29 April 2015

The T Word

The Baltimore story moved from tragic to farcical mode once the President of the United States described the rioters of April 27 as "thugs." Right-wingers took heart, having been condemned as racists in recent months for describing rioters in Ferguson MO, not to mention Ferguson victim Michael Brown, as "thugs." But if they thought they were off the hook, along came a black Baltimore councilman to condemn the President for using that same word. If you're going to say "thugs," this solon said, you may as well say the N-word. Well, doubleyou tee eff!  I had noticed this new taboo last fall and wondered about it. What makes "thug" a racist epithet? The complaint from the activists was that certain people used the word only to describe black criminals and rioters. That I can't verify, but my gut feeling is that, however reactionaries feel about black people, they did not intend "thug" as a euphemism for something more obviously racist. "Thug" still means what it has meant since the British discovered the alleged killer cults of "Thuggee" in India. If not always denoting a killer, it always signifies a criminal using brutal methods, perhaps as a matter of pleasure, perhaps as a matter of principle. It does to most English-speakers, at least. But if some blacks think the word is aimed at them, it's because some blacks have claimed the word as their own. "Thug" has been a popular hip-hop word since Tupac's time, though it may signify something else in hip-hop culture than it signifies for the rest of us. Once blacks think of "thug" as a "black" word, it's probably natural to assume that anyone else who uses the word is talking about blacks. But this is easily disproved. If Baltimore cops inflicted the spinal injury that killed Freddie Gray, then they were cops. The white cop who shot the guy in the back in South Carolina is a thug. And people whose idea of protest or uprising is to loot their neighborhood stores and set fires are thugs. And people who object to the description are idiots.

28 April 2015


Rioting drives people to false alternatives: either the rioting individuals are entirely to blame for the situation or else the riots are so sociologically predetermined that blaming individuals misses the point of the event. It should be self-evident that individual depravity is not a sufficient cause of riots, or else some people would riot all the time. But one can go too far in making rioters mere puppets of historical conditions or extensions of root causes. Individual depravity does explain why some people's idea of a political statement is to sack a CVS drug store, although it may be debatable whether any of the perpetrators in Baltimore thought they were making a political statement. Rioting is a political statement regardless, since it signals that something is wrong with people and society. A purely moralist response -- saying "thou shalt not riot," which could mean "thou shalt not loot" or "thou shalt not protest" -- is inadequate to the situation. Realism requires us to recognize that under certain circumstances things will happen no matter how many moral objections you make, and that the surer way to keep such things from happening is to change the circumstances rather than the people. Say something like that, of course, and some people will think you don't believe in holding people responsible for looting and violence. There's a popular fallacy that assumes that when you acknowledge root causes and provocative circumstances you somehow absolve wrongdoers of responsibility for their misdeeds. But just because it may be easier to prevent riot by changing society rather than changing people, that obviously doesn't mean that people don't have to change or that individuals can't be held accountable, on the spot, for rioting. Some people talk as if those who acknowledge root causes and see the necessity of social change would simply let people riot until changes are made. On top of that there's a racist assumption that the Obama administration wants authorities to go easy on rioters who are most likely entirely black. Leaving the racism aside, such assumptions underrate our ability to do things simultaneously that may appear contradictory from an ideological or partisan perspective. It should be possible to push for social justice and take punitive measures against people whose pillaging of their own neighborhoods belies any pretense of political dissidence. Rioters may not deserve death but when they can't think of anything better to do then loot the neighborhood liquor store they don't deserve any sympathy, either. The state should show them a strong hand, as it should show a strong hand to those whose actions and reckless disregard for the economic well being of their fellow citizens have reduced multitudes to such a desperate state.

27 April 2015

Je suis islamphobe?

PEN ("Poets, Essayists and Novelists"), the American branch of a leading international writers' organization, will give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo magazine, the French publication whose editorial staff was massacred by Islamist gunmen earlier this year. In a move that has caught some observers by surprise the way Pearl Harbor did, six prominent authors, including two Booker Prize-winning novelists, have withdrawn from the event following the announcement of the Courage award. Acting as spokesman by default, the novelist Peter Carey made sure to deplore the murders but made clear that he felt the magazine undeserving of the honor. To honor Charlie Hebdo, he said, was to turn a blind eye to France's mistreatment of its "large and disempowered" Muslim minority, if not share in France's "cultural arrogance." This boycott has drawn a predictable (if unpredictably vulgar) reaction from Salman Rushdie, who in the heat of his initial anger described the protesting writers as "pussies." More deplorable, perhaps, than the vulgarity for which he later apologized was Rushdie's comment that "I hope nobody ever comes after them," implicitly referring to his own ordeal and implying that the protesting writers had surrendered any claim on sympathy should they ever get targeted by the easily offended or violently intolerant.

You can understand Rushdie's feelings about such things, but what about Carey's? In his view, apparently, Charlie Hebdo was doing nothing brave or honorable by "punching down" at a downtrodden people. One wonders whether the salient feature of the offended people in Carey's eyes is their poverty rather than their religion. A feeling persists that we shouldn't be too hard on Islam because so many of its adherents are poor, not to mention dark. A belief persists that any adverse commentary on the religion of Islam is Islamophobic -- that is, bigoted in the same way anti-semitism or hatred of black people is. The core assumption seems to be that you can't attack Islam without insulting Muslims in a way they either don't deserve or somehow deserve less than Christians, Jews or others.

On this blog I've grappled with the idea of Islamophobia, sometimes thinking it a useless scareword but more often lately using it to describe a perhaps more specific attitude than the word signifies for some. I think the word should mean what it seems to up front; it should describe an irrational fear of Islam. Thus I use "islamophobes" to describe Americans (though they have counterparts elsewhere) who believe the religion of Islam itself to be an inherent and imminent if not existential threat to their security and freedom as American citizens. Those who suspect the local mosque of hosting a terrorist cell or spreading Wahhabi propaganda, on no evidence beyond its mere existence, are Islamophobes. Those who think Islam a stupid religion in its Wahhabi form or any other are not, though those who think Islam uniquely stupid among the Abrahamic religions, if not among all religions, may be borderline cases. Those who denounce Islam while promoting Christianity or Judaism, overstating the differences while ignoring the similarities, are arguably Islamphobic but I'd rather call them religious bigots. Some observers may suspect that any animosity toward or mere mockery of Islam is motivated at base by fear, but I disagree. At the least we would have to distinguish between degrees of fear, particularly between the sort of "fear" that would inspire cartoonists to caricature the Prophet Muhammad and the fear that would keep their pens in their drawers. It might be argued that if you didn't "fear" Muslims on some level you'd simply ignore them, but that leaves no room for the sort of scorn or contempt that Charlie Hebdo reportedly expressed toward every prominent institution of France. These fine distinctions of mine may be wasted on someone who feels that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were vicious and hateful, no matter what thoughts or feelings motivated them. But they allow me to judge whether such sentimentality is worthy of consideration, as the objections to honoring the magazine are not. My position remains that if Muslims really want to share the world with the rest of us rather than rule us, they must grow thicker skins. Until then, their susceptibility to offense is contemptible in a way that is not mitigated by the social injustices they endure in many places. It may not be possible to make this point more clearly than to keep the memory of the Charlie Hebdo massacre fresh, and its meaning clear. Peter Carey and those who share his views are entirely within their prerogatives to speak out against genuine unfairness toward Muslims in France and elsewhere, and for all I know the PEN event might have been an ideal forum, but to complain that Charlie Hebdo is unfair in any comparable way is idiotic, and that's my freedom of speech for today.

Clinton Cash and the benefits of a long campaign

Clinton fans are scrambling to defend the former Secretary of State and damn her accusers following the publicizing by the New York Times of excerpts from an upcoming investigative volume, Clinton Cash, in which Peter Schweizer raises questions about the coincidences of foreign donations to the charitable Clinton Foundation. The Times emphasized the timing of big donations by a Canadian uranium company in the process of being bought out by a Russian company, the process requiring American approval because the company controls some U.S. uranium resources. These donations, say Schweizer and the Times, were not properly reported by the Foundation, and beg the question of their intent to facilitate government approval of the sale. More revelations, or at least more questions, will follow the publication of Schweizer's book next week.

For Republicans and Clinton-haters across the ideological spectrum, the big question is whether donations to the Foundation bought influence with the State Department during Clinton's tenure. Because Schweizer is a Republican, a former GW Bush speechwriter and adviser to Sarah Palin, and the author of some polemical works in the past, Clinton loyalists would have us dismiss his every word as a smear and the author as part of the famously vast right-wing conspiracy against the Clintons. No doubt Clinton Cash is a hatchet job, intended to undermine her presidential candidacy, but what follows from that? We can assume a lot about right-wing hacks, but we can't assume that this book is just a big lie. Presume that Schweizer set out looking for dirt on Secretary Clinton. Does that fact itself prove that there is no dirt to be found? Tell that to all the hacks on the other side doggedly investigating all the Republican front-runners. Shall we dismiss whatever they may find about Cruz, Rubio, Paul or Jeb Bush -- not to mention what Schweizer himself is reportedly investigating about Bush? Certainly Schweizer can be suspected of putting the most negative spin possible on whatever facts he's uncovered, but as long as he's found facts we should be able to interpret them for ourselves without Clintonites or Democrats telling us what they mean. And if the best they can say now is "there was no quid pro quo!" then they're no better than the Republicans and right-wing donors they denounce so often, who can and do say the same thing all the time. If we have to depend on Republican hacks to raise such questions, that's only because Democrats lack the will to inquire and others to the Clintons' left haven't the access or the power. At a point in American history when someone can be anointed the presumptive presidential candidate of a major party nearly a year before anyone votes in a caucus or primary, these are exactly the questions to be asked between the time the candidate declares and the time the people vote. If we're going to make a presidential campaign season last so long, we may as well make the most of the time we're given, and if partisans feel now that only their ox has been gored, there's still plenty of time to learn more about Clinton's competitors. Do you doubt that we will? And if these revelations and questions about Clinton threaten so many people's dreams of a woman President in 2017, then draft Senator Warren or someone else more capable of standing up to the inevitable scrutiny, or else, as such people always say to those their left, put aside your idealist demands and put the people's interests first.

23 April 2015

Republican foreign policy: extremes without a center?

Senator Graham of South Carolina is considering a run next year for the Republican presidential nomination. He seems driven by a belief that foreign policy will be the most important issue in 2016, and he has previewed his campaign by defining himself in contrast with a declared candidate, Sen. Paul of Kentucky. Paul himself, perhaps thinking he has gone too far from his father's non-interventionist position, is pre-emptively defining himself in contrast with Graham and his mentor, Sen. McCain of Arizona. The Kentuckian started a spat this week with his strage claim that Graham and McCain were "lapdogs" for President Obama's foreign policy. That sounded almost delusional, given how often those two have criticized the President for "leading from behind," but Paul seems to think that all disagreement with his own foreign policy, whatever that may be, is essentially the same. In response, Graham and McCain described Paul's foreign policy as "behind leading from behind." Rather than lapdogs, McCain said, he and Graham were Doberman Pinschers worrying the President. Obama's erstwhile opponent reportedly illustrated this to an interviewer by barking like such a dog. But given how Iranophobic and Israelophilic Paul has become, presumably in pursuit of primary votes and Sheldon Adelson's money, his critics seem just as delusional. To be fair, however, they're probably judging Paul by the entirety of his foreign-policy statements, not just by his most recent pandering. Still, their stance seems just as absolutist as Paul's; all disagreement with their neocon policy is weakness or "leading from behind." For Graham and Paul there seems to be no middle ground in foreign policy, though the other Republican candidates and potential candidates may want to fill that gap. Of course, GOP opinion is likely to bunch up closer to Graham's end, raising Paul up like the lighter end of a see-saw, elevating him if only by contrast with a pack of exceptionalist sabre-rattlers. I'd be surprised if Paul himself didn't think the U.S. should "lead" in some way, though to be fair his idea of leadership is probably less belligerent than his fellow Republicans' vision. I wonder whether libertarians like Paul assume an inevitable competition among nations the way Republicans do. Republicans like Graham and McCain assume that the only alternative to American leadership is leadership by a less worthy nation or coalition; the core assumption is the geopolitics is a competition in which nations must dominate or be dominated. Libertarians believe in competition, of course, but they idealize it, imagining a kind of utopian competition free from force or fraud that actually becomes a kind of cooperation with the best of all possible results for society as a whole. They may imagine a competition among nations, but without that dominate-or-be-dominated edge. They'll never go for conscious, conscientious cooperation through the vehicle of world government, because that'd be politics, but their belief in a spontaneous order may be preferable to the typical Republican belief in irrepressible conflicts. Of course, Paul will be participating in Republican primaries, so his position is likely to evolve further into an uglier amalgam of libertarian and neocon ideas, but as long as Graham lurks as a potential rival threatening a do-over of the McCain 2008 campaign, the Kentuckian will be able to draw a line keeping himself from selling out any further.

22 April 2015

Revolutionary suicide: can one man make a difference?

You may have heard or read of the guy who landed his gyrocopter in front of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month in order to make a statement in favor of campaign finance reform. You may also have heard of the incident a little while earlier in which a man stood in front of the Capitol and shot himself to death. We still know little about this man apart from his name and home. His name was Leo Thornton and his statement was also political in nature. Witnesses report that Thornton carried a sign reading, "Tax the 1%" or something to that effect. It's easy to dismiss such a man as a hopeless, tragic nut -- until you recall how suicide can change things elsewhere in the world. Suicide has been a form of political protest for some time now. Americans first noticed it when South Vietnamese monks set themselves on fire in the Sixties. In Czechoslovakia, after the Soviets snuffed the Prague Spring, at least one Czech made a similar statement against oppression. In our time, the most famous protest suicide is Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2011 is credited with triggering the "Arab Spring" movement. Whatever the results elsewhere, Bouazizi's own country is considered a success story so far. My question is: why shouldn't Bouazizi have been dismissed as a disgruntled nut, as Thornton is dismissed by almost everyone in the U.S.? It can be noted that Bouazizi, a street vendor, had suffered oppression directly at the hands of his government, while we still know too little about Thornton to determine whether he had a direct, personal grievance against the U.S. government or the social order. In some ways, a better American analogue for Bouazizi, though not a suicide, might be Eric Garner, the man who died after cops choked him out for allegedly selling "loosie" cigarettes. Garner's death helped spark a social movement, but would we know him today if he had killed himself over his harassment by the cops? It seems unlikely. It may be that suicide is less immediately associated with mental illness outside the western world. If Bouazizi killed himself because he could no longer stand the way his government treated him, fellow Tunisians apparently were more inclined to think that proved something was wrong with the government, while Americans may more likely assume that something is wrong with the man who kills himself to protest something.

Tunisia is considered a more democratic country today than it was when Bouazizi killed himself, but in a way it may already have been more democratic than some self-proclaimed democracies. Democracy is a slippery concept that tends to get mixed up with ideas like "representative government" and "rule of law," whether all these ideas are compatible or not. Part of the idea of democracy, everyone would agree, is that everyone can have a say in government, even if your only real say is voting for a representative to legislate for you. A corollary notion is that anyone in a democracy can make a difference. Tunisia had a democratic moment when Bouazizi's suicide made a difference. Does that mean the U.S. is less democratic because Thornton's suicide won't make a difference? I'm not sure. It doesn't follow from our democratic ideals that everyone will make a difference, after all. It's also up to the people as a whole to decide what someone's suicide means. Tunisians responded emphatically and empathetically to Bouazizi's suicide, while Americans could be excused for thinking that higher tax rates for the rich is a poor cause to kill yourself for in the absence of information about Thornton's own plight. But leaving Thornton's particulars out for a moment, let's imagine again a suicidal Eric Garner, one who suffered what the real man suffered but survived only to decide he couldn't take it anymore. How would Americans respond? Would we even have heard of him? If we can't imagine Americans seeing anyone's suicide as proof of social injustice, then on some level we as a people, let alone our system of government, may be less democratic than the Tunisian masses who responded to Bouazizi's death. On some level the Tunisians respected him, as an individual and a citizen, more than Americans could respect any counterpart here. That doesn't mean that Thornton should have been an American Bouazizi, but if you can't imagine an American Bouazizi, that may not be a good thing for us.

21 April 2015

Is Eritrea the enemy?

The Committee to Protect Journalists has presented a list of the ten "most censored" countries. According to the CPJ, "The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access." By their standard the "most censored" if not most repressive regime on Earth is not North Korea, not Iran, and not even Saudi Arabia -- though all make the top ten -- but the little nation of Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. Defining censorship in part negatively by lack of access to information, CPJ notes that Eritrea trails the world in Internet access and ranks at the bottom in cellphone ownership. As for sins of commission, Eritrea is "Africa's worst jailer of journalists," typically holding would-be whistleblowers without trial. Overall, Eritrea boasts "a media climate so oppressive that even reporters for state-run news outlets live in constant fear of arrest." The country has suffered under Isaias Aferwerki's authoritarian rule since 1993, but things have only gotten worse after the "Arab Spring" raised alarms in a country in which Muslims form a third of the population.

Let all this sink in.  An organization whose standards must be impeccably liberal says that Eritrea is worse even than North Korea. Surely such a country is an enemy of the United States to the extent that it's an enemy of freedom. And the truth is, we and they don't get on that well. We don't have an ambassador there and the country is under UN sanctions for sponsoring subversive groups in neighboring Ethiopia. For what it's worth, the U.S. rooted for Eritrea during its struggle for independence from a Marxist Ethiopian regime in the waning days of the Cold War, and if you look hard enough you'll probably find propaganda portraying the Eritreans as liberty-loving Founding-Father types, since why else would you fight against Commies? But since independence the U.S. has been neither overly friendly nor overly hostile toward Eritrea. Right now, the diplomatic community is debating whether to improve ties with the country to take advantage of its strategic position in an area rife with Islamist violence. Some observers would rather see regime change first, preferably from natural causes, while all want Eritrea to stop trying to destabilize Ethiopia, a more established ally against Islamism. Ethiopia seems to loom in the Eritrean strategic imagination the way India does for Pakistan, making its potential role as a force for stability and against terrorism problematic. In any event, apart from its alleged mischief in Ethiopia Eritrea is not seen as the enemy and does not appear to support terrorism against the West.

What's the point of this lecture? The point is that Americans should expect Eritrea to be our enemy if it's as hostile to freedom as its ranking by CPJ suggests. They should expect that because whenever any such country proves to be an antagonist, Americans are told that it's because the country in question is an enemy of freedom. Whether they're driven by ideology, religion or irrational national pride, they come into conflict with the U.S. presumably because their foreign policies are driven by hostility to liberty. Even when a country like Saudi Arabia (No. 3 on the CPJ list) is treated as an ally by the U.S. government, the country is widely distrusted among the grassroots because of its perceived hostility to our values. Many Americans seem to have convinced themselves that authoritarianism of any sort inspires hostility toward the United States, since the authoritarian ruler sees our "universal" values as a threat to his power or his values. So when the arguably most authoritarian regime on Earth -- there are other standards for judging than the CPJ's -- proves not to be an inherent enemy of the U.S., if not much of a friend either, that fact ought to raise doubts when the U.S. government or media tell us that some other country opposes us because its system of government is somehow inimical to our values.  If the U.S. has a conflict with an authoritarian or totalitarian state -- depending on how you define these terms or if you take them seriously at all -- our first assumption ought to be that it's a clash of interests rather than a clash of cultures or values. The moral isn't to assume that these countries aren't or can't be our enemies, but that enmity results from something other than what our leaders want you to think.

16 April 2015

Putin on comparative history

President Putin did his annual marathon call-in show today. While reporters around the world were most interested in what he might say about Ukraine, Iran, the murder of Boris Nemtsov, etc., I was intrigued when reading a summary afterward by one caller's historical question. Russia will soon be commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and one patriotic Russian echoed the common American feeling that Europeans are ingrates. Why does Europe give Russia such attitude, ran the complaint, when if not for us they'd all be goose-stepping in German today? -- or words to that effect. Putin actually gave a sensible answer, telling the caller that Russia itself is partly to blame for European attitudes because the Soviet Union (in the words of a presumably official report) "imposed its model of development by force on the nations it liberated from the Nazis." Of course, Putin then went on to score a rhetorical point against the U.S., claiming that under Bush, Obama et al "Washington is doing about the same thing now, trying to impose their model on almost the entire world....And they will fail too." Americans and liberals around the world will no doubt dispute what they see as an apple-orange comparison. In their view, if the U.S. wishes to "impose" anything, it's the rule of law and civil liberty that's every human being's birthright. Putin can't be talking about a different model of economic development because Russia's a capitalist country now, right? So the only alternative to an American "model" must be one with more power for the leader and less freedom for dissent, right? But if Americans see any deviation from the U.S. "model" as tyranny, the rest of the world may see things with, dare I say, more "nuance" and definitely less idealization of the U.S. as a model for governance.

Putin wasn't done with the topic, however. He went on to say that, while some European criticism of Russia may be historically understandable, it would be going too far to equate Stalin, the man who imposed the Soviet model, with Hitler and Nazi Germany, as those averse to totalitarianism are wont to do. Stalinism contained "ugliness and repressions," Putin acknowledged, but it never aspired to the annihilation of an entire group of people. Here he is judging between mass murderers by intent rather than results. Is it somehow less atrocious to aspire, as Stalin did, to annihilate entire "classes" of people than it is to wipe out people based on their ethnicity or religion? Is Stalin really in a lesser category of evil because he used comparatively made-up categories to decide who should be killed, when he wasn't just slaughtering or torturing anyone whose loyalty was suspect? It's perfectly fair to speak of Hitler and Stalin together, as two of a kind, because both men believed that the good society depended on millions of people being slaughtered. Racism is not a worse crime than murder and racist mass-murder is not worse than plain old mass-murder. Putin's problem is that he wants to salvage something of Stalin for patriotic reasons. There's really little to say for Stalin except that he made the Soviet Union a superpower, for what that's worth, and he played a big role in defeating an enemy who was at least arguably more barbaric than he was. But when that's all you've got you get defensive about it. Just as American knee-jerk superpatriots answer critics of our actions abroad with, "If not for us you'd be speaking German (or Russian) today!" their Russian counterparts say much the same thing. Worse, as we see when the discussion turns to Ukraine, they tend to talk as if to be against Russia is to be a Nazi. At least Americans are more diverse in their delusions. For them, if you're against the U.S. you can be either a Commie or a Muslim. 

To close with a perhaps ironic observation, democracies -- as both the U.S. and Russia more or less claim to be -- seem to have a harder time repudiating "evil" leaders than monarchies. It doesn't reflect on the present queen of England, for instance, or on English culture if you say King John or Richard III or whoever was a bad king, a tyrant, etc. That may be because monarchy comes with a principle of personal responsibility, or else it makes it easier to scapegoat individual monarchs for what otherwise might be considered collective, systemic sins. By comparison, even post-Soviet Russia can't fully repudiate Stalin, while China insists on a hairsplitting "70% good, 30% bad" formula for the comparably vile Mao Zedong, and some Americans will only grudgingly concede that the U.S. or its leaders (recent company excepted) has ever done anything bad. In each case, to concede evil in the past threatens to discredit the principles upon which constitutional republics or people's republics are founded, while to acknowledge and condemn a bad monarch doesn't similarly undermine the monarchic principle, to the extent that it is a principle. Perhaps monarchists were onto something despite the fundamental idiocy of the hereditary idea. They did seem to recognize that despite all rhetoric, and even despite the letter of the law, a leader's character mattered most. If modern political systems can't criticize their pasts from fear of discrediting the present, that's a character flaw for democracies, dictatorships and anything in between.  

14 April 2015

Rubio: yesterday is over

Senator Rubio of Florida yesterday became the third Republican (and the third Senator) to declare for his party's presidential nomination. He claims to be the most forward-looking of all candidates, contrasting himself most starkly with Hillary Clinton, whom he described as "a leader from yesterday ... promising to take us back to yesterday." Rubio's own motto could be, in his own words: "Yesterday is over, and we are never going back." Speaking more generally, he blames enduring hard times and growing doubt of the American Dream on "too many of our leaders and their ideas ... stuck in the twentieth century." Especially old-fashioned in his eyes are New Deal and Great Society style social programs and economic regulations. Those who remain enamored of such policies "do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy" and obviously don't see how "taxing, borrowing and regulating like it's 1999" undermine our competitiveness. In other words, Rubio's big idea of the future is the Free Market. A critic might be excused for thinking that Rubio himself looks backward, only further back: past the mistakes of the 20th century to the 19th century, when "Americans harnessed the power of the Industrial Age and transformed this country into the leading economy in the world." To be fair, the 19th century provides no real model for Rubio. Then, the U.S. became an economic superpower by building things. Rubio promises to restore our economic superpower by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Once all this is done, "the American people will create millions of better-paying jobs." Such claims are nothing new. They presume that Americans today are seething with entrepreneurial energies, with products to sell and markets in mind to sell them to, and are held back only by the dead hands of taxes and regulations. Whenever I hear it I say: prove it. Let your business backers tell us how many people they would hire if they were less accountable to the government, and let them promise to hire those people if the Republican gets elected. If Republicans like Rubio and their sponsors can't name specific companies with specific positions that would be filled today if not for taxes and regulations, we'll see their rhetoric for the hot, smelly air it probably is.

Rubio himself knows that the supposedly crippling burden of taxes and regulations is only part of the problem. He acknowledges that many young people are held back not by government but by student-loan debt. He blames "an outdated higher education system that is too inexpensive and inaccessible to those who need it most." Quite reasonably, he calls for "a 21st century system of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to work." I'm all for that, but how exactly do we get there by cutting taxes, reducing regulations and repealing the ACA? If the object is to control costs, isn't that a form of regulation? And if acquiring certain skills is a priority for national competitiveness, would it be unreasonable to subsidize the learning process, given the obvious national interest? If Rubio plans to depend entirely on the Free Market to give our kids the necessary skills, won't he again be the candidate from the day before yesterday? He and his supporters would say that Free Market ideas are timeless and have no expiration date, but that might be more of a moral judgment than the competitive global marketplace will buy.

The big non sequitur of Rubio's speech was his linkage of American economic insecurity with perceived weaknesses of American foreign policy under President Obama. The nearest this comes to making sense is when Rubio assigns a share of blame for our malaise to "global chaos" that comes when "America fails to lead." The world will be more stable, and our nation in particular more prosperous, when the U.S. "accepts the mantle of global leadership." We will be more prosperous by remaining hostile toward Iran; by criticizing dictators; by confronting Russian and Chinese "aggression;" by expanding the military; and by "giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve." Some of these things cost money -- taxpayer dollars, that is -- but in these cases Rubio can claim to be investing in prosperity. Yesterday was an "American Century" but despite his general disregard for yesterday Rubio believes we're entitled to another American Century and thinks we can have it without our major economic competitors getting devastated by war. Good luck with that.

Overall, I do admire the honest egoism of a candidate who says, "I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot." The nation's future will be decided over the next decade, Rubio believes, and he believes he can help the U.S. retain its "exceptional" identity. He thinks we're exceptional in part because he, the son of an immigrant bartender, might become President. Would he think the nation less exceptional if a Clinton vs. Bush general election appeared to prove the American political order less open to outsiders than he thought? Probably he wouldn't, since exceptionalism is still as much about American privilege as a "free" country among others as it is about opportunity and mobility. In any event, if you don't see opportunity and mobility, you can blame that on government as Rubio prefers to do, or you can admit, as he claims to, that "America doesn't owe me anything." Republicanism appeals to the rank and file because it allows them to blame government for their troubles instead of blaming themselves, but if Republicans and their real constituents get their way the rank and file will only have themselves, or the Republicans' real constituents, to blame if their troubles endure. Then they might think differently when Republicans like Rubio say that their country doesn't owe them anything. Then again, that may be why Republicans never cut government as much they promise. For now I'd like Rubio to say more about reforming education, but beyond that he's got nothing.

13 April 2015

Clinton: the deck is stacked

Former Senator Clinton of New York officially declared her second candidacy for President of the United States this weekend. The former Secretary of State has already distinguished herself from her Republican counterparts by eschewing the bombast of a big announcement speech in favor of a statement in a slick commercial. The former First Lady -- who has been treated by some since 2001 as a sort of President Dowager -- appeals to "everyday Americans" to make her their champion. Despite economic recovery, she observes, "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top." This is standard Jacksonian Democrat rhetoric. The argument is that concentrations of wealth and power effectively deny opportunity to the next generation of competitors. Republicans used to believe this, too, way back in their founding generation, but once they became winners they tended to sympathize with winners. What Clinton will do to lower the stack is unclear, but out of her intended context those words sound ironic, to put it generously, from a candidate considered a preemptive frontrunner, in an environment where anyone who questions her ties to "those at the top," much less holds them against her, is dismissed as an extremist whose criticism will only aid the Republican party. What could be better described as a "stacked deck" then a campaign founded on the premise that whatever Clinton sees fit to do for everyday Americans as their champion is all they're entitled to expect, since she alone stands between them and four years of Republican misrule, and that to demand more will only divide the liberal/progressive movement fatally? Is the deck not stacked when any criticism of Clinton from her left will be condemned as making the "perfect" the enemy of the "good enough?" Clinton wants to be our champion, but in her own mind, or at least in the minds of her lockstep loyalists, she already is the champion, while to the minds of people like Michael Tomasky anyone who challenges her, past a certain point, is a traitor to the poor. Yet we can still ask what Hillary Clinton has done to earn this exalted standing apart from marry Bill. This is not to disparage her legislative and diplomatic achievements but simply to note that ever since 1992 there has been a belief in her entitlement to the Presidency rooted in her presumed entitlement to be co-President with her husband. There is no evading the essentially dynastic nature of such thinking, and it's a sad statement on the situation facing us next year that the Republican party probably has a better chance of repudiating dynastic politics by rejecting Jeb Bush than does the party that claims to champion everyday Americans. But so long as millions of Americans remain convinced that there's only one alternative to Republican rule, the Democrats will do much that may disappoint us but shouldn't surprise us. Everyday Americans need a real champion, but the deck in this game is still stacked against us.

Armenia in the news (slightly embellished)

Turkish officials are angry at Pope Francis for referring to an Armenian genocide during his Easter remarks yesterday. By this point in history I don't know what the Turks are worried about. If the Greeks aren't going to get the reparations for World War II they want from Germany I doubt anyone will want Turkey to pay anything out to Armenia except maybe in the pages of history. Yet for generations the Turks have acted as if they'd get sued the minute they acknowledged what appears to be the historical truth. You'd think it'd be easier to resolve now that Turkey has an Islamist government: blame it all on those Young Turk secular humanists, the same people who made Turks use the Latin alphabet and stop wearing fezzes. But I guess there's something about genocide-deniers everywhere. Their attitude seems toward their victims seems to be: we hate you and wish you were all dead, but we didn't nearly wipe you out back then, though maybe somebody should have.

In a related story, Kanye West, who is Armenian-American by marriage, threw himself into a lake while performing in Armenia, where his in-laws are visiting genocide memorials. Mr. West is reported (here if nowhere else) to have said during his fit that the Armenian genocide was in fact the greatest genocide of all time. Mr. West also reportedly claimed that the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, didn't give a damn about Armenians. This was later confirmed by President Erdogan, who also urged tourists to visit the centennial commemoration of the siege of Gallipoli on April 24 instead of an Armenian genocide commemoration scheduled for the same day. No matter how you look at it, or where you look, the Turks killed a hell of a lot of people in 1915, and some of them were armed. The Turkish government pleads self-defense on all counts.

10 April 2015

One cheer for Pakistan

Pakistan is a country with a lot of problems, but its legislature this week inspired some confidence in representative government by voting against giving themselves another. Saudia Arabia wanted to embroil a fellow Sunni state in the turmoil in Yemen. Sunni propaganda apparently claimed that a consolidation of Houthi (Shiite) power there threatened the security of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, many Pakistanis apparently blame the Saudis for inspiring and encouraging the Taliban and other Sunni extremists who've destabilized Pakistan. While they don't approve of Iranian interference in Yemen, they also recognize a need for Iranian cooperation in the ultimate pacification of Afghanistan. Had Pakistan responded positively to the Saudi call, it would have made the Yemen conflict even more of a Sunni-Shiite world war than it already is with not only the Saudis but the Iranians, the Egyptians (Sunni) and others apparently interfering. In many ways Pakistan is still plagued by Islamist excesses, but on this occasion at least it's one Muslim country behaving like a grown-up.

08 April 2015

'I'm Unemployed Rob Lowe, and I have DirecTV'

Perhaps the most stunning news to be heard from the world of entertainment all year is the report that the Better Business Bureau has compelled the DirecTV satellite service provider to discontinue its series of commercials in which Rob Lowe compares his happy life with the product to the misery or madness of various doppelgangers who subscribe to cable television. The series probably was already past its useful lifespan, since the most recent ones seemed to have very little to say against cable TV, the producers being more interested in how they could transform Lowe and the jokes to be drawn from his multiple personalities. But a cable provider -- Comcast, one of the biggest -- actually took offense, and what's more, protested that the commercials were untruthful about the relative merits of cable and satellite. For once, then, an advertiser has been held accountable, if not liable, for the claims made in commercials. Because this is such an exceptional event, cynics are already saying that it only proves that Comcast has more leverage in the trade than it should have. I wouldn't worry about that if today's decision actually set a precedent for holding all advertisers accountable for their more fantastic claims. Does anyone really think that DirecTV is the only advertiser guilty of these offenses, or even the worst offender?  And shouldn't the Better Business Bureau and its advertising division be responsive to consumers (or potential consumers) as well as competitors with dubious advertisers? Imagine how the next election cycle would change if political advertising were held to the same standard that now shames DirecTV. Aren't most negative campaign ads just variations on the Rob Lowe concept anyway? After all, the candidates do tend to look alike after a while....

A smoking gun in South Carolina

The temptation, now that we have some fairly irrefutable evidence, will be to make the policeman arrested for murder in South Carolina a scapegoat for all the other cops who've killed unarmed people. For some he could serve as proof that the system works when the facts fit properly, if not as inverse vindication of all the other killer cops. This time we can all see with our own eyes, in necessarily terrible detail, a fleeing suspect shot in the back by a police officer. It still doesn't prove everyone's points, of course. The video doesn't prove this one a hate crime, for instance. It doesn't let us read the cop's mind, but it does let us see him at work, perhaps most damningly after the victim has gone down. At the barest minimum the video proves that the accused is a bad cop. It should prove to those who now say that "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" was nothing but a big lie that, whatever the facts were in Ferguson, the general thing protested against there does happen. Does the video prove that this could only happen to a black person? No, but for me, at least, the focus on Ferguson and its echoes elsewhere has been more about cops and their power than it has been about blacks and their systematic victimization. Yes, I get "Black Lives Matter" and the need to affirm that specifically, and the point bears repeating again this week, but police power (including firepower above all) and its abuse also matter, regardless of the target, and I'm not sure that it'll be much affected by racial sensitivity training. A white person may well be less likely to find himself at the point where the video begins, but I suspect that if he starts there he ends the same way as the actual victim. Discussions of excessive police force and excessive tactics overall, whether provoked by the blatant outrage in North Charleston or by the possibly more forgivable tragedy triggered by tazing in Albany, should be about procedure as much as they're about prejudice. Police don't just need to change their ways toward blacks; they need to change their ways, period.

07 April 2015

Rand Paul and the Americans left behind

Senator Paul of Kentucky said a mouthful while declaring his candidacy for the presidency today. Here's the mouthful:

We need to go boldly forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other.

I'm taking this from a transcript and I don't know if the text was provided by the Paul campaign or was copied by a reporter as the Senator spoke. All I know is that I'm a little alarmed by this word-image of a clutching banner. Does he propose to wave a flag that has arms? If so, the redundancy of Paul's imagery may belie his hopes for more efficient government. Since the Bill of Rights is a set of amendments to the Constitution, and thus part of the prior document, the Senator's banner should be able to keep one of its hands free.

On a more serious note, there was little here to distinguish the supposedly more libertarian Paul from the rest of the expected Republican field. A real libertarian would challenge the religious right more than the Senator does here, but the candidate most likely knows his base and trims his sails accordingly. Little of his father's foreign-policy skepticism seems to have survived the son's maturation in office. He's hawkish on Iran and "radical Islam" in general and vows to do "whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind." He wants to cut back foreign aid, especially for "haters of America" who burn our flag in their streets. Apparently leaders who want our money will have to suppress civil liberties somewhat. Careful readers may note that he doesn't condemn the tentative deal with Iran outright, but he insists on Congressional approval of the deal, which in the current climate virtually hands Benjamin Netanyahu a veto on American foreign policy. Paul presumably wants Sheldon Adelson's money as much as any Republican. So much, then, for any hope of real foreign-policy reform from that quarter.

On the domestic front, Paul notes that "Many Americans ... are being left behind. The reward of work seems beyond their grasp." He rightly deplores expanding inequality but blames it on big government, on misguided stimulus policies and generations of failed liberal programs. Like any Republican, not to mention any libertarian, he simply can not bring himself to say that businesses were wrong to take jobs away through outsourcing, whether from one part of the country to another or from this country to another country. How can he rail against Americans being left behind without noting who left them behind? It's not the liberals and the bureaucrats whose wealth is inflating the income gap, after all. Of course, it seems disingenuous to lament anyone being left behind if your libertarian worldview takes for granted that many will be left behind by virtue of their own shortcomings, and assumes that such a result is fair. Understanding that, it's not surprising that he offers no solution to inequality beyond school choice, when if anything the screaming need for certain job skills if more Americans aren't to be left behind should persuade us that less choice, or else more uniformity, is necessary in education. All "school choice" means is that you want to blame teachers' unions for our problems the way Stalin blamed Trotskyites for shortages. It's not a serious answer to an increasingly important issue, and no candidate in any party should be taken seriously if he or she fails to explain how Americans can acquire the skills necessary in an inescapably competitive global economy without risking debt-peonage. Some people probably stopped taking Rand Paul seriously before this point in his speech, or before he started speaking, but I figure these idiots warrant at least one fair hearing apiece once they declare their intent to rule us. Expect more idiocy in the months to come.

Addendum: Here's a more detailed transcript with more typically Paulian notes on foreign policy (i.e. strong defense without interventionism) and more suggestions for reducing inequality. Most of these boil down to cutting someone's taxes, though Paul also proposes reducing foreign aid and using the leftover money to rebuild infrastructure.The Senator also makes a point of saying "work is not punishment," but I'm not sure whose premise he's trying to refute. He notes proudly that two of his sons are working their way through college on minimum wage jobs. He can be proud of his boys but is he as proud of the country that sets such a minimum? Some of his fellow Republicans would like to see the younger Pauls make less money to keep the economy competitive. Would the Senator oppose that or would he advise his sons to get second jobs? I look forward to someone asking him that question.

06 April 2015

Do black lives matter in Albany NY?

For a moment last week I thought my home town of Albany, the New York state capital, would start getting national attention. The first signs were there; as I passed City Hall last Thursday night several dozen people were holding a protest vigil and "Black Lives Matter" signs were out. The night before, a former high school basketball star with a history of mental issues died of a heart attack shortly after being tazed by police under circumstances that remain largely unknown. There hasn't been any real follow-up to the Thursday vigil, however, and local civil-rights activists, who have a good relationship with municipal government compared to Ferguson MO, have appealed for calm and good faith. There's reason for both if you assume that a resort to tasers meant that no one meant to kill the man. Much will depend on what we learn about why police confronted the doomed man, who reportedly sealed his fate by becoming "combative." The worst-case scenario for the cops or from a civic-peace perspective would be if the man appears to have been profiled or if the incident proves to have been a case of petty "broken windows" style policing. But for the moment no one in Albany appears eager to rush to that conclusion. Nevertheless, many will want the cops to show very good reason for confronting the man and precipitating his demise, and this wouldn't be an unreasonable request. Based on what we know now, the incident proves that nearly any existing technique for "stopping" a suspect comes with serious risks to the suspect. From one perspective, people who resist arrest implicitly accept that risk and certainly must share in the responsibility for any bad outcome they suffer. From another, this episode only further underscores the urgent necessity for techniques and training that minimize the risk of death for suspects from those who are neither judges, jurors or executioners yet are empowered to stop crime.  If critics of police appear to downplay the personal responsibility of those who recently have died "tragically," it's because they're careful about assigning responsibility to the dead when cops really aren't supposed to kill. Albanians may show a more forgiving attitude under more arguably "tragic" circumstances, but a dead suspect still means that something went wrong with the suspect and the police, both of whom are accountable to all of us.

02 April 2015

Why pick a fight in Indiana?

Conor Friedersdorf raises a fair question on the Atlantic magazine website: if all the threats of boycotts against Indiana are about gay rights, why aren't the same people threatening boycotts against the states where gay marriage still isn't legal? After citing some theoretically embarrassing examples of apparent inconsistency -- the band Wilco, for instance, is cancelling shows in Indiana, because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but not in Texas, where gays can't even have weddings to create trouble for bakers, photographers, etc. -- Friedersdorf describes the campaign against Indiana as a form of bandwagon jumping, which is a euphemistic way of calling many of the boycotters bullying hypocritical cowards. "Now that those who would discriminate against gays are a powerless cultural minority that focuses its objectionable behavior in a tiny niche of the economy, elites have suddenly decided that using state power to punish them is a moral imperative," he writes.

To repeat, Friedersdorf raises a fair question, but is it really a valid point? The author himself has an inkling that the Indiana controversy isn't primarily about gay rights, though he raises the possibility in an almost pejorative way: "this has as much to do with opportunism, tribalism, humanity's love of bandwagons, and political positioning as it does with advancing gay rights." There probably is something to this given the publicity the Indiana RFRA (and now its Arkansas counterpart) has received. If anything, it should be made more clear that the RFRA controversy isn't primarily about gay rights, when the more obvious provocation stares everyone in the face.

Historians may remember Indiana in 2015 as the place and time when mass militant secularism first made itself heard in the U.S. after years of paranoid warnings against it from the Christian right. By "militant" I don't mean violent, of course, but rather an activist determination to impose a movement's will on the nation -- or certain states, in this case.  Militant means a realization that right makes might and comes with an entitlement to coerce the recalcitrant -- again, not by violence but through the majesty of law. The question historians may ask is not why activists attacked Indiana and not Texas but why Indiana was the first of the RFRA states to be targeted. That I can't answer beyond suggesting that a slow burn of indignation against the spread of RFRA legislation finally ignited into the "firestorm" now taking place in the Hoosier State. The object of indignation, I submit, is the idea that religions are entitled to opt out of treating homosexuals like everyone else, and that religious homophobia must be respected as a "philosophical difference" and a matter of conscience. A generation of propaganda against Islamism has made Americans alert to manifestations of something similar among Christians. If we will not respect a Muslim's demand for sharia law, or his belief that non-Muslims must accept second-class citizenship or worse in an ideal state, as a conscientious philosophical difference, then we can't in good conscience defer to Christians who claim a religious entitlement to deny equality to any class of people. Indiana is seeing a fight against religion, whether all sides admit it or not -- and the side that won't admit, sadly, is the side that's in the right. But there should be no shame or guilt about citizens acting to constrain the special claims of religion so long as the constitutional freedom of worship is not endangered. Those who think their freedom or worship is threatened by a requirement to treat homosexuals as equal human beings are the ones in the wrong, and the campaign against Indiana is right to argue that such people are not immune from accountability if their attitude unfairly burdens those it's aimed at. Again, I'll agree that the six-figure fine that homophobe baker's reportedly facing looks excessive, but the baker's implicit belief that to cater a gay wedding is sacrilegious is also excessive. It may not deserve a penalty, especially on the scale reported, but it doesn't deserve the respect or the protection of the law, either. If militant secularism is flexing its muscles at last, it's because a kind of militant Christianism has already taken the field. The Indiana controversy is less a fight for gay rights then a stand against this Christianism -- but it would still be fair for someone like Friedersdorf to observe that this Christianism prevails wherever gay marriage remains illegal. RFRA legislation may be the most aggressive or obnoxious manifestation of Christianism right now, but Indiana is really just one front in a (dare I say) culture war that should be fought with equal militancy on all fronts.

01 April 2015

The Democratic party's human shields

The Nation magazines celebrates its sesquicentennial with a massive squarebound issue of nearly 300 pages combining clips from storied authors of the past with commentary on present and future issues. With a presidential election coming up next year and many progressives feeling cold if not hostile to the putative Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, Michael Tomasky steps up with an all-too-timely defense of the "lesser evil" principle in national politics. We've all read and heard this stuff before. There's no reason for the argument to change: defections from the Democratic party only guarantee the election of Republicans who are self-evidently worse than the worst possible Democrat by any liberal or progressive standard. Tomasky concedes most progressive arguments against the Democratic party and its leaders, and he wishes for himself that the leaders were more courageous. But the Republicans are always worse and giving them more power by dividing the liberal/progressive voting bloc between Democrats and independents will have immediate bad consequences for the most vulnerable and helpless Americans. Going for the gut, Tomasky accuses independent-minded progressives of irresponsibility toward the poor.

[P]rotest votes tend to be cast by people who don’t have much skin in the game when it comes to the direct delivery of government services. That is, their own day-to-day lives won’t really be affected much by which party controls the White House. But most people who are direct beneficiaries of government programs and services can’t afford the luxury of being protest voters. Yes, millions of them vote Republican, because their guns (or whatever) are more important to them than their pay packet. But most poorer people still vote Democratic, and I can’t imagine that you could have gone to, say, the corner of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue in early November of 2000 and found many Ralph Nader voters.

I'd question whether Nader polled poorly in Harlem because of principled strategic thinking on the part of voters there. It's more likely that they, like most Americans, assumed that Nader votes were wasted because he had no chance to win. Note also that Tomasky makes no effort to show that black urban voters had passed judgment on Nader's platform. He simply assumes that the urban poor recognize what he implies: that protest voters and their candidates don't really give a damn about the day-to-day needs of the poor. That's a slur on both independent progressives and the urban poor. I suspect many of the latter would hold views on the economy well to the left of the Democratic party (if not also some views on society and culture to its right) while sharing the larger public's general defeatism in the face of the Bipolarchy's perceived overwhelming advantages. The sad thing about Tomasky's argument is that, to rebuke independent progressives, he effectively confirms a Republican argument against the welfare state: that economic dependence results in political dependence upon the Democratic party. While Republicans complain that this dependency discourages self-reliance on every level, the cruel reality is that the political dependency taken for granted by Tomasky discourages the poor from taking a chance to get a better deal from a government further from the left.

Tomasky wishes that the Democrats were more courageous and consistent in their progressive principles, but insists that they'll always be better than nothing, no to mention the worse-than-nothing policies of an increasingly radicalized Republican party. Can progressives make Democrats more courageous and principled without resorting to the threat of defection? The only option Tomasky seems to take seriously is reviving the labor movement and using it to primary the party in a more progressive direction, but he doesn't really have to worry about how long that might take to get results, because he's told progressives that it doesn't matter:

[N]o matter who the candidate is—no matter how deeply in hock to Wall Street, no matter how tepid her (ahem) inequality platform—the responsible person of the left must vote for the Democrat. Not strategically, but on principle. And not sometimes, or only in the states where it might truly matter. Everywhere, and every time.

Unconditional loyalty might get Democrats to listen to progressives, Tomasky writes, but nothing else will.

Politicians usually respond to people who vote for them, not against them. If a Democratic member of Congress or presidential candidate wins office over the conspicuous protests of voters on the left, he or she will ignore those voters completely once in office. This is how they think. So, if anything, protest votes have the effect of nudging Democrats to the right!

That nudge, if real, is nothing compared to the gravitational pull of Republican power. The worse Republicans get, it can be argued, the less Democrats have to do to retain a loyalty understood to depend entirely on the fact that they're not Republicans. Let me offer a different theory of how politicians think: most of them will only do as much as they have to in order to get elected. If all Democrats have to do is not be Republicans, why do more? Why make a special effort to earn the support of people you've intimidated into supporting you by arguing that people will starve in the streets if they don't? If my view seems more cynical than Tomasky's -- he seems to think that Democrats are sincere but timid -- then at least it's based on what has happened, not on what I wish might happen. In the end, all Tomasky promises is a holding action against a Republican surge or a Tea Party tide. Any implicit promise that Democrats will actually improve people's lives thanks to our unconditional loyalty can't be taken seriously.

In closing, Tomasky reminds us that "there are many ways to protest in this country" and urges us to "pursue them all with zeal—except in the presidential voting booth." Paradoxically, while insisting that we vote unconditionally for Democratic presidential candidates, Tomasky writes them off as potential reformers. The leading Democrats of our time, he writes, are "circumscribed by financial, institutional and structural forces that are far more powerful than their own personal will or lack thereof." Can these forces be tamed without the power of the Presidency? Tomasky may hope so, but despite his invitation to extra-electoral protest, his patronizingly risk-averse attitude doesn't inspire optimism. But in the face of still-hardening reactionary intransigence, there may be no hope of real, much less radical reform without accepting the risk of temporary defeat, no matter how costly. All Tomasky can recommend for Democrats is to hold babies in front of themselves as human shields from attack from both right and left. Such is his account of helpless poverty in America, with only Democrats to defend them, but the poor themselves may yet be willing to risk more than their self-appointed spokesman Tomasky can imagine to win a more just world.