuries-long history of discrimination, much less a holocaust, compelled Englishmen to seek refuge across the Atlantic. Instead, there was for some a desire to be free and for many a wish to get rich -- Americans today make little distinction between motives. Either was cause enough to conquer a land that appeared ill-exploited by people who themselves appeared unworthy of its bounteous potential.

The seemingly self-evident justice of Israel's cause against Muslim savagery virtually vindicates the violence of American settlement -- yet now we have a President whose identification as an American with Israel isn't taken for granted, while the much-vaunted demographic changes coming to our country cast doubts on our continued identification as a people with the settlers of the Jewish state. Netanyahu and the Republicans now see it necessary to raise the specter of Islamic fanaticism to keep Americans' faith with Israel, but Boehner may have gone too far with this gambit. Support for Israel traditionally has been nearly unanimous in the U.S., but by inviting Netanyahu to the Capitol in a way obviously intended as a rebuke if not an insult to Obama, Boehner has charged the Middle East issue with polarizing partisanship. If more Americans see Israel as a particularly Republican cause, fewer are likely to support it, not because they've grown enlightened in any way but because of knee-jerk partisan reactions. Because they want to score points against Obama the Republicans may end up scoring points against Israel in an own-goal sort of way. But I guess that's the only way we'll make progress on foreign policy.

13 February 2015

Secularism, laicity and multiculturalism

More think pieces keep appearing in the wake of the Paris massacre. One of the latest, in print at least, is Mark Lilla's article in the current New York Review of Books. I can't link you to it because the online version is subscribers-only, but there are two points in it worth noting. First, writing from Paris, Lilla tries to clarify the distinction between the liberal concept of secularism and the French principle of laicity as it shapes the debate over Islam in that country. The ideas are similar in that both require the state to be neutral towards the plurality of religions, but French laicity doesn't stop there. Laicity is an outgrowth of small-r French republicanism as it has evolved since the Revolution of 1789.  Let Lilla explain:

Laicity does not require or even imply toleration in society at large. And the idea of republicanism has historically been suspicious of it....It is one [idea] that guarantees rights but also envisages a strong state to provide for the public welfare and control the economy, and is proudly national -- and therefore hostile to outside influences like Catholicism, international communism, the United States and now the global economy and Islamism. Classic republicanism is not libertarian or communitarian; it presumes that rights come with public obligations, and that fraternity must be built through a common, quasi-sacred education in those rights and duties. One is not born a French republican citizen, one becomes one in school by being initiated into the republican ideal.

We could describe laicity as a kind of nationalist secularism, premised on a stronger insistence than in more liberal secular states that one is a citizen first and foremost rather than a believer or perhaps even a member of "civil society." I'd have little problem with that as long as public education doesn't teach a whitewashed version of national history in which your country has done no wrong. Of course, like any western power, France has been accused of doing just that in the past, and as Lilla notes, in the post-colonial, postmodern era "republicanism was charged by the left with being a cover for political, economic, sexual and colonial domination." Laicity presumably came to be seen as hegemonic, something the powerful imposed on people who had an innate human right to see things differently. This is part of the overall global backlash against the progressivism of the 20th century, which was deemed nearly inextricable from imperialism. It was one thing for radicals to tell their own people to abandon old ways, another, and now less acceptable, for one people to tell another to do so, even if global progress requires everyone to abandon old ways. Now, however, the major challenge to laicity comes not from leftish philosophes but from Muslims who, like many American Christians, don't want their kids indoctrinated with ideas that challenge faith and tradition. French society, or the French economy, has failed to integrate all the waves of immigration from Muslim countries, and France now seems to have a Muslim underclass. As the poor and the apparent victims of bias and discrimination, this underclass has the sympathies of many on the left, especially when French Muslims as a whole seem threatened by the rise of an avowedly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party, the National Front. Lilla worries that the left's natural defensive stance against bigotry may blind leftists toward real problems of violence and radicalism that exist in Muslim communities and must be addressed and corrected by Muslims themselves. He offers an American analogy: liberal refusal to acknowledge "cultural factors in persistent poverty" played into Republican hands in the late 1970s as liberals were portrayed as being "out of touch with reality" while Republicans talked straight about such things. In France, Lilla warns that the left must not be constrained by fear of benefiting the National Front from confronting domestic Muslim crime and radicalism, or else they'll play into the bigots' hands the same way American liberals did. Easier said than done, since this recommendation runs into the leftist hangup about telling the Other what to do or how to think. But it should always be possible to confront and defeat bigotry on all sides, whether from reactionary French natives or surly immigrants or their children. So long as the sort of racism presumably practiced by the National Front is seen as contrary to the classical republican ideal, it seems that France could really stand an almost Jacobinical revival of revolutionary hostility to all forms of ignorance and superstition.

12 February 2015

The Chapel Hill Mystery

If the man accused of killing three people in Chapel Hill NC is found guilty, that will prove one thing: atheism itself won't make a person less violent. The accused killer is believed to be an atheist on the evidence of Facebook postings that show him to be an equal-opportunity enemy of all religions. According to neighbors, he is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, angry and belligerent much of the time. Investigators claim that he killed the victims, a married couple and a relative, over a parking dispute. The victims' relatives don't deny that there was a parking dispute, but some insist that there was more to it than that, while Muslim activists and sympathizers across the country demand a further investigation to determine whether the murders should be deemed hate crimes. The issue begs a question of definition. If we recognize "hate crime" as a distinctive category -- many still don't -- how do we recognize it? Most people, whether they accept the idea or not, probably would assume that "hate crime" means that bigotry is the necessary and sufficient, if not exclusive cause of the crime. By this standard, to have committed a hate crime the accused must be shown to have killed the victims only because they were Muslim. The moment the parking dispute becomes known, many observers will doubt whether the killings were hate crimes. But what if it can be shown that the suspect's presumed attitude toward Muslims exacerbated the parking dispute? Would he have killed less overtly religious neighbors over the same dispute? It's impossible to say because we can't rewrite history. Instead, we have the family's testimony that the defendant grew more hostile toward the original neighbor, the man, after the wife, who wore traditional dress, moved in with him. But even if we grant that the man hated Muslims (if not all believers), that fact alone doesn't necessarily make his killing of Muslims a hate crime, or else every interracial or interdenominational killing might also be a hate crime.

The victims par excellence of hate crime are blacks and homosexuals. In such cases, hate crime is presumed to have an implicit motive of enforcing a social or cultural hierarchy: the hate criminal kills the victim in order to keep the victim's people down, or because he assumes an entitlement as a superior person to put them down. He perpetuates a climate of fear that handicaps the oppressed group to which his victim belongs. And he is presumed -- or so I presume -- to have no other motive for killing someone. In the Chapel Hill case, the suspect's reputed atheism probably encourages the perception of the killings as hate crime. While the best-selling new or militant atheists are equal-opportunity "haters" in theory, the present global political climate inevitably makes Muslims special targets for their invective. If an atheist confronts a Muslim and kills him on any pretext, an element of hate is presumed present. Is that true the other way around? If the man of the house had been armed and had managed to kill the armed intruder, or had the parking dispute driven him to take the offensive, would we be calling him a jihadist today? I'm certain that many would, but no one, I suspect, would call this theoretical murder a hate crime because atheists aren't deemed to require (or deserve?) protection from "hate." But at this moment in American history Muslims are more likely than atheists to have a bunker mentality and see "hate" behind every misfortune.

The Chapel Hill killings give some American Muslims a pretext to demand the same sort of informal recognition as a protected group that blacks and gays enjoy. That seems to be the point of the "Muslim Lives Matter" meme that has emerged in echo of the "Black Lives Matter" slogan from last year. In each case, it's no answer to insist that "all lives matter" since the slogans are demands for recognition more than protection. However understandable that may be, it seems irresponsible on another level to emphasize more than the evidence justifies that the three victims died because they were Muslims. From what I've seen, while the women of the family made some concessions to tradition in headgear they seemed overall to be well assimilated into American culture -- the dead wife's bridal photos look very much like any American wedding down to the white dress and unthreatening veil. I don't know how politically conscious they were beyond their support for Syrian refugees, but they don't seem like the sort to foment jihad. Yet the more the survivors claim, however flimsily, that these killings were hate crimes, the more they're likely to stir up jihadists everywhere. It's not like they need much stirring, but they do appreciate every fresh pretext for acting out against the infidel. At this point, I doubt that letting the legal system run its course will make a difference in the international response, but I think Americans would be better off if everyone laid off the hate angle on this case. And if the defendant is found guilty, I'll be glad to apologize as a non-believer for the actions of this gun-toting idiot. We prefer to be defined by our brains, not our hatreds.

11 February 2015

Obama's critics prove his point about religious chauvinism

The President with the foreign-sounding name can't seem to shake the suspicion that he is somehow soft on Islam. Among the proofs of his softness is his alleged recourse to the politics of moral equivalence. For example, in his speech at last week's National Prayer Breakfast Obama warned against Christians climbing a "high horse" from which to judge Islam, since Christians have "committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ" practically from the beginning -- he cited the Crusades and the Inquisition specifically -- and have used their faith to rationalize policies (e.g. racial segregation) that have no basis in Christianity as the President understands it. This cautionary note offended Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist. "It is perverse that Obama feels compelled to lecture the West about not getting too judgmental on our 'high horse' over radical Islam’s medieval barbarism in 2015 because of Christianity’s medieval barbarism in 1215," Goldberg writes. He finds it not only perverse but hypocritical, since it looks to him that Obama is holding Christianity responsible for the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc., when the President seems unwilling to hold Islam responsible for the excesses of today's extremists. On top of all that, he deems Obama's remarks historically inaccurate.

Goldberg gives his readers a revisionist reading of the Inquisition, on the authority of a single historian. It is a fact, apparently, that the Inquisition came into being to take jurisdiction over heresy cases from secular governments. Goldberg describes this as virtually a humanitarian gesture, since it sometimes rescued accused heretics from lynch mobs and innocent people from charges trumped up by local rulers. He'll have to excuse us, however, if we're unimpressed by more humane forms of prosecuting heresy.

As for the Crusades, Goldberg considers them justified as defensive wars against Muslim aggression. While he acknowledges "terrible organized cruelties" on the part of Crusaders, he apparently assumes that Christendom had a right to roll back Muslim conquests dating back centuries before the First Crusade. I think not. Religions have no right to territory. Christianity had no more right to take the "Holy Land" by force than the Muslims had in the first place. I don't mean to say that the Muslim conquest must be respected as inviolable or irreversible, but I do mean to argue that Christianity had no moral entitlement to reclaim the lost lands. There was no morality, no right or wrong, to the Crusades. They were pure tests of force which the Christians ultimately lost, while the present Zionist crusade is a test of force which the Jews are winning. Leaving the rights of religions out of it, we're left with "Franks" trying to conquer Arabs who'd occupied the lands in question for several centuries, and I see no reason not to describe that as Frankish aggression. The pretext for the First Crusade, in any event, was that the land's new Seljuk Turkish rulers weren't allowing Christian pilgrims to visit the holy places in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Does Goldberg really think that's a good reason to go to war?

Goldberg, it seems, can't help but see any criticism of Christianity (or Judaism) as aiding or comforting Islam. It's obvious enough that he, like many Christians and Jews, have an issue not just with Islamism or Islamist extremism, but with Islam itself. Islam remains a scandal for its Abrahamic predecessors because it doesn't just say they're obsolete, as Christianity says of Judaism, but argues that they were wrong virtually all along. That is, Christianity still regards the Old Testament as holy scripture, but Islam claims that both Old and New Testaments are distortions of the original revelations to Moses, Jesus, et al. On the other hand, of course, Christians and Jews regard the Qur'an as a delusional text or an outright lie. Christians and Jews have only recently reconciled after centuries of mutual animosity -- and the reconciliation is arguably fragile in some places -- but reconciliation between Christians and Muslims seems further off with every passing day. It's this accelerating estrangement that Obama presumably hopes to halt by taking religion out of the discussion of terrorism. What Goldberg doesn't seem to get is that Obama's comment on Christian history isn't intended as an argument against fighting the Daesh -- the self-styled Islamic State -- but as an argument for leaving religion out of the war on terror.  If Christians and Jews don't want their religion held responsible for their ancestor's atrocities, the President is telling the Jonah Goldbergs among us, then don't hold Muslims as a whole responsible for their extremists' atrocities. All Goldberg hears is: don't criticize Islam. That violates his sense of duty to prove Islam an inferior religion. In the column in question, he does that by negative implication.

But there’s a very important point to make here that transcends the scoring of easy, albeit deserved, points against Obama’s approach to Islamic extremism (which he will not call Islamic): Christianity, even in its most terrible days, even under the most corrupt popes, even during the most unjustifiable wars, was indisputably a force for the improvement of man.Christianity ended greater barbarisms under pagan Rome. The church often fell short of its ideals — which all human things do — but its ideals were indisputably a great advance for humanity.

The unspoken corollary is that Islam was never a force for the improvement of man, its ideals no advance for humanity. Meanwhile, Goldberg joins the school of thought arguing that Christianity contributed something more than mythology to western civilization. It's argued increasingly that liberalism and egalitarianism are offspring of Christianity -- that Christianity asserted the equality of people as souls when previously no culture had any notion of human equality at any level, while Islam is credited at most with preserving classical learning and advancing it somewhat in certain areas without contributing anything unique and progressive to the world's intellectual heritage. As one book reviewer notes, it's harder than apologists think to prove how Christianity actually caused such radical changes in thinking. Goldberg's column is less intellectually ambitious and seems to contradict itself. He credits Christianity with transforming the classical world into something else, but also argues that Christianity and "medievalism" are two different things. If medievalism is what comes after classicalism, then Christianity must have had some role in the making of medievalism. Maybe Goldberg wants to blame all the bad parts of medievalism on medieval Europe's barbarian heritage, but he doesn't say so in his column. The point of the column seems to be to defend something indisputably good and just in Christianity that justifies its adversarial (but presumably permanently defensive) stance against Islam and entitles it to resist (a presumably permanently medieval) Islam by any means necessary.

There probably is some hypersensitivity to Islamophobia in liberal culture. We saw a little of it earlier today in a rush to identify the murder of three Muslims in North Carolina as an Islamophobic hate crime. As soon as the suspect was identified, reporters searched for proof of Islamophobia and found a statement proposing atheism as the solution to the Middle East's problem. In time, investigators clarified that the killings were provoked by a dispute over parking space. Real Islamophobes might be excused for comparing this clumsy rush to judgment to a perceived reluctance in some media to identify Islamic or Islamist sentiments as motives for any crime in this country. In an ideal world we could address all the root causes of violence perpetrated by adherents of a particular religion, be the perpetrators Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or other, without the perceived supremacy or inferiority of religions being at stake. It's all too evident, perhaps especially to a none-of-the-above observer, that many Christians can't confront Islamism without asserting the inferiority of Islam as a whole to their own faith, whether or not they can prove that Islam is a necessary or sufficient cause of Islamist violence. And while I still resist the idea that antagonism toward Islam is inherently bigoted, since Islam is a value system as subject to intellectual scrutiny as any other, I have to concede that levels of bigotry toward mostly darker, often poorer, and radically foreign people are inextricable from many people's hostility toward Islam. Here's a simple test. If you're going to attack Islam only to prove that Christianity or Judaism is a better religion, you're probably a religious bigot and you have no high horse to sit on. Jonah Goldberg will certainly disagree. He claims that "the West" has earned the right to "sit in the saddle" to judge the Islamist terrorists of the 21st century. But if Christianity earned westerners like Goldberg that right, then it's too bad that he forgot its founder's advice: judge not, lest ye be judged.

09 February 2015

The Nigerian Nightmare (with apologies to Christian Okoye)

Beset by the Boko Haram terror insurgency, Nigeria has postponed a presidential election for six weeks because the current government believes its security forces would be stretched too thin protecting polling places from attacks by the Islamists based in the northeast part of the country. Inevitably, the decision is being criticized by the opposition party, led by a Muslim who promises to get tougher on Boko Haram. He suspects that the crisis provides a pretext for the incumbent president to hold on to power. This is a natural reaction in any polarized democracy. In the U.S., many liberals feared that George W. Bush might use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to postpone or cancel elections, and when the shoe's on the other foot right-wingers feel the same suspicion about Democratic leaders. Yet the U.S. also sets a standard by which Americans often judge other nations, including Nigeria now. We held a presidential election at the height of the Civil War, in the fall of 1864, at a point in the conflict when Abraham Lincoln had reason to believe he might lose. The moral of the story is that crisis provides no excuse for obstructing democracy, while Lincoln emerges as usual as the exemplary democratic leader because he had every reason or excuse to delay the vote but didn't do so. Of course, the circumstances are different in Nigeria today as they were recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Confederacy or its sympathizers were capable of projecting force deep into the north -- in the extreme case rebels snuck into Canada and struck south into St. Albans VT -- and some envisioned mass terror attacks like a plot to burn New York City, there was (as far as I can recall) no plan to disrupt the 1864 elections. The Confederacy was not out to overthrow the Union, disputing Lincoln's right to rule them but not his right to rule those states that chose to stay, whereas Boko Haram presumably denies legitimacy to any regime that doesn't practice or enforce sharia law. Elections and voters are thus a legitimate target for attack in their minds, while in Iraq and Afghanistan elections were seen as conferring false legitimacy on regimes imposed by invaders.

While it's a poor reflection on Nigeria that it can't (or won't) guarantee voters' safety at this time, it's fair to ask whether it would reflect any better on the incumbent president if he insisted on on-schedule elections with indifference to their safety. Liberal westerners rightly respect the regularity of elections but sometimes act as if elections themselves solve all problems. On one level Nigeria is worse off if the election is postponed, but it's harder to argue that Nigerians really are better off if the vote goes as scheduled. The problems that led to the rise of Boko Haram and the corruption and incompetence that give it further breathing room are unlikely to be solved by the presidential election, even if the incumbent, on whom corruption and incompetence is blamed, is replaced by an opponent who himself once took power by coup d'etat. Nigeria is a nation divided along religious and tribal lines, with a north-south antagonism that will look familiar to Americans within artificial boundaries drawn by Europeans. None of that can be waved away by the magic of an election, nor should we indulge in the magical thinking that assumes that voting empowers ordinary citizens in a way that really counts. If Nigeria is a nation, we can grant that it's up to the Nigerian people as a whole to say what their national interest is, but we also can question whether a largely bipolar election and a choice between questionable candidates is the best or only way to say it. I don't know if the U.S. even has a favorite in the election -- though we must note that Nigeria is an oil producer at a time when oil prices have geopolitical significance -- but our knee-jerk focus on elections as be-all-end-all events, and our almost reflexive criticism of the Nigerian government's decision may distract our leaders from the bigger picture in that country. I know too little about conditions there to judge the decision, but I'm pretty sure that the decision shouldn't be the sole basis of our judgment of the situation.

05 February 2015

Obama: 'religion strengthens America'

The President performed an annual duty by appearing at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning. This is a political rather than constitutional duty, since skipping the event would certainly scandalize many Americans, but I'm sure Barack Obama wouldn't miss an opportunity to talk. His talk today was predictable enough: freedom of religion for everybody; persecution and violence for no one. Inevitably on such an occasion Obama must say religion is a positive good and I don't doubt he actually believes that. He said today that "religion strengthens America" and proceeded to give examples: "Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights."

For today's purposes, at least, the President accepts that religion was a necessary motivator for all these brave men and women. He seems to agree with those who argue that you can't believe people are equal unless you believe they are created equal. In other words, egalitarianism presumes a Creator. Religion did strongly motivate the abolitionists, but their egalitarian beliefs arguably overrode scripture whenever scripture seemed to condone slavery. What really happened in the past, I suspect, was that people couldn't help anthropomorphizing their idea of justice. For whatever reason it couldn't be compelling if it wasn't the will of a conscious being. In modern times, however, egalitarianism should follow from science. If we believe in human rights, they should extend to all humans by virtue of genetic identity, not divine creation. The harder part, of course, is acknowledging that humans, not God, define human rights, since any human definition seems not as irrevocable as a divine mandate and thus not as secure. God has proved a poor guarantor of the rights attributed to him, however, while we can always challenge any revocation or revision of human rights proposed by human governments, with at least as much hope for success as an appeal to God.

The President's remark reminded me of a David Brooks column I read earlier this week in which he criticized secularism for a lack of motivating fervor. He didn't question whether secularists could be moral, but while he finds many of them to be "genial, low-key people who are ... now leading peaceful and rewarding lives," Brooks questions whether they have sufficient passion to fight injustice. Conceding on the authority of cognitive science that the world won't conform to reason, he sees weakness in a secularism defined by reasonableness and individualism. Secularism "can't just speak to the rational aspects of our nature," he writes; it must "arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action." To be a positive moral force, secularism must become "enchanted," which means that it "puts emotional relations first and autonomy second." Brooks expects this to happen, but it's odd that he seems not to realize that it had happened already, for what is this "enchanted secularism" he proposes but a regime of ideology, if not a totalitarian system in which the Leader, as the embodiment of the State, becomes the object of motivating passion previously directed at God? Today's genial, low-key secularists recoil from that very thing, and today's atheists recognize the Great Leader regimes of the 20th century as substitutes for religion rather than alternatives to it. So why can't we just do right? Why do we have to believe in something else before we believe in doing the right thing? The answer may be that some things aren't as self-evident as Thomas Jefferson thought -- as Jefferson proved by keeping slaves in defiance of self-evident human equality. Religion argues that doing the right thing doesn't come naturally to humans, and secularists should be able to agree with that without accepting that man needs myths in order to do right. "Right" itself may be a myth, of course, but it may be the one necessary myth that renders all the others superfluous. The key is teaching it right, but no one seems to be good at that these days, so we're left to our prayers instead.

04 February 2015

Jeb Bush and the 'artifical weight' on the poor

The takeaway from Jeb Bush's speech in Detroit was that the former Florida governor was differentiating himself from other Republicans who are perceived to have contempt for the poor. The key phrase, according to the positive spin, was this one:

Tens of millions of Americans no longer see a clear path to rise above their challenges. Something is holding them back. Not a lack of ambition. Not a lack of hope. Not because they are lazy or see themselves as victims. Something else. Something is an artificial weight on their shoulders. 

Admittedly, this could only be meant as a rebuke to Republicans, since Democrats almost by definition don't blame poverty on laziness or a so-called victim mentality. If you take the long view, it's a rebuke to the entire Republican tradition going back to Abraham Lincoln. It was Old Abe's own view that those who failed to advance in a "free labor" economy most likely had themselves to blame, since he was at pains to refute the view shared by slaveholders and many working-class Democrats of his time that industrial capitalism inevitably and systematically reduced much of the population to hopeless proletariat status. Jeb probably doesn't know this and it shouldn't be held against him so long as he's scoring points on his contemporaries for their self-defeating poor-baiting.

What, then, is the artificial weight Jeb speaks of? From what I've seen of his speech, this weight falls upon the poor in two loads. One load is excessive government regulation, which he blamed for needlessly shutting down hundreds of small businesses in Detroit alone during a period when that city needed every job that could be created. In many cases, Jeb argued, these closures weren't about the businessmen meeting standards but about paying fees for licenses and so forth. From the Republican standpoint this is the state at its predatory worst. The second load of artificial weight is the state at its compassionate worst. Liberal social policies trap the poor in a "spider web" of dependency, Jeb said, often discouraging the cultivation of traits that would make people more productive. For this, Jeb deserves to lose some of the praise he earned for the earlier quote, since "dependence" is often just a euphemism for laziness to many Republican ears. The difference with Jeb is that he blames dependence on government policy, not on some inherent laziness that attracts people to dependence, as too many Republicans seem to believe.

Jeb loses whatever remaining credit he may have earned by attributing all the artificial weight to government. There's little difference between him and other Republicans on this point. The GOP as a whole sees things differently from the rest of us. Just as some see a glass as half-full when others see it half-empty, Jeb perceives an artificial weight of intrusive government pressing on the poor when the poor themselves more likely notice not a weight but an absence or emptiness. They want to know where the jobs are, and many understand that the jobs were taken away, and employees sacrificed, in the name of competitiveness, or simply to show a profit for one year. When Republicans acknowledge job loss, they still blame government, arguing that regulations and taxes make it too expensive and uncompetitive to employ as many people as the private sector used to -- or they blame organized labor for making it too expensive and uncompetitive, etc. If you ask a Republican whether it's more important that all Americans work or that the American economy be competitive, they may try to argue that the more competitive we are, the more of us will work, but they'll more likely say, as Jeb did, that "Competition is messy. But it's essential." Essential to whom? is what someone should ask him. Can it be essential to the nation if it means millions lose jobs over time? If Jeb really believes in his "Right to Rise" slogan, shouldn't the right to a job at least sometimes trump the imperatives of competitiveness? He's absolutely right that competition is messy, since you can see the results of global competition for the cheapest labor and the cheapest goods all around you. Might it not be true that competition more than regulation is the artificial weight holding down Americans trying to rise? Dare Jeb admit that competition means that many will never rise, with government having nothing to do with it? He says he's going to address the "critical issue" of the artificial weight in the weeks to come. Let's hope he doesn't go unchallenged.

03 February 2015

Republicans, paranoia and public health

So now there's such a thing as an anti-vaccination constituency, it seems, and some Republicans thinking of running for President are hoping to get its support. Neither Gov. Christie of New Jersey nor Sen. Paul of Kentucky actually objects to vaccination in general, but both made a point recently of suggesting either that vaccinations for schoolchildren should be voluntary or that there should be more input from local parents regarding each school system's vaccination policy. As more Americans become aware of a measles epidemic in this country, it seems a bad time to question in any way the principle of mandatory vaccinations. But even these politicians' mild criticisms of the principle may resonate with Republican base voters, and others, who've been conditioned to oppose the idea that anything having to do with public health should be mandatory, or who object to a supposedly misguided "one size fits all" approach to any regulatory policy. While some of this resistance is plainly reactionary -- note Paul's comment that "the state doesn't own your children" -- not all of it need be. I can imagine relatively apolitical or nonpartisan paranoids drawing the conclusion that mandatory vaccinations only benefit the big pharmaceutical companies while subjecting children to unjustifiable risks. Some side research showed me that arguments of that sort were made a century ago as New York State considered mandatory smallpox vaccination for schoolchildren. This sort of thinking becomes more decisive as the era of annual polio epidemics recedes further into the ill-remembered past. Time makes some people more sensitive to the relative handful of exceptional cases who suffer side effects of vaccinations, as they did 100 years ago, while the far larger numbers of victims of future outbreaks among the unvaccinated remain speculative if not fictional. It is conservative, I suppose, if the risks of action outweigh the risks of inaction for anyone, but it's worth noting that Ben Carson, still touted by some Republicans as their party's great black conservative hope, sees the issue from a doctor's perspective, not an ideologue's. Actually, when he argues against giving up something that has worked over time for "philosophical, religious or other reasons," Carson is a conservative in the best sense of the word.