29 May 2015

Plutocracy's permanent campaign

George Will writes: "To the surprise of no one familiar with political hydrology, money has flowed through crevices in our (fortunately) still porous society, into super PACs." As far as he's concerned, that's a good thing. Will is one of the most consistent and unrelenting opponents of campaign-finance regulation among our opinionators. He sees super PACs as an unintended but welcome consequence of self-interestedly bipartisan efforts to limit how much people or groups can donate to political candidates. "Americans continue to exasperate reformers by finding new ways to speak about politics," he notes approvingly, as if McCain and Feingold and their supporters were opposed to a mass movement of conscientious citizens. Will seems to see the rise of super PACs as the best possible outcome, since it keeps the big money, in theory at least, out of the hands of the two major political parties. Both parties, in his view, unfairly seek to "control America's political conversation," but are thwarted, for now, by monied gadflies. "Super PACs can annoy parties by enabling inconvenient candidates to compete in primaries and can annoy even candidates they favor by forcing certain issues into the campaign dialogue," he notes. In this way, they enhance democracy by liberating our political discourse from the top-down model imposed by the two-party system, even though almost all super PACS end up endorsing one big party or the other in general elections.

Will remains obsessed with the idea that the "political class" wants to suppress uppity outsiders mainly in order to make it easier for themselves to get re-elected. For him, the great threat to liberty is always the state, which inevitably seeks to "control [the] political conversation." In his dystopian vision, if we aren't allowed to spend as much as we want on political advertising, the field will be left to state propaganda. There is no other way to beat state propaganda, he assumes, than by spending money. Because he fears the state above all -- because power corrupts and all that -- he seems blind to other people's concern that his own heroes, the people who fund the super PACs, are the ones actually trying to control rather than liberate the political conversation. 

Apologists for unlimited campaign donations and unlimited spending on advocacy advertising always deny that this kind of money corrupts politics. Their idealistic assumption is that the donor selects the candidate or cause that already reflects his or her views, and that so long as voters can make up their own minds at the ballot box campaign donations can never rise to a harmful level. Yet who can watch Republican presidential candidates curry favor with Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers without suspecting that the candidates aren't merely running on their records but trimming their sails to catch the wind from these sugardaddies' moneybags? To argue that Democrats do the same is only to amplify the point. Will's current column is concerned with issue-advocacy advertising rather than outright electioneering, but isn't it self-evident that by "forcing certain issues into the campaign dialogue" the super PACs are using money to change politicians' minds? Well, don't we all have a right to try to change their minds? Certainly, but when you compare my ability to do so with Sheldon Adelson's -- or, if you prefer, a labor union's -- doesn't it seem obvious that those with more money are taking control of the political conversation from those who ideally have ultimate control, the voters?

As Will sees it, voters ultimately control very little. His latest argument against campaign-finance regulation is that Congress has power under the Constitution only to regulate the "manner" of elections, and that an originalist reading of the document shows that "manner" refers only to practical arrangements for voting -- when, where, by whom and how to keep score. Granting that Jefferson's description of a constitutional wall separating church and state is valid, Will envisions an analogical "separation of campaign and state." Citing scholar Bradley A. Smith, Will contends that elections are temporary, but campaigning is eternal.

“There is,” he says, “no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch on American politics”; campaigning is constant. Elections are occasional, discrete episodes. And “the fact that ‘manner’ was combined with ‘times’ and ‘places’ in the Constitution further suggests that it refers to the details of carrying out the formal process of voting.” Listen, Smith says, to the logic of our language. “We do not talk about candidates making ‘election stops’ as they travel the country talking to voters, but rather ‘campaign stops.’ . . . We have a ‘campaign,’ at the conclusion of which voters cast ballots on ‘election day.’ ” 

From this perspective, all an election settles is who sits in a particular chair. This, arguably, is the perspective of plutocracy, which concedes nothing to democracy. Democracy might assume that an election settles the course of the country, or some subordinate unit, for the elected term, that it should compel some acquiescence from the opposition, but the logic of the plutocratic permanent campaign argues otherwise. As long as you have money, it would seem, you have an unlimited right to try to reverse the outcome of an election by changing everyone's mind. Well, shouldn't we try to change people's minds if they're wrong? Yes, but if our chances of succeeding depend on money rather than principle (or numbers) than money really has taken control of the political conversation in a way that mocks democracy and the constitution that supposedly permits the coup. We don't want to stop anyone from saying the country's going in a wrong direction -- haven't I just done that myself? -- but respect for democracy may require "No, you're wrong, stop" to become "Wrong, but aye for now" until the next election. That is, criticize but don't thwart unless you can make a constitutional argument on the spot. I suppose this is a moral rather than legal argument that would be hard if not impossible to enforce through law. But if our current rule of law enables a plutocracy that can veto the popular will it may be time to make a new law, not to silence anybody but to make sure all our opinions really count equally not just on Election Day but all the time.

27 May 2015

Corruption and greed in government

Frustrated with legislative and gubernatorial inaction in the face of embarrassing scandals, the attorney general of New York State takes a proposal to "End New York Corruption Now" to the people through the pages of the Albany Times Union. With the erstwhile Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader both awaiting trial on corruption charges, Eric Schneiderman offers a mix of the most-proposed remedies. He would reduce the amount anyone can donate to candidates while reducing perceived loopholes and restricting donations by lobbyists. He would expand his own capacity to prosecute "public corruption." He would minimize conflicts of interest by forbidding outside employment for legislators. So far, so good, but Schneiderman's proposal of a pay raise for legislators may cost him much of his readers' good will. He proposes it as if it would compensate for the ban on outside employment, arguing that legislators should "be paid like the full-time professionals they are." Merely to describe them that way will scandalize some readers, especially if they see the entrenched power of a "full-time professional" like Sheldon Silver, the disgraced Speaker, as a big part of the problem. Ideally a legislator should not care what he's paid. In olden times politicians often described elected service as a sacrifice of their personal interests for the public interest. It shouldn't be that drastic a sacrifice -- in fact, there should be honor in and from service -- but we don't want people to aspire to elected office out of any expectation of a big payday. The notion that politicians won't be tempted toward corruption if they're paid enough up front is naive. If what he's paid is a factor at all in his ambition, we can expect that he'll look for any opportunity he can to make more money while in office. But Schneiderman may expect higher salaries to draw a different and ideally better class of people into politics by making it more worth their while. If so, what he really should do probably is outside the purview of anti-corruption legislation, since it would involve reducing the cost of waging a political campaign.

Like everyone of like mind, Schneiderman attacks the supply side by proposing limits on what people can contribute. That's fine, but something else has to be done on the demand side to reduce costs or level the playing field. Campaign advertising must be made affordable to any credible candidate -- perhaps as determined by petitions -- or else it must be banned in the name of fairness lest the rich drown out the poor. But if such an idea is too tough a sell for some civil libertarians, perhaps a change in attitudes across the board would be easier to achieve. For starters, could we once and for all give up the idea that people who "know how to run a business" automatically make good legislators or executives, or that governments should be run "like a business?" I ask because I suspect that people who don't know how to run a business, or to run a government like one, would never think of the corrupt schemes we keep hearing about. It simply would not occur to many people to seek profit from elected office, because the profit motive isn't the primary thing in their lives. To others that may seem irresponsible, but maybe there's a sort of modesty in that attitude, as well as a possibly superior sense of responsibility, that we could use in government. Such people, most of whom can't afford political ambitions, may be less prone to corruption in office, but anti-corruption measures alone will not empower them. Radical reforms that would empower such people might actually make the sort of anti-corruption measures Schneiderman proposes unnecessary. So, Mr. Attorney General, what more have you got?

26 May 2015

A post-ideological foreign policy?

It's remarkable to see in the pages of Time magazine, a mainstream media outlet if ever there was one, such a strong critique of American foreign policy from the magazine's own foreign-affairs correspondent, Ian Bremmer, who summarizes the arguments of his new book, Superpower: Three Choices for Amercia's Role in the World in the current issue. He summarizes three likely approaches advocated by different factions today, including good old "Indispensable America," but Bremmer clearly endorses the option he calls "Independent America." He calls it that because it would be a declaration of independence from the U.S's self-assigned "responsibility to fix the world." Bremmer believes that the 21st century has already taught younger Americans that "no nation, not even the sole superpower, can consistently get what it wants in a world where so many other governments have enough power to resist U.S. pressure," and that, as Vietnam should already have shown, "No matter how powerful you are, it's hard to defeat an enemy that cares much more about the outcome than you do." Bremmer finds this relevant not only in the Middle East but in Ukraine, which "will always matter much more to Moscow than to Washington." For him, though, the choice facing the country is about more than an acknowledgment of limits. "It's not simply that America can no longer police the world," he writes, "It's that it has no right to force those who disagree with us to see things our way." From there he moves to a critique of our global "freedom" agenda: "Americans like to believe that democracy is so undeniably attractive, and our commitment to it so obvious that others should simply trust us to create it for them within their borders. That's just not the case."

Bremmer still believes that democracy, by which he means liberal constitutional democracy, is a good everyone should want. On that assumption, he advises the U.S. to lead by example: "the best way to persuade the citizens of other countries to demand democracy is to make it work more effectively at home. Don't just tell the world that democracy is best. Show it, and build an America that others believe is too important to fail."

Implicitly acknowledging democratic dysfunction in America, Bremmer leaves unclear in this preview article what exactly the dysfunction may be and what exactly foreigners might find either attractive or inadequate about democracy as we practice it. The key word in the last quote, I think, is "effectively." Like many observers, Bremmer expects democracy to get things done. But our compromised democracy is often exploited by people who don't want things done if they come at any cost to wealth or "freedom." Our admirable desire to protect the principled dissident or the misunderstood minority also empowers potentially unprincipled or very well understood vested interests with a veto, or at least a check, on the common good. Countries where a more urgent need to get things done is felt are likely to be impatient with our system. For good or ill they want someone to have the power to get things done without being checked by the vested interests who often are the cause of their problems. They may not want to silence dissidents, but they may expect minorities, and those defined politically especially, to acquiesce eventually in the majority will as interpreted by the elected regime. Liberalism has gone wrong if it can no longer convince the dissident that to lose is not to be oppressed or enslaved, and liberal democracy has clearly gone wrong in the U.S. When every defeat is perceived as a shove down a slipper slope to totalitarianism or theocracy or socialism or oligarchy, the sort of compromises James Madison depended on for his system to work effectively become less likely, and the more outsiders blame American ineffectiveness on the power of vested interests and dogmatic ideologies grown indifferent to a common good, the less tolerant they may be toward both vested interests and principled dissidents in their own midst. Observing the rest of the world, Americans will need to recognize that not every dissident is principled, and that sometimes, as in our own history, vested interests need to go, quietly or not, if nations are to advance.

Bremmer recognizes this much when he critiques the "Indispensable" option, which presumes that "Americans can be secure only in a world where democracy, rule of law, access to information, freedom of speech and human rights are universally recognized." He reserves his strongest criticism for politicians who "continue to tell us that U.S. troops are 'defending our freedom' in places overseas where American freedom is not at risk." He blasts Jeb Bush for saying, "If we withdraw from the defense of liberty anywhere, the battle eventually comes to us." That's perhaps the most extreme expression -- from a candidate who still seems unclear about whether his brother's war policies were wise or not -- of a still-widespread belief that dictatorship anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere, and especially to freedom here. Refuting this intellectually is one thing; it'll be another to overcome the humanitarian impulse that sees the suffering of people under tyranny as our business. That impulse might be channeled toward building stronger global authorities that hold all countries equally accountable for acts against humanity, but global authorities, if truly representative, may have different priorities for human or national development than we do; a global consensus may well not hold the individual as sacrosanct as we demand, even if it acknowledged more individual rights than many do now. But while many liberals and self-styled humanitarians may be captivated by such negotiations, as long as we remain a world of sovereign nations the main priority is to respect the sovereignty of other nations until they violate other nations' sovereignty, and to get Americans over the idea that we're only safe if we dominate the world. When other countries are torn by strife amongst rule-or-ruin factions, each believing that it can flourish, or at least survive, only when it rules, we call that tribalism. The U.S. has practiced a tribalist foreign policy for too long, and if Bremmer's "Independent America" option ends that he'll have done the nation and the world a service.

Here's a link to a quiz Bremmer has created for you to determine which of his options is closest to your own beliefs. My only beef with it is that a few of the questions really have "all of the above" answers but you're not allowed to choose them.

21 May 2015

Oh Mighty ISIS!

Reports of the decline of the self-styled Islamic State have unsurprisingly proved exaggerated. Instead, the jihadi army has made gains against both Iraq and Syria this week, leaving some global observers more concerned for the classical ruins in the city of Palmyra, likely candidates for iconoclastic demolition as they are, than for the lives of the army's still more likely human victims. Whether we like it or not, the Daesh is always going to have an advantage in moral over the soldiers of a sectarian and corrupt government, on one hand, and a blatant tyranny on the other. Maybe the Shiite militias reportedly coming to the rescue of Ramadi are sufficiently fanatical to stand up to the takfiri host, but the hirelings of the regular Iraqi and Syrian armies must rightly ask whether resistance is worth the risk. To those of us watching from the outside the imperative to resist and repel the IS is self-evident. To us, the fight against the Daesh is a fight for freedom, but for people who arguably have never been free as we understand the idea, life under a new master may be preferable to death for any idea. As for the jihadis themselves, I suppose I'm not the one to question whether the war really counts as a religious experience for them. But whether it does or not, they seem to have a more realistic hope for power and plunder than their opponents ever can under their current leaders. More than fanaticism, I suspect, the feeling that power is the only key to prosperity drives them. That may not sound religious depending on how you define religion, but as I understand it Islam has never taken an "our kingdom is not of this world" attitude. Part of why Islam as a whole seems more political, if not totalitarian, than the other Abrahamic faiths may be that Muslims are more likely to feel that this world is theirs to take and rule. Christians have often felt likewise, of course, but that impulse may be inhibited sometimes by a sense that it contradicts Jesus's message, while jihadi conquest does not necessarily contradict Muhammad's message. Another way to look at it is that jihad is the prosperity gospel for Muslims, with the difference that the jihadi is more convinced that his prosperity depends on coercive power over other people. Neither the Iraqi government nor even the Syrian tyranny can plausibly promise that kind of power, which may prove that, like it or not, the IS is more egalitarian, at least within its own ranks, than its opponents. That's how rotten the Middle East is today, and if no one other than the IS can realistically promise to make people's lives better, and not merely to create "opportunity" for them, it isn't going to get any better -- at least in our eyes.

20 May 2015

Holding their feet to a fire made of money

I got a begging letter from the President the other day. It was the first from him in a while and it surprised me since, as he writes, "I have no more campaigns to run." He boasts that "the GOP's grand predictions of doom and gloom haven't come true," and advises Republicans that if they hope to re-brand themselves as the party of the middle class, "They must walk the walk when it comes to addressing the issues most important to growing the middle class ... like raising the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for women [ellipsis in original]." They must stop "ignoring the will of the people," though I suppose each Republican believes himself or herself to be obeying the will of their people. Such confusions help explain why Obama "can't force them to act on critical issues," but he suggests that the American people can. At least they can "hold [Republicans'] feet to the fire....They need to feel the heat from you and others across the country." That sounds like a call for a letter-writing, phone-calling and e-mailing campaign to swamp congressmen's inboxes with righteous demands for "policies that make life better for all." The President advises that we make clear to Republicans that we'll "hold them accountable at the ballot box if they don't" straighten out. So that's what we should tell them in our letters, calls, e-mails and tweets, right? Maybe, but what Obama really has in mind is that you donate money to the Democratic National Committee in sums beginning with the cute, timely figure of $20.16. This support "is critical to holding the Republicans' feet to the fire and demanding action to make the lives of all Americans better." Apparently this money is not going entirely into 2016 campaign funds but will be used, at least in part, to "rally Americans to demand action for all from the Republican-controlled Congress." I would have thought that the letter, presuming it reaches as many homes as I suspect, would have sufficed for that purpose, especially augmented by some Obama orations. This roundabout way of rallying opinion seems wasteful. The President is saying, in effect: I want you to hold Republicans' feet to the fire, so give us money so we can tell you to hold Republicans' feet to the fire. Moreover, I don't think it'll have the effect Obama hopes for. He may hope to build a bonfire of money to threaten the GOP, but those guys are firewalkers when it comes to this sort of thing. Hell, they'll walk through fire just to get money, so I doubt this late tough talk will intimidate them at all. But I suppose that if you're a full-time politician in our time this would make sense. What better way to have your constituents intimidate your foes than by having them give you money? Possibly we might think of something, but I doubt that Obama or his Republican begging counterparts want to hear it.

18 May 2015

On the road to Hell with Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky

Sam Harris, one of our best-selling New Atheists, disagrees with anti-imperialist Noam Chomsky on the need to confront militant Islam around the world. He recently invited Chomsky to hold a public discussion on related subjects, and while it looks now like no such conversation will happen Harris, with Chomsky's permission, has published their exchange of e-mails at his website. It isn't really flattering to either man. Chomsky comes across as almost imperious in his contempt for Harris, while Harris stated desire to strive for common ground seems slightly insincere given his obvious intent to challenge Chomsky on a point already raised in one of Harris's books. In short, Harris believes that ends redeem means if they don't justify them. He believes that ultimate judgments on political violence must take the intentions of actors into account. He is irked by Chomsky's seeming refusal to take intentions into account. He is particularly irked by Chomsky's rhetorical linkage of the 2001 terror attacks on the United States with the U.S. bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998. Chomsky appears to believe that on some level the attack on Sudan was a worse crime because of its longterm humanitarian consequences for a poor nation, while Harris believes that we can't judge either event without taking the perpetrators' very different intentions into account. The two intellectuals disagree most starkly over the intentions of President Clinton. Harris believes that it matters that Clinton acted because he thought the plant had something to do with chemical weapons for terrorist use -- that the President acted to prevent terrorism and save lives. Chomsky is reluctant to credit Clinton with any good intentions, arguing first that the bombing was intended most likely as pure reprisal for recent terror attacks against American interests, and then that even if Clinton ordered the bombing on preventive grounds, his indifference to the likely humanitarian consequences marks him as depraved if not also racist. And knowing Harris's reputation for New Atheist vigilance against theocracy and religiously-motivated violence, Chomsky reminds him repeatedly that George W. Bush claimed a divine mandate for the invasion of Iraq. Having insulted Harris well before the exchange began by calling him a worshipper of a cult of the State, Chomsky basically blew him off by saying a conversation with someone so morally blind wasn't worth having. Harris, of course, still believes it's Chomsky who's morally blind.

The odd thing about the exchange is the rhetorical emphasis on "intentions" when what's really being discussed is one of the oldest and most controversial premises: that the end justifies the means. Harris's position is clear: much, if not all, is justified to stop the spread of militant Islam, if not the spread of theocracy in general. If Clinton bombed the pharmaceutical plant to strike at Islamist terrorism, then the collateral damage can be forgiven to a great extent if not entirely excused or endorsed. I don't know whether Chomsky believes that ends never justify means, but when he perceives the end to be nothing more than American global hegemony he can forgive nothing about the means. The 1998 bombing is more about American imperial arrogance than it is about any terrorist threat, and in his ever-infuriating fashion he feels obliged as an American citizen to focus his critical attention on those acts for which he feels responsible, and for which he holds Harris responsible. Chomsky judges acts by their humanitarian consequences, and this orientation really distinguishes him from Harris, who is more concerned with a theoretical future upon which our intentions appear to have meaningful influence. When Harris writes or speaks about intentions, it's more accurate to say that for him ends are more likely to disqualify than justify means. The point he wants Chomsky and others to acknowledge isn't that the Sudan bombing is good because of Clinton's intentions. It's that the 2001 terror attacks were worse because they were carried out in the interest of Islamist jihad. Harris is less interested in what people do than in what they want; that's what really threatens him. There are lots of people out there who want jihad or want a caliphate. Harris does not want these things, and some of his writings suggest that there is no limit to what may be done to prevent them. Why his negative intentions should count more than those of other people -- Islamists also see themselves on the defensive, preventing the spread of secularism, imperialism, Zionism, etc. -- is unclear, though Harris believes he can prove the priority his fears should have over theirs. But that's a discussion Chomsky doesn't want or need to have. All along, my impression has been that he doesn't want to see people killed, and any cause that requires slaughter is as bad as any other in his eyes. In turn, that leaves him with few options if he really wants to reform the world in the face of widespread intransigence, but I doubt that Harris meant to bring that point up. In the end, the Harris-Chomsky exchange may prove more useful than a public conversation would have been. At the very least it describes the limits of two limited worldviews, each of which includes much with which I sympathize. If they couldn't have a civil conversation, that may only prove that in the long run neither man has much to contribute toward solving the problems of our time.

17 May 2015

Wild West 2015

In Waco TX at least nine people are dead and twice that number hospitalized in the latest outbreak of mass gun violence in America. This time, however, things were a little different from the norm. It wasn't one angry little nut and a bunch of innocent victims this time. It was three rival biker gangs opening fire on one another outside a restaurant. That may be why we're not getting continuous live coverage of the atrocity -- although the fact that today is Sunday may also have something to do with it, given the news networks' relatively limited resources and schedules of pre-recorded programs. Going into the week, it'll be interesting to see if this story grows legs. Will it be another rallying point for the gun-control movement, or are they so entranced by the angry-nut paradigm that this crossfire battle will seem to matter less? Since it's most likely that we're not dealing with black perpetrators this time -- to my knowledge the casualties haven't been identified yet -- will we have a separate round of national soul-searching to ask what's wrong with whoever these people prove to be? Yet if these prove to be the archetypal white bikers -- for some it may suffice that they're archetypal Texans -- won't this violence reflect as badly on their communities and their ethnic culture as black violence supposedly reflects on those perpetrators' communities and ethnic culture? Right now it's too soon to tell, but what we hear and don't hear about this incident may tell us a lot about how the media, the opinionators, and the people in general really think about violence in America. Stay tuned.

15 May 2015

Why defend religion? Let Jeb explain

Liberty University is part of the pilgrimage trail for Republican presidential aspirants. Ted Cruz opened his campaign there a little while ago, in a way some of the students resented. Last weekend Jeb Bush went there to burnish his Christianist credentials. More so even than Cruz, the former Florida governor of the royal line presented himself as a defender of the faith. He specifically defended Christianity against an alleged attack campaign by progressives, backed by the power of the Obama administration. He described a kind of persecution of the humble folks who defy government mandates or dictates as a matter of conscience. These people, Bush said, have been misrepresented by their oppressors.

How strange, in our own time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force.  Outside [Liberty University], it’s a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated.  We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.

The former governor went on to defend Christianists' right of conscience without ever mentioning that recently guaranteed right of theirs, the exercise of which angers progressives the most.  Bush was happy to portray Christians as compassionate, charitable, and pacific, and even willing to endorse openly their opposition to abortion ("Wherever there is a child waiting to be born, we say choose life, and we say it with love."), but not once in the transcript submitted to the news media in advance does he affirm, as his audience might expect of him, that homosexuality is sin. Instead, he spoke vaguely against "secular dogmas" including "restrictions and rights that do not exist in the Constitution." He denounces Obama's "aggressive stance against" religious freedom, and says sarcastically that "Somebody here is being small-minded and intolerant, and it sure isn’t the nuns, ministers, and laymen and women who ask only to live and practice their faith." No, I guess not. It couldn't be the superstitious homophobes who only have "tradition" and "revelation" to justify themselves who are small-minded and intolerant. It has to be those who tell others not to be small-minded and intolerant.

Leaving that topic aside, Bush's speech is further proof that Christians, like every other group, define themselves idealistically and selectively. For every person for whom the essence of Christianity is "Thou Shalt Not" or "Burn in Hell," there's at least one who echoes Bush's alternate definition of its essence. For him, Christianity's message is that "God’s favor is upon the gentle, the kind, and the poor in spirit, and that, as Jesus said, "“Blessed are the meek … Blessed are the merciful … Blessed are the peacemakers.” Unsurprisingly, he repeats the claim that individual human life had no value before Jesus. He imagines a world without Christianity and describes, "power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace." It actually sounds pretty familiar, except that it reminds me of a world where Christianity does exist. With blinkers on, Bush presses on, predictably quoting Martin Luther King: "No law in the world could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism." For what it's worth, King said this while making a distinction between "love," to which the quote refers, and justice. "A higher law is needed to produce love," he wrote, while "Man made laws are needed to ensure justice." While King may have felt that justice itself depended on some form of "love," he still made a distinction that may be lost on Bush and his audience. King meant that no man-made law can make you love someone, not (at least on this occasion) that Christianity made the rule of law and liberal civilization possible. But Christians love to think that the whole edifice of civilization would collapse if we forgot Jesus or, perhaps more importantly, the taboos of his time. Take God out of public life and we'll be back to human sacrifice in a heartbeat, because that's happening in all the non-Christian countries out there.

Some subtleties are inevitably lost on a layman like Bush, but I wonder whether his Liberty audience was capable of finding one line of the speech as unintentionally hilarious as I did. As part of his apologia the former governor said, "Offhand, I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than “the last shall be first, and the first last." It isn't funny that he finds this subversive; it's funny that he doesn't find it subversive of his own party's ideology. "The last shall be first, and the first last," doesn't seem compatible with tax breaks for the wealthy or resistance to any form of wealth redistribution -- but I forgot: the last shall be first and so on in the kingdom of heaven. Down here you had better be grateful for all that loving Christian charity. Bush is all for charity, of course, on the age-old assumption that a good deed is more good when it's voluntary, results counting for less with God, apparently, than the charitable frame of mind. At least I assume that's what his answer would be if we asked: if it's right, why shouldn't it be a duty? Bush said himself that he trusts "the Little Sisters" more than he does "Big Brother," after all.

But why wouldn't Bush put the best face on his faith? All faithful do it. Even some Islamic State savage will tell you that his is a religion of peace. It's always something else, something exterior to the essence of religion, that forces the faithful to fight, kill and conquer. Once the infidels are dead or have submitted, all will be well. Of course, those outside circumstances often determine how we see not just our own religion but other peoples'. In his Nation magazine takedown of Karen Armstrong,  David Nirenberg made this point by citing a 1957 U.S. intelligence document that deemed Islam an asset in the global Cold War. Back then, the beliefs shared by Christians and Muslims were more important than their differences, since they made the faiths natural allies against atheistic, materialistic Communism. Now the differences between the two are foregrounded so sharply that many Americans assume that Islam is antithetical to their secular and spiritual values. Bush said nothing about Islam in his Liberty speech, except implicitly in his comments about the persecution of Christians around the world, but just as his definition of Christianity is shaped by the perceived antagonism of secular progressivism, the perceived challenge of Islam no doubt also drives him to emphasize the meekness and peacefulness of Christians. Muslims, too, may have agreed sixty years ago that similarities outweighed differences in the face of the godless threat, but today they define themselves defensively in the face of aggression they insist on identifying with Christianity. Maybe Jeb Bush should tell them that those godless progressives are the source of all the trouble -- but maybe he isn't that dumb.

13 May 2015

Why defend religion?

Karen Armstrong, author of many popular works of religious history, recently published Fields of Blood, a book designed to defend religion -- both in general and in its many particulars -- from the charge lobbed by "New Atheists" in general and Islamophobes in particular that religion motivated much of the world's history of violence. In the current issue of The Nation, David Nirenberg takes Armstrong apart for both inconsistency and naivete. He takes a darker view, noting how the apocalyptic imagination of Zoroastrianism has influenced all the Abrahamic religions in a way that seems inconsistent with Armstrong's idealization of religion as (in Nirenberg's paraphrase) "a benign and fundamental source of empathy, love of the other and cognitive comfort in an otherwise incomprehensible cosmos." For Nirenberg, imagining the violent end of the world as the climax of a war between good and evil doesn't seem empathic or loving, though it may give cognitive comfort to some. In his account, Armstrong excuses all such phenomena by arguing that religions turn violent only when believers are "traumatized" by oppression or faith is corrupted by political concerns. If Nirenberg describes her fairly, Armstrong seems to be saying that true religion is incapable of violent thoughts, or that any violent thoughts that emerge do not follow from the core tenets of any particular faith. Nirenberg himself says "we must be willing to explore the myriad potentials of our many religious traditions, rather than simply defining the more violent ones arbitrarily out of existence."

Liberal apologists for religion, as Armstrong seems to be, work from the premise, often grounded in personal experience, that devout believers are often good, benevolent, peaceful people. Their assumption is that religion is important if not essential to these people's benevolence. They defend religion in part because they feel the good people should not be denied their source of inspiration, solace, etc., and in part because they fear that many people won't be so good without that inspiration. The classic case is Martin Luther King. Christopher Hitchens, a New Atheist, argued that none of the good things about King were necessarily religious. Apologists for religion question whether King would be as motivated to do good, or as effective as he was, without an essentially religious inspiration. They believe that his ideas about equality, integration and nonviolence have something to do with belief in God. Whether they're believers themselves or not, apologists for religion appreciate the logic that deduces the brotherhood of man from the fatherhood of God, while some question whether more materialist viewpoints are as compassionate and caring. In short, a belief persists that any ideal of justice must have a metaphysical or transcendent basis to be compelling. The apologists know what they want religion to be, and they can point to examples in hopes of proving that it is what they want it to be, no matter how many examples may indicate that it's something else entirely. However, it's a mistake to try to deduce the essence of religion, in order to determine whether it's violent or not, from subjectively selected exemplars like King. At the very least, we can't attempt to answer the great question debated between Armstrong and Nirenberg without asking why people become religious, or why religions developed among us, in the first place. Some may say God is love, but was he born from love? Some say Islam is peace, but did it rise in peace? Unless they can answer such questions convincingly, with facts rather than faith, the apologists of religion are only indulging all too predictably in wishful thinking.

12 May 2015

Blasphemy, art and hate

Jonah Goldberg believes he's caught some liberals in an inconsistency. He's noted the way Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Draw Muhammad contest that was attacked unsuccessfully by two wannabe mujaheddin earlier this month, has been almost unanimously condemned as a hatemonger in the media. This strikes Goldberg as an inconsistent position for liberals to hold if they did not two decades ago criticize Andreas Serrano and Chris Olifi for artworks then notorious for their offensiveness to Christians. For those who've forgotten, Serrano is the creator of Piss Christ, while Olifi used elephant dung in a painting of the Virgin Mary. Despite protests from Christians, Goldberg recalls, liberals defended these artists' absolute right not just to free expression, and not just to offend Christians with absolute immunity -- though it remains doubtful whether Olifi in particular even meant offense -- but also, and most irksomely to Goldberg, their absolute entitlement to taxpayer funding of their art. The relevance of this last point to the Draw Muhammad contest is tangential at best, but Goldberg is so stoked by twenty-year old scandals that he drags in Thomas Jefferson to argue that a person shouldn't have to subsidize "ideas he disbelieves and abhors" without mentioning that the ideas Jefferson had in mind were religious doctrines -- which would seem to indicate, if anything, that Jefferson would object just as much to the state compelling citizens to defer to the taboos of any religious denomination. What he objected to specifically in the quote Goldberg cites is the support of a religious establishment through taxation of people of other religions or denominations; I suspect he'd think of state patronage of the arts somewhat differently, even as I doubt he'd recognize the work of Serrano or Olifi as art. This leaves Goldberg's implicit equation of the two pretentious artists and the Islamophobe provocateur. Geller has been called a hatemonger because her attitude toward Islam is self-evidently partisan. Call me inconsistent if you like, but I think there's a difference between seeing the faults of Islam as the faults of religion (or at least monotheism) in general, on one hand, and faulting Islam mainly because it's not your religion. But it's one thing to call Geller out for obvious bias and to suggest, as Goldberg claims Chris Cuomo did on Twitter, that she had no right to stage the contest. Cuomo reportedly equates the Draw Muhammad contest with the sort of "fighting words" that courts have denied the absolute protection of the First Amendment. That's plain wrong, unless Cuomo wants to argue that everyone on Earth has an obligation to respect Islam's taboo on picturing its prophet, and that failure to do so is hate. Meanwhile, Goldberg invites us to see the works of Serrano and Olifi as hate speech, implying that they were as offensive to Christians as Geller's contest was to Muslims, if not more so because American Christians, as taxpayers, were forced to subsidize their exhibition with some fraction of a cent apiece. To be clear, his point is not to argue for the suppression of Piss Christ, though he would prevent any involuntary public funding of its display if he could. His main point, having re-established to his satisfaction how offensive those art pieces were, is to note how unresponsive liberals are when Christians take offense, while criticism of Geller is presumably responsive to Muslims having taken offense at the contest. Goldberg holds himself up as a model of consistency because he'd oppose Geller getting an NEA grant she's never sought. But he hints that liberals are inconsistent, by his standard, because they're cowards, and because "Violence pays." Yet Goldberg reads like the most liberal -- or should I say politically correct -- person in the room in his insistence on recognition of Christians' hurt feelings over those silly exhibits. Because they're offended, Piss Christ is blasphemous -- or is it the other way around? -- and equivalent, if only in debate points, to hate speech. Aren't self-styled conservatives like Goldberg the ones telling all the wussie babies to get over it when their feelings are hurt and get on with life? If he wants to tell Muslims that, I'm all for him, but the fact that he brings up the controversies of the Nineties suggests that too many people on his side haven't gotten over the perceived slights of the past. If his point is that we shouldn't care if Muslims' feelings are hurt, then we still don't have to care if Christians are still offended over Piss Christ. As far as I can tell he's caught one person, Chris Cuomo, in an inconsistency -- and that's presuming Cuomo had an opinion about art twenty years ago. Some of us are consistent on this issue, however, and it's in keeping with that consistent principle that I can tell Goldberg to go screw himself.

11 May 2015

The free trade debate: democracy against itself

President Obama is feuding this month with one of the most popular U.S. Senators of his own party, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Touted often as the anti-Hillary, Warren may not challenge Clinton next year for the presidential nomination but continues to stake positions to the left of Clinton and Obama. She opposes the latest "fast track" legislation empowering the President to negotiate trade deals requiring only bare-majority approval from the Senate. Her concern is that the latest trade deal would empower an international body to sanction signatory countries in a way that could serve to gut purely domestic regulations on business and finance. Her stated worry is that, since the grant of fast-track authority will extend for six years, then a Republican President, should one be elected next year, could negotiate international trade deals in a way designed to undermine the American regulatory order. But while her rhetoric presumably emphasizes what a Republican might do, the fact remains that the current Democratic president supports the bill while dismissing her concerns as baseless theoretical speculation and her opposition as political showmanship.

Trade deals are mainly about opening markets to American goods, and their advocates take it on faith that more exports to more markets mean more jobs for Americans. But ever since Ross Perot heard that giant sucking sound back in the 1990s that optimistic premise has been challenged by populists on the left and right who believe the opening of markets to foreign goods on more favorable terms means less jobs for Americans. Obama has been promoting his trade deal by promising more jobs; he even cajoled the head of Nike to pledge the creation of 10,000 American jobs after the trade deal is ratified. Skeptics are less impressed by Nike's promises than the prospects for people likely to lose jobs to global competition. Is Nike going to hire them?

Obama isn't simply following in Bill Clinton's footsteps but affirming the Democratic party's historic commitment to free trade. During the 19th century, when the defining issue in politics often was trade, the Democrats consistently favored free trade, meaning the minimization or elimination of tariffs, while the Whigs and the Republicans preferred protectionist policies. The dispute really goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton, the latter advocating protectionist policies from the beginning as necessary to the growth of an industrial sector, the former seeing them as mere favoritism for what we'd now call special interests. The original Democratic party was a coalition of Southern planters and working-class Northerners concentrated in the big cities where many jobs depended on foreign trade. These groups saw protectionism as nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul, while the protectionists accused them of having merely personal or parochial rather than national interests in mind. In the 20th century the Democrats won over a larger working class whose jobs depended on the health of the manufacturing sector. As the manufacturing sector declined due to global competition, more Democrats became protectionists. As Republicans became more ideologically committed to laissez-faire politics in contradistinction to socialism, many grew more committed to free trade.

Protectionists in both the Democratic and Republican parties today are often described as populists. Trade policy divides Americans along different lines than other political controversies. A "populist" constituency favors protectionism, reluctant to sacrifice a single American job to the ideal (or ideology) of free trade, while libertarians (and many "liberals") believe free trade is "fair" in some sense or other, whether by creating opportunities for poor people around the world -- presumably including the U.S. -- or by rewarding the best competitors, wherever they are. Complicating the debate further is a kind of ideology we might call consumerist democracy. This ideology presumes that consumers benefit from free trade either through lower prices or through competitive improvements in product quality -- if not both ways. Since in many if not all sectors of the economy consumers outnumber producers, consumerist democracy invariably favors free trade and sees protectionists as the oldtime Democrats did, as mere special interests. Republican consumerist democracy -- George Will is perhaps its most-read advocate -- presumes that increased competitiveness always benefits the consumer, so that if trade deals force changes to regulations that hamper American competitiveness, as Warren fears, so much better for the consumer.  Protectionists are likely to regard consumer interests as selfish rather than patriotic, but consumerists most likely return the favor, assuming that protectionists put individual job security above the interests of the consumer majority and the overall health of the economy. Who is the majority and who is selfish? The answer isn't as simple as an appeal to majority rule, since it really depends on how the majority defines itself. If most of us think of ourselves as consumers first, protectionists are likely to lose every time. Should we not think of ourselves as consumers first? If so, why not, and how should we see ourselves instead? "Right" and "left" don't necessarily have answers to these questions, as you might guess from the way each major party splits on trade issues and the way reporters have to resort to alternate labels to describe the disagreements. But trade policy is arguably a defining issue for any nation, regardless of whether its parties and factions can address it coherently or not, and the fact that our major parties become incoherent when debating trade policy should have clued us in some time ago, as Perot suggested, that neither one is adequate to the defining challenges of our time.

08 May 2015

If power corrupts, must we do without power?

Since this year began, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, a Democrat, and the Majority Leader of the State Senate, a Republican, have been arrested on corruption charges. Other legislators are in various levels of legal trouble, and the governor himself is widely suspected of some sort of shady dealings in his handling of a purported anti-corruption commission. New York State may seem uniquely corrupt at its highest levels of government, but what state can claim to be immune? Where does the problem lay? Since much of government corruption takes the form of influence peddling, some suggest that government should have less influence, less power. If legislators or executive officials are taking bribes, some say that by reducing government's power over the economy you reduce the private sector's incentive to offer bribes. But if private actors offer bribes or favors to gain competitive advantages over rivals the fault would seem to less with government's power and scope than with the demoralizing incentives of competition. People say "power corrupts" without seeming to acknowledge that wealth is power. If they mean "political power corrupts," then concentrations of wealth in a capitalist society are concentrations of political power. Acknowledging this doesn't lift any responsibility from the heads of our elected representatives, however. How do we ensure for ourselves representatives who won't become corrupt, especially in a political system in which anyone who wins an election is already partially corrupted by the necessity of soliciting campaign contributions? As we're reminded constantly of the susceptibility of representative government to corruption, we might understand how many people around the world would rather entrust power to one person in the hope that that person will prove incorruptible, or on the assumption that, despite Lord Acton's warning, absolute power does not corrupt absolutely but actually transcends corruption, since under absolute power no one could hope to sway the leader with mere bribes. Of course, Acton had in mind a different sort of corruption that we still have to take into account.  The absolute ruler faces, if anything, a greater test of character than the mere legislator, or at least different aspects of his character are tested by his power. The American Founders, or Madison at least, believed no man incorruptible; they instituted checks and balances exactly because, to paraphrase Madison, men are not and can never be angels. But Madison's careful system of checks and balances fails if corruption takes root in every branch of government, or among all the informal interest groups Madison expected to counterbalance one another. That leaves accountability as the ultimate safeguard against corruption, but increasingly the electorate itself is distrusted if not discredited. The right thinks the left electorate corrupt due to its dependence on government spending; the left thinks the right electorate corrupt due to its selfishness. Each side thinks the other corrupted by prejudices or outright ignorance. Regardless of partisan leanings, many worry that "authoritarian" leaders can corrupt the entire democratic process, reducing it to a sham redesigned to keep them in power permanently. Term limits promise no cure when power and corruption are concentrated in parties rather than people, or when the "authoritarian" can change the law to lift the limits on his rule. We seem to have exhausted all options available to us under the "rule of law." While that leaves us with the primal prerogative of the people to rule through raw force of numbers, nature obviously can't guarantee us that the people are right to rise every time they do. All you can do, ultimately, is get rid of the current bastards and hope for the best from the next set, but not for long. We can dream, as so many utopians did in the last century, of a purified people and a purified polity in which public virtue is observed with religious zeal, but too often in those years questionable purification came at an unquestionably terrible price. Should that danger rise again, all you can do is get rid of the current bastards and hope for the best from the next set, but not for long. The sine qua non of democratic republican life, as the Founders often acknowledged, is vigilance, which is itself no guarantee of good government. It is, however, our best way to keep bad government from getting worse, as it always can. You can say some system of vigilance is working now when top political leaders are arrested without revolutionary violence. Perhaps the most constructive political question we can ask now is whether the system can work better and nip such crimes (that wait to be proven) in the bud.

06 May 2015

Was PEN punching down?

By the time the PEN writers' organization gave its Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo magazine last night more than 200 writers had signed a statement dissociating themselves from the event. The protesters, as noted in an earlier post, believe that PEN goes too far by actually rewarding the controversial cartoon paper, much of whose staff were murdered by religious fanatics earlier this year, for its deliberately offensive content. Read a comment thread on the latest coverage and you'll see that the controversy continues and is sure to endure. The problem is that the different schools of thought involved are talking past one another. All seem to have valid points, but these seem irreconcilable. For starters, the protester's baseline argument is entirely valid. They claim to still support Charlie's right to "expression that violates the acceptable," but they rightly claim that they aren't obliged to endorse the content of that expression. The bone of contention is the perception that a "Freedom of Expression Courage" award implicitly endorses that content. It may seem self-evident that PEN was honoring the French paper for its courage first and foremost, but the protesters assume that any sort of award takes PEN beyond a defensibly defensive, value-free position and encourages expression -- the mockery of Muslims -- that does harm presumably outweighing the benefits of free speech. Critics of PEN return constantly to the point that Muslims in France are mostly poor and oppressed, their assumption being that mockery of their religion only exacerbates their sense of oppression. Charlie Hebdo and its new fans are accused of "punching down" by people who can see no good reason to do that -- to satirize the poor or the strangers in our midst -- instead of figuratively punching up by "speaking truth to power." To the extent that violence is power, Charlie has done just that, and my understanding is that the magazine mocks the establishment, including the majority religion, far more often than it mocks Muhammad or Muslims in general. None of this will satisfy those whose first demand seems to be that the poor, the outsiders, the downtrodden, get respect. A demand for unconditional respect is a key feature of all the movements that fall under the rubric "political correctness," and the politically correct feeling about Charlie Hebdo seems to be that the magazine unacceptably denies respect to France's Muslims. None of the protesters against PEN consider that a capital offense, obviously, but they are offended on behalf of the presumed silent majority of devout but nonviolent Muslims.

Now for the other side of the coin. If critics of Charlie say you can't honor the magazine without endorsing something unworthy, critics of the critics reply that you can't criticize Charlie without implicitly asserting that it shouldn't -- and no one should -- make cartoons of Muhammad. From this perspective, to protest the PEN award is to beg the question: should we never caricature the Prophet? Must everyone on Earth -- or at least in France -- respect the taboos of Muslims? And if so, is that because they're the wretched of the earth, and therefore shouldn't have insults added to injuries, or because global comity requires us all to respect a demand essential to this Other's identity? It certainly can't be because Muslims might kill cartoonists. But I suspect the critics would rather duck this question and argue instead that freedom of expression should justify itself by finding better things to do. That there are better things to do than mock Muhammad is indisputable, but I'm not sure we want to judge freedom of expression by such a utilitarian standard. In the end, all the critics are left with is a feeling that a people they deem oppressed doesn't deserve to have its feelings hurt. That sounds to me like someone saying the poor are always right, or at least never wrong. Then the cynic in me says that if the poor were always right they wouldn't be poor. An idealist in me instantly rebels at that thought, though I'm not exactly sure why, and I suspect that people on both sides of the Charlie Hebdo controversy are undergoing similar internal conflicts. For what it's worth, I suspect that the perpetrators of the Charlie massacre did not.

05 May 2015

Carly Fiorina, collectivist

One of the longshots in the field for the Republican presidential nomination is Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of the Hewlett-Packard company and more recently an unsuccessful candidate for one of California's U.S. Senate seats. She announced her candidacy over the weekend with a mercifully brief tirade against "low expectations," "identity politics" and the rule of a "political class." Fiorina contends that the Founders never intended the country to be run by a political class, but that really depends on how you define the term. Those who imposed property qualifications for voting presumably believed in a "political class" defined by wealth, and while Fiorina presumably means something more like "career politicians" you might ask how men like Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton or Madison, to be nonpartisan about it, were not career politicians. They may have had farms or firms to run, but neither those private ventures nor their public endeavors were so time consuming that one had to be sacrificed for the other -- though in Jefferson's case you could assume that public life had priority, while he certainly didn't run his farm like a business. Meanwhile, when Fiorina speaks of overthrowing a "political class" she argues implicitly, as has everyone from Ross Perot to Donald Trump, that "running a business" almost uniquely qualifies a person for political life. As did they, she may hope to incite populist ire against the "political class" among the working class, but do you really think she believes the working class and the management class equally qualified to run the country?

In any event, any pretense to populism on her part hits a wall when workers recall her acts as CEO. Unwisely, she failed to secure control over the carlyfiorina.org domain name -- have you ever considered that the expansion of internet domains is a kind of extortion racket aimed at celebrities? -- and a website of that name is now publicizing all the layoffs she ordered while running Hewlett Packard. The news today is that Fiorina intends to defend her record. She justifies the layoffs by telling Katie Couric that they were necessary to "transform a company from failing to succeeding," though she claims she found each one "a terrible decision to make." She'd rather people note how she also fired executives in the name of accountability, though she may rather they forget that she herself was fired in the end. Let's not lose focus on the layoffs, however. While we may accept that an employee's job is not his own property and that he lacks an unconditional right to keep it, we can't ignore the way terrible decisions like Fiorina's belie the rugged and exceptionally American individualism she and many others espouse. Fiorina is a Republican and thus presumably a champion of individualism against "collectivism" as practiced by socialist, communist or totalitarian states. In such places, Americans are told, the individual's interests and his very well being are secondary to the good of the collective, which is usually no more than the venal good of a ruling clique, if not its leader alone. Where collectivism prevails, the individual is sacrificed arbitrarily to a collective that is either a fanatic fantasy (see Islamism) or a cynical lie (see Marxist Leninism). But as a CEO Fiorina was entitled to deprive individuals of their livelihood for the sake of a collective, the Hewlett-Packard company, whose interest was self-evidently monetary and nothing more. A true Republican would argue that here personal responsibility kicks in -- for the workers. It's up to them to find new ways to make themselves useful. But doesn't collectivism in all its forms hold its victims responsible for their ruin? It's either an individual's duty to sacrifice himself, or else he deserves to be sacrificed because he's done something wrong. Apologists for CEOs and the economy that sustains them may try whatever sophistry they like, but the bare fact remains that layoffs are sacrifices of individuals for a collective good. Many a CEO no doubt sees herself as a rugged individualist in the American tradition, but people like Fiorina are really nothing of the sort.

03 May 2015

Draw, Muhammad!

Details are still coming in about a shooting affray in Garland Texas, where an organization called the American Freedom Defense Initiative was hosting a "Draw the Prophet" contest with a reported $10,000 prize for the best caricature of the founder of Islam. Two suspects are reported killed after apparently wounding a policeman outside the building housing the event. The AFDI is also known as Stop Islamization of America. It appears to be a textbook example of an Islamophobic movement, its very name denoting a threat that cannot be taken seriously. Its founder, Pamela Geller, is a right-wing commentator with some libertarian tendencies; she is pro-choice on reproductive rights as well as supportive of gay marriage, though she claims to endorse the "Judeo-Christian ethical tradition." Islam, she argues, deviates from that ancestral tradition by being in essence a "political movement." She considers President Obama "post-American" if not anti-American in his perceived refusal to enforce U.S. global dominance and defend American values against Islamic attack. On her website, Geller describes today's incident as an act of "war on free speech." But while I affirm anyone's right to draw Muhammad without suffering violent reprisal or any penalty, if Geller's in a war it's one she declared. As opposed to Charlie Hebdo magazine, her event had no other purpose than to provoke Muslims. The French paper offends Muslims in the course of offending everyone, while Geller and her organization, as far as I know, are selectively irreverent. Geller herself appears to be a dedicated Zionist and her reverence for an "ethical tradition" encompassing Christianity has already been noted. If hostility toward Islam isn't grounded in hostility to monotheism in general or religion in general, then the Islamophobe resents Islam as a rival rather than a real evil.  If Geller isn't going to offer prizes for the best caricatures of Jesus, Moses or just plain God, that selectivity makes today's event look less like a free-speech celebration than a festival of hate. And on some level I suspect that today's bloody outcome is the best Geller could possibly imagine, so long as none of her own people are dead. Muslims will have themselves to blame for the publicity Geller will reap and the fresh scorn even innocent Muslims will suffer -- they really ought to let their omnipotent God take care of blasphemers wherever Muslims themselves can't make the law -- but the predictable idiocy of some in their camp shouldn't make heroes of people who have nothing better to do than provoke idiots. That sounds pretty idiotic itself.